Thursday, 11 February 2016
Eldar Part 2 - The Rules (Warhammer 40,000 Codex Review, 3rd Edition)
When we started this review (many, many months ago) the opening paragraphs discussed how the Third Edition changed Warhammer 40,000's very identity. It spoke about the shift away from the older editions yet lacking some of the greater substance of the years to come, and the same is present here on a mechanical level. If anything, it's actually more extreme. Looking back at it now, the Third Edition seems almost quaint in its own way. Bereft of the heavy, complex mechanics of the First and Second Editions but lacking the plethora of special rules and random tables of recent years, it seems surprisingly simple. It's straight forwards, perhaps even lacking real meat if you wished to be critical of it, but at the same time there's an odd beauty to looking at this.
Seeing the Third Edition now, it's akin to looking back at a well refined and produced Cold War era science fiction film. You can see the limitations of its time, see how the technology was clunkier, see how cinematography, camerawork and direction techniques have improved. Yet, at the same time as you examine it, you can still see the spark which led to those later developments and the effort put into creating this codex.
The area in which this book resembles modern codices the most lies in the army itself. The Craftworld Eldar have always been an army of hard counters, with highly specialized units devoted towards singular roles. Dire Avengers were the fast moving shooty option, hitting hard with mobile, ranged attacks to force units back, while Striking Scorpions hit hard during assaults and Dark Reapers hung back, static and maintaining an continual bombardment. While this attitude was present to a degree within other armies, they tended to have a little more general versatility and broader use in the game. It would only be later on that we would see more armies actively embracing this approach, with definitely mixed results. No, i'm not saying it, but you know exactly which army i'm thinking about.
So, let's start with the obvious: The psychic powers. One of the defining cornerstones which helps give the Craftworld Eldar their iconic nature as powerful, subtle manipulators, the designers were tasked with them shaping the battlefield. Rather than punching holes in reality (because, hey, they have guns for that) or summoning the spirits of their ancestors (because they have wraith units for that), Farseers and Warlocks altered fate itself. As, during this time, psychic powers were more of a general asset to an army rather than a critical addition which required its own turn, they were intended to work in better co-ordination with allied troops. The psyker choices were defined by their ability to hang back, offer buffs to allies or problems for foes, and while they could certainly hold their own in combat, that was never their intended use. For the time this was a major shift in gears, especially in comparison to the other armies on sale where psykers were used more as living weapons than a multiplying factor of sorts.
Oddly this relatively unique use of psychic powers to bolster the army en mass led to Farseers largely overshadowing the other HQ choices. While the Avatar was listed in the book, more often than not their more directly killy role led to them being forgotten. Despite being the book's bipedal battering rams intended to spearhead assaults, the simple ability to augment the leading troops and keep more elite forces alive made Farseers infinitely more useful. That and, given the choice between a few extra Seers or an Avatar, most players seemed to favour the versatility of the Seers. Despite seeming like a winning formula on paper, it just seemed that it had ended up with the worst of both worlds, lacking the sheer stopping power one would want from a unit of its size, but being just that bit too overpriced for people to seriously consider them an option. Most times the Avatar was put into play you were either facing the rare hobbyist who truly knew how to get them into combat alive, or it was someone who had yet to realise just how flimsy a bullet magnet they truly were. Even serving as muscle to frontal assaults, with a screen of Aspect Warriors moving ahead of it, the model was too distinct for its own good and tended to be picked out rather quickly. A particular problem which would only worsen as railguns were added into the game. It's not really much of a surprise that, in the wake of their failure, Games Workshop would eventually introduce Autarchs as the smaller, more flexible, killy option.
The few times someone did want something truly, singularly murderous and an Exarch wouldn't cut it, players would more often resort to the variety of special characters. Thank in no small part to the Phoenix Lords, the codex retained an extremely wide and varied number of characters to fulfill a variety of roles. If you wanted something killed at range, Maugan Ra was your reaper, and if you needed a close range killer, there were few better options than Karandras. Not all of them were picked up by players, Bahrroth and Jain Zar were lucky to make any kind of list with an inkling of being competitive, but there was always some added fun when one was ever added into the mix.
Despite having the same basic stat line and general cost, the wargear and skills of each Phoenix Lord varied heavily, from Asurmen's durability and re-rolls to Fuegan's vehicle murdering ways. This was the closest the book actually came to reflecting upon the special rules heavy nature of Second and Seventh Edition works, as besides that it largely stuck to streamlined and more direct rules. It certainly worked well in this case to be sure, but it was a rare exception made more - is suspect - to reflect the multi-faceted nature of the army and represent such a diverse number of characters at once. This was a shorter book after all, and lacked a lot of the later space codices would have to focus upon each and every figure one at a time.
What's ultimately remarkable above all else was the strength of these characters. All too often these days a special character is regarded as an unstoppable force of nature,- Draigo and Mephiston being the poster children of such figures - but this isn't the case here. While they would certainly do their fair share of hurt to anything in their way, the Phoenix Lords were not unstoppable god-slaying nightmares who could attack entire flanks on their lonesome. As before, they were made to best work as a part of a bigger army, and that fact was even reflected in the few other independent characters. While both Iyanna retained the Armour of Vaul and a her Singing Spear on steroids, having only two wounds at standard eldar Toughness meant she wasn't the sort of thing you would throw into a mob of Incubi and expect her to win. The same went for Nuadhu Fireheart, the army's sole vehicle special character. His big advantages stemmed from his ability to ignore Crew Shaken and Crew Stunned results and had a "12 charge range, but it still retained the same stats as a standard Vyper. Any solid wall of concentrated fire from a Devastator Squad or a few lucky hits from lascannons would put him out of the fight were he on his lonesome.
The only figure you could argue fitted the bill of unstoppable nightmare character was, oddly enough Eldrad himself. While on paper his abilities certainly look better suited to lobbing psychic powers about the battlefield, in combat the Farseer proved to have a surprising edge over his foes. Games Workshop itself learned this during a White Dwarf battle repord building up to the Thirteenth Black Crusade, where Eldrad merrily beat Abaddon the Despoiler to death. Having a spear which offers perpetual 2+ rolls to wound in combat and the ability to ignore all armour saves certainly helps in this regard, but this was largely kept to a secondary function.
Every other ability in Eldrad's arsenal focused upon using additional psychic powers, or even to have the army's reserves roll in at a faster rate, augmenting the units on hand. Compare this with any other model today which carried about a weapon which could more or less kill most things in a few strikes, and it's almost the complete reverse of what you would expect. Any such unit would be designed purely to charge head long into combat, headbutting Bloodthirsters and enacting a foe tossing charge, and any relationship with the army would be tangential at best. It would probably just involve giving himself and perhaps a unit he was attached to Infiltrate, Outflank or something similar, or perhaps even just offer the army some basic overall benefit like making all shuriken weapons twin linked. This isn't to say that one is infinitely better than the other, but it's worth mentioning that the writers didn't let one aspect simply eclipse the other or go so overboard to, well, pull a Draigo as it were.
Since we're finally done with the characters however, now is the best time to talk about the army itself and how the Third Edition was a dramatic change for them. As a whole,the Craftworld Eldar had always been planned as the "fast" army, hitting hard and racing across the board, but unable to take much punishment in return. This had always been the intention right from the start, but the previous Editions had forced the eldar forces to slog across the battlefield at human speed with only a few jet bikes to give them real speed. The release of the Falcon Grav Tank at the tail end of the previous edition had opened the way for new opportunities, with some small rapid transportation, and the Wave Serpent helped to capitalize upon this. Despite the lack of an official model, proving that some things never change with Games Workshop, kitbashed and converted units allowed the eldar to act almost like an air cavalry army in games. As you can imagine, it was quite the change of pace given how static prior engagements had often been.
The other major alteration came in the form of the xenos' armory. Anyone looking back at the first two Editions might have been surprised to see eldar carrying lasguns into combat, and the widespread use of just about any Imperial weapon. Seeking to break away entirely from the human factions, this eldar codex removed all such weapons and implemented new alternatives, with mixed results. More than a few people were understandably outraged at the abrupt nerfing of the shuriken catapult, which was previously on-par with boltguns, but new alternatives and weapons helped soften that blow. Starcannons dominated the battlefields of this era, culling whole squads of heavy infantry at a time. Given that these weapons were hitting at Strength 6 AP 2 and Heavy 3, and could be given to everything from Vypers to Guardian squads, marines were massacred en mass and transports were popped open without end. Add in Bright Lances and a new dynamic for wraith constructs, not to mention brand new lore explaining their relationship with Seers, and it really was a new age of the eldar.
Prior to this codex, Guardians had fulfilled a very different role in their army. While still certainly a backbone for any of their forces, they were less fodder and more front-line troops, still valued and effective in battle. Instead their presence was regulated more towards what you see today, serving either as massed distractions or a screen for the more valuable troops. Even more so than later Editions, this new shift made them surprisingly compatible with the Imperial Guard grunts. Both were cheap, numerous and clad in paper thin armour, and were only truly useful when A) They were drawing people away from more tempting targets or B) Someone decided to drop a Starcannon on them.
As previous paragraphs suggested, the addition of a heavy weapon among these units seriously upped their killing power and threat level. A group of Guardians on their own was something most people could afford to ignore, especially new their guns had been limited to near point-blank range assault weapons. Give those bitches a cannon though, and all of a sudden an enemy player was faced with a very dangerous weapon hidden within a mob of very disposable warm bodies. Pair that up with a Wave Serpent, and you had a very mobile, surprisingly durable threat to face down, capable of blowing precious points consuming Land Raiders in half.
The real blade of the army obviously lay with the Aspect Warriors themselves, and the codex offered no shortage of specialist troops to field. Striking Scorpions and Dire Avengers tended to be two of the most prominent deployed by players in this era, each focusing upon one extreme end of the game from the other. With one effectively serving as Guardians on steroids and the other taking the swarm butchering route of annihilating forces in close combat, their role has changed very little over the years. In fact that goes for most of the Aspect Warriors as a whole. The few times you might have seen a serious change either stemmed from a minor tweak or drastic alteration of the metagame, but short of that their role would see very few changes. As you can imagine, this sadly meant that Howling Banshees ended up being the army's third wheel for the better part of a decade. Equally, overpriced and often dying too easily to enemy gunfire, Swooping Hawks would go largely unloved until recent updates involving annihilating enemy fliers were added to the mix.
Like so much of the codex, the Aspect Warriors themselves retained a remarkably bare-bones structure and look. With this being such a short book, space was a priority and the new rules change did mean it lacked a lot of the dynamic nature of later editions. Because of this, these units were just as reliant upon Exarch upgrades (offering a plethora of new abilities and skills in place of varied equipment) as they were facing the right foe. While this would often make a unit quite pricey, the cost was usually worth it. To cite Dire Avengers as an example again, adding an Exarch would allow a player to give them the Defend and Distract abilities. Each would respectively limit the number of attacks a foe could make upon them in close combat, and also prevent them hitting on anything but a six, making close range assaults difficult at best. It allowed the unit some opportunities to keep foes at arms length, or risk being tied up long enough for an eldar unit more suited to melee to launch a counter-charge.
The simplicity of the book and its era does show exactly where the designers stumbled with certain concepts, as more than a few units either fulfilled limited roles or were just not very useful on the whole. The Fire Prism in particular was infamous for its limited use on the battlefield, and its lack of tactical flexibility meant many opted to take the Falcon over it any day of the week. Equally, Rangers were a rare sight in most games besides the odd Alaitoc list, largely thanks to their surprisingly static role. While some would deploy them as harassers to pin down certain units or limit an army's advance, more often than not you'd see Guardians or even Shining Spears being deployed to carry out that same tactic.
The book certainly wasn't perfect by any means, but the reason i'm focusing upon its flaws here is thanks to its overall structure. In more than a few modern books, a poorly written unit or lack of serious power on one front would cripple an army outright. After all, try to imagine Dark Eldar with severely nerfed Ravagers or Devastators which can't hit a single thing. No matter the army, it would wreck more than a few lists, and we've seen this issue arise time and time again with the Tyranid Hive Fleets. What helped Codex: Eldar of this era avoid this failing was the book's broad structure. Despite its broad nature and variety of highly specialised units, it almost seems as if many were designed as back-up designs tactically. Should one have failed in one role, another would have a way to help back them up or cover for them until it could be corrected later on. It's an interesting idea to be sure and, as with Eldrad, it's quite remarkable they were able to do this without going into the insane power-gaming extremes we see later on or making each unit too broadly useful.
The only unit I would personally pick out as being severely stronger in this era compared with some later editions is, oddly enough, the Wraithlord. In an army of glass cannons, these guys were intended to be the lynch pins, drawing fire to themselves and taking down the heavy hitters from other forces. More numerous than the Avatar and capable of laying down a continuous barrage of fire as it advanced, they were often the crux of any major assault. Well, at least in the lists I saw anyway. While they were by no means invincible, it's worth noting that they had half the options and ideas of their successors but nevertheless retained a far lower mortality rate. Personally, I feel that was a sign of the Edition over the actual codex itself, as this was a time long before Strength 10 weapons became commonplace or instant kill cannons were so rampant that Eternal Warrior needed to be invented. Perhaps, in its own way, that's the real beauty of this book. For all its comparative simplicity, it managed to get away with far more in some situations than the more complex and dynamic editions did with twice the number of special rules.
If this last part of the review seems to be very general, that's largely because any traditional approach really would have been redundant with this current structure. Trying to fully analyse the book compared to others of its era would require a far greater level of context and detail of the rules of this era, and to help establish what the real status quo was of this time. While that might be worth pursuing for later books should we re-visit the Third Edition again, this review was delayed for so long on this front that it honestly seemed best to just detail how it varied compared with other Editions. Those who were never a part of the hobby at this time can't simply be told how different things truly were. Instead, it's something you need to fully experience for yourself, just to see how your wargame would progress over the years. If nothing else, it's worth it to help see where Games Workshop would take its flagship product in the years to come.