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Self-isolation is feeding my Warhammer addiction There's nothing like a bunch of paintbrush-toting nerds telling each other that they’re doing nice work

March 17, 2020   7 mins

About two and a half years ago, I found myself loitering near a shop on the fringes of Soho, nervously looking over my shoulder, in case anyone saw me as I went in. When I got home, I hid the stuff I’d bought — the specialist magazines, the equipment — away from my wife. I was indulging in an old, shameful habit; I’d given up decades earlier, but a single taste and I’d fallen back into it.

The shop was the Games Workshop on Tottenham Court Road; the habit was painting plastic spacemen. As a grown man of 36, I was painting little sci-fi figures again, just as I had been when I was 12. Hello everyone; my name is Tom, and I’m a Warhammer addict. 

This means I like to spend hours at a time painting tiny, intricately detailed miniatures with some ludicrous name like Mortarion, Daemon Primarch of the Death Guard, or Belial, Grand Master of the Deathwing, and it is as though I am cut off from the cares of the world. I just care about the paint running off the brush, and the angle of the light. I won’t check my phone, or think about work, or worry about my kids or the coronavirus or Brexit. It’s an addiction, one my wife tolerates but can never understand, but a healthy one. It gives me access to a sort of Zen stillness and flow; I have discovered a genuine skill of which I am fiercely (if abashedly) proud.

I can trace the exact course of my resurgent problem. It was an indirect route, via another old nerdy habit of mine; building model aeroplanes. We took the kids to the RAF Museum in Hendon in early 2017. We wandered around looking at the Vulcan bomber and the Short Sunderland and so on; I mildly disturbed my wife with my ability to name almost every aeroplane on sight (although I got the Curtis P-40 Kittyhawk mixed up with the Hawker Typhoon. I’m still embarrassed about it). The eldest kid, three at the time, got upset about not being allowed to sit in cockpits, but I was enthralled.

On the way out via the gift shop, as a bit of nostalgia, I bought an Airfix kit with glue and a few basic paints and paintbrushes. My wife went out one evening and I started sticking it together. It turned out to be bloody difficult. I’d forgotten all the stuff you need; for instance, an anglepoise lamp. I ended up sitting at my kitchen table wearing a mountaineering head-torch and I looked genuinely insane. But it turned out to be a gateway drug. 

A few months later, in a local toy shop, buying a Brio locomotive for my son, I found a Warhammer 40K starter kit; three little one-inch-high soldiers and, again, the necessary paints and brushes. After that things quickly got out of hand. Second-hand miniatures off eBay kept turning up in the post; I’d rush to the door to intercept them so I didn’t have to explain why I’d bought something called an “Interrogator-Chaplain in Terminator armour” or a “Lord of Contagion”.

Have I lost you, yet? Perhaps I ought to jump back a bit in time here. In 1975, three young men, John Peake, Ian Livingstone, and Steve Jackson, started a business called Games Workshop. Its initial success was as the first European distributor of Dungeons & Dragons, but in 1983, they created their own game, Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Like D&D, it involved elves and goblins and so on and rolling dice to see how much damage you did. But where D&D involved little groups of warriors completing quests, Warhammer gave you whole armies; you and an opponent would line your miniatures up and do battle, taking turns to fire your catapults or charge your cavalry.

It was all very cod-Tolkien – noble elves and stalwart dwarves, savage orcs and wise mages – but with a difference in tone: the Warhammer world was doomed. The elves, dwarves and the human Empire fought to hold back the forces of destruction, as in Tolkien; but unlike the broadly hopeful if elegiac tales of Middle-Earth, in Warhammer, the bad guys were not going to be stopped.

Then, in 1987, came Warhammer 40,000. It was, essentially, the Fantasy Battle ported into a science-fiction setting: “Eldar” instead of elves, “orks” instead of orcs. And it took the bleakness and turned it up to 11. This was, remember, the 1980s, the time of Judge Dredd and other darkly satirical sci-fi; but this really went all-out. If you’ve ever heard sci-fi described as “grimdark”, that is a direct reference to Warhammer 40K, and its tagline: “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” 

I don’t think I can do justice to the backstory here, but, in essence, the galaxy-spanning Imperium of Man is a fascistic, backwards, hate-filled hive of xenophobia, obsessed with racial purity and fearful of innovation. Genetically engineered super-warriors slaughter millions in the name of the God-Emperor; a brutal Inquisition tortures anyone suspected of heresy; ordinary people live brief, grim lives as slave workers in violent megacities, or conscripted as cannon-fodder for the Imperium’s endless wars. The regime is fairly accurately described as “Catholic Space Nazis”. 

And, for the avoidance of doubt, those are the good guys. And, again, they’re losing. 

Obviously, I love it. 

Like Fantasy Battle, 40K involves moving little miniatures around on a scenery-covered tabletop. You might be playing as Space Marines (the aforementioned super-soldiers) against an opponent playing Orks; you might have guns with a 24” range, say, and when it’s your turn you roll dice to see if they hit their enemies, and then again to see if they hurt them or if it bounces off their armour. Or they charge into combat and try to hit each other with hilariously over-the-top weapons like chainsaw swords or massive electrified hammers. You can play any mission or scenario you like, from “the winner is whoever kills all the other dudes first” to complex capture-the-flag type situations.

A friend who plays more tabletop games than I do tells me that — in terms of the mechanics — as tabletop games go, it’s middling. It’s kind of fiddly; you have to roll a lot of dice to find out if anything happens and the rules can be confusing. Others, such as the Star Wars X-Wing tabletop game, are much more streamlined.

But the point of the Warhammer games is that they’re not just games. The point is that they’re a hobby. The miniatures come unpainted and unassembled; you have to paint them yourself, and some people do it with astonishing skill. If you want to play, certainly at any Games Workshop store but at most organised events too, you need to have painted them – it’s fine to paint them badly, but grey plastic is frowned upon. The game is only one part of a whole lifestyle; there’s a huge amount of fiction, there are video games of varying quality, beautifully made fan-art, painting competitions, and massive festivals, although the latter, obviously, are getting cancelled.

And the universe is a mad grand-guignol festival of bloody excess, all towers of skulls and shrieking daemons and psychic superheroes; vast spaceships fighting Patrick O’Brian-style broadside-battles in space or gigantic war-robots with gatling guns the size of skyscrapers. But it’s also a rich and detailed backdrop, perfect for telling stories against. Your little characters in their little battle fit into it neatly: you can have your religious-fanatic Sisters of Battle holding an Imperial shrine against the plague-spreading heretics of the Death Guard, or your slavering xenomorph-like tyranid aliens overrunning a last stand of terrified Imperial Guard, bayonets fixed to their cheap, inadequate rifles, their commissar threatening to execute any man who runs.

Games Workshop has had its ups and downs over the last 40 years. It expanded hugely in its first two decades, but the internet, rival games like Magic: The Gathering, and its own bad behaviour – secrecy, overzealous defence of its copyrights, refusal to listen to its fans – led to a collapse in profits in the first years of the 21st century. But the company has changed. It ended Fantasy Battle and released a follow-up, Age of Sigmar, which had some teething troubles but is now much loved; its eighth edition of 40K streamlined the game significantly; and it opened a community website specifically to let fans share ideas and grievances.

Its stores are one of the few remaining high-street successes, because they don’t really exist to sell miniatures but to provide hubs for local gaming communities. If you’d bought a grand’s worth of shares in the company in 2014, they’d have been worth £14,000 in February. (The coronavirus, inevitably, has hit it, but no worse than the rest of the stock market.)

I don’t play much; only half a dozen times or so since I started again, and one of those was against my sister, who took pity on me. It’s the painting that I enjoy. I think it fills a similar space, psychologically, to knitting, or jogging, or gardening: it requires the absolute attention of one part of your mind, while letting the rest of it wander. I listen to audiobooks and podcasts, and focus. Hours can go by. It soothes the soul; problems that seem insurmountable when you start appear, by the time you switch off the anglepoise and put away the brushes, not solved, but somehow solvable. Best of all, I’ve got pretty good.

It’s not perfect, as a hobby. It’s bloody expensive, for a start (£90!?); and as it’s got bigger, it’s become harder for Games Workshop to maintain the sly, satirical nature; it’s a gigantic business now, and playing it straight sells more. But traces of the old black comedy remain, especially in the gurgling, foetid troops of the plague-god Nurgle, and the cheerfully malevolent orks with their junkyard tanks and comically oversize guns. Besides, spending £50 on some minis that take you 20 hours to paint is probably good value for money, and they’re of incredible quality, all made in Nottingham where the business has its base; it’s a huge, global British success story.

And the best thing of all is its community. It’s so wholesome – hilariously so, given the spectacularly un-wholesome subject matter. The tendency of online communities (from Star Wars to Young Adult fiction to, weirdly, knitting) to turn toxic has been well-documented; gatekeeping and purity spirals. But, at least in the Reddit forums I spend time on, the Warhammer community is gentle and kind. There’s something deeply heartwarming about someone writing in the comments underneath a picture of Abbadon the Despoiler, Chaos Lord of the Black Legion, saying “I love how you’ve got the skulls looking so clean and realistic! Care to share your recipe?” When newbies tentatively show off their first models — blotchy thick paint, mould-lines still visible — experienced painters share helpful tips (“two thin coats!”) and make supportive noises. It’s a male-dominated hobby, predictably, but very welcoming to the many women who do play and paint. 

I don’t know what it is about it that keeps it so friendly. One possibility is the absolute ban on any political discussion: I once shared what seemed to me an interesting post about why the universe was more engaging than the Star Wars one, and was quickly but kindly told to take it down because it included some very minor hypotheses about the political implications. The complete absence of any discussion of Trump, Brexit, or any other hot-button issue might be why everything seems so civil. Or perhaps it’s just that everyone gets their aggression out by shooting lascannons at the enemy’s Keeper of Secrets so they don’t need to scream at each other online, I don’t know.

Whatever the reason, though, I am glad to have it in my life. Community and social contact is going to be at a premium for the next few months; having a bunch of like-minded nerds online telling each other that they’re doing nice work seems like a good start, even if we’re not supposed to meet up to play it. Besides, self-isolation comes easily when you’ve got miniatures to paint. Perhaps my shameful pile of grey plastic will finally start to shrink.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.


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Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
4 years ago

Warhammer 40K is wonderful stupid fun. The Dan Abnett books are genuinely good too!

I just love the way you have flying daemon-infested space cathedrals shooting at each other, but the nicer planets behind enemy lines have small parishes and country “churches” for the populace. 40K is very English sometimes.

Robert Forde
Robert Forde
4 years ago

Thank heavens. Now I can come clean about my equally nerdy modelling of railways of East Anglia in the 1950s. When the restrictions were recommended for older people, and the local model club closed for the duration, my wife laid in gardening equipment and plants while I laid in stocks of timber, modelling equiment and a few kits.

For both of us, it’s escapism of a kind, laced with a degree of control over what happens and removal from everyday cares. That’s what hobbies are for. There are some people who think mine an odd interest, but I’m 71 and I JUST DON’T CARE! Or, as my wife put it: “Such people need to get a life, rather than putting down other people’s”.

And if we run out of stuff, there’s always online shopping. You can even get plants this way. And there’s a new Great Eastern Railway box van coming out soon.

Sorry, don’t get me started…..

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
4 years ago
Reply to  Robert Forde

My mother had a Z-gauge treacle mine. Had to break it up when we moved, but I hope she remakes it.

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
3 years ago

You are not alone. Those of us who engage in such hobbies rather imagine that they perceived as the shameful secret of a misfit or misanthrope. I gave up an interest in making model biplanes nearly 35 years ago, only to take it up five years ago, as a antidote to the demands of running my own business. Those blissful hours on a Sunday afternoon are pure escape. Thank you for sharing your love of painting “Little soldiers”