Wargamer’s Notebook 45

From memory, I went to every Games Workshop GamesDay and DragonMeet from around 1976 to 1986. And I still have most of the programmes! At that point my interest faded, as the eclectic and esoteric mix of traders, boardgames, fanzines and retailers had given way to the earliest signs of The GW Hobby. This September, I was invited to GamesDay 2002 and it would be true to say that things have changed. Considerably. I shared Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena hall with 8,000 fans of all ages, and two disappointed blokes who had wanted a badminton court for an hour. The enthusiasm was incredible, and even allowing for the occasional high spirits of the younger fans, it was an uplifting experience.

The mix is broadly umpired participation games (lots of them, for all the various systems), sales, seminars, demonstrations and the painting competition – the infamous Golden Demon. The latter reaches a mind boggling overall standard (near impossible to choose a winner, I am sure), but is very difficult to actually get close enough to see, such is the popularity. The demonstrations are great. What figures are coming out next? Here are the greens, and the guy who did them. How did you draw that? The artist sits there explaining his technique, and his muse. How is a mould made? A kindly chap will tell you all the details, including the strategic change from rubber to silicon. What is the next direction for Forgeworld’s beautiful output? Ask the top man, or go along to a seminar where all is revealed. Downstairs, in yet another hall, there are several stands offering related products – WHFRP, computer and online games, and of course Warhammer Historical who had three demo games and a display cabinet of nicely painted figures. There is also a massive kit building/painting area, and the Archives – a fascinating collection of old GW games and publications.

Surprisingly, all this gaming, building, listening and buying effectively fits into a five hour time slot, leaving it very close in duration to the one day cons we are used to. The closing hour was rather more unusual. Pretty much everyone files up into the arena seats, or fills the floor in front of the stage where the awards are made. This culminates with the Slayer Sword presentation, for the best painted miniature, won again this year by Matt Parkes. People applaud loudly, and (gosh) even cheer. They root for their local club painter. Winners of Demons are lauded. It is completely natural, but a little unnerving for a man used to three organisers and a delayed trader clapping quietly at last minute award ceremonies. Then most of the crowd locate their local shop banner in the throng, and are lead off to the waiting coaches, doubtless chatting about their purchases and games all the way back – much as we do, really.

The big plus is accessibility, and it is clear that this is very much part of the job for just about everyone in the GW organisation. It is therefore completely de rigueur to walk up to people – famous sculptors, illustrators, designers and ‘Eavy Metal painters – and question away as if they are old mates. I am the very last person to do this normally, favouring deference (“We are not worthy!”) or the wallflower approach (!), but such was the informal atmosphere, that with half an hour to go, even I went for it. I ended up grilling the studio painters, garnering more tips than seemed decent. But I’ll live with the guilt! I was told and shown how to do that pale flesh look, how to use Vermin Brown to shade flesh (rather than my Burnt Sienna oil wash technique), how to weather up Rhino APCs, and how to try and keep a unified look to the figures. All really helpful info, and yes, it meant I bought some more paints, and even some inks, in the hope I can finally get them to work properly.

A remarkable observation, given the high standard of images in White Dwarf, is that the Studio paintjobs are way better in the flesh than what we see in print. Some of the detail, blending and paint effects on these inch high miniatures are literally unbelievable. They seem to paint with such smoothness as well, which I can only describe as apparently airbrushed, but somehow even better than that. One of the two female painters explained to me how she used about seven different colour transitions to achieve an effect, yet I could see neither joins, brushmarks nor any paint build up. When these skills were combined with the forthcoming Khemri (read fantasy Egyptian undead) and Plague Marine figures, or some flawless one-off conversions, I have to say I was almost converted to the cause there and then.

It is of course tempting to draw parallels with our ‘separate’ but patently very similar hobby. Think Mark Wilkin standing on a stage to rapturous applause for his Best of Show efforts. For Messrs Dallimore, Dean, Imrie, Patten, Allen and Gaskin to hold a daylong painting clinic. To have the Perries sit and answer sculpting questions, or perhaps listen to your wants list (!). To have Bryan Ansell give a disarmingly honest seminar, outlining his future plans, cracking jokes, admitting the internet is useful, and fielding all questions and comments from keen (but critical) fans. To number painting competition entries in the thousands. To see close on fifty demonstration games of a very high standard, with no need for redundant competition games. And most impressive, to see about the best handling and encouragement of the ‘keen beginner/complete novice’ I have yet encountered.

While you can analyse the company philosophy, pricing structures and compromises necessary to reach this point, what struck me was that the top people were accessible (I am not saying they would act on fans’ views, but they were available to listen), and that everyone there, staff and attendee alike, was noticeably behind the GW product. Perhaps that is too simplistic a statement, since such an event is likely to be full of enthusiasts. But just for a day, it was a pleasant change to be away from petty squabbles over which rules or figures or paints are best, and to see people who had what they wanted, and got on with the practical elements of their hobby without worrying too much about the theory. It was an eye opener, and it has left its mark on me.

Granted, a common criticism is that there are no real alternatives offered, but they were backing a perceived ideal, and – importantly – enjoying themselves in a way I seldom see at our shows. If there was sniping, or criticism of a paint job, I am not sure who or where it would have come from. I concede one should factor in the enthusiasm of youth, and devotion to the cause, and £18 entry tickets, but overall it was a very positive experience which rubbed off on me. There was an overt celebration of the designers, of top painters, of the games and the rules. And of course underpinning this is the ‘hobby’ as typified by the style, iconography, support and the approach. Perhaps it was just a synthesis of all these components that made it possible, accentuated by the excitement of the annual showpiece event. Agree or disagree, and argue over ends justifying means, but it seems to work.

Don’t get me wrong; we are different, not inferior. Yet the disparity in ‘success’ (as indicated by sales, recruiting and market penetration) is evident to all. While I think we are also very much behind our ‘product’, if that product is the hobby as a whole, the situation is somehow very different. While I do not know why quite yet, I don’t believe it comes purely down to commercialism or marketing. We have comparable talent: people who will encourage newcomers and run a great looking game with enviable enthusiasm; top class magazines; experts on history and uniforms; clubs and individuals who work very hard to put on a show, or a spectacular game; intelligent people with whom one can discuss relative merits of rules, figures, or even moral issues; and sculptors, modellers and painters to rival the best in the world. But there is something, perhaps in the area of the ‘fit’ of the subject to the target gamer, the way the two products are accessed and spread (e.g. by word of mouth, or clubs, or advertising), or possibly because we are a demanding and cantankerous bunch! One to think about.

Rob Broom is now installed at GW as the Warhammer Historical supremo. Shieldwall is his first product release, and very nice it is too. In many ways this is my favourite WHAB supplement so far, apart from those Vikings who leave me cold. No idea why on that one, but it is still a period I am very much taken with – largely because I like the figures and the slightly vague history, and it suits skirmish gaming well. Written by Stephen Patten of Gripping Beast fame, a noted Dark Ages aficionado, this book does nothing but boost my enthusiasm. We get a stirring Guiseppe Rava cover, sixteen pages of inspirational colour images (with figures from many companies and top brushmen), and coverage – both historical and gamewise – of a whole range of armies: Vikings, Hiberno-Norse, English, Caledonians, Welsh, Irish and Normans. My only complaint would be with the painting section. Some months ago, I was told that the Pattens would be doing a comprehensive painting guide as part of the book. They have delivered the words, but very little is given away, and sadly there are no pictures.

Chatting to Rob at GamesDay, he tells me forthcoming supplements will cover El Cid (cor!), Alexander the Great and Samurai (cor again!). He was also at pains to point out that GW have no current plans to produce historical figures. But whatever the policy, many of the crowd at GamesDay liked the look of what they saw in the historical demos. There was a steady stream of people firing in questions, or asking after the rules or figures. Many of the younger ones were far from unaware of the periods being shown, and of course related it to school projects or perhaps even computer games. Either way, it was an encouraging event and a pointer that GW may acknowledge that the hobby is rather wider than they have been suggesting. In Rob, a man full of enthusiasm and ideas, Warhammer Historical Wargames is in good hands. Let’s hope it becomes instrumental in recruiting some new blood, encouraging new figure ranges and continuing to inspire some of the best looking games of recent years.

The latest releases from GW, in the shops now, include the second instalment of the Lord of the Rings miniatures game. The Two Towers is a major upgrade to the unchanged basic core rules, in that siege rules and cavalry are introduced. Now it would be downright embarrassing for me to admit that I hadn’t really noticed the latter were missing from the first set, but of course all the scenarios were ‘on foot’, so it slipped my mind. As well as the plastic Uruk Hai (some with very long pikes!) and Riders of Rohan in the boxed set, there are a number of extra figures available, including Rohan foot, and besieging Uruks. No doubt more will appear in coming months, after we have all seen the movie and the possibilities raised. Personally, I can’t wait for the Ents and Wormtongue. The best of these new figures though are the Heroes of Helm’s Deep. Brian Nelson impressed me with his work on the Fellowship last year, but these are even better – slimmer and smaller than the GW norm, anatomically spot on, and readily identifiable as the actors from the film. Some of the best sculpts I have seen in a long time. The Rohirrim look rather tasty as well, with the horses being considerably more wiry than the typical GW warhorse. I like them, and can already imagine them riding down my mate’s orcs. The Uruks meanwhile can be painted up with a range of browns and blacks, with dirty and rusty armour like the large scale replica helmets you may have seen in shops. Great stuff, a great day out, and much to look forward to.