Friday, 2 August 2013

Judging Army Painting

Way back at GottaCon in February, I was asked if I was interested in helping judge the army painting scores for the Wet Coast GT (not a typo... it rains ALOT in Vancouver).  Now, I've done army painting judging before (most notably for the GottaCon Warhammer Fantasy and 40K tournaments in 2011 and 2012), and it's a slightly different ball of wax compared to a "pure" miniature painting competition, and thus the judging is done quite differently too (for those living far far away and completely uninterested in our local gaming tournies, please bear with me... this blog post will also contain some thoughts on army painting vs single / unit painting as well).

Seeing as Wet Coast was being held only a few minutes away from where I live, and I love being a part of the miniature painting community, I agreed.  Now, Wet Coast GT has been running for a number of years now, ever since Games Workshop stopped running and supporting their own gaming tournaments hereabouts.  There's a great gaming community here in Vancouver, and a well run tournament here will draw in great gamers from the island and from the B.C. interior as well.  With Warmachine, Hordes, Flames of War, Malifaux, and other game systems now also being an integral part of Wet Coast, and with great sponsor support, this was a great opportunity to meet some new people, watch some intense competition, and see some great paintjobs.

My job was to come up with the painting scores for the Warhammer 40,000 tournament, and "WarmaHordes" tournament.  I've known for quite some time that these two gamer camps were VERY different in outlook and mentality, but Wet Coast really hammered the point home for me.  Despite similar criteria, being a judge for both was two completely separate experiences.

Let's start by explaining how painting was scored.  Painting for a gaming tournament is primarily about sweat equity, and showing your work.  Let me say that last bit again: SHOW YOUR WORK!  Getting a great score in this gaming tournament wasn't necessarily about being the best painter, but investing a good amount of time into your army and not missing any details.

To better understand how army judging differs from miniature painting contest judging, the system in place goes like this:  Your army is scored on seven catagories:

-Basic Painting
-Basic Techniques
-Advanced Techniques
-Expert Techniques
-Bonus Points

Basic Painting is worth up to 15 points.  If the majority of your army had at least 3 colours on it (and no, I didn't count PRIMER as a colour), then you would at least score 10 points.  Any army with more than 3 colours on 80% or more of the models would score 15 points.  If you fielded a primered or bare-metal / plastic army (80% or more of them) or couldn't even bother to get at least 3 colours on most of your models, then you would score a big zero.

Basic Techniques were worth up to an additional 5 points.  1 point for uniform colour scheme and painting style across the whole army.  1 point for cleanly applied basecoats.  1 point for at least some attempt at banner / unit / squad / etc markings.  1 point for details such as eyes, buckles, jewelry, etc (even bad attempts at this would get the point).  And 1 point for any attempt at highlighting and shading.

Advanced Techniques could earn you an additional 8 points.  2 points for "Beyond Basics" (ie decently applied highlights and shading, beyond that of rudimentary drybrushing and ink washes).  2 points for "clean" highlights and shading (evidence of good brush control... tight and not sloppy).  2 points for "clean" details (fine details like eyes, buckles, markings, etc done well with good brush control).  And 2 points for showing evidence of multiple layers of highlights and shading... a nice wide range of tones to lend the models a good sense of scale.

Expert Techniques were worth up to an additional 7 points.  2 points for really nice freehand detailing (patterns applied with a fine detail brush, perhaps some writing, etc.).  2 points for "Masterful Blending" (should be self explanatory).  And 3 points if the overall appearance of the army was inspiring... this was one of the only real judgement calls I had to make.  For me, if this was the kind of army that made people do a double take while walking by and come in for a closer look, then this was an inspiring army.  For a jaded old curmudgeon like myself, with pretty high standards, this was probably the hardest 3 points to grab.

Basing was worth up to 5 points.  If there was at least a rudimentary attempt at basing (even just a layer of green sponge flock), then that was worth 1 point.  Any extra materials used in basing (a clump of static grass or two, some rocks, or perhaps hand painted cracks on the base) would get you another point.  Any sort of highlighting / shading would earn one point on top of that.  And if you tried something really special with the bases, such as themed details such as decorating the bases with discarded battlefield debris, spent bolter shells, craters, tree roots, water effects, etc., then that earned a good 2 points.

Conversions were worth up to 4 points, and instead of a checklist of points to add up, we simply classified the army as "minimal", "minor", "major", or "extreme" in terms of conversions.  Minimal was worth 1 point, and was for an army with only a few head or weapon swaps, arm rotations, or anything else along those lines.  Minor was basically the equivalent of minimal, only across a sizable portion of the army.  Major was for a few fairly extensive conversions involving putty, plastic card, drilling, sawing, minor sculpts, etc.  An army that only did minimal level conversions, but applied it across the entire army, could still classify as "major".  And lastly, "Extreme" was for major level conversions, applied across a good portion of the army.

Finally, "Bonus Points" was basically a catch-all catagory of miscellaneous items and concepts, and was worth up to 4 points.  You could get 1 point for having your own objective markers... something you made and painted up yourself, rather than die-cut plastic or wood tokens purchased off the shelf.  You could also score 1 or 2 points for a display board / carrying tray for your army.  A simple one that showed at least the same level of detail as a decent gaming base would get 1 point, whereas a stunning display board that reinforced the theme of the army and really told a story about that army would get 2 points.  Lastly, a gamer could score 2 points for having "Something Special" about their army.  This was more about leaving some sort of lasting impression on the judge... it was completely up to the judge's discretion as to who got these 2 points and who didn't.  For myself, the surest way to earn those points was to have a strong, solid theme to the army, execute it well, inject some tangible imagination into it (simply copying the studio paint scheme wouldn't cut it), and / or go way over the top with the amount of love / work invested into the army.

So what you got in the end, was a sort of checklist of points that could be earned by simply investing the time into your army, and really making it something to be proud of.  Technical proficiency was only a fraction of the points... if you had crap brush control and technique, you might lose out on a few points, but there were still plenty of other points to be scooped up.  On the other hand, you could be an elite level painter, but cut corners, didn't work on the "extras", got lazy anywhere (one reason was just not finishing your army), etc., there was no way you could earn a high score in painting.

I'm not sure how this system first got developed (I believe the Wet Coast version was borrowed from the well-known Adepticon tournaments), but I personally think it works well.  It takes a lot of the subjectivity out of the judging process, ensures consistency in scoring, while still leaving a few points for judge's interpretation.  It also encourages the average gamer / painter to put in a good effort on their army... if you knew how the points were added up, you knew what you needed to work on.

That being said, there were a few players who did ask, "Where could I have improved my army?"  My most common answers were:

-Work on "cleanliness".  Try not to slop paint around.  Keep your brushstrokes neat and tidy.  Thin down your paints a bit and use multiple layers, rather than one heavy coat of paint that was going to dry lumpy.  After a shading ink wash, go back in with your basecoat colours and clean up any tide-marks left by overuse of inks.

-Do the "extras".  A few easy head / weapon swaps could earn some extra conversion points.  Adding a few extra details to the bases (broken weapons, skulls, snow effects, etc.) makes the army more interesting, and scores a few bonus points.  And personalized objective markers and display boards really showed you viewed your army as an entire themed army, rather than just an assortment of individual miniatures that you cared very little about.

-Show off a bit.  Over the top freehand on banners, kill markings, unit insignia, realistic weathering, etc showed you had skills, and could use them.  Pure gimmicky wank like object source lighting, LEDs, NMM power weapons, etc., used appropriately here and there (rather than across the whole army), could also impress an army painting judge.  At least try and lavish extra detail and work on your character and centrepiece models, and you would be bound to earn a few extra points there.

As an army painting judge, I try my best to engage the gamer.  I ask them to point out which models they're particularly proud of.  I remark on various aspects of the army, and see if there's a story behind those decisions.  I also try and gauge the level of enthusiasm and fondness the gamer has for their army.  Stuff like that influences a judge's discretionary points, and may get them to mark down the 3 points for "Overall Appearance" and 2 points for "Something Special".  Perhaps other judges don't work along those lines, but as a former hard-core gamer (more casual gamer these days...), I get sentimental about each of my armies after I invest a ton of time and back story into them, and expect the same from other gamers.

It's also a fairly simple judging process.  However, I still expect an experienced and reasonably talented painter is still going to be a better judge for army judging for a few reasons.  First, an experienced painter with a wide repertoire of painting techniques is going to be able to recognize which techniques were used on the army, and which were more labour intensive vs easy shortcuts.  Second, I've found that players are more likely to accept a painting score (ie less likely to consider their score "unjust") when it's coming from someone they respect as a painter.  Now, I'm not the best painter in the world (far from it... that's why I'm constantly trying new tricks and techniques all the time), but I've racked up a considerable number of painting awards in my 26 years of painting miniatures, and many of them for "Best Army Appearance" (back when I used to have enough time to actually FINISH painting entire armies).

On that note, I do have a few heroes in terms of astounding ability to paint and convert gorgeous armies.  These people do NOT get the same kind of fame and credit that Slayer Sword winners get, despite the fact that their armies have consumed just as much time and devotion as any Golden Demon award winning entry ever has.  Back in the day, however, the major painting competitions were dominated by people who were gamers who just so happened to be fantastic painters as well.  Nowadays, that rarely happens, as they are typically dominated by people who couldn't care less about gaming, and solely focus on miniature painting by itself.  While we have these dedicated painter-only types to thank for really pushing the boundaries of what's possible in 28-32mm scale miniatures, there's a part of me who thinks it's sad to see such specialization in our hobby... it's just as sad to see people who just focus on competitive gaming, and don't give a crap that they are fielding bare metal or primered models on the tabletop.  This hobby was born from marrying miniature modelling with miniature gaming, and separating the two into separate camps is a bit of a shame.

In my next blog post, I'll show you guys some pics I took during the Wet Coast GT, and give you some of my thoughts regarding them.  In the meantime, I'm posting up a few blog links to some of the people I really admire as "all-around" fantastic hobbyists.  These are the people who can not only produce amazing single miniature paintjobs, but can do it across entire armies, and then actually game with them!  As I said before, these guys don't get nearly the level of recognition they deserve, and I would feel very privileged to sit down and game with them and their gorgeous armies.
James Wappel is a fantastic painter... this man's armies are produced to such a high standard, he can actually pluck random miniatures from them, enter them in to a dedicated miniature painting competition, and come away with handfuls of prizes (beating a good number of the painting-only specialists).  His "toolbox" of techniques is so wide ranging, his armies really stand out as textbook examples of just about every trick in the trade.
I've mentioned Mike Butcher before, but it bears repeating: this man DOMINATED the Best Army Appearance and Player's Choice awards during the Games Workshop Grand Tournament hey-days of a decade ago.  Mike really gets into the character of his armies, reinforces them with a healthy dose of greenstuff sculpting medium and copious bits swapping, and backs it all up with some solid painting skills.  I was lucky enough to be one of the Brushworks painters alongside people like Mike and various others, but I could never match his level of army dedication and dominance.
Cameron's a Vancouverite like myself, yet I don't know him personally.  I came across his blog some time ago, and was blown away by his Warhammer 40K stuff.  He has since moved on (mainly) to the much smaller scale game of Flames of War (WWII historical), and the stuff he's producing at that scale is mind-blowing.  He is taking the realistic weathering, camouflage, and colour modulation techniques developed for much larger Tamiya, Airfix, etc kits and applying them to tank models that are no longer than my thumb.  Fantastic stuff, and while I typically avoid smaller scale miniatures like the plague (too many Epic 40K and Warmaster models painted during my time as a professional painter really burned me out on that scale), his paintjobs are slowly tempting me back to the dark side...
Arthur is another fellow Vancouverite who is really making a name for himself.  A relative newcomer to the hobby (of course, I say that about anyone who wasn't painting back when miniatures were mostly offered in lead), Arthur's command of the painting fundamentals is astounding.  His blending, shading, and brushwork puts mine to absolute shame.  Not only that, but he loves gaming too!  Portions of his Skorne army have picked up various miniature painting awards here in Vancouver, and just across the border in Washington State.  He's also tackling some Warhammer Fantasy armies as well, and has been commissioned to paint the studio Timor army for the Drake: The Dragon Wargame for Action Games Miniatures.
Dave Taylor is a longtime fixture in the North American gaming scene, and every year he seems to come up with some fabulously weird and eccentric concept armies.  Nothing is stock, everything has been converted or resculpted in some way.  And he's a pretty darn good painter as well.  His insights into miniature army building and painting are invaluable reading, in my opinion.  He's like the grizzled old sergeant major, veteran of many wars.  Fresh faced young privates in the miniature painting world should heed his words ("This is my paintbrush, this is my gun...").

Now, I've missed a TON of people who also deserve mention, and are worth checking out.  If you know of any, please leave them in the comments section.

Again, my next blog post or two will showcase a few armies from the 2013 Wet Coast GT, and I'll leave some thoughts alongside each one.  I'll also give you my impressions on the differences between Warhammer 40K gamers and WarmaHordes ones (and probably piss off more than a few people from both camps while I'm at it).  And I'm sure other random thoughts will pop up and be typed into my blog along with the more coherent ones (mental diarrhea, of a sort).  It might be worth checking back and reading, I hope.


  1. All fantastic painters. Jim Wappel is possibly the most underrated, that guy blows my mind. Mike Butcher and Dave Taylor take techniques I understand and launch them into space, Jim is already working from the dark aide of the moon. When I followed Lustria Online he would pop up from time to time with a little "Hey guys, I just finished this, what do you think?" and he consistently blew my mind. I think you pegged it, Dave and Mike are grizzled old schoolers who learned the 'classic' methods and became masters at their craft. Jim is a former art student and professional graphic artist who applies his own methods to miniature painting. His color sense is insane, all-flourescent tomb king army? And it looks amazing??? Holy fuck...that's all I gotta say about him.

    1. Sometimes I'm of two minds about James Wappel's painting. It definately has a canvas-style look about it sometimes, and it's often VERY busy looking... super saturated and my brain somehow reads it as "unnatural". That being said, he is amazingly and undeniably talented, and since i have yet to have the pleasure of seeing his stuff in person, I may have to chalk up any eye confusion to his style of photography. And like I said, he has mastered so many different kinds of techniques, it's mind-blowing.

      You summed up Dave and Mike very well. While they do experiment a fair bit, it's their ability to push established techniques far beyond what mortals attempt that is so exciting. And their armies are guaranteed to be based around some pretty neat themes. Very memorable stuff.

  2. I saw you at Wet Coast and my first thought was "oh please let Kelly be doing the painting judging!" I guess I was half right, as you didn't do the Fantasy judging. I like the scoring list, but I thought some of the fantasy scores seemed high.

    Cheers for the blog links, great browsing.

    1. Hey Ryan! I don't think I saw you at Wet Coast, otherwise I would have come over and said hi. Even with judging only two systems, I was pretty busy that day, but I hear I really missed out on some amazing armies over on the Fantasy side.

      Not sure if Fantasy used the same system, but the system outlined above pretty much guaranteed that anyone who painted their whole army to a 3 colour standard, based nicely, and with at least SOME highlighting and shading, would have earned a decent score. However, this checklist system has been around awhile, and the Fantasy gamers there are long-time veterans of the tourney scene. I wouldn't have been suprised if many of them really worked the system to max out their painting scores. Like I said, so long as you showed the work and put in some serious painting and conversion time, you could score well under that system.