Downsize Your Hobby (the case for the small and micro)



As I have alluded to in several posts (here, here, and here)there is a growing trend towards the  small and micro in the hobbies that I participate in: model railroading, and board gaming. I think this worth noticing. The fact of the matter is, we Americans are pretty excessive in a lot of ways. We have big cars/trucks, big houses, eat big meals, excessive amounts of meat, etc. This big mindset also carries into our hobbies too. We have big model railroad layouts that take up entire basements, small barns, whole living areas, etc. On the gaming side, we have the massive game closets with hundreds upon hundreds of games that we will likely never play, or we focus on the big ticket games with lots of pieces and the big sticker price to go with it.

We like things big. However, I am not convinced that that mindset is entirely sustainable or wise. After all, we have finite time and resources, and it seems to me, no matter how wonderful the hobby, that it is a bit of a waste when we get too excessive with how we enjoy our hobbies. Now to be sure, each person’s standard of excessiveness varies, in part to income and time available. I am not trying to point fingers at anyone in particular or draw a line at what is excessive. I am merely suggesting that perhaps we spend too much and invest too much in our hobbies.

Perhaps this is more visible to me because of my frugality, and frugal constraints. I have some time to spend, but little money. So I am more conscious of what I put into my hobbies.This is why I craft games and why I keep myself limited in my layout, and intend to scratch build everything on the layout. I have card stock, a printer, tools, glues, and bits of plastic details, etc. I don’t have money budgeted to my hobbies. So I build everything cheaply, frugally. I keep my scope limited in keeping with my limited resources.

And, I limit my time. While I have lots of time thanks to the way my job is structured, I have other obligations too. (as I discussed in this post) My family needs to come first. While I don’t always get my priorities straight, I do my best to not let my hobbies squeeze out my family and my other commitments.

This is why I am a proponent of this micro movement I have alluded to. They are smaller, less excessive, and more manageable. In the gaming world, they are less work to craft, require less extra pieces, and the main highlights: play quickly. For someone with few game times and limited times in those gaming evenings, it is nice to have a little game that gives you the same feel of a much bigger game in a much smaller footprint and play time.

Publishers and PnP designers are noticing, and there is fast becoming a plethora of good little games to buy or build. I think the investment going into this is laudable. Not only are these games much more affordable (which here at the Frugal Hobbyist is a very good thing), they are just as much fun. I have reviewed 2 micro games so far, and hope to do more. (If you are a designer or publisher with a micro game you want reviewed, let me know! =) )

A scene from my last small layout. Even though it was small, it still was enjoyable and realistic

A scene from my last small layout. Even though it was small, it still was enjoyable and realistic

On the model railroad side, focusing on the small and micro is rewarding too. There is a whole website devoted to layouts in minimalist spaces with many innovative designs, and the majority of them are smaller than 4 square feet! Even if you don’t want to confine yourself to a layout that small, the ideas and techniques used to build these small masterpieces are certainly applicable.

So why confine yourself to such a small area? Several reasons come to mind. First, a small project is manageable. By that I mean both in time spent, and money spent. Typically, the smaller the layout, the less you spend, which I think is a good thing. Secondly, a micro or small layout can be just as much fun to operate. Granted you can’t host the massive operating sessions with a small army of people, but if you are like me, it is  not like you have a group of people to do that with anyways. And, likely, you don’t have 3-4 hours to spend just running trains. A small layout can be interesting to operate, even realistically, and while it could be an enjoyable chunk of time, it wouldn’t monopolize your evening.


Also, because the layout is small, you can focus more on the detail. If you want, you could scratchbuild everything (a route I am going down, in part because it is cheaper, and in part because it is fun, and I can make a unique model). Plus the layout doesn’t take up as much valuable space in the house, and in some cases, give space back. My 40″ x 60″ layout sits in our study, and also serves as a storage area for all my stuff, which helps cut down the clutter. Plus it doesn’t overwhelm the room.

These small, micro trends certainly seem like they are here to stay and I think they are worth paying attention to. Do we really need to spend as much as we do, and take up as much space as we do? I don’t think we do. To be sure, some folks love the way they enjoy their hobbies, and I can’t fault them for that. It is, after all, a hobby, and there is plenty of room for different viewpoints. But, I think a case can be strongly made that small is good too. Now, if you excuse me, I have some small projects to work on!

Please feel free to comment below. What are your thoughts on smaller versus bigger?


8 thoughts on “Downsize Your Hobby (the case for the small and micro)

  1. I think the most important thing is not the size but does it accomplish what the builder desired. If I was finding that my budget for hobbies was being spread too thin among several different pursuits I would eliminate the ones I do not get the most enjoyment out of.

    Space can be a limit on various things as well and if that is a problem one can join a club and for a very modest amount of monthly dues have a great deal more space and layout or layouts than most could ever have at home.

    So the next thing to consider in the model railroading venue is if the first two items space and funds are restricted more than we would like the club wins out handily and then our personal resources can be spent on rolling stock powered or unpowered as we will have a space to run it and we do not have to purchase the space or pay for the layout that occupies the space.

    Any scratch building scenery etc. will be appreciated by the rest of the club and the club may provide the materials to do it with.

    As to small size I enjoy long trains, I have run trains over 150 cars in length very reliably. I do not have a layout. I run them on the club layout and I am able to build various things and do various things regarding construction etc. Several of our members do not have an individual or home layout but they consider the club layout their layout. It works for us and solves your issues. In my case I have chosen to limit myself to one hobby and I am quite happy in that regard.

    I have posted a link to our web site and will extend to you an invitation to stop in if you are in the area. The web site has videos and news letters as well as photos and a great deal of info including directions and how to contact us. In my case less is not more particularly when modeling things as big as trains.

    I would state that less is never more just less is less and eventually it will cause one to accept none at all as a viable solution. I would offer up the solution that I have not as an attempt to be insulting or dismissive of your original post but to show that with out changing the space at home or the money available it is also still possible to have more instead of less with the same investment.

    Rob in Texas


    • Rob, thanks for your comments! I feel you had a great suggestion to deal with the problem. Granted it is not for everyone, but it does as you pointed out, scratch the hobby itch without consuming your life. For me personally, I don’t go that route in part because I like something I can call my own that I can work with on my own time. But I applaud those who can do that and so keep their hobby manageable. I don’t know if I will be in Texas, but if I am, I will definitely check out your club!


  2. I’m coming from the board gaming side of your article (in fact, I followed your link from BoardGameGeek).

    You make some good points in this blog entry: particularly why do we always want bigger and why do we always want more?

    I have noticed the mico-game trend seems to be increasing and I do own at least one (Love Letter). I thoroughly enjoy this game and I marvel at the way the designers have got so much out of 16 cards and 13 cubes! It is a nice, quick game and sometimes a nice, quick game is just what you’re after.

    That said, sometimes the itch that needs scratching is a 4 hour epic session of Arkham Horror. I feel it’s very much horses for courses. But if you have a small game collection and that works for you and fits the time that you have spare then that’s great! Part of having a hobby is enjoying it and I’m sure there’d be nothing worse than owning some monster games that you really want to play but never having the time to play them!

    I have a modest collection of board games (just over 150) and the collector in me does feel the need to keep buying more. However, I am concious that I want to get games that will be played rather than owning things for the sake of owning them. I’m sure that I will continue to buy new games but the rate is slowing and I am more selective than I once was.

    I recently posted some numbers on my blog reviewing the first half of 2014. I was happy to see that I’d played just over half of my board game collection! 🙂 Here’s a link to that particular blog entry:

    BTW I come from the UK so maybe I don’t feel the need for bigger and more than Americans do?


    • Jobby, thanks for your thoughts. I would definitely encourage you to try some other micro games too! 😉
      As for the excessiveness I discussed in my post, I definitely think it is more of an American phenomena, in part because we can. I do feel that while it is from necessity more than not, those on the other side of the pond have the right idea in regards to keeping things smaller and manageable. I have noticed that especially with the model trains. Some of the smallest, most well done layouts I have seen featured on websites or magazines come from over there. Americans have always liked things big, but is that the best? I am not sure it is.


  3. I always admired the guys that have the supportive wives that let them build an empire in their basements. I’ve also been on layout tours where their layouts were in their living room! Some love in there. My Girlfriend too has allowed me to build my 6′ x 1/2′ layout on top of our shelving with staging behind the TV. I responded to your post on MRH btw. But, agreed, we don’t all have the finances, time and real estate relative to the likes of Alan McClelland or the income generated from hobbyists like Lance Mindheim or Pelle Soeberg, who do great work, but are in it for the money. 😉


  4. The question of what is excessive or what is micro is an interesting one. Here in the UK a 60″ x 40″ layout would likely be regarded as a pretty respectable size for home use and one that many homes here could not accommodate. That does not prevent the model railway hobby from being very popular in this country, second only to fishing I’m told.

    Apart from the smaller size of most UK homes, another factor in our choice of layout size is that many layouts here are built to be suitable for exhibition. The UK club and exhibition scene is lively – I could probably visit a model railway show every weekend without having to travel more than 50 miles, often much less. Building a layout for exhibition means that it has to be transportable. Some clubs or groups will hire a van but most individual layouts are designed to divide into sections and to fit into an average car – probably together with an operating partner, tools and an overnight bag if the show runs to more than one day.

    My own layout would probably be regarded as quite large for the UK. It resides in a room that I converted from a redundant storage area between the garage and the house. The space is about 21ft long but only between 5 and 6ft wide. The layout runs around the walls, leaving space in the centre for two old guys to play trains plus my modelling workbench, storage, etc.

    As was rightly pointed out in this blog, smaller does not mean less fulfilling. Another layout that was much admired for many years belonged to Peter Gentle, a lovely man who was very well named. Peter built his little empire in a shed measuring about 10ft x 8ft just outside the back door of his house. Admittedly it was in the fairly small scale of 3mm/1ft (TT you you!) but it constituted half a lifetime’s work and enjoyment. Peter passed away last year and I had the privilege of visiting the shed for one last time before the layout was dismantled. I’m sure you will agree from the pictures taken from the 3mm Society website (link below) that small can indeed be beautiful.

    Very best wishes,



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