The Black Orifice

Tabletop gaming resources and events from grumpy old games designers, Ben Redmond and Nigel McClelland

It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I feel fine... ish)

I'm sitting at my desk at work, in front of me is a book catalogue, and one of the titles grabbed my attention: It's the End of the World as we know it by Saci Lloyd. On closer inspection the catalogue blurb for the book reads:

Awesomely ridiculous. Cheese wars, data pirates, zombies, infobots on surfboards. Douglas Adams meets Discworld. Ruled over by an Evil lolcat.

Well, firstly... that sounds like an awesome book and I think I'll be picking it up next payday. But secondly... you might not be mistaken for thinking that this was the rumours about 9th edition Warhammer that surfaced earlier this week. There's been a lot of back-and-forth on twitter and on the (in)famous Warhammer News and Rumours forum on Warseer (link for the uninitiated). The rumours suggest that Warhammer (a game I have had a relationship with in some form for the past 20-odd years, and a pretty intimate one over since the launch of its current edition) is in for some fairly dramatic upheavals. Here's a few bullet points from the rumours...

  • The number of different factions in the setting is going to be slashed to nearly a third of it's current number.
  • The setting fluff is changing from a fairly standard fantasy with some 16th/17th Century tropes to a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting in a world shattered by "The End Times".
  • Many of the existing races and units are going to disappear (the Lizardmen faction is completely gone, much of my favourite army, the Beastmen, are likewise culled).
  • Moving more to skirmish system, including using the dreaded round bases.
  • Army books to include a reduced number of units, but then new units to be added with their own rules included in the box.

Yes okay, I know there's much more to it than that, and I've picked probably the most scary/controversial of the rumours (this is intentional, and I'm not a complete nay-sayer and certainly not a hater, so please don't dismiss me too early, and read on).

So, what do I make of this? Well, I think I'm going to organise my thoughts down three lines: what I think about the changes to the fluff, what I expect the consequences will be on gameplay, with some focus on tournament play, and some thoughts on the business consequences for GW.

Setting

A game I have had an even longer relationship with than Warhammer (30 years this last December) is Dungeons and Dragons. My absolute all-time favourite setting for D&D is Dark Sun, a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting. When I heard that the fluff is changing to post-apocalyptic fantasy (after I'd got over the initial shock, at least anyway) I was stoked. Okay, it's different. It's not what I was expecting. At all! But that's not to say it's bad. In fact, the more I think on it, the more I love it. This could be one of the best things that's happened in the fantasy gaming genre. I applaud GW for making the bold step of moving away from "safe" and into the sort of territory that will make the Warhammer fantasy setting as interesting and unique as is SciFi sister.

It's not like the old warhammer setting has gone away either. That's still there in the setting history. Playing in different timelines has been a part of many roleplaying games for years. Middle Earth has four distinct ages and people have played games in all four. Legend of the Five Rings has even more different ages you can play in. If you don't like the changes, there will still be avenues for you to play within the original timeline if that's what you want (although this is a theme I will return to with each section).

Gameplay

Okay, first up: round bases worries me massively. I was chatting to Rob Derbyshire at the NWGC a few months ago during an X-Wing event and discussing the importance of the shape of bases in a game. What started as a flippant comment from Rob, saying that unless it had square bases he wasn't interested, actually grew into a realisation of why the shape of the shape of the base is important. Shape gives you direction and facing. If the game rule manipulates facing it (in my opinion, at least) makes for a game with more variety of tactics and places an importance on positioning in a way that the 360 degree visibility of a round base (at least in the round-based systems I am aware of) does not. I think this is why I enjoy Warhammer, X-Wing and Dreadball (hex bases FTW!), but don't like 40K (or even Regiments of Renown for Fantasy which, whilst still utilising the square base, makes no mechanical use of facing). I believe that there's some concession given to ranking things up, and hope that the benefits of that are such that it is something we will see most of the time, but I am seriously worried that round bases may remove much of the tactical play that I enjoy. Although I stress that these are rumours, and only vague at best, so I may be worrying over nothing.

The second thing that worried me initially was the reduction down to six factions. If you include the #notarealarmy Chaos Dwarfs, there are 16 factions in the game before the End Times releases, and now that you can potentially add three new 'Legion' factions to that if you want. Surely cutting the lists down to 6 is going to dramatically reduce the variety of gameplay? On reflection, however, my answer has changed to "Not Necessarily". Firstly, there's a case to be argued that on the tournament scene you regularly see only 4 or so different armies, let alone different factions. I would personally counter that at the level I play (middle-to-bottom end) that this is certainly not the case, but that's not really something that I'm going to argue strongly here one way or another - I've certainly had one tournament I attended ruined by playing 3 almost identical Skaven netlists, so I can see how it could develop into a problem with a static metagame.

The crux of my "not necessarily" argument comes down to balance. I'll give a bit of explanation for the uninitiated, but if you understand the concepts of internal and external balance you can probably skip to the next paragraph. Within warhammer we often talk about internal external balance. An army book with good internal balance has a lot of units that are all pretty equally useful and costed (in terms of points). An army book with good external balance means it can be used build decent competitive armies. Given that this is just subjective opinion I will try to give a few examples, which some people may disagree with, but I hopefully won't be too far off the mark... An example of a book with good internal and external balance is the Daemons book. Most of the units (with some exceptions, admittedly) are fairly well costed and useful, and a variety of different armies can be created that compete at the highest level. An example of a book with good external balance but poor internal balance is the Warriors of Chaos book. You can create a powerful competitive Warriors army, but all competitive warriors armies look the same. There are only a few units that are worth taking, so these are what are used to make the competitive armies. An army with both poor internal and external balance is the Beastmen army book. There are only a few units that you are ever likely to see in a Beastmen army, and even the filthiest, honed beastmen army is likely to struggle to win events without some form of handicap. I'm struggling to find an army with good internal balance but poor external balance - maybe High Elves, which certainly seem to have a variety of useful units that see play, and it could be argued that they aren't the best army in Warhammer, but the possible problem with this classification is that they're far from the worst, too.

The key to why, on reflection, I actually now think that Warhammer might be better being cut back to six factions is based on an (admittedly big) assumption that these six will all have decent internal and external balance, and a second, perhaps more acceptable assumption, that these armies will have a larger number of units available to choose from. IF the internal and external balance of these new factions is spot-on, then you will actually see the reverse happening. You will see greater variety. If you can build two or three different but equally competitive armies from each faction you will have improved the game fundamentally, and made a massive improvement to the tournament scene. Take X-Wing as an example. There are currently 6 or 7 "power" lists from only 2 factions (rebel swarm, TIE swarm, Phantom/mini-swarm, Fat Falcon/mini-swarm, Dash+1, Rebel Control, Phantom/Decimator). Imagine this scaled up to six factions. Whether this will occur remains to be seen, but I remain optimistic.

Another angle I would to consider is a rumoured suggestion about how releases are going to work, and the impact this will have on gameplay. It is suggested that each faction's book will include only a limited number of units, with extra units being added in separate releases that will come with their own rules in the box. I think that this has the potential to be a have a massive positive impact on the game. This is the approach that Fantasy Flight Games has taken with X-Wing, and it creates a constantly shifting metagame, where netlists go in and out of fashion with each wave of releases, and you regularly see a large variety in the lists taken to any given tournament. If Warhammer begins to follow a similar release schedule, with a couple of new units for each faction released in different waves over the year it will be to the game's benefit, as it will allow imbalances to be corrected and new variety to be added with each wave. However, I would argue that the effect of a regularly shifting metagame is perhaps the most crucial potential benefit to the rumoured system of releases. 2013 was a great year for Warhammer on the tournament scene. We had a large number of new books coming out every other month and each tournament I went to had new and interesting armies for me to deal with. With each new book came not only that new army, but also the different builds that came to the fore in response to it. In contrast, in 2014, Warhammer seems to have felt a bit stagnant and stale. With two army books added that didn't really upset the meta a great deal (because they did largely what they did before but a little bit better) and then a seeming eon of 40k releases, the meta stagnated and the game got dull. For some the End Times has shaken things back up again, but for many these releases were too much and have ruined the game they love. A reboot is certainly not a bid thing overall, but if we can go from a situation where we get 3-4 new army books each year, but each army book is on a 4-5 year cycle, to one where each faction gets something 3-4 times a year it will be amazing, both for the tournament scene and for the wider hobby. I may be letting my love of X-Wing seep into this argument here, but done right, this business model could revolutionise Warhammer for the better.

Business Consequences

Firstly, you may think this cynical, but I think the main reason for all this is to protect intellectual property - I think I can recall a quote from GW's CEO that used the term "defendable IP", stating that this was an important focus of their new business strategy. 40K makes GW far more money than Warhammer, I suspect, not because of the ratio of number of people who play the game, but because people can't as easily purchase models from third party, and because the property is more attractive to licensers, such as in the video games industry. I expect to see a step away from anything generic, to many more new and interesting models that will be easier for GW to sue people if they copy them. They can't sue someone for producing a Dark Elf warrior, because dark elves aren't GW's original invention, but they could sue someone for producing bloodletters because they are GW's unique creation. I'm not sure the left-leaning side of me approves of a business model based on litigation, but the hobbyist inside me understands that a strong GW is good not only for Warhammer, but for the hobby as a whole. At the school club I run I have seen how 40K and Magic operate as gateway games, that then lead on to trying new games. As a result of the these games bringing people to the club, we now have thriving groups playing Savage Worlds and Dungeons and Dragons, and groups that regularly play pickup boardgames, and games like dreadball and X-wing now-and-again. If the hobby is to survive it need to bring in the next generation of gamers and a strong GW and a strong Wahammer game is important to that.

Secondly, a recommendation to GW. Look at Fantasy Flight. FFG has become a major player in the hobby over a few short years because it has a business model that allows them to support and develop their games overall, and correct imbalances when they inevitably occur with a year, rather than every 5 years hitting all the previously good stuff with a massive nerf bat and adding new kits to be the new hotness. Release updates in small waves for all factions, rather than focusing on factions one at a time. Don't be afraid to revisit earlier units to fix them. If they're not popular it's probably because they're not good enough in the game. Release something that will make them better. A new clamp pack character, for example, that has special rules that synergise well with the unit, or just makes them better, like Queek's Stormvermin. Look at what's going on at tournaments as these will tell you what units work and what units don't, and fix ones that don't. But keep the new units coming, give each faction something new at least twice a year.

Finally, a warning for GW. Look to what happened with 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, and be wary of creating an opening for a Pathfinder for Warhammer. For those who don't know the story, here's what happened (again, there may be some inaccuracies, if so I apologise)...

... When Wizards of the Coast took over TSR they produced a game that they called 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons (although you can argue whether it was actually the third edition). This was a massive success and catapulted the game from the situation where it had been part of the business failure TSR to where it was back in it place, dominating the roleplaying game market. As with all games it's time ran out and it needed a refresh, but when 4th edition came out it was a massive disappointment to many, and, despite some initial success, after people had tried it and realised how naff it was, it flopped. However, another publisher took over the mantle and took the basic core mechanics of 3rd edition D&D, sorted out much of the balance issues, gave it the refresh it needed, and called it Pathfinder. It wasn't long before Pathfinder was outselling 4th ed D&D...

I realise that there are differences in the copyright situation of the two games (3rd ed D&D was published under an open license so many of the core mechanics weren't copyright protected), but it wouldn't take much for someone to produce a generic fantasy wargames system that felt enough like 8th edition Warhammer to attract its players and let them use their existing models. Heck, Kings of War isn't far off now, and its second edition is coming down the pipe soon. I can see how this links back to the first point I made in this section, but new models with defendable IP doesn't necessarily equate to a successful game. If 9th edition Warhammer is bad, it won't be played and people will find other games. Not just bad, it needs to feel enough like Warhammer to keep people interested. If it just becomes 40K without the lasers (I'm looking at you round bases) this may be a risk. People may migrate to other fantasy systems and keep buying GW models, but they may just take up entirely new games. I personally would probably shift to Armada for my big battle feel game.

Conclusion

To sum up... It might not all be bad. There is lots of things in these rumours that give me hope. Yes this is perhaps clouded by my fanboy nature, but if anything its clouded by my fandom of a different game, and hoping that they move over to that model for releases. Having thought about these rumours in depth, I think that many of the things that initially concerned me are actually starting to excite me. I like the idea of post-apocalyptic fantasy, six well balanced factions with multiple competitive builds will be better than 16 poorly balanced ones, and the proposed release system could help maintain this balance and generate a constantly shifting metagame that will only help improve the game and stop it going stale. I can understand a lot of the reasons why people are worried about it, it does sound very different, but I'm actually starting to get excited about it. I may find I'm full of disappointment when it turns out to be a round-based skirmishing superheroes game, but I'm going to give it a go and keep an open mind. I hope that many of the people I know in the warhammer community who have been pulling back from Warhammer keep an open mind and give 9th edition a chance.

tl:dr

  • Don't worry about the fluff, post-apocalyptic fantasy is very cool, I assure you, and if you don't like it there'll probably some way (even if unofficial) to play using your old army books if you want.
  • Round bases likely means no facing mechanics. This is potentially a bad thing and will make positioning in the game less important and reduce strategy in the game.
  • Only six factions may appear limiting, but six factions with good internal and external balance is much better than 16 without.
  • Rumours that factions will have limited initial units and then new units will be added with rules in the box is potentially a great development:
    • Releasing one new unit for each faction every few months is better than a whole new army book every few months
    • It allows for a constantly shifting meta, which is good for the game
    • It allows weaker units to get fixed with later releases
  • I suspect the main reason for this is to create lots of new units with "defendable IP" and stamp out competition, but a strong GW is good for all gaming hobbies overall - the hobby needs new blood or it will die with our generation.
  • FFG's release plan would be an excellent model to follow.
  • But at the end of the day, if the game is bad people will move to other games - look at how Pathfinder took over when 4th ed D&D was terrible.
  • Conclusion: It might not be so bad. Wait and see. Make sure you actually play it before making up your mind.