There's a good chance you'll have walked past a Games Workshop store at some point in your life. Several, probably. Maybe you even popped inside once and browsed its shelves, perhaps buying some games or models, treasures that are now gathering dust in your parents' attic, underneath stacks of VHS tapes? But in case your nostalgia bells aren't ringing right now, here's a little background.
Games Workshop is a gaming company that originated in the UK during the mid-1970s and specialises in models, board games and tabletop war gaming. The two games, or rather series of games, that they're best known for are Warhammer, a Tolkienesque battle game, and Warhammer 40,000, its futuristic, science fiction cousin. One of the company's founders, Ian Livingstone, has had an unquestionable influence on British gaming culture and was heavily involved in developing the Tomb Raider and Hitman franchises.
Both games require players to create their own army, made up of miniature models. They pick their battalion of choice: there are Lord of the Rings-style elves and dwarves in Warhammer's fantasy world, while 40k features bulky Space Marines and the alien, insect-like race of the Tyranids. But before the game can really be played, those models must be collected, assembled built and, ideally, painted.
Much like the previously-featured-on-VICE Magic: The Gathering, Warhammer has a considerable following, and there are regular meet-ups in Games Workshop stores, houses, sheds and pubs all over Britain. I visited The London Warhammer Gaming Guild, a group of gaming aficionados who meet up once a week at the Seven Dials Club in Covent Garden to do battle with their miniature armies. The first thing that hits me on arrival is the sound of chatter and laughter. I'll confess: I had a stereotypical image of the Warhammer player in mind, something like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, slightly tetchy, arrogant and probably unsociable. This is not the case, at all.
Peter Davies, the club's founder, gives me a little background on why he started the Warhammer Gaming Guild. "If you're new to London, it can be quite difficult to meet people. I stumbled across my models when I was at home and I brought them down to London with me, as I thought it would be a fun thing to do. My local pub had an upstairs space, and me and my friends made some scenery out of newspaper and played on a blank table – that was our first meet up."
The club's come a long way from its early days. There's now a plethora of tables covered in detailed landscapes and weird scenery. The craftsmanship involved is phenomenal, and all of these scenes are put together by the players themselves. The tabletop environments range from dark, dystopian buildings and suitably grim terrain for the Warhammer 40k players, and a couple of other ones are decorated with castles and forests, for the Warhammer collectors.
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I get chatting with Rory and Jack, two Gaming Guild regulars, and ask them about their Warhammer habit. "I spent about four years when I was younger just collecting and playing a little bit," Rory tells me. "But then girls, alcohol and real life got in the way of it all. I got back into it about a year ago, maybe 20 years after I left the game. I did a Google search, found this club, and have been coming ever since."
As I speak to other people at the club, it's clear that a lot of them are returning to Warhammer from necessary breaks. Rory has a theory as to why this is. "It's not a cheap hobby. When you're younger, you can only afford a couple of models a month; but when you're older, you begin to realise you can do a lot more with it." So just how much do you have to invest in a worthwhile Warhammer army? Jack carefully places one of his Chaos Army miniatures on the table, picks up his tape measure and sighs, lightly: "More than I'd care to say."
Jack goes on to tell me that all has not been well in the Warhammer world recently. In the summer of 2015, Games Workshop decided to revamp the game, replacing the original Fantasy Battle setup with Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. To say this caused a furore in the community is an understatement – a veritable tsunami of angry players began tweeting and posting their dissatisfaction. It pissed one guy off so much that he decided to burn his entire army in protest against the changes.
"They radically changed the rules," Jack tells me. "There was a lot of backlash from people like us, who thought Age of Sigmar basically wasn't a tactically satisfying game. We now play 9th Edition, which is a more creative version of the game." The rules of 9th Edition, or the "9th Age", were created by fans, and are more in line with the original WFB game. Rory tells me: "It's basically a community edition created by volunteers who've taken their own time to recreate what Games Workshop left behind. It's been all change around here!"
As the games unfold in front of me, I begin to get a fix on the rules. Dice are rolled to resolve conflicts, and tape measures are brandished to measure the distance the models can travel. What I'm really impressed with, though, is the painting. The models look fucking incredible, and I'm eager to find out more about this side of the hobby.
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Jim, a Warhammer 40k player with a beautifully painted collection, explains how important this element of the game is to him. "Some players are more into the gaming and the tactical side of it, but for me I love the miniatures themselves. I get a massive kick out of putting a load of work into something and then putting it on the table and having fun with it."
Sure, it all sounds like a nice hobby – but is there much of a real, competitive element to the game? You know, that same kind of edgy, tense feeling you get when trying to beat one of your mates at Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter. On a nearby table is a player who's electric with energy. He throws the dice like he's in a Vegas casino, and darts around the board, advancing a painted platoon towards his opponent. He's called Jason, and he's certain there's a seriously competitive element to these meet ups.
"Everybody is competitive," he says. "We're quite calm now, because the game is in its early stages. We're having a laugh and some beers. But when it comes to the critical dice rolls, things start getting tense." Nick, Jason's adversary, adds: "Basically, he's saying if he doesn't win, he's going to scream at me." Jason smiles. "I hope not, but I will." They both laugh.
Competition aside, all the trash talking is definitely taken in jest. What's really apparent about the evening is the friendly, sociable side of it all. It's very obvious that the gamers enjoy each other's company, and a shared love of Games Workshop. In a world where we're increasingly glued to screens, smartphones, hungover Netflix binges or PS4 games, there's an innocent beauty in witnessing a group of people meet up and engage in digital-free gaming. All you need is a few carefully crafted models, like-minded people to play with, some dice and a bit of good old-fashioned imagination.
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