If you’re remotely interested in strategy gaming, you’ve probably heard of Warhammer. In its 32-year history the tabletop game of fantasy battles has provided a gateway into gaming for generations of players, and it remains one of the most recognisable franchises in the industry.
But creator Games Workshop recently brought the game’s three decades of bloodshed and battle to a close, destroying the Warhammer world in a cataclysmic in-game event known as the End Times.
Now the company has unveiled the game’s new incarnation. Warhammer: Age of Sigmar is a complete overhaul of the game’s rules and fictional background. So what has changed, and why did Games Workshop bring the curtain down on their iconic world of fantasy warfare?
What is Warhammer?
Warhammer is a tabletop battle game which puts players in command of armies of valiant humans, noble elves, savage orcs or a variety of twisted and monstrous creatures. Players collect forces of miniature plastic models, all with different stats and abilities, and use them to play out clashes on a tabletop battlefield. Unlike a board game, where players’ moves are restricted to defined areas, Warhammer commanders freely manoeuvre their units set distances using rulers and resolve shooting and hand-to-hand combat by rolling dice.
In its lifetime the game has gone through several editions, tweaking rules and adding new units and creatures for players to deploy in their armies. Its science fiction spin-off, Warhammer 40,000, has proved phenomenally popular with its armies of Space Marines, war machines and vicious alien hordes.
If you go into a Games Workshop store, you’re very likely to see large Warhammer battlegrounds set up in the shop, usually beautifully modelled to resemble real landscapes.
So it’s toy soldiers? Is it just for kids?
Plenty of children and young teens play Warhammer, but the game has always involved a heavy dose of strategy that appeals to adults as well. Building an effective army, utilising your force’s strengths and exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses are the keys to victory.
But the Warhammer hobby extends beyond the game itself. Players spend hours building and painting their miniatures, a process that requires patience, dedication and, sometimes, considerable artistic skill.
What’s changed in the new edition?
Age of Sigmar rewrites the Warhammer setting from the ground up. Where previous editions of the game pitted rival empires against one another in a world reminiscent of the works of JRR Tolkien, Michael Moorcock and Robert E Howard, the new version seeks to establish a more distinct universe.
The most notable change is the addition of the Stormcast Eternals faction – an elite force of human warriors elevated to the service of the god Sigmar. These replace the multiple human armies of previous editions and bear a striking resemblance to Warhammer 40,000’s Space Marines - Games Workshop’s best-selling line of miniatures.
Other races, including the rat-like Skaven and the shambling hordes of the undead, have returned, but the names of some forces have been changed, presumably so that they can be registered as trademarks. The generic orcs, goblins and ogres have become orroks, grots and ogors respectively.
What about the game mechanics?
Mechanically, the game is dramatically different from its previous editions, which revolved around regiments manoeuvring across the battlefield in rank-and-file formations. Troops in Age of Sigmar fight as loose units, much more akin to Warhammer 40,000, and the game seems streamlined for faster play – long-time players may disagree as to whether this is a positive development.
The new edition also hugely simplifies the army-building process. Where previously each unit came with a points value to ensure even contests between players, the game now does away with the arithmetic of constructing a force, instead giving outnumbered players in-game bonuses to level the playing field.
Units themselves have also been made much simpler, represented by just four numerical stats. Unlike past editions, which required players to buy supplemental army books to play with their chosen faction, each box of miniatures now ships with a Warscroll, a printed sheet containing all the information needed to field a unit in battle. It’s a similar approach to that of Fantasy Flight Games’ popular Star Wars space battle titles.
Why has the game changed so dramatically?
Just as video games spawn numerous sequels, it’s common for tabletop games of all sorts to evolve over time. As players fine-tune their armies and find the optimum strategies, designers introduce new elements to provide a fresh challenge and new storyline elements.
But Warhammer’s publisher Games Workshop particularly needed to rejuvenate the game. After a long period of success, the firm’s sales and profits slumped in 2014, as players soured on the company’s price increases and perceived heavy-handedness in shutting down people it claimed had infringed on its intellectual property.
The company had also suffered from falling interest in its Lord of the Rings games series, which had initially generated healthy revenues, but hadn’t retained their popularity following the end of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy.
Is the game going to expand over time?
Definitely. At the time of publishing, two armies have been revealed: the heroic Stormcast Eternals and the bloodthirsty warriors of the Chaos god Khorne. You can expect an ever-growing range of troops for both of these forces, as well as entirely new factions in the months and years to come.
Can I still use my old miniatures?
If you’ve collected armies for prior editions of Warhammer, there’s nothing stopping you and your friends from continuing to play with the models and rule sets you’re already familiar with. Games Workshop has also published conversion rules for their existing range of miniatures, allowing you to use your armies under the new system.
Several of the conversion guides take quite a tongue-in-cheek tone, however. The rules include bonuses for players who sport impressive moustaches or who pretend to ride on horseback during play, and this suggests that they aren’t taking the whole thing entirely seriously.
Don’t expect Games Workshop to provide continued support for older editions of the game, either. If you’re looking to expand your existing armies, you’ll have to look at picking up second-hand miniatures.
So how do I get started, and what does it cost?
The Age of Sigmar starter set comes with everything you need to fight small two-player battles between the Stormcast Eternals and the forces of Chaos. At £75 ($125 in the US, $200 in Australia), it’s not cheap – although to be fair, the cost of entry is considerably lower than the price of a gaming PC or current-gen games console.
You’ll also need to pick up some modelling equipment, paints and brushes since the game’s miniatures come unassembled and unpainted. If this all seems a bit intimidating, there are plenty of online tutorials covering army painting techniques. You don’t need to be Michaelangelo, but most opponents will expect you to give your troops at least a basic paint job.
Speaking of opponents, you’ll also need people to play against. Games Workshop runs events in its stores, of which there are over 400 around the world. Alternatively, you may want to find a local games club to play at. Several organise informal games or more serious tournament play.
Are there any alternative battle games?
Yes. If the Warhammer universe doesn’t interest you, there are lots of other fantasy and science fiction wargames that you might find more appealing.
US studio Fantasy Flight Games has released two space battle games set in the Star Wars universe. The X-Wing Miniatures Game focuses on lightning-fast dogfights between squadrons of Rebel and Imperial pilots, while Star Wars: Armada offers a more drawn-out, strategic experience featuring some of the biggest and most powerful ships from the film franchise.
Nottingham-based Mantic Games has produced a number of games by former Games Workshop designer Alessio Cavatore. Kings of War pits armies of humans, dwarves, elves and orcs against one another in a fantasy setting while the upcoming Warpath – with work-in-progress rules available to download now free of charge – lets players fight futuristic battles with high-tech troops and weaponry. If you’re a fan of previous editions of Warhammer and 40K, they might be the closest thing you’ll find nowadays.
Warmachine, from Privateer Press, features battles between forces of heavily armoured steampunk war-walkers, while the company’s other game, Hordes, puts players in command of armies of monstrous creatures.
And Beyond the Gates of Antares is a science fiction game designed by Rick Priestley, Warhammer’s co-creator and long-time creative director. It ditches many of Warhammer’s gothic trappings, taking its cues from “harder” military sci fi.
This article was written by Owen Duffy, for theguardian.com on Friday 17th July 2015 10.55 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010