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The Hidden Fortress

The entrance to the War Room is an unremarkable metal door, bordered by a dumpster on one side and piles of unwanted furniture on the other. The door opens onto an alleyway just off Stony Plain Road, one of Edmonton’s most menacing streets. Concealed behind an adult video store for nearly five years, the War Room has been one of the few safe harbours for Edmonton’s wargaming community. Were it not for the homemade sign above the door, you would be hard-pressed to guess that anything at all existed behind it. But innumerable battles have been fought here. Some took place in exotic spacescapes 40,000 years in the future, others happened in locales as familiar as Europe. Some were at sea, some were in the sky. These worlds within a world go unnoticed, lost beneath a seemingly endless swath of liquor stores, pawn shops, transients, and porno merchants. But more than a sanctuary from an unfriendly world, the War Room is source of strength and brotherhood for its members. At the bottom of a creaky flight of wooden stairs, I found chunks of unused battlefields stacked next to a pile of coats and Old Dutch boxes. It was here that I met Kyle Ziegler, a slight man in his mid-20s, his hands cradling three knights on dragon-back. The figurines were a little bigger than toy soldiers, not including the white wings that Ziegler had sculpted from scratch. Many of the War Room’s members, Ziegler especially, make their own soldiers. “Everything from the skeleton and the skin,” he said, “That is entirely me.” Ziegler, an organizer at the War Room and a member for nearly its entire existence, took showed me his workspace. We sat near a long folding-table littered with

jars of paint, brushes, X-acto knives, works in progress, and at least one can of Fanta. An obese, ogre slouched in the shadow of an empty Pringles tube. The ogre is Ziegler’s work, sculpted from a two-part mixture of blue and yellow epoxy, decorated with chains and silver armor. Tabletop games – the Games Workshop’s Warhammer being the most popular – come with their own legions of soldiers and tome-like rulebooks, which determine the warriors’ individual abilities. These traits range from the obvious (movement speed, close-combat skill) to the obscure (jumping gaps, resisting poison). What separates tabletop games from computer games or chess, for example, is that players have the freedom to create their own soldiers, their own environments, their own realities. “You get to design your world, even to the extent of how fast these people move, how fast they think and how they fight,” Ziegler said. The ogre, a Herald of Nerdle, is a champion fighter who can absorb huge amounts of damage. Ziegler told me it also has a problem with flatulence, a quality I assumed had gone un-cataloged in any rulebook. Indeed, the wargamers’ relationship to their minions goes far beyond statistics and abilities. Ziegler told me that players sometimes mimic their figurine’s facial expressions while they paint them. “Every one of them is personal,” Ziegler said. “It’s like my baby.” Once the world and its rules have been set, players take turns moving their soldiers and engaging in combat between individual units. The winning unit is determined by comparing its stats to its opponents’ and rolling dice. With tactics and luck, a weaker unit can defeat a stronger enemy. Ziegler told me about one of his most resounding victories,

when he managed to encircle one of his opponent’s strongest units, which had been holed-up in an abandoned building. Ziegler shot them to pieces and ultimately crippled the opposing army. It had been an unusually one-sided conquest. The battle drew a lot of spectators. Some cheered for the eventual winner, but many, understandably, cheered for the underdog. Ziegler had crushed his enemy in a mere four turns. A six-turn game between two people can last as long as five hours. Because of the time commitment required to play an average game, the War Room members often find themselves leaving the club well after midnight. In the dead of night, when the wargamers leave the safety of their world, they must brave ours. A little over a month ago, Ziegler and his friends were leaving the War Room after another marathon session. Exiting into the alleyway, they heard a woman’s scream. Three of them went to investigate and found an drunk 300-pound ogre of a man looking for violence. He attacked the Ziegler and his friends. “We all knew we had each other’s back. Some of us had fighting experience, other didn’t,” Ziegler said. “We were all there for each other.” Many wargamers have had more experience with confrontation than the average person. Not because of their adventures on the fantasy battlefield, but because of their adventures in the real world. War Room members have been abused physically and verbally. They’ve been chased, their creations smashed by bullies, both adolescent and adult. “You’re generally almost seen as sub-human.

“There’s a whole bunch of stereotypes too,” he continued, “like, ‘oh, you’ll never get a girl, you’ll never…whatever’” Ziegler, usually a confident speaker, took an uncharacteristically long pause. He considers himself a tactician and a leader, and that thoughtfulness was evident in our conversation. But in talking about the slings and arrows he and his friends had endured, sentences were laboured and unfinished. I sensed that his pauses were not due to emotion, but an inability to comprehend. A lot of members of the War Room, some of whom are in their 50s, are either dating or married. Some work in the oil patch, some have fought with the Canadian Forces – hardly the pale, anti-social nerds who have withdrawn from society into a secret lair of fantasy. The War Room is hidden, but it is not a hiding place. As I stepped out of the War Room and into the windy alley, I struggled to close the metal door. Heat from inside escaped into the night and held the door open. I noticed one of the War Room’s members smoking a cigarette amongst a utility pole’s grounding wires. Although it was one of Edmonton’s first truly bitter autumn nights, he seemed fine in a tshirt. He told me not to worry about the door. We talked a bit about the club, and I wondered aloud if it would lose its closeness should war-gaming take off in Edmonton. He shrugged and smiled and said it was great to belong to a tight-knit group. Then I asked him why he kept coming back to the War Room week after week. Again, he smiled at me as if having trouble answering the question – not because it was too hard but because it was too easy. “They’re my friends,” he said, “my people.”

The Hidden Fortress  

Hidden in a world-within-a-world, tabletop gamers are fighting the good fight. First published in the May 2010 issue of Seriously? magazine.