I was in a branch of Games Workshop* the other day and got chatting to the staff member in charge about Age of Sigmar. He rather generously allowed me to have a look at the new great, big book before its official release date.
While we were talking he made a comment that during a recent Age of Sigmar test game, a player who was something of a power gamer brought along an army with a large number of summonable daemon units and proceeded to wipe the floor with his opponents. After the game they had a conversation and the power-gamer admitted that he hadn't had much fun and reconsidered what he was trying to achieve from the game.
On the face of it, this is just a neat little story about the way Age of Sigmar is supposed to play and the way in which players have to approach it in order to get some value out of it. But, delve a little deeper, and I think it says something about the direction Games Workshop is heading.
Before I go any further, have a look at this article
The article is basically about how different sorts of players have to approach one another and show tolerance of one anothers play styles and is well worth a read. It's probably better than anything I have written, so take your time. This post will still be here when you get back.
Anyway, the part I want to borrow from the article is the author's division of gamers into three basic types.
1. Competitive or tournament players - whose focus is on a contest of tactical skill and whose goal is to win.
2. Narrative players - whose focus is telling a story and have some relationship to roleplayers.
3. Casual or social players - whose main interest is in having an activity to share with their friends.
It's a fairly basic division, and there is certainly some overlap between the three categories, but it will do for my purpose.
For some years now, Games Workshop has been trying to shift its attention from players or type 1, to those of types 2 and 3 and Age of Sigmar is probably the apogee of this. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this, any more than there is anything wrong with being one of the three categories (I am pretty firmly in category 2).
However, Games Workshop are not a player, they are a company. And they are not choosing to play a type of game, they are providing a product.
Games Workshop's shift in focus two gamer types 2 and 3 has been characterised by two major developments. One is the tendency of staff, both in shops and in the studio, describing gamer type 1 using more prejudicial language. "Competitive" or "Tournament" gamer has given way to "Power" gamer. The other, is that the rules have gotten vaguer.
There have been complaints dating back for years that Games Workshops rules are unbalanced, that certain army lists are broken (either by being too good or too bad), that certain army builds dominate and that errata and FAQ are not frequently updated.
This is in part because keeping rules balanced is hard. It takes time and effort to play test everything properly and you are still likely to get flak from a community that can be very demanding. It's not surprising that Games Workshop would rather jack that in in favour of a game that isn't supposed to be balanced in the first place.
But, by not trying to produce a game that works for competitive players, Games Workshop are providing less of a product than they used to. Lets face it, no narrative focused or casual gamer has ever complained that these rules are just too fair and balanced. In practice, type 1 gamers are the hardest to satisfy because their demands are greater and, because they are more quantifiable, it's easier to judge when a game fails to meet them.
With Age of Sigmar, Games Workshop has basically thrown in the towel. By throwing out points values, or indeed any guidance on army composition, they have basically declared that they aren't even trying to make a balanced game. Play testing can go out of the window, because there is no expectation that any model won't be more or less powerful than any other. This isn't necessarily wrong, but it should be clear what Games Workshop has done.
Games Workshop has a very "creative" attitude to the truth. I remember when the Specialist Games department was down-sized, left with only one employee, no new products after six months and its magazine was cancelled, and Games Workshop announced "Good news, Specialist games has a new online focus" mentioning all the rest in small print.
What I think Games Workshop is doing with Age of Sigmar is announcing that it is no longer even pretending to support competitive gamers, no longer interested in game balance and no longer bothering to play test its games, and hiding it behind their "Great new focus on narrative games".
If you don't care about that and like Age of Sigmar any way that is absolutely fine, but don't let Games Workshop pretend that they are doing anything else.
*One of the ones that still is a Games Workshop and not a Warhammer shop