Games Workshop In The 21st Century

At some point in Britain’s modern history, a small idea was cultivated in an unassuming building. People designed and created something. No-one at the point of conception understood how influential this idea would come to be, or imagined it ever becoming a byword for a nihilistic fiction full of apathy, misery, and anger.

But enough about Brexit, let’s talk about something the U.K. can be proud of: Warhammer.

Warhammer has long been the go-to for punching down on nerds. Netflix’s latest high school show Sex Education has a character called “Warhammer Tom”, a stereotypically awkward geek, and even Stewart Lee takes a jab at the hobby in his latest stand-up show (although apparently his son is a big fan). It’s a hobby where the popular perception, fairly or otherwise, is of beardy people wearing ill-fitting band t-shirts in musty basements filled with miniatures.

Despite this long-standing image, Games Workshop has been in the news multiple times in the last year reporting huge growth and profits amid the financial insecurity of Brexit. With its products designed and produced at the Lenton Lane office in Nottingham, Games Workshop remains a Great British Export, a homegrown and homemade take on sci-fi and fantasy that has influenced many other fictional words – most notably, Warcraft and Starcraft.


Even if you’ve never been in one of the stores, or seen the tabletop game being played, it’s likely you’ve managed to catch sight of one of the 16 different games released from the company across PC, console and mobile in the past 12 months. From Age of Sigmar: Champions, to Vermintide 2 and Gladius, Games Workshop is slowly capitalising on its unique worlds and its long history of diverse tabletop games. It wasn't always like this: for years the company managed to both piss off long-term fans, and made relatively poor use of its IPs in the wider games industry. To understand how and why things have changed, the most important recent happening is from 2015.

Back in these dark times, when Games Workshop was still under the charge of CEO Tom Kirby (best known for keeping the company an inscrutable black box and delivering pithy statements along with their financial statements), the company dropped the guillotine on the Warhammer Fantasy Battle games system, and replaced it with the far less involved Age of Sigmar. This was an incredibly rocky transition; the design team streamlined all of the bloat down to a four-page rule system, eliminated the long-standing points-per-model and list-building balance systems, and asked players to just enjoy having narrative-based fun.

The idea behind all of this may have been noble, and there's no argument that Warhammer as it was had accumulated too much arcana over the years. But the implementation of Age of Sigmar had the unfortunate side-effect of creating unit rules full of silly things such as granting bonuses for talking in a funny voice, or having a beard, the kind of silly changes that upset much of its most ardent fanbase. Some incredibly level-headed individuals sold their whole collection. One man burned a lot of perfectly good Dark Elves (if you watch this video, turn down your speakers because he films them burning to very loud heavy metal).


Suffice to say, it all went terribly. The fact Games Workshop has since posted record profits shows the subsequent dramatic change in how the company operates, which most outside observers put down squarely to the replacement of Tom Kirby with a new CEO, Kevin Rountree. Rountree immediately set about undoing the 'black box' feel that had defined Games Workshop since the early 90s and, under his stewardship, the company has gradually opened up like some wonderful arcane flower.

Now Games Workshop is constantly teasing new releases, opening dialogue with fans, and creating content and conversation that befits the modern era in the form of YouTube painting tutorials, Facebook pages, frequent and friendly Twitch streams, interviews, podcasts, comics... you name it, and Games Workshop has probably tried in in the past year or two.

Well, apart from Twitter, because some things are too grim for even the company that made 'grimdark' a household word.

Age of Sigmar folded traditional styles of points and organised play back into itself with its 'Three Ways to Play' – matched, open and narrative – in an attempt to compromise with fans who had abandoned the game. It worked, people slowly started to test the waters, and Age of Sigmar started to receive greater support, frequent FAQs, and a clear direction for its previously loose setting and narrative.

Alongside this, Games Workshop continued licensing its IP out to developers, but with a much higher frequency. In truth it often looked like a scattershot 'let's see what sticks' approach, with many titles being nothing but odd fan curios (Warhammer battle chess, anyone?) Games Workshop has nonetheless struck gold with Total War: Warhammer, Blood Bowl, Battlefleet Gothic: Armada, Vermintide 1 and 2, Mordheim, Gladius, and many others.


Most notably, games like Total War and Armada act as a sort of extra life for game systems that are now no longer supported in plastic and resin. This is true of Total War especially, which functions as an attempt to preserve the Old World of Warhammer Fantasy in digital amber, allowing factions that are no longer sold for Age of Sigmar (such as Tomb Kings and Bretonnians) and factions that never received models (such as the Vampire Coasts) to exist in an eternal re-enactment of the End Times.

This is much more than lip service, as preserving these worlds has allowed Games Workshop to look forward with its main game systems. Age of Sigmar is no longer hemmed-in by the minutiae that accrued over 20+ years of fiction plotting the rise and fall of the old world, and has allowed Games Workshop’s designers to create factions that take aspects of their progenitors and turn everything up to 11.

The Idoneth Deepkin take the sadistic, seafaring Dark Elves from Warhammer Fantasy Battle and gives us soulless thralls that ride giant eels and turtles into battle on magic mists. The recently released Gloomspite Gitz take the iconic goblins and turn them into moon-worshipping zealots that dose on hallucinogenic mushrooms and manifest their bad trips into weaponised magic. Dwarves have been reinvented as two new factions, one trying to reforge their god through the mercenary acquisition of UrGold, the other a hyper-capitalist society of airship-piloting engineers.

Warhammer 40,000 has also undergone a similar revamp, though the reboot was much softer: rules were streamlined, but a fan-pleasing degree of granularity was retained. The narrative, long stalled at five minutes to midnight and far too concerned with its fictional past, has taken a few steps forward, and rather than following Age of Sigmar by dive-bombing into a pool full of lurid prog album covers, has introduced new key characters and teases of future revelations.


Which neatly ties into the next part of the puzzle: the once-inscrutable Games Workshop has discovered that it's fantastic at teasing. The company now routinely lets fans know what is coming up next and, amidst the slow trickle of leaks from the design studio, responds with well-produced and tongue in-cheek videos that show off their creations in a new light. Many of these new models find themselves packed with boxed games such as the recently released Kill Team, Warhammer Underworlds: Nightvault, and Blackstone Fortress.

The phrase 'expanded universe' is now familiar, but rarely has a universe ever felt so in need of those narrative links. Now something like Nightvault points towards where the narrative may go next, highlighting key characters in the current Age of Sigmar narrative (with three of its proposed eight warbands receiving full army updates in the last 12 months). Blackstone Fortress, aside from being a wonderful board game, ties neatly in with the rising presence of Abaddon’s Black Legion in the tabletop game, and may well feed into the narrative of the upcoming Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2. Trust me here, Blackstone Fortresses are a big deal in space.

If this is all getting a little inside baseball, it’s because it is. Warhammer is that kind of hobby: a commitment, not a dalliance. It invites people to take their time and soak in it, and many of the current crop of fans are, like myself, adults returning to the hobby with more disposable income but different expectations. This is also why the broad IP licensing has worked so well, because not everyone has the time, patience, or money to collect and paint an army of little people/robots/daemons any more, even if they still want to indulge in a spot of Warhammer.

Games Workshop’s final step was to take the original idea behind Age of Sigmar, which was all about widening the appeal of its products, and do it right. The fact that the company has a captive audience has, in the past, led to high prices and no obvious route into many of its core offerings. Now, the boxed games are packed full of heavily discounted and incredible-looking models, and each 'core set' for its two flagships works as a self-contained game as well as a foundation for scaling up.

Even the model-building itself has benefitted from this approach. Certain miniatures are now produced as 'easy to build' kits, with cheaper sprues that are monopose pieces of incredibly technical wizardry, which clip together with no glue but are resplendent in detail and dynamism.

None of these changes on their own might have made the difference, but together they were the shot in the arm that this beloved company sorely needed. Games Workshop for too long felt like it took itself too seriously, and prioritised a high-spending hardcore audience over more casual players who, y'know, kinda like Warhammer but haven't got the time or cash for the full 'traditional' experience. Now the barrier to entry is lower than it's ever been and, in my experience, that's broadened and enriched the community as a whole.

Games Workshop still has a way to go, as the clientele in my local doesn’t appear to have changed much, but it’s started the process. In a wider sense, the rise in the commercial fortunes of the board game industry in past decades has made a once-niche hobby a profitable juggernaut, so it’s no surprise that Games Workshop is both benefiting and doing its best to play catch-up. The next few years will be crucial as it settles into this new identity, and confronts a few long-standing problems that persist (a lack of female characters in the model range is a long-standing and these days indefensible criticism).

For long-term and lapsed fans, these last years have seen Games Workshop become something we can evangelise about again. Painting and finding like-minded hobbyists has always been incredibly rewarding for the creative outlet, but these days there's an extra level of fun in speculating and theory-crafting on their designers' latest teases. This simply wasn't part of the experience before Games Workshop's more open approach, but it shows how a positive attitude to your community's enthusiasm can manifest in all sorts of unexpected ways. That community itself, for my money, has felt far more welcoming and positive in recent years too.

For fans of the Old World, the Total Warhammer series beautifully preserves a slice of tabletop history, the definitive realisation of that world in digital form. For the rest of us the future no longer looks quite so grimdark even if, as always, there is only war.

This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.


Comments

    Thought I was on Bell of Lost Souls for a moment.

    40K has actually taken a lot of my attention away from video games over the past 2 years.

    While Games Workshop has obviously started kicking some real goals... I also blame this on the rise of the soulless live-service video game.
    It's just far more rewarding to spend time painting miniatures, playing the odd skirmish, reading the novels and just generally immersing yourself in some lore than it is to log in for a "daily reward" or to spend "game-bucks" on otherwise locked skins.

    There are only a few games which have really been able to take on similar mindshare. Stuff like BOTW, H:ZD, GOW.

    For long-term and lapsed fans, these last years have seen Games Workshop become something we can evangelise about again.

    Yeah... nah...

    As much as I love what the games used to be and, to an extent, still are, the constant churn that Games Workshop has practised since the 90s in order to grow profits sickens me. It's almost a version of the 'season pass' that has pervaded multiplayer video games, where if you don't have the latest maps, you are having a second-class experience. With Games Workshop, spewing out update after update not only to army lists but to system rules and add-ons, you can't just enjoy collecting and painting your chosen army (or armies) if you want to be able to play with others. You need to constantly buy updated rules and updated source books, otherwise its like showing up to a modern day LAN party (if those even exist) with your old DOS-based IBM XT.

    Anyway, that's my rant. Still love my Dark Angels and LotR armies though.

      True, though as a fan since the Rogue Trader era I feel that the rules n mechanics of the game are currently in such good form. Changes needed to happen, it was so bloated and convoluted. The games play quick, feel good and hopefully they won't churn put a newer iteration for quite a while. It's brought me back to semi-regular matches with friends after only focussing on the modelling side of things for over a decade (due to the games playing like arse). Plus they brought back Necromunda- the best grimdark, cyberpunk-ish, gang warfare simulator ever! Pro-tip: for anyone anyone thinking of dipping a toe into 40: Necro is a fantastic entry to the universe. Managing a dozen gang minis is far quicker, easier and cheaper than collecting a whole damn army full of squads, tanks, giant robots n monsters!

        Sorry, I'm not caffeinated yet this morning. My phone typing is all over the place!

        I love Necromunda. Not such a huge fan of the new minis though. I like the Jes Goodwin originals. I should finish painting my Van Saar gang one of these days...

          Agreed, though the new weapon types look very interesting. My old Escher gang haven't survived the years very well since I used to play local store tournaments with em every weekend, sadly.

      It was a few years back, the latest rules update for 40K came along, and I realised that I was looking at around $600 just to get to a point where I could keep going with just one of the armies I had on hand. And that was pretty much it.

      These days my gaming focus is on FFG's Star Wars titles, which have a far lower base cost.

    Kill team is my jam. I don't quite have the money I used from when I worked two jobs so a table top game for roughly is perfect for my nerd itch, I just wish I was less impulsive and bought a competitive army instead of one that just looks good.

      It's ALL about the fluff. Never about the crunch. Just be awesome!

        I went T'au to GK and are currently working on a Dorn's angry bois squad.

          Hey if you wanna go FULL FLUFF with tau, look up "The Eight" in the latest Chapter Approved book (or online). Never have such cool mini's of mech suits looked so good and performed so terribly in-game! Yes, you too can look badass and play on the tabletop equivalent of Nightmare difficulty setting!

            The problem is that xv25s aren't in kt yet and when they get included they will not include the same kit.

      What did you buy? Orks? Tau?

        Lol Tau then GK. From bad to average.

        To be fair GK haven't done too bad, even if one attack is garbage.

      I still can't decide the composition of an Adeptus Mechanicus kill team. There are so many options. I am sad that I can't take a tank any more in an Imperial Guard kill team.

    Kill Team is a great entry point - not many models required, good rules, looks of creativity with scenery etc, only need a normal table. There are SO many great painting/scenery Youtubers out there too (including Luke Towan from Australia - super awesome).

    I've recently gotten into miniature painting (starting with the Dark Souls board game mini's) and boy is it super relaxing to do. I look forward to setting a night aside to just paint one.

    I recently decided to get back into the hobby when I found out about the Warhammer 40k conquest magazine as it seems a pretty great way to get both miniatures and paints for cheap. A few years ago I used to collect warhammer fantasy but I stopped around about the time they changed the paint range so they could copyright the names. For anyone else who is interested the this is the magazine I was talking about (the first issue comes with 3 minis and 3 paints):
    https://www.warhammer40000conquest.com/

      Yeah that whole renaming cuz copyright thing is pretty funny. Seeing some of my more "beardy" mates losing their shit because eldar are now aeldari and drukhari (yeah, I probably spelt them wrong. Oops...) and Imperial Guard becoming Astra Militarum ...Ugh.
      _- cue- holding down bile -_ yeah, that rubbed some folks the wrong way. Orcs becoming Orruks _- cue- Linda Blair-esque Power Vomiting- B_urp! Gag! Retch! -_ Yep...There goes breakfast. Thank Jeebus that 40k kept Orks as a trademark (by dint of the K), tho 'tis a shame that Black Templars are never heard of anymore due to all this trademarky stuff and it must burn em right up that they can't trademark the name of their eternal, 40k posterboys: the yawnworthy UltraSmurfs! It's a bit hard to copyright an already established colour (Ultramarine for anyone not familiar with the games), I suppose. That didn't stop "Minion Yellow" being a thing tho... I just hope that Squats someday (or even a totally brand new race) make an appearance.

      I'm afraid that you are misinformed about the paint change situation. The reason that GW changed a whole bunch of the paint names is that they changed paint manufacture. They changed the names as their new manufacture couldn't match 100% the existing colours, so they made the (in my opinion correct) decision to make it clear that the new paint are not 1 to 1 replacements for the old ones, with the colours being slightly different shades. This also why they change the style of paint pots, and are now able to produce a much wider range of paints, including their technical paints.

      This is a problem that appears regarding any online discussion about games workshop. Instead of looking at the situation and taking the most obvious answer (they changed paint providers and to assist in the transition, they gave the paints new names), you get people presenting outlandish conspiracies that they changed the paints to allow them to trademark (the term you actually meant) the names.

    I said to myself "I'm done with Warhammer and GW... I don't have the time to play this". So we got ourselves a few boardgames. We picked up Zombicide.

    Oh god it was addictive.

    Then I bought everything Zombicide. Moderncide, Black Plague, Green Horde and all their add ons and kickstarter related stuffs over a year or so. Now I have it all and have Invader incoming.

    I once lamented having a few hundred GW models to paint. Now I sit here, having nearly 2000 zombicide, Massive Darkness and Arcadia Quest models to finish.

    *sigh* Why do I do this to myself.

      Oh hell no! Just too many mini's to paint in that game! Gawd ive been tempted tho... but I can feel my half painted Tau and Orks, not to mention the scattered remnants of my ancient Chaos n Space Wolf armies glaring daggers n laser beams @ the back of my head as I type this!

        I'll say one thing, thank god for Armypainter Quickshade. Bought 2 cans of Strong Tone quickshade, I undercoat all the zombies, paint on basic colours, hit em with quickshade, they look great then. Then hit them with some matte varnish. After that, to hell with highlights unless they're 'character zombies'! A generous few dabs of blood here and there also hides the fact they're undetailed :)

        Only ones I actually put detail effort into are the Abominations, Fatties, Player Characters and Dragons. Normal zombies? Noooo freaking way. lol.

        That being said, Black Plague is the best one so far imho, and goddamn it's addictive...

      Could be worse...i backed Kingdom Death.... the first ks and the recent one and went all in for all the expansions and extra minis... i have veritable plethora of minis that wil never get painted xD

        Just started playing KD recently. I was a little skeptical initially but fuck it's good. The best bit is one of the guys in my gaming group wants to do all the painting. Huzzah!

      haha so true. I don't know anyone who's into GW/mini games generally that doesn't have like, 20 unfinished projects sitting around. A horde of gray waiting for a lick of paint (mostly waiting in vain in my case tbh...). Zombicide is great too hey, only played it once or twice but was a heap of fun.

        Indeed, it's great fun but can get tedious if you try to play multiple games in a row or throw too many 'power characters' in there. If we're playing seriously, we introduce house rules into the game such as 'basic zombies always spawn at double the rate' to encourage larger hordes and 'power characters are banned', such as characters who you can choose (such as the Wonder Woman parody character) who can essentially kill EVERYTHING from the getgo with their bare hands. Those characters are novel but break the game.

        Oh, then there's the house rule where we introduced ammunition counts :) We essentially made a way of 'finding ammunition', so that in modern zombicide, you could actually run out of bullets and in Black Plague, run out of arrows etc. It definitely made stuff a whole lot more tense when you have to be more strategic with your shots :)

    You know what I'd like them to re-make? Although it might be a licensing nightmare since it was a Milton Bradley game set in the Warhammer universe- Hero Quest. And Space Crusade (which was slightly less awesome). They were so fun and easy too play. They got me into the gaming side of things instead of just painting the figures. Damn, I really wanna play it now!

      Sooo good. Hero Quest and Space Crusade were basically the start of my GW addiction. I think I still have a copy of them around somewhere, might dust them off for a run soon. Thanks for the reminder!

        I used to ring the distributors of Space Crusade/HQ as a kid (was it Milton Bradley??? I can't remember now honestly) and ask them about sending me sprues for missing figures lol. They were awesome about it back then. I seriously ended up over a year, with ten boxed sets of games worth of sprues for that game and Heroes Quest, including the expansions, extra tiles, furniture etc. Many awesome memories of making 'mega games' of it :)

    Probably should mention how expensive it is to play though. But overall, good article.

    Warhammer Underworlds has been absolutely brilliant. Quick to play, can be played with up to 4 players, lots of different minis so can paint different types of models easily.

    Total War Warhammer is the best thing since sliced bread.

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