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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

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Tabletop war gaming - it's 'like hardcore Monopoly'

Some women think men are little boys who never grew up. If these ladies stroll into Greystone Community Centre, Carlisle, on a Saturday afternoon, they might feel the argument has been won.

David Moon photo
David Moon takes part in a tabletop battle

Inside we find three tables draped with green felt and topped with dozens of models: soldiers, horses, tanks.

And surveying the troops are seven little boys, aged from their 20s to their 50s.

This is Carlisle Tabletop Wargaming Club, a Cumbrian branch of a thriving worldwide phenomenon.

One of the most popular games – Warhammer 40,000 – has just turned 25.

Men have played war games for much longer than this.

There are dozens of versions, set on ancient battlefields or distant sci-fi futures.

But the aim is the same. Pit your warriors against your opponents’. Secure victory at all costs, before packing your army into your black plastic case and returning to the outside world.

The most popular games are Warhammer, with its elves and vampires, and Warhammer 40,000, set in the 41st millennium.

“It’s not just Warhammer,” says David Moon, a 49-year-old funeral director from Carlisle.

“We re-enact historical battles. My favourite eras are the Second World War and the Jacobite Rebellion.”

A voice pipes up: “The second or the third Jacobite Rebellion?”

“Nerd!”

“Of course I’m a nerd! I’m about to play a game of toy soldiers!”

The club’s members do a nice line in self-deprecating humour.

They know their hobby is unlikely to join surfing and skiing on any list of cool pastimes.

Some handle the accusations of geekdom better than others.

I ask one of them his name and he replies that he doesn’t want it mentioned. So we shall refer to him by his club position: The Treasurer.

Others are happy for only their first name to be published.

One of these, Hugh, is a 29-year-old dentist who began playing war games when he was 12.

“I think if you get into your 20s and people are still taking the mickey, it doesn’t really bother you,” he says.

“I don’t really see it as being geeky any more. I wouldn’t say it’s become socially acceptable. But there are a lot more kids playing it than did 10 or 15 years ago.

“It’s less shady people playing in basements and more church halls and Games Workshops.”

Games Workshop, which has a branch in Carlisle, is the exclusive seller of the Warhammer games.

People play in the shops. That’s where these chaps started, before branching out two years ago.

They have more space here and they can play non-Games Workshop battles.

Because Warhammer is so popular some people don’t realise there are alternatives. Such as historical games.

“Military history fascinates me,” says David. “Histories of different infantries and regiments.

“The Warhammer side of things is more fantasy, using your imagination.”

But imagination is a useful weapon in historical games too.

You can relive famous battles as they were actually fought. Or if you think you could have done better than Napolean, prove it on a tabletop.

“You can do a ‘what if?’,” says David. “You use the historical armies and see if you can change the course of history. Can you change the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo?”

His enthusiasm is making this sound like an attractive idea. But not everyone agrees. David’s daughters will not be joining him here.

“And my wife thinks I’m mad, playing with toy soldiers. ‘How much did they cost?’”

Hugh the dentist is playing Warhammer 40,000 against a friend called Tim. Hugh explains that the game itself is only part of the attraction. There’s also the modelling and painting.

He has created his own monster by putting three harpies together on one base. All models are grey when bought. Players spend hours bringing them to colourful life.

“Different aspects appeal at different times. When you’re 10 or 11 you just want to play. When you get older you get more into painting and modelling or historical battles. I think the painting is very therapeutic.”

Hugh doesn’t shout about his hobby at work. But some of his younger patients know about it.

“When they find out that I play they’re like ‘That’s so cool!’”

The Treasurer describes tabletop wargaming as “like hardcore Monopoly.”

He also compares it to model railways, in the sense that it’s male-dominated.

There’s a suggestion that men outnumber female players by at least 10 to one.

Tim claims that female players tend to go for “pretty armies”, such as elves, and that women often paint their figures pink.

Oliver Lonsdale feigns offence at this stereotyping.

Oliver is a nuclear physicist, currently helping to decommission Chapelcross.

He and his fellow gamers might be nerds but they are not female-free zones. Most are married or have partners.

Oliver introduced his wife Emily to tabletop gaming.

“She was already into board games. This is just a bigger board, really. We sometimes play at home on the coffee table. She gets very annoyed because I beat her quite often. That’s just because I’m more familiar with the game.

“I haven’t got into historical gaming yet. I think my wife would probably kill me.”

Oliver began playing Warhammer when he was nine. He’s now 26.

“It’s like any hobby. It’s a break from whatever you should be doing. Most of all, it’s about having fun.”

After 17 years Oliver remains fascinated by the fact that he can play the same game against the same opponent and see a different outcome every time.

Much of this is due to the element of randomness produced by dice.

“The randomness helps keep it from getting too predictable.

“I know that if my archers are within 15 inches of an enemy, a roll of four, five or six will score a hit.

“If they’re more than 15 inches away, only a five or six is a hit.”

Aside from all the rules – Warhammer has a lot of rules – there’s what Oliver calls the human element.

Members play in tournaments across Cumbria and further afield. There are regular meet-ups with the Dumfries club. Tabletop gamers may be bookish types. But they’re also sociable.

“I enjoy playing computer games,” says Oliver. “But you don’t get the interactivity. You can’t play tabletop games by yourself.”

And yet tabletop gamers are mocked while the person who spends their weekend staring at a screen at home is regarded as cool.

“If you said you’d spent your Saturday playing Call of Duty on your PlayStation, no one would think twice,” points out Oliver.

As I say my goodbyes, wishing these tabletop warlords well against a cruel outside world, someone says: “I haven’t got any zombies – and that’s what I really need.”

I pray they’re talking about a game, or this could be a very unpleasant revenge.

Carlisle Tabletop Wargaming Club meets on Saturdays between 12pm-6pm at Greystone Community Centre on Close Street, off Botchergate. The cost is £4 per session. The club plays most Games Workshop games, and many others. New members are welcome to just turn up.

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