Geekery in the UK: Games Workshop and the Early Selling of ‘Mind-Games with Dice’

Games Workshop Ad 1981

I’ve talked a little bit about TSR’s early marketing campaign in the U.S., and now, thanks to Dirk Malcolm of The Dirk Malcolm Alternative, we see how game makers won over the kids in Britain.

The ad above is from the December 1981 issue of Starburst, “the world’s longest-running magazine of sci-fi horror and fantasy.” I don’t remember seeing anything like it in the U.S. It’s very effective, the staid schoolboy quietly conjuring his inner barbarian. The message is a moral: reality comes with escape hatches, and it’s okay to use them. (For the low, low price of £7.95!)

Games Workshop was (and is, they’re still very successful) a British company that started to import D&D and other U.S.-produced RPGs in 1978. In a 2008 interview, Gary Gygax talks about granting GM, founded by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, “a license to produce TSR products in the UK, even print their own material unique to the UK.” The cost of importing was high, so the deal effectively unleashed the swelling nerd-thusiasm of the new market. (There was even talk of a TSR-Games Workshop merger at one point, but the parties couldn’t come to terms.)

RPG Article 1981

RPG Article 1981-2

In the same Starburst, there’s an article (above) written by Steve Jackson introducing the concept of role-playing games. In his post, Starburst Memories: Tired of Reality?, Dirk talks about the impact it had on him at the time.

When I read this article back in 1982, everything seemed to click into place, and those mysterious games that sat in the corner of Boydell’s Toy Shop in Bolton, became a tantalizing gateway into a new world.

He also nicely describes the stark novelty of the hobby when it first appeared:

It is difficult to appreciate now how much of a conceptual leap it was to play a game that didn’t have a board. This was before Fighting Fantasy (choose your own adventure books), before Zelda, before Warhammer, before Total Warcraft and before Second Life. Most people are used to hypertextual narrative games, they are part of everyday life, but back in the early 1980s it took a leap of faith to move from Monopoly to playing mind-games with dice.

STAY TUNED: Dirk (a.k.a. Chris) has kindly agreed to participate in my Interview with a Geek series. I’m super excited about getting a non-American perspective on living life “with funny-shaped dice,” among other things.

(All images are courtesy Dirk Malcolm/Chris Hart)

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