I was researching cheap alternatives to miniatures again and got some interesting results.
In 2007 I calculated from the RttToEE miniatures list that a twenty level campaign will use approximately 540 different miniatures.
In 4E you have thirty levels but fewer encounters per level, so 20 levels in 3E has as many encounters as 26 levels in 4E. That works out to 623 different miniatures over two years, and as D&D 4E uses more monsters per encounter you’ll often need duplicates.
Supposing each has an average of four, minis cost an average of $2.50, and you can use another mini as a stand-in half the time, you’re looking at 1,246 minis costing $3,000+ over two years or $30 per game session, most of which is footed by the DM.
Since miniatures are not optional like in 3E, this means the “proper” to play D&D is both more difficult and more expensive than its competitors: video games including WoW and and other RPGs including 3E.
In a search for alternatives I rediscovered Newbie DM’s post on “minis” made from Gametable/MapTools type pogs, printed out and affixed to metal penny washers. I’ve found 25mm washers for Â£1.82 per hundred, and a 25mm hole-punch for Â£5. At this price, your 1,246 minis will cost Â£30/$50 in penny washers and no more than Â£30/$50 in glue, printer ink and paper. This is so much more affordable that I’m surprised every D&D group isn’t doing it already.
I also discovered a German boardgame website selling coloured 25mm wooden discs for 13 eurocents / 16 US cents, about a quarter of the price of Alea Tools’ magnetic discs which are popular for tracking status effects in 4E.