Warhammer's Political Satire: A Look Back at the Game's Controversial Past
Which politician is Warhammer going to take aim at now? It’s a question I keep asking myself, and the answer I come up with is ‘none’. Once upon a time, Warhammer – a hugely successful, family-friendly, and increasingly mainstream game – was something of a political game. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaigns would take pot shots at politicians and political events, and the Warhammer 40,000 universe had a rich history of satire dating back to the very early 1990s.
The first shots in Warhammer’s war on politicians were fired in 1986, with an Orc banner that prominently featured the face of Margaret Thatcher. She was also parodied in a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign called The Evil Within, which was a parody of The Wizard of Oz. The campaign’s name is a reference to one of Thatcher’s speeches about the “enemy within”. The Empress Magraritha in the campaign is a clear satirical representation of Thatcher, and the campaign is full of Scottish stereotypes and parodies of British culture.
In 1992, Warhammer would take on the subject of miner’s strikes, and would reference them in its campaigns. The Tragedy of McDeath campaign was an over-the-top Scottish stereotype campaign that included a number of politically charged characters, including an Orc called Een McWrecker – not to be confused with former prime minister of the United Kingdom, Een McKuithter.
Arka Zargul’s Dwarfs – representing the sympathetic heroes of the campaign – were pitted against Een McWrecker’s villainous Orcs, who were presented as a bunch of undesirables, criminals, and thugs. Games Workshop took sides here against Thatcher, presenting the Orcs as the sympathetic heroes and the Dwarfs as the rich, greedy, and politically powerful villains.
I remember playing through this campaign as a teenager, and being surprised at the political undertones. Games Workshop was clearly taking a shot at Thatcher, and it felt as though the game was trying to warn me about the dangers of political privilege and the tyranny of the wealthy. I’m not saying any of that made any sense, but that’s how I interpreted it as a teenager.
Warhammer’s Political Satire diminished as the games – and its audience – grew, and Games Workshop began to focus on its own intellectual property. While there’s certainly a place for satire aimed at Games Workshop itself, I miss the days when it would create campaigns that would take shots at politicians, and even reflect on contemporary political events.
In an alternative universe, where Warhammer never became a mainstream thing, and remained a niche, punk-inspired game, I imagine it would still be creating satirical campaigns that would parody current political events. I can almost see an Orc banner featuring the face of Donald Trump, and the Tragedy of McDeath campaign being updated to reflect the political struggles of the early 1990s.
But that’s just one of many hypothetical scenarios I could come up with. In reality, Warhammer has become too big, too family-friendly, and too risk-averse to create such political campaigns. Instead, we are left with a stark reminder of what the game used to be. The article ends with the mention that Empress Magraritha is dead. Isn’t that funny?