(This article was originally published in "Games International", issue #4 (April 1989) and is reproduced here with the permission of Brian Walker, the former editor of GI)
Games Workshop founders Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone talk to chief snoop Brian Walker
'No sooner do I move to Spain for a bit of peace and quiet than I start receiving unsolicited mail' - Ian Livingstone upon receiving the first issue of GI.
A few weeks later, however, Ian had relented sufficiently to invite me out to his alleged tax haven for a few days, ostensibly to talk about Games Workshop past, present and future. Ian also hinted that were I to bring out a few of the games reviewed in this very magazine and more importantly, explain how to play them (he hates reading rulebooks), then my presence would be doubly welcome.
And so, never being one to refuse the opportunity of an expense account holiday in the winter sun, the flight was booked with the sort of haste that might be described as indecent.
Three weeks later it's touchdown time at Murcia airport. Loaded up with games, Tee Shirts, and enough sun tan lotion to create a major oil slick, I prepare myself for a few days of sol y sombra.
Brrrr. The locals said it couldn't happen. The ex-pats were already reconsidering their 'place in the sun'. For the first time in 25 years there was a hailstorm, which left a white sheen on the surrounding countryside entirely inappropriate both to the adjacent Mediterranean, and my attire.
Murcia is in the south east of Spain about 100km from Alicante. The style of the place can be best summed up by the disparaging phrase used by Madrilenos when your presence is no longer required: Vete a Murcia (go to Murcia).
Nevertheless, the city is a veritable metropolis to the residents of the La Manga club, located some 40km to the south. This ex-pat paradise is the unlikely setting for the new abode of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, founders of Games Workshop, the company that everybody loves to hate, and in terms of complementary talents, the best double act since Morecambe and Wise.
Ian meets me at the airport in one of those funny white sports cars with a luggage rack sticking out of the back. Like everybody in Spain except the Spaniards he looks disgustingly healthy. He's definitely not only here for the beer, or the golf, or the tennis, or even the sailing.
Before we can get down to the nitty gritty it's back to the brave new Legoworld that is La Manga, and the club Ian and Steve now call home.
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, least of all a happy-go-lucky tax exile. 'So just who are you running away from?' I demand to know. 'The Inland Revenue I presume, Mr Livingstone?' 'Tax was a consideration, but not the main reason,' he admits, politely refraining from crowning me with a bowl of paella. 'Basically we'd worked our balls off since 1975 and needed a break. Steve is involved with writing the scenarios for F.I.S.T. (Fantasy Interactive Scenarios by Telephone) while I'm enjoying the fruits of my labour, I suppose you could say.'
One of these fruits is golf, for which opportunities abound on the adjacent course. One of the highlights of my stay was watching Ian getting rubbished by his tutor Vincente Ballesteros (Steve's brother): 'Why don't you hit the ball... I can do nothing with you, nothing,' complains the not so smarter brother.
When he's not worrying about his handicap, or his weight, Ian, surprise, surprise, has taken to designing games.
Indeed, my arrival coincided with the birth of a little beauty, the details of which shall remain secret. Suffice to say that it contains no spiky bits and will not therefore be published by you-know-who. Ian is quick to distinguish between his own personal taste and what makes commercial sense for Workshop.
If asked, he prefers to play strategy boardgames of the type at which the Germans are so adept, and it is at this market his new effort is aimed.
Doubly ironic though, that Ian's increased activity in this area coincided with Workshops decision not to reprint their own boardgames. This was simply commercial reality, he explains. 'They didn't sell enough compared to the other lines that we are doing, though for most companies the sales would have been very respectable. We employ nearly three hundred people so we are not talking about a hobby. As we grow, so do our (sales) expectations.'
In the past few years Workshop has received enough static to jam Radio Free Europe and then some. How come, Ian? 'It's the British way. Build somebody up and then knock them down. It's a national pastime,' he laments. I mention the case of a fanzine which received a letter from Workshop's solicitors threatening all sorts of nasty things, following publication of some fairly innocuous gossip. 'Good,' was his first reaction, but on consideration he admits it was probably using a warhammer to crack a nut. 'Someone at head office probably read it and blew a fuse,' he says. 'I can understand that. I just get so sick of the knocking. What have we done that is so awful? We were the first to import and distribute all the role playing systems which you now see. The first to organise a major games show, and the first games company to own their own retail outlets. Without us much of the British hobby would not exist. And yet, there is this kind of death wish on us. People wanting us to fail. And what wouldhappen then? Three hundred people thrown out of work and the decimation of the hobby which we have built up. Is this what they want?'
Leaving aside consumer disgruntlement, I point out that a lot of retailers feel threatened by Workshop: They had the chance to grow with us so how can they complain? We used to ring up for an order and they'd say "Well, we'll take one and see how it goes." Six weeks later we might get another order. We just couldn't cope with that attitude so we opened up our own shops. Ask yourself, how come our shops can now prosper selling only Workshop product? If we hadn't moved in that direction then we'd still be in Shepherds Bush sending an order every six weeks.'
Another episode which tarnished Workshops image somewhat was the Chaos Marauders/Ogallala scandal. The similarity of the former to the German original was used by many fanzines as a stick with which to smack the Workshop bottom. Even the respected German magazine Die Pöppel Revue took up the case. Ian declines to comment in detail as he was not personally involved with the decision to publish, and is not familiar enough with the Workshop game to throw any light on the subject. I tell him in my humble opinion that it is the same game, though the original designer doesn't give a flying one about the kafuffle. 'If it is the same game, then its possible a mistake was made,' he acknowledges. 'It's not our policy to rip people off.'
Whatever one thinks about their games the quality of the artwork cannot be denied. Where did that come from? 'Right from the start we had a policy of using the best artists. Many of these are now working for us full time. I've always felt the look of a game was so important. When I open up a game I want it to say "Play me." It's so obvious really, and yet something many companies still ignore.'
IS THERE A STEVE JACKSON IN THE HOUSE?
Right next door in fact, but just how many Steve Jacksons are there in the games business, Steve Jackson? 'I think there were five at one time but now it's down to two. At Games Day I used to get people coming up to me asking forCar Wars autographs, while the other (Texas) Steve used to get kids asking him to autograph Workshop games.'
Steve Jackson (left), Ian Livingstone (right) and Schoko & Co (centre)
Unlike the Luddite Livingstone, this Steve Jackson is heavily into the new technology, especially video. Part of his extra curricular activities include the making of a spoof soap on life at La Manga. And if I tell you that one scene features Ian propositioning the local masseuse, you'll get the general drift.
Most of his time though has been spent writing the scenarios for F.I.S.T. - the dial-a-rolegame. How did that come about, Steve, a wrong number or what? 'I was approached by Computer Dial, who do things like the Russell Grant astrology line, to write a scenario initially, but its gone way beyond that. I've been getting involved in the sound mixing and sampling.
'I've now finished the second scenario and am well into the third. It's really been an incredible success, at one point they were getting 7 000 calls a day. Unfortunately it's not really taken off in the States because of the cost. They have to pay a lot more for the lines from the phone company than they do fromBT.
The thought of any phone company being more expensive than BT short circuits my logic bank, so we change the subject.
Steve's taste in games is pretty much the same as Ian's except for his liking ofmega games like 1829 which Ian is known to describe as 'brainache', though the same evening sees him plough manfully through a five hour session of Die Macher before succumbing to stomach ache. Despite the 'desert island' nature of the locale they've had no problem finding opponents. Their recent converts include the local tennis pro and the manager of the adjacent hotel. Steve even formed a local Subbuteo league!
Ian confesses to having 'no idea' what the future holds. For the moment he is content to concentrate on golf and sailing, and to enjoy the life that his labour has earned him. Like Steve though, he has no intention of hanging around in history.
As with many successful businessmen they seem to have the unerring knack of being able to tap into the commercial current of the times at will. Despite their success they still view the games business as fun and appear to have lost not one iota of either their enthusiasm for games, or life hi general.
Even as I pack my bags, the directors of the company that started on a whim in a West London backroom thirteen years ago, are getting kitted out in their Zorro outfits for the fiesta in neighbouring Cartagena.
From Shepherds Bush to sunny Spain. What a long, long, trip it's been.
Adios amigos, y muchas gracias.