Build Fighters, the newest entry in the Gundam franchise marks a significant departure from the series’ roots; it moves away from military science fiction stories in imagined universes where giant robots are weapons of war, and instead imagines a much nearer-future world where previous Gundam series exist as in-setting fiction unchanged from their existence in the real world. The story becomes one about a futuristic hybrid miniatures/video wargame – players build SF analogues of extant scale models and use them as their avatars in-game much like Activision’s recent Skylanders series. Obviously, this is a plain recognition of Gundam as a commercial entity – a story about consumers of actual products and media. The intent is undeniably to raise awareness of the franchise and its physical merchandising – yet the attitudes its characters promote are not quite simple conspicuous consumption. The series promotes physical items which themselves promote past media, some of which is over 30 years old, and the emphasis is as much on appreciating the entire setting and game as simply the physical objects.
If anything, Build Fighters represents an idealised form of partaking in a hobby – rather than simplistic fandom, it is about the socialising and participation inherent in multiplayer gaming. This is made most clear in episode 6, where the ethos of the series is clearly laid out by the mentor figure Ral. What matters, he claims, is having fun and sharing in the enjoyment of playing a game with friends. He is speaking in response to one of the protagonists, Reiji, pointing out how absurd the intensity with which fans of model-building and gaming immerse themselves in the game’s setting seems to an outsider. Ral’s reply is that this intensity is because it is trivial – one can be as involved or distant as one likes and still find enjoyment in it. This is a very, in my opinion, positive outlook for a game-based series and one only really made possible in how Build Fighters’ core game is different to most others. Model-building and wargaming have a strong creative element – the theming and background are integral to the game – which is perhaps absent from a trading-card game like Yugioh. Build Fighters is heavily indebted to card-game animé, hitting the same plot-beats of cheaters, tournaments and teamwork – yet its fundamental difference is that the link between creativity and success is made clear. Victory is not purely a result of rules mastery and luck (as Yugioh is maligned for in its early series’ almost parodic ability for the protagonist to draw the right card at any time), and it is not purely a result of buying rare and powerful cards. It comes from a combination of skill at force composition (in BF’s case designing a well-built unit) and tactical awareness during the game – a distillation of what makes miniatures wargaming so appealing to me. The cliches of card-game animé translate well to this new game medium, and because Build Fighters focuses so much on the process of preparation for a game, it epitomises the attitudes and aspects of my hobby that are so positive.
I play a number of wargames, principally Warhammer, although not to a competitive level – and from personal experience my ideal gaming environment is one where players enjoy all aspects of the game and setting – building and painting, flavour, and playing the game itself in the spirit of sportsmanship and respect for the opponent. To hear characters like Ral in Build Fighters acknowledge the different approaches to miniatures gaming – saying that he himself prefers just building and painting and reading the background to playing the game at times – is very refreshing and really only possible in a story about this particular traditional-gaming hobby. Crucially, the series depicts – in a comic and idealised fasion – the social side of gaming. It encompasses the communities of background-obsessives, the joy of working on painting and modelling projects and the innovative and striking fan-created content that results from it. Ral’s building of a 1/144 Gouf and protagonist Sei’s appreciation of the paint job as much as its capacity in-game could be me congratulating a close friend at my local club having an army featured in White Dwarf miniatures magazine. What this also does, interestingly, is firmly place the models as playing-pieces and modelling projects – the game is very much a game and the story is about playing it at this stage. It may be pervasive and popular, but it is not so far invested with undue significance (as Yugioh quickly moved towards with its absurd Egyptian backstory). It bestows upon the series a welcome groundedness and responsibility – it makes it very clear that it is a story so far about games, and not much more. The idealised aspect of it is that the players are all friendly and welcoming – Iori Models, the shop around which it focuses, is any modeller’s dream shop with painting and gaming spaces, a full range of products and conversion parts and knowledgeable staff. Sei is enthusiastic about his hobby and tries his hardest to encourage others to share his passion for it – a good role model for hobbyists in a field with a generally poor reputation of exclusivity.
This idealised world has one other main point of difference which makes it so pleasant a wargamer’s fantasy; creativity is rewarded in-game. Many wargames – especially Warhammer – have very strict rules on force creation and the equipment of models which render most conversions purely cosmetic affairs. In the world of Build Fighters, a model’s in-game statistics are an exact reproduction of how it has been modelled. Games with such a system do exist in reality – one such is In Her Majesty’s Name – but for the most part such a 1:1 relationship between conversion and game status is a pure fantasy. However, parallels can be drawn in a slightly more abstract way – many wargames offer significant creativity in army list creation. Thus Sei’s extensively converted models, designed to have contingencies and weapons for every situation, are equivalent to a carefully-planned army list which efficiently uses its points and force organisation to respond to any potential opponent. Where Build Fighters further idealises this is in its game balance; there are no objectively worthless lists or units, and with skill even an “unoptimised” force can challenge a superior opponent on an even footing. Again, as a wargamer, such balance is desirable – it is an ideal game, played by characters embodying all the best aspects of the hobby. Sei, Reiji and Ral all represent different archetypes of player – the former the creative converter whose encyclopedic knowledge of the game and setting contribute to his ambitious projects, the second the rules-master whose skill makes him able to win with any list or force, and finally the latter as the hobbyist rather than the gamer. Build Fighters presents all these approaches as valid and worth respect – not simply a rush to win games.
To conclude, it is impossible to deny Build Fighters is purely intended to sell model kits. Yet in doing so, it sells an image of wargaming that well depicts why it is appealing. Sei is a very relatable character – the gamer who enjoys miniatures gaming because it combines creativity and tactics. He acknowledges – as does Ral – that gaming is not purely about winning by any cost, and this seats it firmly back in reality, where instead of advanced simulations dice decide games. For me, winning or losing at Warhammer is secondary always to having an enjoyable time with friends and showing off my own creativity and investment in creating an army with a story behind it. If Build Fighters is selling such a depiction of my hobby, it differentiates itself from many other merchandise-driven series.