Confessions of an Appearance Judge, or “Phantom Lanyard Syndrome”
I was asked to help out at the NOVA Open this year. Since I had never participated as a Staff member in any sort of con, I figured I’d give it a go. About a week before the event, we had a big prep meeting to stuff swag bags, review schedules, and assign duties. My initial offer was to help with the Appearance Judging, but I also got tapped to assist with the Trios Team Tournament. Since the schedule had Appearance Judging running from 6:30am till 8:30am, I figured it would be no problem at all. Things didn’t quite work out that way…
Starting at 6:30am sharp on Friday, folks slowly started to trickle in to the conference hall. Most walked right past the Appearance Judging tables and straight on to the gaming tables. A few placed their armies on the table and requested our attention. I’d like to say we “sprang in to action”, but since it was only 6:30 and I had only finished about half of my coffee, it would be more appropriate to say we “shuffled into some form of activity”. Thus began the first of three, fifteen-hour days of Appearance Judging. I’m still recovering. But you know what? I had a blast and have already told MVBrandt (the organizer) that I’m in for next year. Props to Appearance boss Geoff and my three cohorts Kevin, Jon, and Bob.
Once those first few brave souls stopped at our tables, others began to take notice and also started to bring their armies over. The same pattern repeated itself all three days, with lots of players coming over before Round 1, and then again in waves as games finished up. Except for a few rare moments, we always had at least one person at the judging station, and for the most part there were just four of us working full time to review over 350 armies.
So- what did I see and how did I look at it?
The NOVA information packet contained a solid overview of what the Appearance Judging would cover. Three categories: Army at a Glance, Better than Crayon, and Frankenstein were on the menu. The simplest criteria to assess were basing, display board, and model preparation. If the army didn’t meet the 3-color minimum, it got zeroed out right there. If bare plastic, primer or mold lines were apparent, scores were adjusted accordingly. After that, things got tricky. We were instructed to NOT judge on artistic or aesthetic merit- only on technical presentation. What does that mean? Well, if an army was purple and orange with yellow highlights, it didn’t matter. If an army had blobby paint, clear brush strokes, or harsh shading/highlights it did matter.
Most armies met the standard of Tabletop Quality, and as such we got to see a lot of really nice armies during the weekend. There were many armies that exceeded this level of merit and as a result we had to pull out flashlights to check for brush strokes and mold lines…fingerprints and file marks…glossy decals and painting outside the lines. Lots of guys mentioned “damage in transit or during play”. I don’t think that at any time we dinged anybody for this sort of mishap. Sh*t happens and we were quite willing to let it go. By the same token, display bases only accounted for a small percentage of the total score, since the primary focus of judging was on the army, not the base. Also, with many participants flying in to the area, display bases weren’t really an option. So the bulk of scoring rested in the paint job. This general approach also applied to the best painted mini (Better than Crayon).
Conversion (Frankenstein) also put a lot of value on the paint job, but an equal amount went to the physical alteration of the model. It quickly became apparent that some armies lend themselves to conversion easily (Orcs, Chaos, Imperial Guard) while others (Grey Knights) do not. The conversion score was based on complexity and execution. A helmet swap didn’t really count for much. Adding auto-cannons to make a Rifleman Dread (and there were soooo many of them) was a fairly common and average conversion. Significant kit-bashing and minor re-sculpts would vault the mini to the next highest level, while totally unique sculpts and major kit bashing would put the mini over the top.
I think that considering the workload, we did a pretty good job. The final review of armies for the top awards at the end of the Open was tricky. Four judges with strong opinions having to figure out the Best Of in each category… but in the end I’m satisfied that we got it right. The finalists in all the categories were the best of the best at NOVA, and even though only one award went out in each category, all the entries were impressive. Sometimes the final decision came down to very small technical calls (see above) following very intensive reviews. Yes, we looked under hulls and cloaks and shined light into very dark recesses.
Once we got slammed early Friday, it became apparent that I’d have no time to take proper photos of anything. My digital camera is ancient and was fairly useless anyway. Fortunately, we did have a photographer on Sunday and she was all over the hall, taking photos everywhere, and she was able to concentrate on the finalists as we were tallying the results, so I’m hopeful that there will be images available very soon via the official NOVA Open website.
I also regret that with the rush it was difficult to offer constructive advice to aspiring painters. If I came off as brusque or dismissive I have to apologize. I can easily be stand-offish at times, but even trying to be on more approachable behavior it was just really tricky to get through the backlog at times. Anyway, if anybody has any questions, feel free to post here and I will try to get back to you. Anything but actual scores (don’t have access to them, nor would it be allowed).
Final thought- I got a chance to chat with Gav Thorpe often during the weekend and have to say he was a really great guy. If you missed his reading on Saturday night, you missed out big time. Morgrim Dark and I took a quick break on Sunday and snagged Gav for a beer at the hotel bar and he was happy to provide some insights into the workings of GW as a company (Design Studio, Marketing, Management, etc.), comments on Black Library authors’ approaches to the 40k milieu, and a bunch of other stuff. NO, we didn’t ask about the next codex, mini, or other stuff.