From the back of a van to the London Stock Exchange...
A grey day in 1974. Three games geeks are thinking about sinking everything they have into their dream of starting a games company. They go for it, but in less than a year one of them leaves. The remaining two carry on and end up living out the back of a van as they can't afford to pay rent for both an office and accommodation.
They're living off canned food and takeaways with all their meagre earnings going into the fledgling mail order business. The business grows, and in 1977 they make the decision to open their own shop. It was going to be a proper games shop, as opposed to the small room at the back of an estate agents they had been working out of. It was a damp day in April 1978 and the shop was about to open up for the first time. But would they get any customers? They had no idea whether anyone would turn up at all but when they opened that door on the first day they found...
Ian Livingstone, Steve Jackson and John Peake were the three games geeks who founded Games Workshop in their flat in Shepherd’s Bush. Not being a fan of D&D, John left the company, and Ian and Steve turned Workshop into a fantasy games specialist.
And that's what this book is about. A history of Games Workshop, not just the business narrative but the story of its founders and their journey, along with all the people they picked up along the way.
How did Ian and Steve do it? How did they get to that first Workshop store? What's the story behind Dungeons & Dragons coming to the UK, starting a whole new hobby? How did Games Workshop grow after that? It's now so big that it spans the globe. And along the way they invented an entirely new book publishing genre, too!
A Glimpse of Chapter 7: Van Morrison
1976. Steve and Ian wake with a start. It's the rain, drumming onto the top of their van, as if a huge Ogre right out of a D&D game was using their roof as a drum-kit (Drums of Thunder, +6). It was another day working in their Uxbridge Road office. And yes, that's right, they lived in a van. Van Morrison, as they called it, where they'd been sleeping for a while now, alongside all the boxes of games and Dungeons and Dragons and stock they couldn't fit into their office. How did it end up like this? Well, a few months earlier, Ian and Steve had been running Games Workshop out of their flat at 15 Bolingbroke Road in Shepherd’s Bush, West London. The converted town house had only one public phone in the hallway that they were using for their mail-order business.
But now they'd got a whole range of entirely new kinds of games. Things were beginning to pick up and it wasn't just Mancala boards and backgammon sets anymore. They'd managed to acquire a 3-year exclusive distribution agreement for the whole of Europe from Tactical Studies Rules (TSR – publishers of Dungeons & Dragons in the US). This was granted when Games Workshop made their first order; for six copies of D&D. They were already publishing their own '70s-style newsletter called Owl and Weasel, a kind of predecessor to White Dwarf, which they quickly adapted to be the mouthpiece of their new product line.
Now the phone was constantly ringing, and gamers often knocked at the door. (Some would call them '70s nerds, but not all of them were, of course. Not to mention that the word nerd wasn't yet in common parlance, but this is where part of the whole 'nerd' thing was born). A recent article in The Spectator magazine called Ian and Steve, ‘Patient Zero for the epidemic of UK geek culture’. Their customers were expecting to find some kind of shop front so they could buy direct. Even the occasional costumed wizard turned up... The landlord was getting increasingly annoyed with people and parcels arriving all day long, let alone the other residents who hadn't banked on living with this kind of entrepreneurial explosion.
They had to get out... Gen Con IX was coming up in the States, the premiere convention for fantasy and science fiction gaming in the world. They had to get there, meet Gary Gygax and the rest of the D&D guys, firm up that vital relationship. To try to sign up all the fledgling US role-playing games companies. It took about 3 months to get to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin for the Con, but they got there in the end. Deals were struck, games were played, beer and burgers consumed, relationships established.
They flew back, inspired and invigorated by it all – except now they needed a new office. They managed to find one in Uxbridge Road, also in the Shepherd's Bush area of London. It was a small room at the back of an estate agent. That's all they could afford and it didn't include an actual flat to live in... So, that's where Van Morrison came in. They slept in the back of Steve’s van! And what about washing and shaving and the rest? Well, they joined a nearby squash club. For several months they lived in the back of a van, ran their business from a tiny room round the back of an estate agents, and became very good at squash by default.
These people are helping to fund Dice Men: Games Workshop 1975 to 1985.