Like many people in the last year and a half, a retreat indoors and away from public events to grapple with the scope of the covid-19 pandemic led to a retreat to the indulgence of past hobbies and nostalgic loves. As the prospect of staying inside went on for longer and longer, I binge-watched old favourites, discovered things I missed, and rekindled my teenage loves of the likes of Gundam, Lego building, and model-making. One such rekindling — covid-induced or mid-life crisis a decade or two early, it’s hard to say — was diving back into the wonderful world of Games Workshop’s Warhammer tabletop games.
It’s something of an inevitable tradition to wax and wane as a fan of rolling D6s to wound and figuring out charge ranges as a Warhammer fan. You get into it as a kid, build your armies, back out when everything’s insanely expensive because you’re a kid and can’t just drop hundreds of pounds on paints, rulebooks, and models for another army, and then by the time you’re an adult with a wage, you find yourself pulled back in. As a kid I was hugely into both versions of Warhammer — the futuristic Warhammer 40,000, home to my beloved space elves, the Eldar, and later the mecha-piloting T’au Empire — and what was, back then, Warhammer Fantasy Battles (home to my beloved not-space elves, the High Elves). I was also just the right age to be all in on Games Workshop’s expansion into its licensed Lord of the Rings strategy game (you’ll never guess which army I played), based on the then-new movies. I built armies (badly), painted them (badly), and played regular (only mostly badly), but eventually got out of the game as maintaining multiple armies was too much for a cash-strapped teenager-turned-young adult.
And so now, a decade-plus later and with so much changed — Fantasy Battles is done and gone, replaced by the rebooted iteration Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, the Lord of the Rings strategy game has been widened to the Middle-earth strategy game, including characters from The Hobbit and beyond — I found myself compelled back in. Mostly thanks to family getting sucked in, too, but also because it suddenly appealed again: a career and most of my hobbies that leave me stuck at a computer monitor more often than not made me crave something physical to experience. I wanted social hobbies that let me touch and move things with my own hands and be together with other people. Suffice to say, getting that feeling mid-lockdown was not ideal.
I tried to persevere. I ummed and ahhed on what game I’d get back into, opting for Age of Sigmar. I theory-crafted which army faction I’d go for, settling on the underwater, soul-stealing, eel-riding aelven (not elves anymore, easier to trademark for a company as trademark-happy as Games Workshop) armies of the Idoneth Deepkin. Because I couldn’t play yet with stores and hobby clubs still closed, I immersed myself in the lore; reading tie-in books and other armies’ rule books just to get a touch of the world, thought up strategies and conjured army lists in my head as I tried to decide just what kind of games I’d want to play with my models. And that’s all I could do, for months on end. You can try to play Warhammer remotely; Games Workshop even encouraged fans to do so through an admittedly very over-the-top and kind of awkward remote system. But clunkiness aside, it just wasn’t the same. My Idoneth eels sat in their case waiting, yearning for the chance to smash their watery cavalry lines into some foes, to sup on a little soul or six now and then, as a treat. It just didn’t feel the same, excited as I was, to not be able to do much more — the lustre waning a little, all this potential energy left to simmer. That is, until fairly recently.
Finally getting the covid vaccine gave me the confidence to venture back out, and with transport and venues becoming more accessible again after 18 months of multiple lockdowns in the UK, I got the chance to head down to London, see my brother for the first time in the best part of two years, crack open a rulebook, and roll some dice over a few weekends. Reader, I got thrashed. Thoroughly. Sure, it was my first games in years — and a new edition of Sigmar had just come out — so I was more than rusty. But still, try as I might, no matter my opponent, my Idoneth crashed like a wave and then receded like a wave with many, many less eel-riding aelves that had done the aforementioned crashing. A losing streak so profound that, frankly, if I was playing a video game, I probably would’ve quit midway through with a string of curses. And yet, I didn’t find myself angry, or disappointed, or even frustrated: I was ecstatic.
Fish vs Gargants is a rough matchup, but fun as all hell to play. Cannot believe my shittiest little unit put in the work and took one out! pic.twitter.com/7AZCbFXf3w
— James Whitbrook (@Jwhitbrook) September 26, 2021
Warhammer is fun enough to think about in a theoretical sense — it’s a bonkers, over-the-top universe of hilariously grim and absurdly badass heroes and villains. As a hobby, there’s so much around the act of actually playing to enjoy you can always be thinking about it in one form or another. But really, nothing can compare to actually playing it. The feel of watching two forces interact as they try to hack each other to bits, the dance of weaving units of model through and over scenery to make the perfect choke point or flank. The hilarity of random dice rolls either turning your master plan into abject chaos or making it so the smallest, weakest unit in your army somehow manages to nibble a massive rival beast to death.
It was more than just being able to hang out in person with other people again — to do all that theoretical discussion with an actual human being to bounce off of — but the tangibility of it all offered to transport me back to the kid I was that first saw a box of Eldar Guardians in their same, static pose decades ago, and was entranced. Suffice to say I’m all in again, and excited to play and learn systems that I’ve not thought about for years and years (I’m already planning a second Sigmar army in the Lumineth Realm-Lords, because while time changes, a love of elves does not). But after a year and a half of virtual experiences, the chance to roll some dice and push some miniatures about a board galvanised something in me. On occassion, there’s something satisfying about being able to just get stuck in and involved with a hobby with your own bare hands.