Medea Refinery @ 2+ Years

Did some very very light touchup work on my Medea Refinery this past weekend: Some chipping, mostly where the gravel on the bases popped off; and regluing a ladder and two antennas. I’m very excited about how well it’s held up through a lot of play over the past ~28 months, including two NOVAs, two LibertyHammers, some smaller tournaments, and everyday play knocking around amid the public collection at Redcap’s. A testament that somewhat detailed terrain can also be robust.

Most of the Medea Refinery set up for an Infinity demo game this weekend.

2018 NOVA 40K Trios

This past weekend Colin and I organized the Warhammer 40,000 Trios Team Tournament at the NOVA Open, our third year hosting the event.

Trios is kind of an unusual format: Players register in teams of three. Each round two partner up with 1000pt armies for a doubles game, and the third plays a 2000pt standalone game. It’s a tough format to hold in a smaller scene because you need a bunch of players, but it works well at NOVA. Somewhat uniquely, in addition to the usual painting competition, the event also has a strong theme component. There’s a whole major prize category not strictly tied to technical hobby execution but just the storymaking and cohesiveness of a team’s assembled armies, and this is a huge component of the event for many participants.

I think by all accounts this year was again a huge success. Three years ago NOVA expected us to get 8 or 9 teams and we got 18. This year we had 34 teams, 102 players! That’s largest event we have organized (our NOVA 40k Narrative has more participants overall, but not in any given round), and a legit tournament by any measure. Fortunately we had done just a bit of work to hone our processes a bit—such as improving our scoring spreadsheet to be faster to work with, and bringing in friends to help with appearance and theme judging—and it went very smoothly, meeting tight schedule constraints (I literally give out the last award, go to the bathroom, then come back to immediately kickoff the 40k Narrative). Many amazing armies were on display and in play, and for the third year running we had not a single sportsmanship report!

More photos are in this Flickr gallery and this Facebook album. Greg Hess also has many 40K Trios photos in his gallery, as does NOVA in its convention-wide galleries, including podium shots. As discussed below, we have also launched a NOVA 40K Trios Facebook group for teams and players to share and coordinate.

2018 NOVA 40k Trios underway.

Winners

Trios awards 5 categories, and our 2018 winners are:

  • Renaissance: Team Vengeful—Paul Bowman, Jessica Bowman, David Penfold
    • Sum total highest battle points, sportsmanship, theme, and hobby scores.
  • Storytellers: Team Quarrelsome—Patsy Kovac, Phil Kovac, Josh LeBlanc
    • Best combined theme, following the 40k Trios rubrics.
  • Artists: Team Judicious—Fernando Villanea, Jason Woolf, Alexander Cragg
    • Best painting and hobby work, following convention-wide NOVA rubrics.
  • Strategists: Team Nefarious—Brian Silkey, Gabe Lewis, Avilan Hiem
    • Most battle points (Vengeful & all teams being only eligible for a single prize).
  • Warmaster: Jonathan Grasser, Team Dogmatic
    • Highest scoring individual on our list of warlord achievements.

These awards were deeply satisfying for me. Trios now has a really great community of players who’ve been coming back each year, and almost all of these winners are prominent parts of that. Phil & Patsy have lead teams to winning the theme competition twice in a row now and are really committed to it. Paul, Jessica, and David—better known as Team Warhammered—have previously won the Strategists title, were really close last year, and finally claimed the overall title this year, awarding their dedication in coming all the way from California.

Best of all for me, my friends Fer, Jason, and Alex won the artistry competition (we have independent judges for that somewhat more subjective category in part because we have multiple teams of friends participating). It was really something to announce their title. Jason, Colin, and I first went to NOVA five years ago to play in the 40k Trios and the 40k Narrative, and Jason’s been chasing that artistry title ever since. Our good local friends Lovell, Tim, and Carlo of the Crew Shaken podcast also claimed second place overall, a huge achievement in a big field. Lovell got me started in 40k many years ago when he gave me a couple sprues of 2nd edition Tactical Marines, a metal Champion to use as a Captain, and talked me into some demo games. Just look at us all now—organizing some of the biggest events at a premiere convention, and placing in true competitions! All this was icing on an already good event.

Team Judicious’ artistry-winning display.

One of Alex’s many nightmares.

Theme

A highlight of the Trios event is the theme competition. So much so that this is really what many of the teams are focused on, more so than gameplay. Importantly, the scoring for this is objective and straightforward. The event primer has a whole set of rubrics on exactly how “theme” is evaluated. Team Quarrelsome’s title-winning entry of course demonstrates almost all of it, including elements such as:

  • A cohesive display board;
  • Plausibly allied armies;
  • Cohesively painted armies;
  • Team flare, t-shirts in their case;
  • A story, told by video in their case!

Notably, “cohesively painted armies” doesn’t mean all sharing the same paint scheme. What it does mean are things like figures’ basing roughly matching each other and the display board. Many top entrants over the years, including this one, have also had matching campaign badges on all of their major figures.

The theme competition also doesn’t strictly relate to technical execution. Team Quarrelsome always has excellent models and great display boards. This year though I thought at least one display board exhibited better technical mastery, a stunning piece of terrain work. But this competition is about having and presenting a narrative through a bunch of different elements, and Quarrelsome nailed that holistic storytelling and group presentation once more this year in a tight competition–the theme track was hotly contested and the title basically came down to having team flare or not.

Team Quarrelsome’s theme-winning forces.

Wrong turn!

Campaign badge on one of the Knights.

Second place theme finishers Team Courageous made an incredible fortress gate for their display. Grand scale like this is always compelling, but what’s really amazing is how crisp all of the elements are when you look closely. This is masterclass terrain building among the best I’ve seen, and will no doubt go on to be an amazing centerpiece display for their local shop. Courageous also had a great handwritten book for their story, and only lost out on the Storytellers title by a couple points.

Display from Team Courageous.

Balcony detail.

Incredibly crisp terrain work, carried out on a large scale.

Team Ubiquitous, former theme winners who took third place on the podium this year, also put together a neat video for their forces:

Terrain

One nice touch this year complementing all these great armies and themes is that one of the 40k Narrative players (Chris Stover) brought in a literal truck full of high quality terrain. Combined with a few boards by my friend Matt and I, we had a large number of comparatively fancy layouts. They varied quite a bit in type and density though. So we split the field, with the more competitive top half playing on standard NOVA GT competition-oriented setups, and everybody else playing on the narrative terrain. I hope to do something similar again next year.

Next Year

Our version of the Trios format and rules have held up fairly well. We’re not currently planning dramatic overhauls, but here are a couple ideas kicking around:

  • Rebalancing points. Given the focus of most teams, we’ll likely shift the ratio of points toward the overall scoring to being more equal across the categories, increasing those for theme and hobby work versus match results.
  • Freshening up the missions. In particular, I would expect the Open Ground mission and some of the secondaries to be replaced or tweaked to be more interesting and more in line with the general feel of 8th edition 40k.
  • New warmaster achievements. We talked about replacing these for this year, but didn’t come up with a system we particularly liked. Fortunately, this year’s warmaster was indeed on a team that did not win one of the other prizes, as we more or less hope, despite strong competition from several of them. Regardless, we have some ideas coming out of this NOVA that we will work on to improve this aspect of the event. The goals here are two-fold: Make a broader slate of warlord units viable for the competition, not just the more aggressive types; and better decouple the achievements from winning games, so even players struggling to win matches might go for the warlord title.

Games in play.

  • Better highlighting of the army displays. A lot of players are putting a ton of time into the hobby aspects of the competition, particularly the themes, which is amazing. So we would like to dedicate more visibility to those efforts than the hour of judging they currently get. In general space is at a premium at NOVA, but unless additional events are slated for Thursday next year we might be able to coordinate with the convention’s operations leadership for tables dedicated to putting armies on display. The bigger issue is time. We would love to spend more like two hours with the boards on display, and maybe even make a real social gathering of it. But we don’t want to start much earlier in the day given that many teams are arriving at the convention either late the night before or that morning. And we can’t end any later without also adjusting the 40k Narrative. So this will take some real thought. One half-wild, half-plausible idea is to have the final round cut to the top 8 or so teams to battle it out, and everybody else have a social gathering with food, beverages, and army displays to kickoff NOVA.
  • Display board rules. All that said about giving more attention to the themes and displays, expect some basic rules placing a limit on how big the display boards can be, before things get further out of control. On the other hand, it’s possible we’ll add a benefit for making a playable board which we can use throughout the weekend for the 40k Narrative. Several teams coincidentally did so this year, and it was really fun. It would also be an interesting challenge to make the boards good at both displaying armies, and being a good battlefield. Obviously this is also working against having size restrictions, but a possible compromise is encouraging display boards that include sections appropriate for playing Kill Team.

Comments and ideas on all these topics are extremely welcome (in comments below, on the NOVA survey, or please feel free to email).

Bert gets it.

Facebook

One small but important step we’ve already taken for next year is to create a NOVA 40K Trios Facebook group. We hope this will become a fun community forum to display their team projects from this year, share their progress on projects for next year, and to coordinate. Fielding a trio can be challenging. It might be hard to find three players to come to NOVA, and if any one of a team’s members have something come up then they’re all out of luck. So we hope this forum can provide some support for potential players to find each other and form new teams, and for teams to reach out for replacements on short notice when members have to drop. Please join us!

Wrap Up

That’s a wrap for another year. Full results are available here (XLSX). Many more photos of all the luscious armies and great displays are in the Flickr gallery and the Facebook album. Greg Hess also has many 40k Trios photos in his gallery, as does NOVA in its convention-wide galleries, including podium shots. The NOVA 40k Trios seems to have again gone very well this year, and I personally enjoyed it quite a bit. We hope you all enjoyed it too! We expect to continue most of the main ideas for next year, but have some thoughts in progress to make it even better, a topic on which we welcome your feedback. See you next year!

We have a great group of competitors.

First Impressions: WanHao Duplicator i3 Plus 3D Printer

Late last week I picked up a WanHao Duplicator i3 Plus 3D printer. The cost is low enough that I could justify it as a backup and secondary printer, as well as just to have first hand experience with this popular model. These are some thoughts after a few days’ use and a number of prints, with a mind specifically toward miniatures terrain and similar hobby work. The upshot is that I think this is a great printer for the price, well suited for terrain production, and very accessible to newcomers to 3D printing provided they’re willing to look for and utilize other documentation.

I also have a walkthrough here for newcomers of some basic 3D printing concepts in the context of miniatures wargaming. A detailed tutorial on 3D modeling and printing using a miniatures wargaming example is here.

Wanhao Duplicator i3 Plus all set up and ready to go.

Cost & Availability

It’s stereotyping a bit to say, but in many respects the WanHao i3+ is typical of low cost but solid quality Chinese electronics. WanHao itself doesn’t produce retail products, at least for the US market, so there’s a confusing medley of rebranders under which the printer is actually sold. Monoprice is probably the most common; they sell their version as the Maker Select Plus on Amazon and elsewhere for $400. I bought a PowerSpec branded model from Micro Center for $350; it’s apparently sometimes offered on sale there for $250, a steal. I refuse to let it not be amazing that I can pop out to the store for under an hour, spend just a modest amount of cash, and come back with a robot that can make “anything.”

It’s worth taking some note of that availability. A big part of why I got this specific printer was because I could pick one up right away that evening when my main printer went down for non-trivial maintenance. Contrast that with Prusa Research, whose manufacturing is continually overwhelmed by their popularity and notoriously have backlogs of weeks or more. I produce a lot of prints for events and other deadlines, so it’s useful to know what I can likely grab with essentially no delay if/when necessary.

Tools

The PowerSpec edition, and I assume most rebrandings of the WanHao i3+, come with everything needed to get started. Included are the few tools necessary to assemble the printer and some extras for later maintenance; enough PLA filament for a a couple small prints; a spackle knife for removing pieces from the print plate; and an SD card with a few ready-to-print test designs preloaded. Including an SD card is a nice small touch, removing the need to hunt down or buy one to get started.

The spackle knife is a somewhat negative note among the included accessories. It’s useful, and more so than some other removal tools. But it has sharp corners that can easily gouge the print surface. I quickly switched back to the print removal tools I’ve been happily using for some time (especially the small tool).

A sidenote on the topic of tools to get started, I also use a simple pair of curved tweezers all the time. They’re handy for plucking at loose bits and threads of filament, or holding a cloth or paper towel to clean off a heated hotend.

Left to right: Spackle knife packaged with the i3+; knife that comes with Lulzbot printers; the Foreasy print removal tool I actually use; and curved tweezers for plucking filament threads.

Setup

Shipped in just a few major sub-assemblies, physically putting together the WanHao i3+ is intuitive and takes only a few minutes. Again typical of rebranded electronics though, PowerSpec’s documentation doesn’t quite track with the final product or packaging. The first indicator is that a description of the locations for the handful of bolts to be put in isn’t quite right. More problematic, the booklet doesn’t mention a cable you have to plug in (don’t miss cable E!). But it all makes simple sense: Bolt the gantry onto the platform; attach the filament holder on top; and plug in cables A through E. The cables & plugs in particular are very neatly and clearly labeled. The whole process is quick, the necessary hex wrench is included, and many good videos and writeups are available online to correct for the somewhat unclear documentation.

Plugging in well-labeled components.

Usage

Using the WanHao i3+ is also more or less straightforward, with the caveat again that the documentation is not great. Unfortunately this includes the touchscreen prompts. Sometimes these are just funny quirks and bugs, like the bed leveling procedure listing “x/4” steps when there are really 5.

Sometimes they’re less funny. Most notable are the instructions in both the documentation and the onscreen prompts for bed leveling to adjust the print plate to be “a millimeter away” from the hotend. That’s excessive, and even contradicted by more detailed notes in the booklet. Getting this distance right is where 3D printing starts to blend art and science, and there are tradeoffs: Too far and the first layer won’t adhere well and the print may fail; too close and the print’s first layer may blob up too much, or the hotend even potentially gouge the print plate. I’m still learning the best distance for the BuildTak print plate surfacing supplied with PowerSpec’s version of WanHao’s i3+ as I’ve found it to grip extremely well. That’s good in that prints adhere very well, achieving which is more commonly the challenge in 3D printing, but can make prints difficult to remove. I’m adapting by permitting a bit more gap in the bed leveling adjustments to compensate. A distance more like 1/3 of a millimeter seems appropriate, such that you can just barely push in a standard business card. For those just coming to 3D printing that might not seem like much of a difference from “a millimeter,” but it’s actually huge—under common settings each print layer is only 0.1–0.2 millimeters, and that first layer is the most critical in the whole print.

Misleading prompt for the bed leveling procedure.

Adjusting the bed leveling with a business card.

With the print plate pushing down just slightly to accommodate this business card under the hotend, for about 1/3 of a millimeter gap, prints seem to adhere very well and remove reasonably.

In general the touchscreen interface is workable but not great. I wish more or all screens had the hotend and print plate temperatures on them, e.g., to avoid having to go into subscreens to monitor cool down once a print completes. Some of the screen flow is not obvious or ideal, and there are some minor oddities or shortcomings like the limited number of visible characters in the file listing. But the control screen works and is ultimately straightforward once you learn the quirks. With the printer assembled and leveled, getting going just involves slapping in an SD card, hitting “Print,” and selecting a file. I’ll almost certainly set up an OctoPrint server on a Raspberry Pi to drive the printer, to have a better interface and remotely monitor progress, but it is nice to have a built-in SD card reader so the printer is ready to go on its own out of the box.

Fortunately, these issues with the documentation and limitations of the controls are mitigated by readily available resources. Since so many people have this printer, there are many guides online from which to learn the basic routines, and multiple active forums on which to ask questions. For those new to 3D printing, I strongly encourage watching a few videos or reading a few writeups about assembling and adjusting the printer before diving in. The aforementioned OctoPrint and similar open source projects can also supplant and improve the control interface if desired.

For slicing 3D models into G-code to drive the printer, I have been using the open source Cura and as expected had no problems. Several commercial and open source options exist. All of the settings needed to configure slicers for the WanHao i3+ are listed in the documentation, and many notes on the topic may be found online.

Although probably not the quietest available, I find WanHao’s i3+ to be very quiet. Certainly not a problem to run in a den or home office and not be noticeable elsewhere.

Print Quality

Straight out of the box, with no adjustment or tuning beyond basic bed leveling, I think WanHao’s i3+ produces very good prints given its price. Certainly they meet my expectations for tabletop ready miniatures terrain with which I’m happy to play games.

Some first prints on the WanHao i3+, from my Kolony designs.

Closeup on a building.

Fine details on small scatter terrain pieces.

With some tuning of settings I’m sure the quality can get even better, and no doubt some will be required for more challenging designs featuring tough retractions and bridging. Physical modifications of varying expense and difficulty to improve the printer can also be made and are extensively discussed online. An easy one for which I’ve already ordered parts is adding a brace to the gantry to further reduce unwanted motions. Thicker print plate chassis are also available and seem simple to install, reducing bed warping and making leveling easier and less frequently required. However, I think this printer is more than suitable for miniatures terrain out of the box.

Filament

WanHao’s i3+ uses 1.75mm filament, probably the most common size these days. Unlike some other popular entry level printers it isn’t restricted to proprietary spools, a huge boon for better availability and lower costs. Just as with the printer itself, it’s nice to know that in a pinch I can run to any of several nearby stores and grab more filament. A kilogram of PLA, almost certainly the most commonly used filament type for miniatures terrain, runs about $15 to $23 for typical quality without any shopping around for a better price and is enough to print quite a pile of models.

Cost and Longevity

From a filament price we can do some rough calculations on the cost efficiency and longevity of the printer. Obviously the value of a 3D printer can be hard to quantify. If you do custom design work it could be invaluable in expanding your capabilities. Just being able to acquire and build niche models is similarly hard to put numbers on. But we can do some basic calculations as a value floor. In particular, presumably one of the tradeoffs of a low cost printer is some reduction in expected lifetime. As a baseline, how long does this low cost printer have to last to make sense under the minimal use case of just printing existing designs? In considering miniatures terrain of the styles in which I am most interested (i.e., buildings, not interior tiles), we can put some numbers to that through comparison to buying MDF terrain.

Kolony 4×5 Habitats

A Kolony 4×5 Habitat, rendered above, is arguably a bit more detailed but fairly directly comparable to a simple MDF building commonly used for Infinity and other ~28mm games. It consumes ~120–150 grams of filament depending on whether or not it’s printed with a floor (the roof is also designed to be optional and easily made with foamcore or styrene instead to save print time, and burns about 1/3 of the filament, but is included here to fairly compare to similar MDF buildings). So a standard 1kg spool for $15 will produce 6–10 of these buildings for $1.50 to $2.25 each in direct filament costs. Electricity consumption is negligible for home use (i.e., not mass production).

Compare that to about $8–$9 for a comparably sized simple MDF small building (e.g., from Shark Mounted Lasers or Black Sheep Industries, both of which I play on often and like a lot). With the printer factored in at retail pricing, the 3D printed buildings using $15 spools become cheaper at about 50–60 small buildings [e.g.: 54*$1.5+$350=431 while 54*$8=$432]. Using $23 spools the crossover is higher, but not considerably.

So, as a very raw measure of pure economic sense, will this low cost printer produce at least 50 small buildings before additional costs are incurred, such as its semi-consumables needing replacement (like the print plate surface), or more serious repairs becoming necessary? I don’t myself know yet for sure. But I’m fairly confident it will.

Total costs for collections of small buildings for MDF versus 3D printing.

From that simple evaluation the capabilities scale very differently. 3D printing simply takes a long time and as such isn’t well suited to producing large terrain. It’s much better applied to producing small pieces to augment and detail larger constructions. On the other hand, 3D printing scales well with increasing model complexity. Even simple structures like the Kolony Outpost and Storage Shelters, the prints pictured earlier in this post, would be somewhat more complex and costly MDF models, but still only use about 100–150g/$1.50–$2.50 of filament with typical settings and take similar or less time to print. The Kolony BioDome, pictured below, also only consumes about 108g/$1.62 in filament and similar print time. But an MDF version would be very complex with numerous parts and almost certainly sold at a good bit more than $9.

Kolony BioDome (printed in HIPS on a Lulzbot Mini).

What these very rough calculations indicate is that if you’re producing a non-trivial but modest amount of terrain (a couple tables’ worth, figuring a typical generic layout is equivalent to ~15 small buildings in the analysis here), then there’s some reason to believe that this low cost printer will last long enough to make basic economic sense: Provided it does last that long, it’ll be similar or better in terms of pure dollar outlay relative to prices for reasonably comparable market offerings.

This isn’t to say 3D printing terrain like this makes sense for everybody. Maybe the finish quality isn’t acceptable, you feel it simply takes too long to print, or printers are just too much hassle to work with and maintain—these are all reasonable viewpoints to hold! Further, maybe you simply don’t envision printing enough to make it worthwhile. Alternatively, maybe printing is extremely valuable to you because you love a niche game for which models are really only available through 3D printing, or you have grand plans for crafting many boards full of bespoke, personalized terrain. I’m just arguing that under some plausible assumptions, parameters, and requirements (such as acceptable quality level), the per-piece cost using this printer is reasonable.

Newcomers

For people coming to 3D printing new, the WanHao i3+ seems a very reasonable option for those willing to put just a little effort into researching, thinking about, and using the printer. It’s affordable, prints well, and is ultimately pretty straightforward. My only hesitations for true beginners stem from issues like the touchscreen prompts and documentation. You have to know just enough to realize those are a bit off and then either figure out or track down better information. Light searching will also yield a number of improvements that are easily made but come built into some other, more costly, products, such as better G-code boilerplate to plug into your slicer to make printing more convenient by moving the hotend entirely out of the way when done.

A more subtle example is that the printer’s design essentially has three points of contact along the Y axis: Front, back, and the gantry. If they or the underlying surface (i.e., the table or shelf) are not level, it can rock a bit. So, for example, I assembled mine on one table and then moved it to another as its current home. A very slight difference in these surfaces led to the printer rocking just a bit front-to-back on the latter. So I loosened the gantry bolts, re-settled it in place, tightened the bolts back up, and the problem was solved. Anybody could do this very easily. But you’d have to be paying just a bit of attention to notice the rocking is possible, realize it could be a problem, and be just the tiniest bit mechanically minded to resolve it. This particular issue doesn’t come up with some other common printer configurations, so it’s an example of a small potential issue that could trip up an unwary user.

All of this is to say that, despite Micro Center’s questionable shelving decisions, 3D printing and especially this printer are not as thought-free as a typical 2D inkjet printer or similar appliance. If you’re happy going into it with just a hint of a hobbying and tinkering mindset, then WanHao’s Duplicator i3 Plus is probably a great option. Otherwise it might be worth looking elsewhere.

Summary

Long story short, my early impressions of WanHao’s Duplicator i3 Plus, and specifically the PowerSpec version from Micro Center, are very good. It and its filament are affordable and easy to find. Installation and usage is fairly straightforward. The output is good enough for ~28mm miniatures terrain, my main interest, even before any significant tuning. A tremendous number of people have one of these or a closely related model, so there are many tutorials and notes online. Numerous modifications are also possible and available to improve it even further. As a low cost printer I think this is a good option, and newcomers willing to put just a bit of thought toward the process will get a lot out of it for the money. Good luck!

WanHao Duplicator i3 Plus, hard at work!