REVIEW: Dice Men – The Origin story of Games Workshop by Ian Livingstone with Steve Jackson

Games Workshop occupies a bit of a weird space in my relationship to gaming history: On the one hand, I have always really loved the art design of Games Workshop products and I remember loving the idea of Warhammer 40K and Space Marines long before I ever became aware of RPGs or even miniature-based games. Having grown up in Britain in the 1990s, it was not possible to be interested in this kind of stuff without encountering the vibes and visuals that radiated off of Games Workshop’s products. On the other hand, I became aware of RPGs a little too late to remember the days when Games Workshop were a presence in the RPG landscape and so, as far as I am concerned, Games Workshop is just that place on the high street that sells really well-designed but horrifically overpriced miniatures used in a series of really rather dull and uninteresting war-games.

Because of this slightly weird relationship with Games Workshop, I did not buy Dice Men: The Origin Story of Games Workshop out of a sense of nostalgia but rather out of a desire to learn a little bit more about the early days of the British RPG scene. It turns out that this was a bit of a mistake as while Livingstone does mention RPGs, it is merely as part of a list of products produced by a company that Livingstone happened to set up. Those expecting insights into the RPG industry or even social history are doomed to be disappointed as Dice Men reads less like a personal slice of geek history and more like a polite and really rather mundane business memoir written by a man who entered and exited the world of table-top games without much in the way of emotional attachment one way or the other. While this is a bit of a disappointment, it is also a refreshing change from the high-pitched melodrama that tends to echo through the pages of every published history of Dungeons & Dragons. This being said, the book is not without its own brand of quiet revelations.

Dice Men is a large hardback book and when I say large, I mean 7th edition Call of Cthulhu large. The pages are glossy and filled with pictures, artwork, and documents dating back to the dawn of the UK gaming industry in the 1970s.  These pictures and documents, though undoubtedly charming, do feel like an attempt to pad out quite a short body of text. The authorial credits on the front cover are also interesting as the book is said to be “with Steve Jackson” rather than “by Steve Jackson” or “and Steve Jackson” and I think that’s because the book’s primary narrative was written by Livingstone and bolstered by a variety of inserts including some by Jackson (as well as a really weird little one by Gail Gygax, which amounts to little more than a ‘good luck’ note).

Livingstone’s narrative starts with him as a student joining the gaming society at the Stockport College of Technology. This marks the first notable revelation as while histories of D&D tend to present Gygax as a product of a scene that grew up around Diplomacy and war games, Livingstone seems to have been a lot more interested in conventional board games than he was in the more occult and complex stuff being produced by the likes of Avalon Hill. Indeed, even when Games Workshop move into high street retail, the photographs and publicity materials are far more likely to reference Scrabble or Monopoly than they are Advanced Squad Leader.

The second intriguing revelation comes from the fact that Livingstone started out in the games industry by a) making physical game props like wooden boards and leather bags, and b) producing a fanzine called Owl and Weasel. Despite being produced in the UK, costing 10p and looking exactly how you’d expect a 1970s amateur fanzine to look, a copy of Owl and Weasel found its way to Gary Gygax who approached Livingstone and offered him a review copy of Dungeons & Dragons.  Based on this connection, Livingstone’s fledgling gaming company became the official importer of D&D right up until the moment when they realised that it was cheaper and easier to license the game and start publishing it themselves.

One of the really funny things about this book is that Livingstone comes across as a successful business man with a knighthood rather than a geek with shitloads of nerd credibility. He got out of the table-top gaming business at the end of the 1980s and moved across into computer games just as they started to become popular. Despite being one of the central figures in British geek culture, I get the impression that Livingstone sees himself primarily as a business man and he writes about the birth of Games Workshop in the way that one might imagine someone else writing about starting a software or electronics company. As a result, Dice Men is less about the rise of geek culture and more about the emergence of one particular business.

Livingstone writes about cash-flow problems, the need to train warehouse staff, and ultimately the decision to exit the business and concentrate on computer games. There are no stories of Ian Livingstone using company funds to bail out his unsuccessful relatives or sending his company to the wall because he alienated all of his most effective employees and used company funds to pay his niece to go to college. There are no fatwas issued from the bully pulpit and nor are there any attempts to settle old scores and cultivate the myth of Livingstone’s creative genius. Read any history of Dungeons and Dragons and you’ll see that D&D succeeded despite the business decisions of its creators and the company that most benefited from the birth of RPGs wound up tearing itself to pieces because it was never once run by anyone with an ounce of sense or business talent. Read a history of D&D and then read Dice Men and it’ll be obvious why TSR wound bankrupt while Games Workshop went on to own hundreds of shops and sell millions of figurines.

The different cultures of the two companies really comes across in a scene where Gygax offers to merge TSR and Games Workshop in return for handing Livingstone and his directors a third of the new company. Livingstone is rather embarrassed and explains that he enjoys running his company and would rather continue trying to make a go of it only for Gygax and co to be absolutely baffled by the response. This was undoubtedly a wise decision given what happened to TSR compared to what happened to Games Workshop but there’s also a nice little kicker in the form of an anecdote about how Games Workshop developed the contents of the Fiend Folio only for TSR to try and claim the work as their own resulting in them having to pay Games Workshop sizeable licensing fees. Apparently the entire office would collectively cheer every time a Fiend Folio royalty cheque would arrive in the post.

The book also deals with Livingstone and Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy series but as with the rest of the gaming materials produced either directly or indirectly under Livingstone’s watch, we get little information on the creative process and quite a lot on the amount of money they made and the battle to get them published in the first place (apparently someone at Penguin found the concept of Fighting Fantasy game books so laughably absurd that he laid his head down on the boardroom table and wept with mirth). One of the more interesting codicils to this story is that apparently Games Workshop did try to take over what would become the Virgin Games Centre when its original owner went under. They wound up losing out to Richard Branson who offered to pay the liquidators more for the stock and the remainder of the business lease and this fleeting contact resulted in Branson offering to buy the rights to the Fighting Fantasy series.

At this point, you’ll note the emergence of a pattern: This is not a book structured around creative triumphs but commercial ones. Livingstone barely mentions the content of the games he helped to produce but he loves to tell stories about the times when his business acumen lead him to make the right decision while others stared on in baffled amazement.

One area I was hoping this book would touch upon was Games Workshop’s decision to exit the UK RPG market. To this day, a lot of (slightly older) UK-based gamers harbour significant hostility to Games Workshop because the company established itself as the primary mover in the British RPG industry, opened dozens of RPG shops all over the country, and then walked away from RPGs almost overnight.

While independent RPG shops would start to creep back onto UK highstreets, they were never as visible as those Games Workshop stores and one could argue that this set back the British RPG scene as Games Workshop’s decision to exit the RPG scene meant that RPGs suddenly became very difficult to find.

Frustratingly, Livingstone has little to say about this decision. He addresses it right at the end of the book in a chapter dealing primarily with his decision to step back from the business in order to concentrate on writing Fighting Fantasy novels. The decision is presented as a choice of his successor: Livingstone had to choose between handing the company to the London-based head of sales and handing the company to the Nottingham-based head of Citadel miniatures. Livingstone chose to hand the business to the guy in charge of Citadel miniatures who eventually sacked all the RPG people, sold off the London offices, and had the company exit the RPG industry in order to focus on selling over-priced miniatures and under-written novels.

Despite all of this happening over thirty years ago, the book contains one brief note from a former London-based Games Workshop employee who still displays a good deal of bitterness about how the business he loved working for simply went away when Livingstone stepped back from the company. Livingstone is clearly aware of the bitterness, hence the decision to acknowledge it in the form of a quote from a former employee, but he never really explains or contextualises the decision other than presenting it as yet another triumph for team business.

As a true capitalist, Livingstone says that ‘vertical integration’ was the right decision because it resulted in a more successful company that made more money for all of the share-holders and it’s in the narrowness of this perspective that Livingstone shows his true colours. At the end of the day, he got paid and what else could possibly matter? Replace ‘early table-top games’ with ‘early desktop computers’ and triple the belligerence and this book could easily have been written by Alan Sugar.

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