Tabletop Game Review: Warhammer: Age of Sigmar (Part I – Launch Events, Game Concepts & Setup)

Warhammer: Age of Sigmar is effectively the ninth edition of the Warhammer Fantasy Battles ruleset by Games Workshop, one of their two flagship products (the other being Warhammer 40,000, released in its seventh edition in 2014. Released in July 2015, it marks a significant change in focus both for the game compared to other editions (dispensing with the hallmark emphasis on ranked formation and unit maneuver in favour of an open formation, skirmish-like system more comparable to GW’s previous Lord of the Rings miniatures game, or Privateer Press’ Warmachine system) and Games Workshop as a company; rather than releasing a premium-priced hardback rulebook and supplementary premium-priced army lists, Age of Sigmar offers a free online rulebook, a full ruleset printed in the weekly White Dwarf magazine and full online army lists for all factions at no cost. The entire focus of army lists has changed from these books to unit cards with vital statistics and special rules listed – a design used to great effect in Warmachine, Malifaux and numerous other games.

From a consumer perspective a change from needing a £45 rulebook and supplementary £25 army list to needing to download two PDF files from GW’s own website is vastly superior; furthermore, it is generally good consumer sense to provide as much information about statistics and play-styles online as possible to attract potential consumers, or encourage players to try a new faction. One can certainly argue this move has come late in the day, and feels more like Games Workshop trying to catch up to the superior business strategies of dynamically-growing competitors, but it would be churlish to say it is, in itself, a bad decision; it is answering the requests of their consumers, and slow change is better than no change. Indeed, the decision to include the full game rules in a new starter set, in the weekly magazine and online is hard to fault as a way of disseminating that information to all players. What is more, the special issue magazine also included a sample miniature from the new Age of Sigmar range – a decision that had been phased out some time ago and, should it set a precedent, makes the magazine a significantly more appealing proposition to buy. So, from a pure business and consumer perspective, the release of this new edition has been generally well-handled in itself.

On the other hand the buildup to this was less well-managed. Little information was given to consumers in advance of the launch week, with online wargaming communities highly confused about what this new game would entail; the continued exchanging of rumours arguably was bad publicity for Games Workshop, with players looking to begin playing the game being fobbed off by store staff about the existence or non-existence of Age of Sigmar, and exaggerated rumours online being passed off as truth. Comparing this to how companies such as Corvus Belli (Infinity), Wyrd Miniatures (Malifaux) and Hawk Wargames (Dropzone Commander) handle pre-release hype, by holding public rules betas, posting experimental rules previews for new launches and actively maintaining community forums for discussion makes the utter lack of clear communication about Age of Sigmar seem all the more counterproductive. It was easier to learn about Age of Sigmar via websites such as 4chan than via Games Workshop’s own official news page, and that I think is a significant failing.

The rules themselves represent a significant departure from tradition, reduced down to four pages of core mechanics and numerous individual unit profiles. That the rules are so simple makes it easy enough and efficient to provide a full initial review of them, based on having played a large-scale game which encompassed all of the mechanics and a number of factions.

Game Setup and Concepts

Age of Sigmar dispenses entirely with standardised force creation beyond vague guidelines; minimum unit sizes are provided, but not maximum, and many units gain benefits for being taken in groups of 10, 20 or 30 figures. In theory this system is entirely workable; several historical games focus more on asymmetrical scenario play and dispense with points systems for the creation of equal sized armies. I am not convinced it is properly implemented in Age of Sigmar.

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Illustrated is a historical scenario, from the more indepth wargame Panzergrenadier (source: Avalanche Press) – it describes a fairly typical fixed-force historical scenario where the sides are not an equal pitched battle designed to provide a balanced game. A lot is clearly defined, and a lot of thought has been put into creating a challenging scenario. By contrast, Age of Sigmar offers the following advice:

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An experienced player can eyeball the forces presented for play and work out which is advantaged, but this vagary does not really help new players; and thus is the probably most serious problem with Age of Sigmar. A good points-less system uses some other method, such as historical orders of battle, or army proportions like graded troops by quality, to allow freedom in force selection while also establishing the necessary boundaries to make a fun game. Asymmetrical forces need scenarios to cater for them, and Age of Sigmar offers only the inadequate “Sudden Death” rule as a compromise.

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The “Sudden Death” rule is tied purely to raw figure counts, taking nothing else – such as troop quality, troop type or the capacity of the outnumbered force to summon allies – into account. It is also the only objective play in the game, and woefully inadequate as a result. What is more, the objectives on offer are not particularly interesting; there is “Assassinate”, in which the opponent picks a target to kill, “Blunt”, in which the opponent picks a unit to destroy, “Endure”, which is simply survive six turns and “Seize Ground”, in which the outnumbered player chooses a “terrain feature” to move within 3” of within four turns. They are variously vague, easily counter-picked by the opponent’s deployment or boring. With no upper unit size, and the fact that a player picking “Blunt” is already outnumbered, their opponent could easily pick a unit both larger than the “attacker’s” largest unit and more powerful. Some characters have bizarre rules that do not treat them as killed; as a result, “Assassinate” can become meaningless. With the game thus purely (unless one side meets the Sudden Death condition by having 30% fewer figures than their opponent) decided by models killed, any advanced play must be house-ruled – quite obviating the claimed accessibility and completeness of the system. In the game I played, two forces of comparable number of units and unit size faced each other but one side was clearly mechanically advantaged and won decisively in three turns. Without a proper method of at least defining unit composition, a points-less system is meaningless.

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This vagary continues in the exact unit profiles; each unit has a lower bound of figure count, but no upper bound and no guidelines about how a unit is composed. It offers vagaries like “some models are standard-bearers” or “some units have flaming arrows” but these are frustratingly unclear. It is obvious what is intended, should one have played wargames before; but vague intentions are poor game design, especially in a system priding itself on simplicity and clarity. Compare this with Kings of War, which clearly defines a unit as comprising, for example, 10, 20 or 40 figures, with a precise combination of weapons and upgrades. With some numbers tweaking, Kings of War could be converted into a better points-less system than Age of Sigmar simply because a “troop” (the smallest unit size) could be adjusted by unit type to be equivalent to most other “troops.”

To reiterate, the idea of a game that removes points costs and stringent force composition rules is not per se a bad one. However, a game which wants to do this while still allowing the players absolute freedom must, in order to work for players who are not experienced in reading statistics, offer at least guidelines beyond “some models.”

The next section of rules is terrain and deployment. The play area is defined as “any flat surface upon which models may stand” 3′ square or larger, with about one piece of terrain for every two square feet of board. At this point in the rules it is also requested that players decide “which of the seven Mortal Realms” is to be used, which affects “certain abilities.” It is recommended this be chosen by means of a dice roll, potentially giving one player an advantage over the other although the nature of this advantage is to be found somewhere within the unit profiles. The initial guideline of one scenery piece for every two square feet is then clarified with a random table, placing 0-3 terrain pieces for every two square feet of board. Terrain itself is defined in the simplest terms; units must pay movement to move over it measured “vertically” (so presumably crossing a 1” high wall costs 2” of movement, although the lack of worked examples makes this unclear). Equally unclearly, cover rules refer to models being “within or on” terrain, not simply behind – poor wording that does not seem to adequately describe linear obstacles. Again the intention is clear to someone who has played wargames – being behind a wall probably grants cover – but in such a simple ruleset these oversights in wording are unforgiveable.

Scenery is further complicated by a random table of effects assigned to “each terrain feature”, which taken rules as written can lead to bizarre situations such as low stone walls that potentially kill models that move over them, innocuous trees which can be used as altars for sacrifice and magically-attuned houses. Remembering these effects is generally awkward bookkeeping in such a streamlined game and in the game I played, even though it lasted only three turns and we chose the effects rather than rolling their benefits were either so marginal or so easily forgotten they did nothing.

Deployment rules are standard; players divide the board into halves, and the winner of a roll-off chooses one to set up in. Units are deployed alternately in standard fashion, with deployment zones extending to 12” away from the opponent’s table half. The lack of army creation detail is again relevant here; it recommends deploying units until you “have set up all the units you want to fight, or run out of space” – however this is the first time in the ruleset that the concept of a cap on army sizes is mentioned, and it specifically permits the opponent to keep deploying until they decide they are done. As long as the opponent’s figure count does not exceed the 30% margin for Sudden Death, they can do as they like. Players then assign force leaders, and there is a bizarre “Triumph” table whereby a players whose “army won a major victory in its previous battle” gets a random bonus ranging from nice (+1 Wound) to absurdly powerful (set the result of a single dice to any value once per game). This is the closest the game gets to campaign play.

The remainder of the rules are the game turn and its component parts, and will be discussed in a second article. For what it is worth the enduring opinion I have of these fundamental concepts is frustration; conceptually, they are entirely reasonable decisions that could work well and create an interesting and different game. In practice, the rules seem loosely worded despite their intended simplicity, and have a lack of detail which affects new players more severely than veterans. Often it feels the intent of a rule exists, but its phrasing is not specific enough.

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