I’m ten. I’m sitting in the solvent-soaked school art room doodling, when my friends sneak in. They’ve got something amazing to show me. It’s a little dwarf made out of lead, and Fat Winnie has just bought it off Big-Nosed Will, who actually painted it. It’s like got an AXE! Will’d mainly used red paint on it (“For the blood” he says. He now works in advertising) but it’s soooo cool. This is the start.
I buy my first Warhammer models second-hand. I also grab (from a school bring & buy) the Second Edition box with some rules, card figures and little else. We use the figures from Heroquest and Space Crusade (the entry drug), and books covered in a green tablecloth to simulate a dwarf expedition to the jungles of Lustria. Sven’s piss-artist dwarfs are all massacred by Amazon heroes with blowpipes, but it’s full steam ahead from there.
Two years later, my friends, my brother and I are playing every game Games Workshop make; Warhammer (using the Mighty Empires campaign), 40K, WFRP, Epic, Advanced Space Crusade, Blood Bowl, Horus Heresy, Talisman, Gorkamorka, Space Hulk… For two days, I actually didn’t know Princess Diana had got intimate with an underpass wall because I’d been too busy taking my Delaque gang the “Baldy Brummy Kojak Slapheads” to second place in the Necromunda Grand Tournament. (Incidentally, as my brother Dov points out, the delightfully-balanced two-player gang-warfare X-Com-alike mechanics of Necromunda are begging to made into a video game. THQ, are you listening?)
In 1992, we go to the Games Convention in the Birmingham, NEC. In the next hall along is a biker’s convention, so the carpark is full of nerdy kids dodging hurtling Harleys. Inside, we gawp at the new miniatures, try to get games on the heaving tables, and are wowed by the special machines used to miniaturise the sculptures. Special admiration is reserved however for the new computer games; on huge stands, nervous developers are showing them off, all of them at very early stages; one of them features Eldar running around a 3D landscape, another an Ork racing game (not GorkaMorka – if anyone knows what these games were, please let me know!) Most of them, as far as I know, never made it past this early demo, but thankfully Space Hulk did.
The board game of Space Hulk is all-consuming; the extremely limited recent print run is beautiful, as Rab has reported, but the horror of the computer game was something else. You play as a squad of five Terminators, the most elite Space Marines, deployed on a hulk to battle the insidious genestealers. These speedy four-armed aliens are deadly up close, can crawl out of walls, and outnumber you ten to one; you have lots of guns. The game is a design marvel, especially as it can be managed through both an exceptional tactical map and/or five simultaneous first-person viewpoints. Finally, it featured great John Blanche artwork and the first piece of voice-acting I’d ever heard in a game, as a Terminator Captain shouts “To the left… Overwatch!” in the intro.
Dov and I loved it, but got stuck on a difficulty spike early on, a level we simply couldn’t get through. Space Hulk had a “retire” feature that Dov describes as “a bit like the button on Davros’ panel that turns off his life support”. So, of course, the one time we finished that level, our excitement transferred to our watching cat, who jumped on the keyboard and pressed “retire”. Defeated, we stopped playing and return to the unfinishable Legend (AKA the Four Crystals of Trazere), venturing into derelict interstellar craft only for the hard-as-tactical-dreadnought-nails sequel “Revenge of the Blood Angels”.
Three years of painting and lead poisoning later (now there’s a class-action lawsuit waiting to happen), my longtime Warhammer & 40K foe Space Wolf John gets a new computer WITH A GRAPHICS CARD and with it Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat. I watch him play. This game is rarely talked about now, but it was the spiritual predecessor to Shogun: Total War. It featured a real 3D battlefield, with a lengthy, tough campaign and a lot of character; at the time, it was an unbelievable recreation of the tabletop game, surpassed only by its sequel Dark Omen (which added multiplayer and made the game quite, quite beautiful.) It had the bonus of an awesome soundtrack which, because it was the game came on CD, we could play while we were playing the tabletop game. Oh, and the voice acting was spot on – proper Yorkshire dwarves, rough cockney Orcs and wanky hampshire Elves, just like Rick Priestley intended.
Admittedly, in common with most of my favourite games (e.g. Vampire: The Masquerade: Redemption, Pathologic) SotHR’s unfairly tough. It can only be finished through near perfect play of of each level, to get enough money to keep your units at full strength and hire new units; every unit also levels up as the campaign goes, making them even more expensive to restock. Losing a single unit is enough to make you restart a mission, especially, if it’s the enormously over-powered and fragile wizards (who archers always turn into pin-cushions in Dark Omen multiplayer). Despite all this, for a single-player Warhammer campaign nothing has topped these two games.
There was a huge hiatus after that for quality Games Workshop games; Final Liberation, Chaos Gate, Rites of Wars and Fire Warrior were all good for squig-food only. 1995’s Blood Bowl was clunky and the more recent Mark of Chaos suffered from its console cross-development; meanwhile, we all stopped playing the miniatures because they became SO expensive and because GW changed the rules and rulebooks every fortnight. (In fact, GW changed the rulebooks so quickly that quite a few army books haven’t been updated since the 6th Edition – and they’re on the 8th now.).
Since 2004, we’ve left the grim nightmare behind. THQ in particular, has really done well with the 40K license, with Relic’s superbly atmospheric Dawn of War series, and hopefully Dark Millenium and Space Marine will match that output. Warhammer Online could have been great, if they’d managed to fit more people on the servers; when it goes F2P, we’ll probably all dive back in. However, our special affection must be reserved for Cyanide, who’ve kept pestering Games Workshop to allow them to remake Blood Bowl until they finally gave in. Chaos League (writing credit: Kieron Gillen) was clunky and glitchy, but they came good; it shows how perfect the new Blood Bowl is that it’s the only competitive game RPS has an official league and tournament for.
I wouldn’t be the (hunched, pallid, lazy) man I am without Games Workshop and its video games. I know the history of the universe(s) as well as the country I live in, my vocabulary has been permanently expanded through exposure to gubbinz, snotlings and the Ordo Malleus, and it got me into this friendly, fun industry. I learned to paint, to model, to use my imagination, to add up, to cheat… It’s that joyous, anarchic creativity, the art of John Blanche and the Realms of Chaos books, that brought me to Games Workshop and that is going to keep me waiting for whatever they do next; and dreaming of the official Warhammer: Total War. (I just wish Kieron would stop sending me emails about the deals on the new plastic figures and his new dipping technique, and get on with finishing our WFRP campaign.)