This is my own personal tale of days long past, of nostalgia and escapism to fantasy worlds in the deep 1990s and, amongst other, of a magical place called Fantasy Bazaar in Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg. As another contribution to A Gentlemanly Sport’s 10th anniversary, I thought it would be a good idea to write something more personal for a change.
I dedicate this article to my son Jules.
A little disclaimer first: I might at times sound overly passionate. It’s because I am. But, it’s also a post about a topic that’s essentially “only” a hobby of mine. It’s one of many more or less important aspects of my (past) life. Also, it’s quite a lenghty article. I was working a long time on it. So, be warned!
Some theory first
According to Wikipedia:
“Nostalgia is a sentimentality for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.”
Also according to Wikipedia:
“Escapism is mental diversion from unpleasant aspects of daily life, typically through activities involving imagination or entertainment.”
I have fond memories of past experiences regarding everything fantasy related, be it in literature, film, or games. The older I get, the more that longing sentimentality of better times becomes tangible. I have so many fond memories of these days, long past. Back then, I would read Dragonlance novels, play Heroquest with the neighbor kids, or watch the Dark Crystal with my sister on VHS. I completely immersed myself in these strange, imaginative worlds.
What follows is a somewhat clumsy but also very personal attempt at documenting how I discovered the fantasy genre and, ultimately, my current hobby and passion.
So, stay a while and listen.
The Dark Ages
My first foray into my favorite hobby and my love for a very specific fantasy genre in general date back to 1990.
As a young kid, I loved reading my Jules Verne classics, Robinson Crusoe (probably the book I read most often) and all the great adventure classics out there. This would pave the road for what was to come some years later.
Fast forward to Christmas Eve, 1990. An 8 year old boy was unwrapping a heavy rectangular present to reveal a game that would have a somewhat important influence on his life from here on. That game was, of course, the legendary Heroquest by Milton Bradley Games! And that boy was me. I was immediately blown away by the box cover depicting some kind of body builder with a sword.
In 1995 I discovered in my school library these strange paperback books depicting some weird monsters and wizards on their covers. I’m talking of “choose-your-own-adventure”-books and of Fighting Fantasy to be more specific. I would frequently borrow them and play them over and over again, before returning them to the library again. Sometimes, though, they were unavailable. It was then that I realized I was not the only one venturing to Firetop Mountain or into the Forest of Doom or to the Citadel of Chaos. I would never find out.
Today, I wonder who in my former school took the decision to acquire these books and how that discussion went about with the board. In hindsight I think whoever introduced these books into the library was probably a cool person.
Movies and TV
I remember watching science-fiction and fantasy movies on our VHS device. Some became timeless classics, like Star Wars, others disappeared into oblivion. I loved Walt Disney’s 20.000 Leagues under the Sea. To this day, it still holds the record of my most watched movie. I knew all the dialogues by heart.
I liked watching the Dark Crystal fell in love with the general ambiance and with that melancholic soundtrack. Another movie I enjoyed watching, was Legend, starring (a very young) Tom Cruise as well as the brilliant Tim Curry playing Darkness itself. The Neverending Story adapted for the screen by Wolfgang Petersen surely did have a positive influence on me and other kids of my generation. And let’s not forget He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Besides watching it on our TV, I had a somewhat decent collection of action figures.
In the 1990s, my sister and I bought a Play Station 1. I remember playing Diablo religiously and a bit of Warhammer Dark Omen. The first was terribly hard to win, and the latter was pretty impossible to play without a mouse. But that wouldn’t stop me from playing them anyway and having fun.
In 1995, I bought Lands of Lore, a PC Dos game, and completely immersed myself in it. By “completely,” I mean, I played it until I felt dizzy! Video games at that time often had this kind of side effect …
The Golden years
About a year later, in 1996, I discovered with some friends a magical place. A place to escape reality. A place to meet like-minded people. And last, but not least, a place to spend a lot, if not all, of my scarce pocket money. That place was the “Fantasy Bazaar” in Esch-sur-Alzette, the town where I went to high school! It reminded me of the bookshop in Michael Ende’s Neverending Story. There was no Mr. Koriander, but the guy in charge of the shop was actually called Guy or “Guychen” (little Guy). He wasn’t particularly short, though.
The shop not only had the coolest selection of Fantasy and Science-Fiction novels, but it had games in that same genre. There were games with awesome fantasy cover art and miniatures inside that you would need to paint yourself. I saw card games with cool fantasy illustrations that you could collect and use in your own bespoke decks. There were books, unlike novels, that enclosed some arcane wizardry to impersonate fantasy characters in fictional worlds with dragons and lances. It even had a table where people were gathered around and pushing some miniature robots around hex tiles while flipping through rulebooks. I remember it also had a huge modeled castle in the shop window with painted fantasy miniatures.
It was really a fantastic place to spend your lunch break (and money). My friends and I would either skip lunch or buy the cheapest food there was, just to save some Luxembourg francs (no € yet) to spend them on miniatures, books and Magic cards. Best diet ever … It was a place I hang out a lot at. Unfortunately, some years later, the place went bankrupt and closed down forever.
Magic the Gathering
Homelands, Ice Age, Mirage, Visions. Especially Homelands felt, as one might expect, like home to me. I vividly remember all these strange, yet appealing places, items and characters.
Apart from the Fighting Fantasy books, my first fantasy novel I read was Drachenfels, set in the Warhammer Fantasy universe. Soon I would discover the Dragonlance franchise. Dawn of a New Age, was my first english fantasy novel. I would go on to read subsequent books in the series including the classics Dragons of Autumn Twilight and the whole cycle(s). Not long after I found a peculiar box, shaped like an old tome, sitting on a forgotten shelf at Fantasy Bazaar. It was the Fifth Age Adventure game, a pen and paper RPG set in the Dragonlance universe. Until today I’ve never played it. Nonetheless I flipped through the pages reading up the lore and the rules. I admired the stunning illustrations inside the books as well as the included deck of cards.
The Lord of the Rings
I first got to know the books in 1997. A friend of mine lent me the first book in German. I was immediately engrossed in this world of middle Earth. My birthday, being close, I got the full book as a present. I would read the German red book three times (every summer vacation) and after that I read the English edition once. Until today I regularity listen to the audio books. I want to tackle the English edition again sometime in the, hopefully not too distant, future.
The shop was selling miniatures and had these free booklets by a Company called Games Workshop. I remembered that name and logo from my Heroquest box.
And then, one day at Fantasy Bazaar, I saw the holy grail of miniature goodness: that giant red box called Warhammer Fantasy Battles 4th edition.
I remember begging my mother to lend me the money. Being skeptical about that game, I went with my mother to the shop (Embarrassment!) to show her the box and what that money was for. Even then Games Workshop products were expensive! Driven by generosity or just pity, my mother gave in and bought me the box. Thanks Mum!
At home I started building my High Elves and Goblins, which was more sticking the minis into the diagonal slots of their small square bases.
I would spend hours at my small desk painting these miniatures using GW paints. Those were so well packaged, that I still have some posts left (open) from 1996. I still use them from time to time. They’re still fresh and perfect to use.
A game never played
I’ve never played the game though apart from that one time using the quick tutorial from that free GW leaflet. I did play it only once on the floor at my neighbor’s place. We had no mat and no terrain, only boxes and other bits. My opponent was not very impressed by this kind of game. Thus I stuck to painting and reading the “White Dwarf” magazine. Until I lost interest a couple of years later. I would rediscover miniature wargaming only in 2013. More on that later.
I would also read Warhammer Fantasy novels like Drachenfels or the Genevieve Undead. Those were fun and simple fantasy books. But nonetheless great stories. I even re-read it in 2023 and gave it the proper review its deserved.
Soon, I discovered other miniature ranges like Mithril, Ral Partha, and others. I remember a Ral Partha catalog from 1994. I used to constantly study the little tin figurines and imagine owning and painting them, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to get my hands on them. Inside the catalog, there were plenty of black and white pictures of unpainted metal minis. When I had the money, I would ask the shop manager to order one or two for me, which at the time took quite some time. Who doesn’t remember the mail order troll?
So, I enjoyed painting the few miniatures I owned to my absolute best ability. There wasn’t a real pile of shame back then. That would only happen much later, when I re-discovered miniature wargaming and had a job.
The magic of illustration
Often, I got lost in these imaginary worlds by immersing myself in all these fantastical illustrations I found on book covers, inside rule books and Magic the Gathering cards. Oh, how I admired these drawings and paintings. I could stare endlessly at them. I can confidently say today that it were these old school fantasy illustrations that drew me into these imaginary worlds in the first place. Just by looking at these images, I managed to escape reality for a while. Not that reality isn’t fun, but I was kind of a dreamer back then, and I felt at home in all these imaginary worlds.
I am more of a visually-oriented man, and I’ve always had a very vivid imagination in my childhood and youth. Day dreaming and developing a sense of intense observation aren’t the worst skills you might develop in life. Artists like John Blanche, Les Edwards, Larry Elmore and Gary Chalk, just to name a few whose works I deeply admire, were quite influential in nurturing my imagination and creativity hence forward.
A year later, in 1997 and 1998, I even invented my own fantasy world. I not only drew maps and wrote down a history of the world, but I also rendered some of its landscapes, buildings and beasts on paper.
With my friend we even started creating a miniature-skirmish-RPG-style game with rules, a fantasy setting, maps, history and illustrations. We used our metal miniatures on the kitchen table to test the rules. At one point, however, we slowly lost interest in that project.
An end and a new beginning
As happened to many people, my interest in the hobby gradually made room for other interests during my teenage years and my twenties. In 2013, I got to know my club mate, David, through whom I re-discovered miniature wargaming again. Thanks buddy!
Memories from the past or that feeling of nostalgia
All of this feels very distant today. We are talking more than 25 years.
From time to time, I like immersing myself in all these fictional worlds of my childhood and early teenage years.
That’s when I carefully unearth these aforementioned relics of the past and pour myself a nice drink, just to relive these cherished moments. At least for a short while.
I really enjoy going back to these moments, even though they feel somewhat distant nowadays, like far away lands, to which I enjoyed traveling. There’s this feeling of coming home after a long trip. A trip that has been taking me already more than a quarter of a century. To me, this place is both an imaginary world filled with fantastical, made-up stuff and creative potential, as well as real memories full of joy and bliss.
That’s nostalgia, to me. It’s a constant, a point in time that generates a certain calmness/zen/stability/safety. Call it what ever you want.
Ultimately I am also aware, I won’t ever feel the same way about my hobby again. So many variables have simply evolved over time: age, experience(s), and just another outlook on things in life. That’s just how it is. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.
It’s just different. And it will constantly evolve.