Tuesday 6 July 2010

Warhammer - past caring?

The imminent arrival of a new edition of Warhammer has once again prompted varied discussion among gamers (i.e. arguments), ranging from the genuinely excited through to the actively angry who insist they will never play again, around to the pitied scorn of the group of gamers who, apparently gave it up years ago and yet are still incapable of talking about anything else. Previously, I have greeted new editions with cautious optimism tempered by a degree of cynicism that has matured with age, or decrepitude. But this time, I am finding it hard to care.

Games Workshop finds itself in an interesting, but difficult position as a games company. The wise old sage / drunken old man (take your pick) of fantasy wargaming companies, it is now older than much of its customer base (including me, thank goodness). Warhammer is over a quarter of a century old, has passed through seven editions, with the page count of the rule book increasing each time. Unlike video games, wargame rules do not develop as technology changes, unless someone invents a polyhedron with an as yet unknown number of sides (roll on the d15), so there is no inherent need for new editions. The endless cycle of renewal into which Games Workshop has got themselves trapped it is a factor of the age of the game.

In a way, they're victims of their own success. Most miniature companies die a death after a few years, meaning that most games get through one or two editions at most. The second being an opportunity to tidy up issues no-one thought of when the original rules were written. In the case of Warhammer the motivation has become entirely different, the need to maintain the momentum of the game.

This can be seen in the various smaller games Games Workshop released over the years, Blood Bowl, Necromunda, Mordheim, Inquistor, the pattern is always the same. The rule book and first set of models were greeted with a flurry of enthusiasm and blanket coverage in White Dwarf. Demo games were run, sales made and more models steadily released over the next year to eighteen months. As often as not a supplement appeared, prompting more models. Then, as ideas ran out, coverage and new models slip along with sales and the game is pushed to the back of the warehouse before being flogged off half price in 'mega-sales'. Or at least that was the case, until Games Workshop moved all these games into one area and focused on Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000 and Lord of the Rings as their core business.

The problem for Warhammer is that if the releases dry up, the momentum dies and so does the interest. This can be postponed for a while with the release of novelty supplements, like Mighty Empires, new scenery, campaigns and even whole new armies. But only so many new armies can be sustained and retiring them creates bad feeling and makes players wary of the next new idea. The solution, a new edition and an excuse to begin the cycle all over again re-releasing armies and producing new models, or rather new versions of the old models.

Not that there's anything really wrong with this as a marketing strategy. If you have no truly new product, the only solution is to find a way to repackage the old. I'm not knocking Games Workshop for behaving like a business. What I am saying is that I am past the point where I can get excited about it.

The new edition has already spurred a new wave of interest and the arguments about rule changes have already begun. Which armies will be wrecked? Which will be elevated? How many new models and of what kind will be needed to keep armies viable? Will this edition save or destroy the game? All of which obscures the main point. It doesn't matter.

No edition of Warhammer had been perfectly fair and balanced. Doubtless if they had worked on it the design studio could have produced such a game by incremental refinements since 2nd edition, but that has never been the goal. New editions do one of two things, shake up the game radically (but not too radically, don't want to drive away the players) or tweak them slightly to maintain momentum and justify some new army books. They don't improve the balance of the game. They rarely even make it better. Up the magic levels, allow two ranks to fight, improve characters, weaken characters, emphasise infantry or cavalry, move the magic phase. In the long run it all evens out. A substantial consensus has formed around the idea that some armies are too powerful in seventh edition, but there is much less consensus about which (Daemons, Dark Elves and Vampires are popular but by no means universal). With the new rules something else will move to the fore and this will be tweaked with the release of ninth edition no later than 2015 (assuming Nottingham doesn't sink into the sea).

The point is, new editions don't make the game better and aren't supposed to. They generate interest and justify new products, that's it. By all means buy the new book, play the new game and enjoy those elements you find appealing, I probably will, but don't ascribe greater importance to the event than it deserves. A new edition is here, another one will be along in a minute, we should be past the point when we are shocked that the sun rises in the morning.