I have been feeling increasingly despondent for my hobby over the last several months, first as the Warhammer End Times series suggested a total, destructive reboot for the Warhammer setting, and then over the last couple of weeks, as the leaks for Age of Sigmar (AoS) have hit the Internet. Now that we see the official release, it's the nail in the coffin, on many levels. Goodbye, Warhammer Fantasy. I am sad to see you go. It is the end of an era of my imaginative life.
I should say, I am basing my conclusion on one key assumption: AoS is the replacement for Warhammer Fantasy. There will not be a 9th Edition for the mass battle game. AoS supposedly scales to be either a skirmish game or a mass battle game. That said, even if GW surprises us with a 9th Edition, we can be pretty confident that the setting is dead and is not coming back.
I acknowledge the need for Games Workshop to overhaul Warhammer Fantasy. From a business point-of-view, GW has been losing sales, and it is widely accepted that Fantasy has become a marginal revenue stream. Some Internet pundits speculate that, percentage-wise, Fantasy brings in single digits, next to all other GW revenue streams. The Chapterhouse case revealed to us that 40K brings in over 50%. So when you account for other revenue streams, such as licensing games to Fantasy Flight Games, licensing for video games, novels, etc., it's easy to deduce that Fantasy indeed is low on the totem pole.
So, yes, given the SKU space that Fantasy demands, something needed to be done to consolidate the product, strengthen the IP, boost sales, and help it flow through the sales channels. AoS accomplishes all of these things. At the expense of Fantasy itself.
It is grossly transparent that the final form of AoS serves these business goals. The design, the aesthetic, the rules -- everything stinks of a corporate template handed to the design team. The wellspring of creativity is sourced, or at least bounded, by committee in a conference room.
Part of this corporate decision was to replicate the formula for success that GW enjoys for 40K. That's evident by the emergence of the new faction of Sigmarites. They are blatantly an attempt to shoehorn Space Marine equivalents into Fantasy.
The reception of the Sigmarites on social media have been split. I've been surprised how much of that split has been positive. There's nothing wrong with a positive reception -- it's a matter of taste and opinion. I suppose I expected more people to share my revulsion of the Sigmarite concept and aesthetic. I'm fine if I'm in the minority. I'll concede to the masses on that one.
But for me personally, I think the design caters to base, adolescent-male machismo. Otherwise known as "big-dick envy". "Look at me, I'm bigger and more powerful than the average 28mm model, I have impenetrable armor, and I'm basically an angel with a holy license to bust brains with my oversized hammer." Banal. One-dimensional. Lowest common denominator.
My cynical view extends to some degree to Space Marines, but I can overlook that when it comes to Space Marines for a couple of reasons. First, I have nostalgia for first seeing Space Marine models in the late 1980's, before the fiction overlaid them with trite, macho motivations. I remember them simply as the cool sci-fi model, riffing off of Star Wars stormtroopers, pragmatically labeled, "Space Marine", with no other connotation, other than what I myself could imagine for that model's adventures. I still like those models. Second, while I'm critical of the general flavor of the fiction as being basically a pro-wrestling cartoon, the 40K setting and its imagery benefits from years of investment from multiple authors and artists. The setting and imagery is rich enough for everyone to find something compelling, even cynical bastards like me.
So back to Sigmarites. Yes, GW is marketing to 14-year olds, not 40-year olds. That is a mistake which I'll get to later, but let's address the 14-year old market on its own. GW is betting that their brand new, "original" (and therefore IP-protected) fantasy setting and imagery will appeal to the average 14-year-old. But kids these days (ha, ha) have both the benefit and curse of being inundated with scores of fantasy settings. Videogame titles, Magic: The Gathering, World of Warcraft, role-playing games, boardgames, miniatures games, books, movies. The average 14-year-old has seen it all, a 100 times over. The AoS setting is just another entry in a crowded field. A kid is going to digest it in 10 minutes and then move on to the next colorful distraction.
Was the original Warhammer world any better on that count? I think so. Sure, it was based on Tolkien, Moorcock, and Lieber, but as much grief as we gave GW for riffing off other properties, that's what gave it its strength. Warhammer's origin was coupled with the fantasy settings that launched the modern fantasy genre. The hundreds of games and settings that now exist trace their lineage to those very few original creations. Sure, the Warhammer world was derivative, but it could still boast being 2nd-generation, not 12th or 20th.
And, Warhammer benefited from over three decades of development, where it carved out its very own character and flavor, even though it was built on Tolkienesque tropes. I imagine a 14-year-old can sense this richness and find it compelling enough to see it stand out from the crowd. And the success of the Lord of the Rings movies provides an even firmer frame-of-reference, to make the Warhammer setting feel like a familiar world. The Age of Sigmar setting, on the other hand, is a 20th-generation, boardroom-contrived invention, that competes with every other disposable setting on the market.
OK, so one reason to create a new setting is so that GW can protect its intellectual property (IP). I would argue that Warhammer Fantasy succeeded just fine for 30+ years, despite its weak IP. However, I already noted that Warhammer's percent contribution to sales is insufficient. Will strengthening the IP improve that revenue percentage? Not likely. Strengthening the IP is motivated by something independent of percent sales. After all, GW is strengthening the IP of its cash-cow, Warhammer 40K, its 50%-sales golden-boy. No, GW wants to strengthen its IP across-the-board, across all of its products, for legal reasons, not to improve percent-sales.
GW protects IP in order to prevent piracy. I respect IP, and I detest piracy. However, there's a point of diminishing returns. At some point, a company is going to lose more money protecting itself than it actually loses to piracy. Which means a company should accept some amount of piracy and just press on with business. GW was plenty successful, without having to go the extreme of re-branding the Imperial Guard to be Adeptus Militarum (can you really enforce copyright on faux-Latin?) or renaming elf-kind to be the ludicrously copyrightable Aelfs. Again, superficial "creativity", driven by the board-room, not the creative spirit.
So, it's easy for me to be critical. How would I have done things differently?
Well, actually, I would have done things very similarly to what GW did with Age of Sigmar, just not to the extreme that they did it. It's in the extremes where I think GW is shooting themselves in the foot.
Warhammer has two barriers to entry: cost and time.
To counter these barriers to entry, I've said for years that Warhammer needed a skirmish game. A skirmish game would make the game accessible to new players in terms of cost and time; it would give GW the opportunity to modernize its ruleset; and it would stake its claim in the nascent-at-the-time, but now dominant, skirmish-game market.
But I said that GW needed a skirmish game as an augmentation to the mass-battle game, not as a replacement. A skirmish game could serve as a gateway game to Warhammer Fantasy. And even in its own right, a skirmish game can succeed as a revenue generator. You don't have to buy deep (i.e. more units). You can buy wide (i.e. more factions). This model is working for Infinity and Malifaux. Players don't stop with one faction. They collect multiple factions. They buy more stuff. The skirmish model works as a business model. Add to that the temptation to eventually buy ranks upon ranks of duplicate models for a mass-combat game, and, yes, you've got a money-maker either way!
But to replace the mass-battle game with a skirmish game shoots both of GW's feet. One foot: denying the opportunity to buy boatloads of models for an army-scale game (assuming those SKU counts continue the current downsizing trend). Second foot: like the world setting, a skirmish game on its own must now compete with other skirmish games that have found firm footing in the market. AoS is just another contender, and not a very good one, given its rules.
Ah, the rules. Another case of extremes. Yes, absolutely, the antiquated, bloated rules needed streamlining. The literal tomes of knowledge needed to play Warhammer and Warhammer 40K contribute to the 'time' barrier of entry. Modern rulesets are cleaner, tighter, and more elegant. And it is now common practice to offer core rules that are digestible, accessible, and easy-to-learn, while augmented by rules in profile cards (war scrolls in AoS's case) which add the necessary depth to the game. With the rules on cards, the rules are now distributed and immediately reference-able.
But only 4 pages of core rules? I spent 3 years trimming my 80-page rule-set, Mini Mayhem, and I made it down to 10. And that 10 pages is only sufficient to demo the game. Malifaux made it down to 73 pages. Deadzone made it to 50. Wrath of Kings made it down to 18. In my opinion, Wrath of Kings pretty much reaches the practical limit.
I am a huge advocate for streamlining rules. But AoS achieved streamlined rules by oversimplifying the mechanics. For example, they conveniently eliminate the traditional bugbears of line-of-sight and cover. Genius? No. Evasive and corporate. All traditional terrain, like hills and forests, are just treated generically. To the point that a unit that is standing on a hill or standing on a wall gets a cover bonus. What? But not if the unit is on the other side of said hill or wall. Hunh? But, hey, terrain sold by Games Workshop have special rules. And copyrightable names. So you should really use those.
There are plenty of other omissions or gloss-overs that beg an FAQ, but probably the most controversial "innovation" is the lack of a points system. This concept smacks of Jervis Johnson's crusade to remind people to "just have fun" with the game. I'm a filthy-casual, narrative gamer. I subscribe to Jervis' philosophy, when I have the luxury to play a game with a like-minded friend. But this strategy disenfranchises the majority of gamers.
- Expect and want points systems. For them, the strategic, between-game list-building is as much a part of the enjoyment of the game as actually playing the game. Like deck-building for Magic.
- Are accustomed to points systems and find anything else foreign and unsettling, i.e. they'll look for something else that's in their comfort-zone instead.
- Use the points system to quickly and easily establish the social contract for a pick-up game, either with a friend or with a stranger.
GW is doing two things here. One thing is to impose their philosophy of casual gaming onto their player base. The other thing is to recuse themselves of balancing the game. Let's look at each of these Things in turn.
Thing 1. Casual/narrative gaming versus competitive/tournament gaming. I belong to the former camp, but I learned something important from Mike Brandt, founder of the NOVA Open convention. Mike strives to offer multiple formats for his convention in order to satisfy all gamer types. He states that designing a game to satisfy the tournament gamer will satisfy both the tournament gamer and the casual gamer. But it doesn't work in reverse. I'm convinced his statement is accurate.
A points system brings two players into the same ballpark towards having a fair game. Within that ballpark, there's enough slop for the extremes of the two player-types to diverge, but on-average, two players can expect a decent match-up. The points system supports organized play, and it likewise enables casual players to show up at a game store and find pick-up games with strangers.
However, if the rules are open-ended and geared towards the casual gamer, the players must spend time up-front establishing their social contract. Organized play, tournament or otherwise, can't afford the time to accomplish this arrangement. The tournament organizers must augment the base rules with rules of their own in order to pre-arrange the social contract.
A points system is a yardstick on which both player-types can rely to engage in fair play. A loosey-goosey system of Calvin-ball serves neither player-type. Except those few, rare players who want a game of Calvin-ball with one another. However, most players aren't entering a 3- to 4-hour game, having invested hours of prep time, just to "wing it".
Thing 2. In a perverse sense, eliminating a points system actually "solves" the problem of game balance. For the designers. Eliminating the points system shifts the responsibility of balance onto the players. Now, I actually support this concept in part. I contend that it is impossible to balance a miniatures game. Therefore, the design must accommodate imbalance, not by attempting the impossible task of balancing the factions, but through other means.
Malifaux solves this conundrum by shifting the responsibility of game-balance partially to the players. But Malifaux shifts the responsibility responsibly. The game designers for Malifaux still share responsibility for balancing the factions as best they can. And Wyrd crowdsources play-testing to the community. Wyrd designers are doing their part, and Wyrd achieves massive play-testing. From that point on, the rules force the players to do their part.
Players select their own missions from a pool of options. Once each player knows their mission (and possibly their opponent's), each player selects his or her skirmish crew. Malifaux is one of very few games that define this sequence for game setup. This sequence enables a player to define his or her own win conditions, with some knowledge of the competition.
If a player is pounded into the dirt, a player must look to their own decisions to evaluate why that curb-stomp happened. The player can't blame the game design or blame overpowered units or blame a win-at-all-costs opponent. At least not entirely. No one in Malifaux complains about game balance. Even a filthy-casual like me asks instead, "What can I do differently next time?".
AoS, on the other hand, places all of the responsibility for game balance in the players hands. The players must decide what determines a fair matchup. The players have no guidelines to use except intuition and what is likely a flimsy social contract. Gamers rely on rules to establish the social contract. Sure, imaginative players with time on their hands can define their own rules and social contract, but commercial games solve that problem for them. It's part of what the players are paying for, as consumers. It's an expected, modern efficiency, like using money instead of barter.
GW abandons their responsibility to provide these rules as a part of their product. Many, if not most players, will reject this game out-of-hand, simply because the rules and thus the game are incomplete and inconvenient.
GW believes the majority of their player-base consists of casual garage-gamers, not tournament players. Hard to say, even for GW, who pride themselves for not doing market research (according to the preamble to one of the recent financial reports). But either way, abandoning the points system disenfranchises most types of gamers, except for the type that prefers blatant narrative, asymmetrical games. I'm comfortable in that zone personally, and many of my friends are as well. But I believe we're the minority. As a business course-of-action, GW needs to appeal the majority. And if they serve the majority, they just so happen to serve the minority as well. Besides, we narrative gamers will craft our asymmetrical, Calvin-ball games regardless.
Another controversial development for the rules are the physical "enactments" to gain in-game modifiers, e.g. dancing and such. This community has struggled for years to overcome a geek stereotype and gain credibility as near-mainstream entertainment. Players will not be happy to publicly display sub-juvenile behavior, as mandated by the rules. Yeah, that's great that GW wants Warhammer to be light-hearted and fun. I think the player base can handle that part on their own, without having it shoved down our throats with a sense-of-humor geared towards entertaining 6-year-olds.
OK, I've been pretty heavy-handed. I would like to add a positive note. I am happy to report that friends in my gaming group are enthused to play Age of Sigmar. I am glad that they are excited for the game, and I do not wish to diminish their enthusiasm. I find their excitement encouraging. It reminds me to keep my options open and to keep an open mind.
For instance, I can continue playing 8th Edition. After all, the Triumph & Treachery variant was the most fun I've ever had playing the game, and I would play that game at the drop of a hat. I can try out Kings of War. I can design my own game. Oh wait, I already did that. Back when I was disenchanted with 6th Edition. So I can resurrect Mini Mayhem, the best designed game in the history of wargaming, and continue painting and playing with my models.
I'm just saddened that the Warhammer setting has been destroyed.
So if I was GW, what would I have done differently?
I would have consolidated armies, similar to what they've done, if not identically (with the exception of the all-Elf alliance; I would have divvied those races among the new consolidations). Consolidating armies aids the SKU issue. If the SKU's are that out-of-control, retrench some of them to direct order. Keep the reseller channels active by providing them with the basic units, the stuff that everybody needs for the core of their respective army.
Next, I would have expanded on the existing Warhammer world. There were already rich reserves of creativity in the "stubs" of foreign lands of Araby, Nippon, Ind, Cathay, Albion, Estonia, etc. Design a core human sprue that can be tailored with expansion sets for each nation. The expansion sets would add nation-specific weapons, outfits, and armor. Add monsters and special units by, again, maintaining them in-house via direct-order, instead of crowding SKUs on the store shelves.
But as it stands, the Warhammer world is dead. 30+ years of story and creativity is cast to the bargain bin. In its place is the Age of Stinkmar. Sorry, I just came up with that, and it's late, and I'm feeling catty.
Said slightly more seriously, Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40K define Games Workshop's identity. Destroying Warhammer Fantasy is akin to shooting off half their face.