Thursday, 29 September 2011

Victims of the cycle

The latest rumours doing the rounds of the internet are suggesting that the next 3 Warhammer army books to be re-released will be Empire, Vampire Counts and Dwarfs. I saw this at Fields of Blood, where it came from Tronhammer, where it came from Warseer. What a wonderful tangled web these things weave…

Anyway, these are a bit of a change from what I had heard previously, and its caught me by surprise. For starters, let me say straight out that Im glad the Vampires are in the list. I have stated previously that the list needed help, as of all the lists (apart perhaps from the Tomb Kings, which have already rectified), the Vampire Counts suffered with the introduction of 8th edition. They need a breath of fresh air, so the suggestion that they are on the horizon is welcome.

I am less certain about the Empire and Dwarfs. They are two of the oldest army books (the only older books are Bretonnians and Wood Elves), and they are two of the most popular in terms of collectors and the core imagery of the game. However, both army books work quite well as they currently stand. They are also both armies that I own, so I have more of a vested interest in them. Im not entirely sure that Im ready for a new book for either.

When your army book is obviously weak or unbalanced and you are consequently dissatisfied with it, it is easy to look forward to the army being re-released. You stand to lose very little, and who knows what sort of goodies will be included in the new book? As a general rule you know GW will not release a much weaker book than those around it (there have been exceptions, most notably the previous Ogre Kingdoms book), so you are almost certainly going to find the new book an improvement in terms of your armys competitiveness. 

In the past, the general rule of thumb was that each new book would be more powerful than all the ones that came before it. This “power creep” was a generally accepted phenomenon one that left players of older books frustrated and a little sad. Its possible that games designers enjoyed the fun of making a list packed with more tricks and toys than all those that came before it, however the driving force behind the pattern was most likely sales. Even with a shiny new model range, it would be difficult to push sales of the revised army if the book made it uncompetitive. On the other hand, if the army is the biggest, baddest thing on the scene, that alone will appeal to some players and will generate sales in its own right.

Thus far in 8th edition we have seen the power creep phenomenon largely arrested. Three armies have been released at the time of my writing this article, with Orcs and Goblins, Tomb Kings and Ogre Kingdoms all receiving shiny new hardback books, all of which seem to be about on a par in terms of strength. This is far preferable to the arms race we used to be faced with, and Warhammer will be the better for it if we see it continue. The fact that the new books saw a relatively minor change to Orcs and Goblins, but a huge revision for Ogres is indicative of how varied the previous lists had been.

If the current pattern we have seen so far in 8th edition continues, where each army book seems to be on a relatively even keel, it will be interesting to see what happens when we get to the stronger army books from the previous edition. If GW truly have arrested power creep, armies like Daemons potentially stand to lose out when their book gets revised. The community as a whole would love the power levels of all armies to be roughly level, however I am not so certain that the owners of these armies would be delighted to find that their new army was not as potent as the one it replaced.

Along with the new army book, each army sees a swathe of new models accompanying the release. This is normally an exciting thing for most players, as the quality of models in the game generally improves. Occasionally it can prove problematic for someone who has not yet completed his unit of older models, however with certain exceptions, the older range tends to go on sale and appear far cheaper in the second-hand markets, so its normally a win-win situation. Many of us are guilty of purchasing the new model for something we already had covered with the older range, so even players with extensive collections are not immune to the Shiny New Model Syndrome…

A new army book generally presents the player with a whole new experience using his old army. It is rare for the dynamic of the army to remain completely unchanged between books, and even rarer to see the power balance between units within the list remaining exactly as-is. Spells and magic items change, new units are added, and existing units that were considered unworthy in the previous list tend to get a boost (or a price drop) to make them tempting once more. It can almost be like collecting an entire new army, without the financial outlay and painting that that involves. A new book is a breath of fresh air, and given some books can take 5 or more years to be re-released, players are often well and truly ready when the revision arrives.
Army books come and go..
If you happen to like an existing book however, the prospect of a new book can fill you with trepidation. Will they retain the things you like about the current list? Will they shift the balance of the list so that the units you built your plans around are no longer worthwhile? Worst of all, will they completely remove some of your favourite choices, leaving you with homeless models and an ache where the units used to be?

For all that the external balance of a new book (ie how it compares to other lists) will generally be favourable (or at least neutral), a new book often sees a shift in its internal balance. This will generally mean that units that were no good before are given a boost or a discount, and those units that might have been considered too good (no-brainers) may get pegged back a bit. In an ideal world you want every unit in the army to be worth consideration, and each army book tends to include tweaks intended to make that a reality. Whilst this is a noble ambition, its very difficult to get it right.

A lot of players collect and build their armies around certain lists. They assess what they want and how many they will need before rushing off to buy the models. This often results in unbalanced collections, or at the very least some form of emotional attachment to particular selections. The re-balancing of the new book will often see a powerful unit, beloved of many (and despised by everyone else) turn into a more questionable selection. It can seriously mess with the effectiveness of a players army, and necessitate the purchase of new models to address the issue (GW will obviously be crying into their beers over this one whilst using their bonuses to buy more beers to cry into).

The problem can be exacerbated when a unit shifts within the list, the options change, or it disappears entirely. A large number of players would have been left without a legal army when the Warriors of Chaos book was released, and Chaos Knights and Chariots had become Special choices. The same thing happened with High Elf Silver Helms they went from a viable Core choice to becoming the poor cousins of Dragon Princes, over in the Special section. Of course, these things can go the other way, but thats rarely a problem. I know a number of people with Skeletons and Goblins carrying great weapons. These are not really useful at the moment theyre no longer legitimate options for those troops (and havent been for a while). 

Thankfully we have not seen a lot of units disappear entirely in recent years. Minor issues arise such as certain character mounts disappearing, however it seems that GW are generally committed to keeping existing units in their respective army lists. It is easy to see why they would use this approach it is one thing to shift the power between units, but it is quite another to leave players with no use at all for some of their models.  
Ones that didn't make it: my old Wood Elf Warhounds get a new lease of life as unit fillers for my Empire.
Sometimes the release of a new army book brings with it something that could be perceived as a loss of character. On occasion the details of an armys background may change a little bit, however this is rarely a major thing. More frequently, the new book changes its focus. Relatively recent examples of this are the Vampire Counts and Warriors of Chaos books. The previous Vampire Counts book had introduced the 5 distinct Vampire bloodlines (Von Carstein, Blood Dragon, Lahmian, Strigoi and Necrarch), and had taken pains to distinguish between them. They had different stats, powers and models in effect they were different characters. This changed when the next book came out. The bloodlines are still represented, but in a wishy-washy, stylised and interchangeable format. You can no longer definitively say that a Vampire is a Von Carstein, because he may well have abilities that used to belong to Blood Dragons and Necrarchs. Things have been simplified, and the simplification has led to a loss of character. Previous Chaos books have talked on the animosity between the four powers, and items were restricted to servants of a given patron. More significantly, a hero with a specific Mark was not permitted to join a unit that was not Marked the same way. This was a significant restriction, however it reinforced the armys character. This is gone now, and the only lip-service that is paid to the old divisions is the existence of a different Lore of magic for sorcerers with the relevant Mark.

In both of these examples, the changes made have been to simplify the rules and streamline army selection. The mentality behind it is understandable, but the change in character is (I believe) undeniable. This sort of thing may not bother some players in the slightest, but there will always be some who lament the change.

Caught in limbo.
It is common knowledge that army books in Warhammer dont last forever. In a given edition, once every race has a proper army book, the next question is always who will have their existing book updated. It is a constant cycle, and one that has been progressing unbroken since 6th edition was released in 2000, when all the existing books were abolished and a new set started to be released (Dwarfs, Wood Elves and Bretonnians are still running books released under 6th ed).

Any player who knows his army book is a few years old starts to wonder whether it is due for an update in the near future. This could be because the rules need an update, or the army has been the same for too long and become stale, or it could just be that the cycle is about to come around again, and time alone will dictate that the new book is due. This finite life expectancy can have a noticeable impact on our purchasing and painting habits. This could be the fear that the effort gone into painting a unit of 50 models will be wasted when theyre not as good in the new book (if in fact that fear is realised). At the very least, players are unlikely to go out and invest in a new army, when there is the danger that the list will be very different in a short time.
It may be that one of the real reasons why GW try not to publicise what will be released ahead of time is that it stagnates sales in an army that will be shortly updated. If I know a new book is due in 3 months, I am not going to make major plans for the army because those plans could be thrown into disarray when the list changes. How much a player is affected by these considerations will vary, but you can be sure that some people put all their plans on hold at the mere sniff of a new book.

Not ready?
As I stated at the beginning of this article, Im not sure Im ready for new books for the Empire and Dwarfs. There are a few reasons for this, but I am willing to admit that the main factor is that I have not used either list very much. Before this year (my Year of the Empire), I didnt have a painted Empire army, had never used one in a tournament, and had only played a handful of games with them at all. My use of the Dwarfs has been even more pathetic I painted up an army for a tournament a few years ago, played a couple of practice games, the tournament, and only a handful of games since. They didnt really capture my imagination, and so they got shelved fairly promptly.

You would think that my experience with Dwarfs would dictate that I want a new army book, however my experience with Dwarfs is that they really are not going to change much. Of all the armies in Warhammer, the Dwarfs have perhaps of the most clearly defined character. Their limitations (in terms of speed, lack of cavalry, lack of magic and favouring of artillery) are ingrained in their character, and hence they tend to dominate each book. It restricts what can be done with the lists, even as I find the stubbornness of the army itself highly characterful. Just like any good Dwarf, the book sits there and grumps about the old days, refusing change and generally not making a lot of friends along the way…

Limited as my use of them has been, I have given the Empire a much better run than I did with the Dwarfs. I like how the army plays, and I feel that it nestles nicely in the middle of the pack in terms of its strength under 8th edition. It offers huge flexibility, and I have not really had much of a chance to explore that yet because I am still painting up the army and adding new units as I go. Versatility has always been a defining characteristic of Empire armies, so in some ways I should have little to fear. But I worry anyway, even as I continue painting my army and try to ignore the possibility that whatever I am doing will be invalidated in a matter of months.

At least I never got around to converting my Arch Lector of Ulric on a War Altar. Id feel mighty silly if Id gone to all the trouble and they then released the same model a month later. But what if Knights cease to be Core? What if my painted collection doesnt work at all? I guess I will just have to wait and see…

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