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  • NY Times Article: Painted Armies, Tabletop Battles

    Posted on February 17th, 2005 Rob No comments

    Painted Armies, Tabletop Battles

    Published: February 15, 2005

    HOUSTON – At 6 feet 4 inches, with a shaved head and a spiky beard, Adam Floyd, 21, may seem fierce and freaky. Wearing a black T-shirt that says "Storm of Chaos," he is exactly the type you might expect to find at a competition for a fantasy game involving military strategy, in which the goal is to annihilate an opponents army.

    But hold those preconceptions. Mr. Floyd is not in a dark, forbidding gaming store, but at the bright, expansive indoor visitors plaza at NASAs Johnson Space Center here. The 70 fighters gathered for a tournament last month also included Chris Goodchild, a cherubic 12-year-old, and Carl Bellatti, 54, a grandfather and middle school band teacher in Houston, as well as computer programmers, lawyers, prison guards, an all-state football player from Texas, a substantial smattering of adolescent boys and one woman.

    Mr. Floyd, the son of teachers, is a mild, articulate fellow, a theater major at Idaho State University in Pocatello. He flew in with his friend and fellow strategist Matt Wyse, 21, a history major and competitive tennis player, who has been playing the game, Warhammer, since he was 14.

    What drew this unlikely assortment of people together was a chance to compete at Warhammer, popular in Britain, Europe and Australia for more than 20 years but known in the United States mainly to its numerous cultish devotees. In a culture dominated by virtual diversions and mass marketing, Warhammer has acquired an ardent following by being tactile and mysterious, using no advertising at all. Games Workshop, the British company that makes it, has licensed two video-game versions, but it is usually played with three-dimensional figures by opponents who face each other across a real-life table.

    The armies consist of tiny metal and plastic models, measured in millimeters. The soldiers, often nasty-looking creatures operating arsenals of weapons, have gross or sanguinary names, like Snotlings, Tyranids and Chaos, but they are assembled by their generals with glue and then painted with delicate brushes, often with obsessive precision.

    Warhammer begins with a fairly simple set of rules: dice are thrown, imaginary shots are fired, soldiers are moved. But the game quickly becomes complex and arcane as different armies are assigned special rules that modify the basic principles of battle. There are thousands of figures and dozens of armies, each with its own lore, abilities and point values, explained in a series of 64-page manuals called codexes and army books, which include tips on painting and modeling techniques.

    Like poker and football, Warhammer appeals to men and boys far more than to women and girls. It allows a particular kind of socializing, the kind that requires no conversation apart from talk of the game. Sergio Sciancalepore, a shy 13-year-old with wavy hair and huge dark eyes, was at the tournament. He has an Xbox and loves chess, but when he discovered Warhammer at a store in a Houston shopping mall three months ago, he was hooked. He goes back to that store every Saturday night looking for a pickup battle.

    Physicality is a crucial component. "You get to touch the pieces," Sergio said, "pick out your battles, see them from an upper view, move your army, paint it your own way."

    His father, Vincent, has encouraged him. "I used to build models when I was a kid," said Mr. Sciancalepore, a printer who grew up in Queens but has lived in Houston for 25 years. "I feel I'm passing it on."

    Two days before the tournament, Mr. Floyd decided his army wasn't attractive enough. He pulled an all-nighter redesigning his soldiers.

    "It takes a bit of creativity, a bit of imagination and a good sense of humor," he said.

    His friend Mr. Wyse added, "And a warped sense of priorities."

    Like the Space Center, Warhammer is something of a throwback, combining a futuristic vision with nostalgia. It updates the toy soldiering made popular a century ago by H. G. Wells in "Little Wars" and Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts.

    But for these toy army generals, craftsmanship matters as much as tactics, and it is this aspect that most distinguishes Warhammer from fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons. At the Houston competition, prizes were awarded for best general and best army, but also for best appearance (won by Mr. Floyds soldiers, turned out in official Warhammer "scab red" and "scorpion green") and for best-painted. Throughout the day, clusters of boys sat transfixed by a table where a master painter, Mondel Garcia, showed them the intricacies of painting diminutive limbs with very fine brushes.

    Courtliness counts too: the second most coveted prize was for best sportsman. This game requires mental ferocity and a certain delicacy. The players – some overweight, some string beans, clean-cut and tattooed, boys and men – toted their miniature warriors as carefully as little princesses carting collections of fragile dollies.

    The company's sales methods are old-fashioned; it uses no advertising, relying on word of mouth and its 320 stores worldwide (57 in the United States, in 19 cities) and 4,000 independent games retailers that carry Warhammer to lure new customers. "We truly believe the only way to get people into this hobby is to put an empire soldier in their hands and let them play," said Will Postell, metro manager for Games Workshop in Houston, where there are four of the company's stores in shopping malls with lots of foot traffic. The company has set up "battle bunkers" in Chicago, Los Angeles, Memphis and Baltimore, where staff members have 8 to 20 gaming tables set up, ready to give tutorials to newcomers.

    This marketing strategy has worked well abroad for Games Workshop, which went public a decade ago. Revenues for fiscal 2004 were $284 million, up from $241 million in 2003, with a comparable increase in profits. The company had an extra boost four years ago, when New Line Cinema licensed it to make the official tabletop battle game based on the "Lord of the Rings" films. (Designed as a variation on Warhammer, it also features painted models and tabletop battles.) When the company sponsors its annual Game Day in Birmingham, England, 10,000 players show up.

    For Chris Goodchild, it was love at first sight. His family, which is British, was living in the Netherlands when he saw the "Lord of the Rings" game in a store four years ago. He immediately called his father, an executive with Shell Global Solutions. "He was in an important meeting," Chris said. "I told him I saw those models and really needed them."

    Though attracted to Warhammer because of his fixation on "The Lord of the Rings," Chris said, "I became obsessed with the game and painting the figures."

    The games popularity has grown slowly in the United States, where it has been around for about 15 years. "Having a hobby travel by word of mouth isn't hard to do in Britain because its a small country," said Mike Jones, Games Workshops vice president for the United States southern region. "Because of U.S. geography and topography and sheer size, its more of a well-kept secret," he said of the game.

    But its appeal wasnt lost on Mike Wampler, sales manager at the Space Center in Houston, who invited Games Workshop to hold its tournament there to pep up the slow season, when only 1,100 visitors might show up on a Saturday. He also invited the Pokemon Rocks tour on Memorial Day weekend and the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge for the spring.

    "Sixty percent of our visitors weren't born when NASA accomplished the man on the moon," Mr. Wampler said. "I want our guests to leave saying, That's one of the coolest places weve ever been. You have to do Warhammer events; you have to do Purina dog events. These are the links to the future."

    Warhammer isn't cheap. Though starter sets with 48 figures are available for $45, the lust for military might, even on this small scale, can be infectious, and expensive. Garrick Ruscher, 37, a computer programmer whose four boys – and his wife – play and paint Warhammer, said he found himself spending $700 a month on figures that can cost as much as $54 for a 12-inch model of Mumakil from the "Lord of the Rings" group.

    "How they remember all the rules staggers me," said Helen Goodchild, Chriss mother, a brisk, amiable woman who might be the ultimate Warhammer mom. Eighteen months ago, her husband thought the family was being transferred from the Netherlands to Kenya, a land of limited shopping possibilities. To prepare for a two-year stay, the Goodchilds began stockpiling crucial supplies, including a huge collection of Warhammer figures – about 2,000 of them – for Chris and his brother, Michael, 10.

    Instead the Goodchilds were sent to Houston, where they discovered that Warhammer had preceded them. "We didn't know there would be such a good representation here," Ms. Goodchild said. "The boys made friends quickly through it." At her sons school, the British School of Houston, children play Warhammer at lunchtime. The boys have discovered Friday night open-gaming sessions at local Games Workshop outlets.

    Does the games warring aspect bother Ms. Goodchild? "It got them off the computers," she said. "Its creative. They make the models and paint them and then turn up with the models and meet people."

    Similarly, Jacqueline Bellati, whose husband Carl is a gamer, says she doesn't mind being a Warhammer widow. "Its not smoking; its not doing drugs; its not being in a bar room," she said. Has she thought about joining her husband in the game? "It doesn't interest me at all," she said.

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