Sunday, 17 July 2011

Change for the Better?

In my previous post, looking at an old issue White Dwarf, I commented on the lack of material for new players and the way in which most articles were mysterious, even impenetrable, to anyone not already steeped in Games Workshop background lore. This has lead me to reflect a little on my entry into the wargaming hobby and Games Workshop in particular.

Back in the 1990s there were fewer Games Workshop stores about, but still plenty, and, once I had discovered White Dwarf it wasn't hard to track one down. My first experiences were simulatenously enthralling and baffling. Whilst Games Workshop of old did maintain gaming and painting tables to support players, the carefully pitched sales routines with intro games were still well into the future. Games Workshop was also a much more diverse company selling a number of gaming systems: Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000; Space Hulk; Epic; Advanced HeroQuest; Blood Bowl; Dark Future. Even Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, board games like Talisman and Dungeon Quest, and the child friendly troll games had space within the store and, usually, a range of miniatures to go with them. There was no easy division of the store in Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000 and Lord of the Rings.

It didn't help that branding was also more diverse. Each individual race for Warhammer or Warhammer 40,000 had its own blister pack design, with separate designs for Epic and Blood Bowl, also broken down by race. Boxed sets, though usually strikingly designed, were similarly diverse, with only small references to games systems and logos unique to that particular box. Often they would have rules references on the back of the boxes that referred to earlier editions of the games, which further added to the confusion.

The rules were also not well organised. Most games were sold as boxed sets, with the notable exception of the big two, Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40,000, both of which were sold as rule books. For Warhammer there was also the Warhammer Armies book, which contained all the army lists for 3rd edition except individual Chaos Powers (which were in Realms of Chaos), so getting started wasn't too hard. Warhammer 40,000, in contrast, was a mess.

There was no consistency at all to the way rulebooks were presented. The majority of army lists started out as White Dwarf articles which were later collected into two books: the Warhammer 40,000 Compendium and the Warhammer 40,000 compilation. The former had lists for Space Marines, Squats and Imperial Guard, the latter Eldar and Genestealers, though it also had supplemental material for the Space Marines. The Orks were strangely well supported, with two huge, hardback rule books: "'Ere we Go" and "Freebooterz". Chaos was, again, covered by the Realms books. Then the designers started tinkering with the basic rules of Warhammer 40,000 without releasing a new edition. They rewrote the vehicle rules and released the Vehicle manual to cover the changes, then they rewrote the close combat and many of the weapon rules and released the Combat manual. By the end of 1st edition the only rules you would actually use the main rulebook for were movement.

Then there was the packing of the models, which often failed to reflect the way they were used in games. For example, Eldar Aspect Warriors were fielded in strict squads of five (except Dark Reapers who got three), initially this was how they were sold, but Games Workshop then started selling them in packs of four. Exarchs, meanwhile, were sold in packs of two identical models. The packs were much cheaper back then, but you were still left with redundant models you couldn't use. Warhammer was little better, I once bought a goblin regiment pack containing 12 models. It was a bargain at the time, but while most of the models had swords and shields, four were equipped with bows, rendering them unusable as a single regiment.

The problem for new players was that it wasn't clear where you should start. There were too many games and no clear advice, not even an introductory leaflet. I'm sure the store staff would have assisted me had I asked, and I'm sure plenty did. But the staff did not, at that time, trained to approach new gamers and ease them in.

Things started to change as Games Workshop introduced fourth edition Warhammer and second edition Warhammer 40,000. They started to move to consistent branding, focused on easy to read rules with good introductory rules and realigned their supplements to focus on individual armies. Things weren't perfect, they still sold Warhammer infantry in packs of four, with command groups in threes, making it unnecessarily hard to put together a regiment, and some models described in army lists weren't released until sixth or even seventh edition, but, at last, there was a clear path for the new player. It's probably no coincidence that it was then that Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 really took off with my friends, who had been reluctant participants at best until then.

Of course, in retrospect, it was also the point for many that Games Workshop started to go downhill. The diversity and creative freedom, as well as a White Dwarf magazine with useful hobby material, started to drift away. Arguably GW went too far in the opposite direction, focusing on an endless cycle of new players at the expense of the veterans.

It's not just Games Workshop that has changed of course. The industry as a whole has become more focused and, I would argue, more professional. As technology has advanced, graphic design has gotten easier and rulebooks are better printed and presented than before. Most fantasy and sci-fi games offer starter sets of one sort or another and starter rules have become easily available through the Internet. Historical wargaming also seems more accessible now, with more appealing rule books and companies more willing to provide starter armies. The internet is naturally a first port of call for the budding new wargamer.

I have been wallowing in nostalgia a bit these last few weeks. Don't get me wrong, it has been enormously enjoyable to revisit old White Dwarfs and rule books as I prepare my Chaos Warbands, but it is easy to slip on Rose-tinted spectacles. The hobby has changed greatly in the last twenty years and it would be a mistake to ignore the positives and focus on the negative. One thing I can say, is that it is easier to start out as a wargamer than ever before.


  1. Excellent article - oh the nostalgia for the nineties - LOL - I went to the first GW at Dalling Road back in the late seventies.

    There I bought the Traveller boxed set, board games like Spellmaker and 25mm Citadel medievals, vikings and Spacefarers. Im sure my first 15mm Laserburn Sci Fi came from there as well plus some American 28mm lines.

    My early White Dwarfs are an eclectic mix of articles. Still enjotable to read. I'm not a GW gamer in any way today but I still buy White Dwarf for the painting and modelling articles or the occasional eyecandy.

    Great blog. Thanks


  2. I've got a question that doesn't have much to do with your entry. But I couldn't find an email for you...and I suppose it's a reflection type of question. Anyway,

    I've only played WWII mini gaming and a couple of Future War Commander. The whole fantasy side of things (and Samurai) fascinate me. However, I must say that I don't understand the appeal to the style of gaming. Moving big blocks of troops for optimal position, then moving together for melee (close combat, etc) and then withdraw or take ground. It seems some what stale...

    I'm not quite sure and I must be wrong, because fantasy and ancient battles is pretty popular so there must be more to it.

    Can you tell me what appeals to you about this style of gaming vs more mobile shooting style of modern/sci fi gaming?