Warhammer – you’ll probably know it for its long list of computer games, its plethora of licensed novels, or the venerable tabletop battle game itself. Almost certainly you’ll have seen some of the finely-detailed miniatures the company is renowned for. You may even have stepped into one of the iconic Games Workshop stores that cater exclusively for the company’s games, models, and licenced materials. Post-2008, the continued presence of Games Workshop stores on the high street is a pleasant anomaly. With big name retailers bowing out since the market crash, it’s almost bizarre to think a business devoted to selling such a niche product should still exist. But the allure of Warhammer endures.
Ever since opening the doors of its first store in 1978, the Games Workshop hobby of collecting, painting and gaming has seen its popularity spread throughout the world. The tabletop fantasy battle game, alongside its sci-fi variant, Warhammer 40,000, are at the centre of the phenomenon. Drawing from a panoply of real-world mythologies and fantasy tropes, the Warhammer world allows the gamer to recruit from whichever fantasy race they feel most affinity towards. Elves, orcs, dwarves, and humans represent, alongside stranger factions such as anthropomorphic rats and the undead tomb kings.
The game sees 28mm-scale figurines deployed as units, directed across a terrain-scattered gaming board using tape measures and dice-influenced decisions. Games can last hours – even days – depending on how many models you have at your disposal. Battles draw upon an array of convoluted rules that govern manoeuvres, artillery, magic, and melee. It’s best not to think of it as a complex board game, but rather as a strategy computer game. Except, of course, there is no computer. It’s all down to your own brain to remember rules and apply mechanisms.
Sounds complicated? Well, yes, it is. It’s not the sort of game you can rip out of its shrink-wrap and become a competent player over the space of an evening. Rules require learning before you can start mastering battle tactics. Even then there is the lengthy (if enjoyably pedantic) process of list-building before the battle begins. You choose which of your faction’s units to include, how many soldiers should make up each unit, what upgrades to give your lords and mages, all whilst making sure you observe the limits on army composition (ensuring each faction is evenly matched). Failing to appreciate the nuances of list-building can result in an army that’s flawed before it even reaches the battlefield.
This, of course, is only achieved after weeks, if not months, of assembling and painting your hordes in the first place. Admittedly, most hobbyists tend to swing towards one aspect of the hobby or the other – either painting or gaming – but the point of real satisfaction occurs at the union of both. The display of two beautifully painted armies clashing over a miniature battlefield is a sight to behold, the equal of any stirring battle scene from The Lord of the Rings movies. This is all the more so thanks to the weeks of personal effort invested to arrive at that moment.
All of which makes the Games Workshop hobby very much a long-term commitment. Indeed, for someone without friends already in the hobby, starting out in Warhammer can be an expensive and muddled affair, even with the help of enthusiastic Games Workshop employees. But if you are willing to invest the time and money, you’ll discover a hobby that rewards with a rich and ever-deepening experience. Rather like the grinding nature of computer role-playing games, the long hours sunk into the hobby bear fruit over time. The advantage over computer games is having a physical thing to work with – something you’ve helped craft with your own hands, vision, and imagination. This fuels the battles themselves: when you send your banners crashing into the enemy’s shield wall, there is a genuine sense of pride, and when your general falls in battle, the clout of despair is palpable.
It’s a feeling that appeals to a broad age range of players. The target audience of older children and teenagers sits happily alongside long-term hobbyists in their twenties and beyond, or those who have come back to the hobby of their youth. Outside the official Games Workshop presence there is a thriving fan-built community of gamers of all ages. Local gaming groups allow hobbyists to meet up in person for regular battles, and online forums are a hotspot for hobby discussion, tactics-sharing, and showing off painting projects.
Which is all well and good, but for a prospective hobbyist such an investment of time and money is still a daunting prospect. What it comes down to is the key driving force behind the hobby: obsession. It’s not an unusual trait to find within the spheres of fantasy and sci-fi fanbases, but in the case of Warhammer, it is almost a requirement. If what’s been described connects at some level, then chances are you already have the right mindset
In an age of quick fixes and faced by the immediacy and motion of computer games, the static, slower pace of Warhammer and its greater demands on imagination and creativity can seem out of place. Either you’ll see the hobby as a redundant precursor of virtual realms or a welcome antidote to their dominance. As Games Workshop’s continued success shows, there are plenty of people out there who subscribe to the latter.
An edition of this article first appeared at Fantasy Faction on 10th January 2016.