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Modern Warhammer 40k owes so much to my beloved Warmachine

Following the news that troubled wargame Warmachine has been sold to new owners, we reflect on its huge impact on modern Warhammer 40k.

HEad to head shot - on the left, a red Khador Warjack robot from the wargame Warmachine - on the right, the blue-armored Space Marine Lt Titus from Warhammer 40k

Warhammer 40k is the most successful wargame in the world, and has been pretty much since it was invented in 1987. But newcomers who’ve only experienced the game since Games Workshop’s renaissance in 2016 might not grasp how tenuous its hold on power has sometimes looked – and never more so than during the rise of Warmachine.

UK-based game maker Steamforged Games recently announced on Monday it was acquiring Warmachine, the connected Iron Kingdoms IP, and all related product lines from their creator, the US-based Privateer Press. The wargame has languished for years, and one of the many reasons for that has been the astronomical growth of Warhammer 40k since 8th edition launched in 2017. But paradoxically, 40k wouldn’t be half the game it is today without Warmachine.

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To understand why, we have to look into the history of Games Workshop. When Warhammer 40k launched in 1987, Games Workshop already had a thriving business as a retail chain, international distributor, publisher, and manufacturer. Warhammer Fantasy – the precursor to Warhammer: The Old World – had proven there was a market for (comparatively) accessible fantasy wargames rules, but Warhammer 40k exceeded all expectations.

Warhammer 40k hit the cultural zeitgeist perfectly, and thanks to GW’s existing infrastructure, it could distribute and sell the game as fast as the casters could make the minis. While miniature wargames existed before, they were a niche hobby. Warhammer 40k created the modern fantasy and sci-fi wargaming scene as we know it, effectively from scratch.

For most of the ‘90s, Warhammer 40k’s only competition came from entirely separate product categories. Cultural phenomena like Magic: the Gathering, Playstation, and the Pokémon TCG, all called to the attention of the young nerds who were GW’s main customer base. Other, high quality miniature games were produced in the period, but they never had Games Workshop’s direct line to customers.

A Warhammer store, with a happy staff member showing off the wide range of products, and gaming tables in the centre

While there’s plenty of nerd discourse about games “killing” Warhammer 40k, or other firms “beating” Games Workshop, these underestimate its unique advantage in owning every part of its supply chain, from IP, to production, to distribution, to retail. While other games can become successful among hobbyists, Games Workshop is successful with non-hobbyists discovering the hobby for the first time – and there are many, many more of that type of customer.

But Games Workshop could be harmed – and in fact has been harmed before – by getting complacent. Most critically for its bottom line, it can become complacent about whether its products are actually suited to new hobbyists. As former senior hobby products designer Tom Hibberd recounts, this complacency almost resulted in a complete cashflow crisis in the early 2010s.

It can also get complacent about understanding the market, which was the position for GW at the turn of the millennium. A decade selling products to an audience who had a big appetite for wargames but only dial-up internet to research their options, did not instil GW with curiosity about what those customers actually wanted.

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GW almost passed on the license to make the Lord of the Rings miniature game, and was only convinced when Rick Priestley and then-licensing manager Andy Jones pointed out how embarrassing it would be if another miniature firm made the game instead.

We can see the best summary of this market blindness in former CEO Tom Kirby’s statement in the 2014 annual report: “We do no demographic research, we have no focus groups, we do not ask the market what it wants. These things are otiose in a niche”. The belief seems to have been that the firm had found and captured the entire market of people who might be interested in Warhammer products, and there was no point looking further.

GW’s stratospheric growth from 2016 onwards shows this was entirely wrong. But what did gamers want? Well, a lot of them wanted something like Warmachine, which launched in 2003.

A clash between a Trollblood Ice King colossal and a massive red Khador colossal warjack

Warmachine is a game in which powerful mages called Warcasters control steam-powered robots called Warjacks. The rules are filled with rich choices, as players have free reign about the order in which they activate models during their turn, and must decide at the start of each round how to allocate their Warcaster’s magical ‘focus’, whether to reserve it for personal defense and spellcasting, or allocate it to Warjacks to empower their attacks.

I love the core rules of Warmachine, and stand by the quality of the core engine – it’s more complex than Warhammer 40k, but uses that complexity in service of greater player expression. Every problem has multiple solutions, and everything from movement to dealing damage has the potential for challenging decisions and interesting list building potential. But it was the attitude and support for the game’s community from the publisher that really set it apart.

The fifth page of the first edition Warmachine rulebook contains a manifesto about what the game was supposed to be, succinctly summarised in the motto “play like you’ve got a pair”. That might make you wince for how juvenile it is, but it’s a very direct call to action: this is a game about head-to-head competition.

Warmachine art, Cygnar army trenchers with a supporting warjack

The team developing the rules and supporting organised events backed it up – Warmachine received regular FAQs, balance updates, and official tournament packs. Community organisers called ‘Pressgangers’ were compensated for organising events in the form of store credit.

Magic: the Gathering set the groundwork for gaming companies using official tournament circuits to promote their games, and Privateer Press applied much of this template to its organised play scene. In contrast, ’00s Warhammer 40k was in a dreadful state for tournament gaming.

Photograph of a Warhammer 40k GT - players at the Warhammer World venue playing Warhammer 40k

GW simply didn’t put resources into balancing the game, often neglecting FAQs and errata, let alone balance updates. Some Warhammer 40k factions went multiple editions without receiving an updated Codex. The problem was so severe that every major (fan-organised) tournament circuit for Warhammer 40k maintained its own errata and balance patches, documents that ran to dozens of pages.

By the late 2000s and early 2010s, Warmachine began to eat Warhammer 40k’s lunch in the organised play scene. Where 40k made tournaments taxing, tournament support was a foundational assumption of Warmachine.

Games Workshop was also retreating from the US at the time. While it had run a Pressganger-esque programme called Outriders to promote the hobby in the US in the ‘90s, that was dropped in the early ‘00s. It ended support for its flagship Games Day US convention after Games Day Baltimore in 2009.

Warmachine tournament at GenCon - players bent over a miniature wargame

Warmachine, and other games that emerged throughout the ‘00s and ‘10s such as Infinity, Malifaux, and X-Wing, dominated more and more of the conversation in online gaming spaces, more and more of the floor space at conventions. While those new to the hobby were still more likely to encounter Warhammer 40k, those who were already enfranchised were being exposed to a wider and wider variety of other games thanks to the rapidly developing internet.

What was the significance of this? For GW’s bottom line, perhaps not much. As I said above, GW’s main profits come from people outside the hobby entering it, not those within it going deeper, which is where tournament gamers (and people who talk about ‘the hobby’ online) are. But a tournament scene does much more for a game and the company that makes it than provide a reason for tournament gamers to buy stuff.

Warmachine art, an elf of The Retribution of Scyrah, wearing plate mail and carrying a pistol

Tournaments and other public community events are aspirational and inspirational. They put the game out in public, whether that’s physical space at a convention, or the digital space of social media. For a game’s publisher, they’re an incredible catalyst for word of mouth marketing, and an invaluable tool for grabbing customers’ attention and holding it once the initial excitement of discovery has faded.

While competitive play isn’t the only basis for fun wargames, thoughtfully designed rulesets free from traps for the unwary are a fantastic aid to the social contract that makes pick-up games possible, which is great for players.

The surging popularity of 40k and other GW products from 2016 onwards marked the end of this era, and put to bed all speculation about whether or not Warhammer 40k could be ousted as the premier wargame. Warmachine wasn’t without its own flaws, and the fact that its parent company has sold it is a strong indication that those flaws have scuppered it – but that’s another article.

Yet when we look at the strategy that has made modern Games Workshop successful, we see it responding to the market in ways it simply did not before Warmachine. Modern Warhammer 40k has FAQs, errata, balance updates, and tournament support. User friendly features we saw in Warmachine and Infinity over a decade ago, particularly free rules PDFS and digital army builders, have finally been adopted by Warhammer 40k (to a greater or lesser extent).

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Games Workshop makes a wider variety of games than ever before. Some of them – like Kill Team – are laser targeted at tournament gamers, others at beginners, others at nostalgic returners. The complacency that assumed GW had already found every potential wargamer, and that Warhammer 40k alone could satisfy them, has vanished.

As you can tell from the fact I wrote this, I’m fond of Warmachine – it was the game that brought me back into wargaming after a university hiatus (Warmachine Mk II, playing Trollbloods, and I sucked). It never really challenged Warhammer 40k’s market dominance – as I say, nothing could – but it shone a light on everything that Warhammer 40k wasn’t. Thousands of gamers ran towards the light. I’m hopeful that, under new management, Warmachine could become a beacon once again.

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