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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.