Thursday, April 11, 2013

Tabletop: The Evolution of Warhammer Fantasy, 6th to 8th Edition

My Trusty Undead Knights
Note: I attempted to do some research for this and make things scientific but couldn't find as many sources as I'd hoped that were not from a forum... As a result this is more a memoir than the scientific evaluation I'd initially tried to write.

For those of you not familiar with Warhammer here are the basics:
Warhammer fantasy is a tabletop game where you control armies (elves, dwarves, knights, goblins, etc) and battle them against other people. It's a strategy game as opposed to a role playing game where good strategy is more important than a lucky dice roll, largely because of the sheer volume of dice rolled in a given game. Warhammer is a game of 2+ players (generally 2) that takes about 1.5 hours to 4 hours per game, depending on how experienced your are with the rules. It uses a tape-measure, dice, and either a 4x4, 4x6, or 4x8 table/space to play on. Additionally, before you play the game you need to pick an army to play and 'build' an army list/roster using each faction's unique book (which needs to be acquired IN ADDITION TO the main rule book). After you've picked a faction, custom built an army on paper, and assembled the models (or cut out appropriately sized squares of paper, or just used legos if you're new to the game) required to represent the custom army you just built and your enemy has done the same you put terrain on the board (it can be masterfully crafted 25mm scale forests, castles, swamps, and towers or just represented by books, tape, or whatever else you have lying around) and duke it out using a detailed rule set that some equate to business a law textbook.

Warhammer Model by Day, DnD Villain by Night
I found the game on accident around the end of 5th Edition (1999ish) while looking for spiffy DnD models, bought what I was subsequently told by my cousin was "enough undead to field an army", and (a few months later, in 6th edition) bought the undead army book so I could play the game I already had the pieces to play. I fielded an elite force of ~20 skeletal knights, led by a series of super-powerful vampire knights nicknamed "Blood Dragons" (Named for their ability kill dragons), supported by a few dire wolves and a banshee (more for comedic value than true effectiveness because in those days few things could attack an ethereal creature). 

My Vampire Lord, Complete with a Shoulder Mounted Ferret Familiar and Zombie Dragon
While it was a lot of fun but back in 6th Edition the game was admittedly broken in a few ways... While I'd heard people refer to the game's 5th edition as "Hero-Hammer" it seemed to me that they hadn't fixed many of the rules that made Heroes (who are supposed to make up less than 25% of your army's total point value [you use Points to "purchase" things for your army list from your army's respective book]) unstoppable super-powers capable of single-handedly destroying the entire enemy army over the course of the game's 6 turns. This was especially true with my army's vampire lord, a guy that the army book outright called "The Greatest Swordsman in the Warhammer world" that I decked out with the best magical equipment 'points' can buy, riding atop a flying collective of cadavers called a 'Winged Nightmare'! He was only ever defeated in combat four times during my entire experience of playing Warhammer 6th edition and earned a kill count of 953 (I kept count)... Keep in mind that he died to cannon fire or archers or magic like anyone else, but he would charge a unit of 30+ elite spearmen, win a round of combat (routing them), chase them into the next unit, defeat that unit, then "overrun" into a 3rd unit and rout entire armies that way using rules called "Panic!", "Fear", and "Terror" with brutal efficiency  The same Death Star-like properties could be said of my horsemen, though they were slower, significantly less mobile (because they couldn't fly), and were more susceptible to incoming ranged attacks.

My Undead Army Grows!
In short, over the course of 6th edition I eventually swapped out the knights and dire wolves for units of Wights on foot and skeletal spearmen so I could absorb ranged attacks better and still cause roughly the same amount of damage when I reached the enemy. I mention my army specifics because it's pretty characteristic of how 6th edition was. The majority of the armies didn't have books until the edition was almost over and the armies that had books were both fairly balanced and extremely flavorful. There were some things that were broken (like my Vampire Lord) but the game made up for it by having lots of customization options... like the named heroes you could taken into battle, which the rules specifically called for both parties to agree on using before the game was played (so you knew what you were getting yourself into). It also made almost any type of army you could think up viable, so long as you applied the right strategies. There normally seemed to be a basic composition that people would use with a given army, but each army added their unique flavor to the equation.

Fun at a Tournament
Very early on the game I was introduced to tournament play, and while I describe cheating within the context of tournaments it's because that's where I played most of my games, not because they were riddled with cheaters or unfriendly people. Well run Warhammer tournaments are a lot of fun and allowed you to face off against armies/strategies you'd not normally encounter, which I found very enjoyable.
That being said there were many who cheat while playing the game. From a tournament perspective, in 6th Edition people mostly cheated by mis-measuring the distance you moved (using a measuring tape but sneaking in half an inch here or there), by not sharing their barely legible handwritten army list and taking things in their list which were not allowed within their army book or by the main rules, by mis-remembering or outright fabricating army specific rules as new army books came out, by rolling dice before declaring what the dice roll was for and "changing their mind" about what they were rolling for, or by speed-dice rolling (where you quickly roll dice and snatch them up before the opponent can see them, claiming that they were the number you needed). Cheating was kind of common from my limited Floridian perspective and the number of ways in which someone could cheat (specifically on accident) were largely the cause. I personally made a LOT of mistakes when I started to play the game that I'd consider 'cheating on accident' because I was overwhelmed by the complicated rules set and the manner in which the rule book was structured/written. A lot of very friendly people took the time to explain the rules to me over the years and I really appreciated their patience with me.

Fun Times
6th Edition was a weird era where they were still solidifying the number of armies they wanted to include in the game and you'd sometimes find yourself facing a Warhammer Ancient Battles Army (which I was told was legal), a 'Chaos Dwarf' army, a mercenary army, or a number of other armies without books like Wood Elves, the forces of Chaos, or the Tomb Kings. Almost every army with a book had an advantage over the armies listed in the giant compendium called "Ravaging Hoards" (basically an ultra-simple "here's something to use until we come out with your book" book) and they all felt like they were uniquely different forces within the same rule set. They maybe have gone overboard with keeping each new army balanced and unlike with future editions of the game the newest army book to come out was not always given the means to crush its enemies... like with the Dark Elf army (pretty much mutually agreed by everyone I knew at the time as utter trash). I remember trying to play Dark Elves for a few months only to give up after losing every game I played (12 games), despite trying a diverse array of strategies against different players. The book just lacked any clear benefits or creative edge in 6th edition that other armies were given.

A 40K "Demon Lord" Taking a Form Mortals Fear Most
All of the "balanced and equal" (except Dark Elves) stuff changed around the time 7th Edition of the game arrived and the rules were dramatically restructured. The Magic phase was given more power, the Movement phase of the game was significantly changed to allow for "clipping" and other somewhat confusing but entirely needed technical maneuvers, the Shooting phase (for war machines) was simplified, and the Close Combat phase was toned down a little bit to where the vanilla game itself felt completely balanced. Though technically complex enough Erratas, Addendums, QA's, and Expanded Rulesets the rules of the game seemed to cover every possible scenario, whereas the 8th edition would just say my least favorite phrase: "Roll a Dice and on a 4+ that person's perception of the rule is correct." It was awesome from the perspective of the player who wanted no grey areas or for the well versed rules-miesters who wanted to call out would-be cheaters (which were rampant) out on their BS. So why do I say that the "balanced and equal" was thrown out while simultaneously praising the core rule book for being balanced?

The Poorly Painted Beginnings of my Chaos Army
Each army book was designed to target a specific set of rules that it intended to break/bend. Dwarves were a neigh-unroutable army who didn't care about psychology, High Elves were a high-speed army that could be built to dominate any one of the three big phases (Magic, Shooting, Combat), Beastmen were fast, tough, and broke conventional movement, Skaven could easily break the shooting phase or the sheer number of models you can field, etc. From the perspective of my Undead army it was awesome because instead of fighting a generic army-type that I could crush with my Vampire Lord if I played my cards right I'd always find myself fighting completely different armies that would require a unique strategy to defeat. I couldn't just plan for the typical 25% shootie, 50% close combat, 25% support (variable) army that dominated the tournaments of 6th edition (regardless of the faction). I had to expect to fight an ultra-elite force of under 50 Brittonian Knights, a standard Dark Elf (which were now viable) shooting army, an ambushing Beastman army, and perhaps a 300+ model Goblin or Skaven hoard army. The rules were extremely diverse and the game's back story was deep enough where I expanded the number of armies I played to include a Dark Elf close-combat assassin army (a very uncommon sight) led by a super-assassin who can hide in the enemy ranks, an underwhelming Skaven army led by "Pinky" & "The Brain", and a well-rounded Chaos Army that I made using hundreds of spare parts from models I'd collected over the years. I can't stress enough that the basic rule-set was solid and the army books allowed for maximal army list creativity.

I played in a lot of tournaments in this edition, even some Grand Tournaments, ranking anywhere from second place (my personal best) to last place. I don't know how but I also seemed to get 'best sportsman' and 'best army composition' a lot, especially when I played with my ever-defeated Skaven army. It's worth noting that I once got to face off against Gav Thorpe (the guy who wrote most of the army books), and had so much fun in the process that I can't even remember who won. We chatted about rules and back-story that were not yet defined while small plastic soldiers murdered each other... Speaking of which, people attempted to cheat with this edition a lot more than the last one (or maybe was just exposed to them more) because there were many perceived grey areas where the main rules directly contradicted the army books, FAQ's, Erratas, etc. The majority of cheaters still did that speed-rolling thing, or would fudge their movement phase, which made the whole 'Clipping' rule a lot more dangerous.

Random GW Model I used for DnD
People invented a lot of Clipping house rules without realizing it and were rarely happy to be corrected on the topic by being handed a well-earmarked page or two of the appropriate book or addendum for clarification. Beyond the horrid misuse of the Clipping rule to the favor of just about every tournament player (to the point where I'd actually talk to them about it before the game even began so we could agree on how we wanted to play the rule, thus avoiding arguments) and shady dice rolling practices, the rules generally didn't allow for a whole lot of accidental rule-flubbing. A new tool called Army Builder was used by almost every tournament that calculated the points, mapped army lists, and it pinged rules-conflicts within the army lists that made cheating on the pre-game side almost impossible. What's more, it became the norm for players to pass their typed and printed copies of their army lists to their opponent before the game even started for rules clarification, making for solid transparency and QA before the game started. People still cheated but it couldn't be mistaken for an honest mistake anymore on the pre-game side. For instance, one guy hacked the program and lowered the point cost of the magic items. It was not very believable that the program just happened to glitch in his favor...

My Skaven
The most common "cheat" I encountered was where people would "remember" the rules from a previous edition (e.g. Clipping, various special rules, psychology, etc) and proxy them in, which is entirely forgivable and easily clarified by showing them the current rules. I just can't stress how well the rules were mapped out in this edition by the end and though it lacked the fluidity of 8th (and i'm told 5th) it wasn't a practice to cheat and "roll a dice" to decide who's right. At almost every tournament it seemed like the same 2 or 3 guys who clearly knew the rules would intentionally tweak and omit rules to their advantage and there was a lot of comfort in being able to call them out on it. Thankfully I rarely seemed to ever face them.

A Work in Progress: My Chaos Lord on a "Demonic Steed"
Regarding army composition, most people (like myself) played really awesomely themed armies. There were exceptions and I made it a personal goal to tweak my army lists to cripple people who tried to break the game. For instance, a ridiculous highlight in my gaming career was a single lucky roll at the start of the game where an enemy Vampire Lord leading a huge "Death Star" army (one giant unit supported by everything else) failed to cast a spell at my Chaos army so I used an item that hurt one of my guys but turned the failed spell into a "Miscast" (where the spell goes horribly wrong and bad things happen). He rolled a "3" on the miscast chart (a bad thing but not too bad) but I was able to use yet another magic item to modify his roll of a "3" into a "2" (instant death to the caster, cannot be saved or stopped in any way) causing his entire army to crumble to dust. The guy sneered at me, packed up his army, and left the tournament (mid-tournament) without so much as a glance in my direction (beyond the sneer). He was one of those 'clearly only there to win' types (we were competing for the semi-finals) who had been a jerk to all his opponents (my buddies), and told the people running the event that he had to leave early because he was missing his daughter's birthday... Which leads me to the question as to why he was playing table-top games on his daughter's birthday in the first place... Anyway, bad sportsmanship aside it was an awesome moment (crushing the spirit of a total power-gamer and jerk with my goofy gimmick army) and I've had some neigh-equally horrible things happen to me over the years that I've found just as enjoyable.

I think the second best experience playing the game was fighting my undead against a total newbie undead player for last place at the end of a tournament. We were playing a basic variation of the same army (very uncommon) only my Vampire-Lord was on a B.A. Dragon while his Vampire-Lord was on a horse; he had a semi-hoard army while I only had my lucky elite Wights. I cut down his general in single combat on the first or second turn, meaning his army slowly began to crumble to dust asked if we could continue playing because he might turn it around. The guy was a good sport about it and a turn later he somehow managed to get lucky and kill my general as well (causing my army to crumble to dust). By the 5th turn of the game there was nothing left on the board... A rarity and technically the perfect draw. I've also had my Vampire Lord murdered by some EXTREMELY lucky peasant archers in close combat, which I found about as hilarious as all of the above. Another fun moment was when I beat a dark elf player once he gave me a nifty Shade (spy/assassin) model with the promise that "he will learn your tactics and report them to me." Over the years I made a lot of friends in the tabletop gaming community under various nicknames, probably for my ability to enjoy just about every game I was a part of.

My Skaven "Hoard" Army was Perfect for 8th Edition
Years into the glorious 7th edition a new edition was announced and the game completely shifted focus. I was a bit peeved at the huge rules changes after finally perfecting my understanding of the game but was open-minded about it where many of my friends just quit. In short, the game had dramatically changed. Army books no longer contained pages of army-specific magic items (instead relying heavily on a list of communal items found in the main rule book), terrain was now a huge part of gameplay (which was a good idea, but they took it to an extreme by giving certain pieces of terrain the ability attack your army or make nearby units neigh unstoppable), heroes and units of small model count (like cavalry or monsters) were all but crippled (because rank and file will likely not flee unless you have more rank bonus [AKA You need to outnumber them to truly win]), and the Magic Phase was dramatically changed (now able to "Instantly Kill" something each turn if done right) (Dispel dice generation changed, giving every army a naturally good defense against magic). While they did away with any form of Guess Range (a key component of the older versions of the game) and made the rules significantly easier to learn, I felt that the game was less diverse. You could no longer field an army of 35 knights and hope to win, or play effectively in any way except with a "hoard" mentality. The Special Characters who were fun and balanced in 7th edition were now banned at tournaments (leading me to wonder why they included them at all) and the impotency of lone heroes, monsters, cavalry & the loss of army-specific magic item lists also inhibited creativity. Though I will happily admit that it's a nicer ruleset than any edition I've played I still don't like it because it specifically crippled all of my strategies.

Immediately the Undead army I'd played for almost a decade was useless. My general could no longer engage the enemy alone and survive (because you can't use Combat Modifiers to affect a Break Check unless you have more Ranks than your enemy or have Flanked them with a unit that has a Rank bonus. Fear & Terror were both also greatly reduced in effectiveness), and my super-elite unit of Wights was now susceptible to the instant magic-death every army has, and the new rules for combat whereby "the attacking order is dictated by Initiative, as opposed to who has charged," meaning that they generally strike last and generally die (for good) before attacking back. Because I specifically intended to avoid a Hoard Army I was forced to retire my now ineffective undead, which I regretfully sold for $80 to pay for Pixel Glass.

Picture Unrelated: My Warhammer 40k Army "Work In Progress"
But that was okay because I still had my Dark Elf army and my Chaos army, both of which I'd spent countless hours painting and assembling (I'd foolishly traded my Skaven shortly before the new edition was announced, and the friend i'd given it to sold them). As it turns out my Dark Elf army was also rent ineffective because it relied entirely upon the enemy's ability to NOT strike back (Elves are notoriously squishy and die easily when hit), which the new rules specifically changed. In the old rules if you killed all the models in base contact no one could attack back as the next wave of troops took time to filter in to replace the dead models, but now that everyone got to attack regardless of where they were at the start of the fight my army of half-naked berserker elf-assassins covered in war paint was also completely useless as even the smallest goblin with a pointy stick could pierce their nonexistent armor.

"The Zoo"
Last was my trusty reliable madhouse army of Chaos people simply called "The Zoo" due to it's insane non-conformity to physics or visual theme beyond... pure chaos... (see what I did there?) The new rules, which work really well for a single magic user entirely cripple the effectiveness of a Super-Magic heavy army, which pretty much described my twisted warband. Fortunately for me, swapping out four magic using heroes for close combat heroes wasn't that hard of a transition but it greatly shifted my strategy from "sit back and throw fireballs at the enemy" to "slowly walk across the board while getting shot at by things that hurt." To make matters worse they combined the multiple defensive saves of "Ward Save" and "Regeneration Save" from two distinct rolls that would save your soldier's lives to a single roll... Further reducing survival odds as my forces slowly trudged across the board. Lastly the aforementioned removal of special characters (which I thought were just plain fun) further reduced my ability to creatively get across the board without buying a completely new army (complete with lots of cavalry to tie up the shooting units while my main force trudged towards combat). On a comical note the rules also completely crippled my friend & regular rival's army (a knight/magic-reliant Brettonian army which had the same problems as my Undead), leaving us both kind of up the creek and unable to effectively face off against one another... Games were now kind of like watching two small children fight with sock-em-boppers when you could be watching boxing... or gladiators...

"More Fun Than A Pillow Fight"
The few 8th edition tournaments I was involved had minimal cheating (speed-dice rolls were about it) largely because before someone rolls you can ask them what they need to roll and verify it by measuring everything yourself. All the mystery to the game is kind of gone, replaced with random elements like quicksand or shrines of 7'' AoE 5+ Ward Save & Stubborn. While the reduction in cheating (from the few games I've played) is a serious plus to the game, I also felt that I never had a chance to win most of the battles I took part in before the first die was rolled because of how the rules force you to play the game (aka, Cavalry being neigh useless). What can 70 men do against 300+ when the primary strengths of the 70 (the ability to "not die easily", the ability to shoot fiery magic-death in mass quantity, the ability to have characters that can take on entire units on their own) are pretty much gone? As much as I seem to like bashing 8th edition I'll admit it's a better game it's just not one i'm personally interested in investing my very limited time to play. As a result The Zoo collects dust on my shelf, biding its time and waiting for the next edition...


  1. This is why I play 6th edition with my friends still.

  2. I would take 6th over 8th any day.

  3. You sum it up, much more coherently than I could.. I still play 8th with a few tweaks, I loathe and despise (strong words i know ) Age of Sigmar, WFB is in a hiatus right now, which is fine. I do not need some straight out of college design studio types telling me how to play the game I have been playing for 30 years

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