A Brief Rant About Paint Pricing

Here’s the thing about hobby paint pricing: all things being equal, price per unit volume is everything. And here’s the thing about hobby paint brands: by that metric, GW’s Citadel paints are the worst value by a significant margin.

Consider the list price for a single pot or bottle of paint from what are (probably) the four most popular hobby paint brands:

  • Reaper Master Series (RMS): US$3.29/bottle
  • Vallejo Game Color (VGC): US$3.29/bottle
  • Privateer Press Formula P3: US$3.50/pot
  • Games Workshop Citadel Paints: US$3.70/pot

If the top-line price of the paints was all you looked at, you might say, well, sure, Citadel paints are slightly more expensive than other brands, but we’re talking about just 41 cents more than a bottle of RMS or VGC, and 20 cents more than a pot of Formula P3. That’s a couple of bucks here and there over time, not anything to worry about. Right?

Wrong. Consider price per unit volume:

  • Reaper Master Series (RMS): US$3.29 per 1/2 oz bottle; 22 cents/ml
  • Vallejo Game Color (VGC): US$3.29 per 17 ml bottle; 19 cents/ml
  • Privateer Press Formula P3: US$3.50 per 1/2 oz pot; 23 cents/ml
  • Games Workshop Citadel Paints: US$3.70 per 12 ml pot; 31 cents/ml

In other words, Citadel paints aren’t just slightly more expensive on a top-line basis. As is apparent if you decant Citadel paints into half-ounce dropper bottles, you’re actually paying more for less paint – which makes the bottom-line value significantly worse. Citadel paints enjoy a 35% markup over Formula P3, a 41% markup over RMS, and a whopping 63% markup over VGC. A hobbyist who switched from Citadel to any other major brand would see his paint expenses reduced by at least a third.

Moreover, in terms of paint quality, there’s not a heck of a lot of reason to pay what I’ll call the “Citadel markup.” Citadel washes (now Citadel Shades and Citadel Glazes) have always been quite good, and other manufacturers (notably Vallejo, which produces various inks and washes under the VGC label) have had a difficult time coming up with anything similar. But aside from the fact that RMS and VGC paints are touchier suspensions (that is, they need to be shaken more vigorously before use than Citadel or Formula P3 paints), there’s not a lot of argument in favor of Citadel: pigmentation, coverage, and flow are every bit as good, if not better.

And there’s also the container factor: pots (Citadel and Formula P3) versus dropper bottles (RMS and VGC). I won’t rehash that here.

Of course, things aren’t quite that simple. One enormous advantage that Citadel enjoys over all of the other brands is support for, and solid synergy with, GW’s various miniatures products. GW’s painting guides and tutorials all take it as given that the hobbyist is using Citadel paints, and determining color equivalencies to other brands is (especially at the time of this writing – the 2012 reboot of the Citadel paints line has, to some extent, broken the existing equivalencies to the RMS and VGC lines) problematic. Thus, the hidden cost of using other brands is almost but not quite being able to achieve a perfect match to the “official” GW look of any given army.

The other great advantage of Citadel paints is their ubiquity, owing to GW’s strength in the retail sales channel. Any merchant that sells GW games is almost certain to carry Citadel paints, too. Sure, they may also carry other brands, but Citadel is virtually a sure thing. There’s something to be said for being able to walk into just about any game store in the English-speaking world and find not just an equivalent color paint, but the exact paint you need: many hobbyists prefer Citadel paints for this reason alone.

So I end up buying Citadel paints, but I’m by no means thrilled about it: the Citadel markup is a lot to stomach, notwithstanding the advantages of their products. I wish that GW would take a hard look at their pricing: swallowing the Citadel markup not on product quality, but because of the ubiquity and the tie-in effect, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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