"What's in the bag?" he bellows.
"Waaaagh!" erupts the testosterone-fueled crowd of nearly 100.
It scares the bejeezus out of me.
I had unknowingly entered the realm of Warhammer, a world of savage creatures, dark gods and bloody battles. Well, actually, I had entered a store at Concord Mills called Games Workshop, makers of Warhammer, one of the most popular "tabletop war games" in the world. All these rabid warriors were in the midst of a Warhammer auction, bidding on various armies and weaponry.
The "Waaaagh" war cry gets the already excited crowd really hyped up. In fact they're making such a ruckus, a mall security guard comes in and tells everyone to hold it down. Yeah, right. As soon as he leaves, the circus-like atmosphere continues.
"What's in the bag?" the black-clad auctioneer asks again.
I back out slowly and make my way to the food court, thankful to have emerged intact. However, I vow to return. I know a raging subculture -- and a potential story -- when I see one.
Three-D Sci-Fi and Fantasy
The man whipping the mob into a frenzy turns out to be Derek Vener, the manager of Games Workshop. The company was started in Nottingham, England, in the late 1970s, and over the years has slowly made its way into the US. Today, there are hundreds of stores across the country, and a number of Warhammer Grand Tournaments are held annually in cities like Boston, Chicago, Toronto, Seattle, and Baltimore, each one attracting hundreds of competitors. An estimated 3 million people play Warhammer games worldwide, a number that continues to grow.
Vener explains that Warhammer auctions, like the one I happened upon, are held several times a year and always draw big, enthusiastic crowds. Vener's trademark "What's in the bag?" bellow was lifted from Brad Pitt's tortured "What's in the box?" line from the movie Seven. (It was Gwyneth Paltrow's head, you may remember.). As for the crowd's responding "Waaaagh!," that's the war cry of a particularly nasty, green-skinned Warhammer character named Orc.
In addition to the auctions, several times a week Games Workshop also hosts Warhammer gaming nights that attract both novice and experienced players of all ages. Hoping to get a crash course, I decide to check it out.
Warhammer players start filing in around 5pm, their armies concealed in black and gray, foam-lined, custom-made carrying cases. There are four different platforms in the Concord store, each one outfitted with its own unique scenery and battlefield terrain. Vener, clipboard in hand, authoritatively calls out the players' names, assigning them to their specific war stations. They snap to, gathering up their armies and taking their positions. Vener then establishes the parameters of deployment, and the players go at it.
The chatter is loud, excitable and constant. Some talk trash, calling into question the fierceness and ability of their opponent's army. Others make goofy jokes and provide sound effects and blow-by-blow commentary on the action. For others, this is serious competitive business, and they wear a stoic game face, giving nothing away.
Total, there are about 50 guys present, ranging in ages from 10 to 50 -- and one lone girl, 20-year-old Laura Cronell. When you've got a roomful of mostly adolescent guys, their already raging hormones keyed up from the adrenaline and testosterone rush of Warhammer, look out.
"I've got to watch out for all these guys, they're always hitting on her," says Cronell's boyfriend, Philip Wilson, also 20. Believe it or not, Cronell says she actually wants to be here. She enjoys the combat aspect of the game, she says, but the real appeal for her is more aesthetic.
"I like painting the armies," she explains. "I'm an artist."
Games Workshop produces three main products. Warhammer 40,000 (introduced in 1987) is set in the nightmare future of the 41st millennium, and is populated with ravenous aliens, malevolent creatures and heretical rebels. It's a science-fiction lover's dream, and, not surprisingly, is the most popular version among teenage boys. Warhammer Fantasy (introduced in 1981) is set in a medieval world of legend, where mighty warriors, wizened mages, and savage monsters struggle for supremacy. This version is more of a hit with guys in their 20s and 30s (and oftentimes 40s and 50s). And then there's the newest Games Workshop offering, The Lord of the Rings Tabletop Battle Game, based, of course, on JRR Tolkien's books and the blockbuster movie series, which is expected to bring in a whole new generation of players.