Games Workshop has become a big enough presence over the last few years that you can read about it in a lot of mainstream press. The Economist, the BBC and The Guardian have all penned reports on the miniatures maker’s phenomenal financial gains over the last couple of years. Yet the hobby largely remains a mystery to those outside.
Buying and painting tiny plastic figures has niche appeal and, as such, reports tend to get things wrong through lack of firsthand experience. The Guardian's deep dive into the hobby a few years ago investigated the myriad factors behind the recent surge of hobbyists, but also managed to completely elide the huge impact a more open social media lead strategy had had on the company, suggesting it only communicated with fans via the magazine White Dwarf.
This week, The Guardian covered Games Workshop’s financial success again, and caused a little bit of fuss in the online Warhammer community. The article originally cited that the hobby is “seen to attract an older, more male following - with deep pockets”, writing that customers would buy “intricate models [that] can cost about £100” along with “tiny points of paint, with names such as “plaguebearer flesh” [that] can cost more than a tenner”.
Warhammer has long had a perception issue, couched in a myth that is partly true, partly false: it's expensive, and the preserve of wealthy kids and childish adults.
This has now been updated to say the hobby “is seen to attract an older, more male following” with models that cost “anywhere between £10 and £100-plus”, “while tiny pots of paint start at about £3”. Presumably this followed a lot of corrections sent in by the community but, as wargamer Willard Foxton Todd noted on Twitter, there’s a reason Games Workshop is press-averse. An image caption in the article still suggests models can be made of tin, but the publisher hasn't sold tin miniatures in over 10 years and metal minis are becoming increasingly rare, with only a handful of older kits produced.
This boils down to the fact that Warhammer has long had a perception issue. It’s couched in a myth that is partly true, partly false: Warhammer is expensive, and the preserve of wealthy kids and childish adults.
I can’t help but disagree.
Firstly, I am no spring chicken. At 33 my joints ache a little, and my eyes struggle sometimes - admittedly this is a pain when painting. I also first got into the hobby as a young boy of around 10. Many of the current crop of hobbyists are likely in the same position, as Warhammer has been something we’ve grown up with, watching it evolve over time.
It’s true that the hobby space is overly male, but it has become a more inclusive one over the years, with Games Workshop last year echoing sentiments of diversity and inclusivity. There is work that still needs to be done here, but it feels shortsighted to cut people such as Ceri Robson and Dana Howl out given the work they do in fostering community and creating painting resources respectively.
It’s also true that the models can be pricey, but that is the cost of cutting-edge sculpting and machining. The most expensive kits, such as Szarekh, The Silent King and the Warstomper Mega-Gargant, are magical pieces of miniature design, covered with details and put together with mind-bending construction techniques - but you’ll rarely need, or potentially even want, these kits in your army. Much of this hobby is about choice, after all.
Like any hobby, Warhammer has its pitfalls. In the past I have tried to cover some accessible routes into the hobby with introductions to its gameplay, buyer’s guides and advice on getting into painting. There’s no perfectly ascetic way to enjoy a hobby, but there are ways to enjoy yourself on a budget. I know because I have been on a budget myself for six years after going back to university and graduating into one of the most economically poor periods of UK history.
There’s no perfectly ascetic way to enjoy a hobby, but there are ways to enjoy yourself on a budget.
I have lived alone, in shared flats and most recently with my partner, and I can’t remember the last time my earnings put me over £10k, but I have a decently-stocked hobby shelf full of minis that I am fairly proud of. Like any other hobby there are often costs involved for getting kitted out with the starter material, but this point is key: it’s like any other hobby. There is always an on-ramp.
People often champion the efficacy of board games as a new hobby - and, sure, a £30 board game is cheaper than the equivalent Games Workshop purchase. But it’s a hobby that comes with different demands: social circles, regular friends to meet up with, the ability to transport a stack of games around. I get less use out of my scant board game collection than I do out of my Warhammer gear, and it ultimately scratches a different itch to painting and wargaming.
There are lots of ways to enjoy Warhammer. It can be a recreational painting hobby, a meta-chasing competitive grind and anything in-between. All approaches are valid. Warhammer Underworlds and Shadespire offer some of GW’s best kits; as little as £15 will get you a small set of wonderfully detailed and characterful models to paint and play with.
Warhammer can be a recreational painting hobby, a meta-chasing competitive grind and anything in-between.
I often grab one of these when I want a new self-contained project, safe in the knowledge it’s less than half the price of a new video game or board game and will give me at least a full weekend of enjoyment as I paint them up. Bonus points for existing in a gaming ecosystem that lets me use them in a myriad of ways, and I get to enjoy them sat on my shelf looking neat.
I keep a weather eye out for bargains, and purchase much of my Warhammer models and equipment at third-party stores, which carry a decent discount. It adds up. The time I spend on painting and gaming with models make them feel well worth the investment, but more than anything they’re things to own that I painted. In an increasingly fleeting, digital and impersonal world, that feels like a lot. I can track progress and memories with these kits, and I’ve written about the mental health benefits of the hobby before.
All of this might read like apologia, and in some ways it is. Self-justification is core to anyone’s engagement with their hobbies. We could always be saving more, and precarity always makes non-vital expenses feel like indulgence.
Games Workshop itself is guilty of pushing an incredible level of FOMO on its customers with weekly reveals and pre-orders geared to make each model the greatest thing ever, and a must-buy for any player. That’s its prerogative as a company, as it is with any company, but that doesn’t mean everyone is required to keep pace.
Painting any hobby in as simplistic tones as the mainstream does is impossible to avoid. There are models that cost a lot of money; if you look at GW’s specialist offshoot Forge World, there are figures that cost a lot more than £105. At the same time, suggesting this is a hobby only for the well-off is poor form, because it assumes that everyone who partakes is at the same level of financial security. It flattens the broad spectrum of hobbyists into something untrue, and unkind.
If someone wants to enjoy themselves or get creative with miniature painting for the cost of a triple-A video game, it should be celebrated, not stigmatised. Similarly, not everyone should feel pushed by a breathless release schedule to keep up with the biggest spenders. Even Games Worshop is slowing down a little in 2021, due to COVID, with a new biweekly schedule. Maybe this will work out better for everyone. As with everything, moderation is key.
Just as avocados and lattes aren’t stopping you from being a successful homeowner, neither is a little Space Marine or goblin here or there.
Edit: This article has been amended to clarify that Games Workshop still produces limited amounts of metal miniatures.