Three words, and a simple message, but for me at least they mark the beginning of a journey to reconnect with the roots of why I got into this fantastic hobby of ours in the first place.
“Fine”, you might say, “but why, Rob, are you bothering to tell the rest of us this?” Fair question. Over the last few years I have been more involved in the hobby and my local gaming community than at any time of my 25 years, or so, involvement in the hobby, and over the last 3 years in particular I have noticed (and this is particularly prevalent in the 40k community) a trend towards win at all costs gaming and a discourse mono-focused on the tournament scene as the arbiter of ‘what counts’ as a game of 40k and whether a new release is good or bad. Let me be clear about something up front: I have participated in the tournament scene in many ways over the years and I enjoy tournaments for the different focus they give to my games and approach to list-building. I have never gotten to the stage where tournament participation is the be all and end all of my gaming though and that seems to be where many in the community have ended up today. Again, if you are a player who enjoys tournaments so much that it’s the focus of your hobby then all credit to you, I am not sitting here criticising anyone else’s approach to the hobby. What I am concerned about, though, is the effect that the shift in emphasis towards tournaments as a primary mode of playing games does to new players entering the hobby.
The On-Ramp to Gaming Goodness
More and more, players are coming into gaming with the tournament scene forming their first impressions of what this community of ours is and what they should expect from joining it. This is worlds apart from the situation when many of the ‘old guard’ (and depressingly I probably have to count myself amongst them) [And me. -Ed] got into wargaming for the first time. Like many, I got into the hobby via the Games Workshop on-ramp; no-one can deny that over the years they have done a fantastic job of producing a product that sells brilliantly to the teenage market and draws us into the wider wargaming community. The ramp no longer exists in the way that it once did, and I think that’s a bad thing, because Games Workshop used to deliver something that independent stores find more difficult, simply because they aren’t focused on one company’s games.
Gone are the days where you would begin your journey by playing an intro game at Games Workshop and then maybe bring a squad or vehicle to join in on a Saturday in one of their huge battles with your friends, pitting yourself against the wits of the store staff on some crazy mission dreamed up by a key-timer whilst hung-over on a Saturday morning (yup, in the dim and distant past, I was that key-timer) [And me. -Ed]. You would complement these games with games against your friends at home, on the dining table, or floor, with crap scenery (everyone remembers books under tablecloths as hills, right?) and no aim other than to use as many of your models as possible and shoot loads of stuff. The rules, whilst not unimportant, were usually second fiddle to the cultivation of enjoyment.
In Games Workshop stores certainly, the rules were often tertiary. Staff would be called upon to arbitrate in occasional disputes during the “veterans” evenings (that have long since departed) and often store managers, in lugubrious mood, would cock an eyebrow and make up something on the spot that bore little relation to either the initial dispute or the rule book. But it didn’t matter, because the game was isolated from some ‘wider world’ of “the rules” vs “the fluff” (which seems to have become the medium of the back and forth between players these days.) These were the days when Games Workshop ran huge campaigns, like the Eye of Terror, Armageddon (for 40K) and The Storm of Chaos, Albion and The Nemesis Crown (for Warhammer) and it felt like they had the resources and the desire to engage the community as a whole and not solely ‘as customer’. Of course it would be naive to think that they weren’t aiming for a financial return off the back of these events, but at least as a gamer it felt like they were trying to involve you in something bigger than your local store and the ‘usual suspects’ that inhabited it for hours over the weekends and school holidays. More importantly it set the tone of new gamers’ understanding of what it meant to be a wargamer, to have a bloody good time, laugh a lot and maybe win. It simply doesn’t work this way any longer, and the shift in emphasis that the Games Workshop are bringing with their one-man store model is making it harder for new gamers to get anything other than a tournament-centric introduction to the hobby.
Where does it all begin?
There has been an explosion of independent gaming club/store combos in the last few years and this hybrid model, which let’s face it is modelled on the Games Workshop approach to combining gaming and selling spaces, has led to a massive increase in the number of tournaments run. Shops need to bring players in and tournaments are a fantastic vehicle for doing so, unlike Games Workshop, you can’t just set up a store in every town to increase your pull. To get the players they have to offer good prizes to make the travel worth-while, and prizes breed the kind of competitive approach that leads to net-list armies and “can’t be bothered” paint-jobs.
For me, the tournament scene works best as a way of delivering that sense of something ‘bigger’ than your local players and club hobby community, which we used to get from better engagement from Games Workshop and their big campaigns. Unfortunately, community and competition don’t always make comfortable bed fellows, and it is especially difficult for new players to pick their way from those first few friendly games at their local club through their first tournament with nothing in between.
What do we need to do?
It’s definitely not all doom and gloom though, and several of the podcasts I listen to (The Independent Characters, The Overlords, Dwellers Below, Garagehammer, ODAM (of course!), and many others) are already either trying to diagnose why things are “going bad” and or discussing how to turn this situation around. In both 40K and Warhammer scenes there is a general dissatisfaction with painting standards and the approach to playing the game, but we can meet this with positivity and attempt to shape the way it ends up, unlike the Games Workshop release schedule or codex content this is something we have a say in and, in fact, control over. Games Workshop has, quite obviously, never had any interest in the tournament scene. We do have an interest in the tournament scene; it’s our main way of meeting new gamers, playing different kinds of army and learning about how others approach the hobby. It’s also become the main ‘next step’ for new gamers, which is why it’s so important that we find a way to change our approach collectively.
What is Games Workshop doing?
We also have the recent positive developments from Games Workshop itself. There are three things I would bring up in this context: White Dwarf Weekly and the shift to weekly releases, the new Community Manager role, and the Imperial Knight release.
First up, White Dwarf and the weekly release schedule. After five weeks I think this has proven to be a good move. Ff course back in the old days, releases were always done this way and White Dwarf, whilst a monthly magazine, had a different role to fulfil. The tone is right in White Dwarf Weekly, focused on the hobby and the models with a smattering of rules content. I’ve heard people complain that they’d never buy a model without getting the codex/army book first and that the weekly schedule is a mistake. I disagree completely. For one thing there is already more talk (and it is positive talk) in the community about the releases each week, not less. Secondly Games Workshop are releasing rules alongside the models and they are the right rules, that give an insight into the army as a whole without giving the whole game away; they are the ‘right’ rules to be giving away in that they generate more talk and give all stores an opportunity to be a hub for chat about the hobby again, though I still believe that until they address the problems that the one-man staffing model causes in this regard, they won’t really be able to take the maximum advantage from it.
Secondly, the new community manager role. If taken at face value this promises to give Games Workshop a chance to listen and to adjust a few things. Now, of course, you could be negative and say it’s nothing more than lip-service to make it look as though they’re listening. I see no point in adopting that perspective, it brings us nothing and only serves to potentially dampen the impact that whoever gets that role will have. This role will report to the CEO, it will have the ear of the right people to effect the right changes and that has to be a positive thing. I have my own ideas what they could do, but we’ll just have to wait and see, it will obviously be a balance between risk and reward for Games Workshop.
Thirdly, the Imperial Knight release. Why? Well, just look at the social media channels; they are on fire with positivity about this release. It’s a classic “do no wrong” release, it’s straight out of the rich tapestry of background material that Games Workshop have to draw upon. It comes with a book that itself extends and expands that background and brings it to life with a model that is spot on. Finally I love it because of what it shows the top-tier of the company – that if they let their studio deliver content that is based on what they know the community love that it will sell by the bucket-full. For me, it’s as if someone in the main studio said “Hey, how about you let us act like we work at Forge World for a month and release that?”, someone (a very smart someone) said “sure why not” and the result is the awesomeness that is currently causing all of us die-hard gamers, who were last week depressed about how crap everything was and how Games Workshop were going out of business and couldn’t get it right, to cream our collective pants.
So, slowly, I believe changes are being made that will help us rejuvenate some of the jaded inhabitants of our community and we should take these changes as positively as we can and push them further through our clubs and events.
How to Play It Fun
So, Play It Fun, what is it? It’s not complicated, there’s no mandated approach, it’s not a demand to never play in tournaments, or to do more painting or anything specific. It’s simply a call to arms for anyone who wants to recapture that initial spark that got them interested in gaming in the first place, it’s a prod to get you to look at your and your opponent’s models on the table top and yell “this is frickin’ cool!” Bring this enthusiasm to your club, to your next tournament and encourage others to do the same.
As a friend recently said to me, the moment you start pretending to yourself that you aren’t just a 6-year-old shouting “pew-pew!” with toy soldiers is the moment you may as well pack up and go home. You’ve forgotten why you’re there.