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The History of Games Workshop

History of Games Workshop

Christmas 1989. For it shall forever be a part of my memory as I took my first steps upon the path. I was not alone. I imagine Santa looking very confused at many of my peers' Christmas lists, frowning at a title that told you everything you needed to know in one word.


Games Workshop’s legendary double act with Milton Bradley enticed many kids into a world of high fantasy, swords, sorcery and orcs. I was hooked from the first TV advert. Heroquest was a unique collaboration to bring content from Games Workshop’s own burgeoning Warhammer fantasy license into a board game that would appeal to a broader audience and act as a catalyst to invest further.

As my first encounter with the fantasy world it made an indelible impression and by Christmas 1990, its successor Space Crusade was on the top of my wish list, just under a Commodore Amiga 500. The follow up moved the setting forward far into the grim dark future of the Warhammer 40K universe, and this is where my journey into hobby gaming hit light speed.

Ironically, Space Crusade as a game itself was underwhelming. Buried under a ton of plastic and gloss the rules were inconsistent and flakey. Everything that made Heroquest so clever at the time was lost to me – BUT – there was something glorious about the characters of the Space Marines. The power-armoured super soldiers were akin to pure sugar running through my Sci-Fi obsessed childhood brain.

It didn’t matter that the game was a disappointment as I had already started picking up Games Workshop’s own magazine White Dwarf and was eyeing up war zones of marines standing off against hordes of orcs…sorry…orks. There was no board. What was this, how did it work? Drip-fed info from month to month my enthusiasm for 40k was growing and by the summer my friends and I were recreating huge battles with figures from Space Crusade (now painted) mixed with a couple of stand alone units and tanks, and a ton of fresh strange shaped dice.

As a bunch of skint kids none of us had the complete set of rules, so we made it up. Scribbled on paper and reverently collected in an A4 school binder, we forged our own first edition codex of rules. Constantly in motion through that halcyon summer we amended, abridged and added new sections as we started to gather more resources. Draping my mum’s green tablecloth over some boxes we able to create alien landscapes long before easy to buy official play mats and scenery kits existed.

By the mid 90’s my childhood was entwined with the boxed standalone games that Games Workshop released, whilst dabbling in D&D on the side. Advanced Heroquest, Space Hulk, Advanced Space Crusade, Space Marine, Blood Bowl and Warhammer Quest coveted my pocket money. You could find a Games Workshop store in every major city across the country. Draped in a mysticism of other worldly and geeky pursuits back before term itself was a viable commodity for cultural appropriation.

This was a time when if you owned a PC at home, you were probably also stashing a decent collection of D20 dice and pencils. Pre-internet UK. Oh what a time to be alive! Such was the glorious ride, it had to end and by the time I was leaving for University in 1998 I had become more enamoured with the digital delights of the PlayStation than the Adeptus Astartes. However, it would not be the last time I fought the foul alien scourge in the name of the Emperor...

Forged in the Workshop

The story of Games Workshop begins 23 years earlier in London, 1975. What started as a simple company making wooden boards for classic board games such as Backgammon and Go quickly moved into importing the fledgling game-changer Dungeons and Dragons. Shortly afterwards it moved into publishing war games and other role-playing games and by 1977, a certain newsletter called ‘White Dwarf’ was being circulating amongst gamers. The first of what would eventually become the eponymous chain of its own stores first opened in April 1978.

Such was the success of the company that Dungeons and Dragons' own creators, TSR, were in talks with the owners of Games Workshop to merge after lucrative distribution deals in the UK.  Though this never came to be and the company pushed on with importing other successful US products such as Call of Cthulu and the Middle-Earth role playing game. This wouldn’t be the last time Games Workshop dabbled in the affairs of Hobbits and Rings of power.

By 1984, the company had expanded into North America. Games Workshop continued to publish a variety of different standalone games through this period such as the licensed Judge Dread and Doctor Who adaptions. Games that went on in subsequent printings to become genre classics such as Fury of Dracula and Cosmic Encounter found early success during this period.

The Hammers of War

In 1983 the first Warhammer fantasy game was released. A tent-pole product setting the scene for what would follow for the company; it’s origins were drawn from fantasy literature and meshed with European history and myth. Beginning as a 25mm war game to be played on a tabletop, the rules were supplied in book form. Many traditional elements of table war gaming were present, from dice conventions and moving armies in groups, but the universe itself was an inventive playground. As its own license, the company released subsequent editions and by the third edition in 1987 it was joined by its futuristic counterpart Warhammer 40,000, or otherwise known at the time, Rogue Trader.

By the end of the 80’s, Games Workshop had also moved towards creating boxed games focused on it’s own created IP.  Hugely popular genre classic Blood Bowl, a humorous take on the Warhammer world crossed with American Football, was released in 1986 and followed in 1988 by a second edition.That year, Adeptus Titanicus took the setting of 40k to an even smaller scale to create a battlefield with enormous machines of war the size of skyscrapers hurling missiles and plasma bolts across a ruined landscape.

A year later, Space Marine added tiny troops to complement the system. Both games are notable, personally, not for the rule sets or the plastic components (although there were very cool…) but as examples of the fantastic artwork present on the boxes themselves. When I first saw them on a shelf shortly afterwards, in 1990, they ticked all my boxes. The cover design across multiple product lines began to synergise and whilst very much pieces of their time, they would look straight at home on the front of a Heavy Rock or Metal LP. (Some of it did but let’s not even go into the 40K influenced band Bolt-Thrower…)

In 1989, the first edition of Space Hulk was released. A hugely important release that even today garnishes respect and reverence. Heavily influenced by James Cameron’s Aliens mixed with the power armour of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, it’s a classic asymmetrical game of guns versus claws. It is also a title that many video gamers would play over the next 29 years in different forms.

By the time of a management buyout in 1991, Games Workshop had continued to focus on pushing its own IP with subsequent editions of its core game lines now fully established as Warhammer and Warhammer 40k. Further editions of released titles and expansion of both worlds led to more impressive sets of starter products as well as ongoing content. Walls were stocked high of plastic, metal and cardboard in its own stores, not that you could see them through the hordes of teenagers loitering on a wet and grey Saturday afternoon.

The good times are always measured by the bad and by the time I had begun to check-out due to my addiction spiralling into another sink-hole, the late 90’s saw a decline in interest and falling profit. Collectable card games such as Magic: The Gathering and towards the late 90’s, the colourful behemoth of Pokémon were booming along with the rapid acceleration of the video game industry. Less of the boxed set games were released, the girth of releases slowed and many of the classic games never saw reprints for over a decade or some ever since.

Digital Mini's

The maturity of the video game industry was arguably a big part of the slowdown. However, Games Workshop had taken steps to capitalise on this market years earlier. Digital adaptions of Heroquest and Space Crusade had performed well in the 8/16-bit era as almost straight ports of the games themselves. Many of the boxed set products were also converted including the first terrible adaption of Blood Bowl.

In 1993, EA released Space Hulk and attempted to make a scary first person tactical team shooter. At the time it looked astonishing. It was also terrifyingly hard, bordering on the unplayable but it really showed the potential for bringing Games Workshop IP to the TV and monitor screen. Multiple versions of Space Hulk have followed through the generations, with the release of Space Hulk: Tactics being the latest this month. Arguably, it has become possibly the most well known of all the digital adaptions through the years.

Attempts to bring Warhammer and 40K in its purist form have been hit and miss. Early successes such as Shadow of the Horned Rat in 1995 for PC and PlayStation were balanced against mediocre releases such as Fire Warrior on PC and PS2.  The Dawn of War series on PC in the mid-2000’s onward are probably the most well-received examples of a 40K game translated as an RTS.

Perhaps most controversially, for such a cinematic IP rich with content to draw upon, the translation to movies or TV shows has been almost non-existent. Apart from TV adverts for Heroquest and Space Crusade (Seriously, find them on YouTube…) and specially shot content for consumer trade shows there has only been one officially released movie.

The straight-to-DVD 2010 film featuring 40K’s ever-blue poster boys, Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie was the first and only screen adaption. Currently holding a 5.6/10 rating on IMDB, featuring an astonishing triplet of John Hurt, Terrance Stamp and Sean Pertwee contributing their voices to gloomy CGI not unlike video game cut scenes. Wrapped up in 76 minutes, it wasn’t going to pull any new fans in.  Nearly a decade later and there is still nothing on the horizon other than mixed fan-made content.

In complete opposition, literary adaptions are vast. In 1997, the Black Library was founded, devoted to publishing books based on the Warhammer IP. With over 200 titles and rising it is the best source of fiction and backstory content outside the games themselves. Perhaps the most popular of these releases so far is the Horus Heresy series with over 46 titles. Audio book adaptions are also very popular and many can be enjoyed through Audible.

Games Workshop - A Change in Direction

In the early 2000’s, Games Workshop signed a deal to produce a tabletop war game adaption of The Lord of the Rings. This became a third pillar to the their core gaming offerings. This contract continued into the following decade to support the release of The Hobbit movies.

One of many criticisms that was levelled at Games Workshop during the 2000’s was its reluctance to return to its roots with board game boxed sets offering a complete product-in-a-box. The lack of any official support to Blood Bowl, Space Marine (or EPIC as it came to be known) or Space Hulk confused its own lapsed fans. The children, such as myself who grew up with such classics looking to return to their roots, this time with disposable income or kids of their own were surprised to find a very different business model.

Fortunately, they didn’t have long to wait. In 2008, American giant Fantasy Flight Games began to publish board games and RPG titles based on Games Workshop IP. This led to some frankly, amazing releases that have become classics in their own right. Both Warhammer and 40K were well serviced with large big box updates of early games such as Horus Heresy alongside new games entirely.

Chaos in the Old World took the stories of the Chaos Gods and turned it into an area control war game. Space Hulk and Blood Bowl were reborn as tactical card games. New products such as Forbidden Stars showed how Fantasy Flight Games could produce a grand space opera game with stunning artwork that doesn’t have to have space cats in it. Alongside these new titles they published older classic titles such as Talisman and Fury of Dracula (which they released earlier in 2006) for a new audience.

For nearly 10 years this was a great relationship with a focus on high quality board games that parallels the recent renaissance in board gaming in general. In 2017, both parties announced they were parting ways and many of these titles would not be getting re-prints once the contract was over. This has spiked the secondhand market with many of the now out-of-print games commanding high resale value. The aforementioned and highly rated Forbidden Stars was perhaps the biggest casualty, only released in mid-2015 and was yet to receive an anticipated expansion with more playable races.

It isn’t all bad news. In 2009, Games Workshop re-released Space Hulk in a grand new third edition combining the best elements of the first two versions in a premium set, for a premium price.  Fair to say, it led to high demand of initial pre-orders and was followed by a forth edition in 2014.

There seems to be a change in heart at the offices of Games Workshop. In 2016 they released a new edition of Blood Bowl along with full support of expansions. In fact, since then they have moved back to a boxed set product with an absolute bucket-load of new and old titles. New versions of Necromunda and Adeptus Titanicus sit alongside Kill Team, Warhammer Underworlds and newly announced Speed Freeks (with more than a hint of cult release Gorkamorka in its DNA).

It seems to have taken a lot of gamers by surprise at the rate of product releases after such a long period of stagnation. The main franchise games themselves have received new updates and 40K was updated with a well received eighth edition last year. However, the game that started it all had a slightly more troubled transition.

Controversially, the world of Warhammer fantasy was un-ceremoniously ended in 2015 and reborn as Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. The existing fan base didn’t take it well. Initial stories of people burning their elf armies in defiance with vitriolic YouTube video eventually calmed down and it too is now in its Second Edition released this year.

The stores themselves have also undergone a re-branding exercise with Games Workshop logos disappearing and being replaced with the titular, Warhammer. Perhaps as a grand show of defiance to the naysayers and power of the brand it has built over the last 35 years. All they have to do now is bring the Squat faction back to 40K to appease one of my long time friends, ever bitter about their demise and exclusion from source material for 20 years.

Ironically for me, it’s all come full circle. This month Devil Pig Games have released a licensed 40k version of it’s Tactical System, Heroes of Black Reach. As I unpacked the box containing legions of Ultramarines and orks (albeit in 2D cardboard form) I once again felt the palpable excitement of returning to this once well-known battlefield, one that’s universe is forever in conflict and probably always will be.