This Gaming Life: Toy Soldiers Part Two – Retail Detail
Working at Games Workshop in the nineties seemed entirely normal at the time. It’s only later, having worked in what we jokingly referred to at the time as “the real world”, that I can see just how weird the whole set up actually was. Imagine a bizarre mix of the military, a fringe religion, a rugby club, and Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet and you’re about half way there. It was more like being in a Cult than a Company, and we lapped it up. I have never learned so much in my life, about gaming, about business and about people.
One of the very best things about the culture at GW was being surrounded by clever people. I often felt slow and stupid in their company, and in many cases I’m talking about the customers. Take Peter. He had recently started an Empire army. He was getting stuck into painting and was building up his force and his gaming. I hadn’t seen him in the store for a few weeks until he showed up one Saturday clutching his dog eared Empire army book.
“Baz, I need to return this book.”
“Mate, it’s a bit battered, what’s wrong with it?”
“Check the first word of every page in it, you’ll see it spells out ‘A long and undignified history of defeat at the hands of the undead’. My book is taking the piss out of me.”
“Really?!” I say, flicking through the book.
Peter sighs and leans on the counter “Nah, not really, it just feels like that when I’m playing at school.”
That’s right. At school. Peter was 11.
The same was true of the guys (and with a single exception, in retail it was always guys) I worked with. Every day was a challenge. You couldn’t just swan into work and idly chat about what you saw on the telly last night, or the latest antics of your favourite football team. That sort of chatter got you some very dark looks. Every day was a chance to dive wholeheartedly into another massive debate, usually about the merits of a particular army, or a sculptor, or how the latest White Dwarf Battle Report was clearly written by fools. You couldn’t not have an opinion, and you couldn’t keep it to yourself. It had to be tested in the white hot fire of your peers withering judgement. Exhausting, but exhilarating. I went home every night with a head full of new facts, you know, helpful stuff like the top 10 Viet Nam films or the best Haribo in a fight. This was all before the internet, but imagine all the vibrant hostility of your favourite flame war, but in real life, eight hours a day, with your boss.
In normal jobs it’s all part of the day to have a bit of a moan about the state of the photocopier, or the latest dictat from head office. GW was no different, but the subject matters were always drenched in the imagery and flavour of Warhammer. The Intellectual Property ran through the job like words through a stick of rock. At various times my Job Role was Squad Leader, Veteran Sergeant, and Terminator. This wasn’t just workplace slang, these were on my contracts and payslips. Similarly, we had forms, a lot of forms, each of which had a 40K quote and some Imperial art on them. The Termination Form we had to fill in when we fired someone included the legend “The rewards of tolerance are treachery and betrayal”. Even the uniform was designed to be part of the indoctrination. Managers had black shirts, staff wore red. The Imperial Eagle was emblazoned on everything. We got little badges sometimes, for service to the Emperor, and we loved every little piece of it. When we got custom blue shirts for Games Day, with our names picked out on them, it was a special day indeed.
It’s easy to look at a staffer working in a GW store and think, well, all he has to do all day is paint models and play games, what a life! And you’d be absolutely right, that was exactly what we did all day, in between bouts of regular baiting.
Ah, the regulars. Every store had them. There was always one called ‘Squig’, another who wore a leather hat, and a third in a greyed out Red Dwarf t-shirt with yesterday’s tea splashed across it. Your regs were your best friends and your worst enemies. They were the ones who signed up for Games Day tickets first, bought White Dwarf from you and not from Smiths, and helped you with stocktakes. And bought your lunch, and covered your fag breaks, and ran your intro games, and painted batches of plastic Dark Eldar because you’d rather poke your eyes out with a fine detail brush than paint another of the spindly little buggers. The downside of your regular cadre was that they were there all the time. From the minute you unlocked the door, to the minute you shoved them out after Games Night. Some of them were at the store more than I was. How they made a living or an education I have no idea, but they always had enough to buy Mail Order shoulder pads for another army they would never paint. Some of them stank to high heaven, some of them (frankly, and with the benefit of hindsight) should have been on a register. “Friendly, not friends” was one of the first lessons I was taught. It stood me in good stead.
Our job description was summed up by The Ten Commandments. These were drummed into us on day one, and we had to memorise them, in order, and repeat them upon demand. They included:
- Acknowledge everyone who comes into the store
- Promote the hobby
- Be knowledgable and enthusiastic.
- Establish a rapport with the customer
- Maintain high standards of personal hygiene
- Be aware of customers and their behaviour in the store
- Ask open questions and listen to ascertain customer needs
- …err…don’t hit on hot mums?
Funny to think that I can’t instantly recall them all nowadays. We were even given cards to put in our wallets (there was plenty of room in there, we weren’t paid very much). Every one of them was analysed to ridiculous levels of detail in meetings (“What’s the difference between need and want? Does ‘hi’ count as an acknowledgement?”) They spawned countless sub Commandments and local variations. The MD confided in me once that the brass came up with them while watching a Test Match years earlier. They just banged out a few common sense phrases and called it done.
The stores’ job was to be the window on the hobby for the world. GW never advertised, it relied almost entirely on word of mouth. Our task was to fill an amazing cabinet, have brilliantly evocative tables, run intro games all the time, and most importantly, to sell core games. Everything else was secondary to that. The (at the time) £50 big box was the holy grail of sales. We had all the tricks to shift them. They were all at eye level in the racks. We had the contents looking great on our intro tables. We had Open Copies for people to check out. We had rules for how to fill the boxes. We had a one handed pass technique. The killer app was the Intro game, and we were trained into the ground on how to best run this mixture of demo, story and sales pitch until we could do them in our sleep.
As a long time GM, I enjoyed running games, and loved seeing a professional approach to the theory behind it all. That lasted about a week. Running games is cool. Running the same 20 minute battle between Lizardmen and Bretonnians with a vaguely interested 12 year old and his competitive dad for the sixth time that morning got old fast. Being a store manager meant you had minions who would do that for you while you did “observations and coaching” from the relative safety of the painting table. To be fair, the training on running games was brilliant. I learned heaps about the balance of rules and narrative, and the best ways to engage someone quickly in a confusing setting. Everything was honed, and nothing happened by accident. The amount of dice in the pot was measured. The placement of the measuring sticks. The scenarios. The body language. All of it. The guys who worked with me were absolute masters at the art and science of running games.
We also had to write scenarios and campaigns. The constant pressure from the customers was to just play one on one last man standing slugfests. The pressure from us was to have elaborate points systems and campaign ladders with huge hex maps. We would put hours into these things, making up little pamphlets out of old White Dwarfs and Pritt-stick. There were store made trophies, and newsletters. Every week needed planning and prepping, with at least three structured gaming sessions in every week, as well as the ubiquitous intro games and other projects like Games Day of Conflicts.
Yeah, it’s true, all we did was paint and play all day. It was brilliant.
Next: Why GW sacked you as a roleplayer.