by Gareth Branwyn for Digital Living Today
Science fiction fans are usually intelligent folk with overactive imaginations whose lust for living in the future is so great theyll even glue on rubber ears and prosthetic foreheads and make fools of themselves at fan conventions. They voraciously consume books, comics, films, games, anything with a science fiction theme. But often, passive consumption of this futuristic media just isnt enough. Hardcore fans want to get their hands dirty, they want to direct! For twenty-five years now, a UK-based company called Games Workshop (www.games-workshop.com) has been building a small worldwide empire out of what it calls “hobby games” and “interactive sci-fi,” fantasy and science fiction universes that encourages fans to become active co-creators.
Games Workshops popular hobby game Warhammer 40,000 takes place in a vast and perverse universe of the far future in which humanity is under siege by alien races hell bent on its extinction. When we reached the stars, humanity didnt find benevolent ETs who wanted to share the secrets of the cosmos, we ended up on half-a-dozen bloodthirsty aliens world domination “to-do” lists. Through the millennia, war-besieged human civilizations and their technologies have risen and fallen, leaving the Dark-Ages-like 41st century to dig through the rubble of the past to try and fashion a culture and cobble-together an effective galactic war machine. The 40K world is a bizarre mix of past and future, magic and science, high technology and retro-futuristic warfare.
At its heart, Warhammer 40,000 is a tabletop wargame. Players collect miniature alien and human armies of astoundingly detailed plastic and metal models, assemble and paint them, and then war against other players. The games are played on terrain boards lovingly built by players to reproduce nearly every detail of a futuristic world (flora, fauna, ruins, mountains, etc.). But the battles are only the focal point of the Warhammer 40,000 hobby. Players obsessively flesh out their races and characters, become miniature painters and modelers worthy of a Hollywood F/X shop, and participate in all manner of fan fiction writing, art, conventions, etc.
Many people may not be familiar with Games Workshop and Warhammer 40,000, but they enjoy a huge worldwide following. There are some 230 Games Workshop stores in 60 countries and the company employs some 2,500 employees. The bewildering thing is that Games Workshop only sells (basically) two products: Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer (its Tolkienesque older sibling). There are also a number of spin-off titles.
Other non-computer fantasy and science fiction companies have faltered (or worse) in the digital age, but the Warhammer hobby has prospered. One Games Workshop spokesman attributes this to the complexity and sophistication of the gaming worlds and the high quality of the gaming components and support materials. “Its no secret,” he says, “that lots of people build and paint the models and read the fiction and never actually play the game.”
The Warhammer 40,000 “support material” seems endless. There are two magazines devoted to both the hobby (a slick full-color monthly and one of all fan-based content), a monthly comics journal, a monthly fiction magazine, a line of novels and graphic novels, as well as numerous special edition titles. The WH40K community is all aflutter over a full-length feature film now in production that takes place in the 40K universe. Exile Films (www.exile-films.com), a Seattle-based production company thats done computer animation for Lost in Space, Starship Troopers and Star Trek is producing the film.
Many WH40K players, who work in the computer field, or at least spend a lot of time online, appreciate the fact that Warhammer is hands-on, refreshingly analog. They enjoy the quiet of painting and modeling, the world building, the physicality of tabletop gaming, the thrill of face-to-face competition and all of the other creative muscles that this unique hobby flexes. But as youd imagine, Warhammer 40,000 has a huge online presence as well. Hundreds of sites are dedicated to the hobby itself, modeling and painting miniatures and terrain, and fleshing out the worlds, cultures and races of the 41st century. Here are a few sites we think will give you a better understanding of what Warhammer 40,000 is all about:
Games Workshop (www.games-workshop.com) Home site for the company that makes Warhammer 40,000, Warhammer and related games.
GW Gateway 2000 (www.gwgateway.com) Most destinations in the online WH40K universe pass through this portal.
The Maelstrom (www.themaelstrom.co.uk) Nice fan site with an introduction to the world of WH40K and the races that populate it, plus galleries of images, archives of articles, software downloads, etc.
Necromundicon (members.xoom.com/bluemax/necro.htm) Mind-bogglingly-detailed scratch-built scenery for Warhammer 40,000 (with excellent how-tos).