Specialist Games was
"restructured" in late 2004. Only a naive soul like Jervis Johnson could
take heart into such business decision from the bean counter. But the
demise of Specialist Games has been planned long ago and should not come
as a surprise.
There are two main groups of players in the Hobby,
Veterans and Beginners. In between, the segment is sparsely populated.
It's not very difficult to understand why: few Beginners stay long enough
in the Hobby to become Veterans. Many Beginners quit early, often with
loads of unpainted miniatures they sell at knockdown price on eBay. Few of
them will stay long enough to have their painted army and continue playing
after a couple years.
A Van Saar leader for
But once the Veteran status is reached, little
efforts are required to stay on the gaming scene: an updated codex or
rulebook once in a while and you're done.
Veterans hardly buy anything
- except the few powermongers trying to stay "competitive" through
balance shifts introduced with every rule change - and each of them has
buckets of unpainted models bought long ago on impulse and waiting for
their attention. Yet, Veterans are precious to Games Workshop. They
usually have a deeper knowledge of the game background, play with painted
miniatures and know most of the rules. They survived a rule cycle and can
tell differences between editions. They are inspiring for newcomers and
reassuring to their parents, and that's what makes them useful to the
Of course, like any generalization it's not hard to find
blatant exceptions, but I think this perception is accurate for it
explains the policies of Games Workshop towards them.
Most of the Veterans have started playing in the mid-90s. This
period is called the Golden Age. There were plenty of games available -
Space Hulk, Necromunda, Man o'War, Warhammer Quest, Blood Bowl, Space
Fleet, Gorkamorka, Mordheim, Talisman, Epic... No matter what you wanted
for gaming, there was something for you in Games Workshop product
Standalone games existed, but there were even alternate gaming
systems, Epic and Man O'War being two famous examples. Both featured
supplements and army lists as complete as the one found for core
Epic was the name of 6mm scale, allowing huge battles between
entire companies in the grim universe of Warhammer 40K. Titans clashed
with each others in cities where infantry units were taking shelter in
ruined buildings. Orders and chain of command were more important than
individuals. The scale allowed spectacular miniatures for each faction,
from Titans to giant tunnellers and mechanical abominations.
O'War, on the opposite, was Nigel Stillman's pet for naval battles in
the fantasy world of Warhammer. It was a complete gaming system with all
races represented (even Chaos Dwarves!), a complete magic system, campaign
rules, crew experience, sea monsters, flying units. The game variety was
unmatched, ranging from the flying Bane Tower of Tzeench to the Dwarf
Nautilus and its dreaded torpedoes.
Yet, this golden age carried the
seeds of its own destruction. A complete Blood Bowl team was made of a
dozen miniatures, no more, and provided endless hours of league play. The
first editions of Space Hulk game contained only 30 miniatures and
campaigns rules for years of play by creating your own campaigns. A single
Epic plastic box contained thousands of points of troops.
miniature games was cheap and easy, and that was quickly perceived as a
problem by Games Workshop. But it was not the sole issue.
Games Workshop policy since then had
been to hook players into miniature gaming, perceived as a whole. But
those games were not compatible. If someone invested time and money to
build his own Space Fleet, he was unable to play any game apart from Space
Fleet. Even when scales were matching, no one could seriously use a
Necromunda gang in a Warhammer 40K game or a Blood Bowl team in a fantasy
battle. This diversity created many gaming niches.
Every Epic plastic box contained
hundreds of 6mm miniatures.
This trend was
perceived as a problem, because too many players were just playing side
games instead of making the leap to join Warhammer or Warhammer 40K, Games
Workshop flag games and cash cows, as the bean counter expected. Building a
1'000 points army for either core game was not cheap. For that price a
gamer could easily buy rules and two complete armies for another side
game. Sure, it brought more people in the Hobby as a whole, but not on the
right tracks. Moreover, all those products took a lot of shelf space in
stores and it was hard to maintain everything, to provide news in White
Dwarf magazine, and so on.
To put it bluntly, Games Workshop estimated
one day that it was shooting itself in the foot with all those alternate
product lines. As this new perception of the Hobby took strength among
deciding members of the company, new secondary lines were quickly buried.
Late experiments, like Inquisitor, were carried out to publication because
they were too close of release, but others, like Epic 40K, were almost
killed straight. But too many parallel products were still living. It was
time to kill these offsprings.
Yet, if Games Workshop had closed every
alternate product line from one day to the next, Veterans would have
voiced so much discontent that they would scare beginners and create a
Casus Belli with the company. They took another path. Specialist Games was
created on that very purpose: allowing alternate product lines to sink
gracefully into oblivion.
The mission statement
of Specialist Games was naturally completely different, and they did their
best to maintain the product lines they were in charge of, despite running
low on budget and relying on sculptors of... Various skill. It wasn't the
only problem faced: availability of archive miniature was bound to Games
Workshop's will; resource allocation was disturbing - they felt the need
for a new release of new Necromunda rulebook (with the same typos than
previous edition) but never improved over the only three armies for
Epic:Armageddon while archive miniatures existed for all
Another nail in their coffin was their pricing policy, once
again decided by the mother company. Specialist Games' miniatures were
pricey, even more than mainstream games. To me it was aimed at shunning
down newcomers. Despite theses flaws, Specialist Games had some merits:
bringing various magazines for the games they supported, provided forums,
and implemented download for rulebooks. But they were left alone.
Workshop shunned and ignored Specialist Games. It was always as if
Specialist Games' only merit was to exist and to provide a cushy job to
Jervis Johnson. Officially, they barely existed and were barred from any
full-page advertisement in White Dwarf. Official retailers could not carry
Specialist Games products.
This attitude was easy to understand: veteran
gamers could have access to the old products they enjoyed, but it was of
critical importance not to draw beginners into this dead end. Somehow,
Specialist Game had been, from the start, a secret hidden in Games
Ashes to Ashes
In parallel, Games
Workshop tried to create low budget versions of its core games, Warhammer
and Warhammer 40K; those versions are called Warhammer Patrol for the
fantasy world and 40K in 40 minutes or Commando for its futuristic
counterpart. Other variants are regularly published in White Dwarf, like
the campaign system for Chaos warbands.
All those variants have in
common to allow play with fewer models than regular armies, but with
compatible miniatures. This is a good point. The bad point is, of course,
that the purpose of those games is to get players hooked into the larger
scale versions of those skirmishes, not to provide interesting games.
Hence, the watered down versions are quite bland. A warhammer patrol game
is at best a poor man's battle practised during lunch time and can't
compare to a Necromunda gang fight in the hive or a Man o'War sea
Specialist Games was less and less needed as time passed by,
because of the progressive number of Veterans from core games. After
several years of confidential existence, there were finally Veterans that
barely heard of anything beyond Warhammer and Warhammer 40K. Since this
new population was numerous enough there was no need to bother anymore
with alternate product lines. The goal was reached smoothly. In late 2004,
the spin-off company was restructured and most of his members reintegrated
core development. All specialist magazines, one for each game, were
"merged" in a single one. Specialist Games is little more than a website
now - a couple forums, a blog and a set of rules available for
By chance, gamers' collective memory doesn't belong to Games
Workshop. Even if Games Workshop does its best to act as if Blood Bowl,
Necromunda and other great games never existed, eBay will provide
miniatures for years to come. Thanks to the web, the secondhand miniature
market is accessible and cheap - and beyond control.
I jumped in NetEpic
rules, using Epic miniatures, only several years ago, half a dozen years
after the official demise of this product line, and had no problem to get
miniatures for all armies without giving a penny to Games Workshop.
Once a product line is officially dead, there is no more "Codex Creep"
with new releases and abrupt rule changes through a new edition. If you
think of it, it's the perfect situation to start playing!
published on 18 Mar 2005