Tuesday 28 July 2015

A little honesty

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

Sunday 19 July 2015

First game of Age of Sigmar - a few thoughts

I actually tried out Age of Sigmar for the first time yesterday, digging out my dwarfs and Chaos Warriors.

The Dwarfs brought

1 Dwarf Lord
1 Rune Lord
10 Hammerers
10 Warriors
10 Miners
10 Thunderers
10 Quarrelers
1 cannon

While Chaos had
1 Chaos Lord
1 Chaos Sorcerer
10 Chaos Warriors
2 units of 10 Marauders
5 Chaos Knights
5 Marauder Horsemen
1 Giant


I had no idea if these would prove to be balanced, but they seemed roughly right at the time. Having played the game, here are some observations.

1. It plays very quickly, The whole game was done and dusted in 2 hours, not including setting everything out and packing it up again. A similar sized game of Warhammer 8th edition would probably have taken a good hour longer, and that's with me knowing the rules backwards. I had never played Age of Sigmar and had the rules down in minutes with only a bit of checking backwards and forwards.

 Chaos take heavy casualties from Dwarven missile fire

2. It is in some way like Epic 2nd edition, in that the basic rules are very simple, but just about every unit has its own special rules. In practice, a lot of these rules are fairly generic. The rules for musicians and banners tend to be shared across whole armies. These could have been summarised at the start of each army list, but the plan appears to be to make sure that all rules are included on the units war scroll. Like Epic, I could see the game getting increasingly unwieldy the bigger it gets. The rules say a game with 100 models a side should last "an evening" which is a pretty open-ended statement.

 The miners tunnel there way onto the battlefield to assist the Thunderers who are still holding their own against the Chaos Knights

3. You can't use previous editions of Warhammer to judge how units will behave in AOS. There isn't nearly as stark a difference in the combat performance of different units. Take the Chaos Warriors and Hammerers, for example. Both have the same saving through, but the Warriors have two wounds each. Both have two attacks each and hit on 3s, though the Hammerers wound on 3+ while the Chaos Warriors wound on 4+. The big difference is that the Hammerers have a rend value (saving through modifier) of -1, while the Warriors don't. In fact, the whole Chaos armies is short of rend values, which means they don't hit very hard against dwarfs who are quite well armoured.

 Having dispatched the Dwarf Lord, the badly-wounded Giant lurches towards the Dwarf lines

4. Individual heroes can be very vulnerable against units and large monsters. Because they can't join units any more, I made the mistake of treating them like units in their own right in the same way as Kings of War. If you do that, they can be swamped by larger units, especially as units can now hit and wound a Chaos Lord exactly as easily as a Goblin. The only thing that makes characters tougher is that they have more wounds, which makes them behave like an elite unit of 5 or 6 models.

 Having defeated one unit of Marauders, the Dwarf left flank finishes off the Marauder Horsemen

5. On the other hand, monsters can be lethal. The Giant was comfortably the second most dangerous unit in the game, because of the sheer number attacks he could bring to bear. He swatted the dwarf lord aside in one combat round. If he hadn't been killed by the cannon (the most dangerous unit because of the amount of damage it did), he could have rampaged through the dwarf lines.

 The Miners and the Rune Lord bring down the giant (taking some damage when it fell on them) and turn their attention to the Chaos Lord, who has summoned Marauder reinforcements.

6. Combats can become bogged down. The crucial fight between the Hammerers and the Warriors lasted for most of the game. Morale is no longer a decisive factor in combat. In now works by rolling a single D6, and adding the number of models killed this turn. If this beats the units bravery, they lose a number of models equal to the difference. This means the morale is only likely to wipe out a unit if they have already suffered significant damage. Combats last longer, but it also means that a good unit is unlikely to be wiped out by an unlucky roll.

 Despite serious wounds, the Rune Lord defeats the Chaos Lord (who also suffered damage from cannon-fire)

7. The order in which combat is fought can be crucial. There are no initiative values in AOS and no priority given to charging units. Instead, the player whose turn it is selects a unit to fight, and the other player selects one. There is no need, and usually no advantage, to choosing a unit in the same combat. This meant that the Chaos Giant was able to kill the Dwarf Lord before he had a chance to fight, but this meant giving the Hammerers the first strike against the Chaos Warriors.

With the Chaos Warriors defeated, the Hammerers turn their attention to the last unit of Marauders

8. Ranged units are a little odd. There is nothing to stop them shooting when they are in close combat and, technically, they can shoot a unit they are not in combat with, though this is difficult as enemy models block line of sight. What this means is that ranged units are not as vulnerable in close combat as they used to be. In fact, thanks to some lucky or unlucky rolling (depending on your point of view), the Thunderers were able to beat the Chaos Knights, although it took them most of the game and only one Thunderer survived.

9. There are a lot of aspects of the rules that feel quite "gamey". Which is to say, they don't seem to represent anything in the real world. Hit and wound rolls being the same, regardless of the opponents abilities, that you can shoot in and out of close combat without penalty and that the order in which combats are fought is crucial. It's hard to translate any of these into any "real world" situation.

Overall, the rules are quick and easy, albeit with a few uncertain rules that could be clarified. In theory, it would be good for quick pick up games without too much planning, but the lack of points values complicates this, because you end up having to do more work to set up a balanced game.

The rules seem to have been written with novice players in mind, keeping the basics as simple as possible and adding additional rules only as you introduce new units. On the other hand, a refusal to introduce proper points values works against this. If the idea is to produce an uncompetitive game, I don't think refusing to provide guidance for army building will do it.

Although I will probably try the rules again, if only to see how well it plays with different models, but although I like the simplicity and speed of the rules, I don't like having to spend time working out balanced games.

Monday 13 July 2015

The Magpie game

The more I look at Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, the more I find myself thinking of another game.This is most obviously illustrated by looking at the box art.

While many people have seen similarities to Warhammer 40,000*, the image it most reminds me of is this:

It's not just the art style, which emphasises bold and heavily saturated colours with a lot of gold and red (in contrast to Isle of Blood's more muted shades), but also that we seem to have zoomed right into the action as opponents pile in on top of each other, and yet the action is frozen at the moment before impact, reflecting the models who can only pose at each other and never actually fight.

This isn't the only influence from Warmachine. The scale of the game, with an emphasis on heroes and large individuals with a handful of units of about five to ten models, is also similar. As is the idea of an ongoing narrative. The new book is not a core rulebook but "the first part of the ongoing narrative: The Realmgate Wars". Though, unlike Privateer Press, Games Workshop hasn't made any attempt to keep the cost down.

But it's easy to see the influence of more than just Warmachine. Having abandoned using tables to find hit and wound rolls, models no have a standard to hit and to wound value that does not vary according to their opponents, exactly in the style of Kings of War. The bravery system, in which the number of models killed is added to the bravery roll is also reminiscent of KoW.

The lack of points values and the expectation that players discuss what they want to achieve from the game recalls Black Powder and Hail Caesar. Both of these emphasise player discussion and co-operation to achieve a goal from the gaming experience, rather than a simple competition.

The scenarios from the leaked Tournament guide will be very familiar to Bushido players, from their preference for circular control zones in groups of two or three to the distribution of victory points at fixed intervals. Not to mention the abstract nature of the scenarios and the fact that their titles appear to have little to do with the scenario itself.

Finally, the new "Warhammer world" with its abstract realms and portals and its apparent lack of a fixed geography and focus on daemonic and mystical beings seems to recall Helldorado.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing. The previous Warhammer world borrowed elements from other fantasy games, novels and films and squashed them all together. Games Workshop could certainly do worse than borrow the best bits from a number of different games. The question at this stage is whether they have the right ingredients, the right recipe and the necessary skill to bring it all together.

*I like to think of it as Warhammer 40,000: European Edition (or Warhammer 40,000 without the guns).

Thursday 9 July 2015

Possibly flatly contradicting myself

Over the past few days I have read a few posts on forums from people trying out Age of Sigmar and the consensus seems to be that it's actually quite fun, if a bit rough around the edges.

Then I read this post on the Too Much Lead blog which suggests that Games Workshop intend to keep the rules permanently free and to never introduce point values. Both of which come across as quite daring and interesting manoeuvres. And that GW really want this to work and are interested in feedback.

Looking over the free "War Scrolls" for the existing Warhammer armies it also looks like pretty much everything I own does have rules and I wouldn't have to do any real re-organising of my armies (I might cut down the size of some units a bit, but that's all).

So if the rules are actually reasonably fun and very open to customisation, and I don't need to buy any new models, why not give it a go? I  have no interest in the Age of Sigmar background with its Realms, its Eternals, its Orruks and its Aelfs, but who cares? As far as the rules are concerned it doesn't matter where the game is set.

And, if I don't have to revise my armies, then it may prove complementary to Warhammer 8th edition and I can keep playing both.

I'm still more interested in Dragon Rampant, mind you.

Saturday 4 July 2015

The Best of Times or the Worst of Times?

After months of faffing around, Games Workshop have finally revealed Warhammer 9th edition or "Age of Sigmar" (very much the Windows 10 of the wargaming world).

"The End Times" was never going to attract me in a big way because I don't react quickly to wargaming trends. I always sit around for a few months, or even years, before embarking on a new project so a range of models and rule books that were always intended to be very short-lived and quickly superseded by the next big thing were never going to work for me. That said, I approve of the idea of turning the end of an edition into as big an event as the start of one, even if it is an excuse to flog as many old models as possible before starting again.

Now that the new version is out we can see how accurate the rumour mill was and it looks like even the most extreme rumours were true. Pretty much everything has been thrown out, right down to the Warhammer world itself. After eight editions of minor tweaks and updates, everything has been thrown out, right down to square bases. The new game is leaner, simpler and very much skirmish based with units of five to ten models and standard and a more substantial role for heroes. There are free rules for all the old models for the moment, but the new models have a completely different aesthetic, looking more like Warhammer 40,000 without the guns.

There's a lot of anger on the internet at the moment with the simplification. The new rules are only four pages long and very straight forward. Games Workshop seem to have taken inspiration from Warmachine in terms of scale, but their rules are much simpler. Rumour mill currently has it that a more substantial rule book will be coming soon, but unless it is completely different from these starter rules, it will still be a radical departure from everything that has gone before.

I actually give Games Workshop credit for being this bold. They seem to be embracing their rule as the first port of call for new wargamers aged 10 - 12, with a rules set that is straight forward, uncomplicated and can be played with a small group of models. They seem to have recognised that eight edition's great misstep was pushing ever big armies with bigger units that no normal person could afford to collect. It is, once again, possible to buy a single box and have a usable unit. And the enhanced importance of heroes goes some way towards justifying their disproportionate monetary cost.

Having said that, I don't think I will be bothering with the new edition.

Partly this is due to the tone and style. I have been a Warhammer player for roughly 25 years and I had got used to its generic fantasy world with a twist. Games Workshop took the standard Hollywood Medieval style of Dungeons and Dragons, moved the technology level to late medieval and added a touch of black humour. Over time it had become more cartoon-like and more exaggerated, but the core had remained. There was still a touch stone of the Warhammer world grounded in the real lives of real people. Although it was nowhere near as accomplished, I always felt it had a quality similar to the Discworld with real people in a fantastic situation who, nevertheless, behaved like real people. But the Warhammer world was also broad enough to embrace a wide range of fantasy types, so it could take in Arthurian mythology, high fantasy, sword and sorcery, a version of Chaos taken largely from Michael Morcock and gothic horror without any of it feeling entirely out of place. Plus, at its best it had a sense of humour about itself.

The new reality of galaxy spanning wars across multiple dimensions doesn't really work for me, and sounds suspiciously similar to Warhammer 40,000.

But the main reason I won't bother is because this is simply a new game and I have no interest in starting a new game. I have something like seven different Warhammer armies built between fourth and eighth edition, none of which may be particularly tactically optimal, but all of which are playable. I have no desire to rework them for a new set of rules, especially when I have so many unpainted models for other games and other projects demanding my attention.

So for me, it's a no to Warhammer Age of Sigmar.

And yet this is strangely liberating. Eight edition Warhammer is now a "dead" game in the same way as Epic, Mordheim, Necromunda or Blood Bowl. Which means it's free of Games Workshop, there will be no new rules or model releases and I can simply concentrate on the models I already own (with one or two last minute editions while they are still available). Given Games Workshop's focus on new players I doubt I will be missed.

So this is not a farewell to Warhammer exactly, but rather the point at which I part company with Games Workshop. It will carry on in to the future with its version of Warhammer, while I stay put with mine.

UPDATE Just a small detail, but I think that daftest thing Games Workshop has done here is attempted to rename some of the most generic fantasy races so we now have Aelfs, Duardins, Grots and Orruks instead of Elves, Dwarfs, Goblins and Orcs. Presumably this is to make them easier to trademark, but I don't think they're fooling anyone.