Monday, July 25, 2016

Age of Sigmar Reconsidered


So about a year ago, Games Workshop dropped the literal and figurative bomb on the Warhammer Fantasy community. They actually did what they said they were going to do: they ended the Old World.  In the storyline, Chaos was ultimately victorious and destroyed the forces of Order.  Only a few "good" races survived, such as the Slann and some of the Elves.  The god Sigmar survived as well, on a planetoid of Sigmarite that formed the Old World's core, speeding out into space. This massive change in storyline was certainly jarring for long-time devotees of the Warhammer world.

What came next was a complete re-haul of the game itself.  From a 200-plus page tome, the rules were reduced to (free) 4 pages: AoS rules

From ranked mass units, loose skirmish formations arose. The bases changed from square to round (unofficially as you can play with any base).  The army lists and to-hit and wound charts were replaced by "warscrolls" which gave you all the stats for each unit. Example:  Skaven Warscroll

No longer would you compare stats and look up results on a a chart.  Every warscroll gave you the to hit and wound numbers. Saving throws remained and so did saving throw modifiers, called the "rend" stat.  GW provided new (free) warscrolls for (almost?) all legacy models.  Their presentation was rather tone-deaf, in that there were a number of "silly" rules that left smarting fans feeling insulted. Example: Dwarf players with beards got re-rolls, etc.  (These appear to be removed from the currently available free scrolls.)

The 4-page rules set had only one scenario at release: battle to the death.  This was an error.  And to make matters more jarring, there were NO POINT VALUES.  The rules stated that players took turns placing models until both stopped.  And if one player had 1/3 more or greater number of troops than the opponent, they got a "sudden death?" win condition of their choice.  This seemed outrageous to most.  No other scenarios or game modes were provided at the time of release. Initial reviews of the new game were overwhelmingly negative.  Most described it as a dice-fest scrum in the middle of the board. Many real and imagined possible abuses of the no-points system were discussed.  Reaction as a whole seemed very bad.  Many players  (including me) renounced Warhammer Age of Sigmar for other systems such as Kings of War.  The US tournament scene voted overwhelmingly to replace Warhammer/AoS with Kings of War.  Kings of War becomes US tourney choice

Finally, GW added a new army, the Stormcast Eternals.  This new army comprised the forces of Sigmar.  In the story, Sigmar had retreated to his realm, Azyr, and pondered the creation of a weapon to oppose Chaos.  His answer was rather Nordic: re-forge the souls of fallen heroes of the mortal realms into nigh-immortal (albeit killable) armored warriors.  The result was a powerful and intimidating army of good (hitherto rather absent from Warhammer, to be fair) but which bore a strong similarity to Space Marines.

The reaction to the Stormcasts was rather mixed.  Some appreciated the new aesthetic and the presence of a "strong" army of good, others saw them as a cheap imitation of Space Marines and a ploy to boost sales by falling back on GW's biggest selling models.

To sum up:  Games Workshop blew up the Warhammer world, re-booted the story, and completely changed the game.  They added a new, powerful good army that was controversial.  And there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  And not much rejoicing. It seemed a complete disaster.


So what happened since the apocalypse?  A few things.

1. The Books

First, Games Workshop put out a series of books covering the major events of the "Realmgate Wars" which constitutes the current storyline.  In this story, the eight planes of reality or "mortal realms" are locked in a struggle with Chaos that Choas is winning.  The "descendants" of the Warhammer world peoples, the Duardin (Duardin), Aelfs, humans, Seraphon (lizardmen) and others are desperately trying to hold on to their lands in these realms.  Sigmar's army of Stomrcasts, created and husbanded in his protected realm of Azyr, launch a blitzkrieg across the realms to defeat chaos.  Each "Realmgate Wars" book  covers the story, contains a number (usually around 10) of "Battleplans" or scenarios to play based on the story, and contains the warscrolls (and sometimes "Battalions" or formation rules which provide a bonus for fielding certain combinations of troops). 

These Realmgate books are absolutely first rate.  The artwork, all new miniature photos, story, scenarios, and warscrolls are expertly executed and compelling.  In addition, the books explicitly tell you that you can use the scenarios with any armies you choose, making your own similar story to fit.  No particular army lists are required but players can draw inspiration from the stories and try to follow the disposition of forces described if they so choose.  The warscrolls provided cover all the forces involved in the battles described therein and more.   In addition, each book has the four pages of basic rules at the end for ease of reference.  Take a peek for yourself at the first one, Battle For Ghal Maraz, released August 2015.  Haven't heard of it?  Neither had I because I was too angry to give it a look at the time of release.  

Second, GW released a series of books called "Battletomes", which most resemble the army books of old.  These books have the same storylines, and beautiful miniature photos and art that one would expect from GW.  In addition they contain the warscrolls for the army as well as a number of battalion formations and artefacts along with color schemes and more.  Check out one of the latest, the gorgeous Sylvaneth book:

There are Battletomes at present for the Stormcasts, Skaven, Khorne Bloodbound, Fyreslayers (new berserkers), Seraphon (lizardmen) and many more.  These are also high-quality productions giving fans of a particular army.

There are also the "Grand Alliance" books.  These massive tomes are softcover compilations of large numbers of warscrolls (varying amounts depending on faction, which are priced very reasonable. Take for example the Grand Alliance: Chaos book.  It is over 300 pages, full color, and costs $33 MSRP.

In sum, GW has released a treasure trove of fantastic gaming books.  The scenarios present interesting ways to play and leave the players free to determine balance on their own and select any forces they want.

2. The Models

Miniatures are a very visual hobby, obviously.  Also obvious is that every miniature gamer has their own tastes.  Some people just cannot abide the aesthetic of Age of Sigmar.  GW has modified the traditional dwarves, elves, and baddies into something a bit different.  The new Fyreslayers are derived from troll slayers, but have different runic powers and a different back story.  The models look bigger and have different weapons often involving a fire theme.  The Aelfs are now represented (for the moment) by the SAylvaneth, a melding of elf and tree-man or dryad.  The Stormcast Eternals are large (Terminator sized on 40mm bases) and have massive armor.  They are shiny and over the top.  Chaos has become in many cases more baroque.  The Bloodbound are more intricate and ornate than their Warhammer fantasy predecessors.  Having assembled and painted the starter set and more, I think the models are fantastic.  They are well-designed, easily assembled and a joy to paint.  Here are Bloodbound from the boxed set painted by me.

And a couple Stormcasts I painted:

The new Sylvaneth models are just fantastic, in my opinion:

Now, if you just don't like the new aesthetics,  that's understandable.  But I think it is fair to say GW's sculpts continue to be of very high quality.  And frankly, freed from the confines of the Old World setting, they are more creative and original than they have probably been in decades.  Obviously a web search will show you far more than I can in this narrow space, but take a look and see for yourself.

3. Game Changers

  • No Points!

GW made a huge gamble when they moved to a no-points, no-army list system.  It turned a lot of people off. And why wouldn't it?  All GW fantasy fans had been conditioned since the late 1980s to expect a points system for creating reasonably balanced forces.  And most if not all other miniatures games use points values.  Of course, arguing about broken units was a certified gamer pastime, and points can only ever give an approximation of fairness.  But changing to no points was a shocker. Especially given that Warhammer Fantasy had become a highly tournament-oriented game.  Age of Sigmar was an outright rejection of the tournament mentality.  Where could this have come from? 

Well, a couple of places.  First, we all know Fantasy's sales were slumping.  I surmise that GW decided one of the big reasons was the structure of fantasy's rules.  Second, the rules were long an ponderous.  One had to learn a 200-odd page rulebook to play, not counting army special rules. Third, the rank and flank WHFB required, in most cases, over a hundred models a side, perhaps hundreds, to play at the standard game levels.  

Finally, as others have commented, the resulting barrier to entry in playing fantasy was very, very high. Combined with a very competitive tournament orientation and a hardcore player base who owned a lot of models already and therefore needed few new ones, fantasy was not bringing in new players or dollars.  So GW took the plunge.  They changed the narrative, changed the game, and changed army structure.  Now there were no points, no large minimums on units (8th edition required 40 models minimum for some races) and no requirement to read hundreds of pages to play.  In fact, the rules and the army lists were essentially free unless one opted to by the battletomes.  (See also the free Age of Sigmar app, providing the basic rules and all unit warscrolls for free and allowing in-app purchases of battleplans and battalions, etc. AoS app)

GW was definitely slow to release products that showed AoS in the best light.  The basic scenario in the 4-page rules leaves a lot to be desired.  But, looking at the battle plans from the campaign books and battletomes, one finds some very interesting and varied scenarios for play.  One only needs a somewhat reasonable opponent to decide on army lists.  And depending on the scenario, it was often appropriate to have one side outnumber the other.  Reasonable casual players could accommodate this.  Until GW's release of the General's Handbook, discussed below, there were even reasonable fan-made "points" values such as the pool systems you can find on  

I would also add that the very successful and somewhat recent Black Powder and Hail Caesar games by Rick Priestly did not initially use points.  There is certainly room in the gaming universe for friendly play or even umpired games that do not use points.  

All that is to say that the no-points system, jarring as its initial appearance was, is not inherently a bad way to play a game.  I encourage players of AoS to try narrative and open play.  But that brings us to the next game changer: the General's Handbook.

  • Points!

Released just two days ago, the Age of Sigmar General's Handbook does a lot of things.  It provides for four kinds of play: open, narrative. "historical" and matched (points) games.  It supports ladder, tree, map, and "Path of Glory" campaigns.  And it also includes lists, lists of points values for all previously released models and includes army building guidelines which require a force to have a general and two battleline or "core units" as was needed of old.  It also provides "Allegiance" abilities for armies that adhere to a single Grand Alliance (Order, Chaos, Death, etc.) or faction.  In short, this book is just about all things to all fantasy gamers.  Ok, there are still no ranks and flanks.  It also includes 6 matched play scenarios and a whopping 17 narrative scenarios to choose from.  It will give you just about any kind of experience you like.  It is a toolbox, and as stated in the preface, is designed so you can use all, some or none of the included options to create the games you want to play.  If not having points was blowing your mind, here they are.  If not having them was great, at least half this book is still for you.  

4.  Gameplay

I am a veteran gamer, having played miniatures games for 27 years.  I played Warhammer 3rd edition, and 40k Rogue Trader, and innumerable games since then.  Having now played several games of AoS, I can tell you: it's a fun game.  If you want ranks and flanks, then no, it will not meet your needs.  But if you want a fantasy skirmish set that can handle small to large sized battles then AoS works.  It works because the basic rules are 4 pages long.  You can teach someone to play in moments.  All the rules they need are in the 4 pages and in their warscrolls.  You can teach a kid to play in 5 minutes.  You can teach an adult in the same time.  How many models are needed?  As many as you want to use.  A new player with a small force can play.  A veteran with hundreds of models can play.  As described above, you can play any style you want now.  The General's Handbook is a fantastic place to find ideas of all kinds.  

Are there tactics?  Yes, there are.  Scenarios make the difference.  I don't recommend the basic scenario if you are looking for a lot of maneuver and canny strategems.  But you will get those aplenty in any of the narrative or the matched scenarios.  Like other popular games, AoS uses unit abilities to create synergies and tactics. Your tactics will consist of maximizing your armies synergistic abilities with one another, and picking the correct fights.  Match-ups are key.  My Khorne Blood Reavers are not going to last against a Keeper of Secrets, but a unit of Wrathmongers can kill the demon just by dying themselves (see the warscroll).  How will you get the right unit to the right place at the right time?  That is tactics.  Unlike many games, you can also retreat units out of combat, which can preserve a unit that needs to survive to game's end or score a crucial victory point.  In the combat phase, players take turns activating engaged units, which creates crucial choices in determining who you need to fight first.  There are meaningful tactical choices in the game in many phases.  It's not just a scrum in the middle.

I short, it's a very easy to learn, fast and playable game.  The depth comes from using your warscrolls, battalion, and allegiance rules to achieve your scenario objectives.  Much like any other game.  AoS is fast and very easy to learn, but it's not lacking in depth.  

5.  Pics or it didn't happen

Since you insist, here's a very short batrep.  1200 points against my buddy Scott, using his Slaanesh demons and my Khorne Bloodbound and demons.  We used points from the General's Handbook and the Escalation matched play scenario, chosen randomly.  There were three objectives located diagonally along the center line of the table.  On turn 2, they went live, each player scoring 2 Vps for having more models on each objective at the end of their turn.  

Initial forces deploy...

Turn 1: Units run for the charges succeed.

Turn 2 reinforcements arrive.  Blood Reavers fight Daemonettes and hold right objective.  Bloodletters annihilate a unit of daemonettes and hold center.  Khorgus Khul and his Khul Boys (warriors) hold the left.  Khorne scores 6 points!

Holy &^#$#!!!!!!

Scott brings ALL the big beasts on Turn 3.

Keeper of Secrets eats all the Blood Reavers, who had inflicted some damage (using the Bloodsecrator's bonus-off camera-for lots of dice) and Slaanesh scores 2 points.

Yes that's another Soul Grinder.  Nerds will note Scott actually took one too many Behemoths for this point level.  Note I didn't care, because we are adults having fun.

Slaanesh heavy hitters vs. Khorne swarm ensues.  In the ensuing turns the Soul Grinder turns all the Bloodletters to a red paste, though suffering heavy damage in the process.

Some very ambitious Fiend riders engage the Mighty Lord of Khorne. Ha, I say!

Wrathmongers and a frenzied Khorgorath duke it out with a weakening Keeper of Secrets.

Oh dear, I think she broke a nail! Khorne scores the right objective...

Unbelievably the puissant,  mighty and self-satisfied Lord of Khorne falls to the Fiend riders!!! Meanwhile 5 Blood Warriors hold up the Soul Grinder, like, all game.

The ridiculously awesome (?) Skull Cannon gets stuck in with Daemonettes for control of the center objective.  When the cannon eats a model it gets a free ranged attack, which happened.

The Blood Warriors excel at not dying.

The Skull Cannon eliminates the Daemonettes and a weakened Soul Grinder slogs on!

The right flank takes a (blood?) break and camps on the objective.

Oh the daemonity!  Most stuff is dead!

Stalemate between daemon engines!

Those very stubborn blood warriors eliminate two Fiends and end up scoring the left objective again as time runs out.  Khorne wins 10-2!  Take that you pleasure-seekers!

Was it fun?  Yes, by the Eightpoints!

5. Conclusions:

I was wrong.  Age of Sigmar is a good game.  The AoS product line produced by GW between last year's fumbling launch and today is top of the line. They made and are making great books, great stories, and great models and great gaming.  GW is giving gamers what they want: tons of options. They did several things  I always criticize game companies for not doing: moving the storyline and coming up with new ideas, providing free rules, and responding to fan concerns.  The General's Handbook is a direct response to player concerns, not a rejection of them.  This comes at the same time GW has produced fantastic related releases like Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower.  To top it off, GW reps are now soliciting feedback on places like Boardgamegeek, and GW even released the General's Handbook FAQ before it was officially released.  Is that customer service I see before me??

I know this sounds crazy, but I think GW has just maybe turned a corner as a company.  They are being creative, original, removing barriers to entry, making rules accessible, crafting great stories, and giving players options, options, options.  And most importantly they are giving the players respect and a voice in the hobby again.  AoS as it stands at this moment is an example of GW doing right by the players.

If you haven't checked it out recently, Age of Sigmar really deserves another look.  Cheers.  


Jeff Hartman said...

Great article. As a new war gamer, I enjoyed the article. Recently got into painting with my 12 year old. After painting a few random figures, we stopped into a GW store. He picked up a box of Blood Warriors(?) and I picked a box of Chaos Warriors. Loved putting the models together the way we wanted. Love the detail. We just started painting them but love these after painting random Bones Reaper miniatures. We need to go back to the shop when we get finished and see if he will run us through a game since we have no idea how to really play. Thanks for the article. Will check out some more.

Ryan Cruz said...

It is good to see a veteran able to change their opinions based on an open mind. Although I stopped playing GW games years ago when 40K hit 5th ed and Fantasy hit 8th ed, I can still appreciate any gamer who still enjoys the system. I for one was excited about the core rules, but was turned off by the war scrolls being silly - like that Dwarf one you mentioned. They are atoning for some changes that the community wanted which is also a good sign. They successfully created buzz for a system that remained stagnant for years, and rallied interest for their previously unsuccessful products and that is commendable.

For me it is the sheer amount of change that occurs within GW that turns me off. I completely agree that their systems can be fun and engaging, their models are superb, and players can have a lot of success with their game and receive fulfillment. To me it requires a lot of effort and commitment to keep up with their release schedule, to the point that it's overwhelming at times. I may only see their new items from the sidelines, but coming from my perspective it seems dizzying for new players to understand what all their products are in relation to the game.

Blogs like yours helps rectify this, and I'm sure that GW has resources to assist new players as well. You correctly point out that entry is low and you can instantly play with any introductory purchase you obtain. I do feel, however, that once a new player glimpses into everything that can be obtained will be confusing.

Congrats on enjoying AoS! It's always great to see the gaming community increase regardless of their system.