Warhammer has been one of the most prominent tabletop wargames for quite a while now. Anyone who pays even passing attention to it would know that last year Games Workshop introduced their End Times series. It culminated in the destruction of the Warhammer world, with the property getting a rebirth this month as Warhammer: Age of Sigmar.
Age of Sigmar is a very different beast, both in gameplay and setting. It was initially made public when Games Workshop released the core rules, and free downloadable ‘warscolls’ on their website. A boxed game of Age of Sigmar quickly followed.
The reception for this new direction has been mixed. Though that is hardly surprising. An excellent starting point to learn about Age of Sigmar is this quite level headed analysis by Tuomas Pirinen. It is a largely unbiased, professional examination of what has been revealed so far.
I myself have read the free core rules and warscrolls, as well as read the setting book and looked at the miniatures in the Age of Sigmar boxed game. While I haven’t played a game yet, I did watch a couple of guys give Daemons vs Lizardmen a run. Like a lot of people, I have mixed feelings about Age of Sigmar.
The game itself seems solid, though still feels strange to a Warhammer player with decades of experience like me. But I think just because it is so vastly different to anything that has come before. It isn’t bad, more mildly interesting, though obviously not intended for serious competitive play in its current form.
This is one of the issues many people have raised. That the game seems to be ‘broken’, with some units abilities able to stack until masses of large powerful troops are littering the board. However, I feel the need to point out, the current factions are ‘broken’ not the game itself. From what I can gather, the free faction downloads are transition rules to try and acclimatise previous players to the Age of Sigmar system.
I think the intention of them is to get people running the game on the tabletop, but not getting too attached to the free rules, since new faction rules will progressively be released. So there is no priority, from Games Workshops perspective, in providing balanced and nuanced rules that will quickly be superceeded. I recall something similar happened when 6th or 7th edition came out. The game mechanics had changed enough that the previous Army Books wouldn’t translate, and they released a book of fill-in rules called Ravening Hordes.
So it is unfair to say the core rules are broken, they appear to be working exactly as intended. But I agree that they aren’t what comes to mind when I think of Warhammer. If this game had not had the Warhammer name pasted onto it, then I might have been more receptive to the whole thing.
However, while I can overcome my cynicism and doubt about the rules to give it a fair shot, the same cannot be said for my impression of the setting. The classic Warhammer setting is dark, ominous and grounded in a kind of realism. It hinges on the tension between different nations and species, and the promise of imminent destruction that hangs over all their heads. While some can be classed as good or evil, most in the setting sit within an obtuse grey area, and have goals that directly clash with each other.
In Age of Sigmar the setting appears to have been severely dumbed down. The complexity has been stripped in favour of what is essentially Angels versus Demons. I have no problem with something based on Angels versus Demons in general, but why Games Workshop would loose the intricate and rich Warhammer background in favour of something so bland is beyond me.
I think the problem is that the setting offers no emotional investment in itself. To me it doesn’t appear alive. Even though the background fiction tells of thousands of years of peace, it all just feels so uninspired and by-the-numbers. As more factions and warscrolls are released I could be proven wrong. It could be built into an interesting and engaging setting. But at the moment, in the currently available fiction that is supposed to capture players and invest them in the world, this just isn’t happening.
The most overt thing about Age of Sigmar, though, are the Stormcast Eternals. Artwork and model photos have been floating around for a while, and they quickly drew comparisons to Space Marines. Games Workshop aren’t stupid, they know that the Space Marines from Warhammer 40,000 are their most iconic and saleable piece of property. So obviously they would love it if they had something similarly popular in their other major game franchise.
Unfortunately, they aren’t subtle about this in the least. The Stormcast Eternals strongly echo the hallmarks of the Space Marine Power Armour design. There have already been conversions where people have put Space Marine heads onto Stormcast Eternal bodies. Not only that, but Games Workshop have removed their famous Space Marine statue from out the front of Warhammer World in the UK and replaced it with a massive Stormcast Eternal statue. To top it all off, in the Age of Sigmar boxed games fiction book, there is a section providing colour schemes and descriptions for different Stormcast Eternal orders. Anyone who has looked at a Space Marine Codex in the last twenty years will be instantly familiar with the format, it is basically a reuse of the colours and backgrounds sections that describe various Space Marine Chapters.
All in all, personally, this is a weird flip of events. Normally with a new Warhammer game I have loved the fiction by taken a while to warm up to the game mechanic changes. In the case of Age of Sigmar, I can immediately see the positives of this new system. But the setting that Games Workshop has created is proving detrimental to my acceptance of it.
It is obvious what Games Workshop are trying to do, build and capture a new player base. There will be those who played previous editions of Warhammer who move over, and then there will be those who do not. Obviously Games Workshop feel this system change is necessary from a business standpoint, otherwise they wouldn’t be taking these steps which alienate so many of the existing players.
Whatever anyones thoughts about the whole thing, only time will tell us if this was a wise decision. It could be that this is the move that brings Warhammer and Games Workshop into the public eye. But it could also be that the company has just brought about its own End Times.