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Warhammer: From Tabletop to Desktop

We talk to developers past and present about the highs and lows of bringing Warhammer to the digital realm.

The First Roll of the Dice

We begin this history with its humble origins; this was no genesis built around blockbuster releases the likes of which the franchise enjoys today. The earliest, low-fi offerings would one day be followed by games developed using budgets of more significance, because in the years that followed those first tentative steps, the tentacles of Games Workshop's popular franchises extended their grip on the digital realm.

You could argue that it all started with HeroQuest, a Milton Bradley board game that would eventually evolve into the more recognisably titled Warhammer Quest. The original was a tabletop game based on and in Games Workshop's Warhammer universe, even if its origins aren't as clearcut as those of the games that followed. It spawned a reasonably faithful video game adaptation that came to PC in 1991, developed by 221B Software Development and published by Gremlin Interactive (or Gremlin Graphics), the same company that would also publish the first science fiction offering, 1992's Space Crusade (which, incidentally, is the point in this history where much of the GR-UK team came on board). Like HeroQuest before it, it was a simpler take in terms of lore and gameplay than what would follow after, and like its fantasy-themed contemporary, it was based in the Warhammer universe (this time 40K), borrowing concepts and style from the board game setting developed by Milton Bradley and Games Workshop.

HeroQuest (left), Space Crusade (centre), Space Hulk (right).

HeroQuest would get a similarly isometric sequel in 1994, but Space Crusade would end there, replaced by the EA-crafted Space Hulk, a game that fits neatly into the 40K universe, and one that to this day remains a favourite of those who played it. This was a real-time first-person squad-based hyphen-heavy strategy game for PC and Amiga that landed in 1993. The game borrowed heavily from the board game original, even if the pause mechanic changed the dynamic somewhat. Vengeance of the Blood Angels followed two years later on the ill-fated 3DO (the year after on PC, PSOne and Sega Saturn), and carried on with the first-person, claustrophobic feel of the original Space Hulk, but upped the ante thanks to much improved visuals. Those Genestealers looked mean as hell, and still do to this day. Space Hulk wouldn't make a return for many years, not until the divisive series entry from Full Control that saw release in 2013.

Blood Bowl is another example of a series spinoff that launched in the '90s, only to make a return in the years that followed. Cyanide took it upon themselves to realise a video game version of a game that riffs on football (of the American persuasion). As was the case with Full Control's Space Hulk, Cyanide had to find their own balance between maintaining the core, and delivering something that a gaming audience would appreciate. "We keep the concept of the game and the basic rules of it," Gauthier Brunet, lead game designer on the recently released Blood Bowl 2, told us. The focus is still on playability, as the studio obviously wants to attract a new and growing audience to the game. "We make it as simple as possible, but always keeping the core rules of the game."

That's not to say that there aren't embellishments, but in the case of Blood Bowl these tend to happen off the field and in the management part of the game, a move which Brunet says allows them to stay true to the original vision of the board game while still fleshing out the world that surrounds their particular corner of the franchise. "We worked in collaboration with a writer who is a former Games Workshop employee and we had fun updating the Blood Bowl universe to something more relevant to our world. Blood Bowl always has been a parody of sport in our modern world. We wanted to update this parody, bringing all the new vices that we all know, from the relationship with money and investors, to the modern communication tools that change the way supporters behave with their favourite club."

Blood Bowl is the perfect example of how video games need to adapt their source material and make it fit for a different medium, and it's one of several examples where Games Workshop are sympathetic to the needs of developers working within their IP. "When you are working on an IP that you do not own, you have to change your pipeline to include the validation process, similar to working on a movie adaptation. The difference is that Blood Bowl is a game, people at Games Workshop are all gamers and they are aware of all the constraints we are facing," Brunet explained.

Relic's Dawn

One series that captured the personality and atmosphere of Warhammer better than most was Relic's Dawn of War. While both main entries in the series adapt the source material in different ways, the first (released in 2004) offers a markedly different take on the tabletop game that it's based on, while the sequel (that launched in 2009) more closely follows the formula laid down in one of the studio's other real-time strategy series, Company of Heroes, and thus is more focussed on combat in cover and capturing resources.

Although the studio didn't try to clone the tabletop, they revealed their affection for the IP via the tone and character of their game. Relic's principle designer, Philippe Boulle, told us that there was an internal campaign with Warhammer 40K players based at the studio petitioning to work on the license. He outlined the twelve-year collaboration between the studio and Games Workshop, explaining how they "came to the original project as fans, as people who wanted to see what we loved about the tabletop brought to life on our PCs, and I think they reacted well to that."

The two companies collaborated on the Blood Ravens, a Space Marine chapter created for the Dawn of War franchise, and it's a fine example of the cooperation that regularly happens between Games Workshop and the various studios working with their licenses. "Their interest is always to help us make something great, but that falls within their property, that doesn't dilute it, that doesn't make it into something that it's not." According to Boulle there is "a lot of freedom about how we get to the essence of the property."

"They make a very big distinction that they're licensing the intellectual property, not the hobby. So our job isn't to reproduce the tabletop slavishly, our job is to get at the essence, to the thing that attracts people to the IP," Boulle told us, before later adding that they're "not beholden to the balance that [Games Workshop] pursue on the tabletop, and they fully recognise that we're our own game, we're in control of our gameplay, it's just a matter of making sure it resonates with their property."

Relic has the freedom to evolve their game through iteration, and in time they have adapted the series to fit their house style, moving further and further away from the tabletop ruleset that inspired them in the first place.

Hulk Smashed

A counterpoint to Dawn of War comes via Space Hulk. Creators Full Control are currently on hiatus, the company still in recovery and limited to collecting funds from sales with a view to possibly one day making a possible return. The misfortunes suffered by the studio could make up their own article, so we'll not delve too deep here (indeed, it's probably not even that relevant to this particular point, as their Warhammer 40K games actually sold pretty well). They did, however, stumble into a harsh critical reception when they released their first game in 2013, which was closely based on the original board game. We asked CEO Thomas Lund why he thought this was the case, and he outlined two theories.

"Video gamers wanted a video game," he told us, "board gamers wanted to have a true conversion. The video gamers did not expect the slow gameplay with dice roll in a window. If you approach Space Hulk from an 'I like Dawn of War,' then you could see this clash right away."

Lund continued: "We went into this project from a company perspective of not wanting to make the video game, and sticking to the battle proven formula of the physical game, totally open-eyed that we would hit a smaller niche of players. We tried to communicate this during the pre-release phases, but I am unsure if everyone understood what we were saying. We did have various ideas ourselves where the game we were making could be improved as a video game, or even a non-99% conversion. But once we went down the path of communicating that the game was true to the physical game, we could not implement those things without backtracking."

While this is most certainly true, another theory of Lund's is that adaptations like the one they made only serve to expose the difference in complexity between video games and board games, as well as highlighting the absence of that all important social factor; the beer, the table, the dice in your hand, the despair etched on the face of your opponent when you vanquish them. The implication of what Lund says is simple: the social interaction that's built around tabletop gaming doesn't translate so well into video game format. It's a persuasive hypothesis. With that in mind, it's no surprise to hear that when the studio turned their attention to crafting a follow up, 2014's Ascension, they were much more focussed on the video game side of the equation. We cruelly asked the company CEO to choose, and while Lund is proud of both games, he thinks the second plays better than the first. The question is then, could they have built that game the first time around?

"To be honest I don't think we could have. One reason is that we, for Space Hulk, could concentrate on the production itself and not also have to juggle a complete new game design, while also growing a company at the same time. For Ascension we had all the art pieces and the lessons learned from Space Hulk, and could concentrate almost solely on how to build the game experience rather than the Lego bricks themselves. If that makes sense.

"I will look back and be proud of both games really. Space Hulk because we did something unexpected and made a game for a group of people who had (at that point) almost no other games to play. I think we were one of the first true conversions of a major game. Ascension because it's a great video game."

If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that there's plenty of expectation surrounding Warhammer. Perhaps Space Hulk also fell foul of the Xcom factor, with the Firaxis reboot changing our modern expectations of what a sci-fi turn-based strategy should feel like. A bold and noble experiment from Full Control it may have been, it does seem to act as a cautionary tale for developers contemplating working on such an established IP, as none of the other studios we talked to are contemplating bringing the tabletop so faithfully to life.