A July 1 Style article about the tabletop game Warhammer 40,000 incorrectly spelled names of game pieces. Nurgling, Tyranid and Dark Eldar are the correct spellings. (Published 7/6/02)

In the murky galaxy light-years away from Earth -- one that looks exactly like the basement of the Baltimore Convention Center -- commanders march in with entire armies tucked under their arms.

Dark Elder Cmdr. Josh Amos, 26, from Lake Worth, Fla., has his secured in a blue tackle box. His battalion chief, Lord Anthrax, all one inch of him, is safely stored in the top compartment, encased in gray foam, waiting for deployment.

Cmdr. Amos sets the case on the floor and pulls out his Chaos Predator Tank.

"Oh my God," he exclaims. A spiky bit on the front has broken in half. "I need the medic!"

He reaches back in for his Crazy Glue. Crisis averted.

Actually, Amos appears pretty calm considering he is about to engage in tabletop warfare that will have him trying to subdue the kind forces of good and, if he's lucky, destroy their pleasant little universe.

Over the weekend, Games Workshop, maker of tabletop miniature battle games -- which either are set in fantasy worlds or are re-creations of historic battles -- held its 10th-anniversary Games Day convention. More than 4,000 people attended the two-day competition, where onlookers crowded around tables like Vegas gamblers.

"This is like hanging out at a pub, but you're playing a game and there's no beer," explained Laurel Chiat, co-owner of Dream Wizards, a store in Rockville that sells the games. "Look around and you'll see all types of people in here. Older men and young kids, all playing these games."

Tabletop war-gaming started in England in 1910, when Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the same chap who started the Boy Scouts, put out a set of rules for British toy soldiers. But the genre became big in the United States and in the U.K. in the '70s after the success of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" novels.

"A lot of people thought, wow, it would be great to fight battles with orcs and dragons," says John Stallard, CEO of Games Workshop North America. Today "we have a Lord of the Rings game that is based on the movie, but our main two games are Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000, which are a bit darker than the Middle Earth games."

Warhammer 40,000 takes place in the dark nightmare future of the 41st millennium. In the shady universe of the Imperium, space marines battle for supremacy over the evil Dark Elder, who are determined to destroy everything in their path.

Starter games cost around $80, which gets a player a massive 288-page rule book, a handful of army men, scenery, dice and a measuring stick (players, depending on their strength and purpose, can move a certain number of inches). Rolling the dice determines how players move and fire weapons, who is winning and who is losing.

As with any decent armed forces, the more money you are willing to invest, the better your army will be. And since some of the leaders of special units can cost $50 apiece, building an army of 100 pieces can run well into the thousands.

"It's not a hobby or a fad," says James Keller, 29, who flew in from Japan to participate in the Baltimore event. "This is a subculture. You couldn't advertise this kind of game on TV, it would be too hard. You'd have to play it to understand it."

Keller, who was introduced to the game by his older brother, has been playing for 20 years. "He gave me a couple of books when I was 9," he says. "I've been hooked ever since."

Like the solar system, this subculture has many different planets that orbit around an ideology far outside this world. Its cryptic language hangs between primal ogre-speak and Trekkie talk. Conversations sound like sound bites from the war room at the Pentagon 30,000 years from now.

"My Imperial squadron came around the right bunker and devasted his Deathwing Cyclone Terminator," says one young man to another.

A woman holding court near a game table recounts funny stories of games past. "One time a devil dog chased me around the board and I kept rolling fours!" she says. "It was the funniest thing!" Her brethren chuckle. The uninitiated don't.

There are unwritten rules, of course.

First, players are never called players, only gamers.

Second, if you want to use someone's dice or measuring device, you say simply, "Borrow?" Not "May I borrow" or "Could I borrow" but "Borrow?"

Third -- and this is most important -- never under any circumstances touch someone's model.

There is respect for the players and their pieces. Each tiny piece is meticulously hand-painted. Something as intricate as a Chaos Land Raider with extra armor, auto cannon and searchlight may take months to paint perfectly.

In the dark dungeon of the Baltimore Convention Center, the appreciation for craftsmanship is evident. When a T-shirted gamer loses a space tank to a blast from a plasma cannon, he has two choices: Mark the tank with cotton-ball smoke to show that it has been destroyed, or turn the tank upside down. The gamer looks down at his tank, then up at his opponent.

He didn't bring any cotton.

"I don't have any smoke to mark it and I don't want to turn it over," he says holding the nicely painted death buggie.

They agree that the tank can stay on the table right side up.

"Trust me, I understand," says the opponent gravely.

Big-time players with armies in the hundreds don't use the little red measuring stick provided with the game. No, the serious folks come with their own tape measures.

Earthlings gawk at the sight of an enormous fleet.

"Man, that is a lot of Nurdlings," says one man. The player responds, "Thank you."

Throughout the event, onlookers take pictures of game pieces. Always courteous, both players step back to allow the shot.

Amos, who began playing in 1994, considers himself a decent gamer. In his first day of destruction in the Warhammer 40,000 tournament, he's 1-1. "I could've won the second game but we ran out of time," he says.

Amos's wife, Belle, and 9-year-old daughter, Denise, made the trip with him from Florida. There, he is a computer technician, but here in the bowels of the galaxy underbelly, he is the commander of the Nurgle demon squadron.

Amos's final game is his toughest. His opponent is a purple and green alien fleet called the Tarranin army, winged savages who eat their opposition. In Amos's opinion, the Tarranin is the best hand-to-hand combat unit here. He was hoping that he wouldn't have to face the group because his evil army isn't loaded with firepower.

Amos's opponent, 30-year-old Sean Tingley, has named his troops the Hive Fleet. He places a homemade sign on the game board: "Hide yourself away and I will find you. Fight and I will destroy you."

And he does. Amos takes one last roll to see if he can portal in demonic reinforcements. No luck.

They call it quits.

"I should have brought my Blood Angel Army," says Amos.

He packs his badly beaten devilish army back into its foamy resting quarters, snaps both lids, and walks up the stairs and out into the sun. But the 41st millennium is safe.

Josh Amos, above, brought his evil Nurgle demon squadron, below, from Florida to play in the 10th Games Day convention in Baltimore.