There's nothing quite like getting together with a few friends, assembling your troops and waging war in your parents' kitchen. That's what John Simpson of Ocean Township, N.J., does most weekends when he plays the tabletop battle game Warhammer 40K.
He and his friends eschew Wii and PlayStation in favor of a 20-year-old board game. And even though there are Warhammer-themed computer games, fans like Simpson, 17, remain loyal.
"I prefer the board game because you can do whatever you want," he says. "There are so many choices. If they come out with a better [video] game, I might switch over to that for a while. I'm never going to stop playing the board game because it's so much fun."
A top player competing in the Grand Tournament, which runs tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center, echoes similar sentiments. Brian Stein, a mathematician from southern New Jersey, says, "Some folks get all wrapped up. They've got to win this game. My ego isn't wrapped in plastic. I'm here for a good time."
The Grand Tournament showcases the top players in Games Workshop Group's three tabletop battle games: Warhammer, Warhammer 40K and Lord of the Rings. Competitors pay $125 to vie for awards and bragging rights.
In Warhammer, players glue and paint 1 1/4 -inch-tall miniatures that move 6 inches at a time and attack on a throw of the dice. Games, which typically last two to three hours, take place on such flat surfaces as tables and elaborate war boards, model trainlike terrains. The player with the most "kill points" wins. Warhammer takes place in a mythical, medieval time, while 40K is set in a future dystopia.
Simpson and Stein are not alone in their devotion. About 2,500 fans descended on the Baltimore Convention Center for Games Day 2008 in early June. Such dedicated gamers have helped Games Workshop grow during the past 30 years from a single store in Nottingham, England, to a lucrative global business with recent store openings in Japan and Vietnam. The number of its hobby shops in the Baltimore area has tripled to six in the past five years.
All these games draw from rich, detailed, fantasy-world backgrounds. The characters in these fictional universes are in constant conflict with one another.
The enduring popularity of this low-tech game is because of its personal involvement, according to Ernest Baker, Games Workshop's CEO of North American Operations.
"If you spend 10 hours painting and putting together your army, you have something to show at the end," Baker says. "You have a great deal of pride. Whereas if you play a video game for 10 hours, you might have enjoyed yourself, but you walk away with nothing to show for all that time you spent."
Andrew Reiner, a senior editor and professional video gamer for Game Informer Magazine, agrees.
"Obviously, it's the building of the troops," Reiner says. "It's like how older guys would build their boats or model planes. This is the nerd version of that for a new generation. Sculpting the troops, accessorizing them, deciding which weapons to give them gives you ownership over them. And you don't have that in video games."
Baker adds that the combination of "tactile" involvement and the need to see and interact with other human beings, is an important component of the game.
Reider Bennett-White, 28, of Cockeysville regularly playsWarhammer 40K at his local hobby store and went to June's Games Day as a soldier known as an Imperial Guardsman, sporting his legion-marking double-eagle tattoo on his left arm.
"I've always liked sci-fi, and it gives me a chance to play it and read about it," Bennett-White says of Warhammer 40K. "It's the interaction with people I like most, and it's a fun game."
Baker, 48, notes that the average Warhammer player is 22, but many stay with the game beyond the targeted 12-to-28 age range, and even bring in new generations of players.
But what if you don't want to break free from your PC? Warhammer online was unveiled in Baltimore and drew some of the longest lines at Games Day. The foray into multiplayer, role-playing online games was being viewed as an experiment.
"If Warhammer online does good, fantastic," Baker says. "If not, that's OK, too. We are a tabletop battle-game business."
Reiner says Warhammer online faces stiff competition from the hugely popular Worlds of Warcraft online game.
"It's going to be hard to crack the Worlds of Warcraft experience. It's such a juggernaut, constantly pumping out new content, new missions," he says. "I'm hoping we see, like with Dungeons and Dragons, people get into the video game and find out about the tabletop games. It's a different experience. To achieve victory in the tabletop takes a few hours. With a video game, you can wipe out a villain in a few minutes."
if you go
The Games Day Workshop is scheduled for tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center, One West Pratt St. Tickets are $125 for all three days. For more information call 410-590-1400 or go to games-workshop.com.