(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.