Ask almost anyone about Warhammer and within the first fifteen seconds they’re going to use the word expensive. With that in mind, a whole gaggle of us Goons are going to try and make ourselves useful by pointing out ways to make this hobby more affordable (or less-unaffordable, depending on your financial situation).
What we hope we’ll demonstrate is that while this can be an expensive hobby, it doesn’t have to be.
Kevin: The first step in playing Warhammer on a budget is very simple: actually have a budget. Look at your finances and set a realistic expectation about how much money you intend to spend on entertainment. Then set a realistic number about how much money you intend to spend on this particular hobby. That, more than anything else, will help you avoid a backlog or discovering that you spent your kid’s juice money on plastic.
Once you’ve established your budget, use that to determine the type and scope of game you want to play. If your budget isn’t that big, focus on skirmish games. Necromunda is a lot of fun and requires a drastically smaller investment than 40k. Infinity requires even less of an investment than Necromunda because the rules are free. If your local area doesn’t play those games, 40k is perfectly enjoyable at smaller points levels and can give you an opportunity to expand your army over time.
Finally, motivate yourself to make progress in your current collection by only purchasing new kits as a “reward” for completing groups of models you already own. While this does require a modicum of self-control, it can be very satisfying and help spread the money over time.
The Entry Barrier: How Much Does It Cost to Play
Charlie: Unless you’re planning to paint your expensive models by dunking them in a giant keg of emulsion paint and taking on the Galaxy with the 301st Cadian Blobbers, you’re going to need some tools and paints. It’s the one unavoidable expense when starting out in the hobby.
This section of the article is intended to help beginners with purchase prioritization. That said, if you’re longer in the tooth and have been debating whether to invest in plusher brushes, head to the “Tools for Painting Miniatures” section.
Tools for Assembling Miniatures
The essentials: £30/€35/$40
- A scalpel/hobby knife. £10ish. Popular choices include the ubiquitous x-acto knife; personally I rather like the retractable Swann-Moreton ones, since they cost about the same and are quicker and easier to make safe when not in use. Make sure to buy some blades if the one you’re getting doesn’t include them. The Swann-Moretons take 10A scalpel blades.
- Side cutters. Shouldn’t cost you more than £10. Used to clip chunkier plastics out of their frames.
- Glue. Poly cement for plastics, super glue for whatever else. Depending on the brand, about £5 each.
The useful extras
- Citadel mould line remover. £11. Technically your scalpel can do anything this can do, but this thing is quicker, easier, safer, and usually provides a smoother finish. I scoffed at this thing when it came out, then I had a go with a friend’s and had a Damascene conversion.
- A pin vice/drill. Roughly £10. Useful for reinforcing fragile joins with wire rods. Probably not something you need when starting out; it really becomes more of a thing with big resin and metal kits.
- Files. Roughly £8. Occasionally useful for particular shapes you’re struggling to smooth out with a knife/mould line remover. Used to be utterly crucial when a significant proportion of minis were metal.
Tools for Painting Miniatures
The essentials: £20/€22/$30
- A paintbrush. Instinctively you might feel tempted to get a range of different sized brushes, and while that is useful, it is both cheaper and more effective to have one good brush for £14 than five mediocre brushes for £30. A Windsor & Newton Series 7 size 2 brush has enough of a belly for basecoating, and a tip that outperforms cheaper brushes for detail work (assuming you’re using a palette, natch). Other manufacturers like Artis Opus and Raphael are similarly great and similarly priced. I personally use W&N S7 sizes 1, 2 and 3 for various tasks, but the 1 is almost never needed, and the 3 just speeds me up for basecoating (plus I tend to like working with a larger brush as they don’t dry out as fast).
- Primer. £5-10. Without this, paint doesn’t adhere properly to the surface of your mini. If money is more precious than time, you’ll get more mileage out of something like Vallejo’s brush-on primer. If time is more precious than money, then get yourself a rattle can primer. GW’s primer is reliable but costly; other manufacturers such as Rustoleum or Krylon can get good results for half the price.
The extremely useful extras
- Brush soap. £20. This is arguably essential. The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver is the classic brand folks usually go for. The good news is that your £20 will cover years of frequent use, and will massively increase the lifespan of your brushes. Consequently this actually saves you money in the long run.
- A wet palette. You can make one for almost no money. Here’s a Youtube tutorial on how to make one. People do sell ready-made wet palettes, generally for £20-30. Why use a wet palette? Because you’ll waste waaaaay less paint, and it’ll keep the paint easier to work with. Like brush soap, this one is about making your life easier and saving you money.
- A makeup brush. £2-5. Wait, what? Yeah, these bad boys are an inexpensive way of drybrushing. This is a very useful tool to have in your arsenal for painting both dudes and scenery. Artis Opus and others do make extremely sexy drybrushes, but if you’re starting out on a budget, a regular makeup brush will be way more effective and cheaper than buying GW’s bespoke drybrushes.
- An airbrush. £xxx. This is its own rabbit hole, but obviously an extremely valuable hobby tool for many purposes. If you live in a climate that makes rattle cans cry and hide under the bed, it’s arguably essential for priming your miniatures. It’s also a complex enough topic that I’m not going to try and quote you a price. Why? Because the market is stuffed with a giant variety of airbrushes and compressors ranging from the suspiciously cheap to the eye-wateringly expensive.
- The M Texture tool sold by GW for £5 is a nice addition if you’re planning to use textured paint on your minis’ bases and don’t want to destroy your normal brush.
It’s hard to give a firm price here since it really depends on how detailed you want to be. In theory you could just buy the primary colours along with black and white, but that’ll end in disappointment. The main advice I’d give starting out is to just buy the paints you need for your first project and slowly expand your paint collection as you try new projects and techniques.
If you’re keeping things super simple, you could just pick up 6 or so basic faction colours. Maybe chuck in a very transferable shade paint like Agrax Earthshade or Nuln Oil and some textured paint for the basing. In total this would set you back about £32/€35/$43.
It should be noted GW do offer something very similar with this bundle box. It’s good value if it happens to have enough of the colours you need and throws a few tools into the bargain.
If you’re new to the hobby, you’d be forgiven for assuming that if your space man has blue armour, then a pot of blue paint is all that’s needed to get the job done. That’s fine if you’re just wanting to get some flat colours on there. If you’re hoping to emulate the more rendered look of the minis you might have seen on your friends’ wee dudes, the box art, or indeed in the internet at large, this generally involves having a group of paints that are layered up over each other to accentuate the edges and recesses. The extent to which you do this is up to you; you could just stick a single layer highlight over your basecoat and call it good. Maybe a single highlight and a shade; there’s no right or wrong here, it’s just you choosing how much detail you want to go for.
To run through an example at probably the other end of the spectrum in terms of gaming pieces, I’m currently doing what is (for me) a detailed job on my Space Marines’ blue armour. The blue uses six different paints: Macragge Blue, Calgar Blue, Fenrisian Grey, Corvus White, Reaper’s Blue Liner, and Gunmetal. I’m using a similar approach to the other areas of the mini, meaning that to paint one (helmeted) marine, I use 23 paints, 3 shades, and 1 texture paint. Buying all that new would weigh in at a somewhat bracing £104/€117/$142. Suffice to say I already had most of these paints when I started out on the marines, and just needed to pick up the blues for about £20.
Why can’t I just buy much cheaper paints?
It’s worth noting that while there are a number of things you can skimp on, do not buy generic bargain acrylics for painting your models. Hobby paints contain a much greater amount of pigment than the cheaper stuff and on smaller scale models getting a decent coverage of colors might mean obscuring fine model details. There are a good variety of vendors such a Vallejo that sell good quality paints that are not Citadel-priced. That said, Citadel paints themselves are good albeit pricier, and can occasionally come in “cheaper” bundles. Bargain bin acrylics are mostly fine for large, less detailed surfaces such as terrain so keep that in mind but you’ll likely still notice a difference in quality.
There’s an exception to this: Liquitex Inks. They are available at craft stores such as Michael’s and AC Moore in the United States and flow extremely easy and have an absurd pigment count. It’s entirely possible to paint an entire army using inks and save yourself quite a bit of money. Of course, it might take you some experimentation to get the right results, so may not be great if you’re a beginner.
Using a Wet Palette – Silks
But isn’t that more expense? Well, yes. But it means that your paints will last a lot longer as they won’t dry out on the palette and mixing your own colours is a lot easier. I’m not advocating mixing all your own paints but if you have a blue and want to highlight it but don’t want to pay for the GW pot of a brighter colour, mixing in a bit of white to your base can save a lot of money.
The Total Cost of Paints + Tools
Assuming you’re just picking up the bare essentials listed in the sections above, the total budget is about £80/€90/$110. Personally if my house burned down and I had to start from scratch, I’d probably set aside maybe £200/€225/$270 to get me going. Given that there are games you can play that really only need about £30 worth of minis, the paints & tools are the biggest initial financial barrier to entry and, for most people, the thing they really have to save up for. Moreover, this cost will remain pretty consistent regardless of how many minis you plan to paint. The good news is that once you’ve got this stuff, further paint/glue purchases are generally pretty mild, and you can spend most of your hobby money on minis rather than things to make minis.
Further tips for saving money on paints/tools
- Need conversion parts? Don’t buy the whole box; head to Bitz sellers on eBay or elsewhere. They might be charging a fair bit for the component, but it’s cheaper than getting the whole box.
- There are a number of generics when it comes to hobbying supplies that you should not feel any shame in purchasing and their quality is just the same as “name brand” stuff–epoxy putties, spray primers, glues, and other items add up over time.
The Miniatures & Rules Buy-In Cost
If you’re getting into Warhammer 40,000 or Age of Sigmar, the boxed game sets are generally the best value way to dip your toe in. There are different options depending on your budget, ranging from about £25/€28/$35 up to about £100/€110/$140, and can be got for less money if you buy from an independent stockist selling GW products at a discount.
In our Getting Started articles, we have also laid out the best kits to buy when kicking off with any given faction, so that might be a good place to look to figure out which kits could give you the best bang for your buck/pound/euro/bottlecap/groat. Suffice to say, starting minis plus rules for 40K/AoS will generally clock in at £100, and from there, the cost will vary depending on your faction. Early on you can shave £40 off that by just using the free online rules PDFs, but those are missing some key things like detachments and scenarios.
Of course, starting out in Kill Team is a significantly less expensive prospect. The rules plus a box of dudes will be about £60. Necromunda, by contrast, is more like £90 as you’ll need a couple of books to achieve basic functionality.
Terrain On a Budget
Charlie: There’s a financial elephant in the corner, and that elephant is terrain. I know, in theory, that a kitchen table plus some tins of food and stacks of books can serve as an improvised playing space, but it’s not exactly inspiring to see your lovingly painted dudes fighting the battle of Sweetcorn Silo 4 on the surprisingly smooth plains of Pineflat.
On the other hand, filling a table with GW terrain is, for most people, something that takes a while to build up to. If you wanted a densely filled board from all plastic kits, you could easily drop a grand into it. There are much, much cheaper ways to proceed.
PierreTheMime: As there are no specific rules about what terrain can be this means there’s a lot of great inexpensive ways to create it. You can get an absolutely fantastic amount of terrain out of a decent flat/firm surface (my go-to are single stick-on tiles from a home improvement store), a can of spray insulation foam, cheap paints (I specifically go for Apple Barrel), some fine/medium grit, and some glue. It’s honestly not a bad idea to just go wander a thrift store and look for ideas. Toy skeletons, aquarium plants, and all manner of things can be used to craft together fun terrain pieces that lend character to your tables and don’t break the bank.
Charlie: One might assume this involves more work than building plastic kits, but often, it’s a lot simpler than you might expect… so long as you own a dust sheet and don’t mind making a heroic mess over the course of an afternoon. Your best bet here is to watch some videos by Mel the Terrain Tutor, or Luke at Geek Gaming. At this point both of them have a chonksome number of videos that are both newbie- and budget-friendly. The hills below were the product of myself and half the Beard Bunker crew teaming up to make some more scatter scenery at the low low price of almost bugger all:
You can also combine these techniques with plastic kits to get the best of both worlds, as ably demonstrated by BuffaloChicken right here on Goonhammer.
Reclaim other people’s mistakes
Silks: Buy terribly painted models from eBay, strip them and repaint them. Casey from eBay Miniature Rescues has a whole channel based on this with some great tips. Basically, painting a model to a tabletop standard normally reduces the reselling cost. Painting it terribly means it’s a bargain! The short amount of time you put in to strip the paint (easy once you know how) will save you a fortune.
Silks: Don’t be precious with your armies. If you have fallen out of love, gotten bored or just can’t be bothered to finish that 80 Boyz Ork army you were convinced you’d be able to paint, sell it! Models gathering dust on a shelf just make you feel bad as well as consisting of quite a lot of cash just doing nothing. Sell it, buy something you’ll enjoy. I paint several new armies each year and every one of them is funded by selling an army I’ve gotten bored with. You can also do this based on models you’re never going to play again. Got a beautifully painted air wing of Crimson Hunters which now suck and will never see the table again? Sell three of them and keep one. Profit $$$
Kevin: You can also do the same with kits that you have no intention of ever using. A good example of this is the Kill Team Starter featuring Reivers, T’au, and a ton of Sector Mechanicus terrain. You can easily make back a fair amount of money by selling the stuff you don’t want, especially if the set itself is available at a discount from retailers who are tired of watching it accumulate dust on their shelves.
Be Achingly Slow Focus on Quality over Quantity
Charlie: If you are buying minis at a slower rate than you’re finishing stuff (I know, adulting is hard) then it’s your painting speed that determines how expensive your hobby is. The slower and more detailed you paint, the cheaper your hobby.
I only spend about 5 hours a week painting, and one marine with many many highlights takes me… about five hours. This means it’s taken me a hilarious 15 months to paint about £200 of minis and £150 of terrain. In that time I also bought one or two kits which I have yet to finish (oops) but even then, it works out as about £28 per month. That’s affordable for me, and the terrain splurge is a much less frequent event. Were it not for the giant cathedral, my hobby cost me about £20 per month over that period.
This approach is clearly useless if you’re chasing the meta dragon and simply have to get [currently OP faction] ready in time for [competitive event you want to win]. Luckily for me I care about tournaments in much the same way that Boris Johnson was definitely never fired from a newspaper for making stuff up.
Get involved in the hobby community
PierreTheMime: Most areas are going to have local gaming stores with people willing to engage you on the topic of modelling. There are often hobbyists or players that would be willing to trade or even sell at discounted prices many models that they own and are not interested in keeping around. This is also an incredibly valuable resource for bits and pieces of models if you’re looking to customize or kitbash your own. Obviously in an era of limited physical contact this particular advice may be difficult to use, but there are a large number of active online communities for hobby enthusiasts as well.
Finally, here are a few further money saving ideas:
- Don’t chase the meta too hard. Buying new stuff to achieve maximum lethality according to the latest FAQ means you’ll usually get kicked in the teeth by the next FAQ.
- Consider playing games with small model counts like Necromunda, Kill Team, or Adeptus Titanicus.
- Play Daemons! Two games for the price of one!
- Avoid collecting AdMech or Genestealer Cults. Or… look, the more elite the army, the cheaper it is. Hello Custodes, fancy seeing you here.
- Living in Australia or New Zealand? Try a different country.
Hopefully you found something in there that’ll save you some money. Have any questions or feedback? Drop us a note in the comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or if you’re a patron, head on over to our Discord and chat with us!