01 February 2016
Is this the real life? Is this just Fantasy?
Games Workshop | Skirmish | £75 | 2+ players | 90+ minutes | www.games-workshop.com
Games Workshop is arguably the reason many people enter the world of wargaming. Typically during their pre-pubescent years, a pasty-faced youth will pass the window of a Games Workshop and suddenly be entranced by the beautifully painted models therein. Then high on the fumes of super glue and Citadel Paints, they’ll glide into the shop and emerge clutching armfuls of miniatures and rulebooks, not really sure what happened but screaming “blood for the Blood God” to terrified passersby.
In the past those goods clutched tightly into the arms of the spotty kid will typically be from one of Games Workshop’s main ranges: Warhammer 40k or Warhammer Fantasy. 40k is GW’s all-conquering science fiction behemoth, full of mighty Space Marines battling terrifying aliens in the grim, dark future. New players can get by on a handful of models, although invariably they’ll end up with plenty more. Warhammer Fantasy, on the other hand, is a game that needs a lot of dedication because here a handful of miniatures only created just one unit in a much larger army. Starting a new Fantasy hobby was a costly and time-consuming business.
As a result there’s been a sense that some newcomers are reluctant to commit the necessary time to creating their Fantasy army and it’s long been rumoured that, in comparison to 40k sales, Fantasy sales were waning. Of course, this must have left Games Workshop with a tricky question – what to do with a problem like Fantasy? Well, GW’s answer is Age of Sigmar, a game that rips up the rulebook (and the world of Warhammer) and starts again. It’s certainly a bold solution… but has it worked?
Games Workshop actually started the ball rolling for Sigmar back in 2014 with the launch of a series of supplements called the End Times, which eventually saw the world destroyed by the forces of Chaos. But throughout the darkness a light has appeared and now the Stormcast Eternals, a group of super warriors re-forged from the spirits of dead heroes with lightning running through their veins, has come to smite that smug smile off Chaos’ face. This is where the Age of Sigmar Starter Set kicks off, with the arrival of the Stormcast Eternals as they duke it out with the wicked Warriors of Khorne.
In the box you get everything you need (apart from terrain, of course) for a two-player game, including miniatures, dice, wobbly blue plastic measuring sticks and rules. However, don’t think you can just pick up the Starter Set and get playing straight away because first you’ve got to piece together the 47 incredibly detailed miniatures that come in the set. Despite the fact some online descriptions say the models are snap-fit, they’re not and you’re going to require time, super glue and patience to get everything together before you can play. The reward is some stunning figures and some in particular, like the Lord-Celestant on Dracoth, are a joy to behold.
Something that may come as a surprise is that you’re going to spend more time putting the minis together than reading the rules. That’s right, instead of a bloated tome of complex rules and stats, Age of Sigmar has just four A4 pages to explain how to play. From movement to combat, it’s all covered on these four pages. It’s a bold move by Games Workshop to include such simple rules but the benefit is that within a few minutes – particularly for experienced gamers – you can be up and rolling dice. There’s a refreshing change about this simplicity and during our playthroughs, even those who wouldn’t class themselves as wargamers could quickly grasp the
rules. Compared to the entry levelfor Warhammer Fantasy, Age of Sigmar is a seismic shift and this simple ruleset could certainly help introduce people to the hobby.
Most of the detail is actually included on so-called Warscrolls. In the Starter Set they take the form of a page of information detailing the movement, wounds, defense and nerve of a unit, along with the weapons and any special abilities they may have. So, although the four pages of rules may cover the basics, there are plenty more special rules to get your teeth into, such as the Mighty Lord of Khorne’s Reality-Splitting Axe, which has the capability of sending enemies through a rift in the very fabric of space… just by rolling a five or six. In Age of Sigmar there are only five Warscrolls for the Stormcast Eternals and six for the Warriors of Khorne. Again, each are easily understandable and add to that sense of making Sigmar as accessible as possible.
However, the Warscrolls have caused some tension (to put it politely) with traditional Warhammer Fantasy players. That’s because Games Workshop has gone back through the Fantasy archives to create a Warscroll for existing units so everything from a lowly Night Goblin to a towering Troglodon now has their own Warscroll. The problem is, of course, that Sigmar is such a different game from the sprawling mass tactical battles of Warhammer Fantasy, that retro fitting existing units feels like a bodge job. A Warhammer player isn’t going to have the same experience with Sigmar and creating a Warscroll for all the Skaven or Wood Elves doesn’t do it justice.
In some ways you’ve got to feel sorry for Games Workshop because it would be damned no matter what it did. If it carried on plugging away with Fantasy in exactly the same way then the traditional core player would have been happy but would new audiences, who are now spoilt for choice, have continued to jump on the bandwagon? If it ripped up the rules entirely and created no Warscrolls for anything pre-Sigmar then, again, people would have been angry but even by creating the Warscrolls it has made large amounts of them furious. Yet for newcomers picking up the Starter Set who have never touched Fantasy, then the Warscrolls are a clear, concise and intelligent way to give units unique characteristics that develop the simple four-page ruleset.
Anyway back to that ruleset now, in terms of gameplay each player’s turn is split into six phases: Hero, Movement, Shooting, Charge, Combat and Battleshock, and we’ll cover each one briefly here. The Hero Phase is predominantly a magic section, so in Sigmar the Stormcast Elementals will be using the Lord- Relictor to cast Lightning Storms orheal units (more on that later), while the Chaos player’s Bloodsecrator can add extra attacks or force the enemy wizard to re-roll successful spells. Along with spells you can also use something called Command Abilities, which are buffs used by your commanders, e.g. the Mighty Lord of Khorne allows up to three units to roll an extra die when charging, while the Lord-Celestant ensures friendly units within 24 inches don’t need to take Battleshock (nerve) tests when they’re damaged.
Next up the movement phase is pretty much what you would expect… as in, you move your units. One thing to bear in mind is that units must halt when they’re three-inches away from an enemy, so they can declare a charge in a following phase. The movement section is also a good place to mention that in Sigmar, you don’t actually measure from the base, instead you measure from any point on the model and as the rules state: “a model’s base isn’t considered part of the model – it’s just there to help the model stand up”. To be honest, this is such a grey area that in our games we just tended to measure from the base anyway. After all should the wing tip of the Prosecutor really count as the closest point? Again, this whole thing about the bases feels like an effort to appease previous Fantasy fans who want to use their existing models that are all on square bases because the new Sigmar ones come with circular/ oval bases. When you’re playing with the Starter Set, it’s much easier and more practical to measure from the standard round bases.
Onto charging now and, as mentioned previously, once you’re within three-inches of an enemy you need to stop and then declare a charge. The maximum distance for a charge is 12-inches, however charging from this long range is risky business because to complete a charge successfully you need to roll two D6 to equal or exceed the charging distance. Say, for example, you’ve left a seven-inch gap, you’ll need to roll at least that to make the charge. Fail and you’re left there looking a bit gormless.
Once you’ve charged in then it’s time for combat and this is another area where Games Workshop has really worked hard to simplify the rules. Gone are points tables or calculations, instead you just check how many fighters are left in your unit, what weapons they’ve got and what you need to roll to hit. You then re-roll any that hit to see if they wound. Some inflict major wounds that can’t be defended against, otherwise your opponent rolls the same number of dice as potential wounds to see if they can fend them off. If the number of wounds exceeds a unit’s ‘wounds’ stat then they’re killed or if they survive you just keep track of the damage. Combat in Age of Sigmar is a triumph, thanks to its simplicity, which ensures for fast-paced and fluid turns. Within a turn or two, you’ll have learned the basics and even the special abilities on the Warscrolls don’t detract from this solid mechanic. Plus, the ability to save against most attacks ensures some tense dice duels as even when the attacker successfully makes a number of attacks, there’s always the chance they could still all miss. We had some great cinematic style moments where, thanks to some chance rolls, a unit would defend against dozens of potential attacks and come out unscathed, while another game saw the Lord- Celestant ripped out of existence by the Reality-splitting Axe thanks to some fluke rolls. Throughout our plays combat was an absolute riot.
Once the combat is all done then it’s time for the Battleshock phase – and this is one element that certainly helps to speed things up. If your unit is made up of individual figures, e.g. five Stormcast Eternals Liberators and one of them has been killed, then you must roll to see if the unit loses its nerve. “Even the bravest heart may quail when the horrors of battle take their toll,” explains the rules. During the Battleshock phase, players must roll a dice and add the total number of individuals slain to the figure. For every number over aunit’s bravery statistic, e.g. five for the Bloodreavers, another warrior will leg it from the battlefield ensuring that encounters can get very bloody, very quickly.
And that’s pretty much it for the rules. In around six paragraphs we’ve roughly managed to describe how to play a game, which is no mean feat on Games Workshop’s part. The crucial question is whether these simple rules will offer enough tactical depth for multiple plays. In the Starter Set there are enough variations in the Warscrolls to result in some very different games and most of ours have been pretty close; one ended with just the Bloodsecrator and Lord-Relictor squaring off against
The other crucial element in the boxset is that both sides are fairly balanced, which is important because, at the moment, there are no unit points in Sigmar. That’s right, theoretically, your Stormcast Elementals could face off against an entire 4,000 point Lizardman army and it would be perfectly legal. To counter this there’s something called a ‘Sudden Death Victory’, which comes into play when the opposing player has a third more models. If that’s the case, the outnumbered player can choose one objective from the Sudden Death Table, which can see them winning by killing just one special character like a wizard, capturing a piece of terrain, taking out a certain unit, etc. This is one of the weirdest design decisions in Age of Sigmar and, although we appreciate attempting a flexible approach to army creation, the lack of any structure feels like a huge oversight. The Starter Set does offer some scenarios that provide suggested army lists but it remains to be seen how Games Workshop will tackle this thorny issue in the future.
Look, the truth is that if you’re a dedicated Warhammer Fantasy player then Age of Sigmar really isn’t going to scratch that itch and will leave you unsatisfied. As we write this around the time of release, Sigmar isn’t a replacement for Warhammer because the two are totally different games. It’s like comparing Dropzone Commander to Infinity. However, if you pick up the Starter Set (with an open mind) looking for a fastpaced, fun and fluid skirmish game using around 20 to 30 units then you’re going to have a great time. With rules that can be learnt in minutes and Warscrolls that add unique abilities, Games Workshop has laid some firm foundations on which to build this new franchise.
This article originally appeared in issue 2 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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