Given Corehammer’s current propensity for causing minor upset to specific corners of the gaming community, we figured it was time to cement that position and add our two pence worth to the (R)Age Of Sigmar discussion. My man Brinton Williams of San Francisco, California, stepped up to the plate to lend a calm voice of reason to the debate that’s currently causing perhaps the most intense nerd-rage meltdown since Uncle George decided that Greedo shot first. Here’s what Brinton had to say….
So it’s happening…probably the largest shakeup in Warhammer Fantasy Battle in 20+ years (some could argue ever) and the Old World as well as the old edition we once knew has been blasted away and replaced by the folks at Games Workshop (GW). Age of Sigmar, released this week online and in White Dwarf (and this weekend as a boxed set), strips away so much of what was believed to be core to the Warhammer experience that it is difficult to see it as the same game. What is left is a remarkably streamlined and entirely odd release that bears examining on a deeper level, even if you don’t specifically play Warhammer Fantasy. The folks over at GW have extraordinarily pulled away all of the safety nets around the game, forcing a player to stop and ponder exactly what kind of gamer they are, and crucially, who they choose to surround themselves with. Age of Sigmar challenges the player to consider a much wider range of social and competitive engagement, and in doing so, has fulfilled a design direction that GW has been pushing towards for years (and some could argue since the beginning).
I’ll be focusing on a couple fundamental changes that I feel are most important to how the game as a whole forces you to interact with your fellow gamers, and also what they teach you about yourself. The first massive change is the removal of any points based army construction system. Essentially, you can throw together whatever you have and get it onto the table to battle your opponent. The second change is a significant condensing of the rules down to a measly four pages, which is given away for free (along with the necessary unit information) on the internet. These two changes, regardless of your opinion on the design teams skill in implementing them, signal such a massive shift in how wargames must be played, and therefore how wargamers must treat each other, the changes must be talked about in depth.
Age of Sigmar eliminates the accepted method for most people playing a fantasy/sci-fi miniature battle game. The old method involved examining army books, rulebooks and potential opponents before crafting, through a series of economic exercises and designer imposed restrictions, your competitive army list. This method, because of the points based system was meant to create a level playing field that a skillful player/list designer could tilt in their favor. Battles could be won and lost in the list design phase but this was considered a skill and was therefore acceptable to some gamers. You could show up with your list of a specific points value and theoretically have a good game with any other random folks and their same point value list. In certain ways this idyllic balance idea has been entirely false. The cyclical nature of army books released by GW meant potential army power levels rose and fell over time. Players found combinations, play styles and specific army compositions that pushed out most other less competitive builds. You could still play for fun with less hard lists, but this always created a sort of weird gray area of social decorum. The game has a points system that is supposed to be balanced, so why can’t someone take anything they want that is allowed? 3rd party composition guidelines and house rules became some what of a norm to try and impose balance on WHFB that only pseudo-existed out of the box. If you take a hard look at the game over it’s history, the points system has never really achieved the fabled balance that is required for this sort of system. You can see dominant armies and styles show up in waves looking back through the history of editions. This is not list design, but the actual army choices created by GW. Player skill always mattered, but unequally balanced army books and rules could break equal skill.
This is a situation that has existed for a long time, and GW has, for a while now, publically been pushing their games towards a less competitive (if you believe they ever wanted it to be competitive) and more narrative focused battle style. They don’t want players to be using the most competitive and focused lists, but instead want a fun game between folks where epic moments happen and the battle can swing wildly based on fantastical results. Essentially, GW have said their game isn’t meant to be a competitive game, but by creating detailed army lists, restrictions, points allowances etc… they’ve created a thin illusion of parity between lists that still encourages competitive play. So while their corporate design choices have been obviously narrative and casual based (massive monsters, Storm of Magic, End Times, 8th edition magic phase etc…) there has still been the style of battle where two generals hope for some form of points based parity to ensure an equally competitive game (that wasn’t actually designed that well for).
Games Workshop, by removing points, army restrictions and battle sizes, has finally made their transition away from a competitive game complete. In doing so, GW have also pulled away all of the rules based justifications for anti-social behavior that wargamers have clung too for years. Age of Sigmar in its current form is broken in a competitive sense. Folks on the internet have been ripping it to shreds since the leaked rules hit to find loop holes and two figure armies that can instantly win. The pamphlet size rulebook lacks diagrams, clear examples or any of the lengthy rules covering obscure situations or in-depth logic and arguments. In its current form there is no way to play Age of Sigmar competitively and because of this, GW has issued into their second largest game, a totally different wargaming ideal. It forces players to think not just about themselves, but their opponent and their scene when making army selections.
There are no restrictions on degenerate and game breaking combos other than the social constraints of a shared experience. GW has allowed players to ruin their opponent’s game with Age of Sigmar, and in doing so, has transferred the responsibility of creating a worthwhile play experience to the folks who matter most, the players. Yes the internet has told you there is a way to win with two models, but who actually wants to do this? Setup a game, go to a store/club/friends house, setup terrain, models, roll for turns etc… and then just say “I win.” Who actually will do this? And if there is someone who will, someone who cares so little for anyone else’s enjoyment or time, are they an opponent you want to play even if there is a points based system? In the past this type of behavior had been slightly sanctioned in the community as the rules were supposed to ensure parity (which they never quite did). If someone was smart enough to find combinations or loop holes, they could hide behind this veneer of rules based balance while ruining folks hobby. Age of Sigmar forces players to take responsibility for their part in a shared narrative battle experience, and choose their opponents a little more carefully for best results.
Now GW may change this in the future by releasing army construction rules/lists, or your gaming group may bind together some mammoth tome of house rules and army construction guidelines to create some semblance of the old style, but right now, that style is dead in Age of Sigmar. What GW has given instead is a tool kit that allows players to create whatever battles they want, using any figures they want, for free. It might not work, it might flame out and die in an incredibly incendiary bonfire of nerd rage, but for now, I applaud the effort.