More on Miniatures

One suggestion that has been made to me many times is that miniatures are much cheaper if you paint them yourself.


There’s just one problem with that: painting miniatures takes time. And quite an investment up front in the paint and brushes.

In the spirit of making sure I know what I’m talking about, I’ve spent time over the past few weeks painting the miniatures of Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower, a game that I very much enjoy. It’s an expensive game to purchase, especially here in Australia, and has 51 miniatures that you must assemble before you play. Painting is optional, but it does make them look a lot better.

What have I discovered? That I’m a better painter than I thought (while still not being particularly good), but it takes a lot of time. When I completed eight miniatures in about 4 hours, I thought I was doing well. My other miniatures are taking longer. I’m sure there are people significantly faster than me, but I don’t want to take up miniature painting as my main hobby. That’s a lot of time I wasn’t spending writing about D&D. When you’re working full-time and running games three nights a week, the time you can spend doing other activities is limited. So, I’d rather someone else painted my D&D miniatures, and I’m willing to pay the additional cost for them. The time I save not painting miniatures is significant. Yes, I might save (some) money painting my own, but the opportunity cost is that I lose that time.

(Incidentally, I’ve spent over a hundred dollars on paints and brushes…)

The other matter that gets brought up is why the D&D miniatures are distributed randomly. Back in 2003, I created a law – Merric’s Law of Miniatures – that described the basic idea:

Non-Random Packaging, Cheap Prices, and a Large Range of Figures: Choose two.

Now for a fuller discussion of the matter:

One of the major problems that faces any manufacturer, distributor or shop-owner is this: How many of each item to stock/produce?

Every product you make is a gamble: you’re gambling that someone will buy it and compensate you for making it. A company could make 100,000 flumph miniatures, but would it make any profit on it? Well, yes, they’d likely sell a bunch to Alphastream, but you’ve got to feel that their time would have been better spent making orcs.

That’s the concept of opportunity cost coming up again: when you make one miniature, you could make something else instead and make more money that way. (For stores, they could be selling something else entirely. D&D Miniatures or Magic cards? Hmm…) Of course, the store that stocks only the most recent set of Magic cards misses out on the patronage that comes from stocking a wider range.

The trouble with D&D miniatures is that there are a lot of different D&D monsters. (And a substantial number of character concepts as well!) Imagine if Wizards produced a miniature for every monster in the Monster Manual and kept them all in stock. How many do you need to make of each type?

Wizards must guess how many people want. At the distributor level, they must decide how many to order. And, yet again, at the retailer level, the local storekeeper needs to decide how many to stock. After all of those decisions, the gamers come in, see the ten flumphs and ten orcs in stock, buy all the orcs and leave the flumphs. It’s obviously not worth making flumphs. However, what if there are a few players who very much want flumphs?

There are two basic strategies to combat this when you’re selling visible (non-random) miniatures.

The first is to sell only the popular figures. That way, you’re not losing money on miniatures that don’t sell. Of course, working out the best models to keep isn’t trivial, but that’s why you do research. This strategy keeps the price down, but you have a smaller range of figures.

The second is to sell all the figures but to put the range’s price up. The theory goes like this: You need to sell $2 worth of miniatures to make a profit. You put on offer one orc and one flumph. The orc sells, the flumph doesn’t. How much do you charge for the orc? The calculation is simple: You need to charge $2. If both sold, you could sell them for $1 each, but that’s not what’s happening. A variant of this has 100 of 100 orcs selling, and 1 of 100 flumphs selling. If you keep the orc at $1, you can put the price of flumphs at $100 each. Yes, only 1 in 100 sells, but the $100 you make compensates for the 99 that didn’t sell. Regardless, the prices have gone up, but you’ve managed to keep a larger range of figures.

The last example sort of works for the manufacturer, but it doesn’t work for a retailer. The retailer looks at their 99 flumphs and wonders why they wasted so much money.

A third strategy puts the miniatures into larger sets; that is, you can’t buy a single miniature. Instead, you buy 10 or more different miniatures packaged together. The most extreme version of this is the Bones kickstarters, which give you a LOT of different minis for a low price – although their lag in producing the miniatures after funding has been getting ridiculously long.

The fascination of the non-visible (random) model is that it works; that people will pay for a box of stuff they might not want. However, what makes the system work is that the buyers do want most of the miniatures on offer. People do look at the set lists. You typically don’t buy a box because there’s only one miniature you want. You buy a box because there’s a good chance of getting several miniatures that will be useful.

The way that the miniatures are packed makes buying in bulk – that is, cases and bricks –somewhat similar to the third strategy above. The miniatures are only semi-randomly packaged, so by buying a case, you’ll most likely get a full set, assuming the set isn’t too large. However, even with people buying individual boosters, the blind packaging still works.

For retailers, the decision of what to stock is much easier: there’s one product rather than sixty. The first D&D Miniatures product had 80 miniatures. Imagine trying to guess how many of each you should stock! If the product is popular enough, you end up selling all of what you order rather than only half. This has obvious benefits on the pricing and is a key reason why costs could be kept down.

The very high sales of miniatures couldn’t go on forever, however. When the D&D Miniatures line was first introduced in 2003, it was to a market that didn’t have any affordable miniatures. There was a great demand for the line, and so sales were amazing. After a while, the purchasers of miniatures began to find that they had enough orcs, and the chase for the rarer miniatures they needed became less and less affordable. (It wasn’t helped by a great increase in transport and production costs. The first set had eight miniatures in each booster for US$10! The price soon went up to US$13, but even that is a price unachievable these days). Once they hit the saturation point, sales diminished.

That said, the random model is here to stay, and it provides obvious and tangible benefits to both producers and consumers. It relies on the mix of miniatures being right (it’s no good if the miniatures are all variations of flumphs), but most sets follow basic parameters to make them useful to a wide range of customers. You lose the guesswork of knowing exactly how many of the less popular miniatures to stock, and the price of the line overall goes down. As long as the rate of production is kept at a reasonable level, the miniatures remain available for people to use.

And for a game like D&D, with hundreds of potential miniatures, that’s something that is very desirable.

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2 Responses to More on Miniatures

  1. Techno says:

    A robust aftermarket for single minis has also developed, if you want to buy them that way. I have a large collection and only purchase lower-cost, unique minis that don’t duplicate what I already have. This has kept my collection growing without breaking my budget.

  2. Marty says:

    The problem as I see it is that they almost always make the more useful miniatures “rare” and make the less useful ones “common”. I mean, how many damn Gricks do you actually need? This is kind of a jerky way to make your consumer buy more boosters to get that one needed figure.

    Only now that Nolzur’s have come out can you actually get a decent set of kobolds, orcs, grills, etc without breaking the bank on the secondary markets.

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