Brave new world for games maker

Tolkien: Far-flung Games Workshop enters yet another realm through its product licensing deal with the film The Lord of the Rings.

January 09, 2002|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Games Workshop has always done business, quite literally, in a world of its own.

Two worlds, to be more precise: one populated by elves, ogres and rat-men, the other by futuristic Space Marines and the Dark Eldar army.

Games Workshop created those two worlds for War- hammer and Warhammer 40,000, table-top battle games that have built the company into a $135 million-a-year global enterprise. It makes thousands of metal soldiers who live and fight in them. It publishes a magazine, even novels about them.

The company doesn't advertise, it shuns mass-market retailers and executives never imagined an undertaking as mainstream as licensing products for a major film.

And then, New Line Cinema made a movie out of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Hollywood, in essence, entered Games Workshop's world.

"This was the one arrangement that made sense," said John Stallard, head of the British-based Games Workshop's North American headquarters in Glen Burnie. "This is what we do, and we love it.

"We always tip our hat to Tolkien," Stallard said. "If it weren't for him and Lord of the Rings, we wouldn't be here now."

Three months after its release, Games Workshop's latest game, The Lord of the Rings, is its top seller. Company officials expect it to add $5 million to Games Workshop's $40 million in annual sales in the United States.

The company's decision to create a Lord of the Rings game defied its history. The game is being sold in national chains including Barnes & Noble Booksellers, while the company has long favored specialty hobby shops or its own stores.

Games Workshop doesn't own the characters and the story. Before it could make several of the miniature soldiers for Lord of the Rings, it needed approval from the actors who portray them in the film.

Executives say they have more in mind than simply increasing revenue. They hope that Lord of the Rings' mainstream appeal will draw more customers to the niche market of table-top gaming that has made Games Workshop an underground phenomenon and helped propel its stock up 300 percent last year on the London Stock Exchange.

"What this game does, is it finds us, quicker, the people who want to play with model soldiers," said Stallard. "We're not after mass popularity. That's not who we are."

Who they are is a premier manufacturer of miniature soldiers with a worldwide following of near-fanatical devotees. Based in Nottingham, England, the 20-year-old company has created two elaborate, dark fantasy worlds in which its games are played, complete with epic battle tales and entire races of warriors.

More than simply games, War- hammer and Warhammer 40,000 have spawned a culture of hobbyists who attend conventions, paint soldiers, build scenery and follow Games Workshop's characters in comic books, computer games, card games and the monthly magazine, White Dwarf. A Grand Tournament is scheduled for March 16-17 at the Baltimore Convention Center.

Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 are both played using armies of miniature soldiers that engage across a table-top battlefield using dice and measuring devices to calculate damage. A game can be as simple as a few dozen pieces on a kitchen table, or can include armies, hundreds strong, positioned on dioramic landscapes.

Games Workshop sells boxed games, with dice, rulebooks and some plastic miniatures, but it also makes more than 10,000 different metal and plastic soldiers and pieces of hardware that can be used to enhance the battle. All of them are sold unpainted, making design of the battle as much a part of the hobby as the game itself.

In addition to its U.S. headquarters, Games Workshop has much of its manufacturing operation in Glen Burnie, where it employs about 180 people. The company has about two dozen stores in the United States, including stores in White Marsh, Annapolis, Arundel Mills and Glen Burnie, and more than 200 others around the world. Prices range from about $3 for the smallest miniature soldier to $50 or more for large pieces of hardware. Customers are usually teen-age males.

"Our real competitors tend to be cars and the opposite sex - the things you get interested in late in high school," said Jeremy Vetock, design studio manager for Games Workshop in Glen Burnie.

"But we have a lot of people who come back to it, too. It's like the train set. Around Christmas time you take an interest in it again, and before you know it you've got a huge train set in your basement, and your wife thinks you're crazy."

The Lord of the Rings game is played in much the same way as Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. A starter game costs $40 and comes with a rulebook and 48 miniatures - 24 Moria Goblins, 16 Elves and eight Men of Gondor. The game can be expanded with individual miniatures, including the nine characters in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Company officials say that early customers seem to be new to the genre. Some have complained that the box doesn't include a board to play on, which none of Games Workshop's games do.

Games Workshop officials expect the new offering to gain stature among dedicated gamers, particularly as more miniatures become available. The company plans to release new games and figures with each subsequent film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy - culminating in the great battle in The Return of the King.

"This was the one license we've gone after, because it's one that our customers identify with," said Lonnie Mullins, manager of Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 brand.

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