In the grip of Warhammer Help your elf to popular fantasy game

March 24, 1993|By Patrick McGuire | Patrick McGuire,Staff Writer

So, you think you know elves. OK, spot quiz: You're out on day walking your elven army when your path is suddenly blocked by an obnoxious horde of goblins, orcs, the odd stone troll and a wagonload of snotlings. You heard me, snotlings.

Do you: A) fire your repeating bolt thrower into the orcs; B) charge your Knights of the Silver Helm into the goblins; C) maneuver your company of High Elf Bowmen for a shot at the Troll; D) snap out of it because you're a serious grown-up with a very real mortgage, you're wearing wingtips for gosh sakes, and you have a walk that needs to be shoveled?

Myself, I chose A, B and C. I told D to go wait in the car.

I did it because Craig Beck, the manager of the Games Workshop store on York Road in Towson whispered to me, in a tone wise beyond his 20 years: "Elves are good and just. But goblins have an attitude."

There's something in the heart of every boy-man that loves that kind of talk. Not to mention that Dave Sekrabulis, the 14-year-old Ridgely student standing on the opposite side of the table, making final adjustments to his army of inch-tall goblin and orc figurines, seemed just a tad too sure he could knock off a 46-year-old mortgagee.

Don't you just hate cocky goblins?

Thus did I take up the dice and start rolling my way to glory via Warhammer, an elaborate fantasy game of toy soldiers and monsters out of Nottingham, England. Rooted loosely in the fantasy world of orcs and wizards made popular by J. R. R. Tolkien in his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Warhammer has taken hold of tens of thousands of American teen-age imaginations in recent years, even sucking in the odd adult troll.

Unlike your basic Monopoly-style board game, Warhammer requires its players to handpaint hundreds of tiny metal or plastic figurines, to construct miniature buildings, trees and hills for their tabletop battlefields, and to pore through an endless supply of official manuals and novels describing the rich, though fanciful, origin of the various races depicted in the game.

"Competition isn't the main thing in Warhammer," says Mr. Beck. "There's the painting, the collecting of models, the strategy and tactics. It's stuff you don't get with other games like D&D."

Not the role-playing of D&D

D&D, of course, is Dungeons and Dragons, the somewhat controversial fantasy role-playing game from Wisconsin's TSR Inc. that has mesmerized teen-agers and young adults for the past 20 years. While it has also worried some parents because players can assume the roles of evildoers and spellcasters, D&D remains a best-selling game in the United States.

Still, for the past 10 years, teen-agers in England have largely ignored D&D. Their overwhelming preference for Warhammer encouraged the game's producers -- Games Workshop Ltd., of England -- to open its North American office on Benson Avenue in Baltimore during the mid-'80s. There it publishes White Dwarf, a slick, full-color magazine for Warhammer players and, through its Citadel Miniatures firm, manufactures 20 million miniature gorgons, griffons, harpies, nurglings, snotlings and other assorted creatures every year.

Sales manager Mark R. Hall estimates 100,000 teens and young adults in America are hooked on the game. They include players like Mark Gregory, a 21-year-old senior at Towson State University and a regular at the Games Workshop store in Towson. "Warhammer is like graduating from D&D," he says. "It's not as intricate as D&D and it's a lot more fun."

While Warhammer is marketed in about 3,000 hobby stores across the country, the Games Workshop store is one of seven specialized outlets in North America that sell almost nothing but Warhammer accessories and offshoot games. (There is another store in College Park.) On the shelves you can find a futuristic version of the game called Warhammer 40,000, a larger-scale game called Space Marine, figures, paints, brushes and a variety of fantasy board games with Warhammer themes.

They are not cheap: A basic Warhammer starter set with rule books, figures, dice and cardboard terrain costs $55. Plastic soldiers cost about $1 each and metal figure packs sell from $6 to $18. It isn't unusual, says Mr. Beck, for players to spend $20 a week.

"But this place keeps me out of trouble," grins Ryan Cunningham, a 15-year-old sophomore at Calvert Hall High School. "Who wants to be a human all the time?"

Across the table, Dave Sekrabulis agrees: "I like all the neat stories and the background. Even my mother likes all the stories that come with it."

Indeed, it's common to see parents in the parking lot outside the store dropping off and picking up their teens in the after-school hours. "Parents would probably rather see their kids in here playing a silly game than out doing drugs," says Eric Allison, a 32-year-old executive chef and longtime gamer who has stopped by.

Gives kids a place'

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