There’s an undeniable geekness in my soul, and on occasion it’s all I can do to remember that I’m not still a 14-year-old boy furious about not being able to paint my Games Workshop miniatures properly.

I’m a little bit awkward about my gaming history. I was seriously involved with this stuff – not just GW but wider gaming culture. I went to three or four Games Days and spent summer Saturdays rolling dice with my friends and marking up character sheets.

It’s no surprise I became a big videogamer, since it’s a slightly more acceptable geek-outlet and I could get my fill of massive swords and fantasy worlds without worrying about basecoats and enamel finishes.

But though a sliver of me is still almost ashamed of the amount of time I spent indoors hunched over lead figures, I can’t forget how excited and inspired it all made me feel. And sometimes that all comes back with a crash that tides me away on a wash of nostalgia.

Weeks ago I was passing through Burton-on-Trent and was almost moved to tears when I discovered that Spirit Games, the quintessential independent gaming shop, was still open.

That the place that opened the door to a thousand new worlds for me has survived is a truly wonderful thing. My dad bought me my first copy of Dragon Magazine here. I would beg to be driven the 20 minutes from Ashby to visit Spirit Games. My imagination devoured the unexplained universes behind the miniatures, the enticing thickness of rule books, the mind-boggling array of crystal dice.

I think it was Spirit Games that sold my parents one of my most treasured possessions as an early gamer – a powerfully compact solid red box containing the Dungeons & Dragons starter kit. I recall setting myself up at a table in the living room with a block of squared paper, a pencil and eraser and opening the box for the first time. I can’t have been more than 11 years old.

I remember rolling my first character – a barbarian, the ‘tank’ class that I would return to again and again and again throughout every type of game and videogame, fantasy or sci-fi. I can see incredibly clearly the perfect illustrations (the female barbarian’s fur-edged bikini is a particularly clear early erotic memory) and I can almost remember lines from the colourtext in the rulebook.

Pretty soon after this a friend of the family donated a copy of Hero Quest to me, affirming my easy beguilment by heavily armed figures stood on gloriously painted boards covered in squares. There’s something about those black lines dividing the illustrated space into the potential for movement that really resonates with my imagination.

Then there was the awesome Space Crusade and the PC adaptation. The detail of the figures, the perfectly-judged ruleset, the sheer excitement of it all still grips me. As does the glorious memory of trapping the terrifying Dreadnaught under a repeatedly closing bulkhead door during a last-ditch escape. Brrrrrrr.

Later I’d discover White Dwarf, which became an almost religious text for me during my adolescence. I amassed an exhaustive collection of the magazine covering nearly six years, though as I got older it wasn’t quite the same as reading those first mysterious copies of Dragon Magazine.

White Dwarf meant Games Workshop, and that meant Games Day 1994, which ended with me returning home clutching to what felt like a giant, heavy box with the words Space Hulk painted across it. Space Hulk was an awesome and defining experience, as much for the tense, impossible-odds thrill as for the fantastically engrossing colourtext which filled corners of the manuals.

Space Hulk is by far the game I have the most fond and vivid memories of, and the GW universe I love the most. It’s no wonder at all that I continue to adore firing up the perfect videogame translation or wasting hours on the uncompromising challenge of the very similarly arranged Aliens: The Boardgame in my browser window.

After Space Hulk came Warhammer 40k, though the miniatures always infuriated me. Unpainted purple plastic genestealers seemed to work, somehow, and I could just blu-tac the metal Terminators together and use them as is. But tabletop warfare meant paint, and I was never very good.

But meanwhile there was always good old D&D, or some variation, which provided me and a group of friends with some hilarious and enthralling adventures. We were all young, sexually-frustrated, obsessed with swordfights and mysterious caves, desperate for adventure and possessing imaginations of broad and forgiving power. We couldn’t have made a better gaming group.

Videogames followed, generally because one or other of us would have a PC in the room we set up the games, and also because a friend owned three networked and heavily modified gaming PCs and several of us often indulged in all-night Diablo or Quake sessions interspersed with clashes between Undead hordes and Elven armies.

It feels a little shaming to type that. But I remember it as an utterly exciting and idea-driven time, when the only limits really were our imaginations, and we were just old enough to appreciate the (now perhaps laughable) dark recesses of the universes we were exploring.

I can’t say I ever got the same excitement, the same sharing of imagination or the same rewarding satisfaction from a videogame. Back then I didn’t feel the need to write (though I doubtless penned plenty of my own Space Hulk et al inspired colourtext) because I was already fiercely creating fantasy each and every weekend.

If you ever pass through Burton-on-Trent (because, let’s face it, that’s the way to do it and probably at great speed) I urge you to visit Spirit Games and buy something, anything. It’s just past the station on the left as you go into town. Here’s the pleasingly news-group-era website:

It doesn’t matter if you know, understand or will ever use what you’re buying for its intended purpose. Just let your imagination fill in the gaps and enjoy the fact that you’re helping to keep a brilliant dream alive.

About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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