The miniatures that Games Workshop has released thus far for Age Of Sigmar really are, without doubt, visually stunning. Everywhere you look you see infantry models that are so detailed and dynamic that they could have easily represented named characters just a few years ago, and epic monsters that seem to be alive with motion and imbued with a real sense of weight.
However, for all their brilliance there is an elephant in the room. It's been touched on and hinted at in some of the community's most popular podcasts, perhaps echoing a wider, nagging seed of doubt among collectors. It's the one small but critical disappointment that fans of the game can't quite bring themselves to address, lest we jinx the otherwise superb run of miniatures we've enjoyed practically uninterrupted since AoS first launched.
I'm talking about posing. Not the poses of individual sculpts; those are purely a matter of opinion, and in our community opinion is always divided. Some people find the Magmadroth to be about as dynamic and convincing as a broken down bus wearing a Chinese dragon costume, while others hail it as one of the most stunning and expressive renderings of a majestic, high-fantasy beast that Citadel has ever produced.
What I'm lamenting, and what no-one can have failed to notice, is the relative lack of variety and versatility amongst miniatures of the same type. Miniatures within a single unit that, when placed side by side, look like carbon copies of each other. These aren't named heroes or unique beasts either; these are models that GW is actively pushing players to buy and field in large numbers, such as the Dracothian Guard and Khorne Wrathmongers. I concede that each model in these kits features a different pose but many, if not most collectors, will want to field more than two Dracoths and more than five Wrathmongers. For me, and I'm sure for many others, seeing large units of models with a limited range of poses between them breaks the spell of immersion and the cinematic quality of seeing these mighty warriors and beasts on the tabletop.
There was a time not so long ago when 'multi-part kit' meant 'multi-pose kit'. There was a sense that Games Workshop wanted to give hobbyists choice and an opportunity to make their army feel unique and personal. The hobbyist didn't just mindlessly assemble a kit according to a rigidly defined set of instructions; they brought these little men and monsters to life with characterful poses of their own choosing. Today, this degree of freedom and opportunity for expression during the modelling stage is becoming increasingly rare.
I strongly suspect that the culprit is the CAD system that Games Workshop now use to sculpt their models and split them into separate components ready for the sprue. Increasingly we find that splits have been made in counterintuitive ways that only a computer algorithm would find pleasing or sensible - the AoS starter set was the high watermark for mind-bending model construction, with warriors chopped up into mangled lumps of limbs and armour that required very careful study of the assembly instructions in order to decipher. The poses that the patient hobbyist ended up with were undoubtedly the most dramatic yet seen, but the opportunities for customisation or personalisation were practically non-existent. Easy weapon, limb or head swaps require the model to be split at natural joints in the character's musculature, and we haven't been seeing much of that lately.
Take the Wrathmonger or Vulkite Berzerker kits for example. The models in both kits are split across their forearms, with the rest of the arm very firmly attached to the torso. The Vulkite Berzerkers don't even have a split at the waist, and the legs are all largely posed in the same way, making these just a hair's breadth away from single-pose models, and not so very different to the miniature regiments that Citadel was putting out in the 1980s and early 1990s, with the notable distinction that the newer sculpts are undeniably of a much higher quality.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Games Workshop cemented its reputation as the greatest miniatures company in the world, and the master of plastic, by creating multi-part kits that not only afforded the hobbyist a great deal of freedom in how the model was posed, but also allowed them to mix and match body parts to their heart's content. Further, the consistent way in which the growing range of these kits were cut meant that easy kitbashing become the norm, and was a creative route open to even the most inexperienced modeller. No two regiments ever had to look the same.
One of the first kits of this kind that became available for Warhammer Fantasy (at least as far as I remember) was the Chaos Warriors regiment, the immediate predecessor to the current box. Each model was cut into pieces at places where there would be natural joints in the musculature, such as the shoulders, neck and waist. This meant that by twisting the waist sideways and the weapon arm upwards, your Chaos Warrior could be positioned as if about to strike. We'll gloss over the fact that their heads, for some inexplicable reason, all protruded from the middle of their chests.
Later kits such as the Vampire Counts Zombies were even more accomplished creations, with ball joints for the neck and shoulders that allowed arms and legs a much wider movement arc through two axes rather than just one. That's AX-EEZ, not AX-IZ. You know, the plural of axis? Never mind. The point is that, love them or hate them (and I know that some people truly do hate them, unjustly so in my opinion), a mob of those old zombies looks like a much more characterful and motley collection of shambling freaks than we can probably expect to see if this kit is replaced any time soon. By mixing parts, varying poses and even adding in parts from other kits produced around that time, you could assemble a 200-strong horde in which no two models look exactly alike.
Compare this freedom to the experience of assembling a box of Wrathmongers. Their beefy arms are attached to their torsos, making reposing impossible for all but the most skilled and committed sculptor. The various parts, whilst seemingly interchangeable at first glance, are designed to be assembled one way, and one way only. Want to mix and match legs with torsos? You'd better be prepared for models with lots of gaps, parts that don't quite fit correctly, and wonky poses that make these supposedly mighty warriors look like they're suffering from all manner of bone-crippling ailments. Trust me, I've made this mistake. There is only one way to assemble a Wrathmonger, and I'm left wondering whether I really want to add another 15 of them to my army when it means having to build, paint and field so many identical models.
The Wrathmongers kit, like so much that's been released for Age Of Sigmar to date, looks like it should be multi-pose, but isn't. It's made up of 5 single-pose models that have been sliced up by a computer algorithm in whatever way best facilitates the production and packaging process. At no point has any human being considered how to sculpt, design and slice these miniatures in a way that supports the creativity of the hobby. These sculpts are about Games Workshop showing off what it can do, not about letting you, the hobbyist, show off what you can do.
This is a subtle but significant change in the way Games Workshop approaches its models, and the effect on the community is obvious when you stop and take a look through the right lens. It's been sneaking up on us barely noticed for over a year now. Before Age of Sigmar was released, how many converted heroes did you see? Almost all of them were personalised to some degree, and many were outright marvels of invention and self-expression. How many converted heroes have you seen based on the kits released since? Almost none, aside from the most basic of weapon swaps. The detail, complexity and structure of the kits means that for the average hobbyist the barriers to creative modeling are now just too high.
I love the new models as much as anyone, but as we continue to enjoy the most incredible, dynamic, detailed and lifelike sculpts that Games Workshop has ever produced, let's take a moment to recognise what's been sacrificed in the process - variety, freedom and choice.
Follow Jamie on Twitter - @lord_celestant