Chasing the Dragon: Is GW’s Release Schedule Ruining the Hobby?

Yesterday, while wandering BoLS, I encountered an editorial, The Real Ugly Side of 40k. The author’s fundamental assertion: that the competitive landscape is beset by ugly and unpainted armies, and at least a hefty portion of the fault for this lies at the feet of GW’s recent breakneck release schedule.

The problem? I think they’re wrong.

We don’t disagree that in tournament play, especially tournament play where there’s no emphasis on “soft scores”, there are some ugly armies. We’ve all seen them. The “Primer White is one of my three colors” army. The “I picked all these up on Ebay” army, and it’s cousin “My army is actually three people in my club’s combined collection, because who the hell has 200 cultists?”. And, like the author, I think this is a bit of a problem.

Warhammer 40K is a visual hobby, and it’s nice when the plastic army men look good. I think this is especially important because, strictly speaking, 40K isn’t a good game. There are tighter rulesets out there, with better competitive potential, and companies that emphasize competitive play in their rules development. Many of them are also cheaper. Which means if you’ve chosen 40K over those games you have in some ways implicitly endorsed GW’s “It’s not a game, it’s a hobby”

Three Color Minimum

Why then are there ugly armies at tournaments? TastyTaste’s (hereafter called the author) reasoning is that the problem is that GW’s release schedule means that you don’t have years to paint up your army before something changes, the meta shifts, etc. Instead, to be competitive, you always have to chase after the next thing, running from release to release, and really, how can we expect anyone in those circumstances to paint their troops? Also, presumably, they have the fiscal sense of this guy:


The issue with this argument is I don’t think its born out in the data about tournaments. Looking back on the various analyses I’ve done, a few armies consistently have very strong representation: Eldar, Space Marines, Chaos Daemons and Tau typically, with other armies occasionally rising to the fore (Space Wolves as the components of a Thunderwolf-based Deathstar for example).

None of these is exactly a revolutionary army. We’re rapidly approaching the two-year anniversary of the Craftworld Eldar codex, and Scatterbikes, Seerstars and Wraithknights were obvious builds from Day 0. It’s been a full year since Doom of Mymeara came out and unlocked yet more madness. The Space Marines codex is a year-and-a-half old, and while Gladius threw open the doors for MSU Space Marines as a concept, there’s been plenty of time to adjust to that and the other builds that emerged from that book. Modern version of the Tau? Not much younger than that. That Riptides are good is not new information.

Chaos Daemons have, in fairness, undergone some much more fundamental transitions recently, but because we’re talking about painted models it’s important to note that many of the building blocks remained the same – flying Daemon Princes, tons of Tzeentch Daemons, Fateweaver, etc. were all units with an established place. And yes, sometimes the tournament scene throws things for a loop where people might have to paint a ton of models – the brief and terrifying reign of “You have how many Warp Spiders!?” comes to mind – but those are the work of clever players, not new GW releases.

If anything, I’d argue that the tournament scene isn’t particularly responsive to GW releases – it’s been suggested that one of the reasons we still haven’t seen the Genestealer Cults reach what people thought their potential is that an infantry-heavy cult army is expensive and hard to paint. And we’ve seen the strength of renegade lists building for some time (I first mention them here, exactly a year ago, as an army to watch) but I think the capital outlay of artillery platforms and staring down the barrel of painting huge amounts of models had slowed the adoption of renegade armies.

So why do we see so many unpainted armies?

Simply put – I think it’s a matter of incentives. One of the core constructs of the ITC, which is at this point something of the “tournament default”, at least in the United States, is an emphasis on hard scores. There are plusses to that decision – it’s a clear signal of what the event is about, it’s the hardest to “game”, it’s objective, and it reduces the burden of administering a 400-person tournament to give zero fucks about painting scores. But that also removes any incentive to paint – you could spend that time practicing for tournaments and traveling to them, or playing Titanfall 2, or socializing. And really, all of those things are probably more fun than painting your fifth Space Marine tactical squad.

My evidence for this? That Warzone Atlanta was remarkable for a major tournament in that I felt conspicuous for not having done a display board, and where every game I played but one was against a fully painted and well done army. And there? WZA expressly holds the “soft score” titles like Best Painted and Best Overall as having an equal footing, which means at least 50% of the titles you can contend for rely on having a painted army (I’d hazard a guess that it’s actually 75% of them, as I imagine getting Best Sport with an army you’ve put no time into is an uphill battle). Similarly, at a local tournament in my area, the largely unpainted armies were entirely from folks who were just there for ITC points.

So, like many things in 40K that we don’t like, the answer to “How did we get here?” is We did this.

Which means we can fix it, if we want to.

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  1. I am fully on board with this assessment, and we’ve seen that in a couple different ways in my small local community:

    – Our 40k events went from having a lot of armies half-completed or less to that being a rarity and many of them being excellent once we added awards for hobby skills and included soft scores in the overall.

    – Warmachine, which is fairly serious in our area and notoriously competitive in general, at our shop seems to have a lot of unprepared models at events featuring no hobby prizes, and a lot of beautiful armies when there are hobby prizes.

    – Our Infinity scene features a shocking amount of unpainted squads, which I have to correlate with our organizers putting almost zero focus on the hobby side, let alone scores & prizes.

    One note I’ll make is that in both my local events and those I run at NOVA, I’ve tried to strike a balance. Lots of people are less interested in the hobby side, don’t have natural talent at it, and so on. They should still be competitive overall. There are also natural issues of potential subjectivity in evaluating hobby work. So, my soft scores in local events are based on clear, objective criteria and weightings that encourage people to make their armies presentable, but don’t go much farther than that. As long as your models are painted, bases done, etc., you won’t be at a disadvantage in the overall scoring compared to somebody else’s masterwork. Those armies that do go the step beyond though get recognized by the hobby specific awards, which are based on player voting. Keeping these two separate in this way strikes a sweet spot of encouraging armies that look good enough, without requiring masterworks to be competitive overall, but still rewarding exceptional talent and effort.

    I had actually been really opposed to adding soft scores into our events for a number of reasons. But doing so really upped the quality and general enjoyment of our 40k scene, without (I believe) turning anybody away.


  2. I think you have hit the nail on the head. It is interesting to look at the contrast with AoS at the LVO where GW came in and added in more emphasis on hobby along with – more controversially – banning proxies of all kinds. Some of the proxies in the 40K tournament (I am thinking of you, Brimstone Horrors) were just pathetic if the photos are anything to go by; just be honest and use cardboard counters for your games people!

    You will over time tend to get the behaviour you reward and may well create a sub-community that values that behaviour over other things. Once TOs start responding to what this sub-community asks for it becomes a self-sustaining process. The difference between what I see in tournaments and what I see at a club night is becoming stark enough that I wonder how long it will be functionally be the same hobby at all.

    Of course the hard-core tournament players may be perfectly happy to ultimately exclude anyone not focussed on what they are interested in – beating face on the table without regard to any other factor. I doubt if splitting the hobby this way would be healthy for the hobby but it may well be what some people want.


    1. I will say that I like having more hobby-friendly tracks at major events, like the LVO’s Narrative events (which I reviewed a week or so ago).


  3. I didn’t used to be enthusiastic about painting, and amassed a huge amount of primed plastic to the point where, inadequately describing to my regular gaming buddies how a new opponent had the Hive Fleet Behemoth paint scheme like my Tyranids one answered: “Oh, they’re white like yours?”

    But I’ve developed from painting only the bare minimum to play in public, to enjoying a regular painting schedule. I mean actually enjoying painting as well as building. I’m not sure where it comes from, but maybe it’s all the painting I’ve done lately to ensure I have something different to play in tournaments.

    It also means I don’t have that panicked week before a tournament where I clear my schedule to try and put paint on models before I go blind, so I don’t have that panic-rest cycle, and can put some actual care and love into my painting. Which is why I agree that the article cited is wrong: Eventually you build up a stock of the basic building blocks of an army that you can sub into new builds.


    1. Also, insofar as I’m concerned Bell of Lost Souls is very much the ugly side of our hobby, particularly the way they harbour certain trolls like Nyppa and Karru.


  4. A few months back, I was thinking about starting a GSC force. I had things planned out, and I knew how I wanted to run things. Then I realized that I would be painting 75+ of the exact same thing… So I started a Thousand Sons force.


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