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This article provides some general information about miniature painting (and sculpting) contests at conventions and shows. I occasionally write articles with tips for people entering contests, and rather overstuff every contest-related article with general information and definitions, I’ve put it here for easy reference. I also have an article with some general information on why it’s worth attending a convention or showing up to a show.
Prizes and awards at the MSP Open in 2019.
At the bottom of this article is a list of all of the conventions and shows with miniature contests that I’m aware of, with dates and links to further information. If you know of a contest that isn’t listed here, please let me know about it so I can include it!
First up is a glossary of common terms related to contests.
Podium or Top Three Contest
Many gaming convention contests and online contests are organized podium style, like the Olympics. Within each category, there are a set number of winners. First, second, and third is pretty common, but some contests award first through fifth place, and a small contest may only award first place. In these contests the entries are ranked by judges or popular vote, and the best three (or designated number) are awarded trophies/prizes. Some contests allow ties. There are usually limits to how many figures you can enter in each category and/or overall. There may also be additional prizes offered by specific manufacturers for the best first through third (more or less) figures painted from their company.
Depending on the size of the contest and the way it is organized, judging may be conducted by a single person or a team. Judges may be miniature painters, guest artists, or representatives of a sponsoring company.
Left: Sophie trophies for the top three Reaper figures in each category at the MSP Open 2019.
Right: Large Monster trophies.
The Reaper MSP Open includes a podium contest element in the manufacturer awards. All entries that include Reaper figures are considered for top three placement in their categories. The winners earn bronze, silver, or gold Sophie trophies. Other manufacturers also sponsor awards at the MSP Open.
Another podium contest many miniature painters are unaware of are the IMPS shows. While awards are first through third place, IMPS shows have some elements in common with shows. Entries are displayed on tables rather than cases. They are judged by teams following established guidelines for standards. Although the focus of these shows is on models, they have categories and prizes for miniature figures, and attending one of their meetings or shows could be a great way to meet local miniature enthusiasts. I really enjoyed attending my local IMPS show, both as an entrant and a viewer. There are IMPS clubs and shows around the world. The USA site has a map and listing of clubs so you can find one near you.
Open Show Contest
The open format began in the military miniature figure community, but in recent years has been adopted by some convention and manufacturer contests. In this format, entrants can enter a number of figures into each category, and even arrange them together in an attractive display that might include risers and a cloth backdrop. Entrants can also include information about the piece with their entry. This might be a description of the inspiration or historical background, and/or work in progress pictures that document steps of sculpting, conversion, and/or painting.
The medals at the World Expo in 2017 filled several tables!
Figures are assessed in given criteria against a standard of achievement, and are awarded a placement based on the standard. If 40 people enter gold quality work, 40 golds are awarded. If no one enters gold quality work, no golds are awarded. There are often additional special awards that might be sponsored by the host organization or individual members. The Atlanta awards show includes special awards for best Western themed piece and best Monster, among several others.
In the military shows and those that adopt the same format, there are guidelines for the overall process, category judging, and training of judges – the International Judging Criteria. The Reaper MSP Open is one of those shows. Open shows at gaming conventions or organized by miniature manufacturers may be conducted in a different fashion. Under the International Judging Criteria, entries are judged by a team to make judging as equitable as possible. Alternate judges are on hand to step in if a judge has a bias for or against an entrant, and judges do not assess their own pieces. The process is overseen by an overall director who is available to review discrepancies in judging and help resolve any technical issues or confusion.
Example of a display area at the Atlanta show in 2019.
Note that there can be a difference in the standard for each medal level between shows. The MSP Open at ReaperCon is a very encouraging show. The World Expo Open is a very stringent show. Many figures awarded gold at an encouraging show might instead earn silver at a tough show, with only the best of the best earning gold. But the idea of judging to a standard and maintaining consistency is the same among all of the shows who use the International Judging Criteria.
Volunteers Make it Happen
Convention or show, all of these events depend on volunteers. Contest volunteers often work a full workday or more of hours each day of the convention. They provide fun content to attendees at the cost of limiting their own time available to attend events, take classes, shop, or even just socialize. They are not paid for this, at most receiving a free entry badge and hotel accommodation. Respect their efforts by being polite, making yourself aware of the contest rules and schedule, and following them. Events have been reduced in scale or disappeared completely for lack of volunteer interest because volunteers burn out.
The volunteers in any contest area work hard to help you enter and retrieve your entries, organize the judging, and answer a lot of questions.
Volunteers Alison Liu and Debby Lewis (seated) assist entrant David Cecil, while award sponsor Michelle Farnsworth looks on.
Most contests select experienced painters as judges. Contests with a small judging team may not permit judges to also enter the contest. When judges are permitted to enter, they do not assess their own work or make podium decisions in categories that include their own work. Judging a larger contest takes hours, and is often conducted late at night to minimize disruption to viewers of the contest entries. It is a lot of fun to be able to see all the entries up close and from different angles, but it is also a gruelling process filled with difficult decisions. Judges know how much work goes into an entry, and it is tough to know that you will be disappointing some people. Note that many judges also work as contest volunteers and/or hobby class instructors, which is a lot of additional work that limits their time to enjoy the event as a whole.
Dark Sword has generously supported convention contests for years. Here owner Jim Ludwig is assisted by Mengu Gregor in choosing the Dark Sword winners at the MSP Open in 2018
Every contest has rules. While there are commonalities, the rules of each contest are unique, and may change from year to year. The onus is on you to be aware of the rules. Entries that don’t conform to the rules may be placed in a different category than you intended, or completely disqualified from consideration. If it is later discovered that someone did not follow the rules, they might be stripped of their award.
Contest rules include guidelines for each category, and maximum size of piece accepted. There may be rules related to the kinds of bases required or permitted. Most contests require you to be attending the event to enter. Many require that only the entrant have worked on the piece (apart from the use of commercially available figures and components). Others may not have rules forbidding multiple artists to work on an entry, but may only allow one entrant to be named as the creator.
I’ve linked to contest rule information for each convention at the bottom of this page, where I could find it.
Submission and Pick Up
It is very important that you familiarize yourself with the schedule for entering and retrieving entries. Fill out forms in advance if possible. Remember that lots of people try to enter at the last minute. Contest staff reserve the right to stop accepting entries after a certain time even if a line of people remains. Be kind to contest volunteers and make your life easier by entering well before the deadline!
You will not be able to pick up your entry prior to a certain time, and you must retrieve your entry by a certain time. Be familiar with these times and make your event and travel plans accordingly. Venues give the convention or show a strict deadline by which they must be packed up and out of the venue. You may forfeit ownership of your entry if you do not pick it up by the deadline. Events are not under any obligation to mail unclaimed entries or prizes. At conventions, you will be given a receipt during submission that you will need to present when you come to pick up your entries. This ensures that only the owner can pick up miniatures. If you are unable to pick up your entries, you can give your receipt to a friend to retrieve them for you. If you earned an award or prize but were not present to pick it up (or the contest doesn’t have an awards ceremony), you can usually pick it up at the same time as you retrieve your figures.
Award ceremonies move fast and can be hard to photograph. It’s often easier to get pictures of award winners with their trophies afterwards.
Left: David Diamondstone accepts a gold Sophie trophy from award presenter (and painter) Michelle Farnsworth.
Right: Michael Proctor poses with his Crystal Brush trophy following the awards ceremony.
Many contests announce winners and award trophies and prizes at a scheduled awards ceremony. Since they know people may be involved in other events, it is generally not required to be present to accept your award. You will be able to pick it up later. (But of course check the rules, some may require you to be present to win!) Whether a contest is larger or modest, it is a lot of fun to be present to receive an award and to see friends be recognized for their work.
In podium style contests it’s common for judges to do a first cut. They separate out the most competitive entries, and then rank these to select the final winners. Some contests have a shelf set aside for first cut miniatures so entrants can at least get the feedback of whether they were in the running. Some contests may not have an official first cut area, but you can sometimes get an idea by how figures have been moved around in the display area.
Occasionally when there is a very tight race for placement, the piece that didn’t get awarded will be called out as an Honourable Mention. This lets the entrant know that their work was of very high quality and competitive for an award, but they do not receive a trophy or prize.
A judging team confers at Smoky Mountain Model Convention in 2019.
Some contests award this regularly, some occasionally, some not at all. This is a piece that the judges loved, but which did not win another award.
Best in Show
Some contests award a Best in Show prize to a single piece or the top three pieces. For some, this might be a judged award. The judges usually consider all of the pieces awarded first place in their category and then select the Best in Show winner(s) from these. In other contests, this might be a popular vote. The Best in Show at the Reaper MSP Open is a modified popular vote contest. Everyone who has entered a piece in the MSP Open can vote for their favourite to win Best in Show. Three total prizes are awarded – overall Best in Show, runner up Reaper, and runner up non-Reaper.
Some contests or some prizes within a contest are awarded by popular vote. Popular vote via likes is common for online contests conducted on social media platforms like Facebook. In a popular vote contest, viewers or a subset of viewers chose their favourite piece, and the one with the most votes wins. Viewers tend to be drawn to the same kinds of quality as judges, but they are also heavily influenced by other factors. Viewers are more likely than judges to factor in their personal feelings about the sculpt rather than considering only the merits of the workmanship and presentation. Viewers are as strongly drawn to story and character as they are to technical prowess. When considering technique, viewers tend to put a lot of value on techniques that are considered challenging, like freehand or source lighting, but they may not assess these as critically as judges would. They may not recognize the challenge level of more subtle techniques like smooth blending or complex colour use.
Voting can be serious and thematic!
Many manufacturers offer awards within the context of a larger contest. For example, Dark Sword Miniatures has offered awards at Gen Con and the MSP Open. The manufacturer decides the number of awards and the prizes, which might range from ribbons, to trophies, to free product, to cash. The manufacturer also determines how their awards are judged. Often it is someone from the company itself, but they may designate or be assisted by one or more seasoned miniature painters.
Manufacturer awards, especially for smaller or newer manufacturers, are often much more lightly entered than the main categories. They are a great opportunity for an up-and-coming painter to get some recognition and win some prizes. It is not uncommon for information on manufacturer awards to be announced some time after the main information for a contest is posted. Keep an eye on the contest information page and follow your favourite companies to keep an ear out for late additions to the awards lineup.
Many contests divide entries into different categories. These may be based on subject, size, number of figures, or other criteria. Make sure you understand the guidelines for a category you plan to enter as well as possible. Podium contests often divide categories by size and broad type. Examples might include gaming scale Sci-Fi/Modern Single, Monster, Bust, Large, Unit. Open shows group figures regardless of size into Painter (the focus is primarily on painting), Open (the focus includes both sculpting and painting), and Vehicle. The military shows separate Painter and Open by subject – Fantasy Painter/Open includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Historical Painter/Open includes figures from any period of history, including modern day. Some open shows may have additional categories, such as diorama/vignette.
The cost to enter a contest or show varies considerably. Remember that there is a cost to the event to run a show or contest. They have to rent space from the venue and equipment like display cases or tables, and the cost of these can be considerable. Purchasing awards like trophies, ribbons, and medals is another additional cost. Fee options include:
* There is no fee or the fee is included with your event pass.
* There is a separate fee for exhibitors (entrants), but it covers as many entries as you are permitted under the contest rules.
* There is a fee per piece entered into the contest.
Awards and winners in the junior division at Gen Con 2011.
Skill Level Divisions
Many contests have a Youth or Junior division or award system to help encourage young people to try out the hobby and participate in contests. It is rarer, but some contests have a Master category. Entrants who have won in the past or sell painted figures may be confined to this division. While this can seem like an equitable way to spread awards a little further, in practice there are painters who make a living selling miniatures who do not paint at the highest levels, and hobbyists who do, so it doesn’t always work as expected/desired.
Some shows have a grand master or similar system, to which one or two new members are added each year. The criteria for being voted into grand master generally includes not only entering consistently high level work over several years, but also having made contributions to the club or hobby as a whole. The MSP Open has the MSP Medallists. The existing members vote in one new member per year. While this is a great honour, it comes with a few penalties. MSP Medallists are not eligible to win Sophie trophies. If the work they enter into the MSP Open does not merit gold medal level, they do not receive any award.
Contests that are held as part of a gaming convention are usually located in a high traffic area. Entries are placed into glass fronted display cases with shelves from the floor to five to six feet up. Viewing entries can be a crowd jostling experience at busy conventions, and you may have to bend down or stand on tiptoe to see all the pieces. It is common for the largest pieces to be located on the bottom shelves. Others are usually grouped by category. The display cases are locked when the contest staff is not available, and if they are located in a room like a dealer hall, the room is locked as well. At Gen Con the display cases of the main contest are in a busy hall, so they’re still accessible for viewing at odd hours. (And there’s enough traffic to deter thoughts of funny business.)
The display cases at Crystal Brush 2018 at Adepticon. Display case viewing isn’t always this busy, but it’s not uncommon.
One of the fun features of open style shows is that entries are displayed on tables. Entrants arrange their displays in each category as they wish, which may include risers, backdrops, or other elements. They must do this with the constraints of the room available and the needs of other entrants, however. The display tables are usually raised to approximately chest height. This is convenient for viewing by average height viewers, but may present difficulties to those in wheelchairs or of smaller stature. The tables are typically spread out around an entire room, so viewing tends to be less crowded than around display cases. There is no separation between viewer and entries, which allows you to examine the entries from different angles and without light glare, etc. Volunteer staff are usually on hand to remind viewers not to touch the figures or to ask parents to remove rowdy children who might jostle the tables. Display rooms are open for set hours and locked when closed.
All of those tables are filled with fantastic entries. And that wasn’t even the whole room! World Expo 2017 in Chicago.
The Safety of Your Miniatures
Entrants assume all risk when they enter pieces into a contest. Contest staff make every effort to treat figures with great care, but accidents do happen. Even at a show where you yourself set up the display of your figure(s), you should assume that your piece may be handled by the contest staff. Judges often pick pieces up to look at them from different angles. Figures may be transferred to a side table to be photographed, or judged for a special category or manufacturer award. If more figures are entered than expected, contest volunteers may rearrange the tables to try to make more room. Assemble your figures sturdily and completely, and attach them securely to whatever base or plinth you use. Judges are trained to pick pieces up by the base or plinth to minimize touching the figure itself. In an open show, you can include a sign with your display that a particular piece is fragile or not well attached and that will generally be respected, but bear in mind that you are still taking a bit of a risk with that. This is not feasible for a contest entry in a traditional display case contest.
Many contests use padded trays to transport miniatures to the contest case or photograph booth. These were entries at Gen Con 2013.
All of that said, it is rare for a figure to be damaged in a contest in my experience. It happens, but it’s rare. Transporting your figures to and from the event presents more dangers. You need to secure them against the travel itself, and also bear in mind dangers like a suitcase falling on your figure case or airport security opening your case without warning. Secure figures in position with bubblewrap, poster tack, double-sided tape or other means. Try to stay close to your case as it is examined at the airport so you can advise about the best way to open it if they want to test the interior. Be leery of packing fragile pieces that need careful wrapping in your checked luggage, as security staff may open your suitcase and any container within it during the screening process.
List of Conventions with Miniature Contests
Origins, Columbus, OH: September 30 – October 3 2021 (normally June)
Event information is incomplete as of writing, but there does not appear to be a contest planned for 2021. Check this page for more information.
Adepticon, Schaumburg, IL: March 23-27, 2022
Adepticon 2022 is hosting the first US Games Workshop Golden Demons in years. There will likely also be several other manufacturer contests.
Information, rules, and entry forms for Golden Demon are available.
Hobby events have not yet been finalized and posted.
Nova Open, Arlington VA: 2022 date pending
KublaCon, San Francisco, CA: 2022 date pending
List of Shows
Military Miniature Society of Illinois, Chicago, IL: October 22-23, 2021
Miniature Figure Collectors of America Show, ?: 2022 date pending
Atlanta Military Figure Society Show, Atlanta, GA: February 2022 (usually around Valentine’s Day)
Historical Miniatures Society of Northeastern Oklahoma, Tulsa, OK: 2022 date pending
The webpage does not seem to be updated. Check their Facebook page for more current info.
World Model Expo 2022, Veldhoven, The Netherlands: 2022 date pending
If you know of other contests or shows than these, please let me know so I can update this page and encourage others to attend!
Many thanks to Jen Greenwald and Michael Proctor for fact checking and suggestions for additions.