When Age of Sigmar first hit the shelves, there was a great deal of hand-wringing/arguments and general Internet-based attacks on the game and those happy to dive into it. Things seem to be settling down now, so I will venture this post forward; why I think it might be worth people taking a second look at the game and, if they have already adopted it, what else they can be doing with it.
So, warning: this is a pro-Age of Sigmar post!
Caveat: I know that you can do whatever you like with whatever set of rules you have. I know that. However, rules systems by their nature encourage you to act one way or another on the tabletop, and it is the natural tendencies of Age of Sigmar that I will be addressing.
Second Caveat: I am not saying everyone should play the games the way I do (in fact, it is probably better if some don’t!). All I am saying is ‘here is another angle, why not roll it around in your head for a bit?’ If you don’t like what comes out after that and you are happy playing the games you are playing, just ignore me!
It is Not Too Simple…
Just four pages of rules? Well, that obviously has to be a game for kids, right? No adult could be challenged by just four pages of rules…
As a full-time games designer, I can tell you that any idiot can make a huge, sprawling complex mess of a rules system. It is simplifying and streamlining rules that takes work. A lot of work. Two great examples of this would be Blood Bowl and Space Hulk.
What matters is the interplay between the mechanics and the involvement of players within that framework. But the rules sheet is not the full story. In fact, it is not even the game.
The rules sheet is just the jumping off point. The actual game is to be found in the Warscrolls and, especially, the Battlescrolls; there is more (much more) to this game than four pages. So, if you have looked over the rules sheet and thought there is not too much to get your teeth into – you would be right! However, you are looking at just the absolute core, not the full game. Imagine if someone had just shown you the to hit and wound tables in Fantasy Battle and the first page of the movement phase. There is obviously a lot more to the game, but that core material is pretty simple.
Also, consider this: by making the core material short, simple and (relatively) flat, GW now have the ability to update virtually any aspect of their game, at any time. This, incidentally, means the end of edition updates. They do not even need to update an army book – simply release a new Warscroll or revise an existing one…
Oh, and one more thing to be said – I was watching a couple of Youtube rants last night where a couple of gentlemen were constantly berating Age of Sigmar being aimed at kids. Really hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but all Warhammer games are aimed at kids. If you don’t think a 12 year old can get his head round Fantasy Battle in any edition then a) you are doing the kid a big dis-service and b) maybe, just maybe, you are forgetting the games you played when you were a teenager.
Let’s not kid ourselves, we are playing with toy soldiers.
At the end of the day, what a four page rules system gives you is the ability to play the game rather than the rules. In other words, you will be worrying about whether your unit of Liberators will be able to withstand a third wave of Bloodreavers, rather than trying to work out whether a reform will put them those few millimetres out of the enemy charge arc.
… And There Are Plenty of Tactics
Age of Sigmar is no less tactical than Fantasy Battle.
Now, I will qualify that.
In Fantasy Battle, deployment is paramount and the ability to think two, three or four turns ahead is vital – you need to know where each unit is likely to be (or needs to be) and manoeuvre appropriately. In 40k, this is important and a distinct advantage – though maybe a little less than in Fantasy Battle.
Age of Sigmar, with the relative mobility of units does tend more to the 40k side of things. However, tactics are not to be found in movement alone.
What is also of great importance is how units support one another or, as people often put it, the synergy between units. A unit of Dark Reapers is good. A unit of Dark Reapers with Guide on them and Doom on their target is positively lethal.
This is what Age of Sigmar brings to the table in lumps. Almost every unit in every force fits into a greater jigsaw puzzle in some way, and there are many hours to be had in figuring out the best way to do that. And when you have done that, start again, because there are so many other combinations.
Eldar in 40k (and, I would say, Elves in Fantasy Battle) work best when you get the right unit into the right place at the right time to face the right opponent. This is the central ethos, if you will, behind those forces, while other armies do similar things to perhaps lesser degrees. In Age of Sigmar, getting units to work together is paramount.
Combine the elements of unit mobility and unit synergy, and you have a very, very tactical game on your hands with a host of choices every turn.
Stress Relief the First
This is a big one for me and, from some posts I have seen on various forums, I am not alone in this.
There is no ‘stress’ in Age of Sigmar – and this runs on two levels. First, I have not had one rules debate/argument/someone trying to push rules way too far at all in Age of Sigmar. Not one. Everyone understands the rules and just gets on with it. Any ambiguity in the rules set is so minor as to not be a factor (a caveat here – don’t try to carry Fantasy Battle conventions with you, as you will run into trouble).
Fantasy Battle is a good rules set (and I should point out that my group is not only currently engaged in a long-running Fantasy Battle campaign, but we are about to start a brand new one – go High Elves!), but it is also a big, sprawling one. Not everyone remembers all the rules all the time, so it is not uncommon to briefly halt a game to look up or clarify some obscure part of the movement phase (it is almost always the movement phase). This causes pauses, interpretations and the occasional argument.
In Age of Sigmar, players have the core rules memorised within two or three games. Give it another two or three games to get that ‘locked’ in your head, and not only will you never need to go back to the rules again, there will be no rules debating during the game.
Stress Relief the Second
The other side of the stress removal is the absence of points. Now, I have played all sorts of games over the past (gulp) few decades, but Warhammer-based games have always featured heavily. As time went on beyond the first editions, this meant points-based games and that meant competition.
Which was fair enough.
However, coming back to a no-points game has been something of a revelation, like you remember something you had once forgotten.
Points-based games mean competition. They encourage it. When you put together a Fantasy Battle force (or 40k, just as guilty), you are trying to put together an army, you will have a tendency to avoid certain units because, for whatever reason, they are not going to work out for you. I am not talking about sub-optimal units (we all include those in our forces) but the ones that you think are just plain bad. You want to put together a decent army that has a reasonable chance of winning, so you want to pick units that will help you do that.
And then (and this is crucial) when you play and lose with such an army, there is a feeling of disappointment, perhaps even failure – the sides were perfectly (yeah, I know) matched and you lost. You got it wrong. You cocked it up.
Age of Sigmar does away with points and, with them, the stress or ‘need’ to win.
Putting it another way, if you play Age of Sigmar, you will live longer!
Note: I like competitive gaming. I am good at it. But I like this game where the competitiveness is greatly muted.
Field What You Want
This is related to the no-points angle, and it has also been raised on various forums.
In both Fantasy Battle and 40k, there are some very nice models that you may want (or already have) for your army but that will never, ever see any table time because the rules for them are just bad. Wyches for Dark Eldar, for example. Storm Guardians in Craftworld Eldar forces (I actually disagree with that, but perceived wisdom and all that). Medusae for Dark Elves. Some people even put Tactical Marines into this category, but I strongly disagree there…
It might get even worse when your army book gets updated and a unit that you once loved to used as been emasculated to the point where you can no longer bring it in a regular force.
With no points-based gaming, that does not matter. You want a wing of Warhawk Riders because you think they look stunning? Bring them along, there really is no downside.
In fact, if you you see a box of models sitting on the shop shelf that you quite fancy, you can now grab it, paint it, and put it straight onto the table without having to worry about its effectiveness or, crucially, without feeling the need to paint up another fifteen near-identical box sets to field a whole force.
Okay, that last might be a stretch. We are hobbyists after all…
Do Scenarios, Not Points
Right, first thing here – there is no proper (and no wrong!) way to play any game, so long as you are having fun. There are no units of Gaming Police getting ready to break down your door because you converted Warhammer to a D10 system or whatever.
However, if you have just grabbed a bunch of Warscrolls and used the four page rules sheet, you might have done it wrong 🙂
Put another way, if you did that and did not have fun, then clearly something was wrong. But it may not just be the rules that let you down.
I could harp on about narrative but, fundamentally, Age of Sigmar is about a story. You have the wider story of Sigmar’s Crusade, and there will be much more to come in campaign books and via the Black Library in the future. However, it is also a story about your army and what it is doing – either in the context of just a single battle or a whole campaign.
What this boils down to is forget playing with just the 4 page rules sheet and nothing else. Forget the various points-based balancing systems that are floating around (though that Laws of War does look pretty good at first glance!).
Pick a scenario from the hardback. Come up with a quick one or two sentence reason of why your army is taking part and why the enemy is your enemy. Perhaps go as far as deciding who the attacker is and who takes the role of defender before you start.
Next, come up with a reasonable force that you could see fighting it.
That is about all you need to do. Leave Tyrion, Archaon and Nagash at home, save them for the really special scenarios. Don’t be a dick about the forces you pick. Just choose the units you think your commander in the field would really have at his disposal.
If you do all that, you will have given Age of Sigmar a decent try. Maybe it is not for you. Maybe, if you had a disagreeable game, it was for you but not for your opponent. In which case try again.
But do try it. Scenarios (Battlescrolls) is where Age of Sigmar sits.
Incidentally, if it does work out for you, pick another scenario and play with similar (or even the same) force, and figure out how the two battles are linked. Then do the same after that game – before long, you will not only have a campaign running, you will have named your characters and they might even have started to develop personalities. If you are writing brand new scenarios to fit in with your storyline, you have nailed it.
A Different Class of Player
Now, this bit could start an argument, but please bear with me.
I am not running anyone down here, nor am I attacking any style of play.
Competitive (in this context, points-based) games attract That Guy. 90% of gamers are not that guy but, as a society, we always have to cater to the 10%.
That Guy wants to win, and is usually a bit of a dick about it, whether it is in attitude, rules-lawyering or army selection. When we do points-based games, we may meet That Guy. We may even, if we are truly honest, be That Guy for brief moments.
Age of Sigmar does not really encourage That Guy. There is little in Age of Sigmar that welcomes That Guy. That Guy may not look twice at Age of Sigmar.
Which is good news for the rest of us!
Basically, I am saying that when you play Age of Sigmar, you may have a better chance to play against people who just want to push some models around the table and maybe continue the story of their great warband and its leader. You may never meet That Guy.
This is not to say, of course, that you cannot do both styles of gaming. You can still play Warhammer Fantasy and Age of Sigmar.
You just bring a different style of play to both.
But are GW not just trying to bring about a Fantasy style of 40k? Are the Hammers of Sigmar not just Ultramarines by another name?
Well, you can draw all sorts of parallels. At the end of the day it is still Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, and will still retain the look, feel and polish of other Warhammer games.
And yes, GW will push the Stormcast Eternals forward ahead of everything else because they bring the Awesome (YMMV, of course, but that is why other armies exist…).
However, this new background is only just starting. Think back to 1st edition Fantasy Battle or 40k, and how sparse things were then and, importantly, how they were built upon. You cannot, as a writer, just magically create a whole living, breathing universe. Like a fine wine, it takes time for a setting to fully awaken.
However, keep an eye on what GW brings out, in terms of background, over the next few months. They obviously have plans in this direction, for both characters and events.
The book in the starter set is really just a primer. The hardback adds a little more (the most fluff is in the scenarios section – read and play the scenarios!). Keep an eye on White Dwarf, as those articles are bringing to light aspects of the background that the books have not really touched upon yet. Read the Black Library novels and shorts – these, above all else, are bringing the setting to life at the moment.
And keep an eye on the range of hardbacks that start this week – if you are expecting huge blocks of rules and units, I think you may be disappointed. I think these books will be more about the storyline and scenarios (both in print and encouraging you to make up your own), and this will be where the heart of Age of Sigmar will lie. Not on the latest, greatest Codex and its killer units, but on the next stage of the story and how it can be played out on your table.
And what if you are not keen on the story? Well, there seems to be three main story lines being pushed right now (in three different realms) giving you three separate, though related, campaigns. And if they do not get you going – make up your own.
That, perhaps, is the real aim of Age of Sigmar.
We Ain’t Seen it All Yet
It really is okay to say ‘I don’t know.’ It is also okay to say ‘I am not sure about Age of Sigmar right now, I think I will wait.’
That may be the most sensible route between diving headlong into a new game and completely rejecting it out of hand (and playing just a couple of games with the four page rules sheet alone is still out of hand…).
The reason is that, aside from a few people at GW HQ, no one really knows yet what Age of Sigmar is going to be. Given what I know of GW though, we have not yet seen a fraction of what this game is going to be able to do. Big long campaigns? Siege rules? Gods on the battlefield? Underground warfare with interchangeable tiles to make new caverns and caves?
We just don’t know.
For my part, I am quite excited at the idea of a (near) clean slate, of being able to explore the setting as it develops without the huge weight of baggage the Old World had (remember, I still exploring the Old World, in both Fantasy Battle and Fantasy Roleplay, this does not have to be a binary choice!). I even changed my style of painting for the new game, though that might be going too far for some!
I guess what I am trying to say in a very long-winded manner is this.
- If you tried Age of Sigmar and have bought into the story-led, scenario-driven idea of gaming, great! I want you in my group!
- If you tried Age of Sigmar but thought it too simple, light or lacklustre, give it just one more try with the ideas above – there may be a little more to this game than was first shown to you.
- You do not need to choose between Fantasy Battle and Age of Sigmar, or competitive gaming and narrative gaming – you can do both. These games scratch different itches.
- You do not need to make your mind up yet. Check back in a while, maybe at the start of the New Year. There might be something in Age of Sigmar by that point that catches your imagination. Or maybe not.