Navin Weeraratne: Wargamer

Navin Weeraratne is ready for us. His trolls hidden in the woods, his infantry deployed, and his tanks lined up. Plus, with his priests already hands deep in bloody human sacrifice, our morale would have been irreversibly damaged had it not been for his welcoming grin and his readiness to sit down for a big mug of tea and some conversation.

The thing is, Navin has quite a lot to grin about these days. Four years since he was laid off from his job in the U.S , ‘Paintedfigs’, the company he came back home to set up, is finally hitting its stride.

Hobby turned business: Navin Weeraratne.

Specializing in painting miniature figures (hence the company’s name) for hobbyists who play wargames or tabletop games, his is a niche market based abroad.

Wargaming is a little like chess, in that players must employ cunning and strategy to win battles against their opponents. But most of the similarity ends there. ‘Warhammer: The Game of Fantasy Battles’ is one of the most popular in the genre.

Entire regiments of fantasy miniature figures make gory, relentless war against the backdrop of a landscape that has been described as a cross between Renaissance Germany and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Mundane castles and bishops are replaced by elves, dwarfs, Undead, Orcs and goblins, vampires, lizardmen, Skaven and those who go by the somewhat grandiose title of the Daemonic forces of Chaos. Their histories are correspondingly complex – each race has a mythology and tally of strengths and flaws that are unique to it.

Navin plays a lot with trolls. These belong to the Orc and Goblin army and are known for their amazing strength, but more importantly for being able spew lethal spit at the enemy from a distance. Such “spitting attacks” allow them to rend the enemy lines before they get too close. But, and this is a big but, trolls are stupid. Players must roll their dice and risk a stupidity check. What if the trolls fail to pass the test? By that point, Navin assures me, all you can do is point them in the general direction and hope they get there. “You might tell them to move six inches, but then they might keep going until they land up in the middle of the enemy army.”

You can tell the only thing more entertaining than a bunch of renegade trolls might be writing up the rules that govern them.

For all the humour inherent in the rules, wargamers take their figures very seriously. Looking at the plastic figures laid out on the table, your inner child does a little tap dance over the dragons with laser guns and the orc with multiple heads. But though this may be every child’s dream, for Navin this is also business. His is the second hit when you Google miniature painting services…and it turns out that a lot of people do. ‘High Quality Miniature Painting at the Lowest Rates on Earth (Even with Shipping)’ is the USP of his business.

A blogger posting a review of Paintedfigs observed that while “It might seem dotty to send your minis to Sri Lanka when you could have them painted in the UK,” the price, in this case £55.00, including shipping, for 27 miniatures, was well worth it. In the U.K the reviewer said the same work would have cost £150.00+. And since many hobbyists have armies that are much larger – a while back Paintedfigs did a set of 300 Spartan warriors for a customer – cost counts. Still, unsurprisingly, it’s taken a while for people to trust that he isn’t employing child labour to deliver at those rates.

Navin runs his workshop out of a house in Colombo. Rooms devoted to assembly and painting are staffed by a team of 12, almost all of whom are drawn from the same school in Anuradhapura where his aunt once taught. When he first showed his new employees the figures, they assumed these were toys for children. But by now, as they’re assembling an Orc Gorgan and an army of ghouls, they know that there are exacting adults with critical eyes waiting to scrutinize the end product.

The figures arrive in parts and must be assembled according to instruction manuals and then mounted on tiny bases. Sand, tufts of ‘grass’ or even fake snow are added as required. The figures themselves are perfectly scaled to the ‘universe’ they belong to. 28mm tends to be popular for fantasy games while 15mms are more common in the historical world. Paintedfigs will even construct the backdrop against which all the drama plays out – from marshland to forests to shimmering ponds – all you need do is ask.

In the next room, the painting team starts with a coat of primer, and then painstakingly begins the real work. Today, they’re working on an army in an alarming shade of pink, but on average the colours tend to be more intimidating. The detail on individual pieces verges on the exquisite and is meant to match the reference books, right down to the colour of the elves’ belt buckle. This isn’t always easy considering some of the figures are the size of your fingernail. Also being worked on today, are a set of British paratroopers from World War II. Picking one up, Navin points out the gradations of light and shade – “these are what make the difference between a flat looking figure like a child’s toy and a figure with real craftsmanship.”

Navin has created a business that rests on attention to detail, value for money and strong service ethics. It helps that he had much of it planned out well in advance. “I built my business on the train ride, commuting to work,” he says, talking about his time as a Practice Manager at the Fallon Clinic near Massachusetts. When he was laid off in 2005, Navin realised that this was what all those hours of running numbers and building spreadsheets had led up to. “I was a bird being pushed out of the nest,” he says. He bought a one way ticket home and painted the first order himself. When he got a second order, he hired another painter. Today, he’s trying to figure out ways to keep the business growing in the face of the recession. “For most part the business plan survived reality,” he says, admitting that still it’s been tough going.

Downstairs, in the main lobby, Navin has piles of wargamer fiction. By this point I’m not surprised to discover that people have written entire series of novels based on the motivations and back story of various characters. In another corner, a few hefty rule books evidence Navin’s continued passion for playing the game himself – showing off his personal Orc army, he tells me he sometimes gets together with friends for a tournament on weekends. “I know guys who would cut off their arms to wargame and call it work,” says Navin. Clearly, he has reason to be pleased with himself. Having turned his back on the rat race, he’s living his dream.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on September 6, 2009. Words by Smriti Daniel.

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