How To Build An Army Cheaply – Part 1

Just because there’s a recession doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the hobby, right? Right. Today we are going to look at the topic of wargaming on a budget, and how you can build or expand your forces without spending a small fortune on toys. 

Before we start, a caveat – some game systems are more forgiving than others, and some game stores are more welcoming than others. Then again if you’re on a budget and looking to get creative you’re probably not trying to play in the Las Vegas Open.

First let’s talk about the elephants in the room – recasts and 3-D printing. I have nothing against either, and there’s certainly bits in my collection of each of these alternatives. If those are the solutions you choose to use I wish you well. However not everyone is interested in these, and recasts can vary wildly in quality – as can prints and 3-D printers – and printing is a front loaded expense. The more you print the cheaper it is, but the space, start-up costs, and learning curve make it an option that is attractive to some and hellish to others.  So what’s a guy to do if neither of these options is panning out for you?

Let’s talk about the second hand market. Some folks will attempt to sell for $0.01 under retail value and tell you that they’re doing you a favor. They are not, and the key to avoiding being taken advantage of when buying used minis is patience. That’s right, if you wait, good deals will come along eventually. I personally buy used minis for about 50% of retail, and frequently around 30% regardless of game system or manufacturer. Never, ever, feel pressured to take a deal that isnt perfect for you- without a doubt the perfect deal will crop up a few weeks later and your money will already be gone.

Facebook marketplace, Ebay, and local game stores are all great places to find used minis. If you’re in the UK, Troll Trader makes quite a lot of money selling used minis and sometimes great deals can be found there. Cast a wide net – scope out game stores further afield, call and ask if they sell used minis and make a trip! Small online stores can often have old stock, and old prices, sitting on their shelves for months or years after a price hike. Many are more than happy just to have it gone! Especially with outdated kits, remember to consider haggling with the owner or manager to get that dusty old stock out of his store and onto a table. Similarly, take advantage of the make an offer option on eBay, or even consider directly messaging the seller with an offer.

Speaking of eBay – eBay charges fees for selling on their platform. This is how they make their money but it means that sellers in general will actually be charging more for items on eBay than on Craigslist or Facebook for example. The best deals are often found in FB groups that cater specifically to the game in question. This is because of several factors starting with the lack of fees, but also in that most gamers eventually amass far more models than we can reasonably use or paint. Many of us are of the opinion that we’d rather see that model on a table built and painted by someone else than wasting away in a closet. Embrace this, and pay it forward when you can. While writing this article I casually scanned a Horus Heresy trading group and found $2 marines by the bucket, and new starter boxes with bonus weapon packs for under $200 shipped- that’s 70% of Amazon prices, or about 55% of retail.

While searching keep in mind that we are all human, and items get listed with the wrong names, or in the wrong categories. So if the deals are slow, try easy misspellings or typos. You can do this simply by looking at your keyboard and seeing what keys are adjacent to the proper ones; sub a couple in and see what happens. Even just alternative words such as Dwarfs vs Dwarves, for example, will bring you two different pools of fantasy minis. Adding Lotr or WFB will refine those more. Similarly, add the word army or lot to your searches – folks frequently just want the things you’re after out of their house, and sell as a whole at a steeper discount.

Speaking of which, there’s a concept out there called a ‘job lot’. This is because taking these minis and turning them into an army you can use is going to be a serious job. If your modeling skills are up to the task these can be fantastic bargains, 90% off retail or even more. You’ll likely pay it back in blood, sweat and tears however. Paint stripping tutorials, access to friends, libraries or retail printing services can help bridge the gap and find you missing pieces to complete models.

Ever buy a kit for just a couple of the bits? Maybe not, this is an article about doing things on the cheap after all. It is however something many of us have done, and kits come with a lot of bits in them. Bits that might sit in a bucket for months or years searching for a project to call home. If you need a specific bit – like say you bought the age of darkness box and need a bolt pistol for your sargeant – one of the best things you can do is reach out to your local community. New players are the life blood of any game, and most of us long-timers are happy to help a new player get a few pieces so they can get their models on the table and roll some dice! Look for opportunities to pay it forward yourself, as one day someone else will be in need of things you have just laying around.

Speaking of reaching out to the community, there’s always a cycle of buying and downsizing in an area. But cash is not always peoples first choice – army swaps, trades for other collectables like card games, video games, even paintball or car parts are all regular occurrences in the hobby. It never hurts to ask. You might have to pay shipping, but someone out there doesn’t want what they are sitting on and is willing to make a deal.

When I was younger I had a lot of success in making such a deal by building terrain for people in return for their unloved projects. I built up most of a truly massive Eldar force over years of buying used minis off folks leaving the game, or trading foam hills and plasticard bunkers for model kits or store credit. Sure, not everyone is interested, but ask your local players, or your local store even to see if there are a few things that you can build or paint in return for anything towards your army. 

It’s easy to forget in this age of CAD sculpted minis and boutique resin or pewter minis that this hobby was founded on the backs of folks who just liked building tiny models of things from scratch. A quick Google search will find you mountains of tutorials on how to build things from poster board, insulation foam, cork and sand. Talk to family members about specialty tools like hot glue guns, jig saws, and so on to avoid having to make large purchases of tools while you start. Just remember to be respectful and take care of any loaned tools you might end up with.

Similarly you can use this same skill set to make units. Forgeworld Storm Eagle is $200? Well the SW Stormfang is $45 on ebay. Compare the measurements, make adjustments, cut and glue and paint… and the results speak for themselves. You can do this with old toys, garage sale finds, even infamously a deodorant stick! The hardware store can be a gold mine of interesting pieces for sci fi and fantasy modelers, just take the time to think through any projects before starting your purchase. I intend to do some tutorials on these sorts of projects in later articles.

Lastly, I talked about patience before. Remember, you’re not trying to build an army for the current meta, you’re trying to build a collection you can play with and enjoy for years to come. A rules change could come out tomorrow and shift everything, so plan your purchases with your long term interests in mind. It really helps lower the fear of missing out when you realize that your collection will be getting used not just tomorrow, but ten years down the road.

Hopefully this helped. I look forward to seeing you across the table!


Sean is a native dwarf, a long time transplant to the northeast, and has been playing with his favorite toys for 25 years now. Up for any game, any hobby challenge, Sean finds his joy in great gaming moments and epic campaign stories.

Sean’s contributions