“Specifically I'm wondering: once I get the whole modelling and painting thing down, should I just grab models willy-nilly (with at least an idea of what an army should contain) and then cobble together a list from what I have, or should I first make up a real army list and then buy models accordingly?
Which came first, the army or the list?”
An interesting question, not least for me because I feel I’ve approached the subject from both directions, with different armies. The first thing I’d say is I don’t think there is a right or wrong way too approach it, to me it depends entirely on what particular side of the hobby (if any specifically) brings you the most enjoyment, you should then take that aspect and build your army accordingly.
For myself my first army is of course the Praetorian’s, I’d say they were something of a labour of love and the collection reflects that. The primary reason that my collection consists of what it does is because both the models appeal to me greatly in terms of looks (so the modelling, converting, painting side of things) and theme. The theme of the army in this case is a combination of the normal stalwart Imperial Guard and as you’d expect from an army like Praetorian’s a strong real world historical aspect (suffice to say when I was younger I loved reading about military history and watching things like Zulu and Sharp – indeed both is still true today).
What I include in the collection therefore are things which obviously fit with the theme of the 19th century historical aspect, Roughrider Cavalry, Artillery, Infantry, and things which I feel can fit with the same historical aspect given the futuristic setting such as Armoured Cavalry and Heavy Tanks borrowing from more recent 20th century history – most specifically how WW1 & WW2 technology might have been used in the 19th century setting. However by those means there are things I wouldn’t include without some good justification, for example the idea of Grav-Chuting Praetorians dropping from the sky is something I’m very very unlikely to ever adopt, likewise my Storm Trooper equivalents, the Life Guards are not going to be seen flying in special forces style from a Valkyrie.
Of course that covers the collection itself, an individual army list will consist of things drawn from that into something effective, but even then I always try to stick to the theme, for example my background has Praetorian Infantry companies at 110 Officers and Men, a number taken from British Infantry companies at the time of the Zulu War, to fit those into a IG Platoon Structure that’s a Command HQ, and three Platoons each of a Command Section and three Infantry Squads, so whenever possible I’ll take a full company, or at least full Platoon Sections from that Company in my lists.
My only ‘complete’ army (well they need some painting still but that aside!) the Sisters of Battle, are a purely list driven force, I play in a lot of tournaments, and this is reflected in them being a tournament army, and were always intended as such. They have a the single fixed list, which I’d like to think I know how to use, knowing what it can do and what it can’t do. I don’t think by any means that it’s an overpowered or cheese-mongering force – that’s not my style – but it is designed and collected to be competitive in the tournament environment. I do like the models, I do like the Sisters of Battle as an army, otherwise I wouldn’t of picked them, but that is not why I collected them in the way I have.
Finally there are my new boys, the Orks, I’m collecting these because I’ve always had a soft spot for Orks, because the new models are really nice, and with Assault on Black Reach I had the option to get hold of a decent core of troops very cheaply – oh and they are of course the arch-enemies of the Praetorians! This army once it’s complete I see as being very much model driven, I’ll get the models I want and have and put them together into an army, that’s going to mean a good chunk of foot slogging boys, some Nobz in a Truk with a Warboss, some Deff Dreadz and Killa Kanz because I love the models, some Storm Boyz and probably a few other fun bits – just because I can! I don’t expect to collect more then a couple of thousand points of Orks, nor do I intend on spending loads and loads of time converting and painting them (though that’s more down to wanting to spend my time working on my first love, the Guard), but it’s a fun army that I’m really looking forward to collecting - I probably really should read the army book at some point!
So, to answer the question, is the thing you get the most enjoyment from the collecting the models themselves, the hobby aspect - the modelling and painting of an army, the background and theme, the actual game itself or perhaps any combination of these? Whichever single factor or combination of factors is most important to you in collecting that specific army – and it may well be that as for me that will change from army to army – should give you your primary direction in what you add to your collection.
If the models are the most important thing – collect the models you want and build a list around them.
If the background and theme gets you going – use that background material and theme and collect your models around it.
Is it the hobby aspect that inspires you – then model, convert, sculpt and paint the models you want and build your list around these.
If it’s gaming that does it for you – then your probably going to want to collect an army based on sensible or even tournament geared army choices, create your list and start collecting towards it.
Those are my thoughts, what are yours?