War Hammer is tin soldiers for the 1990s and such is its fascination among teenage boys that Games Workshops, which invented it, has just announced an annual turnover of pounds 65m.
It is a curious phenomenon in the age of computer games and digital video disks. Moreover, the company has never advertised War Hammer, or its futuristic version 40K. It relies on word of mouth and the spending power of 13- year-old boys.
Chris Prentice, chief executive of Games Workshops describes it as a "Tolkienesque fantasy". He added: "Boys know about us and they tell their friends and that is the best form of advertising that we can have. It is not aimed at adults and we don't care that they don't know about us."
John Stallard, the sales director, has a more simple explanation for the popularity of the game, which was invented in 1983. "It was about collecting model soldiers, which boys have done for years, but we expanded that and gave people a reason for collecting them because there was a game they could play with them. It is successful because people can continue to expand their collection and have the fun of painting them as well as having a battle at the end."
A War Hammer introductory kit costs pounds 50 and gives the embryo warlord two small armies, a set of rules and some scenery. The troops are plastic, but the officers are pewter and need decorating.
The game's central concept is simple, but it can be developed to become as convoluted and muddled as the mind of any teenager. But the rule books contain comprehensive lists of alliances that can be formed and treaties that can be made as well as detailing the complicated scoring process.
"You decide who will go first by the roll of the dice, but after that it is all based on how far certain species can move in one go and how fast they travel," said Mr Prentice, who admits to regularly playing War Hammer "for research purposes".
There is no limit to the size of the army and here lies the secret of the Games Workshops' success: each week teenage boys spend their pocket money on expanding their armies. The troops cost about pounds 5 for eight figures and officers cost pounds 5.99, with the dragons the most costly items at pounds 30.
"There is nothing new about the concept of toy soldiers. There used to be quite an industry around making them," said Mr Prentice. "All we have done is update that concept for the late 20th century and done something a bit cleverer."
Dr Roy Bailey, a clinical psychologist and director of the Buckinghamshire Newrow Clinic, believes playing fantasy games to excess could create relationship problems. "The problem is that people use the game as a way of preventing a useful form of communication.
"These fantasy war games can also create problems in families because they introduce and element of competition which might not have been there before and that can lead to tensions and arguments."
Business, page 19
how to play war hammer
THERE ARE 11 races to choose from and young warlords are advised to choose the race that best suits their character.
The "goodies" include wood elves, high elves, Bretonnians (chivalrous knights) and dwarves, and the "baddies" are the dark elves, orcs, goblins, chaos (evil demons), undead and skaven (rat men).
Build up your army, taking the time to paint each soldier and form a strong collection. Each model is worth a set number of points. When two people are ready to have a battle they decide how many points they will field and choose their soldiers accordingly. A good-sized battle would be 3,000 points.
Decide before the start of the game whether it is a fight to the death, a battle to capture the high ground, or who has the most points after a certain number of turns.
Work out the strategy. Line the two armies up in serried ranks 24in apart. There are no rules as to how they must be ranked.
It is up to the player to decide whether to be strong in mid-field or at the edges.
The first move is decided by a roll of the dice and each soldier is allowed to move a certain distance according to his race. Similar rules apply to weapons.