If there was a company that probably holds the most responsibility (or some may say blame) for my interest in all things gaming it will be Games Workshop. For many years this company has been at the forefront of the UK gaming industry and its influence has clearly spread across the world, with devotees of their products found in every continent.
With such a wide reach, there also come very strong opinions about them as a company. Go to any one of the many forums or podcasts to discuss the gaming industry, you will always be able to find someone with an opinion that they need to express, often loudly and vociferously. I myself am not a GW apologist; but neither am I someone that needs to hate upon everything they do. But discussing the UK gaming scene, you’d be remiss to ignore their influence.
Games Workshop was set up in 1975 by school friends John Peake, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (those of you who read the Fighting Fantasy game books will recognise the last two names as the authors). Originally created to craft and sell handmade wooden classic games like backgammon, the company changed direction when they started to import Dungeons and Dragons from the USA (which led to John Peake leaving the company having no interest in roleplaying games). In 1978 they opened their first store in Hammersmith, London and then a year later founded Citadel Miniatures to make a series of fantasy and sci-fi models.
Originally selling other publishers games, the company then started creating its own products. Originally these were quiet disparate with no real theme connecting them. Although games of this time did include The Fury of Dracula and Talisman, both of which have since been reprinted with other companies. In 1983 they first published the tabletop wargame Warhammer Fantasy Battle game which became the staple universe for the company, before they also added the science fiction equivalent, Warhammer 40,000 (known as 40k) in 1987. These two licenses then became the forefront of their productive output, until they also acquired the license for The Lord of the Rings movies in 2001 and started to create a skirmish wargame based upon it.
Games Workshop prides itself on the excellence of its miniatures. It has over recent years insisted that it is a miniatures company and not a games company. And it is hard not to be impressed with the quality and range of the miniatures it produces. There are very few companies that I personally believe can compare with this – perhaps Wyrd which does produce some very nice sculpts, but has not yet got the breadth of choice that GW does maintain.
However alongside this quality does come the issue of price, something which at times means I find it hard to justify a GW purchase. Some of the newest GW board games have come in at around £70 and there is very little in their miniature range that comes in at less that £10. Players wanting to buy a new army for the wargames are going to find themselves several hundred pounds down to give them a variety of units and models sufficient to form a cohesive force. I have played the recent Execution Force board game, which does come with a large number of models for the cost. And whilst the game was fun and quick paced, I found it very light for the amount I would pay for it. For about half the price, I could buy myself a copy of Eldritch Horror and have a much more varied and longer game experience.
Looking at the universes that GW has created, and certainly with Warhammer Fantasy, it can be accused of being a Lord of the Ring clone. There are all the classic fantasy races – elves, dwarves, orcs and goblins, which one would expect to see in a Tolkienesque creation. Even the concept of chaos has its roots in the Elric books of Michael Moorcock. Whilst 40k is science fiction, the races in that are almost the same with Orks and Eldar filling the same roles as the Orcs and Elves of fantasy, as well as the Tyranids that have a look very similar to the Xenomorphs of the Alien movies. However, looking beyond that and into the setting, you can see something much more interesting at work. The world of Warhammer and 40k have a darkness and sense of hopelessness, that is not often found in such fiction. The sensation that the world/universe/ mankind/existence is doomed and everything you do is ultimately futile, was brought to its conclusion when GW actually destroyed the Warhammer World in 2015 in a series called The End Times. This has changed Warhammer into a new games system, Age of Sigmar, which has created enough jokes and remarks to craft an entire article about.
It is also worth remembering that whilst GW ultimately became about its wargames and miniatures, it produce some classic games along the way set in its universes (and something Fantasy Flight Games continues to do with the GW license it acquired). The game Space Hulk, set on a derelict space craft between two completely contrasting forces, is one of the most popular creations to date and has been released several times to much fanfare. The fantasy football game, Blood Bowl, has spawned three computer games and has World Championships played every year, as well as its own organisation (the NAF) responsible for organising the competitive play elements. Other games, such as Warhammer Quest, Man O’ War and Necromunda are often regarded as some of their finest work. Unfortunately, many of these games transferred to the Specialist Games department that was eventually closed down – a source of much discontent amongst some of the older and more veteran players.
Which leads to what I believe is a fair criticism of GW in its recent business model – a desire to attract new gamers to the detriment of those long time players and collectors. From a financial sense you can see their basis for doing so. A new player is starting from scratch, whilst an existing player only need a updated book ever few years and any new units that might come out. Much of my Eldar collections dates from the early 1990s, so I belong strongly in the later camp. But this has left several players, myself included, looking elsewhere when it comes to wargames.
The systems have also caused discontent amongst players, especially amongst tournament players (which I used to categorise myself as). 40k recent edition made wholesale changes to the ways armies were formed and what could be taken in battle, leading to a very confusing mixture of units and forces. This coupled with a system that has been mostly unchanged for many years and the creation of huge ‘Lords Of War’ super units has created, has led to players feeling unhappy with their game experience. Personally it has caused me to leave to tournament scene all together, although I still enjoy casual games with my friends. The creation of Age of Sigmar has seen even more controversy with a very complex and detailed system replaced with a simple rules sheet that can fit onto two sides of A4. Although this has seen the so called ‘Oldhammer’ players leaving the game, I has caused my gaming group to find itself reinvigorated in what at heart is a very fun, light wargame.
So is GW the diabolic monster that certain commentators would have us believe? Or is it a genuine British success story that has led the world in an industry for over 30 years? My personal belief is probably towards the later – especially with some of the recent decisions coming from the company which appears to have coincided with their change in CEO in late 2014. Over the last year we have seen products that seem to be directed towards the older player with old armies and factions coming back to the games. We have also seen the re-establishment of Specialist Games, which is promising new versions of Blood Bowl amongst others. The big question for me will be are we returning the more collaborative relationship with its customers that GW had in the 1980s and early 1990s, rather than the litigious GW of the 21st century (when they notably sent cease and desist letters to several websites that hosted discussion on the company that was mainly supportive of their products). There is a lot of good will and trust that needs to be regained and there is still a part of me that hopes they can succeed.