Warhammer: This is the Way the World Ends

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I remember my first encounter with Games Workshop: White Dwarf, issue 123. My mother, an ex-pat living in England, sent it to me. She knew that my brother and I were into Dungeons & Dragons. She saw White Dwarf and reckoned it was up our alley.

White Dwarf 123 didn’t have any Dungeons & Dragons material in it. Instead, it had weird stuff we’d never seen before. You can scroll through that scan of the magazine and see. Page after page of lead figures, painted up in garish colors. There are demons with big faces giving the reader the finger. Diagrams of tanks with drills and laser cannons. Humans in strange armor with guns. A whole section on what orc society is like in space.

I was taken with it. I mean taken with it. All of it was so British and 80s and heavy metal (it even says, in the painting galleries, that it’s “’Eavy Metal”) that it was completely outside my frame of reference. I loved D&D, but in those days the pictures of cool monsters were weighed down by dry text trying to get you to simulate drowning or falling or dimension hopping that 12 year old Ian glossed over in favor of going all in on little boy Monty Haul power trips. White Dwarf showed me something visceral and tangible. I could touch these miniatures, if I had them, and make them mine.

Above all, I was smitten with the battle report in the issue, Orcs vs Chaos (what the hell is Chaos?). In those days, Games Workshop limited their reports to diagrams of the action rather than photos, but it didn’t matter. I was looking at regiments of fantasy bad guys, fighting each other (bad guys fight each other?) with magic swords and demon wizards swooping around. I read and re-read that battle report. That was the game I wanted. The lone hero of D&D was fine, but the invisible general of a Warhammer army was even better.

So that’s what happened. I got Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer Siege. Then Warhammer 40000 (Rogue Trader, no real army lists!) and Blood Bowl. And Necromunda. And a White Dwarf subscription, several times. And Mordheim. And Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. And…

Well, you get the idea. I still loved roleplaying games, but my first love, for most of my life, was Games Workshop. Specifically, Warhammer Fantasy Battle. I collected armies. I painted them. I played them. In my teenage swagger, I lost my copy of Realm of Chaos: The Lost and the Damned—the greatest book Games Workshop ever published—in a game of 8-ball. I remember working at Cosmic Castle, Greensboro’s greatest gaming store, in 1995 and befriending a fellow GW nut, playing Necromunda in 10 hour sessions at his tiny house. I spent a 1996 vacation in Exeter, ostensibly to visit my mother, gaming all hours with the local store manager, a guy named Dan who loved raves, beer and Orks.

I worked their retail arm, briefly. 1999-2000, their store outside of Charlotte. My wife got into grad school in Greensboro, so we had to move. Games Workshop, by this time, had grown depressingly corporate, but it was still the best retail job I’d ever worked. I remember Brendon, my manager, asking me not to. I said I had to. I wanted to. I was still broken up. On my last day, a gas main broke outside Concord Mills Mall, shooting flame 100 feet into the air and shutting down everything within a 10 mile radius. I didn’t really get to say goodbye.

I have on my shelf a Dwarf army, an Orc army and a Chaos army. In boxes, I have Bretonnian and Skaven armies. Then I have some Warhammer 40000 armies. Three Epic armies (you can play with tiny tanks?), five Necromunda gangs, seven Mordheim gangs, and two Warmaster armies.

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Games Workshop is killing Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Not technically. The name will still be the same. But they are killing it. Over the past year, they’ve cooked up a story that ends with blowing up the world.

Novels are being released, as are army lists and miniatures so you can fight the End Times, as they’re calling it. Quite against historical type, the good guys are lining up on one side and the baddies on the other for a big conflict. The writing is, if the final snippet is anything to go by, less than stellar. But there’s been plenty of bad writing out of Games Workshop’s fiction wing (and a bit of good), so that’s not that different from the norm. What is different is that this time they’re not joking about ending the world after flirting with it and always backing down.

The rumors are remarkably consistent about what’s coming, though the small details will almost certainly not be 100% correct when everything is out. A new edition of Warhammer is coming out this summer and it’s taking the game in a nearly unrecognizable direction. The regimented combat, with ranks of troops, will be scuttled in favor of a skirmish system, a la Warhammer 40000. Armies are likely being condensed, meaning there will be a single elf army, a single human army, etc. Humans will, the reliable rumors state, get some sort of Space Marine style troops; the old conventional wisdom that Space Marines outsell every other Warhammer 40000 army combined will be put to the test.

But it’s the fictional world where it takes place where the changes won’t be rolled back. The Warhammer World is going to turn into a series of pocket realities, chunks of the destroyed world crashing into one another, each ruled and fought over by different faction. It’s grim. It’s dark. It blew up.

The tail is wagging the dog here. Since they became a publicly traded company, Games Workshop has backed themselves into a very difficult corner. The drastic changes to Warhammer are coming because they feel they must consolidate their miniatures lines in order to remain profitable. Well into the first release of the End Times material, the going speculation was that Warhammer was due to be cancelled completely. There’s a whiff of the most annoying aspects of comic book continuity reboots around this, a sense from the outside (and I am on the outside now) that this is all being done to revitalize a flagging business. The New 52 of wargaming.

Because there should not be any mistake: Games Workshop is a woefully run company. As their customer base shrank in the face of videogames and repeated price increases, the company doubled down on the soaring costs, describing their products more frequently as luxury products. A cycle was created that justified further price increases because fewer people were playing due to those same soaring costs. But that’s only their largest mistake.

Games Workshop decided to join the Mills Malls chain of megamalls at the hip, locking in a deal with huge rents and overhead just as the golden age of malls was ending; this has ended up leading to the absurd spectacle over the past decade of mass store closings before opening new, smaller stores in similar locations. They were slow to leverage their greatest strength, their IP, into regular, quality videogame releases. They’ve been actively antagonistic to independent retailers, while pushing their in-store staff to double as both aggressive salespeople and solitary workers (their stores are now operated by only one or two people to cut costs). Over the past few years, they’ve become trademark trolls, suing anyone who’s used the words “space” and “marine” side by side. The company even went so far as to shut down fansites doing nothing more than hosting images of miniatures.

Despite all of these efforts to shore up their stock, all of this culminated in last year’s cratering of their stock. A year later, Games Workshop’s stock is trading at roughly the same amount as it was post-crash.

Which is all rather inside baseball, but everything Games Workshop does now and has done for well over 15 years is driven by their board’s monomaniacal pursuit of every ounce of profit they can. The problem is that the company is run by people just smart enough to keep the doors open but way too stupid to actually fix the mess. So we wait, like vultures, for the inevitable death rattle in ten or fifteen years when the weight of the whole thing makes it come crashing down.

And that’s how we got here, with Warhammer’s fictional implosion driven purely by internal profit reports. It’s not a great world in the way that we think of Middle-earth or Elric’s alternate Earth. But it was, in the gaming space, a consistent world. That matters. It was so good because it never changed, not despite that fact. Even Greyhawk changed drastically over 40 years. The Warhammer World let you explore its margins and pound parts of it to dust while keeping it as is for the next go, secure in the knowledge that, if a big change were to happen, it happened at your table and not because a hacky writer a thousand miles away fell in love with the smell of his own farts. It very certainly, in those early days, was a million miles away from boardrooms and demographic reports.

I always try to be hyper-aware of being the old guy ranting about the things I grew up with changing. You don’t get to hang onto everything, forever. I also try to judge adaptations of things I love on their own merits, rather than how they map to my expectations as a long-time fan. This is why I love the Lord of the Rings movies but find The Hobbit trash; both alter Tolkien’s works, often dramatically, but one is a series of bad movies while the other isn’t.

So it is with Warhammer. It is now, in almost every way, the opposite of what it once was and it is, and has been, bad. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the game is unrecognizable now, even as it’s set to become even more so with the upcoming edition changeover. What was once strange and funny, filled with puns and bad German translations, the output of a bunch of drunk metalheads, is now staid and dumb, cautious in all of the wrong ways while still finding ways to take chances in the strangest fashion.

In honesty, Warhammer died long ago. Almost all of the people who made Games Workshop so compelling are either gone or marginalized. Bryan Ansell inexplicably owns a manor house. Rick Priestley’s making other games. They kicked Jervis Johnson upstairs and trot him out a few times a year to assure the older players that things are just fine. Andy Chambers was at Blizzard writing for Starcraft II. Even the second wave folks, like Alessio Cavatore, are long gone.

My miniatures sit on shelves, untouched for 12 years now. I was priced out and burned out. I remember going to a store to play after I’d moved to Raleigh and it just wasn’t fun. People were gawking and yelling as my friend and I played our game. Then I glanced at the store’s stock and knew the prices were simply too much. When the game was over I knew that I was, simply, done, half by choice and half forced out.

I’ve been surprised at how much Games Workshop can still annoy me, given the gap in my playing. It feels rather self-indulgent. But it’s the way games can, in their best moments, work. Warhammer and all of those other games aren’t reminders of my childhood for me to wallow in, but a chain linking my adolescence to my adulthood. It wasn’t just me growing up, but Games Workshop, too. Only Games Workshop grew up to be pretty rotten, the lumbering, obnoxious, dim-witted cousin we all have, and I grew up to be alright.

That’s an awful shame because something cool and unique is about to be lost if this all shakes out the way it seems. But that’s also maybe not unexpected, given the trajectory of Games Workshop’s history. At the least, for me the coffin can be closed and the lights turned out. The Warhammer World is dead—may it never be reanimated by a level 25 necromancer.

Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.

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