Designed & Published by Games Workshop. Released July 2015. For 2 Players Ages 10+. Plays in 3-4 hours. Rules available free online.
The End Times have come to a close, the mortal realms have been all but sacrificed to the forces of Chaos, and with it comes the death of Warhammer Fantasy Battles as we know it. With the death of the old comes the birth of the new. Warhammer Age of Sigmar. This is not just another edition of the game, but a brand new incarnation bringing with it brand new rules, models, factions, a new starter box, and truthfully an entirely new game all together. For some this reboot is quite exciting. Others have dreaded it since it was announced. In the weeks since the rules were released I have been spending a lot of time with the new rules and seeing how Sigmar compares to the game it replaced. I have spent a lot of time over the last 20 years playing Warhammer Fantasy Battles, so how does the new game compare to the old?
Normally this is the part where I would talk about the rulebook formatting, price and structure, but I really can’t do that here. There are a couple reasons for that. Firstly, is that unlike its predecessors, the rules and all associated army compendiums are available for free online. There are no stand alone army books or rulebooks to purchase, at least not in the traditional set. There is an Age of Sigmar book that contains story and fluff elements not available with the core rules. Other books may be released that may contain campaigns or formations to play with, but Games Workshop is very adamant that these are not rulebooks. This is a huge culture shock for many, as the previous editions of the rules books could be upwards of $100, and army books had started creeping up past the $30 dollar mark. Fairly expensive for things that are required to play the game beyond the already pricey models, and something that was viewed as prohibitive to new players looking to get into the game. Understandable, for sure. Here though, Games Workshop has done something that, while I have been calling for it for years, no one really thought was going to happen. The Rules for playing the game, and the army books, or “Warscrolls” as they are now called, are available free as standalone PDF downloads.
The rules are four printed pages. If you’re surprised by this, you aren’t alone. Previous editions spanned multiple hundreds of pages for just the rulebook alone. While some of that was reserved previously for story and artwork, at least half of the pages were detailed rules and instructions on how to play the game. In Age of Sigmar, however, everything is distilled down into it’s most basic pieces. The rules explain the phases for each turn, how to move, charge and how to resolve combat, as well as the conditions for victory. It gives you a quick breakdown on how to deploy your forces and helps you set up terrain by giving you not only a table to roll on, but also breaking down what each piece of terrain does. Each terrain piece is then broken down into how it affects the gameplay and units moving around or through it, as well as recommendations on how to break up the table for placement. It’s the core mechanics you would expect in a game distilled down into the most basic forms.
The tools of the trade also stay the same, you need a measuring device, six-sided dice, and models to play with. There are no painting requirements, but you do at least need an army of some sort. On this side, the requirements for fielding a force are non restrictive, which means bringing whatever you want to the table. There are “factions” so to speak, but each faction is divided into one of the four main alliances. These are Chaos, Death, Destruction and Order. The interesting thing here, is that aside from these distinctions, you can field whatever you want in any combination from the allied force. This substantiates one of the biggest rumors surrounding the release of Sigmar, and furthers the idea of allowing players to play what they want. Want a unit of Wood Elf Dryads and Wardancers running in to battle alongside High Elven Sisters of Avelorn and lead by the Dark Elf lord, Maleketh the Witch King? You can do just that, since they are all allied under the forces of Order. This structure provides a lot more flexibility in forces compared to the old system, and the fact that all of the War Scrolls are free helps to facilitate that.
Unit stats have also changed quite a bit, being distilled down the most necessary stats, in particular Move, Wounds, Save and Bravery. All others stats derive from the weapons given to models. There are no more charts comparing values to determine what you need to roll for success or failure. Now, you have flat values to make. For example, Wood Elf Waywatchers have Asari Longbows. They will always hit on a 3+ roll and wound on a 4+. Weapons also have a Rend and a Damage value. Rend values tell you how to affect the Save of the target you’re hitting, and the damage will tell you how many wounds of damage you deal. The number of attacks is also determined by the weapon your model is using as opposed to a core unit stat. On top of the new factions and stats, one of the first things you may notice is that none of the units have a point value like in most other Wargames, and only have model count ranges and not strict unit sizes. We’ll get into that later, but in short it falls to the players to decide what a fair matchup is.
Overall the game is rules light and focuses more on having fun than worrying about charts, complicated rules, and spending time flipping through books to figure out how to resolve combat or progress the game. It’s not a bad thing, though it does lead to some Ridiculous Rules for older models that have a bearing on the game. We could spend a lot of time going through each of the turn sequences, and combat in depth, but the rules are straight-forward and easy to understand.
How Does it Play?
Let’s face it, with rules that light, there’s not a whole lot to really discuss. At first glance you either love it or you hate it. So, naturally, I decided that if I was going to make a good call on it I would have to play some games. At the time of this review, I have played over two dozen games using the new rules, both with the starter set and with my own Wood Elves. As Warhammer Fantasy Battles has a pretty active community in my local area, and has for several years, finding willing guinea pigs has not been too difficult. After a handful of games with the starter set, I can tell you that it, at least, is balanced well. Using the starter box you’ll have a good chance to get a feel for how the game is supposed to flow. The game felt good while playing it, and it’s quick, with most games finishing around 30 minutes. Feeling like we had a pretty good idea of the flow of the game, my opponent and I decided it would be a good time to switch over and try making our own lists with our own models.
The first thing that became apparent was that without anything – points, scenarios, or varied objectives – guiding us, making lists that felt balanced or equal was incredibly difficult. Game setup took a long time. Far longer than the games in most cases. Again, none of the units have point values. Without a point system, and without scenario guidelines dictating force composition, games were unbalanced, and even when we thought we had a handle on how many units, heroes, and support each side should take, games went very quickly to one side or the other. Several games later we still had difficulties finding the sweet spot. This was further exacerbated because unit composition only gives rough numbers, such as a minimum of 5 troops to a unit, but doesn’t often give you a maximum size. Once you’re past the minimum you’re on your own.
The underlying theme in the games we played with our own units, is that once our big heavies units like Treemen or Dragons got into the fight with anything other than another large creature, combat quickly went in their favor. Aggressive play with monstrous units was rewarded. When we removed the larger models, the games became more about attrition and staying at range to inflict as much damage as possible. Handling units of larger sizes also became quite difficult, as there are no more unit blocks or movement trays. Everything “skirmishes” and can be in essentially in any form on the table, but due to the lack of solid unit blocks like in old Warhammer strange unit configurations and strings of models were common. Many players around me – as you can see from that picture – quickly went back to the old way of doing things. Moving 40 goblins by hand gets tedious.
After more than a dozen games, the lack of balancing rules was my biggest sticking point. Most players use the points system to quickly and easily establish the social contract for a pick-up game, and it quickly sets boundaries for strangers and new players. Saying that you want to play something like 1500 points establishes not only the size, but the stakes and time constraints of the game quickly. Most of the time this winds up being roughly balanced and lets you get right into a game without too much worry over setup. Among friends, the lack of guidelines for games may not present as large of a problem, but part of the game is being able to play against anyone, and maybe make new friends. Because of the lack of guidelines to help frame the social contract between players, creating shared knowledge of how the game is played, simply starting a game has become difficult.
I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few days, compiling my thoughts on this and talking with local players. The game itself, despite being so simplified, has potential. I did genuinely have fun in some of the games I played, but that was eclipsed by the amount of time I spent on setup, talking with my opponent trying to figure out what was fair. What keeps the game from being better is the lack of structure. Even eschewing point values, there would be a benefit to going all the way back to the roots of historical wargaming by using predefined scenarios. That would at least give you parameters to work with that balance the game.
As it stands, the game relies on the players to balance it, and that reduces the requirement on Games Workshop’s part to balance stats, troops, and armies. That lack of precise care takes away from the player’s ability to enjoy the game: I saw veteran players grow incredibly frustrated trying to use carefully-assembled forces.. then drop the Age of Sigmar rules by the wayside and pick up a Warhammer Fantasy Battles 8th Edition rule book.
Now, the Age of Sigmar Book contains the rules as well as Warscrolls for the Stormcast Eternals, Khorne Bloudbound and Sylvaneth. Battalions are also added which provide special abilities and conditions for your various units. The printed book comes with a hefty price tag though of $150. Scenarios have been added that allow for some further structure, but mainly focus on the featured Warscrolls. There are also rumors of further publications that will be released over time that will add more scenarios and story campaigns, but it’s hard to see those supporting a large and diverse range of models, or not requiring players to buy large amounts of new models to fit the prescribed scenario. There is a real opportunity here for added structure to help players who crave more regimented gameplay.
Age of Sigmar is geared more towards new, younger players and less towards the already established player base. The rules leaning towards the attitude of bring whatever you want to the table appeals to a crowd that maybe can’t afford to purchase a full army all at once. Sigmar‘s core encourages growing at your own pace by not imposing minimum army requirements. Age of Sigmar feels like a vehicle to get people into the hobby, then shift them over to Warhammer 40K as they become more seasoned or crave a more complex game There is a lot of potential, but this initial presentation falls short. If the game starts to see support for scenarios or campaigns and receives rules updates filling in details or adding structure, it may be worth coming back to.
Bottom Line: If you’re a veteran player of Warhammer, you probably won’t find what you are looking for here.
Recommendation: If you’re looking to get into the hobby but are intimidated by Warhammer 40K, or are looking to introduce the hobby to someone young, Age of Sigmar may be the stepping stone you’re looking for.[rating=2][amazonwidget]