Imagine being tasked with marketing Warhammer 40,000. The game, with its odd name, is played on a tabletop, not online. Some of its  main characters include the human-sacrifice–demanding emperor of the Imperium of Man, a bunch of Orks, the Forces of Chaos, and murderous women known as Adepta Sororitas. To play, players must build their own models and boards, then perform complex mapping and mathematical operations to determine how their characters may advance and move. The game’s laser, to confirm clear sightlines, is officially optional, but the costs of a good set-up run around $400 or so.

Not one of these features supports a conventional marketing approach. The brand name is odd; its image is mostly nerd-centric and proudly outside mainstream pop culture. Because it requires in-person interactions, getting to tournaments can be costly and difficult, not to mention the costs of the models and related tools to play.

And yet, Warhammer 40,000 (colloquially known as Warhammer 40K), decades after its introduction in 1987, is enjoying a remarkable resurgence. Famous fans discuss their set-ups on talk shows, including one in which Superman (Henry Cavill) and Spiderman (Tom Holland) hijacked the interview by engaging in an enthusiastic exchange about their shared hobby. Rather than remaining solely a niche, nerd pastime, Warhammer 40,000 has spread, including to the WWE, where the game inspires the costumes of the wrestler Shayna Baszler.

Along with these famous adopters, the regular fan bases have grown substantially as well, including vastly increased registrations for tournaments. The game’s parent company Games Workshop acknowledges its dedicated marketing efforts to appeal to, encourage, and expand this fan base. For example, it has introduced new offerings, such as a subscription service that allows Warhammer players to access videos, animation, and other related content through an app. In turn, the company’s stock price, within just two years, has increased by around 60 percent.

These marketing efforts have played a part, though the game also might be benefitting from external trends too. Nerd culture is more broadly accepted in general. In a more specific cultural development, political events and trends often appear to be encouraging consumers to embrace dystopian entertainment content, as if to acknowledge while also escaping their seemingly dystopian reality. But such considerations also might go too far, as when a tournament player embraced the hate-motivated philosophy of the Imperium of Man and arrived wearing a swastika-emblazoned sweatshirt. In an official response to that incident, Games Workshop issued a reminder: “The Imperium is Driven by Hate. Warhammer Is Not.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What other marketing tactics would you recommend for Games Workshop, to build on and expand its fan base?
  2. What other environmental trends might be encouraging the current popularity of Warhammer 40,000?

Source: Shane O’Neill, “Who’s Up for a Round of Warhammer?” The New York Times, December 25, 2021