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September 17, 2012

Marines love space Marines, Warhammer 40,000

WASHINGTON — As an Army officer, Maj. Stephen D. Carey has served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. In his spare time, he fights a different kind of battle, one that rages in the apocalyptic 41st millennium. The distant future would be a terrifying realm for a mere mortal, what with all the Necrons, Tyranids, and Tau on the loose. To survive the war-torn galaxy, Carey enlists the help of marauding, green-skinned Orks. He also presides over an Imperial Guard army, because some days, defending mankind is more fun than trying to destroy it.

This is the intricate, intense world of Warhammer 40,000, a tabletop war game played with hand-painted, miniature figurines. Warhammer 40,000, which its devotees call 40K, first hit shelves in 1987 and is the product of Games Workshop, a British corporation whose influence extends far beyond the United Kingdom. Around 70 percent of the company's sales come from abroad, and the retailer has 86 official stores in North America alone.

What kind of people stage make-believe wars with armloads of Space Marines? A lot of the time, it's real Marines. Games Workshop's U.S.-based outreach manager estimates that 20 to 25 percent of Games Workshop's American customers are active members of the military. If you include veterans, she says, that number jumps to about 40 percent. "The bottom line is, there are nerds everywhere," Carey explains. "I've been an infantryman for 20 years. I'm no stranger to fighting. But I'm a total nerd."

Warhammer 40,000's geeky shell hides a militaristic soul. I spent a recent afternoon watching 40K at the Virginia home of Mike Brandt, an attorney who runs one of the country's biggest annual Warhammer conventions, the NOVA Open. The atmosphere at Brandt's place was like an Ork-themed poker night — guys smoked cigars, drank beer, and instead of talking trash, gossiped about 40K's new edition. The fast-paced, one-on-one matchups were contested on 6-by-4-foot pieces of wood. Each player served as his own general, controlling model soldiers, tanks, and futuristic aircraft with dice rolls. (Since there are no defined spaces, tape measures — including a skull-shaped one — were used to determine how far pieces moved.)

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