I am lucky enough to have a friend who runs Warhammer tournaments near me, and he often asks me to come along and help him judge the best painted army. There’s always an award for painting, as well as for placing highly in the tournament and for being a favourite opponent. I really enjoy doing this, not least because I get to feel like I’m an expert at something, even though I’m definitely not. Still, it made me give some thought to what makes an army really well-painted, and potentially a winner, in my eyes.
Firstly, the painting. It sounds obvious but it’s possible to lose sight of that. Snazzy themed armies with lots of conversions are really cool, but if they’re sloppily painted they’re not going to win anything. Marrying a cool idea to high levels of skill is the killer combo, but very good painting will beat fun conversions. It’s a painting contest, after all.
It’s also important to be consistent. The quality of painting needs to be on show throughout the whole army. That doesn’t mean everything has to have the identical colour scheme, although the army should work together as a whole. It means if the army has a squad or two that isn’t painted as well as the rest, it’ll really hurt the army, even if other parts are excellent.
If two armies show similar levels of skill, one potential tiebreaker is whether the units are easily differentiated. That is, if an army has, say, two units of Space Marine Intercessors, it needs to be immediately clear which model belongs to which unit. This might be through squad markings, trim colour, or something else that makes it impossible to get the two mixed up during a game. That’s often a requirement in tournaments and, in the absence of a clear winner, it’s something that might tip the balance.
I should point out these criteria come in when there is a similar level on show across more than one army. If one is clearly painted better than any other, it will probably win. However, I have yet to judge at an event where there one army was far out in front of the others. Standards get higher, techniques are easier to share and hobbyists get more experienced, and there are always multiple great-looking armies on show.
I also can’t vouch for how everyone judges best painted armies. Everyone will have slightly different criteria and there’s no single book of rules for how to judge them (as far as I know). Nevertheless, I hope this advice will help a painter focus on how to kick their army to the next level and maybe even duke it out for the top spot.