Specialist Games, Dead Games




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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.

A Van Saar leader for Necromunda.

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.
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 company.

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.

The Golden Age

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 lines.

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 games.
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.
Man 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.
Playing miniature games was cheap and easy, and that was quickly perceived as a problem by Games Workshop. But it was not the sole issue.

The Dark Age

Every Epic plastic box contained hundreds of 6mm miniatures.

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.

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.

Undead Games

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 armies.
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.

Games 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 Workshop's closet.

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 battle.

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 download.

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


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