In some dusty corner of the Internet, I have no doubt that there’s a comic about Warhammer Anonymous. Imagine a dungeon-like cellar. Nebbish young men sit in a circle. One by one, they shuffle forward to confess that they, too, like to paint little plastic spacemen.
My name is Sean Weeks. I like to paint little plastic spacemen.
I’ve gotten passably good at it, actually. My wife and I operate a little paint-for-hire business titled Adventures in Painting. We’re no Angel Giraldez, certainly, but I hope we’ll get there someday.
The Pumpkin Knight – Game: Kingdom Death: Monster – Painter: Sean Weeks – Photographer: Amanda Weeks
Suffice it to say, I’ve fallen in love with this. . . . Actually, it’s hard to know what to call this thing. Is it a sport? Is it an art? Is it more correct to say that you play Warhammer or paint it? Well, the answer is “both.”
The Art of Warhammer
The Terracotta Army
At this point in a “What is Warhammer?” article, enthusiasts like to talk about Rogue Trader, D&D, and the incorporation of Games Workshop, but I am not like the other children. From my point of view, the seeds of Warhammer were sown much earlier than that.
A year ago (and on another website), I penned the article “The Scientific Reason Why Renaissance Statues Are White.” It illustrates a lineage behind painted statuary in multiple cultures. To provide a quick summary: Greek and Roman statues were painted. When Italians dug them up, the paint had flaked off, so they believed the Greeks and Romans hadn’t used paint at all. When the Renaissance, therefore, tried to recreate the majesty of classical sculpture, they left out the paint.
Moreover, the long shadow of the Renaissance convinced us that sculptures and statues shouldn’t have paint, that it looks “wrong.” Archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann recreated these painted statues as a part of a museum piece and he received some strong reactions.
“If people say, ‘What kitsch,’ it annoys me,” Brinkmann says, “but I’m not surprised.” Actually, the public took to his replicas, and invitations to show them elsewhere quickly poured in. In recent years, Brinkmann’s slowly growing collection has been more or less constantly on the road—from Munich to Amsterdam, Copenhagen to Rome—jolting viewers at every turn. London’s The Guardian reported that the show received an “enthusiastic, if bewildered” reception at the Vatican Museums. “Il Messagero found the exhibition ‘disorientating, shocking, but often splendid.’ Corriere della Sera‘s critic felt that ‘suddenly, a world we had been used to regarding as austere and reflective has been turned on its head to become as jolly as a circus.'”
Matthew Gureswitch, Smithsonian Magazine
The Pageantry of Armies
Recreation of Terracotta Army soldier
The Romans weren’t unique. The famous Terracotta Army was actually painted, too, though its lacquer-based paint flaked away when exposed to air.
When it comes to statuary, our modern preference is actually the odd man out. The Terracotta Army and Greco-Roman statues testify to a long history of humans slapping paint on warriors and fighting men. People find artistry and inspiration in armies and soldiers.
Scotland for Ever – Painter: Elizabeth Butler (1846-1933)
And why not? With their family crests, bright heraldry, uniforms, and liveries, armies are some of the grandest subjects. For practical reasons, armies needed these icons to distinguish friend from foe, but they also used them as an opportunity to flash plumage. If the goal of an assembled army weren’t slaughter, then it’d look more like a parade.
Painter: Angel Giraldez
When you feed these traditions through modeling and miniaturized statuary, you get miniature armies, meaning Warhammer. Of course, you get Frostgrave and Warmachine and any number of other descendants, but Warhammer is by far the most popular of the lot.
So that’s the larger, human story of why we have Warhammer, Warhammer 40K, and teeny tiny armies. It’s a new pursuit of a relatively older craft.
Additionally, the introduction of troops on a smaller scale has served to democratize that craft. Emperor Qin Shi Huang needed a quarry’s worth of clay and an entire legion of artists to make his 10,000+ human-sized statues. A Warhammer artist, on the other hand, merely requires a few buckets of paint and some sculpted plastic.
The Sport of Warhammer
So, that’s an overview of why painted armies exist, but what about Warhammer itself? Why do we play with them?
Well, Warhammer (and Frostgrave, et cetera) is simply the latest step in a two-centuries-long process. Unsurprisingly, the starting point for that process was chess.
Cultures developed various games with warlike themes. Go and chess are the two most notable examples, although the latter went through countless changes before it arrived at its present incarnation.
At this point, chess existed in the nebulous space between teaching tool and entertainment. On the one hand, it taught logic and emulated the movement of armies. It gained a reputation as practice for future generals. On the other hand, a vast gulf exists between the movements of a chess knight and a cavalry charge. A real battlefield is more chaotic and less structured.
Europeans clearly viewed this dissonance as a problem. They soon made their own versions which favored realism. The King’s Game, invented in 1644, is one such example: it had 30 types of pieces with their own movement speeds. The most notable attempt, however, was the brainchild of a German mathematician named Johann Christian Ludwig Hellwig (what a mouthful!). It had special rules for terrain like swamps and rivers, more rules for units like siege engineers (pontooners), and other details well outside chess’ design. This was the first of what would later be called “kriegsspiel,” which is German for “war game.”
As with chess, people tinkered with the kriegsspiel. One version managed to convince generals that it had merit as a form of military training. Lieutenant George Heinrich Rudolf von Reisswitz (again, what a mouthful!) developed a kriegsspiel so impressive that the Prussian army adopted it as an exercise. They ordered him to design a copy for every regiment.
Crucially, Reisswitz’s game was not played on a typical gridded board or any board at all, for that matter. When setting it up, Reisswitz astonished everyone by emptying out a bag of sand on the table. Their arena would not be flat, but textured.*
The Marriage of Art and Sport
The Royal Court– Painter: Sean Weeks – Photography: Sean Weeks
From a Prussian lieutenant dumping sand onto a table,* it’s not hard to see why luscious glens and painted trees entered the modern hobby, Hellwig’s wargame introduced a thirst for realism, but Reisswitz broadened our horizons in terms of what a game could look like. Miniaturized representations of homes, fields, and terrain take that pursuit of realism to its logical conclusion.
(* Please see addendum below.)
The Re-Emergence of Kriegsspiel as Entertainment
The Quest for Realism™ still holds a lot of value for some. Game systems like Flames of War have taken the torch from Reisswitz, modeling their rules after real-world armies and conflicts. Games like the infamous Campaign for North Africa require over 1000 hours, more than a dozen players, and enough bookkeeping to stretch the skills of an actuary.
Gradually, however, the Quest for Realism™ relented (in no small part due to Campaign for North Africa, although I can’t prove it). A kriegspiel was allowed to be pure entertainment. People indulged in re-enactments, not just real-world conflicts. They branched into Napoleonic warfare and other time periods.
Over time, they even swapped out riflemen for orcs, cannons for dragons, and wizards for generals. There’s no firm point at which this happened, and that’s in part due to the niche backwaters to which the hobby was often relegated. Before the Internet, the communities for things like anime and wargaming were cloistered affairs. There was no unified face for wargaming in the same capacity as, say, film. Plenty of prototypes for sci-fi and fantasy wargames probably existed in trade magazines or as prototypes. At best, though, these reached a few dozen players.
But there was definitely a general trend away from “military simulation,” although these entertainment-focused wargames retained the fondness for terrain and representational playing pieces.
The best evidence of this shift is the game Chainmail, which rocked the nascent industry in more ways than one.
Picture of the Cover of Chainmail – Site: Google Culture
Conventions were the earliest vehicles for sharing ideas among wargamers. In 1968, one such event coalesced in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Its name? Gen Con. Yes, that Gen Con.
A convention-goer named Gary Gygax encountered a medieval wargame called Siege of Bodenburg. Bodenburg‘s designer, Henry Bodenstedt, shared the rules with Gygax — something that would never occur in today’s corporate world.
From Bodenburg’s four pages of rules, Gygax engineered his own game, Chainmail. Instead of hewing to the more low-fantasy Bodenburg, however, he borrowed characters and concepts from fantasy authors like Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. Gygax then propagated Chainmail through enthusiast magazines with a small, dedicated audience.
The Birth of Dungeons & Dragons
People tinkered with Chainmail in much the same way that Gygax had done with Bodenburg. Fresh approaches came and went. The best and brightest of these, though, was Dave Arneson and Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, that Dungeons & Dragons.
The wargame became a roleplaying and narrative game, and it brought some props with it. Initially, the earliest rules suggested the use of dice on gridded paper as placeholders for characters, but players drew on the modeling and wargaming hobbies to replace dice with the more lifelike wargaming figures. Miniatures became a staple for the game.
The Birth of Warhammer
Artist: Robert James
At this point, Games Workshop was inhabiting the world that wargames left behind. They were a collection of hobby shops specializing in luxury sets for non-kriegspiel games like chess and Go.
Then Dungeons & Dragons reached Britain.
It’s difficult to articulate the exact moment when inspiration picks the padlock on an idea. Reisswitz saw it somewhere within a bag of sand. Games Workshop somehow identified an opportunity in Dungeons & Dragons. They secured the rights to distribution in the UK and integrated Dungeons & Dragons miniatures with their hobby line.
This proved to be a runaway success. In order to capitalize on this and cater to their new miniatures clientele, they established the magazine White Dwarf. They published variants and rules for Dungeons & Dragons in much the same way that Gygax had done for Siege of Bodenburg. This eventually provided an outlet for their own product: Warhammer.
Credit: Games Workshop
Coincidentally, Games Workshop’s background in traditional games meant that their early miniatures were cast in pewter and metal. Acrylic paint, which is the standard for painting in the tabletop world, does not adhere well to metal. It flakes constantly during both creation and regular handling, and it requires heavy varnish to withstand even a small amount of play. But it is the material of choice for publishers of chess sets, which often don’t require paint and aren’t handled as often.
The gaming industry has since moved toward plastic, and painters have been thankful ever since.
To understand what happened next, you need to understand Lord of the Rings.
Dungeons & Dragons is essentially an American riff on the works of British author J.R.R. Tolkien. This is, in a literary sense, deeply ironic. Tolkien stated that he was trying to create a national epic for England, yet the of the most popular expressions of his masterwork belongs to America.
The Britain-based Games Workshop’s purchase of the distribution rights to Dungeons & Dragons, then, is a deeper wrinkle of cosmic irony. Britain essentially bought back a piece of its own cultural legacy. Warhammer is a British reinterpretation of cultural appropriation, a British cover of an American cover of a British original.
And when Games Workshop reinterpreted America’s cover of Tolkien it channeled the UK’s dry wit and the angst of the 1980’s. Darker themes about “the other” and society crept in. This was, after all, the era of Clockwork Orange, Spawn, and Judge Dredd. The result was a bleak, dystopic fantasy world perfect for a good wargame.
White Dwarf editors loved to puncture the self-seriousness of epic fantasy. In Games Workshop’s twisted Middle Earth, the noble humans of Middle Earth become the fascistic Imperium of Man. The fey elves of Rivendell and Lothlorian are Warhammer’s arrogant and vain High Elves and Wood Elves. Dwarves are no longer mere craftsmen, but possess long memories and a religion formed around debts and grudges. Orcs become less like villains and more like green soccer hooligans, displaying both a love of life and an insatiable bloodlust.
Ultimately, Games Workshop decided that wargaming was a better home for the Warhammer universe than Dungeons & Dragons’ roleplaying genre. White Dwarf created rules for fielding entire armies of grudge-bearing dwarves and hooligan orcs. They created their own miniature lines to support those rules. As you can imagine, a steady flow of new miniatures and new rules generated a lot of cash for Games Workshop.
And that money hasn’t dried up yet. Games Workshop has been doing it ever since.
Henry Cavill Is a Warhammer Fan – Painter: Henry Cavill – Site: IGN
Well, they haven’t exactly been doing that ever since. Warhammer (and Games Workshop, for that matter) has changed considerably since its official debut in 1983. Games Workshop retired the original Warhammer Fantasy universe that I described above, mainly because of the close resemblance with Tolkien’s works. Games Workshop has since rebooted that universe as Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. Additionally, they’ve invested heavily in Warhammer 40K, a science fiction grandchild of Warhammer which could generate an article of its own.
But all of that’s wrapped up in the more literal question of what the game of Warhammer is. That’s a much less interesting question of why or whence Warhammer is. Games Workshop’s creation sits at the peculiar intersection of realism, fantasy, art, sport, pop culture, and tradition. It belongs to all and none of these categories, and that might be why we love it.
Addendum: Georg Heinrich Rudolf Johann von Reisswitz
This article is one of the first that I ever published online. I’m mostly happy with it, but it has one major factual error which embarrasses me to this day. I feel like I would be remiss not to offer some sort of correction. Lieutenant Reisswitz’s kriegsspiel was not played on sand at all. It was played with more conventional tools, on topographical maps with wooden blocks. The level of detail and attention to realism, however, was still unprecedented and transformative in the manner described.
The confusion arises due to the work of the lieutenant’s father, Georg Heinrich Rudolf Johann von Reisswitz. Reisswitz Sr. conceived the idea and used the unorthodox models described above: damp sand for a board (at first, then painted modular porcelain tiles), porcelain blocks, and so forth. The senior Reisswitz presented King Wilhelm III with his prototype.
The royal family loved it, but the rules were incomplete (no hand-to-hand, for instance), its materials deemed too expensive for production at scale. His son solved each of those issues, but it would be fair to say that it’s an intergenerational triumph, not an honor that belongs to the younger Reisswitz alone. Somehow, I conflated them and their separate projects.
I could tacitly edit out such a large error, but I don’t believe in hiding brushstrokes. I take it as a lesson to be more diligent and I move on.
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