Why American Troops Love To Play a Game Featuring Orks, Necrons, and Space Marines

The art of play.
Sept. 12 2012 3:40 AM

Marines Who Love Space Marines

Why American troops can’t get enough of Warhammer 40,000, a fantasy tabletop game set in the 41st millennium.

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Elements of gaming are still present in modern warfare. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Carey served as an operations officer (an S3, to be exact) for an infantry battalion. His responsibilities included developing battle plans from the tactical operations center. “In the movies when you see the room/tent with all the maps, projection screens, and radios with guys moving icons around on a map board—that’s the TOC,” he said in an email. “In a way, running a TOC is as close to hobby war gaming as it gets in the military.”

The hobby side of war gaming didn’t really begin until 1913, with H.G. Wells’ publication of Little Wars, a plan for “a game for boys from 12 years of age to 150 and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books.” In it, the English author lays out rules for a strategic version of toy soldiers—the number of moves required “to pass a fordable river,” “to embark into boats,” and “to unlimber guns.” Over the course of the last century, more tabletop war games sprouted. In January 1965, Sports Illustrated devoted a lengthy feature to men who waged war with historically accurate miniature troops. “We think the war game is superior to chess,” one of the dedicated hobbyists explained. “After all, chess is played on a board that never varies, with the same amount of men every time. But the variations on war games are limited only by your imagination.”

The iconic Dungeons & Dragons entered the fray in 1974 and shifted traditional war games in the direction of role playing. D&D players choose characters and go on adventures together. Games are open-ended and participants gain experience points that carry over to future sessions. Warhammer Fantasy Battle, which came out in 1983, borrowed from D&D’s Tolkien-esque imagery but focused more on one-off, army-against-army clashes. Warhammer 40,000 built on its still-popular predecessor’s aggressiveness but added a darker futuristic setting, advanced weaponry, and more violence. Consider Games Workshop’s description of “the tabletop battlegame of the far future”:

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The 41st Millennium is a savage future age where Mankind must battle for survival in a galaxy riven by bloodshed and destruction. Humanity teeters on the brink of extinction, assailed on all sides by aliens, traitors and Daemons, and only the superhuman strength of the Space Marines and the uncountable numbers of the Imperial Guard stand between the slavering alien hordes and total annihilation.

For service members, the game’s appeal goes beyond basic competition. Corum spent a chunk of the last decade living in a meticulously regimented world. Everything, including his uniform and hairline, was heavily scrutinized. “There’s an inherent attention to detail that a lot of good soldiers and Marines have,” he says. That also applies to 40K. The majority of playable pieces are 1-inch models that must be painstakingly assembled and hand-painted. (The figurines can cost upward of $20 a pop and are sometimes called “plastic crack.”) A particularly dedicated artist can spend 30 hours working on a single figurine, making sure to dab a perfectly round black dot in the middle of a white eyeball.

Army Sgt. Steffan McBee
In Afghanistan, Army Sgt. Steffan McBee consults the Warhammer 40K rulebook.

Courtesy of Army Sgt. Steffan McBee.

“I’m not fast at [painting],” Army Sgt. Steffan McBee, who’s currently deployed in Afghanistan, said in an email, “But it’s calming”—and more intellectually stimulating than what he could be doing. “Everyone knows guys need stress relief. And as I tell my wife, [Warhammer] keeps me off the streets and out of the bars.”

McBee doesn’t often struggle to find a game—his 600-plus person unit includes 13 regular 40K players. He’s also managed to come up with a system to play without miniatures, on grid paper, in case he’s stuck without his figurines. To him, the game’s appeal is pretty simple. “It’s partly that it’s a battle that we actually have control over,” McBee said. “Part of it is imagining the battle as it plays out as the dice decide the fate of your models. I have a very vivid imagination.”

Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. You can reach him at asiegel05@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.

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