Wednesday, 2 September 2015
The Good That Games Workshop Does - A Few Opinionated Thoughts On The Age Of Sigmar
It seems all too often that when we talk about Games Workshop, it focuses upon the negatives. Oh the opinion varies depending upon the quality of its products, with some utterly outstanding and some questionable, but the company itself seems to have generated a stigmata. Many of the articles on here have focused upon that, however, while I might be an arsehole, I try to be a fair one. As such, this one is going to focus upon one of the moves I personally think the company has done right of late, and has actually responded to a few fan complaints. Namely, the Age of Sigmar and how it has developed.
Wait, before you all go rushing to the comments, the system isn't perfect. Yes, there is a laundry list of problems people have with the setting, some of which I even agree with. You can find plenty of those documented online, and we'll even address a couple towards the end. However, for the most part, I personally consider the universe and direction itself to be a sign of positive change in many respects.
One of the big criticisms you'll always find on here tends to revolve around the obsession with characters and big units. We saw this become an ever increasing problem with Fantasy in many regards, and it's still a big one with 40,000, as many of the elements intended to be kept purely for Apocalypse have slowly bled into normal games. We even saw this quite frequently cropping up in The End Times, another problem I personally have with that series of events, yet Age of Sigmar seems to have largely sidestepped it. While the setting is certainly rife with a number of heroes for each side, every new release doesn't utterly hinge upon them.
Save for the Celestant-Prime and a few others, we don't have that many being released for the setting with any great deal of fanfare. For the most part they're ultimately being treated once more as cogs in an army. Not, as has so often been the case, the beginning and end of the army itself, with anything which doesn't have a unique name or serve as a big unit boiling down to basic fodder. Rather than everything focusing upon some massive dragon, siege engine or guy who can punch out a Bloodthirster in seconds, we now have more of a focus placed upon promoting the army as a whole. After all, in their focus upon the new Stormcast Eternals and Khorne units, we've had more efforts to shill Judicators, Blood Warriors and the like rather than unique characters.
Perhaps more importantly, the focus upon more general units has led to a general down-scaling of armies. Now, some people prefer huge armies, huge battles and throwing nothing but big expensive units at people. No complaints there, there's certainly an attraction to that. However, in efforts to emphasise that side of things, the other end was all too often forgotten or ignored entirely. We saw average army sizes increase exponentially, the smaller squad or platoon based games withered and died, and the systems which featured perhaps a dozen units at the most were gradually killed off. The Age of Sigmar, by comparison, focuses upon smaller battles. The starter set itself features half the number you would normally expect for an opening force, and resembles a Mordheim warband or Infinity army than anything else in terms of size and structure.
As a result of the smaller scale of armies, the system itself is much more open and friendly to new players. While you can certainly argue the price issue of models and the like, but in terms of sheer scale it's far less daunting. Most small scale or starter games I have personally seen in Warhammer 40,000 over they years have been at 1,000 or 1,200 points, rather than the 500 or 700 they were back in the days of Fourth Edition. This, combined with the prices of rulebooks, codices and the like lock people out of the setting. It's why so often the likes of Firestorm Armada, Infinity and, well, most of Spartan Games has seemed so attractive by comparison. You could easily start with a much smaller army, a more balanced force, and weren't required to go all in and have a full legion of troops before you were even sure you wanted to devote yourself to the game.
Even ignoring all else, the fact that so many older models can he happily re-used without too much issue shows that the company wants this to be accessible. They don't want to alienate players from past editions in their efforts to open it up to new people, or render past purchases pointless. Many players have still shown up using Empire Greatswords and the like in their games, even newly painted ones to help give their army a little more flavour. It would have been extremely easy to wipe them away or force people to buy entirely new sets, but keeping them shows a heightened level of acceptance for long term players.
Atop of everything else, there's actually the setting as a whole. Now, this is where one of those criticisms is going to arise, one of the few we'll mention here. Namely the Stormcast Eternals. The problem for so many is that the company is quite visibly determined to turn these into the Fantasy version of the Adeptus Astartes, whereas before there was nothing of the like. As a result, we've seen a massive amount of focus, publicity and attention placed upon them, with the company determined to have them be the poster boys. This has turned more than a few people away, and the general pauldronification of Khorne hasn't helped. No, really, just looked right and tell me those aren't Khorne Berserkers.
However, while the focus and promotional campaigns by the company are definitely problematic, the overall setting is fascinating. While we do have a few unfortunate hold-overs in terms of characters and elements from the previous game (for which the Aelves have suffered especially badly) many others have taken a new and very interesting turn. We now see Lizardmen (or Seraphon) more akin to daemons in nature, with their bones replaced by raw magic and taking on a very interesting direction. Dwarf Slayers have become living totems of fire and soldiers of fortune, and we've seen some very weird concepts from Chaos itself. Nurgle in particular, from what little we've seen of their fiefdoms, has shown what would follow a Chaotic victory in a new light. While certainly retaining traces of daemon worlds and the like, there's more of a general sense of writers trying to push new things with how such corruption might progress and fester.
The point is that there is a fantastic setting here, and if writers were to just broaden their focus a little more we would see that. It's this focus upon trying to use the Sigmarines (as the Eternals so often been nicknamed) as the spearhead to help promote this setting which is in some ways hurting it the hardest and shutting out new people. However, even in terms of basic concept, I personally still argue the setting has merit. Why? Because it's taking a familiar overall approach to a very fondly remembered and successful past franchise.
To put it simply, Age of Sigmar is to Fantasy what Spelljammer was to Dungeons & Dragons. Just as in that case we have certain races, individuals, gods and weapons all appear, but warped until they're a part of a high science fantasy setting, with stargates and crossbow laser guns and the like. That sort of twist is something very new and very different for the setting, but it's not being done out of malice or determination to surpass the old ideas. It seems to be more a case of the creative forces simply attempting new things on a blank canvas, using the same paints to try new things. We've certainly had enough shout-outs and callbacks to the classics to show there's no ill will towards them, from Gorkamorka to Slaves to Darkness, and genuine care has been put into this evolving setting and how it works. Some might be underdeveloped at the moment, some might certainly need more attention as time goes by, but there are still the seeds of new elements and ideas to come. In some regards this is actually comparable with Firestorm Armada, setting up certain basic narrative points and ideas only to return to them in full later on.
Of course, the subject of seeding narrative ideas returns to the big selling point of the setting - An ongoing narrative. Now, i've personally argued that in many cases the setting of each game needed to move back and flesh out past events and eras. However, despite that, many fans were growing understandably frustrated at each setting being mired in effectively a single end point. 40,000 is never going to move past the 13th Black Crusade and for a long time Fantasy was stuck in a vague undefined point about an impending Chaos invasion. Hell, the few new ideas introduced in the latter case primarily came down to old ones which didn't really go anywhere or have any impact, notably a WAAAGH! launched at Ulthuan.
By comparison to the other games, what we have here is really the opposite. Rather than revolving around an impending end, we have something launching from a single starting point. The war between each side is in full swing, there has been just about enough time to give some substantial background points and ideas in order to serve as a basis for the game. Even without counting what was established in Fantasy itself, there's a great deal of material present here. There has been enough time for certain alliances to be built, fall apart, new factions to emerge and even gods to fall. In many regards it's quite similar to what we saw with Battletech, especially quite early on, with the formation of the various empires there. Despite that start, despite the status quo of Steiner fighting Davion etc, we did see that broken up and new ideas gradually emerge over time. Whatever else you might say about it, this could be Games Workshop's one big chance to seriously push a wargame with a developing narrative.
Now, again, I want to stress that this doesn't mean Age of Sigmar is perfect. It still suffers from plenty of problems, both in terms of fluff and basic rules. I'd personally go even so far as to argue that having it replace Fantasy was a big error in judgement. The game should have served as an alternative, perhaps replacing Lord of the Rings, to better serve the role Mordbeim had once played as a window into the hobby. By having one replace the other, it just served to go to the other extreme and alienate a large portion of the fanbase. Combined with the animosity drawn from utterly replacing another, well beloved, setting following a lacklustre finale and it just sent many people the wrong message. It's largely due to the small firestorm of hatred I held of covering this, just until people might be a little more level headed about the setting.
Look, if you dislike Age of Sigmar for one reason or another, that's absolutely fine. However, please just make sure you're doing so after giving it a decent look. Personally, while it most definitely needs work, I think both as a storytelling setting and general game there is promise to be found here. For everything it does wrong, there's at least one thing it does right, and ultimately it has the potential to turn into something great over time.