Of Dice and Men: How Ian Livingstone Conquered the Geek Universe

Of Dice and Men: How Ian Livingstone Conquered the Geek Universe

Friday, November 11, 2022 12:41 p.m

In a leafy west London enclave, Ian Livingstone balances precariously on a chair in his study, reaching for a top-shelf box filled with incredibly rare figurines.

The chair’s legs creak in protest, and there is a moment when I fear I may be responsible for the untimely death of the man who helped introduce the world to such treasures as Warhammer, Tomb Raider and Dungeons & Dragons. A life-size Lara Croft, surrounded on all sides by piles of board games, looks on disapprovingly.

“It’s been a whole year,” he laughs once he’s back on terra firma. This is an epic understatement – ​​the day before we met he was at Windsor Castle being knighted for services to video games. The next day, his new book, Dice Men, hit the shelves, a new entry in his Fighting Fantasy series, 40 years after the first was published. It’s also exactly four decades since he opened the first Games Workshop store with his old school friend Steve Jackson.

The company, which he and Jackson left in 1991 after the four stakeholders redeemed their shares for a reported £10m, would continue to float on the stock market, with its market capitalization peaking in 2020 at £3.3bn – more than Marks. & Spencer and ITV.

Dice Men is the story of the early days of Games Workshop, a time when Livingstone and Jackson slept in a mobile home and rented office space in the back of an estate agent’s estate. It’s a wonderfully nostalgic work, part memoir, part full-color scrapbook, told with infectious enthusiasm and delivered with the pacing you’d expect from an international best-selling author.

It’s full of great little nuggets that seem too far-fetched to be true: how Richard Branson once tried to buy Games Workshop; how Livingstone once developed a (failed) board game with Andrew Lloyd Webber; how, during the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, a woman claimed to see her son levitating while he was reading one of Livingstone’s fantasy books.

It’s also wonderfully evocative of a bygone era: images of smoky old offices painted in dull oranges and browns; typewritten letters covered with hand-drawn doodles.

We settle into a couple of armchairs as Livingstone tells me how he got his big break, when the American creator of Dungeons & Dragons somehow got hold of his fanzine, Owl & Weasel, which had a print run of just 50 copies.

The spectacularly named Gary Gygax lacked a European distributor for his new game – so Livingstone and Jackson gave up the lease on their £10-a-week Shepherd’s Bush flat and flew to meet him in Geneva, Wisconsin, returning with sole European distribution rights to what would soon become a global phenomenon.

“When we got home we had nowhere to live and nowhere to operate – but we managed,” says Livingstone.

I wonder if this kind of bedroom entrepreneurship is dying out amid the skyrocketing costs of rent and education – could Games Workshop happen today?

“If you’re driven enough, you’ll find a way,” he says. “When you’re driven by passion you don’t see the difficulties. It’s not exactly living the dream but I’d much rather do what we did than do a much better paying job where you don’t get the satisfaction. It was our passion that got us over the line. We were gamers, so work and play were the same.”

Still, the level of their success is astounding. How would a young Ian have reacted if someone had told him that the company he ran out of a van would one day be worth billions?

“I should have said you were laughing, wouldn’t you! It’s incredible – but we didn’t do it to make money, we didn’t have a vision of what it could be, we just wanted to turn our hobby into a business and decide our own destiny. We wanted to make and import the games we wanted to play and we were happy that other people wanted to play them too.”

So no regrets?

“No regrets. If you use the analogy of being parents, Steve and I sold out in 1991 and the baby grew up to be a very successful child and we watch from the sidelines as proud parents. I feel a tremendous sense of pride that we created this great British success story.”

Still, he must wish he had only kept one percent of the stock…

“You can always think like that, but it’s best to move on.”

When you read Dice Men, you could be forgiven for thinking that the story of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson is one defined by happiness, a tale of chaos that somehow turns to gold. But lightning didn’t just strike once for Livingstone—it struck again and again, until it couldn’t possibly have been down to dumb luck, rather the result of serious business acumen.

At Games Workshop, a chance meeting at a gaming convention with a publisher from Penguin led to the first Fighting Fantasy novel (another joint venture with Jackson), a spin on the choose-your-own-adventure format in which players rolled dice as they battled goblins and wizards on epic journeys. The franchise went on to sell more than 20 million copies, several of which ended up in my teenage bedroom.

After leaving Games Workshop, Livingstone took a role as chairman of Eidos and helped launch global hits including Tomb Raider. He published a report for Ed Vaizey on improving coding skills in schools. Now he is involved in his own independent school, Livingstone Academy in Bournemouth, which promotes play-based learning.

“When you play a game, it’s digital creation,” he says. “In Rollercoaster Tycoon, you learn about physics when you build rides, and you learn about management when you hire staff.”

Given all his experience from the years since he started, what would he do differently? “Definitely bring in money,” he says without pause. “We were turned down by the bank – and in the bank’s defense, we were not ready for investors. We went in with enthusiasm for Dungeons & Dragons and little else. It is important to have a good business partner alongside the creative team, so that each other can be successful. Don’t be afraid to fail but fail fast and move on.”

Something else?

“Hold on to your IP. All my life I’ve been trying to hold on to intellectual property. With D&D we had a three-year deal, at the end of which Gary Gygax wanted to merge the two companies. We said no and we lost the deal, and that was we realized we were vulnerable.

“So we started publishing our own games like Talisman and Battlecars and Warhammer. After Warhammer, the whole company was built around that IP – the publications and the miniatures and the stores, all creating value from the same IP.”

Surely now, after more than 50 years of toil, he is finally slowing down?

“No no. I’m 72 now and I’m never going to retire. I probably work harder than ever. I’m a partner at Hiro Capital trying to help the next generation of game makers. I have plans for another book, I have my school. .. I think the success is soon forgotten but the ambition remains.”

Rather adorably, after all these years, he and Jackson still play board games together once a week, usually over Zoom but sometimes in person; the same group of five have been playing since the 80s – right now they’re into a game called Splendor.

“I am the secretary of the Games Night Club, for which I have published 604 issues of the newsletter to a circulation of six people,” he says.

Who usually wins?

“We have a cup at the end of every year – I’ve won it the most but this year I’m trailing game developer Peter Molyneux.”

He leads me out through his wonderland of memorabilia. Scattered across several rooms are Warhammer miniatures long out of production; an entire wall filled with the original paintings for the covers of his Fighting Fantasy books and board games; Guinness ads alongside the original artist sketches, part of what used to be the largest collection of Guinness art in the world (most of it now sold); a signed Manchester City shirt from when his video game company Eidos was the club’s sponsor; a functioning pinball table.

I wonder if there is one treasure he values ​​above the rest – one thing he would run back for if the house were to burn.

“Oh no! It’s impossible,” he groans, putting his head in his hands. “It’s like saying which child I would save!”

He thinks for a minute and apparently takes this doomsday scenario very seriously. “OK, I have an unopened, shrink-wrapped 1975 Dungeons & Dragons box, so I guess I’ll have to reach for that.

“But I would also consider taking my first handwritten manuscript for The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I have kept all my manuscripts, the first 10 of which are handwritten in pen and ink. My girlfriend at the time typed them all in.”

Should his house really burn down, I hope he doesn’t run back in at all, because Ian Livingstone himself is a national treasure, the kind of creative mind that only comes along once or twice a generation. Get yourself a copy of Dice Men and you’ll see what I mean.

Dice Men by Ian Livingstone is out now, published by Unbound, priced £30

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