The convenience store guy’s real name was Jeremy. He hailed from somewhere in southern New Jersey and had come up this way to attend Boston University. After dropping out (for some reason I was never able to discover), he decided to stay in Boston in order to remain with his gothy girlfriend and his college gaming group. From my standpoint, it seemed like a bizarre reason for doing minimum wage shitwork and living in debt-burdened poverty, but the heart wants what the heart wants, I suppose.
After the comedy troupe disintegrated, Jeremy and I started to hang out on a regular basis. He was extremely interested in Warhammer 40k and was I was looking for a regular opponent outside the neckbearded pick-up-group pool. I lent him my copies of the rule books, he picked up the basics fairly quickly, and we set up a time for our first battle. Because Jeremy didn’t have a lot of free cash to assemble an army, I fronted him an assortment of discarded and obsolete figures from my stash from which he assembled a decent sized Genestealer Cult force.
Jeremy lived up in the nebulous transition zone between Allston and Brighton. It was a hike and a half to get to from Woburn by public transportation (especially when carting a sizable box containing battlefield scenery and my own miniature army), but he and his equally geeky roommate did have a sizable gaming table that was ideal for smaller scale 40k battles. He pitted his ragtag cultists against my slickly painted Eldar Craftworld detachment. It went pretty well (besides the smell of damp socks which permeated his place), enough that we agreed to make it a regular thing.
Over the following year or so, we gamed on a weekly basis. I got bored with the Eldar and switched to an Imperial Guard army, while Jeremy somehow managed to scrape together a pure Tyranid force together along with a copy of the faction’s freshly released sourcebook. It wasn’t long, however, before some sour notes began to creep into the proceedings.
The first “what the fuck” moment came when I first deployed my Guard force on the gaming table. The faction’s model counts tended to run on the high side because they are essentially cannon fodder backed up by armor and artillery support. That’s a lot of figures to paint, even with the assembly line approach I developed over the years. To keep things interesting — both visually and procedurally — I started varying the skin tones of the individual troopers. It was more about avoiding boredom than any sense of “wokeness” on my part (though I was influenced by the arguments over diversity then raging in the online 40k community at the time).
Jeremy’s roommate spotted a darker-skinned platoon leader I placed on the battlefield, picked him up and started doing a white boy’s impression of a “ghetto” voice. I cut him short with a “Hey, man, that’s not cool.” He stopped, but made a point going forward of uttering some borderline offensive comment in my presence before offering a performatively over the top apology. It was irritating and gross, and would’ve been a dealbreaker if he hadn’t begun avoiding me altogether once he failed to get a rise out of me.
The other problems had less to do with Jeremy as a person than the nature of second edition 40k itself. From a starting point of “slightly lopsided but balanced,” the game eventually slid into a downward spiral of meta-excess. This was mostly fueled by the various army books, where each subsequent release attempted to one-up its predecessors’ “coolness factor” with faction-specific mechanics. The game outright encouraged this type of thinking, and so Jeremy naturally picked it up. Unfortunately, this was at odds with my more “cinematic” approach which cared more about pageantry and spectacle than finding a advantageous loophole to leverage into an easy win.
I held out as long as I could, throwing visually interesting and balanced forces into a meta-driven meat-grinder for months. Eventually, the extended losing streak brought out the worst in me. My Rough Riders and Ratling snipers got dumped in favor of more armored units. I fortified my line troopers with veteran perks that allowed them to double-fire when stationary. The regiment’s colonel was cashiered — with prejudice — and replaced with an Inquisitor Lord in nigh-impenetrable “terminator armor” and equipped with multiple anti-psychic wards.
I quit playing for the objective and focused entirely on hunkering down and spraying the mid-field kill zone with everything my army could lob in that direction. Jeremy’s tactics were fairly predicable, determined by the close quarters focus of the Tyranid forces and his obsession with certain prized units.
One of these crutches-slash-workhorses was a Carnifex, an armor-plated behemoth capable of rending main battle tanks in two with its pincer arms. He always led with the beast, so I based my entire strategy on killing of containing it. When my tanks proved themselves inadequate for the job, I adopted a more devious approach.
Because of the aforementioned “special” army rules, Tyranid players had the chance to deploy some units behind their opponent’s line. I came to despise that perk in previous battles, but now I was counting on it. Sure enough, it triggered and Jeremy wasted no time dropping the Carnifex on my flank. I responded by deploying a lone Commissar in the creature’s path.
“He’s only going to delay me by one turn, you know. Then your tanks are toast,” Jeremy gloated.
On my first turn, I walked the commissar within spitting distance of the Carnifex. Thanks to the targeters in his special-issue bionic eye, he was able to lob a vortex grenade onto the monster’s shiny noggin and wipe it utterly from this plane of existence.
Jeremy never recovered from that horror. The rest of the game was spent hurling his squads into the lethal wall of fire I’d prepared. His forces were completely destroyed. My only casualties were an armored transport that got caught in the wandering vortex effect and the Inquisitor Lord who was accidentally taken out by one of my tanks after the worst streak of dice rolls imaginable.
After the final turn, we surveyed the carnage before packing everything up.
“Holy shit,” Jeremy muttered. “You fucking wrecked me.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Eh, it happens.” (I’d learned by then that it’s a bigger mindfuck to appear ambivalent about victory than to crow over it.)
While the feeling of payback was gratifying, it also felt hollow. All I really did was use my familiarity with the rules to force a foregone conclusion. Dice rolls aside, the battle was decided the moment I hit upon loading up a phony sacrificial goat with the right loadout to foul-up my opponent’s predictable tactics. There wasn’t any real skill involved, just a more expensive and time consuming form of Tic Tac Toe.
My plan was to switch to an generic Space Marine force (since I still had the plastic figures that came with the 40k box set) for more fluid engagements, but I ended up getting sidelined by one of my periodic bouts of crippling influenza. Six weeks of fever, chills, and rib-bruising coughing fits, and at the end of it I came out with an unexplained hunger for deviled ham (which I then lost again after having a bite and vomiting all over the kitchen floor). The experience also heightened my reclusive tendencies. The idea of going out to Allston filled me with existential terror, lest something horrible happen along the way.
I didn’t get a chance to explain this to Jeremy, because he forced the issue by frequently calling me during my illness to ask when I’d be willing to play again. My repeated excuses brought out his pass-agg streak, which triggered my reflexive dislike of clingy people, which made me stop answering the phone altogether. After a couple weeks, he got the hint and quit trying.
The last time I saw him was when I rode out to pick up a box of scenery I’d left at his apartment. I put on my best nonchalant face for the occasion, even though it was a miracle my fever-trashed body didn’t collapse on the walk back to the train.