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Games Workshop and the Board Game Wars
If you played tabletop games of any stripe in Britain in the 80's, Games Workshop was your entire world. The world-famous retailer of miniature battle games started life in 1975 as a small importer of exotic games. Even if you didn't play any of the classic titles they designed in-house, any hobby material in shops stood a good chance of having come in through GW. My gaming life started out as a slavish acolyte of their products and imports. Yet over the last three decades I've come to hate them and love them again twice over. Most recently I was won over by Silver Tower which I reviewed for SU&SD. Many gamers never came full circle and still regard them as the devil incarnate.
The story of how one of the world's best-known hobby companies came to make so many hobbyists so angry is intimately bound up with my own life. It's a story that's one that never ceases to fascinate me. And now, Games Workshop seems to want those gamers back. The current issue of its magazine, White Dwarf, abounds with new material for the slew of new board games they've published. Those titles have met with critical acclaim and seem astonishing value for the components packed inside.
Who better to ride this chimera with than Rick Priestly, co-designer of Warhammer Fantasy Battle, who worked at the company for most of its life? He left the company in 2010 and now writes and designs games for a company called Warlord Games. "It's a kind of sheltered community for ex-GW employees of the 1980’s as far as I can tell," he told me. "As a games designer everything you do gives you the opportunity to review things you’ve done or encountered in the past. It’s a journey." Even after so many years and so many great board games, his favourite is still one of the first: the Judge Dredd board game. "We started out as an importer of games with a small chain of shops," he recalled. "Plus a studio in London that produced White Dwarf and a number of role-playing games and board games like Dr Who, Talisman and Judge Dredd."
From these relatively modest beginnings there was a sudden explosion of board games in the mid 80's. Many of these titles are still well known today: Warrior Knights, Fury of Dracula, Blood Bowl and others. Game boxes which were the bricks in the foundation of my hobby. Almost every day I'd spend school plotting some new strategy for one of them. Then I'd race home with my nerdy friends, pull it off the shelf and play. "Those were all produced in the Nottingham studio around the time Bryan Ansell bought out the original founders," Rick told me. "We wanted to build up the studio to produce a range of home grown product, recruiting games designers and sculptors, and aggressively expanding the business."
Buy-outs followed by aggressive expansion would become a hallmark of GW business practice in later years. Indeed it would sow the seeds of loathing among the company's detractors. Yet at this point, as it would in the future, it yielded a period of immense creativity, the echoes of which are still felt in the hobby today. As a huge Fury of Dracula fan, I felt compelled to ask Rick about its designer, Stephen Hand, who seems to have vanished from the hobby. "He was one of the young, new and very talented games designers that joined the team at that time," he replied. "He didn’t work for us for very long, and we didn’t keep in touch, so I’ve no idea whether he continued to design games or not. A lot of the GW designers from those days went on to work on computer games. so who knows?"
Give all those groundbreaking designs from all those talented designers, it's surprising to find that this explosion of innovative board games was, in fact, a dangerous experiment.m "We didn’t know what was profitable and what wasn’t," Rick revealed. "This was in a pre-digital world in which the levels of business analysis available were pretty primitive. When Bryan took control the assumption was that the RPG’s and board games represented a large part of the income and profit. However this proved to be erroneous. It quickly become obvious that the profit was actually generated by Warhammer and Citadel Miniatures".
One thing that helped to hide this was the success of the fondly-remembered family adventure game HeroQuest. The game design was actually from a mass market publisher, Milton Bradley, but GW provided the miniatures. It sold well enough on both fronts to win several awards and launch a number of expansions. Yet even so, opinion inside GW varied as to its value to the company. "Tom Kirby, the current chairman always plays down the value of HQ," Rick told me. "He points out that the resources put into it would have been more effectively spent on our own lines. John Stallard, sales director at the time, has always said that it was an enormous help in recruiting new gamers and bringing customers into the shops. Take your pick."
The last traditional board game from GW, the lackluster Curse of the Mummy's Tomb came out in 1988. Yet this proved to be the dawn of a new wave of classic hobby titles with a focus on figures over cardboard. "By then I’d say it was obvious the board games were under-performing," Rick explained. "We were starting to realise the potential of the 40K game and everyone was quite excited about exploiting the new setting in various ways. Space Hulk and Dark Future were skirmish wargames that made use of gridded boards, but focused on models. That was where we saw our strengths lying."
During this era the company underwent a sudden transformation. The wide vision on hobby games of all kinds vanished, replaced by as laser-like focus on miniatures. The most obvious change was in White Dwarf. Once full of broad hobby content with lots of role-playing material, it dropped everything not GW related and doubled down on modelling. I was sixteen at the time, addicted to Dungeon and Dragons, and with the force of emotion only teenagers can muster, it felt like a betrayal.
What I didn't, couldn't understand was that there had been another management buyout. Rick was a part of it. "I become Director of Product design," he recalls. "I was responsible for the entire product range, plastic tooling and print buying." He disputes my memory of it being quite so sudden. "We knew we needed to build the core Warhammer offer, but we also continued to plan in board game releases, including a new version of Talisman. It was only the ever-increasing success of the Warhammer and miniatures lines that led us to focus on that to the exclusion of everything else."
As he explains it to me now, an adult to someone pretending to be an adult, it's obvious why this had to happen. "In the last years of Bryan’s ownership the company was run on a shoestring with no investment to expand," Rick told me. "When we did the buyout we had to borrow about 14 million pounds of venture capital," he continued. "That’s quite a lot of pressure with houses and everything you own being on the line! No matter how much you love what you’re doing you have to stay solvent to keep on doing it. And we grew the business organically from a turnover of just over 10M to about 100M in ten years."
An unimportant cost of doing all that extra business was my business. I walked away, spending my late teens and twenties first on role-playing and then Magic: the Gathering. In the meantime, GW went from strength to strength following its strategy of releasing stand-alone games based around miniatures like Battlefleet Gothic and Mordheim. "We wanted to cover different themes within the traditional tabletop wargaming field," Rick revealed. "It also gave us the chance to do create new games explore the Warhammer settings, and invent new ones. As I recall the board game market was really in the doldrums at the time. That's was one of the reasons HeroQuest was so remarkable and why MB valued the relationship with GW."
However, there was still a desire inside the studio to produce more traditional games, even if their profit margins were suspect. "We were keen on providing the sales teams with at least two big box games a year at the time, so we rattled through them," Rick told me. "One was Warhammer Quest which had always been on the cards as a traditional dungeon bash game. By then we were really struggling to sell anything that wasn’t Warhammer, but we couldn’t make enough Warhammer supplements to give the sales team new product every month."
With typical creativity, Rick and his colleagues did what they could to try and turn this issue into a strength. And the answer was more board games. "The problem wasn’t so much the writing and designing of the games," Rick said. "It was making enough new miniatures. So we tried this idea of using some old plastic frames to create quick, cheap board games like Lost Patrol to give the sales teams something to sell. I don’t think they were very successful at the time. I was amused to see the recently re-visited Lost Patrol described by GW as a classic. My memories of it at the time were that that the sales guys complained endlessly about it. All they wanted was more Warhammer really."
So, slowly, the board games dried up. At the same time so did all my local D&D and Magic players. By the time I looked at sixth edition Warhammer Fantasy, GW hadn't published a board game in years. But I was happy to take sixth edition over a closed box game at that point. It was a far more balanced and demanding design than the previous two "herohammer" versions, one that took good thinking both before and during the battle to win. At around the same time GW picked up the licence from the Lord of the Rings films and used it to start a new miniatures game. It was a commercial success, but it actually lead to more doldrums for the board games.
"It had been extremely successful in the early 2000’s," Rick recalled. "But it was perceived as responsible for a collapse in sales rather than celebrated as the hugely successful venture that it was. This was fundamentally down to the nature of the business model together with poor management . Whatever the reason, new games of all kinds were very much off the table by then. It would be a bit like the Ford Motor company suddenly deciding to make a few bicycles." Instead GW decided to make money by selling on the rights to all those classic games from its past. "The licensing department was tasked with generating some income from old intellectual property," Rick said. "Fantasy Flight were ideal because they were set up to operate as that kind of business. And also gamers!"
At this time, Rick was beginning to wind down his involvement in GW, and had increasingly little to do with the management of the company. So he wasn't able to shed a lot of light in to why they suddenly decided, after more than a decade of no board games, to re-issue Space Hulk. "Desperation," was his best guess. However, he was a bit more helpful when it came to explaining the infamous purge of fan material that happened next. ."My impression of the senior management at GW is that it was, and remains, self-reflecting to the extent that it is impervious to negative publicity," he opined. "As to why such an order may be felt to be necessary, to some extent this is a problem that all IP holders face. It is as much a reflection of how the law works as the attitudes of the IP holders themselves."
For all the fury its actions generated among fans, now Games Workshop wants board gamers back. It's already released a slew of board game titles this year both old and new. And there are more in the pipe. Their current communications manager, Andy Smilie, reminded me that Blood Bowl and Titanicus have already been announced and there are more unrevealed designs in the pipe. "2017 is going to have people wishing they had more free time," he quipped. I asked him about some of the games that were released after Rick left, including the surprise re-release of the supposed limited edition Space Hulk, which made GW another wave of enemies from existing owners. "The response to the 2009 edition really was epic," he replied. "It left us feeling like we were doing a great many hobbyists a disservice by not returning to the game. Having said that, we wanted to make sure that we stayed true to our promise that the 2009 set was a limited item. That’s why we approached the fourth edition as new game in its own right adding extra board sections and missions that helped redefine the experience."
That's PR speak, of course. But it also sounds a little deaf to the outrage it caused, which fits in with Rick's comments about GW management. In fact looking back through his narrative it seems that bad management decisions have been something of a hallmark all through the life on the company. One might even go so far as to say that it's been a success in spite of itself. Even when I was planning this feature I struggled to get any input from them at all. They don't have a press or PR department, and they don't seem to welcome emails on the subject. So it seems unlikely things are about to change any time soon. For the sake of all the awesome-looking board games they've got planned, I hope I'm wrong.
Here's something I realized about GW this year. I've spent an awful lot of time, money and effort buying, collecting and buying games that were all, in some way, trying to get me back to that feeling of playing something like Space Hulk or Fury of Dracula or Talisman or Dark Future or whatever- the big GW board games I started buying and playing in the 1980s. I've seen game after game effectively try to simulate the feeling of playing Warhammer Quest or even Heroquest.
So...why would I not just play those original GW games?
Today I put my copy of Claustrophobia with all the expansions up for sale...because I just can't see choosing it over Space Hulk or Silver Tower these days, even though it has its own special qualities and unique features. I'd rather get back to that GW feeling.
There's so much about what GW does that is just so strongly branded, for lack of a better term, that NO ONE comes close to that GW feeling. It's the silhouettes of the figures, the font choices, the colors, the box copy, the very English tone of it all, the 2000AD influences, the picture of Stephen Hand with a beer in the Fury of Dracula rulebook.
If you look at a recent company like CMON...they are doing good and even great work, but there is nothing like the branding and consistency of what GW was doing and has started doing again.
This is why I'm selling and trading so much to get GW stuff, this is why I'm FOMOing the FFG stuff. Because that GW feeling is WHY I play games, it's WHY I loved them in the first place and it is, in fact, a major factor into why the whole Ameritrash thing started - a lot of the games that Robert and I were wanting to see come back were GW ones.
So yeah, the business is a disaster with questionable leadership, awful marketeering, terrible pricing structures, etc...but what difference does it make? They are a company that has A LOT of leeway because they produce some things that NO ONE else does. Nobody can touch their games in terms of iconic visuals, atmosphere and engagement. Maybe they aren't the most innovative, dynamic or deep games out there...but they are some of the most purely FUN games out there. Their classic titles and their recent victory lap of great titles.
One of the things I love most about the new GW games is that when I look at them on my shelf, it recaptures that feeling I had looking over, when I was like 15 years old or so, and seeing Space Hulk, Talisman, DungeonQuest and so on there.
It is a shame that the miniatures business sort of forecloses on them doing non-miniatures games again...but you know, so much of the identity of these games is in those figures. I thought about using stand-ups or tokens for Silver Tower, until I saw the figures and realized instead that I needed to start painting again, skill up, and make them look cool because they DESERVE it and the experience of playing Silver Tower demands it.
So GW anger, I get it, sure, whatever...I mean, this is a company that has PERSONALLY ripped me off as a business owner and not just as some kind of abstract "big company that wants to make money is bad" thing. But it just does not matter when I am playing a GW game. So bring on more board games, I am auto-buying every single one from this point forward.
Barnes are you going to do an official review of Silver Tower? I keep going back and forth on which dungeon crawler I want. Original WHQ, Dungeon Saga, Shadows of Brimstone, Silver Tower. What would be cool would be to see GW do a new version of Space Crusade like Silver Tower. Mantic has this new Star Saga game, but like the terribly bland name the setting won't be near as cool as sci fi dungeon crawler set in 40k.
It's really interesting watching modern boardgamers react to this gw/ffg divorce. Most all at tos wanted gw to die in a fire. I can understand their view as it may be that their only interaction with gw was seeing gw sending out all those C&Ds 7 or 8 years ago. Well, plus you have large groups just parroting what they hear on BGG as they don't actually know having not been around that long...folks claiming gw is going to let Talisman die because 'gw doesn't know how to do that type of game'. Uh,, they only did 4 editions. ...
Anyway, GW definitely has an uphill PR battle.
One bit of GW history I want to know more about is what happened to Richard Halliwell. Realm of Chaos 80s blog had a good featured on him a little while back, and his list of credentials is amazing: Warhammer fantasy battles, space hulk, dark future, block mania. From that article it sounded like he was a real creative force. No one seems to really know what happened to him besides the fact that he fell on some apparent hard times.
Regarding a 40k dungeon crawler...I don't think it'll work. I mean the 40k factions have so much animosity towards each other I don't see a space marine, a tau, and an eldar teaming up to adventure. I could see a squad from a faction sent on a mission though, but we have that...space hulk.
Being a guy who hasn't followed GW's dealings over the years I wan't to know more about this Rhino thing Barnes was talking about. Was it just that they decreased the number of models in a kit and charged more?
Mad Dog wrote: Is this article supposed to be on the site's Front Page? It isn't showing up for me.
I can read the italicized text posted here, but it isn't on the Front Page where it deserves to be and the "Read More" link is 404.
EDIT: I really dig articles like this.
Is this article supposed to be on the site's Front Page? It isn't showing up for me.
Sorry guys. This wasn't supposed to be live until Monday but I did something wrong in the CMS to put it into this strange sort of half life. It should be live properly now. That's also why I haven't been replying to your kind comments, because I didn't know you were posting on it!
They are some of the most purely FUN games out there.
Yeah. I don't agree with everything Micheal said. I would not, for example, trade Claustrophobia away for yet more GW product. But fun cuts to the heart of the matter and it's where my Silver Tower review came from.
We've gotten so used to working mechanical levers in games that sometimes it's easy to forget how entertaining it is just to roll dice, chug beer and kill pretend monsters. That style of game earned itself a bad name because it got longer and more complex while still, essentially, being about rolling dice, chugging beer and killing monsters. But right now that does seem to be a lesson GW have learned. And it's producing some awesome results.