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Games Workshop and Me

A Updated
There Will Be Games
johnspal.jpgWith the re-release this week of Space Hulk, I realized that I am going back to where it all started. I am going back to the company that, as much as I would like to deny it, has probably been the fourth biggest influence on my life behind my family, school and university. I keep leaving but it always seems to draw me back in again. Like many first loves, the story of my first love affair with a games company is filled with the good and bad, hope and heartbreak.

When I was in the 4th grade my mother said to my teacher "I am worried that he doesn't read enough", and my teacher responded, "That is just because they haven't written many good books for children on cricket". I have never thought of myself as much of a reader because all of my friends have been bookworms (even though I still read 20-30 novels a year). Back when I was 8 or 9 I only read the cricket guide that my father bought at the start of the season and one other thing:  Choose-your-own-adventure books. And I read a lot of them.

Then in the space of six months two important things happened. First, I was let loose in a bookshop and found a book called "The Forest of Doom". This was a Fighting Fantasy story and it seemed like the perfect book. It elevated the Choose-your-own-adventure up to the next level by having a much better theme and more of a game. I was hooked and over the course of the next couple of years I probably ended up with twenty or thirty of these books.

Six months after getting my first Fighting Fantasy book the most defining moment of my gaming life happened. It was so important I still can visualize it 25 years later. We were on holiday and, for some reason, we went into a newsagent in some tiny country town. In this newsagent there were two 12 year old boys looking at a magazine and getting really excited over it, but then, for some reason they put it down and walked out without it. I rushed over straight away to see what was so good and found a copy of Warlock magazine that included a free game (about a bar brawl in the Judge Dredd universe). This was just the coolest thing ever. It was a magazine about my favourite books, but more importantly there was this game in it that just looked so cool. I convinced my parents to buy it for me. I read it cover to cover, playing the included Fighting Fantasy story. I had to wait until we were back home to play Shuggy Hall Fight due to a lack of scissors on the holiday. The thing that surprises me about this is that I don't remember playing that game to death. I think I played it solo it a couple of times, but I guess a lack of playing partners or the fact that the game was sub-par meant that it was soon discarded.

From there I was on a slippery slope. I soon learned from Warlock magazine that Fighting Fantasy books were written by some guys who ran a games company called Games Workshop and about Games Workshop's other magazine about games, White Dwarf. White Dwarf became my bible and all spare money went on buying back issues. Still being too young to afford games myself, all presents that came in the next few years were games that I had read about in White Dwarf. This was in the last part of the good old days of White Dwarf, when it was a general games magazine with content covering board and role-playing games with very little on miniature games. My games collection at that stage was Dungeons and Dragons, Blood Bowl, Block Mania, Car Wars, Talisman and Warhammer 40,000 (and a handful of space marines).

bkmnbrd.jpgThen came one of the greatest times in my life. When I was 13, my parents told me that the family was going to Europe and America for a big three month holiday and everyone could choose one place to go. My brother and sisters collectively chose Disneyland, Paris and Venice. I insisted we go to Nottingham. My parents were rather shocked to discover that this was not to see Robin Hood, but so that we could go to the home of Games Workshop. Back then there was no 'Warhammer World' just a store in the high street, but to me it was my spiritual home. I saved every penny I earned from my paper route that year and blew it all in the Games Workshop store in Nottingham. The guys behind the counter were just shocked at this kid coming in and spending so much money that they gave me and my brother free t-shirts. There was no way that we could fit it all in my suitcase so it was posted home by sea mail (the 3 month wait for it to arrive was one of the longest periods in my life).

Soon life moved on and the gaming choices of my friends and I started to diverge. They started to be more interested in role-playing games, while I headed down the miniatures path, starting to play in the few Warhammer 40,000 and Fantasy tournaments that were run. I became used to being by myself in a world of games that I loved.  While everyone else went off to play Call of Cthulhu, there I was hanging around with a bunch of strangers rolling dice and killing their dudes. I didn't mind this at all because the games were what mattered and I always felt alive at the start of a game with the promise of victory hanging in the air. One of the sad aspects of this time of my life is that Games Workshop started to turn for me. I remember realizing that it had been a long time since there was a non-GW game mentioned in White Dwarf. It had turned into a promo piece for the company and soon I stopped buying it. What was worse was that the bad games started to outnumber the good. Early on the only game that was a bit of a dud was Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, but then came Dark Future, Adeptus Titanicus, and Advanced Heroquest in quick succession, all of which seemed like they were trying to cash in on their competitor's success by releasing similar, but ultimately inferior, products. I tried other companies, such as FASA and their Renegade Legion line of products, to see if the same thrill could be had elsewhere but to no avail. My first love was gone. We had broken up but I didn't mind so much. They weren't the company I had fallen in love with anymore, and I was older and wiser and in theory would know better next time.


Then the end of school came, I hit university and I grew up, or at least I thought I did, and my games collection was purged (apart from 4 titles which I will discuss later). I hardly thought at all about Games Workshop for a period of about ten years (apart from a Blood Bowl league I participated in one summer). Then the stars aligned for Games Workshop to re-enter my life. My wife and I went on a trip to Europe and it seemed that everywhere we went, Brussels, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Frankfurt, we seemed to stumble on a Games Workshop store. We laughed and joked that they were following us around but I didn't go into any of them, except one: Nottingham. By chance we ended up there and I decided to go for one more look at the store that was the greatest moment of my childhood. Later while surfing the web, I stumbled across a picture of the new range of Necrons for Warhammer 40,000 and I was impressed with the direction they were taking their miniatures. The final star to hit alignment was when my wife took up a part time job and I was suddenly alone in the house for a couple of nights a week. I needed a hobby that I could do independently of my wife and thinking back to the last time I had a hobby all to myself (helped by the regular reminders over the last few months) I decided that in my time alone I was going to paint up a Necron army and enter it in the next Warhammer 40,000 tournament I could find.

I was soon very much back in the GW fold, buying White Dwarf every month and spending all my disposable income on figures for my latest project. I was attending 6-10 tournaments a year and painting miniatures for at least ten hours a week. My first love was back to me and I couldn't have been happier. I also thought I was a lot wiser this time. I knew they had abandoned all the classic board games and were just doing miniatures, but that was fine by me. Their magazine was no longer going to provide all around hobby information but that was fine as I only wanted to read about the GW products. I understood that they are in it for the money not the games, but as long as I was still having fun that was OK.

But then, a couple of years down the track I stopped having fun. I loved the idea of the hobby but the execution was leaving a very bad taste in my mouth. While the background and miniatures are great, the gameplay of Warhammer 40,000 is fundamentally flawed. Too much is dependent on army selection and deployment and very little is decided by the actual gameplay. You set things up and then you are just going through the motions for a couple of hours. The thing that irked me about this was that Games Workshop didn't seem to care. They didn't release FAQs and didn't respond to requests for more balanced gameplay. They seemed to not want to be part of the wider gaming community with their rebranding of the miniature gaming hobby to the 'Games Workshop Hobby'. More importantly I became increasingly unhappy with the tournament culture in my home town. I was an outsider trying to break into a closed community and I didn't do things the way they were supposed to be done. Tournament winners were 'all around hobbyists' and to win you needed to be a good painter (which was never going to happen with me) and survive the peer review process on your gameplay and army composition. This meant that armies were homogenized and that battle results seemed to have little to do with actually winning tournaments.


Life moves on and I abandoned Games Workshop for a second time but this time I kept gaming with other companies products. However, now GW has brought Space Hulk back and I am wandering back into their universe. Space Hulk is very important to me, as it was one of only four games to survive my games purge in my late teens, three of which were the golden triumverate of Games Workshop games: Blood Bowl, Space Hulk and Talisman. Sadly, my copies of Blood Bowl, Space Hulk and  Talisman are now long gone. Of this golden triumvirate of games, when I look at my collection now I see that Blood Bowl is still there in a new form and in spite of the re-release Talisman is absent but there in spirit (I find Runebound to be a much better game). Space Hulk is the notable hole in my collection and I have dearly wanted it back for so long. With their three great games now available to the public it seems like Games Workshop may be turning a corner and turning back into the company I loved so long ago.

The point of this trip down memory lane is that for some people the focus of their gaming life is a friend, group or a store. For me the focus was a games company. These companies may not realize it but people get very attached to them. I haven't met a model railway enthusiast or a stamp collector with a tattoo of their hobby but I have met plenty of people with tattoos from the Games Workshop universe. A tattoo is something that you are willing to be branded with for life, saying 'this is something that is important to me'. As weird as it sounds a good games company can do that to you, get into your soul and mark you for life. For many years every time I have walked past a games store my first instinct was to go in and see what Games Workshop had to offer, because I hoped each time that maybe, just maybe, they have found their way out of the darkness. Maybe they have this time and by rereleasing their classic games and forging alliances with other companies to become part of the wider gaming community they seem to be going back in spirit to the company they were in the 1980's. I really hope they are, because as much as I resist they seem to have me in their thrall, and I suspect they have me for life.

There Will Be Games
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