(This guess post was written by our very own James K!)
My first exposure to miniature wargaming occurred back in 1994 when I first played a game that was being re-branded from Space Marine to Epic 40,000. Naturally this game was produced by Games Workshop – that vast and ruthless empire that for so long has held non-historical wargaming fast in it’s iron hand.
While Epic didn’t last long for me, my protracted relationship with Games Workshop carried on unabated for years. I played Necromunda (Van Saar and Redemptionists), Blood Bowl (Humans), Warhammer 40k (Blood Angels and Necrons), Warhammer Fantasy (Empire and Tomb Kings), and Mordheim (Reikland Mercenaries). I played them because they were available (you don’t what to know how much of a pain it was to source historical miniatures in New Zealand before the internet), because everyone else was playing them (principally because they were available), and in some cases because I had genuine affection for them (I still think fondly of Mordheim, Necromunda and Blood Bowl, even if I haven’t played them in years).
As time went on, and I grew up a bit I became increasing disenchanted with GW’s two flagship products – Warhammer and Warhammer 40K. I basically gave up on 40k once New Zealand’s own Battlefront Miniatures released Flames of War, WWII was a close enough substitute for 40K-style combat that I felt no need to play both, and I gave up on GW entirely when I moved to Wellington in 2005 since my new local club was all-historical at that time. Honestly, I didn’t miss it.
My list of complaints about GW is pretty standard, but for the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with the intrigues of miniature war-gaming but are inexplicably interested in them, here are my problems with Games Worksop’s approach to wargaming, most particularly with Warhammer and Warhammer 40K:
- Cost – Seriously, it costs hundreds of dollars to field a standard army of 40K or Fantasy. It’s worse down here because everything costs 50% more than exchange rates would suggest. Even there rulebooks cost a fortune and that makes less than no sense. The rules should be a loss leader, not a profit centre.
- Lack of balance – Every edition of both of these games suffers from serious balance problems, every new edition just seems to move those problem around. Tournaments for Warhammer and Warhammer 40K make use of something called “composition scores” which basically means you gain or lose points for the tournament base don how “balanced” your army is. In other words, they use a post-game hack to make the tournament workable otherwise every player would end up using one of a small number of power combos. This is not the sign of a well-constructed game.
- Constant edition turnover – Warhammer and Warhammer 40K seems to get a new edition every couple of years. It’s gotten to the point where the army book for each faction gets updated less often than the core rules do, requiring pages of FAQs to make out-dated factions workable.
- Limited tactics – this is driven by the high miniatures to table space ratio both games work on. The zones of control (accounting for charge distances and gun ranges) for each side cover enough table, that each game plays similarly – a giant meatgrinder, with little space for sneaky tactics or daring gambits. This may have changed in the more recent editions, but I doubt it since from what I hear armies have only gotten larger.
These criticisms don’t really apply to their smaller games, but they barely support those any more, which is a genuine pity because their smaller games are genuinely fun to play, which I can’t say about 40K or Fantasy.
For years after this I drifted from game to game a bit. I ended up giving up on Flames of War (turns out I find painting and playing with a bunch of drab brown and green figures pretty unsatisfying), I tried some ancients and renaissance games, though I never encountered a system that was both popular and non-painful to play. But in early 2010 I encountered my game-of-games: Warmachine (and it’s fully compatible sister-game Hordes) produced by Privateer Press, which had just started its second edition. Why do I love this game? Let me break it down:
- Cost – You can get a standard-sized army for less than NZD 200 no problem. If you’re just trying out the game, buy a starter box for about NZD 50. You also only need 1 rulebook, while faction books exist, all the rules for each unit are printed on cards that are shipped with each unit or model. This is a cheap game to play, at least by miniature wargame standards.
- Balance – Starting with second edition Privateer Press did something that is rare in wargaming circles – An open beta. This produced much cleaner rules than the internal betas GW uses since the GW beta testers appear to suffer from some serious groupthink. The fact there are fewer options (you can’t customise models or units to any real extent) also keeps things in balance. Composition scoring is an alien concept in Warmachine tournaments, developing a powerful combination of units is an integral part of the game.
- No foregone conclusions – There are two ways to win a tournament game of warmachine: kill the enemy warcaster (the boss of your army basically), or win on scenario (which usually involves taking or holding areas of the table). The “lose your warcaster, lose the game” rule makes sudden reversals possible. I’ve seen people win with only one model left alive on the table, by cleverly placing themselves in a position to kill the enemy warcaster. This makes warmachine games suspenseful right up to the last turn.
- Diverse tactics – Not only does every faction play differently, but every warcaster plays differently. Every warcaster has a once-per-game ability that can completely change the game. This diversity of game approaches means that there are no unstoppable combos, there’s always an army out there that can take you down.
- Giant Steam-Powered Robots!!! – If you need me to explain this, there’s no helping you. For the records the two large soon-to-be-released models in the linked image are on 120mm bases. That’s about 5″ for you backward Americans 😉
While I play other games as well: Malifaux (Guild) and Infinity (Nomads), my primary game is warmachine (Cygnar and Mercenaries), and I don’t see that changing any time soon. I’m not the only one either, Warmachine has become the second-biggest game in New Zealand’s tournament circuit (behind Flames of War), and is even beginning to rival it in size. By contrast Fantasy and 40K are dwindling to the point where their viability as tournament games is coming into question. If GW don’t buck up their ideas soon they will fail, their business model relies on a constant turnover of new gamers and Privateer press is working hard to cut they flow of new gamers off. The tragedy is, given GW’s performance, should they fall I don’t think anyone would miss them and that’s sad given how integral GW has been to the wargaming scene for more than 30 years.
Let’s not forget Page 5 which implores all Warmachine players to play like they’ve got a pair.
You should probably put a warning on that link that reading Page 5 may cause testosterone poisoning.
“For the records the two large soon-to-be-released models in the linked image are on 120mm bases.”
We call that “12cm” here.
That’s an acceptable alternative. Outside of wargaming circles I’d call it 12cm too, but wargaming miniature scales are always specified in mm for some reason.
For the record, that seems to be the case in the US too. It might be because GW, a british company, dominates the market. But I suspect a lot of it has to to with the overlap of people who play miniature wargames, and people who have the knowledge and inclination to use SI units.
Except the convention pre-dates Britain’s adoption of SI units. That’s why GW’s games (except for Epic and Battlefleet Gothic) use inches, and not cm. Perhaps it’s just that imperial measurements are stupid for increments of distance of less than half an inch (OK, I think they’re stupid pretty much all the time, but they’re especially stupid for increments of distance of less than half an inch).
You know what can be a surprisingly fun introduction to miniture combat?
40k and Fantasy are alive and well in Colorado. Warmachine just does not have the fan base here either. I have played 40k for over ten years now, but I have taken a break from it for the last couple where I only play in a torney twice a year. The last set of rules bugged me quite a bit and I never recovered my love for the game and I have not found a game to replace it.
Warhammer Fantasy is to random for my tastes and magic is just out of wack in the game. They try to balance it with harsh miscast rule, but all it takes is a good round of casting to hand the win to you or a bad round of casting to seal the defeat for you. I have not found that fun.
I cannot get into Flames of War because I cannot get over the fact that real people died in what this game represents. Somehow that hurts my fun of the game enough that I do not want to play.
Warmachine is a weird one. The rules are very solid, but I have found that the only thing people do is try to kill the caster. It becomes a little like chess in that you do not care about any of your models as long as you get a check mate. So you throe all these really cool models to their death with out a care. That bugs me. Also, and I hear this did change some in the new edition, The Warmachines were much weaker than many of the regular units, and the only thing that interests me about the game would be the Warmachines.
So, I am without a wargame that I play often and do not see that changing anytime soon. Though Dystopian Wars and Firestorm Armada sound interesting.
Ever played Blood Bowl, Dman? I’d like to introduce it to the gaming group and start a league if there’s enough interest. I have six teams so nobody would have to fork out fifty bucks for a team (unless they want to).
Yes, I played Blood Bowl for about a year back around 2005. I liked the game a lot, but it disurbed me how speed mattered more than anything else in the game. My Orcs and Dwarves were hopelessly out classed by any elven race. Hopefully they have fixed that.
You’re right about that. I can recall playing my undead against a friend’s skaven team. He had a gutter runner who, through skills and etc., could move up to twelve spaces per turn! My only hope was to hit, hit, hit, and hit again in the hopes of causing massive injuries.
The result was typically him winning 3-1, but being unable to field a complete team for his next game!
Mk II did indeed make warjacks more competitive, though the mechanics of warbeasts (the hordes equivalent) are arguably superior.
As far as being overly sacrificial goes, I’d recommend playing with the Steamroller scenarios PP produced for tournaments. If you need your units and warjacks alive to claim or contest objectives people won’t sacrifice them so much.
True, but if all you are going for is the caster kill and that wins you the game, then there is still no need to keep things alive for the objectives. There is a similar problem in the GW ‘Ardboyz tournement. They have objectives that require troops to achieve them, but you still gain a victory if you table your opponent. So people build lists that will just table and not care about the missions. Both games could solve this by stating that to gain points/a victory, you still have to achieve the objectives.
I like there attempt to make the objectives more relevant with the hidden time, but I do not think that is enough. It more means you shoot for the caster kill quicker.
I haven’t seen this dynamic at all in tournaments in New Zealand. People can and do win by scenario and sacrifice plays are really only used as an immediate set-up for assassination. I think the reason is that if you use up your units too rapidly you have to worry about the other player winning by scenario. That means the disposition of your troops is driven by the scenario, even if you have no intention of winning that way.
I did Fantasy for a while and the system annoyed me in that sometimes my opponents could field models that literally no unit in my Army could hit.
I enjoyed 40k a lot more but by that time I encountered it, I couldn’t understand why I would buy and paint models when I could play StarCraft or Counter-Strike instead.
Mordheim was fun, unfortunately it came out well past the time most of my friends wanted to do any table top anymore at all.
Yeah, that was my biggest issue with Fantasy, Most of the troops were effectively useless, the only way I could manage victories with Empire was to use my soldiers as ablative armour while may characters did all the work. Even then I had to rely on getting lucky with my cannons.
The issue with GW games is that they have a very clear idea of narrative structure; there’s a way the game “should go”, and if it doesn’t go that way then it gets bad very quickly. This is what James K brings up when he mentions “groupthink”, only that term implies an unconcious bias whereas I think it’s a deliberate choice. I could very well see a GW playtesting report saying “if the players do (thing) then they pretty much win automatically” responded to with “well players shouldn’t be doing (thing)”.
The issue with 40K, I think, is that they tried to have too much commonality between it and Warhammer, and that led to mechanics in 40K that were very strange (but made perfect sense if you thought about playing Warhammer.)
I really liked “Battlefleet Gothic”. It was a game where you got a lot of value in the basic box; you got eight ships, and each ship was–in terms of gameplay–a full squad in 40K. The rest of the line scaled similarly (a blister-pack of frigates gave you another squad-equivalent, instead of only 1/5th of a squad.)
And, of course, it only was in print for about two years. *sigh*
I assumed this was unconscious mostly for reasons of charity. If it is in fact deliberate then they are far more incompetent than I could have imagined.
Yeah one of the most wrong-headed things about GW is their focus on 40K and Fantasy over everything else. If they had instead focussed on their smaller games: Blood Bowl, Necromunda, Mordheim, Battlefleet Gothic and Epic they’d have a really good stable of games, instead of 2 poor ones.
“If it is in fact deliberate then they are far more incompetent than I could have imagined.”
You’re thinking like a wargamer.
To understand where GW games come from, you have to think like a Narrativist Role-Player. There’s a way that the game is Supposed To Go; heroic characters charging straight into each other while, in the background, huge armies blow the landscape into rubble.
But, of course…
“[O]ne of the most wrong-headed things about GW is their focus on 40K and Fantasy over everything else.”
Now you’re thinking like a gamer.
To understand where GW comes from here, you have to think like a businessman. 40K and Fantasy are where the money comes from; obviously, that’s where you want to devote the majority of your limited resources.
I’d believe that, were it not for the fact they promote their games for tournament play.
But their business model has only worked thus far because they had no competitors. Privateer Press is now aggressively positioning itself to grab the crown, and the plethora of new games that have sprung up in recent years will eat away at GW’s market share. Screwing with your customers is a bad business model.
“I’d believe that, were it not for the fact they promote their games for tournament play. ”
That the GW development team assume their games will be played a certain way doesn’t mean they think that way can’t be played competitively.
If you like I can be more clear. The fact that the powergamer munchkins you play with blew your ass out of the room is in no way the fault of the GW design staff.
“[GW’s] business model has only worked thus far because they had no competitors.”
Remember how Target Games was gonna DESTROY Games Workshop? “Target who?” Yes, that’s my point.
I’m not trying to say that GW is the awesomest anything ever. I’m saying that they have a business going, and they have a specific idea for how their games ought to play, and their attitude towards munchkins is “they don’t understand the game and you shouldn’t play with them”.
You and I seem to have very different conceptions of what a game is. For one thing I consider “munchkin” a meaningless concept outside of role-playing games. In a wargame, like any board game you’re supposed to try and win, within the parameters of the rules..
“In a wargame, like any board game you’re supposed to try and win, within the parameters of the rules..”
Okay, so let me get this straight. You refuse to play the game that GW expect people are going to play and that is GW’s problem?
1) their expectation is never actually stated. I mean you make a good case that this is what they’re thinking, but it really could be just sloppy play-testing. For one thing, they way they re-jig the rules in every edition undermines your point a little, since the optimum lists to you change with each edition.
2) They run tournaments. A tournament is competitive play, and the objective of competitive play is to win, within the scope of the rules. You can’t run a tournament and then not expect people to use rules-legal means of winning. So they end up using ridiculous hacks (build the best army you can, but not like that, or that, or that either).
3) The idea of a narrative-driven wargame doesn’t really make a lot of sense. If GW wants to empower people to create stories together they should move into producing RPGs. Fantasy and 40K are sorely lacking from an RPG perspective as well, Necromunda and Mordheim are much superior.
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