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On collecting samurai miniatures

I often hear of miniature wargamers who are interested in collecting Japanese miniatures, but are unsure about how to do it. This is often due to the fact that samurai warfare spans almost a thousand years, which creates a great diversity in which miniature ranges matches which conflicts. There is also the question of what rule system to choose, wether to collect for mass army battles or skirmish action, and finally which scale of miniatures to collect. This article is far from comprehensive, but will give my thoughts on some tough decisions that you might face if you start collecting samurai armies.

Time periods

There are two time periods that are by far dominant when it comes to samurai miniature wargaming. The first is roughly around the Gempei War of 1180–1185, and the other is the Warring States Period or Sengoku Jidai of mid-15th century to 1615. Each period is different in both aestetics and warfare, so it is kind of a good start to figure out which one of these you prefer.

The earlier period of Gempei is a time when the Samurai were still defined by what made them the top dogs of Japanese society in the first place: being undisputed horse archers. The bow played a very important role, so be prepared to paint a lot of archers with bows. Armour design emphasized large wavy helmets, colourful lacing and boxy torso armour suitable for mounted archer. The famous back banners were yet to be
developed, so you will not see that. These mounted archers were followed by retainers on foot, often wielding naginatas or spears, not fighting in individual units but rather as bodyguards for their mounted masters.

The battles were on a smaller scale than later wars, with a heavier emphasis on individual feats of bravery and duels between famous warriors. The emphasis on mounted archers with infantry bodyguards made the cavalry not so mobile and the infantry doctrine lacking, and much of this era came to an abrupt end when the Mongols invaded and showed the Japanese that this type of warfare is not that efficient by kicking their asses. The Mongols provide a historical non-Japanese enemy for the historical wargamer, coming roughly a century after the Gempei War.

Examples of manufacturers: The Assault Group, West Wind Productions

The Warring States period is much more popular period as it includes almost all of the commanders and battles known to the average gamer. This is the period of the massive armies with flapping backbanners so well known and loved from Kurosawa's movies. However, the rapid development of tactics and weaponry makes early Sengoku Jidai very different from the siege of Osaka in 1615, so even here you have lots of room for variety.

Generally, the period saw the decline of the bow and the mounted archer, and the rise of the arquebus and mass infantry tactics. Your samurai are more likely to be either lance armed cavalry or dismounted with spears, and the retainer bodyguards are exchanged for large units of ashigaru foot soldiers with simpler armour and either long spears or arquebuses. The rapid increase in army sizes means that battlefield communication and identification becomes more and more important, leading to the extensive use of flags, back banners and signal fans. These decorative elements makes sure that the army remains colourful even as the armour is simplified and starts to be mass produced.

The surge in army sizes means that this period is perfect for large battles, and there is no lack of historical battles for the gamer who wants to reenact rather than just throw armies around.

Examples of manufacturers: Perry Miniatures, Kingsford Miniatures

From duels to armies

A tabletop battlefield can be populated by anything from a handful of miniatures to hundreds, even thousands of tiny pewter men. The size of the battles you want to play will most likely affect every other decision you make.

Skirmish level games involve individual models and man-on-man combat. Even with a streamlined system you will probably only ever need a few dozen miniatures, making this a good option for the person (and wallet) that dreads collecting and painting throngs of soldiers. However, a skirmish tabletop without terrain looks very barren and makes for uninteresting game, so be prepared to either improvise a lot of terrain (books, coke cans etc.) or to build a lot of houses. Building an elaborate board filled with fences, buildings and woods will take all the time you saved by not collecting a huge army, but on the other hand you will end with something looking spectacular.

There are many rules for samurai skirmish fighting, the majority of them home-grown rules that are available online for free or for a small fee. A very accessible way to try out gaming with a handful of miniatures is to download the rules for Mordheim that are available for free on Games Workshop's homepage. You can easily adjust the game by striking items from the lists that would not be available in medieval Japan, and the basic Mordheim game provides a good skirmish game with solid rules for a roleplaying style campaign. Since models are individually based it is very easy to just start collecting some miniatures and try out several gaming systems until you find one you like.

Massive army strategy

f you feel like fielding vast armies of samurai, this is where things start to get interesting. Army strategy games are quite different than skirmish games, using abstracted rules for combat as dozens or even hundreds of troops fight each other at the same time in large formations. Instead of moving individual soldiers you are concerned with entire flanks, with movement and morale becoming at least as important as hand to hand combat.

Army scale gaming offers many options for the prospective samurai overlord. When you go shopping for a historical gaming system you might find yourself in the position of choosing between access of opponents and how much the system fits the theme of samurai warfare. Let me explain:

The easiest way to find opponents is to fit a very popular game. Unless you are blessed with a vibrant local scene for historical gaming, chances are that the most similar army scale game you can find is Warhammer Fantasy Battles. Like many others, I have found that the easiest way to play with my late 16th century 28mm samurai army is to proxy it as an Empire army against other Warhammer Fantasy players. You might also see some players using a cavalry-heavy samurai army as a Bretonnian force, a High Elf force etc. Needless to say, this is very far from a historical game, but it lets you roll dice with samurai on the table and have fun with friends.

The next level would be a generic historical system. These systems provide dozens, sometimes hundreds of army lists and means that if you can't find a samurai collector buddy, at least you might play against a Roman history buff's Late Imperial army, or Charlemagne's knights. While these systems are inherently more historically correct (given their lack of orc, for starters), they are all simplified to a certain degree to suit many periods and armies. Good examples of these are Field of Glory, Warhammer Ancient Battles, Impetus and DBA, which all have various samurai army lists and a large number of players compared to most historical games. The upside is that you are more likely to find opponents, the downside is that there is nothing separating a samurai foot soldier and a Roman legionnaire in DBA, which gives you an idea of how you might find a lack of thematic feel to the rules.

The final level would be to use a thematic historical system. Games like Taiko, Battles in the Age of War and Killer Katanas are made specifically to play out samurai warfare, with all its unique traits. So you might find rules for taking heads of generals, historically accurate formations and wavering loyalties. You will also find vastly more researched army lists and scenarios. While these rules systems will bring you the closest to accurate tabletop historical wargames, chances are that you will have to collect and paint up two opposing armies to even have a chance to get anyway to play you.

Massive army strategy sounds like it would require large and expensive armies, but the genre actually offers ways to play with few actual miniatures. Games like DBA and Impetus uses quite few models per unit, and you can field a DBA samurai army with around 50 miniatures. On the other hand, you can use Killer Katanas II to re-fight the Battle of Sekigahara with thousands of miniatures on each side.

Unlike skirmish systems you need to consider basing, since many gaming systems use specific basing conventions with several miniatures on one base, with the size of bases varying depending on grade and type of troops. For example, Impetus can call for eight troopers on a single big base to represent a unit, Field of Glory supports three or four miniatures per base for infantry while Warhammer Ancient Battles uses individual square bases. Unless you are fond of re-basing miniatures it can be a good idea to test out some games with just the bases to see if you like the system or not.

A short take on scales

Historical wargaming comes in all shapes, and most importantly, sizes. When setting out to collect an army you will have to choose which scale you will collect, depending on your favourite manufacturers, the size of the force you want, your budget and how you like to paint. This can easily be the hardest choice, as you can not really mix and match between them.

90mm, 54mm

Scales that are well suited for decorative pieces, but less so for wargaming. You might still want to check out what companies like Pegaso and Andrea have to offer, if only to get inspiration for your smaller figures.


A very unusual scale, with a small but existing following. The extra size of the miniatures make them recall the tin soldiers of olden days, and the higher cost means that they are most suitable for small skirmish games. Mostly supported by Steve Barber Models.


The scale that was popularized by Games Workshop, and most likely what you think of when you hear tabletop miniatures. This scale is right on the border where both large scale battles and detailed skirmishes are just as suitable for the miniatures. It also has the advantage of a large number of manufacturers, easily supporting most samurai periods and still providing many options as to quality, price and aesthetics. I would still recommend that you ask in a historical gaming forum for size comparisons, as “28mm” ranges can be anything from 25mm to 32mm tall.

Some manufacturers you might want to check out are Perry Miniatures, West Wind Productions, Kingsford Miniatures, Museum Miniatures, Black Hat Miniatures, The Assault Group, Curtey's Miniatures and Old Glory Miniatures.


This is a peculiar scale. It is the standard for the small boxes of various small soldiers made from a softish plastic that you will see all over hobby stores.. The material is usually softer plastic, which can make it harder to paint than metal miniatures. But they are cheap. Really cheap. So if you are planning for large armies it is worth giving a thought at least. The most popular maker for samurai seems to be Zvezda, who makes several sets. Zvezda has also recently switched to harder plastic. The best way to get an overview about the options and releases in 1/75 is the website Plastic Soldier Review, who has excellent reviews of most boxed kits on the market.


A classic scale that is huge in historical wargaming and pretty unknown in fantasy and sci-fi wargaming. While you can use the scale for skirmish, this is really the standard scale for large army battles today. It's affordable to buy big formations, you don't need huge bags to carry them around, and they are quicker to paint than 28mm scale miniatures. Just like with 28mm scale you should be careful about how you mix from manufacturers, as sizes and proportions can vary a lot. 15mm Samurai miniatures can be found at Essex, Old Glory 15s, Two Dragons, Peter Pig, Eureka and many others. In addition you have Khurasan Miniatures for the really unusual pre-samurai Japanese.


Another unusual scale, mostly covered by Pendraken, AIM and Irregular Miniatures. As you might expect it sits inbetween 15mm and 6mm in both cost and painting style, enabling some more detail than 6mm and a higher model count than 15mm.


Finally we get to the small 6mm miniatures, which is the option if you want really vast armies. As far as I know only Baccus 6mm and Irregular Miniatures make samurai for this scale. I find this to be a very nice scale for very large army games, as you can make regiments that really look like regiments, without breaking the bank.

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Samurai, farmers and merchants had to wear different clothes during the Edo period.
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