Foolish New World? – Games Workshop's 'Age of Sigmar'

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Last weekend it came to my attention that Warhammer had changed. Also that Games Workshop, the game’s maker, was on the receiving end of some pretty rough comments from fans of the game. Warhammer holds a special place in my heart, having played an instrumental part in my formative geek-years. I don’t play much these days, but I do keep half an eye on what’s going on. I have boxes of figures waiting in storage for the day my children are old enough for me to introduce them to the game that has given me so much pleasure. Whilst I haven’t played Warhammer‘s latest incarnation The Age of Sigmar, I thought I’d take a look at what all the fuss has been about.

It would seem Games Workshop has scored something of an own goal. At first I was skeptical of the naysayers. Changing successful, much-loved games always brings its detractors. I’ve yet to play the game, but a cursory glance suggests that there is cause for concern. There may have been solid business reasons for taking a new direction, but Games Workshop appears to have made the fatal mistake of not taking their loyal fan base with them.

The watchword of the new version is simplification. This is never a popular phrase for die-hard fans. They’ve worked hard to learn all the rules and how to use them to their advantage, the last thing they want is upstart newcomers having a level playing field. The power gamers worked hard to get to the top of the pile and they want to stay there.

We’re not in Kislev any more.

The changes are fundamentalThe “Old World” is out, destroyed during the last campaign. This is a brave new world. Particularly brave as countless expensive sourcebooks are now obsolete. The new game takes place in the “Mortal Realms.” There’s some backstory about how these realms were populated, and how various armies now do battle across various planes. This gives greater flexibility for terrain types on a given board, with a random element thrown in, due to the all pervasive effect of Games Workshop’s much loved Chaos. The problem, it seems to me, is that with choice of battlefield entirely arbitrary and the whole game being based on a very flimsy world-building premise, there’s no real context for what we’re doing here. Call me old-fashioned, but at least with the old faux-Europe base of the Old World, we all knew where we stood.

Age of Sigmar has pulled right away from Warhammer’s roots in the works of Tolkien. Many years ago I recreated The Battle of Pelennor Fields with a group of friends. This feels impossible now. One of the mainstays of the Warhammer world was Games Workshop’s ideas of “Chaos.” For a long time now their four factions of supreme nastiness, by and large, drove everything in the game. Unsurprisingly, they remain in the latest incarnation. The randomness of Chaos introduced great flexibility into the game, which at first was an asset, but later became a crutch for lazy thinking. By placing Chaos front and center of its new game, they are unlikely to make things better.

ageofsigmar3As Games Workshop owns the rights to its Chaos names, it made commercial sense to drive gaming developments through them, and the handful of other proprietary races they have developed over the years. Age of Sigmar takes this to new extremes. All the races now have different names, such as Aelfs, Duardin and Oroks and Grots, names so hideous they prove the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I expect them to also give rise to the new maxim “You can lead a group of gamers to a list of new names, but you can’t make them use them.” I assume these name changes have been carried out for that finest of gaming traditions–ownership of copyright. It may seem a small thing, but Games Workshop’s blatant disregard for its traditions and the intelligence of its customers is probably the most troubling thing about this new version.

Without a legacy to stand on.

So what about all your existing models, like the ones I have lovingly packed away? Well, in theory we can still use them. Games Workshop has published compatible “Warscrolls,” essentially army lists, that enable you to retrofit your existing models to the new game. These are available free on the Games Workshop website. Before you get too excited or faint dead away at GW’s altruism, I have my reservations about these. Their brevity suggests they are merely stop-gap to avoid die-hard fans marching on Nottingham with pitchforks. The tongue-in-cheek nature of the rules–“players may reroll any hit rolls as long as they have the most luxuriant mustache”–suggests either a much less serious approach to the game, or that Game Workshop holds its fan base in contempt (see also: “if you actually talk to your imaginary horse”).

To be fair, in the core rules (also available free and running to only a few pages) there doesn’t appear to be anything too heinous. I’ve not played the game, but the rules roughly follow the same format they always have, and the way they are written should cut out the endless rules haggling that went on in the past. At their worst my games of Warhammer used to consist of me turning up at somebody’s house with an army and then arguing about the rules for four hours.

But what about sharing the game with my children? Well, there doesn’t look to be any major impediment to my doing so; except I’m not sure I want to. I already have a game that (mostly) works and all the figures to go with it. New figures are available for Age of Sigmar, but they closely resemble Space Marines. For me this is a massive turn off, but I appreciate that which figures you like is entirely personal taste. A friend of mine (author and gamer Michael J. Ward) likes the figures, comparing them to the heroic angels and paladins from Diabolo III and World of Warcraft.

LordCastellantI came to Warhammer from the Lord of the Rings, but my love of it was cemented by its grounding in history. I learned lots about medieval warfare from playing Warhammer. It’s hard to imagine this latest incarnation inspiring similar interest. The historical aspects were a huge draw for me, particularly since it enabled me to grab my dad’s attention with it, his interest giving us something to bond over across the kitchen table. My initial reaction to Age of Sigmar was therefore, “this is worse.” I could see nothing that might inspire similar bonding.

Of course all families are different. I may not be a huge fan of paladins with oversized hammers, but there are plenty of people who are. Once my knee stopped jerking, I realized that the game still offers many opportunities for geeky parent-child bonding, not the least of which being modeling and painting. The new models, though not to my taste, are beautiful to look at. The creative side of the hobby is alive and well. Games Workshop handles this side of things very well, even if it does come with a hefty price tag.

Change is always met with resistance. Time will tell whether the changes made here will improve the game. I don’t like the world building. It feels too much like an attempt to create a position for the company in the marketplace, rather than a narrative arc created to tell a believable story. If the game plays well, does this matter? Probably not. The most popular war-game in the world has no backstory and gives no compelling reason for the armies to fight–armies which are arbitrarily black and white. That doesn’t stop millions of us playing chess.

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A little bit of my childhood dies every time I look at this photo

Games Workshop clearly felt it needed to do something radical to make Warhammer continually viable. Perhaps the best way to look at Age of Sigmar is that it’s a third game in the Warhammer series, and different from Warhammer Fantasy Battle just like Warhammer 40K is different from its fantasy counterpart. If you have a long history with Warhammer, you have everything you need to play your favorite game. Enjoy the freedom of knowing you are no longer at the whim of the continual reinvention of the wheel. If you’re new to the game, then perhaps Age of Sigmar will inspire you to a life-long love of wargaming.

It is possible that Games Workshop will be forced to do a U-turn, having created something like D&D 4th Edition. It’s too early to tell. I’m not sure Warhammer has the following of Dungeons & Dragons, and it would be costly to move back again. Age of Sigmar therefore is potentially the last throw of the dice. If it turned out to be a great game’s death knell, I would be very sad indeed.

All images are copyright Games Workshop.

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