Due to unforseen circumstances, this month’s column comes to you a few days earlier than planned. My apologies for this. Next month’s will be back to the usual time of the first Sunday of the month.
Why I Only Really Buy Games Workshop’s Products, And How I’d Prefer It If That Was Not The Case.
“You Do Know Wrestling’s Fake, Don’t You?”
As long-term readers may be aware, I am a massive fan of wrestling. Last month, I was told that you can’t be an adult fan of wrestling; to the person who had that particular hot take which I’ve obviously never heard every single time I’ve ever mentioned my love of wrestling, my answer would be: I can be a fan of whatever the f**k I like. I mean, I’d explain why, but after two decades of wasting my breath, I just can’t be bothered any more. Either you’re a fan yourself and you get why, or you never will and nothing I can say will change your mind.
This move is ridiculous. Either you love it because of that, or you never, ever will.
Anyway, doubting my mental competence because I like ballet’s more brutal cousin is by the by. You don’t need to be a fan of the greatest form of modern performance art to enjoy this article. I’m only going to use wrasslin’ because, as a niche product regarded with open hostility by the mainstream, it forms a useful comparison to wargaming.
Those fans of wrestling who are my age grew up in the heyday of Austin 3:16, the smell of The Rock’s cooking and Mrs. Foley’s baby boy getting thrown off a steel cage. The WWE’s ‘Attitude Era’ was a glorious time to be a wrasslin’ fan. The talent roster had literally never been deeper, the angles had never been nuttier, the matches had never been as vicious.
Until suddenly, the good times were over. The Rock left to make films. Stone Cold left in a cloud of vicious acrimony and domestic abuse convictions. HHH buried every rival beneath half-hour promos of interminable tedium and thirty second matches of shameful disrespect. WCW had been run into the ground by egotism and stupidity. ECW had disappeared in a cloud of ill will and unpaid bills.
Of course, there other companies. A scrappy little group called Ring of Honor tried make a name for itself based on quality wrestling, but the matches were frequently high on action, low on ring psychology, and so left me wanting more. A slightly more well-off company called TNA tried to win over WWE fans by creating an inferior version of WWE television on less than one percent of the budget and one hundredth of a percent of the talent. Their matches just left me feeling sad.
So that was that. With nowhere to go and nothing to see, I gave up. Wrasslin’ was done. I’d occasionally stick my head round the corner, see what was happening, but the last ten years of WWE ‘superstars’ have been nothing but a bland piss-drizzle of nothing men. Steroids are no replacement for that star quality, no matter how much they might wish it so.
So, after nearly two decades of disappointment, imagine my surprise when I fell back in love with wrestling this year.
’This Gold has POWER.’
“Have you heard of ‘Lucha Underground’?”
No mate, I replied. I haven’t. What is it?
And Raph explained how one thousand years ago, an ancient Aztec prophecy foretold a great and terrible evil. It would take the strength of all seven Aztec tribes to face off the coming nightmare. Cut to our time, with the prophecy due to bear its dark and terrible fruit any day, and the seven tribes scattered into obscurity. Broken by the conquest of Mexico and the decimation of the indigenous peoples, the surviving members of the tribes live shattered lives, denied their legacy as humanity’s destined saviours. With the world’s fate on the line, unless they unite, everything is doomed.
Of course, not everyone has forgotten the Old Ways, though perhaps it might be better if they had. In a forgotten industrial warehouse, a place pregnant with dark power, the prophecy slowly grinds towards horrific realisation. Hidden from the eyes of the authorities, an illegal gladiatorial arena thrives. Managed by the son of a secret follower of the Aztec gods of slaughter, it exists to feed the secret gods of the arena with the violence they need to rise and assume power… And in a sick irony, this dark apostle forces the survivors of the seven tribes face each other, squabbling over the gifts of the gods so they can never unify and elevate themselves to greatness again.
And the seven tribes are not all that thrives in this dark Temple. There is a man possessed by the spirit of an ancient dragon, come from the bowels of the Earth to test himself in combat; a time-travelling alien, sent from the stars to save us; a one hundred and ninety six year old Lich desperate for the sweet release of death; the boy she rescued from an earthquake and fashioned into her deathless golem of war; the last prince of the Puma tribe, once homeless and scavenging in the barrios, is now rising to meet his legacy… Even the secret high priest’s own brother fights, and his soul was sacrificed by their father to the gods of slaughter… gods which now use his flesh to wreak utter ruin on any who would oppose the Temple’s grand and terrible design.
I am not making any of this up. This is the most basic outline of the plot.
What is ‘Lucha Underground’? ’Lucha Underground’ is what happens when Robert Rodriguez decides he wants to produce a wrestling show, and it is possible the most insane television show I have ever watched. It is also MAGNIFICENT. The story is completely bonkers: magic is real, there are undercover cops, some wrestlers have been killed (in character, but still…) It’s unlike anything else anywhere, and it is completely addictive.
Unlike ‘LU’, every other wrestling fed ultimately tried to emulate the template established by WWE. They pretend at being sports. They pretend at being real. They have the bright lights, the colourful characters, they go after that sweet, sweet PG money.
But not ‘Lucha Underground’. It’s shot in an arena that sits maybe fifty people. It utterly embraces its crazy premise, and dares you to say something as dumb as ‘You do know it’s fake?’
‘Do I know it’s fake? Look son, after the time-travelling alien had his match with the nunchuck-wielding dragon, a skeleton ninja just broke the arm of a vampire with a split personality. Do I know it’s fake? Yeah son, there are subtle clues…’
Visually, ‘LU’ looks like nothing else either. There’s a few muscleheads, but there are skinny guys, fat guys, tough girls, psychopathic moth girls, and more awesome luchador masks than you can shake a stick at. And the location of the Temple is like nothing else on Earth; a grimy, dark fight club, it embraces the poverty of its setting to create an outlaw setting that is entirely its own. Everything about ‘LU’, from the lighting, to the guys wrestling, to the backstage scenes, to the Mexican aesthetic is completely unique.
A champion for abuse survivors, a Mexican showman, an undead revenant, a rich boy serial killer, his psychopathic sister, a sniper with PTSD and what turned out to be a F**CKING WEREPANTHER fight for the literal favour of the Aztec gods. Seriously, it’s the best show on TV and everyone should be watching it.
In a world where every other fed wants to be a tiny version of WWE, ‘Lucha Underground’ dares to be itself with a relentless purity.
I f**king love it so much for that.
An Inconvenient Truth
Games Workshop is the premier wargaming company in the world. This is a fact. It has more shops than other wargaming companies, makes more money than they do, and has deeper IP penetration than any other company in the field.
It’s so ubiquitous in the wargaming world that for those of us who have lived lives immersed in the culture, it’s easy to forget why this is. After all, we all grew up with Space Marines. By the time most gamers have been in the hobby for a couple of years, they’re sick of Ultramarine blue. Familiarity breeds contempt, and those of us who choose to stay in the hobby after the age of sixteen – those of us who just can’t quit it – are usually so used to the GW aesthetic that we’re pretty sick of it. We start looking elsewhere for a different kind of gaming fix.
Maybe they discover Warmachine, or Malifaux, or X-Wing, or Deadzone, or AT-43, or DUST, or Gates of Antares, or any one of the various other products out there. Maybe they begin to evangelise about their favourite game, lionising the little guy and pouring scorn on The Great Beast that is Games Workshop.
After all, how many times have you heard that 40K’s rule set is garbage? How many times have you said so yourself? Sometimes, it feels like everyone hates Games Workshop. Christ knows it did back in the days before the internet.
But Games Workshop still remains the top guy. So why is that?
Well, I’m not going to pretend there’s a single, simple answer to that, and anyone who argues there is? Is a fool. Business is tricky and complicated, and even more so in the strange little niche markets our hobby flowers in.
However, one of the key components is one that hardcore gamers are inclined to often overlook, lost as they are in the crunch of dice or the fluff of background.
Five Ridges On The Forehead
Have you ever noticed how every Tyranid model has five ridges/plates on their foreheads? I had to have that pointed out to me.
Games Workshop does a lot wrong. A lot. So much in fact, that it’s easy to get so lost in people’s nit-picking that it becomes easy to miss what they do well. One thing they do better than almost anyone is their sense of aesthetic.
Take a step back and just consider the way 40K models look.
When you see those ridiculous shoulder pads, do you think anything but ‘Space Marine’? When you see that sickle mag and the barrel with a single hole through the side, do you think anything but ‘Bolter’? When you see sword with massive triangular teeth, do you think anything except ‘chainsword’?
How many Games Workshop models are immediately identifiable as what they are from a distance? I would argue that it’s all of them. Looking down on a battlefield, even if you don’t know which faction is which, you can always tell each army apart… and even if they’re unpainted. Every GW model always looks like a GW model, and you can almost always tell everything about it immediately.
It’s my opinion that GW crafts effective model silhouettes better than anyone else, and there’s a number of things they do which help create this immediate, striking appearance.
The first thing is that each army has a distinct, utterly unique aesthetic. Astartes are all hard edges and rectangles. Astra Militarum are boxy and covered in rivets. Eldar are sleek lines and bumps; Dark Eldar are sleek lines and blades. Tyranids are hunched over with too-many limbs. Orks are muscles and asymmetrical lines. On and on, every army has a distinct style that is entirely its own.
The second thing is the decision to make the models in ‘heroic scale’. Examine a 40K model up close and you’ll start to notice how big everyone’s hands are. How wide the guns are compared to real-life weapons. How huge their heads are. Stare too long and it gets a little off-putting.
Of course, that same exaggerated scale gives every model a distinctive heft that truescale models lack. 28mm truescale weapons are all reedy little sticks, whether they’re spears, swords, or shotguns. 28mm heroic scale weapons might be hyperbolically proportioned, true, but that only means they’re characterful. They’re not guns; they’re the idea of guns, and that distinction is a critical one for a hobby where so much takes place in the imagination. In truescale, a model’s face looks like dough that’s in the process of rising – only the vaguest sense of eyes and a nose. In heroic scale, features are exaggerated, true, but they’re also refined; refined, and detailed enough to be completely characterful.
What are these? Guns for ants?
Finally, and most critically, for all their war-bling, GW models have a surprising lack of greebling. Consider Astartes armour: apart from a handful of simple lines on the thighs, most of the plating is almost completely flat. A Cadian trooper’s outfit is a handful of smooth plates interlaced with areas of uncomplicated fabric. Eldar armour is almost completely featureless; at its most complex, there might be a couple of buckles, but mostly it’s just plain. Modern GW figures are hugely complex, but simultaneously, they lack the insane levels of detailing you’ll see in something like ‘Infinity’s figures, or on some of Mantic’s newer offerings. Those huge areas of plain, featureless plastic help to create strong lines, and strong lines create a powerful impression. In the case of such small figures, less is most definitely more.
I believe these three factors – strong individual army aesthetics; heroic scale; generally uncomplicated sculpting – are what makes GW’s models so much more fundamentally attractive than other companies’ offerings… As well as the final fourth factor I haven’t mentioned yet.
Genre Theory of Originality
Look, let’s be honest: 40K has everything and the kitchen sink blended up in it. Magic rubs shoulders with science, demons get fought off with fully automatic rocket-launchers, Tolkein sits smiling next to anime, who’s holding hands with Stan Winston… It’s all in there.
But it’s all completely 40K. Astartes aren’t just ‘Knights In Space’, even though that was how they were originally conceived. Nor are they the power armour of Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’. Sure, they might wear their influences openly and unashamedly, but anyone who argues ‘They’re just a rip-off of … <insert thing I just noticed here>’ is just being too simplistic. 40K’s ripped off so many things and combined them together so effortlessly, it’s got an aesthetic that’s just completely its own, no matter how much people might argue otherwise. A Tyranid isn’t a velociraptor crossed with a cockroach by way of H.R. Giger. It’s… well. A Tyranid. We can all see where every army gets its ideas, but they’re so far evolved from the original source they might as well be completely original.
Nothing else looks like a Space Marine… and when it does, the very first thing everyone says is ‘Christ. They’re ripping off 40K quite blatantly, aren’t they?’
In film critique, genre theory argues that just because a film comes from a specific genre, that doesn’t mean it’s unoriginal or unworthy. The joy of genre is seeing the ways in which artists reinterpret existing tropes to create something that’s familiar, but new-feeling.
So, ‘The Incredibles’ is basically ‘Fantastic Four’… but it takes the characters and tropes of the superhero narrative and does something no-one’s ever seen before.
It takes out the superdickery for one thing.
Games Workshop does the same thing, but for literally everything in the entirety of science-fiction. Like ‘Lucha Underground’, it is relentlessly and unapologetically itself. The 40K universe, torn from the pages of a thousand pulp novels, stolen from the screens of a thousand sci-fi novels, remains one of the most strikingly unique visions in speculative fiction.
And this is where we get to why I don’t really buy from other companies.
Honestly Mantic, What The F**k Are You Playing At?
So I’ve spoken before about how I couldn’t get into ‘Infinity’. However, at least ‘Infinity’ is being itself as hard as it can be. ‘Infinity’ has a near-future anime-inspired aesthetic, and while I can’t tell the different factions apart, at least there’s a sense that I could if I sat down and learned the background lore. If GW is WWE, then ‘Infinity’ is Ring of Honor: it’s clearly doing its own thing, and while I personally think that thing is a little uninspired and ultimately somewhat drab, at least there is a clear, unified vision of what the product is and how it’s unique.
However, if ‘Infinity’ is RoH, then Mantic is TNA, because Mantic openly and shamelessly actively aspires to be an alternative to Games Workshop. ‘Diet GW’, if you will. And in this pandering to GW’s playerbase, I think Mantic actually gives an almost step-by-step guide to how not to do models.
This column was inspired by Mantic’s latest ‘Dreadball’ Kickstarter. I saw the words ‘cyborg zombies’ and nearly lost my mind. I was like YES. THIS. ALL THE THIS. GIVE ME STROGG THAT I MAY FINALLY MAKE THE ‘QUAKE 4’ FANTASY ARMY I’VE BEEN NURTURING SINCE 2005. I mean: cyborg zombies. With hideous prosthetics, ruptured skin, stitches, rubber tubing hardwired into bones and pistons instead of muscles. You can’t get that wrong. You just can’t.
What I wanted…
… and what I got.
But somehow Mantic found a way.
Looking at the concept pictures, all I saw was the usual Mantic style: people in skintight armour… and that’s it. Oh, they’ve got a little ball over their heart to create a unified look have they? How amazingly innovative.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been so underwhelmed.
Now, the thing is, I want to like Mantic, because they’re a scrappy little underdog and they say all the right things. ‘Deadzone’ is a great game, as is ‘Mars Attacks’. I’m keen and eager to get on-side and evangelise for them.
I have almost no interest in their models because in almost every way, they’re the diametric opposite of 40K’s. Every faction looks mostly the same. The Corporation – the Astra Militarum analogue – is a bunch of skinny guys with sci-fi looking guns. They’re exactly as skinny as the Asterians – the Eldar expies – who are a bunch of slightly skinnier guys with sci-fi guns. You could hold up almost any model from any faction, and with the exception of a couple of the big models, you’d think they all came from the same faction. Maybe not the sumo lizards, but even then, they’re just… well. Sumo lizards. Has anyone ever gone ‘You know what I think sci-fi needs more of? Sumo’?
Everyone’s got the same body proportions. Everyone’s got the same sort of poses. Everyone’s got the same sort of guns. They all blur into one glutinous, homogenous whole. With the exception of things like the aforementioned sumo lizards or big-*ss models like the Plague stage 1A, nothing really stands out.
And seriously, ‘Plague Stage 1A’? I mean, this is an awesome model, so why the crap name? Was the shop all out of names that day?
Then there’s the choice of truescale, which means everything’s spindly and prone to bending/breaks. The guns all look like needles. There’s lots of excessive greebling, but none of it really signifies anything beyond ‘high-tech’. All the strong lines are broken up and lost; the silhouette of the model is killed.
Even with the move away from that horrible plastic resin which leaves everything with the most atrocious mold lines, I’m not sold on them. When you combine this with some of the lamest fluff imaginable, it all makes for a fictional universe I just don’t care about. The humans are from generic mega-corporations, there’s an alien space plague… You can see explicitly where they’re trying to win over Games Workshop’s existing base at every stage, but everything’s just so cack-handed, they’re never going to succeed. I won’t deny the excellence of Mantic’s games – they’re a superb rules company – but their models are just turd. They don’t look unique, or striking, or exciting, or anything. They’re the sort of designs you see in every cheap computer game, or in every SyFy TV series, without anything to really recommend them.
Mantic is the TNA of wargaming: it’s copying the Big Boy and hoping that a lower price point will be enough to lure people over.
But it won’t. With every Mantic kickstarter that comes out, we see how they’re just going to give us more of the same, with emphasis on the word ‘same’. Every time I think ‘will this be the one that makes me a convert?’ and it never is.
And I want it to be. I want to cheer for them. They’re one of the rare companies who make styrene models, and styrene is the best material. I despise metal, and resin requires way too many precautions.
I want them to be the Next Big Thing.
But they aren’t, and they’re never going to be.
Beyond The Gates of What Everyone Else Is Doing.
Mantic is the easiest company to attack because they’re so brazenly trying to steal GW customers, but they’re not alone in producing bland-looking models. ‘Beyond the Gates of Antares’ has a tedious near-future aesthetic where nothing really stands out. I mean, maybe the Ghar mechs, but rock people? I mean, really? really? ‘DUST’ has some wonderful mech designs, but their soldiers are pretty meh. Not to mention, the cheap plastic they’re made from is horrible to work with. PP has some lovely stuff, but the models are often a little on the cartoony side, and the fluff is – for me at least – an uninspiring retread of the Tolkeinite Standard Fantasy Template. Adding steampunk does not a compelling background make.
What I want to know is where is the wargaming equivalent of ‘Lucha Underground’? Where is the company doing something completely different? Where’s the company that takes a step back and says ‘we’re going to create a game that looks nothing like anything else on the market’? Something that plays with the established tropes in a way that makes us all wonder why no-one had thought of it before?
There are still aesthetics that haven’t been mined. I haven’t seen a single company do a decent 28mm scale ‘machine war’ army. Where are the giant robo-spiders, the ‘Mass Effect’-inspired Reapers, the tentacle space horrors, the cyber-Cthulhus…
Where are my genuinely horrifying cyber-zombies?
It seems to me that every company out there is too obsessed with the idea of ‘realistic’ future war. That they’ve spent so long looking at the balls-out insanity of 40K, they’re terrified of doing anything which might be considered too over-the-top for fear of scaring off the older fanboys who are looking for the newest gaming fix.
I think it’s about time some of them tried something new. Lose this tired obsession with near-future bollocks. Stop making every army human-sized. Drop the tired aesthetic that says futuristic = skintight plating.
I’m champing at the bit to champion a new company. I am absolutely ready to evangelise for a company with a strong, unique sci-fi aesthetic and a solid, interesting background, and I am absolutely sure I am not alone.
The thing is GW are on top because no-one’s actually doing what they do. NOTHING looks like 40K; NOTHING has the fluff of 40K. Nothing is even close. Every other company is content to ply a samey-looking mix of seen-it-before tedium and pat themselves on the back because at least it looks different to GW, ignoring how much it looks like everything else. In a sea of generic sci-fi, 40K still stands out as the most original thing there, which means there’s only one real question.
Which company is going to finally go for it and be the one to develop the first really amazing, unique look that enables them step up and take the crown?