Von over at A Year of Frugal Gaming posted an article ruminating on "A Tale of Four Gamers," the iconic article series in White Dwarf in which four staff persons could spend a budgeted amount on WHFB miniatures each month. Those miniatures would also have to be painted in that same month in question. The armies were slowly built up over time, and the staff would pit their partially-completed armies against each other as it went along.
Now it is obvious that Von no longer finds "A Tale of Four Gamers" particularly compelling, but this may put him in the minority. He notes that GW itself acknowledges the series iconic stature, even if they would never do it now because it would illustrate the expense of getting a playable army onto the table, and those who remember the original series could see how much the cost of miniatures has gone up.
But put me down in the category of people who loved the series. I liked the format so much I have participated into two similar pacts: one on a wargaming/modelling website that no longer exists, and the other in a gaming club in which I used to be a member.
Von thinks the popularity is rooted in the opportunity for public shame, and he's not wrong, but there are other more important reasons why the series was, and remains, so popular.
The budget creates realism. Having only a set amount of money resonates with young people who are paying for the hobby out of their part-time jobs and established adults who have to float their hobby past the baleful eye of their spouse. Breaking the process of building an army down into small chunks also makes it more palatable. Saying "spend $50 and paint ~20 models a month" sounds a lot easier than "spend $600 and paint 240 models a year."
The budget spawns creativity. You could just start at the top of your army list and work your way down, but regularly playing with your partially-composed army forced you to consider tactically what was best as you built your way up. The pact we made in our gaming club had us playing each month with whatever we had finished, and it made for some interesting battles. You also, through the articles, got to get into the head of a player as they weighed the strengths and weaknesses of each element.
The competition created drama. The fact that you never knew if one of the participants would be kicked in the crotch by real life and end up not making their monthly allotment created tension in the narrative. It resonates with all of us who face the nightly conflict between painting miniatures and just laying about drinking beer and watching 30 Rock on Netflix.
The competition created community. This might be more of a "participating in a pact" rather than "reading about a pact" issue, but the pact we implemented was a great way to cement our gaming club. It wasn't just "show up once a month and battle," we would keep up with each other's progress as the month went by.
The competition created a completed army. A fully painted army is such a benchmark in this hobby that the whole notion that you'll actually have one by the time its done holds a certain mystique. (Not surprising from someone whose blog is called "The Army Collector.") I'm clearly someone who enjoys having a goal. It helps battle my Hobby ADD, the most reason symptom of which was my switching from painting goblins to building terrain for a week. One project, one goal, X number of guys working towards the finish line. It all works.
At this point you could probably hit me up for a pact right now and I'd jump on it, despite my desire to not over-obligate my fulfillment. It is enough that I'm holding myself to the "no starting new projects until you get two HotT armies done."