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Tabletop Wargaming uses skills cultivated in architecture school

If you’re trained as an architect, the many branching career paths available to you outside of architecture have one major caveat: You have to give up on designing buildings. This makes the decision especially hard for those who really love it. Yet today, the world is full of lucrative careers in fields like User Experience (UX) design, video games, and set design, meaning for some it may be the best of both worlds—one where you don’t have to face the difficulties of architectural exams, the stress of stamping drawings, or the agonies of being an architectural office worker yet are free to design, imagine, and create.

Enter the world of Tabletop Wargaming. This is an analog hobby for truly dedicated enthusiasts, wherein miniature plastic or resin figurines are assembled, primed, painted, and then gathered together as a force pitted against another hobbyist’s army. It’s almost like chess, but with custom pieces, special rules, and background lore. And instead of a black-and-white checkerboard, you are free to model your battlefield after any type of environment imaginable. Known simply as tabletop wargaming terrain, these scale models represent places either fictional or historic: a ghastly overgrown graveyard, a fertile alien planet filled with neon plants, or an underworld of lava and gas.

hands setting up tabletop wargaming
Ryan Jago was educated as an architect and now makes kits of architectural models for people to assemble, paint, and use as terrain in various wargames. (Courtesy Ryan Jago/Brutal Cities)

Depending on the game system, terrain features are often created as a set of components which can be rearranged to represent a variety of scenarios. They rely on basic architectural elements like walls, buildings, and ruins to provide rules for how models interact with them. This allows terrain to be interchangeable between a variety of game rules which use different miniature models. Good terrain requires an eye for scale, interlocking materials, and physical craft—the same set of skills it takes to create an architectural model. Games are then played by referencing a few books, a tape measure for distances, and some dice.

While there are many game systems used by tabletop wargaming hobbyists, the most popular in the world by far is Warhammer 40,000. Long before strategy board games like Risk or Settlers of Catan became popularized by casuals, Games Workshop created Warhammer 40,000 in 1987 as a sci-fi expansion to its regular fantasy battle game, already called Warhammer. The “40,000” added signified the far-future year in which the game takes place. Tabletop Wargaming companies today make a huge variety of model kits that take immense time and dedication to assemble and paint, along with different rules for games that can take as little as 30 minutes and up to 8 hours for a single match.

While companies large and small manufacture the models and write the official rules, a lot is available for members of the community to design, build, and create their own stories around the characters. In today’s Etsy and YouTube economy, gaming communities support new frontiers and systems of play. Hobbyists and entrepreneurs fill this gap with content, painting tips, tools, streams, guides, and custom tabletop terrain. Here, the endless variety of imaginary spaces coming from Tabletop Wargaming’s vast worlds are brought to life by leveraging skills that are often cultivated in architecture school.

models of Brutalist buildings
An example of the architecture skill on display in Jago’s work can be seen in the Neo-Brutalist bundle (Courtesy Ryan Jago/Brutal Cities)

Ryan Jago founded Brutal Cities Terrain based on this connection. Educated as an architect at the University of Newcastle, he spent five years working in the field before deciding to pursue an alternative form of practice. As a designer, he is now making kits of architectural models for people to assemble, paint, and use as terrain in various wargames. Brutal Cities Terrain is his small business which designs and fabricates MDF-based pieces in Sydney, Australia. Funny enough, it was miniature wargaming that led him to study architecture, and the prospect of designing its terrain brought him back out of it—that’s if you consider this out, which I don’t.

A great example of the architecture skill on display in Jago’s work can be seen in the Neo-Brutalist bundle, a set of towers or small structures designed to reflect the harsh setting of a sci-fi future. One part of the kit is based off of Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, yet only vaguely, as too much similarity would discourage the imagination from anything outside of Tokyo. The buildings hold no specific narrative nor do they have interiors or plans. They reference only one another, and in doing so create architecture in the purest sense: a backdrop on which to perform, re-enact, or find purpose. Jago’s architecture excels in its ability to be rearranged with a lot of variety, has iconic structures which truly pop on the table, and interacts beautifully with many different tabletop wargaming systems.

In a discussion with Jago, one of the leading motivators behind this venture isn’t just the design freedom, but environmental resistance. As an architectural worker, he had little say in the carbon outputs and expenditures of the office, which worked to serve client interests. Jago said, “I felt morally iffy about actually using concrete in real life, regarding the climate apocalypse, so now I just do pretend concrete. I felt disillusioned by clients and builders when it came to sustainability.” And while the architecture field as a whole is working to mitigate this, it seemed faster, more effective, and symbolically important to Jago to simply refuse to produce those buildings.

Jago’s architecture has a lot of variety and interacts beautifully with many different tabletop wargaming systems. (Courtesy Ryan Jago/Brutal Cities)

To let you, dear reader, in on a little secret, I’ve been playing Warhammer 40,000 for about 22 years. Through it, I enjoy fantastical structures, alien environments, and surreal societies. For me, it’s a hobby, and ideally my work as an architect and an educator of future architects doesn’t spill directly into it. Yet it’s impossible to be a steward of the public imagination if you are not a steward of your own. While I enjoy organized play at a local game store and official rules and models, it’s the narrative conditions taking place during my basement games with friends where this game really shines. I take those lessons directly into my studio teaching, to hopefully encourage future architects to look up to people like Ryan Jago. His work teaches us how architecture can build new economies within existing economies, and challenge the validity of ethical questions going unanswered by traditional practice while the architecture academy carries on with business as usual.

Ryan Scavnicky (Scav) is a storyteller creating discourse through experimental media practice Extra Office. Using memes, TikToks, op-eds, group chats, Twitch broadcasts, Discord servers, print media and more, Scav challenges the status quo of disciplinary content. He is an assistant professor at Marywood University School of Architecture, spearheading the Bachelors of Virtual Architecture program.

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