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.

Sunday 3 July 2011

White Dwarf Retrospective - 121 January 1990

Today's post heralds the start of a new semi-regular feature (I hope). As I have mentioned a few times before, my Chaos Warband building has had me looking back over old White Dwarfs looking for images and inspiration. The amount that the magazine has changed over the time is striking, but what surprised me is how much I had forgotten about how it used to be when I first started collecting. With that in mind, I am going to take a close look at one issue a year until I reach the end of my collection and see if I can chart the changes as they emerge.

For my first issue I will be looking at the very first issue of White Dwarf I ever bought, issue 121 dated January 1990. This makes the magazine a little over 21 and old enough to drink in America, making me feel extremely old. Back in 1990 it cost the princely sum of £1.50. The cover image, by David Gallagher, reflects one of the main features, a preview of new Warhammer 40,000 Ork models and rules, and depicts two Ork warbands meeting accidentally and violently. It became a very well used image, appearing on the front cover of the plastic Space Orks boxed set, the Epic Ork Invasion set and the cover of the Ork rule book 'Ere We Go.

Starting at the beginning of the magazine, one of the most striking things is the absence of a list of new miniatures and prices. Instead, almost at the start of the magazine, is a listing of Games Workshop stores (a very short list) and after a few pages of adverts we reach the preview page = Culture shock. This very wordy column offers information about expansions for Space Hulk, Epic and Bloodbowl as well as Games Workshops slightly bizarre foray into Heavy Metal music production with a news item about the band Bolt Thrower. The feel is very haphazard, with Games Workshop willing to talk about products still some time from release, in contrast to their modern emphasis on controlled news access.

The major news preview comes later in the magazine however with an 8 page preview of new Ork models and the 'Waagh the Orks' background book for Warhammer 40,000. By modern standards, its quite an odd preview. There are no detailed design notes, information about rules or anything approaching a release schedule. It doesn't even focus solely on one game, with material about Epic mixed in with Warhammer 40,000. Games Workshop appear to be previewing a change of aesthetic to their orks more than anything else.

Introduction to the new Orks

There is a lot of new rules material in this issue, much of which is White Dwarf specific, not a preview for a new game or supplement. The major preview material is 'the Gifts and Magic of Nurgle' article which would be reproduced exactly in the Realms of Chaos: the Lost and the Damned book, but it would be usable to any player with a copy of Slaves to Darkness and keen to start a Nurgle warband. In addition to this we have a quest for Advanced HeroQuest, the more 'advanced' dungeon-crawl spin-off to HeroQuest which I have written about before, rules for Chaos Terminators in Space Hulk (the first of a two part article) and one part of an ongoing series for Warhammer fantasy Roleplay. The last details part of the city of Marienburg and was intended to be collected into a supplement, but was ultimately never completed (the Marienburg supplement released years later by HogsHead publishing contained different material). This was not uncommon for Games Workshop at the time who would often release material in White Dwarf before collecting it together, sometimes they didn't get round to releasing the full collection.

The 'Eavy Metal pages, a show case for painted models, seems quite chaotically assembled, with pictures of whatever the studio painters have been working on regardless of any consistent theme. There are a few images of soon to be released miniatures, but these are almost thrown away, mixed in as they are with conversions and already available models A particular highlight is a page of heavily converted Titans by John Blanche. Also of interest is the two pages of dense text given over to explaining how the miniatures were painted and converted. Even if it mostly just describes the colours used, it is still welcome and helps to elevate the pages above simple eye candy. The 2D counterpart to 'Eavy Metal is Illuminations, a 4 page article given over to showing off the art work of Kev Walker which, perhaps surprisingly, is entirely black and white.

The Lack of colour throughout is quite jarring. Most of the magazine, and all of rules material is in black and white, including half the Ork preview. Colour is reserved for where it is most necessary, Eavy Metal and, no not Illuminations, but adverts. It seems very odd to see non-Games Workshop adverts in White Dwarf, even if they are decidedly unusual - a play by mail roleplaying for example. This issue also features two large double-page ads for Talisman and Bloodbowl. These are actually useful introductions to the games and available materials, but were sadly not used again in the magazine.

This is unfortunate as there is very little for new players. At time I was enamoured by the Ork preview and spent ages pouring over rules and tables in Realms of Chaos without having a clue what they were for. It was a good thing for Games Workshop that I had this mind-set, because there is nothing to ease in the new players or introduce the games. This would not be so bad these days, when Games Workshop stores are fully geared up to introduce new players to the hobby, but back in the early 1990s Games Workshop stores were slightly baffling and intimidating places for new players.

So in summary, the issue contains lots of useful rules content for several different games so there was probably something of interest to most players. On the other hand, diversity of games material means that you would have to be pretty committed to Games Workshops full range of products to get use out of all of it. Also, as valuable as the content is to an experienced player, it is actively confusing to a new one. While it may have been my introduction to Games Workshop hobby, it was a somewhat confusing one to say the least.