Tag Archives: warhammer

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.

Rotation and Tabletop Economics

Wednesday was a big day in the world of tabletop gaming. While in the UK we were having bonfires around the country, in Roseville, Minnesota Fantasy Flight Games announced a bonfire of the Living Card Games. Well, a light singeing at any rate. To any non-tabletop gamer, and indeed any non-LCgamer, this will probably mean absolutely nothing. But it’s an interesting response to a growing problem which the fans of these games have recognised for a long time.

Ever since I worked in a comic shop in the early nineties during the speculator boom (and arguably going back to when Games Workshop decided to change their business model in the late 80s and alienate fans like myself), I’ve always had an interest in how economics impacts on hobbyist interests. Tabletop gaming is currently going through a bit of a renaissance, with convention visitor numbers up, the number of games exploding, and games starting to enter mainstream consciousness. To what degree this period of growth will be sustainable in the long term is an interesting moot point, and there have been a lot of busts in the past. Reading the excellent four volume Designers & Dragons as I did recently, it was made painfully clear how vulnerable tabletop gaming – in that case RPGs – are to such cycles, and the severe consequences when the industry takes a dive. Fantasy Flight Games in particular appear to be on a high right now – they more or less owned Gen Con this year with a succession of announcements which had their fans – especially Star Wars gamers – frothing at the mouth. Past experience suggests that at some point someone is going to make a big mistake and for this to all come crashing down around our ears. The question is, when?

I don’t want to suggest in any way that Fantasy Flight’s announcement on Wednesday is an early warning that that crash is imminent; quite the opposite. In fact it’s a sign of something I’ve felt for a while, which is that FFG are a generally very cautious and sensible company that is all too aware of the risks inherent in the industry.

CCGs and LCGs

First of all, a bit of terminology. Living Card Games is a trademark of FFG which they use to describe their customisable card games and the business model they use to market them. The model itself is now being adapted by other companies as a sign of its success. Customisable card game may require a little more explanation for people not familiar with the concept.

Most people will know what a card game is, whether its poker or Uno. The most significant thing that makes customisable card games different is that the players have their own decks of cards which are kept entirely separate from their opponent’s. What’s more, while a standard deck of cards might be finite – 13 cards for each suit plus one or two jokers – the different cards that might appear in a customisable deck is potentially infinite. Before the game itself, players will “build decks” by selecting cards from a pool of cards that they own. They can customise their decks however they like, as long as they stick to certain restrictions laid out in the rules of play.

The difference between a Collectable Card Game and a Living Card Game is how players acquire that pool. The first customisable card game – and the first Collectable Card Game – was Magic the Gathering. This game and its hundreds of imitators sold players cards in the form of starter decks and booster packs. The business model was essentially cribbed from trading cards (or football stickers, cigarette cards or bubblegum cards depending on what you’re more familiar with): the cards came in randomised packs, with some cards especially rare and hard to find. If you want a full set, you would need to buy many thousands of cards (seriously; I recently acquired a bunch of retail packs of a long out of print CCG called On the Edge. I’ve ploughed through two boxes – 1,800 cards – and still don’t have close to a full set of the basic 270 cards).

The Magic the Gathering CCG model was wildly successful in the mid-90s until it all came crashing down, taking retailers, distributors and publishers with it. Since then, Magic itself has remained a strong contender and a number of companies continue to do good business that way, but the mania that surrounded it has died down. Fundamentally, there are people who hate it as a model and won’t go anywhere near it. Even Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of Magic, have recognised this and increasingly sell pre-made decks for more casual players.

Fantasy Flight dipped their toes into the CCG business but in 2008 decided to switch to the LCG format. In their business model, there are no randomised packs (let’s park discussion about draft play for now). Instead, they sell core sets, boxed expansions and cycles of smaller packs of cards, all of which contain exactly the same cards. What LCGs lose by abandoning the random factor they gain in an increased focus on optimising decks and keeping up with the “meta” (the groupthink of the player base in which certain cards and strategems fall in and out of favour as more cards are published).

Rotation

The LCG model has been extremely successful for Fantasy Flight. Beginning by reformatting their Call of Cthulhu and Game of Thrones CCGs to the new model, they currently publish six games – including the wildly popular Netrunner – and retired a seventh earlier this year. The announcement they made on Wednesday is in response to that success.

The one thing FFG are good at doing is supporting their successful games, and that means expansions. For their more traditional board and card games, that’s relatively straightforward: sell a game, offer players the options of expansions and they can pick and choose what they want depending on their enthusiasm. The prevalence of expansions aren’t a huge barrier to entry for board games; they give you more variety and options but since all players are playing with the same set, there’s no competitive need to buy expansions.

LCGs are different. If you don’t buy all the cards, you have a competitive disadvantage to the players who do. At least, in theory; skill and practice is a generally a far bigger factor. Nonetheless, that drive for completion is real. Right now, completing the Game of Thrones card game means acquiring the core set, six boxed expansions, and 72 smaller packs. Each of those smaller packs will set you back a tenner, meaning that if you want to buy everything available right now, you will end up spending just shy of £900. The other games are less extreme, but by the end of this year, relative newcomer Netrunner will consist of a core set, three boxed expansions and 18 smaller packs, costing just under £300. That isn’t just a challenge for players; that’s a challenge for retailers who only have so much shelf and storage space.

There’s also another problem, and a different economics. Fundamentally, the more cards in the pool, the smaller an impact each additional card will make. This is mitigated by FFG deliberately taking note of and attempting to disrupt the aforementioned meta from time to time. Thus, if they spot that a specific card is being used in all the winning championship decks, they will set themselves the task of coming up with a new card that will weaken the power of the old one. It’s one of the most exciting aspects of LCGs, which is that play in the real world has a direct impact on future releases. But over time, their ability to keep evolving the game in that way becomes increasingly limited as more and more options become available to players. At that point, the theory goes at least, the game will become less exciting; it will no longer be “living”.

I haven’t ever played the Game of Thrones LCG for precisely the prohibitive entry restrictions that I outlined above, but I understand that the problems with the metagame outlined above have become acute with that game. Rather than try to fudge it, FFG have opted instead to simply bring out a new edition of the game and be done with it. For the other games however, they have decided to introduce a new system called rotation. What that amounts to is the smaller packs over time being declared not tournament legal and falling out of print.

The most interesting thing about all this to me is how modest a change this new policy amounts to. Because rotation will only kick in when a game reaches its eighth “cycle” (a cycle is a set of six thematically linked packs), at which point the first two cycles will be taken out of circulation. With FFG pumping out slightly less than two cycles a year for each LCG, that means that cards will have a tournament life of around four years. Contrast that with Magic the Gathering, which I understand has a rotation cycle of roughly 18 months.

The total tournament legal card pool will remain huge. For us Netrunner players, we still have five and a half cycles to look forward to before our cards start becoming obsolete and I personally can’t even visualise what a card pool that large will look like. It isn’t obvious to me how this will especially lower the barrier of entry for new players, although I suppose it will at least encourage them to invest in the newer cycles and box sets and not bother with the older ones which have less tournament life in them.

I suspect, also, that in reality a game will have to be doing extremely well to actually reach the stage when a cycle is rotated out. Hidden amongst all the announcements on Wednesday is the news that rotation won’t actually affect the Call of Cthulhu LCG because they won’t be producing any new cycles for it; it’s a complete game. The same has already effectively happened with Warhammer: Invasion. The Lord of the Rings is a cooperative game and thus players don’t have to worry about tournaments. It is by no means certain that the other LCGs – Netrunner, Star Wars and Warhammer 40,000: Conquest – will survive long enough.

The Future

I presume that Fantasy Flight wrestled over this a lot before settling on a change that will have such a modest impact. While I don’t think it is a backwards step, I do think they have hedged too much to avoid alienating the existing fanbase. For all its flaws, Magic the Gathering offers far more frequent jumping on points for new players, which explains its longevity (20 years and counting). I suspect that once the concept of rotation has bedded down, they will tweak it more in favour of bringing in new players.

What’s fascinating is seeing a tabletop games company explicitly planning over a period of five years. This represents a level of maturity generally unheard in the industry. The business plan of most games companies seems to be: produce a new game on a regular basis and, if it’s a hit, rush out a series of expansions and spin offs until the cashcow has been squeezed dry. To be fair, an increasing number of companies seem to plan their release schedule 1-2 years ahead, but Fantasy Flight seem to have a bigger picture in mind. And it seems to be working for them.

You can especially see this in their Star Wars game range. They’re currently supporting 8 Star Wars games (counting the three RPGs separately despite their compatibility), and it’s clear that they’ve had quite a far sighted release schedule in mind. With the new films on the horizon, it’s increasingly looking as if their game ranges will be maturing at exactly the right moment; a completely unprecedented bit of marketing synergy (if you can pardon the expression).

The million dollar question is, how much is too much expansion? LCGs, while apparently cheaper than CCGs, expect their players to sink around £170 into the game every year, and rotation won’t change that. The X-Wing miniatures game, while allowing for more specialisation (i.e. in LCGs, you have to buy all the different “factions” which are available to play in the packs; in a game like X-Wing you can focus on a single faction or even a handful of specific ships), costs even more to buy the entire range, and that is about to be joined by two more miniatures games this winter. If enough players suddenly snap and stop buying product, these games could suddenly see sales plummet. It hasn’t happened yet in this case, but there are past precedents (such as RPGs in the early 80s).

Fantasy Flight themselves appear to be quite mindful of that, and produce games in modest print runs. What’s mildly irritating to us consumers in terms of product being out of stock all the time, makes perfect sense for them. But the downside of this approach is cost. This was drilled home to me when I attended the giant Spiel convention in Essen this year, where you can buy German board games intended for the high street for literally half the equivalent US games typically cost. The former is produced in print runs of 500,000+ while the latter is frequently produced at runs lower than 5,000. The reason FFG charge £12 for a pack of 60 cards is because they don’t want to be left sitting on thousands of unsellable packs and come unstuck in the way that so many of their predecessors have done.

I’ve already heard grumblings about how much better value AEG’s new Doomtown Reloaded customisable card game compared to its Fantasy Flight equivalents. The reason is simple: AEG are looking to break into the market and only have one game to support: they have both the capacity and the incentive to undercut FFG. As FFG grow, an increasing number of their competitors must be making the same calculation. And while I think FFG are too cautious to create a boom (and AEG are a veteran company – this is not their first rodeo), I’m not so sure about everyone else. That’s a cause for some concern.

This year, the US gaming convention Gen Con is believed to have eclipsed the German Spiel for the first time in terms of attendance figures. Even here in the UK, Games Expo has been enjoying exponential growth over the last few years (of course, these conventions are still tiny compared to the largest computer game cons). It very much looks as if we’re on the cusp of a boom. We’ll almost certainly see a market contraction at some point; the question is when, and by how much. In the worst case scenario, this could see high street gaming stores – already in long term decline – obliterated. But if the lessons of the past can be learned, the overall impact – with the rise of board game cafés and mainstream consciousness – could still be positive. FFG’s announcement on Wednesday suggests to me that at least one company is very mindful of the risks and rewards at stake.

If Terry Pratchett had a Warhammer…

Looking for information regarding the likelihood of United States Cavalry ever being published (or written for that matter), I came across this extensive article written by Stephen Baxter about the history of GW Books/The Black Library via the Official Kim Newman Website. The article in question appears to be slightly out of date, for example it only refers to the republishing of Newman/Yeovil’s Demon Download cycle as a possibility, not a fact, and it doesn’t refer to the Black Library’s expanding out to licensed work such as their 2000AD line at all.

Nonetheless, the article contains lots of little gems. As a spotty youth at the time that many of the events discussed in the article were going on, it is comforting to have confirmed that the transparent and short term greed of Games Workshop at the time was just as disliked by the “talent” as it was by the fans. Bryan Ansell in particular appears to have been a colourful character. A hate figure of my generation, yet it was only when he left the company that GW became the wholly commercialised monster it is now.

It also offers us a tantalising glimpse of GW Books that may have been, with Terry Pratchett ghost writing the finest hackwork money can buy: “I feel a bit like King Herod being invited to write the newsletter for the Bethlehem Playground Association.”

Oh, and it got me peeking at John Blanche’s website. I was obsessed by Blanche when I was doing my Art GCSE and looking back at his work now I can at least still appreciate his mad genius.