‘Heroin for middle-class nerds’: how Warhammer conquered gaming

Alex Hern:

Last year saw a bloodbath on the high street. Debenhams closed 50 shops, Toys R Us, Maplin and Poundworld went into administration, and more retail space was lost than in any year since 2008, with 1.9m sq metres closing, according to the property analysts EG. But one retailer beat this trend, reporting profits of £40m in the final six months of the year. In 2017, the same company was the publicly traded British stock that outperformed every other: Games Workshop, a high-street retailer of science fiction and fantasy miniatures, now carries a market capitalisation of more than £1bn.

But how did a company founded 40 years ago with one shop in Hammersmith, west London, become so successful? The answer lies in Warhammer 40,000 – 40k, as it is usually known; a sprawling tabletop conflict game in which two players fight with collectible armies, including the space marines of the fascist human Imperium and the ancient fallen angels of the Eldar, using rules found in a library of 30 or so source books.

If this sounds surprising, it is worth noting that Games Workshop isn’t the only part of nerd culture to experience a recent rush of interest. Dungeons & Dragons, the venerable role-playing game, has had its own resurgence since 2014, thanks to depictions in TV shows such as Community and Stranger Things. The rise in “actual play” podcasts such as the Adventure Zone and Critical Role has also helped, as has a focus on attracting new players for its fifth edition.