Category Archives: tabletop gaming

Rigg's Shrine title card

Warhammer’s race and gender problem

Still working through my Age of Sigmar inspired recent obsession, I came across this post on Kieron Gillen and Matt Sheret’s Hipsterhammer Tumblr about the problematic nature of many of the new “rules” found in Age of Sigmar’s War Scrolls. This is of course true to the extent that you can take them seriously at all. But at the same time, the sad fact is that Warhammer has never not been problematic in terms of its presentation of disability, race and gender. And in many ways, it appears to have gone backwards since the 80s.

Map of the Known WorldPart of the problem is also what I praised in my last blog post: the impressive background developed for the Warhammer Fantasy RPG. Before then, the Warhammer setting was pretty much a free for all and several developers went off in several different directions. The “Known World,” very closely modelled on our own, included its own analogues of the Americas, Asia and the Middle East, even if the non-European-analogous bits were notably smaller than they are in the real world. The first “scenario pack” published for Warhammer 2, “Blood bath at Orc’s Drift” was set in the New World/America. Citadel Miniatures produced a range of miniatures based on different cultures, even if many of them never rose above the status of racial caricature, the pygmies being one especially notorious example.

Warhammer Pygmies were transposed from the African analogue to the South American one, Lustria. Lustria itself was probably the most detailed setting GW produced during the Warhammer 2 era. It was the setting of the introductory scenario included in the base set (“The Magnificent Sven”) and was revisited a couple more times in the irregularly produced Citadel Compendium (“Rigg’s Shrine” and “The Legend of Kremlo the Slann”). It was an interesting mix of Aztec and Mayan mythology mixed with von Daniken and punk, with Norse settlers battling with the indigenous ambiphibious Slann and the Amazon’s.

All of this was highly problematic, post-colonial material. But at least it existed. The fleshing out of the “Old World” and particularly its Holy Roman Empire analogue The Empire, lead to development of any other part of the setting essentially ceasing for at least a decade. GW didn’t return to Lustria until 1996 in which a radically revised version of Lizardmen were introduced and the Slann relegated to a more background position. The Amazons and Pygmies were simply written out. But at least the Americas (with North America now mainly populated by Dark Elves) were represented at all. The rest of the world was pretty much written out.

What we ended up with was a vision of a world in which the World of Men is limited to Europe, beset on all sides by bestial, evil and debauched races. It’s hard to see the Warhammer World as much more as the warnings of the Daily Mail and British National Party taken to its ultimate extreme. No wonder it blew up.

In terms of gender, the situation is, if anything, even more dire. The Amazons, in 1984, are the first and only attempt to create a female figure range for Warhammer Fantasy (the fact that Warhammer 40,000 had the Sisters of Battle is a rare example of 40k actually managing to out-diversify something). And no, the hermaphroditic Daemonettes of Slaanesh don’t count, even if they have become more female over time.

Why does this matter? GW are of course welcome to do whatever they like. But I’d argue that this lack of diversity simply compounds the lack of groundedness that has come to typify their fantasy setting. If you can’t imagine any of these characters having families and a hinterland, and the world is so lightly sketched that almost an entire hemisphere was completely unexplored by the time it is destroyed, no wonder it had failed to capture the imagination. And if you aren’t a while male of European descent, you are being offered nothing to identify with.

This runs contrary to the direction that the rest of the tabletop industry seems to be going. Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder are in a competition to out diversify the other; Android Netrunner, which has had gender and ethnic diversity baked into it since its latest incarnation was launched, is about to focus on Cyberpunk India for six months. Fundamentally, these companies are not doing this out of the good of their hearts, but because they want to reach out to a more diverse paying audience, and to revitalise a bunch of tropes which to everyone other than an increasingly dwindling minority of their existing audience has become extremely dull.

Age of Sigmar could be an attempt to reach out to a more diverse audience as well. Thus far, however, the only audience it looks set to appeal to is the existing Warhammer 40,000 market. If we are going to see greater ethnic and gender diversity in their miniatures range, it is not apparent from their new starter set, which appears to be as hyper-masculine as Warhammer has ever been.

Imagine if GW had gone the other way. Imagine if, at the end of their End Times metaplot they had blown up the Old World and instead begun to explore the rest of the Known World instead. Meeting the bedraggled remnants of a fallen Empire on the battlefield could have been a bright and colourful range of new civilisations. We could have revisited old ideas like the Amazons, updated for the modern era, explored rich civilisations in the analogues of Africa, the Indian sub-continent, China and Japan. I can’t be alone in thinking that would have been so much fresher and exciting than the rehashed content they have instead come up with.

Maybe we’ll still see something similar emerge out of this, but I somehow doubt it.

Age of 40,000 Sigmars

I’ve been watching the launch of Game Workshop’s new game, Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, and its backlash over the last few days attempting to decide what to make of it all. For those who don’t know, Games Workshop have discontinued their long established and original flagship miniatures war game Warhammer Fantasy Battle and replaced it with a new fantasy war game, Age of Sigmar.

There are essentially four major complaints about this game.

  1. The very explicit move away from a war game to a skirmish game, with fewer minatures per side and (shock!) round figure bases instead of square ones (although you can still use square ones if you have old figures with them).
  2. The core ruleset is basic at best and in particular replaces the existing system for building armies by spending a fixed number of points, with each miniature costing a certain amount, with a much simpler system of just counting the miniatures. A tiny goblin is worth exactly the same amount as that enormous dragon you own which takes up a quarter of the table.
  3. The “war scrolls” which GW have created to enable Warhammer Fantasy Battle gamers to play the new system with their old miniatures contain a number of, er, odd rules such as giving specific bonuses to players who opt to dance while rolling their dice or, my personal favourite, whoever has the most impressive moustache.
  4. The setting, which has abandoned Warhammer Fantasy’s Old World in favour of eight “realms”. I’m not entirely clear how these realms are supposed to interconnect – are they like planes of existence or parallel worlds or planets floating in space? – but it is certainly strongly implied that the world is much more vast and not simply set on one planet. It is all very vague (White Dwarf #75 was apparently meant to provide people with some details but having read it from cover to cover I can tell you that it reveals virtually nothing), but it all has a kind of “Tolkien in Space” vibe which, er, was the original idea at the heart of their “science fiction” miniatures game Warhammer 40,000. In the starter set, even the Sigmarite warriors look remarkably like 40,000’s Space Marines[TM].

I’m not especially interested in getting into all that per se. I pretty much walked away from Games Workshop in around 1990. Already annoyed by the changes to the company in the mid-80s, I’d grown sick of the way they would inconsistently release new games and then abandon them, their abandonment of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the way White Dwarf had become a promotional tool which you paid for the privilege to read and the fact that the only thing they were consistent about where the price rises. Since that time, I’ve watched as every few years the company does something to alienate a big chunk of their customers. It has looked like a company dying on its arse for some time now. Yet it seems to keep going and enjoy a core customer base who stick by them through thick and thin.

The thing that they have fundamentally got right is the Warhammer 40,000 game, which has always been a skirmish game. It works because it is a good match between setting and game. The scale of the miniatures makes more sense for a skirmish game than it does for a war game (it has always felt a bit odd calling a game in which a few hundred combatants go up against each other a “war game”). The setting, whilst the epitomy of “grimdark” doesn’t lose believability despite it’s emphasis on “total war” because it is set across the entire galaxy. There’s a fairly clear idea about what they are fighting for. At it’s heart is a really good, extremely metal idea: that humanity has united behind a god-like Emperor who is waging an eternal psychic war against daemonic forces and is the only thing that stands between the human race and extinction.

The problem with Warhammer Fantasy has always been that its setting was never quite as strong. In its original incarnation, the setting was a fairly generic mashup of Tolkien, Lovecraft and Eric von Daniken; ancient alien race settle on a planet, terraform it, create the sentient races, usher in a golden age, but the warp gates they use for interstellar travel collapse, ushering in the forces of Chaos. That was fine as far as it went, but the setting only really came alive when they released Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and its developers decided to focus on a setting based on the Holy Roman Empire, with a dash of Lovecraft and Monty Python. Suddenly the setting had politics, and a real sense of a pervading menace. Chaos wasn’t just something you fought in the woods and the chaos wastes; it was a pervading menace at the heart of society. It suddenly had a groundedness that it lacked before.

But two things have happened since then which the WFB has struggled with ever since. Firstly, the roleplaying game was abandoned. There have been three separate attempts to revive it over the last 25 years, but always as an adjunct to the war game rather than a core part of the world building. Since then, the focus of the fiction and fluff has always been almost exclusively focused on war and fighting. The other thing that happened is organised play. In recent years, GW has opted to develop a metaplot which players are encouraged to contribute to by playing their own games enacting battles that spring out of the storyline.

As I said before, Warhammer 40,000 can cope with this sort of thing because it is spread across a galaxy. Warhammer Fantasy is set in a world which is actually smaller than our own. This doesn’t work because basic economics would make such eternal war utterly impractical. So to explain away this, the focus has had to shift increasingly towards higher and higher fantasy. Everything could just be explained away by magic. When you attempt to get your head around the fiction it becomes less and less clear why anyone is bothering to fight these battles at all and they increasingly sound like the fanfiction written by a demented thirteen year old.

I would argue that it is this lack of groundedness that has lead to the steep decline in Warhammer Fantasy’s popularity over the last few years. Fantasy only really works when it is grounded in some way. Magic and monsters are all very well, but if a fantasy world doesn’t feel like a real place, it is hard to care. And there has to be a mix of hope and darkness, not just unrelenting grimness.

All of which is a fairly long way of saying why I don’t think Age of Sigmar is going to save Warhammer Fantasy. The solution is not to create a fantasy version of Warhammer 40,000 but to make it less of a retread of Warhammer 40,000 in the first place. Based on what GW has released so far, Age of Sigmar contains none of the groundedness that 40,000 has to prevent it from seeming unplausible. The setting is extremely lightly sketched out, none of the protagonists and antagonists seem to have any real motivations besides wanting to fight for its own sake, even the precise nature of these “realms” has been glided over. Maybe this will all be revealed in the starter set’s rulebook, or in the numerous overpriced novels that they are set to publish. But where is the hook to capture the imagination of the average punter?

GW are remarkably unsentimental about their product lines. If it doesn’t sell in sufficient quantities, a game is swiftly cancelled, often never to be seen again. Over the years we have seen them produce and abandon many loved lines such as Bloodbowl, Space Hulk, Epic, Battlefleet Gothic and Mordheim. I could be proven wrong here but I suspect that Age of Sigmar is in a similar precarious state. If it doesn’t sell well enough, it won’t be around for long and that will be the end of Warhammer Fantasy. The good news is, as fans of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay can tell you, killing a product line doesn’t necessarily kill off the game itself. Despite GW’s strict rules on intellectual property, fan produced material can and does continue to flourish. I just hope the company is bought up by another company soon that will put their IP to better use. Fantasy Flight/Asmodee: since you’re in the business of buying up games companies anyway, you might want to take a look.

Games I love: Twilight Imperium

I held off from getting into Twilight Imperium for years. Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition (“TI3”) – I never tried the earlier editions – is by definition a pretty preposterous game. The main thing it is famous for is it’s length. The longest it’s taken me to play the basic game is 14 hours, including setup time. The shortest, this weekend, was 8 – although that doesn’t include me procrastinating the night before setting up as much of the game as possible before the players were due to arrive the next morning.

Straight off the bat, if you don’t like long games this is not the game for you. This is something you want to play if you like the idea of an intense, full day of negotiation and strategising, as much a test of endurance as it is a contest of skill. Most games I’ve played have included a mid-game lull in which all the players are exhausted and bamboozled, unclear about what the hell they’re doing. It’s a mark of the game’s quality that no-one has ever walked out at that point, preferring to stick it out to the bitter end.

So what’s it about? The setting of TI3 is a decayed galactic empire in the far future. A race of four armed aliens, the Lazax, ruled the galaxy for millennia but were eventually overthrown and vanished in a cosmic huff. Each player runs one of the remaining factions as they attempt to realise their own imperialist ambitions and take over. The game involves building up fleets of spaceships, discovering new worlds, warring with rival factions and politicking in the galactic assembly. Everyone has their own secret objectives and a series of public objectives are revealed as the game goes on. Meeting those objectives earns you points, and the first player to reach 10 points wins the game.

It looks beautiful. The artwork on the cards and hexes (the game uses a modular board of hexes which is different each game) is beautiful, as are the space ships. It’s huge. Admittedly, we tend to play using the “larger map” option, but our dining room table cannot really accommodate more than four players – last time a friend of mine ended up bringing over a couple of desks to give us somewhere to put stuff on.

Mechanically, the game is interesting. I read an article yesterday in which Scott Nicholson argues that the current boom in tabletop gaming is due to a fusion of European (resource management, economic, somewhat abstract, strategic) and American (thematic, conflict oriented, dice-heavy) styles of games. I hadn’t thought of it quite like that before but I think it’s true, and nowhere is it more apparent than in TI3 which blends the two to the nth degree.

On the one hand, it is the ultimate “Ameritrash” game, yet at its heart is a game in which you have to carefully make use of the planets in your empire’s limited resources, and one of the main mechanics is “role allocation” – a mechanic that first came to prominence in the classic Euro game Puerto Rico. As such, you can play the game as a roleplaying game or a strategy game. In reality, most players tend to do a bit of both.

It isn’t a perfect game by any means. The game length is, frankly, because of its flabbiness. Some will find that lack of sleek design a real turn-off. Personally, I don’t mind. What I mind somewhat more is that some of the factions/alien races are significantly weaker than others, and that the system for politics is underwhelming. The latter is something that I am the most disappointed with. A number of games “do politics” better than this one. Warrior Knights and even the Game of Thrones board game has a more interesting system, and I just received my copy of Democracy: Majority Rules which focuses on this aspect, which I will hopefully get round to reviewing soon. Yet what promises to be a really exciting central aspect of TI3 – there are dozens of “politics cards” which you can potentially use in the game, all of which include a proposition the galactic council must vote on which adds new rules or even gives individual players additional points – all too often falls completely flat.

But one of the great things about TI3 is that it is so modular. The base game and especially its two expansions include a whole series of options which you can include or omit. I have to admit that I’m a bit of an all in kind of player, and prefer to include as many as possible. Introducing house rules is not only straightforward but, I get the impression, almost required for any group which plays the game regularly. If you’re going to spend an entire Saturday playing, it only makes sense that you would want to play it “your” way. Because of its modular nature, hacking a new rule is quite straightforward – as will probably be the case with politics the next time we play (I shall certainly be making use of the Democracy: Majority Rules gavel!).

Interestingly, Twilight Imperium itself is responsible for the creation of an empire. It’s designer Christian T. Peterson is the founder and CEO of Fantasy Flight Games and its initial success is what gave that company the start it needed. I’m always a little surprised that they haven’t tried making more of its IP than they have. In the early days it had a spin off RPG and a collectable card game, but these days only Rex: Final Days of an Empire, itself a reimplentation of the classic Dune board game, is in print. I would probably buy a Twilight Imperium Living Card Game in a hot second. I suppose Star Wars fills this slot for FFG these days.

This game is not for everyone, but if you like the idea of spending a day – or even a weekend – immersing yourself in a grand space opera, there is no other game that quite delivers in the way TI3 does. You won’t get to play it every week, but every time you do play it will feel special and you will be thinking about it for days afterwards.