All About The Wargame Explorer
Figuring Out the Wargaming Hobby, One Mistake At A Time
Welcome to The Wargame Explorer. My name is Robison Wells, and I am a lifelong miniature hobby enthusiast.
I say "miniature hobby" rather than "miniature wargaming" because what originally drew me into this passion was model trains. When I was about seven years old my brother, Dan Wells (an enormously talented writer), became a Cub Scout and started getting copies of the Boy's Life magazine. In one of those early editions there was a black-and-white article about how to build a model house from scratch.
I 100% didn't understand any of the instructions. I remember that it talked about using a piece of styrene, and I had absolutely no idea what styrene was. It said something similar about fixing something in place with "epoxy" and to "score" the styrene, and those terms were equally as foreign. But to this 7-year-old's brain, none of that mattered: someone was making a building from scratch, and it looked AMAZING.
So I got into model railroading. I checked out every book from the library that I could on the topic until my parents got me a train set for Christmas. I was entranced.
Tangent: when my wife and I were engaged, one night we were on a long road trip through a canyon that was full of coal mines. As we were driving, holding hands, listening to music, I said "You know what I love more than trains?" She thought I was going to be romantic and say "you" or something like that. But I said "trains at night." Because trains are cool, but trains at night are AMAZING.
(And let me tell you why: it's because I love the interplay of light and depth: when you pass these coal yards in canyons, there are bridges over bridges over culverts over tunnels, and all of them have movement and there is light coming from everywhere, and it is FANTASTIC.)
Anyway, I love trains at night. (I also love my wife.)
My parents were the perfect kind of enablers--my whole family was. The day after Christmas we went to the toy store to buy some more track and rail cars, and then, as soon as my dad cleared some space in the garage, he bought me a 4x8 sheet of plywood, painted it green, and set it up--and then just let me go wild. I was too young to really get into power tools (I didn't use anything more than a manual staple gun) but I had my hammer and clippers and I set up a standard figure-eight layout.
And then I did my first wargame thing: I built a mountain. From Cub Scouts (or elementary school, I'm not sure which) I knew how to make paper mache. So I rolled up some balls of newspaper, taped them all together into the shape of a mountain--a very small mountain, with two tunnels running through it) and then laid down strips of glue-soaked paper towel over the top of it. Finally, I painted it brown.
It had to look hideous. But I'd made it myself, and I was only eight or nine, and from then on I knew I could do anything.
But Where Does Wargaming Come Into This Story?
There was a store about a block and a half away from our house called Comics Utah. It was small, maybe a thousand square feet. It had three rows of shelves and a Castlevania arcade game in the back. The shop keepers were clearly unhappy with me, an eight year old, and my brother, the "responsible" nine year old, wandering through their shop. But it was the first time where I encountered Warhammer.
The first Warhammer kit I remember seeing was a catapult that launched Goblins. (This would have been around 1986?) Now three purchases were made, and I'm not sure the order in which I bought them:
First (I think) I bought, from the grocery store, a package of little green army men, and I had five colors of paints and I painted them up as best an eight/nine year old could.
Second, I bought a starter pack of Warhammer Fantasy races, which included five or ten models from each of six factions: high elves, dwarves, skaven, humans, and... I'm not sure what else. All I know is that I really fell in love with the Skaven, but because my brother and I didn't understand how Initiative worked, whenever we tried to play his high-initiative elves always went first and killed me before I could do anything.
The third thing--the one I was really proud of--was that I bought a box of skeletons: twenty-odd warriors and eight horsemen, and I thought I was really hot stuff.
But it was those little green army men that fully entrenched me into the hobby. At some point (I think my dad brought them home from work one day?) we ended up with four copies of Wargames Illustrated. I read those magazines cover-to-cover, all day and all night. And there were rules, a fully-fledged rule set, for playing a Vietnam skirmish game. All you needed were--wait for it--little green army men.
I tore all the railroad stuff of my 4x8 sheet of plywood and I turned it into a battlefield.
Meanwhile, my brother and I had started frequenting the library, and I wasn't big into reading fiction, but they had three books about wargaming! They were written in the early 80s, but some had color pictures and cool models, and I was in love. And one of them talked about how we all start out with sand tables. (I have since learned that this is something that THEY all started out with in the 1960s, but I believed it.) I point is this: instead of worrying about building terrain (which I couldn't afford or have the skill to make) you could just buy a bag of sand and turn your wargaming table into a sandbox. Want hills? Build hills. Want a riverbed? Build a river bed.
I could afford a sand table. A 35 pound bag of sand, at the time, probably couldn't have cost more than three or four dollars (it's only six dollars in today's money). So I moved my gaming table from the garage to the basement (a dark and dingy, half-dirt basement with low ceilings and lots of cobwebs) and I poured out my sand onto the table and got ready to replay Vietnam.
I spent years playing Vietnam in that basement, solo, because I had no one to play with, but that didn't bother me.
I have recently gone back down into that basement, to that sand table that hasn't moved an inch in thirty years, and I found the figures I painted. You can look at them in this blog entry.
Where Does Warhammer Come Into This?
My first exposure to Warhammer40k was someone in my 7th grade art class did an airbrush painting of an Eldar warrior. I was, of course, in love. But I didn't know where it came from.
My second exposure was a year later when a friend, Giles, was reading the Warhammer 40k 2nd Edition Compendium during Spanish class and I asked him about it. He told me a little about the game, showed me squats--SQUATS--and Harlequins--they looked just like that other guy's Eldar! And, Giles said he was getting into something else (the Rifts roleplaying game, which I'd never heard of, but which would soon take up a big part of my life) and he was willing to sell me the Compendium for ten dollars. I don't know where I found the money, but I bought it.
So, of course I needed Squats and I needed Harlequins. My brain is a little fuzzy, but I'm pretty sure that I bought the Harlequins first. It was a single box for $30 (a king's ransom for an 8th grader in 1990) but it contained everything: thee troupes, three Death Jesters, the Solitaire. I proceeded to paint it terribly and then, through fortunate circumstance, met another friend who not only knew about Warhammer 40k, but also played, had a board and scenery, and had the models necessary for him, my brother, and me to play a three-way Ork, Space Marine, Harlequin game. I was in heaven.
Shortly thereafter, I bought a box of squats--I think it was 30 models--and absolutely loved them. I bought a few of their awesome three-wheel chopper motorcycle trikes. I was saving up for my favorite unit of all the Squats: the Squats in Exo-Armor, which were the super-tough equivalent of Space Marine Terminators.
The Horus (RPG) Heresy
And then I stopped wargaming for a long time, and it was because I seemed to be the only person in my friend group who was still interested, and everyone else was getting into roleplaying games, particularly the Palladium TMNT games, its various crossovers, and, especially, Rifts.
So I played for a long time, and in my spare time I painted, but I had put away all of my models and had essentially given up on the hobby. It wasn't until my early twenties when rediscovered a box of old White Dwarfs and got interested in the game again. By this point--finally--I also happened to have some disposable income.
The first army I dove into was Imperial Guard, not because I especially loved Imperial Guard (though I do like shooty armies with tanks) but because I could repurpose my now-obsolete Squats into Guardsmen.
The second big army that I bought was Chaos, though I knew next to nothing about the Chaos lore. I knew I liked Berserkers, though. And the concept of Obliterators was really cool, even if the models themselves weren't the greatest. (And they really weren't the greatest.)
My brother had a Space Wolves army, and a Dark Eldar army (this was before they were called Drukhari). Every week we had a standing appointment where I would drop my wife off at work, drive to his house and play all day.
The Eye of Terror
But this is where everything went wrong. My brother's wife had a baby, and ten months later my wife had a baby, and soon they could crawl and soon they could reach the table, and I remember it clearly: the Memorial Day weekend when the whole family was together at a resort up the canyon, and the two little kids could reach the models, and put them in their mouths, and get slime on them.
That was the last wargame that my brother and I played for nearly fifteen years.
No, I shouldn't say that. It was the last large-scale wargame that we played for fifteen years.
I had got the terrain-building bug and started to make all sorts of things, terrain for games we would never play. But then my brother introduced me to Infinity, which is a small skirmish-style game. Then Warmahordes, which had a few more models but still was more of a skirmish than an army-on-army battle. Then we got into X-Wing pretty heavily for a while, which scratched the gaming itch, but took all of the stuff I loved--painting and terrain--out of the game.
I never loved Infinity (I played Haqqislam). I didn't like the models, and I particularly didn't like assembling the models--fiddly little metal things with too many pieces and not enought support. And I never loved Warmahordes (I played The Protectorate of Menoth) because I had no love for the Warjacks or the game mechanics (but I did really LOVE the troops choices that came with it).
Sidenote: My brother (Dan Wells), a friend of ours (Howard Tayler) and I all worked with Privateer Press to write fiction for the game. Their stories were quite good--Dan's was even nominated for a Hugo Award, the first Hugo nomination for tie-in fiction--but mine wasn't the best thing I've every penned. Still, it payed well and I got to see the inside of the lore side of games.
Sidenote sidenote: About 18 months ago I got an invitation to write for the Black Library: Games Workshop's fiction line. At the time, despite having a love of Warhammer 40k, I felt like I didn't understand the lore well enough at the time to actually write a book for them. But I think I'm going to revisit that.
Death (Warhammer Fantasy Battles) and Rebirth (Age of Sigmar and 40k 8th Edition)
Around 2015, I found that I had a large amount of disposable income, and a growing case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. (I'm not kidding about that one--I am clinically diagnosed with OCD, among other things.) I realized that there were SO MANY Warhammer Fantasy Battles minis that were going on sale because Age of Sigmar was coming out and replacing them, so I started buying and buying and buying. I was buying obsessively, not bothering to even open the boxes. By the time I was done I had collected virtually every available Warhammer Fantasy Orc kit (and anything else that looked interesting) and then I got on better medication, realized this was a bad situation, and sold all of it.
It wasn't until Warhammer 40k 8th Edition that I dove back into the hobby with both feet and have not looked back. I, unlike many people, really like Primaris Marines. I also got the idea that my sone was about 12--about my age when I got into wargaming--and I wanted to get him involved. So I planned it all for Christmas, getting the starter set, allowing him to pick the army he'd want and conceding that I would take whichever he didn't want.
Well, it turned out that he didn't want either, no matter how hard I tried to instill love in him. So I took both armies. I ended up with Space Marines, who I turned into Blood Angels (and would go on to build a huge Blood Angels force over the years). I got into Adeptus Mechanicus, but only liked the vehicles. I dipped a toe back into Imperial Guard, because they were my old love. And I even bought an Imperial Knight. Deathwatch was a fun diversion--I just painted up the Start Collecting Box, but loved the look (instead of black and silver I did them in dark green and bone). When the new Chaos Space Marines came out of course I got into Chaos Space Marines. I have played with Death Guard--and one of my favorite models is a Mortarion that I really put every ounce of skill I have into--but I just don't like the aesthetic.
In Age of Sigmar I got the Soul Wars box and fell head-over-heels for Nighthaunt and collected a horde (the Black Coach is one of my favorite painting projects ever in this hobby). I more recently have tried my hand at Seraphon, because my younger son, now just barely 12, loves dinosaurs.
To be clear: I don't play these games. I am a collector. I am a hobbyist. I am, on very rare occasions, a player of new game systems. But I don't even own the rulebook to Warhammer 40k or Age of Sigmar. I love making terrain, and basing, and making dioramas. But I don't play the games, at least not often.
The Seismic Shift
A little over a year ago, my wife asked what I wanted for my birthday, and she assumed it would be Warhammer, but, to both of her surprise, I asked for Bolt Action. I got the starter set to US Infantry, and the starter set to Waffen-SS. And let me tell you: Bolt Action is my happy place.
For starters, I had those two starter armies (plus a lot of extra vehicles) and I wanted a place to display them, but it had to be something special. So I built a massive diorama, 22" x 42", of the fighting in Normandy. Hedgerows and orchards and railroad tracks and demolished buildings and a Boulangerie, just for fun. And then I got the Afrika Korps and the British 8th Army, and had to model Tunisia on an equally-large-sized board.
Since then, I have had a love affair with Warlord Games. If it's a Warlord Games, cram it in my paint-stained hands. I have every army in Bolt Action (except I haven't delved into Soviets because I don't like the way the models are molded without the guns in their hands). I have Black Powder (both Waterloo and American Revolution). I have Black Seas (I really want to recreate the Battle of Trafalgar). I have Konflict 47 (because the models are just so fun). I have Hail Caesar, because I bought it on a whim and found I love painting Romans--but hate painting Celts). I have Epic Battles American Civil War--I just got this one and painted up the first models this very morning--and I'm loving it.
Perry Miniatures puts out good stuff, too, and I've got a Battle of Agincort brewing on my shelf if I can just bring myself to paint a few more archers. Wargames Atlantic has been a source of tons of excellent models, from the space dwarves Einherjar, to the ridiculous (but great) Les Grognards, to the only plastic World War One 28mm minatures I've ever been able to find in their Great War Germans.
And sometimes I dabble in other stuff. I build 1/35 scale dioramas because they're fun and there's a whole YouTube community dedicated to it.
I watch a lot of videos. I read a lot of lore. I lurk on Reddit and Facebook groups to see what people are talking about.
But in the end I still see myself very much as a novice, and I think it's because I don't play the games. I'm forever exploring wargames but if you asked me what tactics the Drukhari should use against the Tyrannids--I HAVE NO IDEA. Instead, ask me about paint and glue and lore and kitbashing.
I'm vowing to get better at this. There's now a gaming store in my area that plays Bolt Action regularly, and I'm awfully tempted to start joining them, if not to play then just to watch.
In the meantime, expect me to be working on a million different things at once. I see no end in sight for this hobby. This very day, one of my eBay listing is ending which will allow me to buy something new and different (I'm not precious about my models and they see a lot of turnover on eBay which is how I can afford to buy so many.)
Welcome to the Wargame Explorer. Let's take this journey together.