A History of Miniature Violence Reviews Dice Men: The Origin Story of Games Workshop

If you’re reading this website and this column it’s very likely that you already know who Games Workshop are, or at least who they are in 2022. Except for the very oldest among you, your image is probably of a global mega-corporation with a frenetic weekly release schedule of miniatures (nearly all in plastic), books, tools, paints, novelty plushies, keyrings, whatever else you can slap a worryingly-fascistic logo on and sell to an audience which can’t get enough, even as they complain about buying it. It’s a publicly-traded company comfortably ensconced in the FTSE 250, with annual revenues that are positively eye-watering when you consider they come from selling toys to a relatively narrow audience of teens and adults who want their free time to be taken up by building and painting the things with which they then play pretend, or at least consider using to play pretend before realising it’s been another six months since they actually arranged a game.

However, that Games Workshop is a product of nearly 50 years of development, growth, and change. The original version was nothing like the current one, and if you time-travelled to the 1970s and told a fan of that era’s version of Games Workshop what the 2022 one would be like, I suspect they would respond with disbelief. Probably so too would its founders, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson (and the oft-forgotten John Peake, though he plays a fifth-Beatle role in this story, departing the stage very early).

Dice Men: The Origin Story of Games Workshop is an effort by of one of those founders, Ian Livingstone, to tell his part of that story, with additional input from Steve Jackson (though note that “with”, not “and;” this is Ian’s book with occasional notes from Steve, not a full joint project). To my understanding the book is now on general sale, but it was originally funded through Unbound, a crowdfunder for boutique publishing like this. I was intrigued enough by the premise to fund it and you can find my name in the back in the list of supporters, which feels like a disclosure I should make at the start of a review like this. If you’re so inclined, you can also play “spot the current and former GW staff” in that list.

The book itself is a high-quality product. It’s art-book in style, a big solid hardcover with glossy pages. It’s a bit art-book in feel, too; in theory it’s nearly 300 pages long, but a substantial portion of that is taken up with pictures. If you’re into the GW artwork of that era there’s a bunch of that in here, and also personal photos from Livingstone and others on a range of subjects – GW’s various London offices, early Games Days, some holiday photos from Ian and Steve’s road trip around America that led to their first meeting with Gary Gygax, bits and pieces like that. One section has the front sheets of every publication of Owl & Weasel, another the covers for the early Fighting Fantasy books.

The format lends itself to this kind of picture-gallery stuff, though it isn’t necessarily the style you’d want for reading an in-depth history. Luckily that isn’t really what this is; this is a quasi-autobiography of Ian Livingstone, with the “Games Workshop” bit in the subtitle mostly serving to bound the narrative (it ends when Ian and Steve leave the company) and also likely added in the expectation that more people are interested in an insider’s view of early GW than they are in the life story of a businessman and author who has achieved unambiguous success (including a recent knighthood) but isn’t exactly a household name in the early 2020s. The tone is light and the writing agreeably pacy; it’s the kind of thing where if you just want to read the text without stopping to linger over the pictures, you can do so in a single evening.

As a review, there’s two separate things I want to do here. The first is to discuss what is in this book, what’s said and what story it’s telling, and the second is to discuss what isn’t said and what story it doesn’t tell. I think the latter is much more interesting than the former. I’ll start by discussing the text, taken on its own merits, and then later on we’ll return to the stuff that isn’t here and what this means for the story being told.

Contents-wise, there’s 18 chapters here, plus a foreword and then a few sections of back matter. I mentioned the page count earlier, but the meat of the thing is in the section from pages 15 to 268, roughly 253 pages (not accounting for chapter breaks – which are fairly frequent at approximately 14 pages per chapter). The first couple of chapters are scene-setters; Gaming Ground Zero, the first, is a quick biographical sketch of Ian, Steve, and John, while The Name of the Game very briefly describes how they came up with “Games Workshop” in the first place. With decades of weight behind it the name now feels inevitable, but it clearly wasn’t at the time; photos here include the jotted-down notes of a brainstorming session with such incredible suggestions as “Cosmic Overflow Games” and “The Quasigamic Expedition Inc.” The logo, too, is not exactly what one would associate with GW now – though it does speak to early Games Workshop’s laissez-faire approach to the idea of intellectual property, as Ian self-admittedly copied the style of Robert Crumb, creator of Fritz the Cat among other works. The result is this thing, a kind of depressed Goofy/Mickey Mouse hybrid, who asks “games?” (sic) in a way that seems to suggest he can think of nothing he’d like to do less.

Games Workshop’s original logo, as drawn by Ian Livingstone.

An interesting historical note here is what kind of games the nascent Workshop was making, and playing. In a modern world with dozens of miniatures wargames and hundreds if not thousands of board games on the market, there’s a tendency to disdain the old family board game standards like Risk and Monopoly, but those are what get the Dice Men into gaming in a big way, along with the later discovery of Diplomacy and then historical wargames. Games Workshop started life as a maker of hand-crafted traditional games – that fifth Beatle, John Peake, manufacturing boards for games like Go and solitaire and backgammon in the bedroom of a London flat, a significant factor in the “Workshop” part of that famous company name.

These first two chapters are sequential, but the rest of the book is broken up by topic – so chapter three is about the Owl & Weasel fanzine which is how GW did a lot of their early brand-building, the fourth is about the seismic impact of Dungeons & Dragons on both the founders and the direction of the company, the fifth is about the origins and development of Games Day (the other powerful marketing tool of GW’s early years), and so on and so forth through a range of different areas. These are arranged roughly in temporal order, but the chapters tend to overlap, so for example chapter 3 covers the whole lifespan of Owl & Weasel up to the time it stopped publication in 1977, and then chapter 4 jumps right back to the 60s and early 70s and the origins of D&D, and Games Workshop’s discovery thereof. A feature of early Games Workshop is how all-embracing it was, with fingers in every pie and interests in everything its founders and staff were interested in, and so this structure makes sense; trying for a more linear narrative would make it quite challenging to keep coherent. It does occasionally strain under its own weight, however; in particular, the section on Fighting Fantasy books comes quite late in chapter 17, but there’s multiple references to them and their significant impact on Games Workshop’s operations as early as chapter 9, and they don’t particularly make sense until you’ve reached the latter stages of the book. Other sections are like this too; often critical early figures appear in the narrative, disappear, re-appear, and then are finally introduced properly in a later chapter which deals with the particular subject they’re most relevant to. It’s an annoyance more than a major issue, and as already stated it’s probably the best choice for trying to make sense of what the company was doing in those early days, but it can make for a slightly surreal reading experience and I suspect a more tightly-edited book might have moved some of these sections around or more explicitly linked them.

What, then, do they actually say? Largely they tell the story of Games Workshop as it existed from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, as a company run in London by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. That sounds obvious, but put a pin in it for later. That company starts out life as a hobby business without much plan behind it; the Men send out a kind of mission statement for “the Games Workshop” which calls it a “games club/community” and identifies three strands for its operations, namely publication of Owl & Weasel, making the aforementioned hand-made wooden games, and also something identified as ‘Fringe Games,’ an offer by GW to help games designers (here quaintly called ‘inventors’) get their games to market, an offer for which sadly no details are attached. In the backwards view of history this newsletter is adorable in its naivete; it’s suggestive of a group of enthusiasts getting in miles over their heads playing at running a company which will be lucky to survive its first year, never mind eventually grow into a multinational. Largely it’s suggestive of that because that’s what it was. The Men at this time are three blokes in a flat who really, really love games, and want to Do Games as a living and are grabbing at whatever they can think of to turn that dream into a reality; Livingstone himself describes it as “role-playing as businessmen engaged in the business of role-playing games.”

I say three blokes, but really it’s two. The thing that makes Games Workshop – the break that catapults them from messing about playing at running a company into actually doing so – is Dungeons & Dragons. Livingstone and Jackson are absolutely enthralled by D&D, and almost by accident – on the back of a single trade order, and Gary Gygax improbably coming across a copy of Owl & Weasel – GW gets exclusive three-year distribution rights to it in Europe. The enthusiasm around D&D straps a rocket to them, and rapidly transforms the company. Perhaps the most rapid of those transformations is that in 1976 John Peake leaves, because he doesn’t care about D&D at all while the other two are busy aligning the company around it. His departure kills off that early manufacturing arm, the Workshop part of Games Workshop, which won’t spring back into existence until Bryan Ansell comes on board with the founding of Citadel Miniatures. In the intervening period Games Workshop is more just Games Shop, a retail business in the familiar LGS mold of many independent shops out there today. It does have a couple of extra strings to its bow in the form of its publishing arm, first with Owl & Weasel and then from June 1977 White Dwarf, a name which needs no introduction, plus its events business in the form of Games Day, which starts as one of those moonshot projects and then becomes a more and more regular feature of Games Workshop’s early operations as it proves enormously popular.

The transition from the half-formed thing of the first Games Workshop newsletter to the retail business importing D&D (and whatever other American games it can get its hands on) and publishing White Dwarf marks the first significant phase in GW’s history. There’s some of the contemporaneous DIY punk feel to this early stage, with Livingstone and Jackson living in the affectionately-named “Vomit Pit” at times they’re not sleeping in Jackson’s van, putting their magazine together in a damp flat, selling product out of a shop so small that someone has to go out the back to make room if a customer comes in.

A point I want to mention in Livingstone’s favour here is that this could easily be a hardscrabble story about two captains of industry making it big with nothing but a dream and gruelling work. That isn’t the case, however; in these early days of struggle GW were very fortunate to attract a series of people who gave them a lift, either as staff or just as often as volunteers and collaborators, and Livingstone takes care to give credit, even praise, wherever he can. It’s a nice touch, and it highlights just how many people’s contributions served to make something special out of humble beginnings.

The big inflection point in this story happens in December 1978. It’s subtle at first, but it changes the whole shape of the thing irrevocably. That inflection point comes in the form of Citadel Miniatures, and its physical manifestation is in the person of Bryan Ansell. For the roughly two year period after John Peake leaves, Games Workshop’s business is much as described above, a mix of RPG and board games retail, miniatures sales, White Dwarf, and Games Day; a little later on they lose a key component as their exclusive distribution rights to D&D are not renwed, in a slightly ugly incident Livingstone clearly still feels the sting of, but they’re still the major importer and retailer of it in the UK and Europe. “Miniatures” there means other people’s; they have been selling miniatures, but they haven’t been making them. That changes with the realisation that they stock some US ranges where manufacturing in the UK would be a lot cheaper than importing from America, but they’re not planning to produce them themselves. Instead they get the contract and then licence out the manufacturing rights to a third party. This third party is Asgard Miniatures, Bryan Ansell’s original company, an established manufacturer based in Nottingham – and that location foreshadows events to come.

This book isn’t about him, but nevertheless Ansell is the most interesting figure in it. He’s cut from a very different cloth to Livingstone and Jackson. They’re not of the right social class for it, but the phrase that keeps coming back to me to describe the two remaining Dice Men is “gentleman amateurs.” Games Workshop is thriving, and they clearly grow into their roles as time goes on, but it never feels like they ever quite escape that “role-playing as businessmen” line from early on. In a later chapter, Livingstone talks about his and Jackson’s agonising over the time pressure of managing GW while also writing Fighting Fantasy novels; it’s revealing of their mindsets at the time that the two men are co-managing directors of a growing retail, manufacturing, and publishing business and they’re seriously concerned by the impact on their time of writing a kind of gimmicky fantasy book, and thinking that actually the problem is the commitment of running GW.

That isn’t to say they were wrong about it; they clearly have enjoyed enormous success from Fighting Fantasy, and it’s hard to argue with 50+ titles still in publication and a legacy that persists even today. Ansell, however, would not have agonised about this for a second. The thing that jumps off the page with every mention of his name is his single-mindedness and clarity of vision. Earlier I mentioned that a time-traveller visiting the 1970s would struggle to convince anyone of the company Games Workshop could become; I suspect that the one person who would have accepted it immediately would be Ansell, because the vision that creates that company is largely his. He is ruthless in its pursuit; he resigns no less than three times in a 4-year period, and each time it’s a power play. The first sets the pattern, as he resigns from Citadel and is replaced for a few months before he’s asked back, with significant assurances about allocation of resources i.e. more capital devoted to Citadel and manufacturing. The subsequent two occurrences both follow this pattern – Bryan wants more time and cash spent on Citadel and isn’t getting his way, he forces the issue with a resignation, and Livingstone and Jackson fold. It’s a potentially disastrous game of chicken, but from his point of view it works out every time, and ultimately leads to Games Workshop’s modern form.

From here on out the Games Workshop we’re familiar with begins to take shape. Citadel is making miniatures, and to sell miniatures it publishes Warhammer. Rick Priestley makes his debut in the narrative as the writer of that game, along with Ansell and Richard Halliwell. The shop in London moves from the “Breadbin” location to the Dalling Road store with the famous photo of its hundred-strong queue, and then adds another location in Manchester and then Birmingham, and the retail arm grows from there. White Dwarf goes from strength to strength, and alongside its own games and miniatures ranges produced by Citadel, Games Workshop continues to make and sell and review all kinds of other products – board games and roleplaying games central among them, but also early computer games. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who would later play a significant role at Eidos, Livingstone is a huge early fan of computer games. Games Workshop starts stocking and selling them, a small irony for ex-staff of a later age who often had to explain to confused parents that “Games Workshop” didn’t sell those kinds of games. This plan nearly ends in disaster with the famous video games crash in 1983-84, though that doesn’t stop GW from publishing its own small range of computer games later in the 80s.

Much of the rest of the content of the book is about adding colour and detail to the brief sketch above; Livingstone talks about the board games they design and make, including famous names like Talisman and Blood Bowl as well as others with less brilliant legacies, and the ins and outs of shop openings and warehouse and office relocations and the like. It’s all interesting stuff in its own way, and adds richness to the tale being told, but in the interests of both brevity and preserving the book’s contents to be read in their own right I am largely skipping over it.

The end-point is reached in 1985, with Bryan Ansell’s third resignation. This third song is the same as the first, but the reward for Bryan is even more dramatic; he first becomes part of a joint operating board, then group managing director. Not long after, the whole company – one born in and run from London for a decade – relocates up to Nottingham. A number of longstanding employees take redundancy, and Livingstone and Jackson largely disengage from things, selling Ansell first a minority then a majority stake, then finally being bought out altogether in the 1991 management buyout led by Tom Kirby, here given the one-sentence description “He was promoted to general manager and had ambitions to reach the top.”

That is, broadly, the text of what’s here. In terms of the story it’s telling, it’s very much about Ian Livingstone’s experience as the founder of Games Workshop, a London-based retailer of games and publisher of magazines about gaming, both things in a general sense rather than the Games Workshop Hobby sense. That version of Games Workshop exists for around a decade, and from unpromising origins it grows into a reasonably significant company. Ian’s an interesting bloke and this period is an interesting time; there’s a lot going on, and you get glimmers of names and careers bubbling up out of obscurity, finding the place in the world that will go on to define them – we’ve already mentioned Rick Priestley, but Jervis Johnson gets a shout-out too here, as do many of the sculptors and writers and artists who made their names at GW like the Perry brothers and Jes Goodwin and of course John Blanche.

If that’s the story being told, then what is the second one I referenced before, which isn’t? Mainly it’s the story of Warhammer, and Nottingham, and the company Games Workshop actually ends up becoming. Some of that just isn’t in the scope of this book; Livingstone’s last link with GW is severed in 1991, before even the second edition of 40k, let alone such far-off ventures as GW becoming truly multinational or the Lord of the Rings licence or Age of Sigmar or any of that. Even further back, he and Jackson are basically hands off by about the middle of 1985, with the aforementioned handing over of executive control. As a consequence events after this point – the near-immediate consolidation of operations in Nottingham, the switch to exclusive focus on Games Workshop’s own products, the primacy of model manufacturing and of Warhammer 40,000 – are dealt with in a couple of summary paragraphs at the end.

However, even before that point Citadel goes missing completely from the narrative, with barely a mention that Games Workshop even has operations in Nottingham. Citadel in general and Warhammer in particular each get a chapter devoted to them, but they’re not especially lengthy – Fighting Fantasy gets as much page space as either, even as it’s admitted in the text to be completely orthogonal to Games Workshop and a distraction which pulled the founders away from running their own company. Games Workshop’s short-lived flirtation with video games gets a full chapter, as does the minutiae of finding warehouse and office space. There’s a whole chapter about a road trip that Livingstone and Jackson take across America, only barely relevant to the whole thing because it has the questionable business rationale that they go to Gen Con at the end of it. It doesn’t exactly smack of a text that was overburdened and had to shed some weight, especially with its particular publication method which surely allowed the author as much freedom over content and page count as he could have cared to utilise, and if you were going to cut for space you probably would not look first to drop the bits about goings-on in Nottingham. More likely it speaks to a culture for which the Nottingham operations were always slightly out of view; what was happening in London was the focus, because that’s where Livingstone and Jackson were.

This is a shame because it’s Citadel that really matters when you come back to the book’s tagline as “the origin story of Games Workshop.” In a very real sense, the Games Workshop that this book is about is dead and buried in 1985. The name continues, of course, but in terms of what the company is about, the one in Nottingham is really Citadel Miniatures wearing its dad’s suit. In a matter of months Bryan Ansell has fucked off all the bits about London GW that he didn’t like, including its London location; gone is the generalist approach to retail, the grab-bag of board games and RPG licences and dicking about with video games. White Dwarf becomes an in-house magazine for Games Workshop products, the shops sell Games Workshop products, everything else is out of the picture. The focus is clearly what he has always wanted it to be – Citadel manufactures miniatures in ever-increasing ranges and volumes, and the rest of the company exists to sell those miniatures, whether by making up games for them to be used in or by marketing them or by literally handing over boxes of them to punters for cash. That’s the Games Workshop that exists today and while the company has undergone an enormous amount of change in the intervening 35ish years the fundamental plan is the same. The most recent strategic report, covering 2021-2022, includes this description of Games Workshop: “Our ambitions remain clear: to make the best fantasy miniatures in the world, to engage and inspire our customers, and to sell our products globally at a profit. We intend to do this forever.” That statement could have come out of Bryan Ansell’s mouth in 1978 and it would have been just as true then, albeit much longer on ambition and much shorter on reality, as it is now.

All this is hinted at, but it goes largely unexplored – it comes up whenever Ansell’s latest resignation is mentioned, because it’s what every one of those resignation power plays is about, but Livingstone just kind of shrugs it off. He’s never much interested in exploring this nascent vision of what Games Workshop would end up being, and when you’re reading about games of Killer being played in the last set of London offices it’s easy to forget that a hundred miles up north there’s a bloke with a powerful mustache and a relentless drive for control planning his next move to get a bigger chunk of the company. This quote in particular, about the last and most successful resignation, is telling:

“We still had nobody else to run Citadel; succession planning was something we never got around to. We also didn’t have a stand-out candidate to run the Games Workshop side of the business. We knew we needed Bryan, but then, Bryan needed us too. It wasn’t too hard to convince him to stay on by promising him we would back him when the time came for us to step down on condition that he was willing to be part of an enlarged operating board in the short term.”

Read between the lines there. You have a significant subsidiary helmed by a bloke who has already resigned twice in the last four years to force your hand in giving him more power, after telling you the reason he quit the last company he founded was because his co-owners lacked his vision and ambition. You haven’t given any thought to finding anyone who could succeed him, and he knows that too, and your plan for how to keep him on side when he resigns the third time is to promise you’ll let him run the company, which is what he wanted to begin with. The eye’s so far off the ball here that it’s watching a different game.

Of course it’s much easier to see this pattern with the benefit of hindsight, when you’re reading a written account of it for leisure, than it would have been to identify it in the heat of the moment while also running a business that is successful but clearly still finding its identity and of course writing those Fighting Fantasy books. This is also a business environment alien to the modern age with no e-mail or IMs; for most of the time Ansell in Nottingham is going to be running things independently from Livingstone and Jackson in London and so by necessity he is going to be out of sight – and probably out of mind – for long stretches. Nevertheless, the book still gives an impression of faint surprise at how things went, as if events just overtook Livingstone and Jackson and the company was swept out from under their feet. There’s a couple of hints as to why they seem so passive in letting it go; they’re overcommitted and exhausted, and Livingstone claims that they didn’t pay themselves much from GW and so the financial rewards of writing more of the now obviously-successful Fighting Fantasy books probably loomed large in the mind – why go through all the bother of the day job when someone else so clearly wanted to do it? “We began thinking of ways to be more hands-off in the day-to-day running of our company but without giving up control,” says Livingstone, clearly anticipating the best of both worlds, but the agreement that puts Ansell in charge also includes handing him a majority of the company within four years, so the “without giving up control” part doesn’t last long.

Ultimately it’s hard to escape the idea that they just didn’t want it that much, and Ansell really did. The excuse of a ten-book Fighting Fantasy contract to deliver looks a little thin when you remember that just a few pages ago Livingstone mentions that they’d started subcontracting them out. A likely explanation is that after ten years of grafting away at building the business they’re under immense pressure – not yet mentioned is that Livingstone is still personally editing White Dwarf until the end of 1985, not exactly a role that the managing director is normally undertaking – and with that pressure on them they start looking for relief by entertaining the idea of being a bit more hands-off. They don’t give much away at first with the operating board in place and two of “their” guys in London on there along with Ansell, but not long after it’s clear that the board isn’t working and the choice is stark. In the end they go with Ansell who wants it so badly and who does seem to have a bit of a talent for making money and so now he’s the group managing director. The more the pressure on them eases, the less they’re tied to Games Workshop, the easier it is to agree to give away a bit more – first a minority share, then a majority, so they’re out of the driving seat altogether and being carried along as non-execs, turning up to the occasional board meeting and otherwise just collecting the dividends. I’m saying “give away” here, but of course in reality the shares were bought and sold, with Ansell doing the buying; at each step they get further removed from the company and each time that distance increases they’re getting paid. You can read a slight sense of panic when the Kirby buyout happens – it’s presented to Livingstone and Jackson as a fait accompli, the people now in charge have already made the deal, and they have so little left there’s nothing much for them to do but accept it. They make an effort to hold on to half their shares each, which is firmly rebuffed, and that’s that.

It all ends with more of a whimper than a bang. To an extent it’s understandable that this period of control slowly unraveling isn’t the key focus, but you do wish there was a bit more here; 1987 is the last year for which there’s any real detail given, but it would be nice to have a bit more on these latter stages, and especially the release of Rogue Trader which gets the most passing of mentions. If there’s anything that happens in the twilight period between Ansell becoming group managing director in 1985 and the buyout that finally ejects them completely in 1991 that really merits a bit of time spent on it, it’s the release of Rogue Trader, but all we get are a few platitudes about how successful it was. Space Marines get just two mentions in the book – one a brief quote from Bob Naismith about sculpting the first metal one, and then a mention of the artwork on the RT cover. Not a single word on any of the rest of it, indeed no commentary on the quote. It’s the perfect jumping off point for a quick word along the lines of “This first metal miniature would spawn the highly successful RTB01 plastic set, the starting point for the iconic Space Marines range which would become indelibly associated with Games Workshop” or something like that. No such comment occurs. Naturally, the unremarked-upon Naismith quote is followed by a lengthy discussion of the Fighting Fantasy plastic range, a set of 54mm miniatures which was a complete flop and merits attention only as a point of historical curiosity as Citadel’s first plastic range – their contribution seems to have consisted of Citadel learning what not to do. The absence of any real discussion of RT is a telling omission; there’s a 2 year overlap where Livingstone and Jackson are still board members and majority shareholders and RT is out in the world, changing the face of Games Workshop and indeed wargaming in general, and yet it only just rises above the level of a footnote.

That, then, is Dice Men. At £30 a go – reflective of the big glossy hardback format and the small-run press – it’s not cheap. If what you want is to read Ian Livingstone telling you about being Ian Livingstone and about his view of Games Workshop’s first ten years, plus quite a lot about Fighting Fantasy and an occasional digression about Cow Gum, then that is certainly here for you, and if you want to pore over curios from that period in the form of handwritten lists and a set of T-accounts flawlessly executed by Steve Jackson’s mum and covers of Owl & Weasel and so on and so forth, that is here too. As a narrative about Games Workshop’s origins, however, it’s merely serviceable, a half-finished sketch with some of the most critical and interesting details left tantalisingly incomplete.