Thursday, 19 May 2011

Why I Like Warhammer 8th Edition

Recently I was talking with a couple of friends, one of whom is a current Warhammer player, whilst the other probably hasn’t played a game in 10 years or more. We were discussing the way the game has changed in the current edition. This basically involved the two of us who still play taking turns, trying to cover the massive changes that have taken place, and giving it all context in terms of what it all means for the game as a whole.

It was during this conversation that it occurred to me how much I like the new edition of Warhammer. I admit that I feel that I am in the minority here, in terms of the Australian gaming community. The vibe I have received online (specifically on WargamerAU) has been overwhelmingly negative. This will undoubtedly be partly as a result of the vocal minority (as these things so often are), so may not be a reflection of the community as a whole. However, tournament numbers have dropped considerably since the release of 8th edition, amidst a storm of bad publicity from players with a high profile in the online community. The amount of noise this storm caused may have had an adverse impact on others who were yet to make their own decision regarding the new rules, but I would like to hope this was not too pronounced.

A Brief History
Old School - Warhammer 4th Edition Rulebook
The newest edition of Warhammer undoubtedly came as a shock to all of us. It is, in essence, a different game from 7th edition. For those who don’t know, the game has changed with the release of each new edition, with every second release being a relatively major overhaul. I started playing during 4th edition, and since then I have seen the following (this is all from my failing memory, so bear with me):
  • 4th Edition – the quintessential Hero Hammer, with half an army’s points regularly spent on practically invincible characters. Brutal magic and some serious monsters rounded things out. Despite all this, I loved this game. I should say that I believe 4th edition was a major change from 3rd edition, where heroes were level 15 and 20 and clearly defined army books were an idea for the future. But I don’t know for sure – even I am not that old…
  • 5th Edition – a refinement of 4th edition, with a streamlining of the Colleges of Magic down to a rather feeble Battle Magic deck. Magic was tweaked, great weapons stopped always striking last on the charge, and Bretonnians and Lizardmen got their own army books for the first time. The changes in this edition were really relatively minor.
  • 6th Edition – a major revamp. The biggest changes came in the magic phase and in army construction. Gone were the percentage breakdowns for army lists and the concept of Special and Rare choices were introduced, cramping the style of those players who favoured all-elite lists. Magic was a major overhaul too – the Winds of Magic cards disappeared, replaced by a system of dice. Gone too was the huge stockpile of generic magic items. All of the old army books were invalidated, to be replaced by a get-you-by list supplied with the core game, and the usual steady trickle of proper books.
  • 7th Edition – another refinement, with nothing really major changing. Magic was tweaked again, this time constraining mages to use their own power dice instead of those provided by their flunkies. A complete rank became 5 models instead of 4, something that improved the appearance of the game, but hurt regiments like ogres and cavalry.
  • 8th Edition – a major change, as most people know. Magic was changed again, being dictated by a roll on the Winds of Magic and the casting and dispelling levels of the wizards involved. The spells were also altered considerably, with some large, potent spells being added to a number of Lores. But the magic is a minor thing compared to having to roll for charge distance and chargers no longer striking first, pre-measuring whatever you like, supporting attacks, the Steadfast and Horde rules different terrain rules, and the reintroduction of percentages for army selection (albeit a bastardised version that incorporates the concepts of Core, Special and Rare choices as before).
I Don’t Like It…
Even after seeing Warhammer change fairly heavily with the advent of 6th edition, I admit I was unprepared for the scale of changes that 8th edition brought. Some of the changes are colossal. And to begin with, I was not at all sure about them. What was GW doing, making me roll to see how far I could charge? And letting me measure everything before deciding what to do? Where was the skill in the game? What sort of noobs did they take us for?

Add to this the general (rather cynical) feeling that GW had altered the rules in a way that demanded far larger armies to accommodate the increased level of carnage and rules such as Steadfast (leading to the usual bitterness regarding GW pricing and the rest of it), and a number of us were less than happy with the new game.

But Then...
After my initial reactions, reading through all the rules and giving myself time to absorb it all, I began to revise my opinion. A lot of the changes seemed stupid when considered in isolation, however when taken in context they make a lot more sense. Random charge ranges seem ridiculous, but then most units in the game don’t really care whether they charge or get charged now (something that was often the be-all and end-all of combats in 7th edition). Some of the spells can inflict utter carnage, but then the rules encourage larger units anyway, which can absorb a lot more damage.

Then came a general realisation amongst our gaming group of what had happened to the balance of the army books. It should be noted here that, unlike when 6th edition was released, the existing army books all remained valid with little-to-no changes or clarifications required. This was remarkable, but what was even more astonishing was that the balance between the books was far more even than it had been under 7th edition. When you think about it, this is nothing short of a miracle. I don’t know if it can be attributed to exceptional planning on the part of GW or blind luck – probably a combination of the two. But where an army such as Ogre Kingdoms would often find itself with no answer to something like Dark Elves, suddenly the game became interesting again.

Embracing Change
I think part of the problem players have when adapting to 8th edition is comparing it to 7th edition, when in reality they might as well be different games. There is a definite focus shift in the new game, to the point where you are really not comparing apples with apples anymore. To summarise, here are the things I think you need to be prepared to accept in 8th edition if you are going to embrace it as a game:
  • Warhammer is now a game of carnage. Where previously you might have two full regiments clash with 5 models fighting on one side, none striking back and the loser breaking and fleeing, now you will have 10 or more models fighting from both sides (potentially a lot more if players embrace the rules). Spells exist that can slaughter troops, although how many generally depends on how ideal the target is. Units can fire in 2 ranks, making it easier to concentrate fire. War machine templates do not have to roll for partial hits. Whatever phase you are in, more stuff will die.
  • Warhammer is a game of chance. This has (to a certain extent) always been the case, however with the advent of random charge ranges, some players will feel this more acutely. A player must either gamble with his tactics, or try to mitigate the chance by devising backup plans, rather than backing his judgement of distance over that of his opponent.
  • Warhammer is a fast game. OK, these things are all relative. Warhammer is not quite so fast as Connect 4 or Snap. But players will find that with the simplified movement rules, including the addition of things like Dangerous Terrain in place of Difficult Terrain, and (in most cases) a greatly increased charge range (with free wheels), armies will close much faster and engage a turn or more earlier than they were in previous editions. It is also harder to leave an enemy unit stranded, facing the wrong direction, which means things will not take long to get properly stuck in. With far less fiddling and careful angling of units to manipulate an enemy’s movement, you can expect the average Movement phase to be much faster than in 7th edition.
  • Warhammer is a game of large battles. The rules lend themselves to large games well, but can potentially be abused in smaller games. Warhammer has never really been the skirmish game of choice, and with powerful spells and rules like Steadfast available to very cheap troops, games could potentially be skewed at smaller points values. The game probably works best at tournament sizes of around 2000-2500pts, but scales up to much larger games far better than any previous edition of the rules – the game looks more impressive and plays quickly, even with far larger armies.
  • Warhammer is as you see it. A small group of trees really is a small group of trees – not an impenetrable forest. A low hill is, as it seems, just a lump of ground – it is not a towering mountain from which to survey the battlefield. The rules reflect this. It makes it far harder to hide your pet Dragon from the nasty Great Cannon using your stereotypical collection of GW terrain, but it reinforces the old WYSIWYG maxim – it applies to the terrain now, not just the models. If you really want a forest that blocks line of sight, make one. There is nothing stopping you.
Why I Like It

So, the title of this article is "Why I Like Warhammer 8th Edition." I haven't really covered that very well yet, have I? I shall endeavour to address that here. I can't think of everything right now, but here are some of the things I like about the new rules:
  • I get to kill stuff! I know this seems like a ridiculous statement, and it is perhaps a trite way of saying it, but it can be very satisfying killing droves of enemy models, even when you're losing. I have had at least 2 occasions so far where 40 models have died in a combat, which ended in a draw. That is an epic level of carnage, and something impossible in previous editions. You no longer feel like you are lining guys up and hoping to win the combat on "static combat res" (rank bonus, flanks, banners, etc), with casualties often playing little part. This is war! There should be screaming and dying and body parts flying everywhere...
  • The game of fidgeting is over. Far too often games of Warhammer were being decided by finicky deployment and movement of models. The more serious the games got, the more carefully players would nudge their models around the table. It could get very tedious. With random movement and both players being allowed to measure whatever they like, this sort of behaviour is hopefully behind us. There is no point trying to edge yourself to 8.1" away from the enemy. Just place it and agree that you're more than 8" away. This also resolves range disputes, which have been a blight on the game for a long time. It's amazing how differently 2 people can measure the same thing. Also amazing how 2 people can interpret scatter dice, but I digress...
  • The game flows better. The simplification of movement (things like not being allowed to wheel backwards, swift reforms, etc - not to mention the massive changes to charging)  was something I disliked to begin with. I also hated the terrain rules. However, I have changed my mind. It permits the game to move at a good rate, with units surging across the table and making sweeping charges. Forests used to not affect some troops, but stop others dead. Obstacles were a nightmare and generally avoided when setting up tables. It wasn't really balanced and I think it works better now.
  • I like there being a point to having more than 25-30 models in a unit. Before, adding those models made almost no difference - it just made the unit more expensive. The Horde and Steadfast rules have changed that in a big way. Now players have to decided whether they want lots of smaller units, a few big ones, or a mix of the two. And for larger games, there is a feeling of "epicness" that could be lacking when the armies would just keep adding more and more of the same sized units.
  • Game balance. I don't know how, but the strengths of the various army books are closer under 8th edition than they have been in living memory. Sure, some are probably still stronger than others, but now that the Tomb Kings have been updated, there is no single army that feels pointless to play. There are no real "tiers" in terms of army strength - something that was debated endlessly under 7th edition. The new rules also mean that more units have a viable purpose than before. This expansion of options and approaches is remarkable, given we're using the same army books as before.
  • 7th edition was getting stale. By the end of 7th edition, most of us needed a change. The game had become fairly predictable, the power of the various armies was well known, and the game had really become all about small diverting units controlling your opponent's every move. There was nothing wrong with it, other than the fact that we were ready for a new ruleset. I used to think changing editions every 4 years was a bogus marketing stunt, however I was pretty jaded by the end of 7th edition. 8th edition is more than just a breath of fresh air - it's a whole other way of playing Warhammer.
Give It a Chance
Ultimately, I think it is very important that players form their own views about 8th edition Warhammer. Don’t base your views on what you read on the internet, or what you have heard another jaded 7th edition player grumbling about. It’s entirely possible you won’t like the rules, in which case you are perfectly free to play something else. However, make sure you give them a try with an open mind, changing game sizes and armies as you see fit. You may like what you find.

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