Monday, 1 August 2011

We don’t all need howdahs

First up, an apology. I seem to have reverted to my old, foot note-wielding ways. I’m not sure what happened. Maybe I’m feeling all retro or something.

With the arrival of the Tomb Kings and Orcs and Goblins army books, there have been developments I find both pleasing and otherwise. The main thing that pleases me is that the armies seem to be relatively balanced, both internally and in comparison with the general strength of the existing armies. The main thing that annoys me is the proliferation of howdah-laden monsters. I will give a bit of a breakdown of my thoughts below.

External balance
I can’t remember a time when GW released two army books in a row, without either book rocketing to the top of the power pile and being the thing that everyone either despised or coveted. The phenomenon of “army creep” is well documented, however it is possible that GW have finally put a stop to it. If this is the case, I applaud them for it.

Conspiracy theorists will tell you that army creep was a marketing mechanism first and foremost. When a new army book comes out, it is as much a vehicle for a new range of models as it is a breath of fresh air for a potentially stale old list. I’m told that the schedule of releases for new armies is driven more by the development and availability of a new model range than it is by which army needs a kick to get it in line with the rest1. The theory goes that GW want the new army to be as enticing and as popular as possible in order to drive sales, and an effective way to ensure this is to make the army as powerful (or even more powerful) than those that were released before it. Some players will always be drawn to the faction most likely to win, and this clearly caters to them. Conversely, few players are likely to adopt an army that is known to be inferior to the alternatives2.

The Tomb Kings and Orc and Goblin army books are not the most powerful on the market. Nor is either of them weak. Both armies are capable of winning, and I’m not aware of any existing books that completely trump them and make the game a foregone conclusion (specific builds on both sides notwithstanding). The competitive balance of the books against the existing armies is very good, which is a step in the right direction. What this means in terms of marketing, and whether we will see the trend continue, who knows?3

Internal balance
“A place for everything, and everything in its place”

This old saying can be applied to the construction of army books. Ideally, every option in an army book will have something to offer, and merit selection in order to fill its designated role. There is little point having units that are horrifically over-costed, or simply a worse alternative to something else in the list, as they will never get used. This has a marketing aspect to it as well: in the same way that a new army needs to be worth playing in order to sell, a particular unit needs to be worth including in an army, or the models won’t sell and the development that went into them will be for nothing4.

The latest army books seem to do a good job of costing units appropriately and ensuring that each unit will be considered for one reason or another. This is quite an achievement in a book like Orcs and Goblins, where there are dozens of choices available. There will always be exceptions in terms of some choices being favoured over others (you will see a lot more Mangler Squigs than Giants going around), but a case can be made for everything in there.

I have heard people say they will still not buy Skeletons in a Tomb Kings list, despite them costing a mere 4 points each. This may be true of some people, however they are no longer blatantly over-costed, and the ability to borrow the Weapon Skill of a Tomb King or Prince makes them more viable than they were in the past.

The new policy of only including 8 magic items in each army book doesn’t seem to have benefited quite as much from an internal balance perspective. Some items are definitely better value than others, and some of the items will probably never be seen on the table. This has always been the case, but you feel it a lot more when there are only 8 to choose from. You can’t wade through the chaff looking for gems when there are only a handful of options in total. Maybe this is another example of something not receiving as much attention since it has no direct impact from a marketing perspective.

Everything for everyone
But now we come to the real reason I started writing this article. We have started seeing preview pictures of the new Ogre Kingdoms models, as GW gears up toward the release of the new book in the next month or so. The image below was shamelessly stolen from Mr Saturday’s blog (cheers for that! Nice pics)…
Impressive... See the link above for a couple of other beasties
What are we seeing here? It is (I believe) an Ogre Mammox - basically the Ogre equivalent of a Stegadon. In the same way as an Arachnarok is the Goblin equivalent, or a Warsphinx is the Tomb Kings’ answer.
First there was...
Then there was...
And then there was...

And this is precisely my point. Why do all these new armies have a Stegadon equivalent? The Stegadon used to be one of the distinguishing units in the Lizardman army. It was something nobody else could get, and it added character to the army. However, now every new army book has a similar option. Why is this?

There are a number of potential answers to this question. The first is that GW seem to be getting more adventurous with each plastic kit they release. The kits are getting ever-fancier and ever-larger. The Arachnarok is a truly colossal kit – it’s the only one of these examples that I own, and I am yet to get around to assembling it, as it looks like a very big job. It could be that they’re just showing off with these things, and a monster so huge it can accommodate not just a single rider, but an entire team, is obviously an opportunity to make something massive.

Another possible explanation is that the scale change in Warhammer with the arrival of 8th edition demands larger centrepieces and more dangerous monsters. Units have become larger, casualties are far greater, and armies need monsters that can kill ranks at a time. The bigger units also tend to make for an ocean of models, so you need a massive model to stand out in the centre and catch the eye. Players can also use more monsters when they can get them from the Special and Rare sections of their army lists, instead of having to put characters on them. These howdah-laden beasts are an easy way to excuse adding such a choice to the list.

The final explanation (and one I hope is not true) is that GW feel that every army needs to have the same sort of choices available to it. That it is unfair for a single army to have a huge, stubborn monster to fall back on, and all armies need their own equivalent. I worry that this might be the case when I see things like Ogres on monsters and their own version of cavalry. These things were not deemed necessary in the first release of the Ogre Kingdoms book. Have they been added to balance the army, or to broaden its appeal? Or just because GW love their huge plastic kits and are going nuts making ways to include them?

Don’t get me wrong. I like having choices available to me, and the more options there are, the more variety we are likely to see on the table. I also like the opportunity to own, paint and use massive, impressive models. But I also like each race in Warhammer being unique. And I feel that going through and making sure that every army has the same options as the rest will really undermine the individuality of the different races.

Where will this stop? Are we going to see High Elf dragons ridden by entire families of Elves, having picnics and dancing in circles on their backs? I hope not, but I wouldn’t bet against it at this rate.

  1. There are other factors too, such as the most popular armies getting more attention whilst those with a smaller collector base get the cold shoulder – Orcs and Goblins get a lot more love than something like Wood Elves or Bretonnians. I actually find this slightly counter-intuitive, as I would have thought it would be easier to increase the popularity of a rare army with a new, inviting model range and rules than it is to convince existing owners of a particular army to buy a whole new swathe of models. I can only assume that GW have decided that those that are popular are that way for a reason, and so they will always have more attraction to those considering a new army.
  2. I actually think this is a large part of why Ogre Kingdoms never really took off when they were first released. I think GW got spooked by the potentially blatant over-powered-ness of an army entirely populated by Ogre-sized models, and did a number of things to make sure this didn’t happen. The result was the weakest new army release seen in years, with most potentially useful things being handicapped in some way, like someone in rules development had slapped the whole army with a nerf stick.
  3. I am a little bit worried about this, I confess. This new era of balanced army books is coming at the same time as a number of highly unpopular decisions by GW, which may see sales significantly impacted. It would be a terrible shame if The Powers That Be decided that the new policy of removing army creep had failed, resulting in poor sales (when in fact other factors could be blamed). Hopefully they will stick with the new precedent and let the new models sell the new armies, rather than relying on over-powered rules to drive their sales.
  4. The marketing side obviously doesn’t hold true for units where GW never release models for them, such as Forsaken in the Warriors of Chaos list. And then, they are a unit I have never seen used. Coincidence?


  1. Great post. Your third footnote is a major concern for me too. At the rate GW are going, we could have an entire suite of 8th ed army books in three years or so. If they are all as balanced as the first two, we're in for a happy time in warhammer. Let's hope they see it through.

    I don't mind the howdah thing so much, mostly as I love the models. Yes, the candy work on me. I will say though, there's quite a difference from the new orc and goblin list and the tomb king list, in both style of play and unit choices and abilities, so I'm not over worried about the lists being homogenised.

  2. I confess, I am yet to really see much of the new Tomb Kings in action. But yeah, you would hope those 2 armies would play differently - they couldn't have been more different in the previous books; the most predictable army and the least...

    I will let people work out for themselves which was which

  3. I agree on the balance issue, I hope it lasts. They did start it last edition with the release of the Empire and Orcs and Goblins, both being relatively balanced books then but each one after that has been a leap-frog effect. I am still yet to read the TK book, but I have not heard of anything that has made the collective wargamers cry - so that can only be a good thing.

    I do like the monsters, as long as it fits with the army. So far they have done well to integrate the big beasty in with the rest of the stuff, without it being a huge powerhouse. I am afraid of what will happen when they get to armies where they don't really have a place; Bretonnians and Dwarfs for example. I fear they will get something just for the sake of everyone having something big and nasty. Sometimes, they just don't need it.

  4. If it does integrate though, I say great. A dwarf zeppelin? Bretonnian shrine carriage mayhap?

  5. The mighty Great Bearded Mole. Fiercest, grumpiest, and most drunken of all subterranean beasts.

  6. I agree that GW should remove the army creep, I feel they have done a reasonable job of balancing the books. I still think that it should be looks. lore and play style that appeals to the player base, however some armies do need some more choice and dimension, i.e. Bretonians knights on foot might be a nice alternative. I actually converted chaos warriors into forsaken because I liked the stories and concept of the unit.

    1. When the Elf books started coming out they actually did a reasonable job of breaking the patterns that had been emerging. No new monstrous cavalry units and the like, just when everyone was starting to assume they were standard issue. I'm not sure army creep is a serious issue at the moment, and I certainly don't know how to even address such a topic in the environment of the End Times.

  7. Yeah, I'm finding the end times a mixed bag some of it is col but other stuff I feel is too much like they're trying to streamline the warhammer universe. I found the new wood elves to be quite hard but hard to play.