So, you think you know elves. OK, spot quiz: You're out on day walking your elven army when your path is suddenly blocked by an obnoxious horde of goblins, orcs, the odd stone troll and a wagonload of snotlings. You heard me, snotlings.
Do you: A) fire your repeating bolt thrower into the orcs; B) charge your Knights of the Silver Helm into the goblins; C) maneuver your company of High Elf Bowmen for a shot at the Troll; D) snap out of it because you're a serious grown-up with a very real mortgage, you're wearing wingtips for gosh sakes, and you have a walk that needs to be shoveled?
Myself, I chose A, B and C. I told D to go wait in the car.
I did it because Craig Beck, the manager of the Games Workshop store on York Road in Towson whispered to me, in a tone wise beyond his 20 years: "Elves are good and just. But goblins have an attitude."
There's something in the heart of every boy-man that loves that kind of talk. Not to mention that Dave Sekrabulis, the 14-year-old Ridgely student standing on the opposite side of the table, making final adjustments to his army of inch-tall goblin and orc figurines, seemed just a tad too sure he could knock off a 46-year-old mortgagee.
Don't you just hate cocky goblins?
Thus did I take up the dice and start rolling my way to glory via Warhammer, an elaborate fantasy game of toy soldiers and monsters out of Nottingham, England. Rooted loosely in the fantasy world of orcs and wizards made popular by J. R. R. Tolkien in his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Warhammer has taken hold of tens of thousands of American teen-age imaginations in recent years, even sucking in the odd adult troll.
Unlike your basic Monopoly-style board game, Warhammer requires its players to handpaint hundreds of tiny metal or plastic figurines, to construct miniature buildings, trees and hills for their tabletop battlefields, and to pore through an endless supply of official manuals and novels describing the rich, though fanciful, origin of the various races depicted in the game.
"Competition isn't the main thing in Warhammer," says Mr. Beck. "There's the painting, the collecting of models, the strategy and tactics. It's stuff you don't get with other games like D&D.;"
Not the role-playing of D&D;
D&D;, of course, is Dungeons and Dragons, the somewhat controversial fantasy role-playing game from Wisconsin's TSR Inc. that has mesmerized teen-agers and young adults for the past 20 years. While it has also worried some parents because players can assume the roles of evildoers and spellcasters, D&D; remains a best-selling game in the United States.
Still, for the past 10 years, teen-agers in England have largely ignored D&D.; Their overwhelming preference for Warhammer encouraged the game's producers -- Games Workshop Ltd., of England -- to open its North American office on Benson Avenue in Baltimore during the mid-'80s. There it publishes White Dwarf, a slick, full-color magazine for Warhammer players and, through its Citadel Miniatures firm, manufactures 20 million miniature gorgons, griffons, harpies, nurglings, snotlings and other assorted creatures every year.
Sales manager Mark R. Hall estimates 100,000 teens and young adults in America are hooked on the game. They include players like Mark Gregory, a 21-year-old senior at Towson State University and a regular at the Games Workshop store in Towson. "Warhammer is like graduating from D&D;," he says. "It's not as intricate as D&D; and it's a lot more fun."
While Warhammer is marketed in about 3,000 hobby stores across the country, the Games Workshop store is one of seven specialized outlets in North America that sell almost nothing but Warhammer accessories and offshoot games. (There is another store in College Park.) On the shelves you can find a futuristic version of the game called Warhammer 40,000, a larger-scale game called Space Marine, figures, paints, brushes and a variety of fantasy board games with Warhammer themes.
They are not cheap: A basic Warhammer starter set with rule books, figures, dice and cardboard terrain costs $55. Plastic soldiers cost about $1 each and metal figure packs sell from $6 to $18. It isn't unusual, says Mr. Beck, for players to spend $20 a week.
"But this place keeps me out of trouble," grins Ryan Cunningham, a 15-year-old sophomore at Calvert Hall High School. "Who wants to be a human all the time?"
Across the table, Dave Sekrabulis agrees: "I like all the neat stories and the background. Even my mother likes all the stories that come with it."
Indeed, it's common to see parents in the parking lot outside the store dropping off and picking up their teens in the after-school hours. "Parents would probably rather see their kids in here playing a silly game than out doing drugs," says Eric Allison, a 32-year-old executive chef and longtime gamer who has stopped by.
Gives kids a place'
"This gives kids a place to come and play games and meet people," Mr. Beck says. "I have yet to find any parent who doesn't like it. Most are happy their kids are coming in and getting into something positive."
When not gathered at the Towson store, Warhammer players will often find a game at the Armory, an Amos Avenue firm that wholesales adventure game supplies to hobby stores around the country and operates a small retail shop.
Dave Pinzo, a 26-year-old Armory sales representative, recently bought and painted a dwarf army for Warhammer and smiles ruefully when asked of his passion for the game. "My wife doesn't understand why I do this," he says. "But I think it's healthy to have an outlet to release your frustrations after a hard day at the office."
But there's more to it than that.
"Yes, there's something romantic about this game," he says. "I mean, I know it's been proven a thousand times that dwarves never existed, but what if they did?"
Another Armory staffer, Jim Kitchen, 24, says he has seen the game hook a wide spectrum of people.
"I've seen 37-year-old men duke it out across the tabletop with 15-year-olds," he says. "I've seen fathers and sons against brothers against sisters. We had a game in a shopping mall once and two guys came in to buy a chain saw and they wandered over to the game and they ended up staying and playing for an hour and a half."
Most game-players are men
Without a doubt, he says, the majority of gamers are men.
"Most of the women you see at games are trying to understand what it is that draws their boyfriends in," he says. "Although I do remember a woman in Kentucky who played and she had a damn nasty elf army!"
Speaking of elves, back in Towson, Dave Sekrabulis' goblins had just annihilated my elven army. I was prudently moving my general off the table, fleeing for my mythical life, when Craig Beck nudged me and pointed to the table.
"Oh, no, they're dragging you off your horse!"
Next to me, Ryan Cunningham's eyes widened.
"Run down by goblins!" He sadly shook his head as I stared at my wingtips. "A dark day for the elves!"