Saturday, September 12, 2015

The king is dead! Long live the Kings (of War)!

Okay, so unless you are simply not a miniatures gamer, or have otherwise been living under a rock, you may have heard that Games Workshop (GW), the big dog of fantasy and sci-fi miniatures, decided to literally and figuratively blow up their original flagship game Warhammer Fantasy Battles this past summer.  I have played Warhammer Fantasy Battles for 26 years.  Yes, that's right, since 1989, when it was in its second THIRD edition as a big old hardback book.  

I started collecting Skaven then, and much later dabbled in some other armies.  I still have almost every Skaven model I have purchased in the last 25 years.  Over the past few years, I got into 8th edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle.  It had some flaws, but I liked it.  I thought the game was solid and more interesting than ever before, and I thought the quality of the army books and models was very high.  In short, I was happy with the game.  I went out and bought a Lizardman army on Ebay and started collecting Mantic Chaos Dwarfs (Abyssal Dwarfs) to use in Warhammer.  

Then the bottom fell out.

GW began signaling that a new start was coming for Warhammer last year, when it released a series of "End Times" books about the end of the Warhammer world.  This was an interesting development, in that the books were very good and they released some very nice models along with them.  So, even though it looked like the Warhammer world was finally getting a change in the storyline after about 30 years, the future looked bright for the game itself.  

Then Age of Sigmar hit.  Yes, GW decided not only to destroy the world of Warhammer, but the game itself.  They sent the franchise literally into space, changed the rules completely, and though they deny it, invalidated just about all the existing models.  The free 4-page rules and free army lists could not hide the fact that the prior game itself (not just the storyline) was dead.  As documented elsewhere, these free lists went so far as to essentially mock the players by giving them re-rolls for foolish behavior like bellowing "Waagh!".  Was it supposed to be funny? Was this all just a joke? 

Sadly, no.  Age of Sigmar is real.  Read the rules and watch some battle reports.  The game has no points values, no sensible list construction rules, and no more maneuvering.  It essentially boils down to masses of troops, based individually and advancing in clouds (no more formations either!) smashing into each other and rolling dice until one side goes away.   

Wow.  The world is gone, the game is gone, and the replacement is essentially a mockery of a game designed for simpletons, or some corporate executive's idea of what children enjoy.  This is what happens when you drive away your best designers and even sculptors.  Because in my opinion, the new Age of Sigmar figures are some of the most baroque and ridiculous, as well as blocky, that GW has yet contrived.  

It is, in other words, Age of Sigmar is a complete disaster for a Warhammer fan of 25 years.  I can't take credit for it, but "Rage of Sigmar" describes my feeling pretty well.

So, where does one turn?  Well, in fact there are not a lot of good fantasy mass-battle options on the market.  This leads us right to the door of pretty much one company:  Mantic Games.  Mantic is full of has employed GW refugees like Alessio Cavatore, lead designer of Kings of War, Mantic's mass-battle fantasy game.  Alessio was once a champion Skaven player in Warhammer, then an important designer at GW itself. He left, joining Rick Priestly (an original designer of Warhammer) in freelancing for Warlord Games and others.  You may have heard of their little design, Bolt Action?  Anyway, Alessio and Mantic just released (such timing!) a second edition of Kings of War, or Kings of War 2.0.  The main rules are free and can be found here:

So, how does it play?  Especially from the point of view of a long-time Warhammer player?  The answer is very good, and very fast!  Kings of War essentially takes the Warhammer design and cuts out all the fat, and a good amount of BS in the process.  Movement is simple and straightforward. There is no measuring unit wheels, for example.  Units typically get a single pivot on their center while moving.  Combat is easy: roll to hit, roll to damage, roll a nerve (morale) test.  If the enemy is not destroyed, your unit breaks off.  So combat is not simultaneous.  But is still works well.  Special rules?  Yes, there are some, but they are universal.  There is no need to buy a 50 dollar book that's 100 pages long to understand your opponent's army.  Magic?  Yes, but it's limited.  There are maybe 10 spells in the game.  The spells work, but as a supporting arm.  Magic alone is not going to win a game for you.  Certainly one spell cannot do it as it could in Warhammer.  Units are formed and can be take as troops, regiments, or hordes.  They roll a number of dice for attacking based on their size and ability.  Individual models are never removed.

Combat? There is no cumbersome tallying of combat results.  A whole unit either stands and fights, wavers (cannot act) or is outright routed as a result of morale checks.  Morale failures cannot ripple across your units, creating a tidal wave and a lost game in one improbable moment. Flanks?  Yes, and you get double attacks on them.  Rear arc? Treble attacks.  War machines take treble attacks from everything.  No more heroic ballista crews defying a squadron of mailed knights.  Characters?  Yes, and they mostly serve to provide re-rolls of failed nerve tests. They can fight, but unless mounted on a monster or supported by some regiments, they cannot take on enemy units alone.   They support their units.  This game is really about the units and maneuver.  It was once said about Warhammer that the game was won in the movement phase.  That was not always true, but in Kings of War there is no question it is.  The dice might fail you, but your generalship will be the most decisive factor in determining victory.   In sum, it's a very tight and streamlined game of mass fantasy battles.

Okay, but what are the drawbacks?  Well, first is the storyline.  Warhammer (as derivative as it was) has a certain cachet due to the age of the game, the numerous books and articles about it, and the beautiful art and miniatures that characterized it for so long.  Mantica is, by contrast, not especially creative as a setting and not as well-realized in art or in sculpt.  Many Mantic figures are very good. But many are not.  The redeeming quality of Mantic is that the price is very reasonable. Here's a ready example: an Abyssal Dwarf Starter Army for 85 bucks, containing 48 plastic and metal figures. That's less than $2 a figure.  GW is apparently not selling army bundles of classic figures at the moment, but a single unit of 10 dwarfs will cost you 50 bucks.  That's more than twice the price of Mantic per model.  So, you be the judge if the price is worth it.  Please don't look at character models, though, as GW will make you cry there.  

Second, I miss some of the granularity of Warhammer.  The distinctiveness of each army was heightened by the special rules and traits, as well as magic items and abilities, that GW baked into every army book.  Mantic has, deliberately I believe, eschewed this level of variation in the name of simplicity, speed and balance.  I think it makes Kings of War a better game for tournaments and pick-up games, but perhaps less satisfying for those who play casually at home and enjoy the immersive background and flavor conveyed by the extensive Warhammer special rules.  

So overall, I think Kings of War has a lot more positives than negatives.  And, Mantic has made strong efforts to provide a home for wayward Warhammer refugees in the Kings of War house. They have lists which are compatible for almost every existing Warhammer army, and more are on the way.  For example, I have lists for my Skaven (Ratkin) and Lizardmen (Salamanders) available from Mantic.  And, they don't care what models you use!  Mantic has made it clear that we victims of GW's rashness (dare I say disdain?) have somewhere to go.  Now, how about a battle report?  

My friend the Consul and I got together for our semi-annual game (it's sad, we know) yesterday, and we played Kings of War for the first time (Technically, I did play a demo at GenCon), because GW killed our long-cherished Warhammer.   I took this as an opportunity to finally field my Lizardmen, and the Consul painted and based an entire Elf army using Ral Partha Elves which had evidently loitered in his home for many years unloved!  I often rib the Consul for a "lack of dedication to the hobby", but boy did he surprise me by cranking out this army in short order.  I guess he was excited for Kings of War?

We played a 1500 point game as it was our first (2000 appears to be tournament standard) and rolled up the "Invasion" scenario.  The game would be won by the player who had more points worth of troops in his opponent's half of the table at the end of the game would win, assuming a margin of 10% or more. In our case, that meant the player with 150 more points (or greater) than his opponent on the other side of the field would win.

The Consul took the following army:

1 Lord on Drakon
1 Wizard with Heal and Ban Chant (buff spell)
1 Herald (banner bearer)
2 regiments of cavalry
2 hordes of sea guard (gits with bows and spears and shields)  
1 troop of light cav (I do forget the name)

I took:

Salamanders (lizardmen)
Lord on lizard mount
Herald on lizard mount
Mage Priest on lizard mount (represented by a Slann on floating chair!)
2 regiments of salamander infantry
1 regiment of ancients (heavy infantry)
2 regiments of cavalry
2 troops of Gekko hunters (blowguns)
1 regiment of Gekko warriors
1 regiment of Tyrants (lizard-ogres)


Here are some shots of the Consul's Ral Partha Elves!


Elf deployment:  light cav, dragon rider, 2x cav, 2x hordes, wizard and herald in the back

 Salamander deployment

Chewy infantry center of a tasty reptile force.

An overview!

Turn 1

The Consul wins the roll for first turn and makes me march into his bows.  I oblige.

The Elf cavalry, clearly having read up on Waterloo's anniversary and felt inspired, charge the ranks of the lizards! I took some shooting hits on the flanks.

The ancients and gekko warriors receive the unwanted attentions of pointy-eared country club snobs.

Predictably, the gekko warriors evaporate!  Surprisingly, the ancients hold firm despite taking 10 hits! Whew!

 Elven cavalry are forced to back off from the hill while the other regiment pivots to receive a counter-attack from more lizard infantry.

Turn 2:

The Salamanders respond in force, hitting the central cavalry unit in the flank and the front, and double-charging the other cavalry unit!

The reptilian cavalry, supported by the infantry, overrun the elves!

 Yet, despite worse odds, the center elven cavalry holds firm even after being hit in the flank!

The Elves counter-charge, finishing off the ancients!  Meanwhile the elf general charges the lizardmen Herald.

The elf cavalry only advances one inch, virtually assuring their destruction.  Off-camera, elf bows are inflicting wounds but without decisive results on my right flank.  Also, my wizard and the hunters put some wounds on the elf horde on the hill.

 Elf and lizard meet in desperate battle.

On the right flank, an elven horde charges and destroys a unit of gekko hunters!

Turn 3:
As as result of the elf general's attacks, the lizard Herald is wavering, and cannot attack. 

But the Salamanders sandwich the elf cavalry and a unit of infantry, joined by the Salamander Lord, attack the elf general!

A unit of lizard infantry, joined by gekko unters, charge the elf horde on the hill!

Driven by a primitive fury, the tyrants charge an elf horde that simply dwarfs them.  Sorry. 

Unable to withstand the pressure, the elf cavalry routs!  The elf general sustains 7 wounds and wavers!

However the assaults on the elf hordes are rebuffed...

...and answered!  The elf horde on the hill smashes the lizard infantry.  In KoW you cannot charge more than one unit with a single unit, so the hunters are shunted aside contemptuously.

Somehow, the vastly outclassed tyrants stand firm despite taking heavy damage!

Turn 4:

Once more, the tyrants charge, their pea brains not recognizing their hopeless position.

The Salamander infantry stand off while the Mage-priest and the gekko hunters bombard the elf horde on the hill with missiles.

 Charged by a regiment of lizardmen, a general, and a herald (who was pissed!) the elf general is defeated!

The elf horde, desperate for abreak, charges off the hill to run off the lizard infantry.

The horde on my far right charges the tyrants, certain of victory this time.

The elves prove victorious in both combats, smashing the slaamander infantry and the tyrants!

The view from the elfin side of the table.
Turn 5:

 The gekko hunters and the wizard turn their darts and fireballs on the rightmost horde, while just about everything else charges the horde in the center of the field.

 The Salamander onslaught annihilates the horde, bringing their total wounds to 20!

The elf horde routs in the face of a crushing flank charge and the lizardmen heroes!

With one horder destroyed and the other wavered by a fireball blast and poison darts, the game is called for the Salamanders!

Result: Salamanders win with a margin of over 200 points more troops in the enemy side.  Losses were approx 900 points for Salamanders and 1100 points for Elves.  It was a closer game than it may have looked at the end.  If the ancients had broken in the first turn, I think it all would have gone differently.  As it was, the elf cavalry was overwhelmed and the elf hordes tied up fighting cheaper troops for most of the game off to the flank.  Flank charges were usually decisive.  Shooting was effective but not overpowered.  Characters were useful but not the stars.  No, Kings of War is about the units, and maneuver, and careful positioning.  I think this game is going to be taking over the crown of fantasy mass battle gaming in short order.  

Conclusion:  This 1500 point, 5 turn game took 2 new players 2.5 hours to play.  There were zero rules arguments.  We used existing armies and had a great game in a reasonable period of time.  Saddened by Age of Sigmar?  Kings of War is for you.  


Scott said...

I have Kings of War stuff too...and am building a second woolf-elfy army for it as we speak...let's play!

Also, more DZC!

Black Knight said...

Yes on both counts!

Hockwold online Radio said...

Hello I have just joined Kings of war just got an undead army as a birthday present just got to start building them now Im a full time carer so don't get much time to play but A friend comes down and we have a couple of games I really love the game

Brother Glacius said...

Glad you liked the game. One quick note that a lot of warhammer players seem to get wrong when playing: Charging units slide over so that both units are center to center. Multi-charging a unit means each charging unit (in the case of two vs one) line up with their inside edges at the center point of the target. It can look a little odd, but it is a big deal when you have such limited movement. It allows for some very interesting defensive positioning to manipulate a charging unit.

Alex Landing said...

Great write up and a good read thanks for posting