Games Workshop in the 21st Century

By Luke Shaw on at

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.

Age of Sigmar

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).

Warhammer 40K

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.

Vermintide 2

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.

Nightvault

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.

Total War 2

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.