What I Think About Age of Sigmar

After a year of destroying the Warhammer world piece by piece, Games Workshop called an official end to the game’s 8th edition a few weeks ago by releasing the rules for “Age of Sigmar” online. A substantial departure from all previous versions of Warhammer, Age of Sigmar isn’t so much a 9th edition as it is a replacement for a retired game that it happens to share a thin sliver of continuity with.

Gone is the rulebook five hundred pages long, replaced with a 4 page PDF that contains all you need to play except stats for individual units. Gone too are the 15 standalone armies, trimmed down to a mere 4 factions. A radically different set of mechanics have transformed Age of Sigmar into a skirmish game rather than a mass battle system. Perhaps most controversial of all, units are no longer assigned points costs, a measure that historically ensured players selected armies of equivalent power for a balanced encounter. Instead, now players just use the figures they want to play with.

The reaction of the game’s established fanbase, has been… hostile.

I’ve hinted before about the formative role Warhammer played in introducing me to geekdom in general, and tabletop gaming in particular. But for my earliest dalliances in Games Workshop stores, my obsession with Warcraft might have crafted me into a hardcore video gamer rather than the board/card/pen-and-paper guy I am today. Blinded as I am by nostalgia and sentiment, it’s difficult to express how I feel about Age of Sigmar; not because I’m incoherent with rage, as some people are, but because my thoughts are mixed and unsettled.

I don’t know what Age of Sigmar means for this hobby I invested so much of my adolescence into. I don’t know what Games Workshop’s plan is, and whether or not it will pay off for them. It’s with rising contempt that I’ve reviewed the gargantuan essays “betrayed” fans have written speculating about the company’s strategy, accusing them of rank incompetence at best and cartoonish supervillainy at worst. I don’t want to contribute to that any further.

So in lieu of absolute knowledge, a crystal ball, or a “side” to line up with, here is what I think.

I think Games Workshop produces a niche product in a difficult industry, and should be encouraged to take whatever steps are necessary for them to survive. It never made much sense that Warhammer had more factions (and correspondingly more shelf space) than 40K, when it was the least commercially successful of the two. A new game would seem a good way to win new customers, and to revitalise old ones, and a much smaller rulebook should hopefully mean a far lower bar-to-entry for prospective new hobbyists. Most board games released these days get laughed out of the room if their rulebook page count runs into double figures. 8th Edition’s monstrous 500-page rulebook probably did as much to turn off potential new customers as anything else, besides the cost of miniatures.

I also think that a change to a skirmish system was pretty much inevitable following the constant price increases of Games Workshop’s models. By the end of 8th edition, collecting a 2000 points army (reckoned to be the default size of a typical Warhammer game) could easily set back players £500 – more if you add in the cost of rulebooks, armies books, paints, modelling tools and terrain. That’s more money than can be reasonably expected for all customers to pay, and Warhammer (unlike 40K) has never played as well when scaled down to smaller games. They priced themselves out of the market, and the shift to a skirmish system was the natural consequence.

I think that the fanbase’s reaction to the news has been grotesquely disproportionate (if hilarious, in a sadistic kind of way), but also unsurprising. Warhammer has the whiniest, most-entitled, least-grateful fan community of any form of media I have ever consumed; I’m not sure I can fault Games Workshop for turning their back on them. The rulebooks, armies books and figures people have bought for 8th edition won’t be going anywhere, and the fans of the old game will be able to keep playing as much as they like. But all that said… I feel their pain. I’ve been there before with Inquisitor, Necromunda and other Games Workshop game lines that I felt were discontinued before their time.

On the note of disillusioned older customers, I think it is a strange choice for Games Workshop to divorce themselves so thoroughly from the tournament scene. I’m not ENTIRELY opposed to the removal of points values. Whilst it definitely rubs me up the wrong way, I can at least recognise that plenty of games (Inquisitor for one, Dungeons and Dragons for another) get on perfectly fine without them, and it’s not like points values EVER guaranteed a balanced game. Age of Sigmar is designed as a fun, casual, beer-and-pretzels game, and a game where both players agree what armies to take with each other could very well produce a more enjoyable game. But it won’t be a COMPETITIVE game, and at a time where companies like Fantasy Flight Games are having huge success promoting their X-Wing, Armada and Imperial Assault miniature games through tournaments, Games Workshop going the other way seems a little backwards.

I think it was a classy move for Games Workshop to release the rules, and stats for all figures, online for free. In contrast to the Ravening Hordes “get you by” lists released at the start of Warhammer 6th edition, the Age of Sigmar’s “warsheets” have clearly had far more time and attention, and we didn’t even have to buy a White Dwarf to read them. I’ll be giving Age of Sigmar a go, because why not? I already have the figures, and everything else I need to play is free.

But early reports indicate that Age of Sigmar is a game with far less of the tactical depth and intriguing cerebral challenge of playing Warhammer 8th edition. I think that’s a shame. I’m all for simplifying the ruleset, but not if it’s to create something strategically lightweight. So I doubt I’ll be buying new figures to play Age of Sigmar, but I wasn’t buying any figures in 8th edition anyway, and it’s difficult to think of anything that Games Workshop could have released for a hypothetical 9th edition that would have brought me around.

With regards to some of the sillier rules of Age of Sigmar, like characters that give players bonuses if you have a bigger moustache, or are wearing a hood, or ride an imaginary horse, or start dancing and persuade your opponent to join you… Well, every time I think of them I smile, which I guess passes the “fun” test. But then when I imagine ACTUALLY PLAYING WITH THEM, starting up a dance with a stranger in a wargaming shop, I cringe so hard I want to crawl up inside myself and die. So perhaps not.

Whilst I mourn the destruction of The Old World sincerely, I actually think the new setting (from little we know of it) sounds pretty cool. 9 Mortal Realms, 8 for each Wind of Magic plus the Realm of Chaos, connected by dimensional portals and separated by the maelstrom of the abyss… I dunno, usually multiple-planes-of-reality stuff really turns me off, but for some reason the different realm for each kind of magic sounds cool to me. I think it’s a fanboy thing. Also, one of the dimensional planes is called “The Realm of Metal”, which is the most rock and roll thing to appear in any fantasy universe period (I’m calling you out Tolkien).

And one thing I KNOW is that the changes between 8th edition and the Age of Sigmar have inspired me to connect with my old hobby in a way I haven’t for a very long time. I bought all five of The End Times series, and am enjoying making my way through them. I played my first game of Warhammer in years. And I’m already planning my next one (6th edition again, probably, though I do want to give Age of Sigmar a go). So for that, I am grateful.

But fundamentally, I think that what I think doesn’t matter. I’m enjoying my nostalgia trip, but I don’t plan to stay here – I won’t be rejoining the hobby. To those who are remaining for Age of Sigmar, and those quitting in disgust, I have the same message to both of you: enjoy the years of wargaming that are still ahead of you. If you made it this far, you have enough miniatures to keep playing no matter what happens. Maybe you’ll play this weekend, or maybe you’ll play in a decade’s time – but if it’s the latter, I hope Games Workshop will still be around then making surprising and slightly baffling business decisions.

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