Sometime near the end of 2015, I was engaging in typical gaming magpie behaviour and looking around for something new to do. I was perusing the Ground Zero Games website for Full Thrust miniatures (a spaceship game I played years ago) and ended up browsing their 15mm range. One thing lead to another and before I knew it, I was a member of the 15mm Sci-Fi Gaming group on Facebook, learning about the wonderful world of 15mm Sci-Fi gaming (herefafter referred to as "15mm"). I opened Justplay in February of 2016 so my foray into the hobby went on hiatus, but I'm starting it again now in earnest. Whilst I'm at this point, I really wanted to get some thoughts down on interwebs paper about this underappreciated scale and everything that comes with it.
Neo accurately sums up 15mm gaming
You will have noticed that I'm referring to a whole genre of games by their scale. We don't generally refer to 40k/Age of Sigmar/Warmachine/Malifaux/Guild Ball/etc as a collective "28mm", so why do we do it with 15mm? In my opinion, it's because 15mm games and miniatures form part of a larger ecosystem. 40k and Warmachine have no crossover; they have their own unique rules and miniatures, they have no reason to be collected together when you're talking about them. 15mm, however, very much takes a "do what you like" approach. There are tons of rulesets out there, ranging from rules produced by 15mm manufacturers to rules written by rules shops for other peoples' miniatures. Equally there are tons of model ranges from a whole slew of manufacturers; the idea is that you mix and match infantry, support weapons, tanks, APCs, mechs, and more to your hearts' content, pick the ruleset you like the most, and play. As someone who has played "mainstream" games for their entire life, this is a very liberating experience.
The awesome Harpy by Clearhorizon Miniatures
Unfortunately, I think it's also 15mm's greatest downfall. In any game - even mainstream ones - arranging games is not always the easiest thing in the world. Throw into that equation a chaotic assortment of rules and the chances of you finding a regular group like-minded players (who you didn't introduce to the hobby yourself and enforce your will on at the time...) is lower again. Additionally, most rulesets are not particularly tight - they are very vulnerable to minmaxing and there is lots of room for interpretation, which means that if you're playing an opponent with whom you don't have a good social contract then there is a fair chance that one or the other of you will (on purpose or by accident) do something overpowering that takes some fun out of the game. This cuts down your pool of potential opponents even further.
There is a frankly incredible amount of choice when it comes to picking your miniatures for 15mm games. Imagine if every mainstream game on the market were mashed into one, and you could mix and match ranges to make your perfect army. Now imagine that you can go out and buy any number of model kits or toys - anime mecha, Matchbox tanks, old toy ranges - and add them to your options too. You really can build the army of your dreams with aesthetic and fighting styles that suit you as a person and a player.
When people are new to the hobby, as I was a couple of years ago, the first question they ask is invariably "where do I look for models?", and the answer is generally a very long list of (awesome) 15mm manufacturers. It's so long, that the sheer amount of choice can become overwhelming and the only way that you can break into the 15mm world is to put in some research time. For some people this isn't a problem, but a lot of gamers (particularly in our modern, hyperspeed culture) would simply prefer a list of models to choose from. This problem is compounded by having to choose a ruleset and rules for your specific models. The things that might put people off are only small things, but they add up.
Sci-Fi insurgents by Armies Army
When people do research into what models are available, another barrier to entry is a simple one; 15mm manufacturers' websites are often lacking. I get the impression that a lot of 15mm manufacturers are pretty old school and have been making models for a number of years, and I know for a fact that a lot maintain their businesses as either one-man bands, a semi-hobby besides a "real" job, or similar. This leads to many sites looking like they were written by a HTML student in the early 90s, and means sites are sometimes difficult to navigate, lack pictures of models (or pictures of painted models), and so on. 100% of people that I've shared the glory of GZG with have immediately said to me "where are the pictures?" or "why are there no painted models?" and though this shouldn't be a deal breaker, it's just more small things adding up.
I'd like to be clear that any failings in technology and photos are more than made up for by the incredible level of customer service that most/every 15mm outfit offers; you'll be hard pressed to find any 15mm manufacturers that the community won't vouch for many times over. The producers of these minis genuinely love what they do and it shows in their dealings with their customers (and you'll find many of them on the 15mm scifi Facebook page regularly involved in discussions about any given topic).
15mm Retained Knights from The Ion Age
There is one more very important thing you really need to know; 15mm is incredibly cheap to play. For example, I use GZG's NSL range of infantry, and if you scroll down to the Panzergrenadier models (SG15-N14) you'll see that you get 8 of them for just £3. There are packs with heavy weapons of various kind as well as basic infantry and command troops. You can buy 40 assorted models (£15) and pay postage (£3) and have an army of men for under £20 with which to play your 15mm game of choice. That's incredible by anyone's standards. You can add tanks and APCs for £7-8 each.
The pic above is from an article by magigames entitled "This is what $85 buys you in 15mm Sci-Fi". I think you'll agree that this is pretty damn impressive!
South African armour by Brigade Models
Let's recap; a lot of choice of rules and models, which is fantastic. But choice can be overwhelming, and that's what we have to help potential new players to get past.
I think that 15mm is incredible, if you're willing to look past its flaws - but what game, doesn't have flaws? The answer is none, and the only difference is that the flaws of more mainstream games only tend to become apparent once you've read the rules and played the game. The flaws of many mainstream games are such that people would happily stop playing them once they realise that there is poor game balance, bad support, or otherwise; it just happens that the flaws of 15mm are primarily marketing issues so 15mm doesn't tend to attract the player numbers in the first place that many other games do attract and don't really deserve to keep.
There are barriers to entry to the hobby, sure, but nothing that can't be overcome by a little research and time investiture. Investing this time is actually a lot of fun; browsing tons of model ranges, checking out rulesets, and interacting with the 15mm community. I think that the reward is worth the effort.
I do think that there is a lot that the 15mm world could do to improve, but due to the nature of the varied manufacturers and game type it might never happen. There are certainly room for more 15mm games that present a unified offering of "here are the rules and the armies to go with them"; my current squeeze is The Ion Age, which has its own rules, armies, and points values all contained under one well-organised roof (reviews of their stuff coming very soon from me). I do think there is also the outside possibility of "one true ruleset" happening but I think it would take a lot of work to get there, but if the day did ever come where this happened - and even better, a tournament scene became a thing - I think I might just explode with delight.
If I haven't convinced you yet, then the last thing I'll say is that the 15mm community is truly exceptional. It's one of the most mature and welcoming internet communities I think I've ever seen. If you missed the link earlier, you can find a huge 15mm Sci-Fi Facebook page here (the admins are on US time so sometimes take a while to accept new members). If you like sci-fi wargaming, you owe it to yourself to check the page out and do a little research into the wonderful world of 15mm.
Thanks for reading; check back soon for more 15mm content!