Cause and effect

Be careful what you wish for, they say. You just might get it, they say.

By ‘they’ I’m obviously referring to the Pussycat Dolls – and for once, those provocative pop vixens were right. In last week’s column, I ardently wished for a child who could share my geeky passion for gaming; days later, I had been catapulted almost a decade into the future and found myself gaming with approximately a dozen 9-year-old boys.

As I primed my measuring tape and prepared to lay waste to an opposing force of Space Marines and Eldar, I found myself wondering how exactly I had arrived there. Thereby, Ladies and Gentlemen, hangs a tale…

Back in August, during the Edinburgh Festival, I was conversing innocently with a colleague about her weekend. She had been to see some shows and, at some point, had been joined by her parents, who had been babysitting for her up to that point. She remarked that this had obliged her son to leave the house with them – something he hadn’t been pleased about because it meant he ‘…had to stop playing Warhammer’.

“Well,” came my throwaway reply, “If someone forced me to stop playing Warhammer, I’d probably have gone bananas too.”

We talked a few minutes longer, discussing and recommending festival shows, before I returned to my desk. I thought no more about it.

A few days later, I was returning home at around 8pm when my phone buzzed. I had received an email, which, for the purposes of this article, can be considered fateful. It was a missive from a 9-year-old boy I had never met.

Now, before you start imagining the plot of some gruesome asian horror film or overblown Hollywood thriller, the boy was neither a vengeful ghost nor a kidnap victim. He was my colleague’s son and he was concerned purely with Warhammer 40k, to the extent that his message contained no preamble or pleasantries of any kind. It simply launched into an impassioned list of questions and enthusiastic proclamations about the world of tabletop war. Other adults might have found such a message bewildering or rude, but for me, it simply signalled the existence of a like mind: someone who recognised that a second spent typing polite introductions, when there are wargames to be discussed, would be a second wasted.

This email was followed quickly by a message from my colleague, frantically apologising for the unannounced contact and reassuring me that her son was not a deranged stalker. I responded congenially that all geeks were young once and I had no issue with encouraging the next generation of gamers.

Fast forward a few days and several more exchanges: it was agreed that I would meet this chirpy young man on the field of battle. A date was eventually found, some weeks distant, which would work for both of us. So it transpired, on that fateful day, that I found myself at Games Workshop in Edinburgh with a large cardboard box full of alien creatures, awaiting a 9-year-old opponent. I got more than I bargained for, by a long chalk.

Once the young warrior arrived and I had chatted with his parents for a few minutes, it became apparent that there was no playing space reserved for us. In fact, this was beginners day, so our only option was to partake in a massive group game with a horde of other young  players. My new acquaintance was entirely unfazed by this turn of events, at which point I began to feel foolish for having assumed that a youngster would have made the necessary logistical arrangements. Rather than be a killjoy, I agreed to take part in the group game. I made my way to the ‘bad guys’ edge of the table (apparently rampaging alien beasts are considered bad… who am I to question the moral judgements of primary school kids?) and prepared to deploy my forces.

“What’s the points limit?” I asked the GW employee who was supervising this whole affair. For the uninitiated, points are a means of keeping the games fair. Each unit in the game has a points cost; if two armies face off and are worth the same amount of points, it should theoretically be an even game.

“Oh, no points,” he replied jovially. “Just pick an HQ unit, a troops unit and one unit of your choice.”

I gaped at him. “B-but that’s degenerate,” I protested. “I have unbelievably points-heavy units with me. My army could be 3 times as good as the others. That’ll be terrible for the kids.”

His answer was a sage smile and a pat on the shoulder, before he departed to address the clamouring horde of excited children.

So here we are again, come full circle. I was poised at the table, measuring tape in hand, unsure of what to expect. The ‘good guys’ (in the background stories, Space Marines are fascist racial purists, so this is a loose description at best) won the roll and started first.

Put simply, it was absolute carnage.

I have seen and heard things no honest, humble gamer should see.

  • I have witnessed boys rolling large numbers of dice, two at a time, concealed behind their own tanks and then proclaiming that their results were an overwhelming, statistically improbable success.
  • I have watched children gleefully moving models without regard to the rules, lumping them forward haphazardly and gaining huge ground in the process, shuffling them behind buildings during their opponents’ turns so they couldn’t be fired at.
  • I have wept for the want of earplugs as twelve pre-teens yelled and screeched their shooting intentions, demands for saving throws, ad-hoc rules negotiations and straight-up primal challenges across the table.

I felt, by the end, like the veteran of a real and visceral war. The Games Workshop gent must have been laughing to himself as I worried about the book-keeping aspects of this process; he knew, as I now do, that my theoretical advantage would never have time to tell. In 90 minutes, we managed a grand total of 2 turns. I barely engaged the enemy before we were packing up, with the ‘good guys’ (or Space Nazis, make your own call) declared the winners on a pretty arbitrary basis. I can’t really complain about this, though, as it meant my new pal was a winner and therefore delighted. Honestly, it made me feel pretty good about the whole affair.

In fact, despite failing to resemble the table-top gaming I know in any meaningful way, I began to feel quite positive about my experience as the dust settled. My inner-tournament player might have been horrified by the anarchic nature of the game, but I frequently found myself laughing with genuine amusement and surprise at how the kids interacted. They were having great fun – and as a result, so was I. Just not the exact kind of fun I expected…

In closing, I’d like to salute the bloke who ran this event on behalf of Games Workshop. In a later conversation, after the kids had packed up and toddled off to regale their parents with tales of glory, he told me that he has been holding these sessions every Sunday for six months. After just one 90 minute game, I was exhausted. This man is a true hero – and unknown to him, has played his part in showing me the patience and tenacity I’ll need to display as a Dad.

May the Emperor be with you, soldier.

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