Designed & Published by Games Workshop. Released July 2015. For 2 Players Ages 10+. Plays in 3-4 hours. Review copy provided by publisher.
A legion of blood-soaked demon devotees clash with the lightning-blooded constructs forged by an immortal god-king, every swing of their weapons shakes the ground they stand on, and every clash echoes through the mythic realms they battle over. This is the sort of story that Warhammer Age of Sigmar seeks to tell, the stories of powerful warriors doing battle in epic conflicts. And it does tell those stories… sort of. It’s a fast-playing set of miniatures skirmish rules that, while a bit rough around the edges, can have players up and going within a handful of minutes – but fails to capture a tactical richness you might want from a game with such gorgeous (and expensive) models. Sadly, the rich lore and gritty human stakes of the Warhammer Fantasy world are absent from the game as well, rebooted away in favor of a “epic” scope that feels forced. This is a high quality, very well produced introduction to what is ultimately a middling game.
The old Warhammer Fantasy world as you may have known it is gone following the extended apocalyptic Warhammer Fantasy Battle event that Games Workshop just wrapped up. The new world, explained in a decent quality full-color softback book that also includes rules for the figures and the scenarios, is a bit confusing for newcomers. There used to be another world, but now it’s gone, and Sigmar went flying off through space on the hunk of rock it used to be. Then he met a giant space dragon and they became friends, and the dragon showed Sigmar that there were some D&D-esque planes, err, sorry, Realms for the remnants of mortal society to live in alongside their gods. Peace followed, until, of course, The Forces of Chaos showed up and started wrecking everything. In response, Sigmar and some other gods and god-kings made an army of immortal warriors to go fight them.
If you’re not deeply steeped in the last few years of Warhammer lore, well, you won’t get it. Frankly, it’s mostly contextless fantasy gibberish until lots more books of lore come out explaining it – and I’m not sure it’s particularly creative and unique gibberish compared to what it’s replacing. Immortal Faceless Dudes vs. Immortal demons, and both sides respawn if they die. Not clear what the stakes are that I’m supposed to get invested in here, but, well, hopefully you’re here for the cool models and the game, not the fascinating and deeply engrossing lore.
The new miniatures included in the set are absolutely top of the line, well sculpted, and impeccably produced. With a total of forty-seven figures, it’s an easy month’s work for dedicated single-figure painters or some weeks for speed painters. Six of those figures are unique individual characters, while the rest are troops that are mostly unique among their like, but not as detailed as the characters are. The hard plastic they’re made of is very solid, and the sprues a high enough quality that you don’t have to worry about too much dimpling or other damage while removing and assembling them. The large pre-molded pieces each figure is composed of have one drawback, though, since the standard poses are so dynamic, there’s not that much opportunity for conversion on many of the standard soldiers. When a figure’s torso, head, legs, and one of its arms are all one piece, your job of priming and painting is easier, but cutting it up for re-posing is a much more significant job.
Exceptional among the figures are the characters, like the Stormcast Eternals’ Lord-Celestant and its mount, or the Mighty Lord of Khorne and its daemonic dog buddy. The sheer detail on the pieces is something that I expect will attract even non-Age of Sigmar collectors to this set, simply to have something statue-quality to paint. On the other end, there are twenty of the Khorne army’s Bloodreavers and ten of the Stormcast Eternals’ Liberators in the box, and they don’t have much to recommend any individual model over another – so buying more than one box probably won’t do much for you unless you don’t mind pretty exact duplicates. (Remember, the opportunities for conversion here are low.)
For those looking at these models for other games, it’s worth saying that they’re very clearly not quite standard 28mm scale. Standing alongside figures from the older Warhammer Fantasy range, they’re about a head and shoulders taller, and the Stormcast Eternals stand even taller than a Warhammer 40,000 Space Marine Terminator. It’s not noted on the set’s box that they’re not “standard” scale for this sort of game. I’d expect them to be in-scale with the future range of Age of Sigmar miniatures.
Sitting down to play Warhammer Age of Sigmar is about as straightforward as you could want out of a game, and I expect the learning curve to be very low even for those who haven’t played a tabletop miniatures wargame before. The game does include some scenarios to play through in order, serving as a tutorial of sorts to teach players the game. After some brief setup, players take a turn each starting with the player who finished setting up their force first, meaning the player with the smaller army usually goes first. Each turn is divided into six phases: Hero, Move, Shoot, Charge, Attack, and Battleshock. When you move, you simply move your unit’s speed stat and take care not to move the individuals of the unit more than 1″ apart. When you shoot, you’re able to use all your missile attacks – even if you’re currently right next to enemies. That means missile armed troops are really the most valuable on the battlefield, and the unit of flying hammer-throwing Stormcast Celestants included in the base set is far and away the best unit, since in many turns it’ll have just as many attacks as a special character does. The distance a unit can charge is a roll of two six-sided dice, and they only get that movement if a model can get within ½” of an enemy, so charging is a totally swingy, random chance game of luck.
Attacking is very easy, consisting of rolling a pool of to hit and damage dice for each figure, your opponent making a save, and then removing models. Melee attacks take place with each player attacking with all eligible units each turn, regardless of whose turn it is. Before melee attacks, you can pile in figures in that unit up to 3″. Combat is very intuitive in that you pick which of your units attacks during the round, so you don’t have to ‘finish’ each combat once it starts and can make interesting tactical choices about trying to attack with a unit before it dies. Sadly, your opponent is able to remove casualties from anywhere in the unit, so a very viable tactic is to spread out your unit in a thin string and get it into melee with enemies at each end, hoping that early casualties from one attacker will let you cut another out of the melee by removing figures. That’s neither fun nor thematic play, but it’s the way the game ends up encouraging you to play.
The unit stats are all nicely printed clearly laid out in the included booklet, and once you get the layout you can find numbers very quickly – but special rules take some reading and remembering to get. Unit stats are so short, in fact, that it seems like a real pain to flip to a new page of the book when every single block of stats could fit on one page – or on an easily-referenced unit card. I ended up photocopying the unit stats for each player, just so we didn’t have to pass a book back and forth constantly.
The Hero and Battleshock phases are the most complicated, as they’re when you use characters’ special powers and roll for what passes as morale in the system, based on the number of models a unit has lost that turn. The starter set armies both include ways to totally avoid rolling for battleshock, and have very high bravery statistics among their units, so it’s hard to say what the real effect of battleshock on the game is – realistically, it feels like a vestigial design choice that doesn’t do anything, but in the full game I expect that it’ll serve as a disincentive to players who want to take very large units of cheap troops.
All Warhammer Age of Sigmar‘s ease of play is compromised by two very strange choices around player turns and how you use models. Each round of two turns, players dice off to see who goes first. Yes, that means if you took the prior turn you get to take another in a row. That means you get two volleys of crucial ranged attacks and maneuvering, and two chances at your swingy charging, before your opponent got one. It is not interesting nor fun design, and in my experience games where a player got double turns in the first two or three rounds always ended with that player winning.
The other big problem comes from measuring. A model is the only thing that “exists” on the table – not, as in most other games, the model’s standardized base. This leads to some odd situations, like players turning their figure’s protruding weapons away from the enemy so they have a harder time getting into ½ inch of you after charging, or having a figure’s base overlapping another figure’s base and canting it at an odd angle in order to make your charge legal. Had I spent hours painting the figures, I can’t say I’d be very happy about the way you have to treat them just to play the game.
The game’s simplicity leads to an environment that, simply put, isn’t tactically complex. After some initial jockeying for positioning, a battle devolved into one or two big smushes of units rolling against each other until one side ran out of models. It’s hard to conclude whether that’s a product of the rules or a product of the armies included, though I can’t see too much happening with fancy rules on new miniatures that would change these outcomes.
The Stormcast Eternals army is the more tactically interesting of the two included, with a bit more variety of unit functions among it: Heavy hitters, frontline troops, special characters, and flying quick hitters, each with a clear and distinct role – though in the end the objective of “hit the most while getting hit least” was the best choice. The Khorne Goreblade Warband is much less interesting and far more optimized to do one thing: Get in a big blob, get into melee, and hope you roll better than the other guy. They have powers to use, but all their powers aid in that one goal above all others. Oh, and, I suppose it’s worth noting that the special powers and rules here have none of the silliness we’ve seen in Age of Sigmar rules for older models.
The stats for the two armies are incredibly similar, as well, making the game most devolve into getting into melee and then rolling either higher than 3 or higher than 4 on a pool of dice, with the occasional exciting segue into rolling higher than 5! As a representative sample of a ‘balanced’ game where no single army is much better than another, it’s perhaps too balanced. Balanced to the point of mostly bland, samey slugfests which often come down to two or three figures on each side smacking each other over and over for victory. Without some innovation on your part, or some free scenarios from Games Workshop, don’t expect to get more than ten or so hours of play – that figure includes a couple replays of the later scenarios – from this box set before you’re done.
Bottom Line: A good introduction to an average skirmish game attached to great miniatures and generic-to-confusing lore.
Recommendation: It’s a decent deal for the models, and the production quality is superb all around, but don’t expect to fall in love with a new game from this set alone.[rating=3.0]