I have not played Games Workshop games for quite some time; the latest rules revisions of both Warhammer Fantasy Battle (now rebranded Age of Sigmar) and Warhammer 40,000 were not to my taste. It is fair to say my initial negativity towards Age of Sigmar has softened somewhat as subsequent updates and revisions have added more to it and addressed my initial complaints – however, while it has become a solid, basic wargame with a quite distinct aesthetic it remains a game I would not choose over the various competitors on the market (and I do question whether it being introduced as a wholesale replacement for the very different WHFB was the best course of action). Nevertheless, I have been following GW‘s shifting strategy as a company and I think they are going some way to improving; while their prices remain comparatively high, they are introducing bundles like the “Start Collecting” sets which seem sensibly put-together and represent a significant discount over buying things individually. Similarly a return to boxed games and the rumoured return of “Specialist Games” ranges like Blood Bowl seem to be reflective of what consumers have asked for, and so it is heartening to see a positive shift in direction.
Chief among peoples’ complaints about GW‘s strategy was the change from the monthy White Dwarf magazine to a significantly smaller weekly publication and a monthly photo-gallery book. This, too has changed; September 2016’s White Dwarf was the first in a return to a lengthier monthly magazine with more articles. I decided to buy a copy to see if it was anything like the magazine I used to enjoy reading, and this will serve as a review.
Firstly, the magazine came with a “free gift” in the form of an Age of Sigmar miniature. This model is a complete sprue of an existing model, and even if one ignores the magazine the price of buying the magazine and miniature together is a significant discount on buying just the miniature. It is, in my mind, a high-quality product (as most GW miniatures are) and I am looking forward to painting it even though I do not play the game. From talking to a member of staff these pack-in gifts are a limited-time affair, however, rather than a monthly standard.
The publication itself is an interesting thing. I regularly read Wargames Illustrated magazine, which is a comparable price (£4.95 versus White Dwarf‘s £5.99) for a significantly – apparently – shorter magazine (97 pages plus several full-page advertisements and a classifieds section versus 148 pages of White Dwarf). WI is also focused on a large number of topics – historical modelling, the state of various games clubs, reports on expositions and trade fairs etcetera while WD is purely about Warhammer-related topics. This broader scope means there is every chance an issue of WI will have nothing of interest to a reader on any given month (if its special focus of an issue is, say, on the Roman Empire then someone interested in the First World War will get little from it). However, as someone with a general interest in history, I am happy to read all WI articles.
The main difference, outside of subject matter, is tone. WI is often a quite “serious” publication, with an article generally comprising a basic historical outline of a battle, some notes from gamers or game designers about the challenges of refighting it in miniature and then a scenario with explanatory notes for how to adapt it to different game systems. A certain level of sensitivity is needed, I think, in a publication that features actual military history as a basis for entertainment – there is room for a more conversational tone in articles on painting or scenery design that is not appropriate when writing about a historical event. On the other hand WD has a very cohesive house style applied through the magazine that feels most reminiscent of teen-oriented computer-games magazines of the past – the same tone seems to be used both in fiction articles, product overviews and editorial columns and is about presenting everything as as over-the-top and “awesome” as it can be. It makes the distinction between WD and WI as publications quite clear; WD is an in-house product that combines information about new products made by the same company as the magazine with depictions of how the game works and background flavour. Nevertheless, I felt the tone and editorial voice – as an adult reader and wargamer – to be a little on the brisk and superficial side, hyping everything up as being the best possible in a way that reminded me of old video game reviews trying to show their maturity and edginess.
Having discussed the tone, on to the content. The magazine begins with a series of product release dates and photographs showing off upcoming models, interspersed with light-hearted breakout boxes most of which, to me, fall flat. Slightly conspicuously at the end of the product overview there is a two-page splash showing the entire range reviewed this issuewith prices and release dates again.Then there is a letters page, which is quite unremarkable. This is followed by painting articles about recently-released models; these are interesting as they explain how professional painters choose colour palettes, but of the two pieces only one gives exact information about paints and techniques used (making it much more useful as an informative piece, rather than a restatement of what can be seen in the photographs).
The first major feature is a return of a wargaming magazine staple, the Tale of Four Gamers. It is a regular column where four players start a new army and post regular updates of the painting – here used to promote the Start Collecting starter sets, as each player begins with one. I personally would have liked a little more on this feature, possibly some discussion of how the armies function in-game to help new players choose a force they like, but there is understandably little to discuss about pre-selected starter sets. Again there is some practical painting advice, which is always welcome.
After this is a brief interview about the design process for the Nagash miniature that I felt could have been longer, or included more information about the evolution of the concept – the original sketch provided next to a photograph of the model is interesting, but the design and sculpting process is of particular interest to me (so as a purely personal choice I would have happily read more). This is followed by a lengthy photo gallery of a reader’s army, which is an impressive display of technical skill but the text is not of significant interest to me (I feel similarly about some of the club- or event-focused articles in WI).
The meat of the magazine comes in the form of numerous expansions for GW boxed board games. There is nothing to complain about here; it is useful, well-written and makes use of GW‘s wider miniatures range. This sort of content would be a good incentive for Warhammer fans to buy the magazine – indeed, the articles such as Chapter Approved in the issues I used to read were always highlights. It is followed by a brief miniature photo-gallery, with very little text; it has a cohesive theme and is quite unobjectionable. Perhaps less interesting is the subsequent selection of illustrations from various GW publications; it feels like padding, and the captions explaining the artistic decisions were not particularly interesting. Yet I do enjoy looking through concept art books; I have collections of design sketches and illustrations by artists such as Mikimoto, Ebikawa and Sadamoto which I will happily browse through.
Battle reports were always a key feature of WD and the new format, with clearly labelled photographs and straightforward thematic explanations of the turn is a good one. I personally have little interest in Age of Sigmar, but it was the style and format of battle report I enjoy reading. The subsequent background flavour article, however, is less engaging; the fact it uses a lot of plain photographs of miniatures rather than illustrations is a strike against it, and it feels like a precis or synopsis rather than a piece of fiction. I have written technical specs for units in wargaming armies I have built, but they rarely run past a couple of sentences – the most interesting parts of the Imperial Knights article are the very short sidebars that add character and flavour to the otherwise quite slim description in the body text.
The remainder of the magazine offers a variety of shorter pieces; a retrospective about the magazine’s history which offers very little, a description of the process of designing a very attractive wargaming table which offers some useful advice about painting buildings and designing terrain (but at the same time I think falls short in practical advice compared to a similar article in WI I read recently which provided step-by-step plans for making a railway bridge), a very interesting regular column by John Blanche depicting his converted models and explaining the sources of the parts and finally an extended feature on the Kill Team rules which is mostly used to show off a variety of armies similarly to the Tale of Four Gamers. At the very end of the magazine is a more detailed painting guide for the included model, which is I feel among the most useful parts of the magazine, and some more brief designers’ notes about a new Warhammer 40,000 faction.
Overall I think the new-style WD is an improvement over recent issues; it has a large amount of clearly useful or interesting articles (painting guides, new rules for games and a battle report). On the other hand I find the prose style is not to my taste and there is too much focus on image-galleries – illustrations, award-winning models, armies on show etcetera. These have very little text and generally quite superficial information about both strategy and gameplay and painting and modelling, which makes them only of limited interest to me. As a publication offering information about new Warhammer developments it is a decent buy, but I feel it has a little too little text to make many of its features shine.