First, a history lesson:
Warhammer (or WHFB) was once Games Workshop’s flagship product. What started as an alternative method for enacting battles in Dungeons and Dragons grew into its own game, and virtually pulled miniatures gaming away from the historical crowd. Here was a game where the players didn’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of the various uniforms of Napoleon’s armies. They wouldn’t get thrown out of the club if their soldiers weren’t wearing the right hat, for the 3-year period. Instead all that mattered was the Orc’s blood, dripping from the Human warrior’s sword, was the right colour (it should be green. I think that little detail has been ignored for years).
Warhammer Fantasy has often been considered more tactical and ‘hardcore’ than its little sister Warhammer 40k. I think most of this perception comes from the prevalence of forming units into tight square ranks – a throwback to the old historical wargames that feature lots of musketeers and pikemen. In reality, it’s not much more tactical than American Football – both sides line up the melee units run at each other while the ranged troops throw rocks. Games could be slow and ponderous and, thanks to Games Workshop’s infamous model count inflation, involved masses of masses of dull footsloggers accompanying 1 or 2 cool units.
It was that inflation that was causing Warhammer Fantasy to die a slow death. The problem was that all the cool models; The Dragons, The Giants and The enormous goat-headed daemons with human boobs. Can only be fielded if they were accompanied by about 200 nameless grunts (most of which would have to have the same pose so the unit could fit together in a square). So you walk into a shop, you see the awesome zombie dragon model, get ready for disappointment because you can’t play with it. Not until you’ve burned six months of your life away, building all the skeleton warriors you need to reach the minimum number it can lead. Skeleton warriors you didn’t even want, and yes, I am speaking from experience here.
Both Warhammer games, always have had very high start-up costs. Starting an army in WHFB costs. It costs far more than WH40k. With the likes of Kings of War, Warmachine and Saga, making their presence known on the internet, GW has had to take some desperate measures to make the game more accessible.
Warhammer: Age of Sigmar is the result and Ummm. I’m not entirely sold on it.
Either something has tainted the drinking water up in Nottingham or Tom Kirby had a visit from 3 ghosts recently because something remarkable has happened. Games Workshop has released the rulebook and all the updated unit rules online for free. That’s right, Games Workshop – the store whose bundle offers only save you wear and tear on you mouse, are giving away the all the rules of their new game. Of course, this isn’t purely altruism. GW has taken a severe approach to making their Warhammer franchise more accessible and pared the rulebook down to the bone and then went a bit further until there were just four pages.
It would take, a neck of brass and balls of steel to consider charging players for a pamphlet. Especially as they could read through it twice while dropping the kids off, and GW have already used theirs up with their White Dwarf ‘magazine’. A lot of this saving has come from the total removal of universal special rules. GW have been watching the likes of Malifaux and Warmachine and introduced unit data cards. These ‘Warscrolls’ (sigh) as GW call them, contain all the rules for the unit, and will be included in the box, with the models. I’ve always liked this idea in other games. It means that I don’t have to shell out for an overpriced army book before I can play with my models. The rules I need to know are right at hand, instead of scattered and buried in several books. It shows that GW might even be starting to acknowledge that other games exist. Warscrolls for all current Warhammer Fantasy models and some that haven’t been made (but had rules) are also free to download in handy pdf format.
The fluff is pretty awful - the Old World with its rather original Germanic twist on Tolkien is gone, destroyed in the End Times. It has been replaced by a terrible mix of Sliders and a D&D Planescape Manual someone must have left in the office and blended with the usual slice of tedious despair which Games Workshop thinks is the same as depth.
The rules themselves are… well this isn’t the Warhammer we know and love. The bones are still there:
There’s a movement phase,
A shooting phase,
A Hero phase (where special abilities like spells take place),
A charge and/then combat phase
And a morale phase at the end of the turn.
Morale has seen a significant change. Instead of trying to stay on the game board to maybe return to the fight, all fleeing models are removed straight away. In the same way, Undead models used to crumble away.
The old familiar ranked regiments have been thrown out. Now all units are skirmishers just like in 40k; I won’t shed much of a tear for them because making and painting a regiment was a soul destroying exercise, in production line management. GW have seized the opportunity to make the switch to rounded bases across its entire range, probably to save themselves a bit of money, which I can’t say I blame them. For some reason, this decision has caused a hell of a lot of rage among players, which I find rather odd because
(A) The rules make no mention of bases, and they don’t matter in-game and
(B) There are better reasons to be angry about Age of Sigmar.
Army organisation has seen a massive change as well. Gone are the points limits, the prerequisite units and almost everything that would stop you using that awesome Zombie Dragon straight away. Gone also are all the armies we know and love; instead they have combined them into four multi-army factions – Order, Chaos, Destruction and Death. This change was built up slowly during the End Times event and aside from a few oddities such as Dark Elves being part of Order or Skaven being Chaos instead of Destruction everything works fine.
One enormous change is the disappearance of unit points values. Every other miniatures game out there (except Guild Ball) has some points system and for good reason. Points costs exist so that players armies will have some balance between them. Without them, the game can so quickly become a competition of who has the richest parents. In Age of Sigmar, players can just slap down whatever models they like. Got a problem with my 10 Bloodthirsters? Well maybe you should have spent more money you filthy pleb, now get back to the gutter where you belong!
Maybe writing this review on the same day as the Tory budget was a bad idea. Of course, the most crucial question is ‘How does the game play?’ Well on Sunday I played a couple of games using my Undead against a friend’s Skaven. Neither of us were impressed. Sigmar’s rules flowed smoothly enough. We were able to play a six turn game with about 2000 old Warhammer points worth of models, in under 3 hours. The whole time it felt as my opponent described it like Babys first wargame. The heavy tactics of Warhammer Fantasy were distinctly absent, even simple concepts, like flanking and feinting, have no place in Age of Sigmar. It seems the only real tactic available is General Melchett’s ‘Walk very slowly into No Man’s Land and hope you kill more of them than they kill of you’. We might as well have just bashed our minis’ together like action figures.
The important thing to remember is that Age of Sigmar is NOT Warhammer Fantasy 9th edition – It is Age of Sigmar 1st edition that just so happens to use the same models. This wouldn’t be so bad if GW didn’t pull all of their Warhammer Fantasy books from sale, essentially telling fans of Warhammer Fantasy to go f**k themselves. It’s a similar feeling to when a long-awaited PC game sequel is released exclusively on a tablet.
Warhammer Fantasy needed serious changes, and Age of Sigmar have brought those changes. Games Workshop had kept making changes, even though they were digging into what made Warhammer popular. Now, too many babies have been thrown out with the bathwater. There is a flourishing underground civilisation waiting for their moment, to rise and proclaim themselves the new Kings of War(hammer).