How To Give Your Wargames A Dose Of The Grimdark!

September 23, 2023 by brennon

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Grimdark is nothing new. It's probably best known as part of the fabric that makes up Warhammer Fantasy Battles and Warhammer 40,000 tick but over the years it has started to worm its way into all sorts of other games, usually indie endeavours, and it's pretty fascinating, especially when it comes to the freedom it tends to offer up for hobbyists. With that in mind, I thought I'd have a chat about grimdark as a theme and why I think it's worth exploring in your wargames.

grimdark coverimage

Grimdark universes are plagued with relentless conflict, moral ambiguity, despair and lots and lots of mud and blood. With games that latch onto this vibe you're in for a dose of the grey rather than the black and white of other shiny Fantasy universes and oh boy, it can be fun diving into the dire stakes and moral complexities! Oh, and you better prepare that pot of Agrax Earthshade as you're going to need a lot of it.

Hobbying The Grimdark

One of the nice things about painting and hobbying in the grimdark is that you get to play around with a lot of earthy, natural colours. You'll find yourself exploring the subtle changes in shade that you might get from greens and browns as well as the obvious application of dark metallics, black and greys. Whilst this might sound boring compared to playing with some of the other colours you could be experiencing, it's far from it.

grimdark bellringer

Whilst drybrushing might be seen as something of a dirty word to hobbyists, it's far from it and a superb method for getting your miniatures to match the aesthetic you're aiming for. Not only is it bloody good fun to slap some paint on but it automatically starts to give you the look you're going for. It gives you that embattled and worn look right away, preserving a lot of the deeper shadows.

The idea is that when you're looking at painting miniatures in this style, you're attempting to set the mood. If the mood is one of relentless battle and little hope, you don't want to have to splash cheery colours over everything. Even if you do, you're going to want to dive into the next bit in the grimdark playbook and that's weathering and washes!

There are a lot of products out there now which can be very handy in the pursuit of that grimdark look. I am a big fan of using the aforementioned Agrax Earthshade but you can also use the likes of Nuln Oil from the Citadel range. You can also play around with the Dirty Down range if you're seeking to get things looking properly rusty!

stormcast eternal grimdark

The important thing is to play around with all of these techniques in order to make a unit of soldiers or indeed an entire army look like they have been on the battlefield for many, many years. You want them to look like they have pushed through the blood, the guts and the mud and taken a beating.

You can actually have some fun by using some brighter colours and then hiding them under the dirt and grime. I've always liked the idea of making an army that perhaps strode from the gates of their city on some noble quest and found themselves underestimating the brutality of their situation. With that, you could paint all those poppy reds, yellows and blues on their uniforms and armour and then hit them with the washes and weathering materials in order to show their brutal journey.


Brighter colours are also important for drawing the eye and focusing the attention. Some of the details can get lost in grimdark miniature painting schemes and so I find it important to use elements like pale skin (which you can see here) or light sources that are casting a ghostly glow over things. As I mentioned earlier, it's these little changes here and there that allow you to play with different painting styles and achieve something very evocative looking.

Another thing worth mentioning is that whilst one miniature might look massively out of place within a larger collection in this style if you can get through making an entire army like this, it can turn into an absolutely epic spectacle. Don't be put off if your one miniature looks odd. I promise you, once you've nailed the vibe it will turn it something epic that you're friends will be in awe of.

Additionally, battle damage and such can really help in getting that vibe across. Use your tools like drills, knives and such to cut gouges into armour or drill bullet holes. It might seem counterintuitive to build a miniature and then absolutely tear it apart but it can be both freeing and look super awesome. This can also be done during the kitbashing step. Don't be afraid to rip off limbs and such and maybe add some war wounds into the mix. A good peg leg or a hook that replaces a hand can nail the look.

Building Grimdark Battlefields

Another of the nice things about diving into the grimdark is that you get to have fun with your battlefields. Whatever genre of wargame you're playing, you will want to get rid of lush forests and fields packed full of wheat and instead embrace the blasted landscapes of long fought-over ruins. Replace the grass with swathes of sticky mud and turn your buildings into crumbling ruins that might have been taken over by the tendrils of nature, wrapped in roots and twisted branches.

sludge battlefield

The idea is that you're diving into a world or a universe under siege. You want to make it so that the entire vibe of your gaming table matches your miniatures and gives you the idea of a brutal world where just making it to the end of turn one is a gift! There are some great games out there right now that properly embrace that vibe. Turnip28, Sludge and IDOLS Of TORMENT come to mind as games that have properly harnessed that look and feel. For example, IDOLS Of TORMENT embraces the idea of crumbling ruins and ruined statues that show the glory of a world that once was.


Much like with the painting of your miniatures, the grimdark can be really freeing and you can make a proper mess. You don't have to be neat and tidy when it comes to making your battlefields and don't be afraid to dive in and get your hands dirty (literally). Play with piles of Mod Podge and dirt, piles of skulls, buckets of blood and perhaps dive into the world of water effects. You can make muddy battlefields but how about building up a sludge-filled river that runs through it or overflowing sewers bursting out of the centre of an overrun city? Oh, and don't forget the skulls.

You could also play around with the atmosphere of your gaming tables. Why not try out introducing dry ice and gloomy mist from a fog machine that hangs over the table? You could also slot in LED lighting and such to make it look like flickering candlelight still lingers in the heart of blasted ruins. The last vestiges of hope before the battle comes knocking and the blood gets shed!

Gaming The Grimdark

It's also worth exploring some ideas for making your games worthy of the grimdark as well. One of the neat ways to do this is to dive into scenarios where you have to make difficult choices. You can do this quite nicely in skirmish games where you're taking part in a campaign, perhaps in something like Forbidden Psalm. With a larger game, you can think about stacking the odds against one or more armies and perhaps doing something like a heroic last stand.

turnip 28 game

I also really like the idea of tinkering with the threats that you face on the battlefield. As well as finding yourself going up against another army, how about introducing monsters and other threats to your games that are out to get everyone? Maybe you could have a monstrous troll stalking the battlefield seeking to eat the bodies of the dead, ravening hounds that are looking to snack on your scouts or zombies lurching out of objective markers making them a bit of a risk to try and take!

You can also play with traps that can be built into the environment. Have it so the woods that you're battling through are actually alive and want to rip your soldiers apart if they dare to move through them too quickly. Muddy stretches of battlefield could also suck your soldiers down into them and crumbling ruins could play host to terrible spectres that send your army mad.

turnip 28 game 2

Game mechanics can also be turned up to eleven (and you might also want to break the knob off). Why not crank up the damage that your weapons do and make it so that a unit can be turned into a fine, pink mist by their damage? If you're playing a campaign, you could also introduce rules where death is permanent or at least injuries carry over. A lot of skirmish games have this built-in but you could also use these rules for your larger wargames. It will make it a lot more dangerous to send your favourite miniature into the heart of battle and even more bittersweet if that's the result of a big heroic last stand!

All of this helps to build on the grimdark atmosphere that you're trying to set! Match hobby to gameplay and you'll have everyone feeling in despair by the end of it!

Final Thoughts

By incorporating these aspects into your wargaming experience, you'll not only deepen the emotional impact but also transport players to a world that, for all its grimness, offers an enthralling stage for heroic - even if morally complex - deeds. Whilst this all might seem like it's crafting an air of doom and gloom, which is it, it's also making it so that the moments of heroism shine all the brighter.

When your favourite character makes a valiant stand against a monster or a plucky unit holds out in the midst of a dark forest against terrible odds and lives to tell the tale, you'll feel like they've earned it. There is a lot of fun to be had when you dive into the grimdark from a hobbying point of view and a gaming one.

I would also have a look at diving into 28 Magazine which is an excellent resource for those seeking to learn more about the grimdark in all of its forms!

Are you ready to embrace the (grim)darkness?

Turnip28 Images By Gardens Of Hecate

" better prepare that pot of Agrax Earthshade as you're going to need a lot of it."

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"...transport players to a world that, for all its grimness, offers an enthralling stage for heroic - even if morally complex - deeds"

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