A miniature or mini is a small-scale figurine used to represent the relative position of a character or unit, mostly in gaming. Miniatures are cast in one of three materials: pewter, plastic, or resin. Early miniatures were made of cheap plastic and lead. After a while, somebody decided that lead was bad and manufacturers switched to pewter and finally "Rallidium," a lead-free pewter substitute. The plastic ones wouldn't get you sick if you ate them, so the materials weren't changed much there, although there are polyethylene, polystyrene, and polyurethane resin figures from various manufacturers.
Most miniatures are on a 25-28mm scale (that is, a 25 [or 28 or whatever] millimeter figure represents a six-foot-tall person) -- which is about 1/76th scale, or 00 gauge (4mm to the scale foot) -- but they come in many other scales as well.
The mini shows your relative position with regards to the other player characters, and potentially monsters. The main use for minis is to avoid arguments when someone sets off a trap and the DM says "Now who was in front?" with the minis, marching order was provable, and many a dickish player finally fell into the spiky pits they so richly deserved. RPG scales are usually kept in the 25-28mm range. Except in the Dark Dungeons tract, where the figures are of fucking epic proportions, similar to the Mazes and Monsters movie figures.
Minis here are used in a similar fashion, showing a unit's relative position to other units, only there tend to be a fuckton more figures on the table. Where minis aren't required in RPGs to play (unless you play 4e where many powers are movement based) in wargames they are a must. Determining line of sight, squad size, and movement patterns is essential to the typical wargame, and so too are the figures. Wargames use a number of different scales depending on the system. For instance, Warhammer uses 28mm, and most historical wargames use a 15 or 20 millimeter scale. They can be as small as 2mm.
What does the scale mean?
When the scale is in millimeters, it's generally referring to millimeters in reference to an average height man. Basically, a 185cm tall warrior (or 6 feet tall if you don't know what the metric system) is the baseline. If your model of that warrior is 28mm tall, congrats, you have a 28mm scale figure. It's a little over 4.1mm to the scale foot. Same goes for all the other scales in miniatures, they're all based on that 'average man' baseline. They all fluctuate some, but the convention has held for a number of years.
Metal or Plastic
Some people have a difficult time deciding what kind of minis to buy based on material. To the player, the only major difference in materials are weight (metals are obviously heavier than plastic or resin), ease of work (metals take more work to remove mold lines or convert), and what tools to use (one type of glue may not bond different materials, either to themselves or each other). Advances in engineering over the last few decades have made it easier for plastic models to carry more detail and have more dynamic poses, while metal and resin models still require less money for initial production. If you're buying prepainted figures, then get which ever ones look better to you.
A Figurine Hobbyist?
Yup. Some people (especially on /tg/) get a massive erection from customizing scale figurines. They often mix and match parts from various models and sometimes mold and make their own. It's not uncommon for a hobbyist to have a few thousand dollars in material from saws, brushes, paints, magnifying glasses on articulated arms, etc. Some people take that shit seriously, making sure that every bit of detail is 110% perfect at all times. To be fair, 80% of the time the figures look REALLY good, and the other 20% of the time you get to laugh at the asshole who wasted the time, money, and effort to build his model that he should have probably stuck to buying ones that are already done for him. So in the 4chan universe, it's all good.
Many companies make figures for gaming. Here is a short (and by no means comprehensive) list of manufacturers and what they sell:
- Airfix - The Granddaddy of them all, and the oldest miniature manufacturer. Makes 1/72nd and 1/35th scale Historical Models, which much like Tamiya can be repurposed for Wargames.
- Anvil Industries - Resin troops and bits for Imperial Guard and Space Marines.
- Archon Studio - Fantasy and SciFi miniatures and several board games.
- Currently have a Kickstarter for modular terrain - starting sets are Fantasy/SciFi Gothic Cathedral and South American Temple
- Artel W Miniatures - Grim Gothic fantasy and scifi miniatures - has both 28mm scale and 54mm scale miniatues, accessories and busts. Bits, bases and scenery. Pacific88 coloring sets and accessoires.
- Artizan Designs - many historical armies, including WW2 and Wild West, and some Pulp Adventure and fantasy (mainly trolls and goblins) miniatures.
- Battlefront - Flames of War, DUST Tactics (after getting the license from FFG, currently in a legal battle with DUST Studio)
- Bitspudlo - terrain (with hexagonal bases for Warhammer Underworlds), vehicles, conversion parts and nice monsters (including demonettes and mushroom people)
- Bits of War - online store for Kromlech and Tabletop Scenics
- Black Cat Bases - now also has conversion parts and nice minis.
- Blight Wheel Miniatures - conversion parts, vehicles, robots, killer bird cavalry and dinosaurs.
- Blood and Skulls Industry (Article) - Conversion parts for Imperial vehicles.
- Brother Vinni(Article) - Off-brand Fallout characters and women in/causing peril.
- ChapterHouse Studios - Produces bits and accessories intended for use with Warhammer 40,000. The subject of a protracted legal battle with Games Workshop wherein GW demonstrated a laughable understanding of copyright laws and contempt for its customers.
- Cadwallon - sucessor to Rackham and sells their Confronation miniatures line (gorgeous 28mm minis and a well made tabletop game)
- Citadel Miniatures (Games Workshop) - figures for
Warhammer Fantasy BattleWarhammer: Age of Sigmar, Warhammer 40,000, Battlefleet Gothic, Epic 40K, The Lord of the Rings film adaptations, and a bunch of other stuff that lays comatose.
- Conversion World - assorted axes, spears, swords and shields for 40K (Privateer Press and Infinity coming soon!) and the hands to wield them.
- Copplestone Castings - many historical armies, future war (cyberpunk) armies, dinosaurs and some nice 10mm Not!Lord of the Rings and 15mm Scandinavian fantasy
- Corvus Belli - Infinity. The shapely bums that their female models have gets the company the nickname "Corvus Booty."
- Creature Caster - Very large and expertly sculpted miniatures of demons, both in sexy and in terrifying (and they are NOT mututally exclusive)
- crooked dice - pulp adventure minitatures.
- Dragon Forge - bases and conversion parts.
- Dreamforge Games - They have a game in development and are currently producing miniatures for the game's first faction, the Eisenkern (space Nazis).
- Fantasy Flight Games(Article) - While not a miniatures producer principally, they make a lot of miniatures-based games like Twilight Imperium and Star Wars: Armada.
- Forge Planet - mainly Imperial vehicle conversion parts, but also good heads for Plague Marines
- Forge World(Article) (also Games Workshop) - expensive figures for Fantasy, 40K, Aeronautica Imperialis, and Apocalypse.
- Freebooter Miniatures(Article) - sexy ladies and pirates by Werner Klocke
- Grenadier Models - Historical and fantasy. At various times, Grenadier had official licenses from TSR, Chaosium, ICE, and Game Designers' Workshop. It went out of business in 1996 and their molds have gone to various other manufacturers including em4miniatures and Center Stage.
- HeroForge - Closest thing to a make-your-own miniatures of multiple types and materials.
- Hasslefree - British company that produces the work of Kev White. Mainly fantasy and sci-fi with lots of lovely ladies.
- Hawk Wargames - Dropzone Commander. Seems to be defunct.
- Hitechminiatures - A great collection of space knight chapters and their demonic counterparts. Miniatures are a bit more blocky than Wargames Exclusive, but the best alternative if you want "serious" instead of pin-up.
- Hirst Arts - sells molds for casting your own terrain, both fantasy and scifi, including rarer things like egyptian temples and complex industrial complexes. Also has molds for cute robots. Their latest product is a set of molds for Mech Warrior - or Adeptus Titanicus
- Hysterical Games - What happens when you cross Tolkien and WWII, making Orc Tommies, Dwarf Nazis, and French Gnomes.
- Italeri - Italian manufacturer of model kits in various scales. Partnered with Warlord to produce plastic Bolt Action vehicles. Also produces Photographic Reference Manuals for its kits as a guide for the accuracy-obsessed.
- Kingdom Death(Article) - "Boutique Nightmare Horror," which means a bunch of bizarre monsters and the humans that fight them.
- Krakon Games - fantasy and scifi and delightfully odd. Has weird terrain, great aliens, gnome milita and cute critters.
- Knight Models - Comic book properties, produces the Batman: Arkham City miniatures game.
- Kromlech - Orks, Imperial Guard, Space Marine resin bits, figures, and vehicles.
- Mad Robot Miniatures - For future Sci-Fi and Post Apocalyptic games. bits and full models for orcs and Imperial Guard
- Mantic Games(Article) - Kings of War (fantasy), Warpath (sci-fi), Deadzone (future zombies), Dreadball (sci-fi analogue of Blood Bowl), Mars Attacks! (licensed property).
- Maxmini - lots of very well sculpted Not!40K.
- Micro Art Studio - Something Small from Poland - mainly terrain, also has Diskworld and Wolsung(Steampunk) minitatures.
- Mirliton High Quality Miniatures - metal and resin miniatures, bought out Grenadier Models.
- Mithril Miniatures - The Lord of the Rings minis.
- Perry Miniatures - The company that produces the independent work of Alan and Michael Perry. Historical miniatures, mainly European conflicts and the American Civil War.
- Privateer Press(Article) - Figures for Warmachine, Hordes, and Iron Kingdoms.
- Pig Iron Productions - Imperial Guard, Cultist, Tech Priest - compatible metal bits and figures.
- Prodos Games - Until recently they made Warzone Reborn. In addition they have an Aliens VS Predator miniature game, and Space Crusade i.e. sexy minis for a certain scifi wargame.
- Plastic Soldier Company - 15mm and 1/72 scale WWII vehicle models.
- Puppets War - Imperial Guard - compatible resin bits and figures. Also has motor bikes and jet bikes.
- RAFM - Fantasy, sci-fi, historical, and horror. Canadian distributor for Citadel, Ral Partha (former), and Reaper (current).
- Raging Heroes - Great models of sexy girls for fantasy and scifi - mainly assorted elves, empires, battle nuns and demons, but also orcs, vampires and terrain.
- Ramshackle Games - Resin and metal models to include tanks, trucks, jet bikes, massive robots, dwarfs, tech priests, and human troops. Producing figures for the Victoria era, fall out style apocalypse and future sci-fi. Plus goblins, giants and the rather unique Dunger beasts. Also post-apocalyptic plant life and dryad heroine.
- Also has some of the best games to get started on wargaming, well thought through, imaginitive and really fun to play. Nuclear Renaissance is a postapocalyptic wargame and Mini Gangs is a skirmish game with 3 rule complexity levels.
- Ral Partha - Produced fantasy and historical miniatures beginning in 1975. They eventually acquired licenses for D&D, Battletech, and White Wolf miniatures; losing those signaled the end for the company. WizKids acquired Ral Partha and spun it off into Iron Wind Metals in 2001.
- Reaper Miniatures(Article) - Dark Heaven Legends (generic fantasy), Warlord (their own skirmish game), Chronoscope (generic speculative fiction/historical), and official licensed Pathfinder and Savage Worlds figures. The Bones line encompasses all their other lines and is produced in a new plastic material.
- Renedra - Generic scenery and bases as well as manufacturing other companies' products, such as Warlord and Osprey.
- Scibor Miniatures - wide selection of fantasy and scifi miniatures (especially space knights), and a good selection of bases, conversion parts and historical polish armies.
- Scotia Grendel Productions Metal 15/28mm Fantasy and Sci Fi miniatures
- Secret Weapon Miniatures - conversion parts, paints and more. Give a 10% discount to members of the military.
- Shieldwolf Miniatures(Article) - fantasy miniatures for their own game and The_9th_Age.
- Spellcrow - great fantasy and scifi minis ( fantasy in 28mm and 10mm scale) and conversion parts.
- Tamiya - Historical and modern lines in various scales. They produce 28mm military vehicles that are theoretically compatible with tabletop games at that scale.
- Victoria Miniatures - Imperial Guard-compatible bits and figures.
- Warcradle - Wild West Exodus and Dystopian Wars - has bought Spartan Games' IP and hosts an archive of all their rules.
- Wargame Exclusive - ChapterHouse but even more blatant, including such game lines as "Greater Good", "Mechanic Adepts" "Necrocyborgs" and "Heresy Hunters". Miniatures are pretty detailed but a bit costly and their scale is sometimes a bit wonky compared to 40k, proivding a mix of bits to use on existing GW models, stand-ins for existing units and characters such as Primarchs but also new units and vehicles no longer in production like the Genestealer Cult limousine. Also have a tendency to slap tits onto many models, including the Necrocyborgs.
- Wargames Factory - Primarily a manufacturer of other companies' products, notably Dreamforge Games.
- Warlord Games(Article) - Mostly historical lines with accompanying game systems; Hail Caesar (Roman Republic), Pike & Shotte (16th to 18th century conflicts), Black Powder (18th and 19th century conflicts), and Bolt Action (WWII). Speculative fiction lines include Judge Dredd and Beyond the Gates of Antares. Also Zombies.
- West Wind Productions - several games, Steampunk, WW2 and Horror themed. Also Bombshell Girls and cute sidekicks including Not!Rocket Raccoon.
- WizKids(Article) (owned by NECA) - Heroclix (many lines of licensed material, mostly Marvel and DC comics) and Attack Wing (Star Trek and D&D).
- Wizards of the Coast(Article) - Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures Game. Produced the Star Wars Miniatures Game when they had the license.
- Wyrd Games - Malifaux.
- Zealot Miniatures(Article) - fantasy, scifi, busts and scenery.
- Zenit Miniatures(Article) - Nemesis, Kensei.
- Ziterdes - Terrain tables, terrain, ships, boats, and buildings.
- Zinge Industries - Bits, heads, weapons, and conversions for Imperial Guard vehicles and troops. Specifically Colonial style troops. Also has electronics for LED lights.
The investment of time and money that goes into a good miniature army can be a bit... intimidating. If you are more casual about wargames or simply need a quick proxy, or cheap terrain, paper miniatures can be very helpful.
You can further differentiate between miniatures and terrain for homeprinting in PDF format and professionally manufactured cardboard terrain.
- Raging Heroes Gothic Cathedral Kickstarter - get a table-filling sprawling modular gothic catheral with optional scifi bits. Made from high quality extra dense cardboard.
- Dave Graffam Models - historical and scifi buildings, often with multiple color layers for even more variation! Also has a Buget Bundles without extra layers.
- WorldWorksGames - modular buildings for historical, fantasy, modern or scifi settings. No longer supports password recovery so be careful where you write it down.
- Heroic Maps - high quality 2D maps and modular map tiles for your Pen&Paper campaigns or small skirmish games. Fantasy and SciFi.
- Skeleton Key Games - 2D map tiles, fantasy and scifi.
- Brave Adventures - monster mobs and warbands
- DARKMOOK Paper Miniatures - mainly zombies and zombie hunters (even has his own game) but also terrain and cyberpunk troops.
- Kev's Lounge - good selection of adventurers and NPCs, very high quality work.
- Mayhem in Paper - massive collection of fantasy, steampunk and scifi miniatures (including Not!Tyranids), all armies are also offered in bundles!
- Okum Arts - paper minitatures by David Okum, spanning a wide range from fantasy to pirates, western, modern superheroes and scifi. He has also written several game systems.
- Sanity Studios - humans, dwarves, orcs and monsters, have some siege engines (catapult and mortar)
- Trash Mob Minis - monsters and adventurer parties, has some of the best dragons.
3D Printer Miniatures
Some companies also sell 3D printing data for printing your own terrain and miniatures. Most of the stuff you see on DAZ and Renderosity can also be 3D printed with some work.
- Fat Dragon Games - dungeon tiles (walls included) and some monsters
- Hero's Hoard - terrain, from dungeon tiles to houses
- The Lost Dragons Kickstarter Campaign - "As of our latest $70k stretch goal, we've unlocked 17 Dragons + 6 Alternate Poses + 12 Dragonborn Minis + 10 Minion Minis + 5 Scatter Sets + A few extra goodies! For a detailed breakdown of what comes with each pledge, check out our "What STLs You Get" Document."