Why are adults still launching tabletop war?


Fan Andrew Ruddick explains how Warhammer 40,000 is played

Warhammer 40,000 - set in a science fantasy universe - has just turned 25. Why are grown men still launching tabletop war?

You may have walked past one of the hundreds of Games Workshops on the High Street. You may even have wandered in, especially if you are a teenage boy or the parent of one.

If you know your Necrons (virtually invincible soulless metal warriors) from your Dark Eldar (sadistic elfin pirates), the chances are you are one of the dedicated tribe who have signed up to what fans call The Hobby.

Most days of the week, on table tops in "hobby centre" shops, in office lunchrooms, and bedrooms, players gather around home-constructed battle fields with miniature ruins and petrified forests. They assemble and paint small model fighters from a chosen army (several to collect) and using dice, tape measures and special rule books, battle rival militia in a fictional science fiction universe set in the 41st Millennium, called Warhammer 40,000.

Launched 25 years ago, 40K was so named to distinguish it from traditional fantasy Warhammer of elves and vampires. Both lines, together with a Lord of the Rings brand, continue to attract hundreds of thousands of new fans in Britain and across the world - 70% of sales are abroad.

Warhammer figures, images via Flickr from AdmGR, Jordan Louis and Victor Yoon Dark Eldar on left (photos by Jordan Louis); Necrons on right (photos by AdmGR and Victor Yoon)

The appeal is in collecting, assembling and painting the models, for play, which are manufactured in Nottingham (and Memphis, Tennessee) and sold through the Games Workshops chain and by mail order. Blood, torn flesh, grimacing skulls and very large guns and tanks feature prominently in the detailed artwork.

Despite the competition from online or console-based gaming, Warhammer continues to thrive, with successful spin-off novels set in the 40K universe. How many other British companies, for example, could report a 40% rise in their latest half-year pre-tax profits?

Fans in the company's dedicated gaming area in Nottingham A tournament at the company's castle-themed HQ

"It's like why theatre remains popular in the age of cinema," says 32-year-old Andrew Ruddick from Cambridge, explaining its enduring appeal. He describes himself as a "relapsed" Warhammer gamer, slipping back into it in his 20s with friends. "There's an intimacy. With tabletop gaming you are there."

Several hundred such gamers gather regularly at Games Workshop's Hall of Fame, next to its Nottingham factory, for tournaments. Most, but certainly not all, are male.

They play on teams with names like Alfa Geek, Purple Pain and I See Lead People. Heavy rule books or codices (all published by GW) are consulted intently. Templates and tape measures are used to confirm terrain advanced and numbers of casualties. Occasionally a whoop of victory goes up from a table.

Kathryn Turner, 13, is playing a doubles match with her father Stephen against two strapping 30-something blokes. The poker-face calm with which she deploys her Tyranids (world-devouring aliens) is impressive.

Start Quote

You need at least £200 just to set up a half-decent legal army”

End Quote Craig Lowdon

"It's fun and I like spending this time with my dad," she says. Her mother Sue is one of the crop of self-confessed Warhammer Widows who spend all day in the cafe. Kathryn admits to sometimes wearing pink on the first day to psych out the male opponents. "I'm moving on to play with Sisters of Battle next," she says - it's an army of fanatical warrior nuns with flamethrowers.

The whole aesthetic is, as Andrew Ruddick puts it "very masculine". But the appeal is its epic scale, says Warhammer fan and Marvel X-Men comic writer, Kieron Gillen. "It's a hilariously OTT maximalist universe at an operatic pitch. There are some people who think less is more. Warhammer, conversely, believes that more is always more."

Foot-high model Titans can be brought out for particular battles. "Warhammer gone nuts," as my 12-year-old son puts it.

Warhammer game in progress, photo by James Kroesch via Flickr Figurines are painted by hand

Gillen contrasts Warhammer 40K to role-playing fantasy gaming like the online World of Warcraft (the modern equivalent of Dungeons and Dragons). "In Warcraft it's made so there are no bad guys. In Warhammer there are no good guys. They're all bad. It's a universe that's simultaneously nihilistic and joyous. It's incredibly British in that way."

Gary Chalk, a 59-year-old fantasy game creator and illustrator, knows all about its Britishness. He used to design Warhammer and Warhammer 40K games in the 1980s and 90s. His trademark wit is evident in Bloodbath at Orc's Drift (an elvish version of the Michael Caine film Zulu) and a naval ship battle he called "All the Dwarves Love a Sailor". Still an enthusiastic table-top gamer, he does, however, believe Games Workshop uses its monopoly on the products to target and exploit increasingly younger fans. The prices for essential models, paints and books are "eyewatering", he says.

"They are not selling a hobby. They are selling a craze."

Several players say they feel exploited. "You need at least £200 just to set up a half-decent legal army for a game, and if you want a board and scenery to go to play with friends you're looking at least £200 on top of that," says Craig Lowdon, 25, of Crewe.

Games Workshop's executives say they don't do media interviews, preferring to focus on their hobbyists. But chief executive officer Mark Wells emails me about the claim of price exploitation. "That would go against everything we stand for. It's just not in our nature," he writes.

Fans in the company's dedicated gaming area in Nottingham Women and girls do play, but are outnumbered

And Chalk claims the game is now less interesting. "The original rules were about fantasy combat and creating character. Now the rules only work within their imaginary world, with their figures and it cuts out all the other influences."

But its legion of fans, including older fans, see a timeless appeal.

"[There's] the satisfaction of looking at ranks of badly-daubed Skaven (man-sized anthropomorphic rats) and knowing they're yours and you made them in a real way," says Kieron Gillen.

"It's absolutely the part of the brain that made other generations make model trains."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 346.

    Have never taken part myself, but have a 12-year old son with Asperger's who loves Warhammer 40K. Think this is an ideal hobby for him, with its endless cast of characters and complicated rules, all of which he knows off by heart. There is also a social element to the whole thing, which is very good for him. All things considered, can't recommend it highly enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    326 Samira Ahmed
    "Great to see all the comments. I note some concerns about the headline. wrote the feature. I didn't choose the headline and in fact set out very deliberately in the article NOT to stereotype by gender."

    Thank you for explaining this Samira; I had a feeling it was going to turn out to be the now infamous BBs editorial meddling and bias. I do wish they would stop doing this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 344.

    Condescending title! Well done for being imaginative there Samira. From my limited experience, this is more social than modern "gaming", more creative too. Why is this even about age? And how about those who play computer games? Read Harry Potter? Watch movies? I pity the writer, who seems to think that imagination and fun are reserved for kids. Samira must have a very limited life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 343.

    Sad to read a few negative comments from people, but each to their own. I do game myself so maybe I am biased towards the hobby.

    For the record I've known service men and women from officers to squaddies enjoy the hobby. I've known players from professional backgrounds such as lawyers and doctors as well as a one pro footballer, it takes all sorts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 342.

    Thanks for the update Samira.

    These games get the creative juices flowing in kids and adults alike. My six year old spent his £5 on a box of plastic Orcs the other day, choosing them over a shop full of regular kids toys.

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    Interesting, I actually know about half a dozen of the posters on here from various tournaments and the like!

  • rate this

    Comment number 340.


    "Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence." - C. S. Lewis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    "...claim of price exploitation. "That would go against everything we stand for. It's just not in our nature," - Mark Wells.

    Sadly doesn't bear up in light of the now annual price hike!

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    A once great idea now lacking the imagination and whit what got me into it.

    Most people I know who played wandered off because of the cost and the fact they keep closing down the games we liked to focus on the more profitable ones.

    We all stopped believing that they changed the rules to improve them (rather than because it made all your supplements obsolete) a long time ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    Nice to see that the debate over cost/quality is still alive and well.
    I agree that there is an element of "big business" to many of Games Workshops commercial strategies (more so than any other comparable UK company), but it IS a UK business success story. The game of "making games and models then selling them profitably" is sadly much more complex than any of the ones Games Workshop produce!

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.

    I played this avidly as a kid and still have the odd game when I can as a 31 year old... It always amazes me that people find this in any way bizarre when there are programs like "my big fat gypsy wedding" on TV... Who, what, why, pfff... Or even computer games, why is one activity cool and the other not? Table top games teach literacy, maths, creativity and art and strategy all in one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    294. Faff
    no one ever had too many Orks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 334.

    @326 Samira Ahmed

    Thanks for the feedback and info over the headline. I think sometimes editors should stop looking at putting sensationalism over information, and should certainly stop trying to inflict their own opinion on an article. Whilst bias is inevitable, I worry when that bias is being waved in my face.

  • rate this

    Comment number 333.

    Good for them! While never being into the tabletop battles and minutures, I've always been into the rest of the 40k universe, literature, video games ect. Each to their own. It's a shame that hobbies like this are looked down upon, usually by those who have better things to do with their money, like watch it spiral down a pub toilet in pursuit of the next hangover..

  • rate this

    Comment number 332.

    @ceorl alas, i live in Scotland and haven't painted in years, not since the GW in Stirling shut down, we (me, mum, brother) used to go every weekend, and there was a great atmosphere. After it shut we tried fife, but it was a lot further away and didn't come with quite the same amazing people. Most of the figures are in boxes somewhere. Except the dragon. He's on the mantelpiece.

  • rate this

    Comment number 331.

    Getting off topic here, but the MMO I've stuck with long enough is WoW, and in my experience it's been a very social thing. I meet up with my guild about twice a year irl, and some of them are as good friends as I've ever had.

    Didn't know JVC was into Warcraft and D&D, you may well be right, but are you sure you don't mean Vin Diesel (who is definitely a D&D and WoW fan).

  • rate this

    Comment number 330.

    "...claim of price exploitation. "That would go against everything we stand for. It's just not in our nature," - Mark Wells.

    Ha-Ha, lol!

    Example: 1, 10 man, legal Death Company (Psycho Space Knights) unit is £41.

    £41 for 10 25mm models is not exploitation? Yeah, right >.>

  • rate this

    Comment number 329.


    Yes, I have to agree with this. GW damaged the British RPG scene badly with their business policies. Ironic considering they originally made their name and money importing RPGs from the US and distributing them. But then they decided that Warhammer was where the money was, closed down their RPG business and put many smaller retailers out of business when they weren't actually competitors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 328.

    69 Rick Priestley
    "Now you'd think after all these years the beeb would dig out the chap who invented the game wouldn't you! Ah well... nice to see Warhammer 40K is still round and obviously retains its ability to enthrall, challange and entertain after 25 years. I only wish I could say the same:)"

    Well I found your comment v. entertaining Mr P - Thank you for inventing this timeless game!

  • rate this

    Comment number 327.

    The game is fun, the people are fun.
    The models cost too much(annual price rise), and quality is dropping.
    Failcast/Finecost/I meant Finecast anyone?.
    Much more consuming than kicking a ball about.


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