Post by Scott –
First, some history:
In late 2014, Games Workshop released a series of campaign books for their Warhammer Fantasy Battles miniatures game that culminated in the utter destruction of the Warhammer Fantasy world (in fact, its entire universe!). After thirty-one years and eight editions, the Warhammer’s game universe was finally shut down and put to pasture. The “End Times” five-book campaign had been Warhammer Fantasy Battles’ swan song.
Seven months into 2015, GW unveiled the Age of Sigmar game: a bold re-envisioning of Warhammer that completely was set in an entirely different epoch–and universe. It did away with the bulky Warhammer rulebook (replaced by a four page pamphlet of its full rules set), it did away with Army Books (replaced by a free downloadable phone app), and it did away with the gritty setting of Warhammer’s Old World (replaced by the eight planes of existence that bear more than a striking resemblance to how the Nine Realms are depicted in the “Thor” movies).
It’s now ten months after the initial launch; and Age of Sigmar is, if nothing else, a polarising game.
I’ve played (and chatted about online) a huge variety of miniatures games for going on ten years, and I have never seen an outpouring of vitriol that rivals the deluge Age of Sigmar has received since its launch. Games Workshop, the king of online controversy in the tabletop gaming world, has been panned far more than praised for the risk they’ve taken giving the hard-reset to their fantasy universe.
Accusations have ranged widely; from Workshop abandoning their Warhammer Fantasy fans along with the universe, to having dumbed the system down into an unplayable mess, to having thrown balance out the window by removing the traditional points-per-model system.
I chose to remain cautiously optimistic, and recently took the plunge playing my first Age of Sigmar event at Imaginary Wars after only a handful of casual practice games. The event was organized by a long-time Warhammer Fantasy veteran who was super excited about Age of Sigmar, and he had us using a very basic community-organized balance system to assemble our armies. I re-based my Warriors of Chaos (now Slaves to Darkness) cavalry army, tossed everything into a shoe box, and headed down to the shop.
Editor’s note: This was designed to be a beginner-friendly event; as such there was no painting requirement for players’ armies–we were more focused on getting people at the tables and getting them excited for Age of Sigmar!
The Age of Sigmar Doubles Tournament held on April 24th had sixteen-players sign up (tho’ there were 2 no-shows). It was, without exaggeration, one of the most engaging, interesting, and most importantly of all, fun gaming experiences I have had in my ten years of wargaming.
After the tournament was over, I ended up spending a couple of hours chatting with the other players, the tournament organizer, and Kyle about why the tournament (and the Age of Sigmar system) had been so successful. We narrowed it down to a few important points.
The first idea we seized on was how Age of Sigmar’s four-page ruleset, which manages to be uncomplicated without being too simple, was exceptionally conducive to narrative and scenario rules, which featured prominently in the tournament. Each table had a unique set of terrain and environmental effects that added a ton of narrative flavor to each mission. These narrative rules were integrated seamlessly into game play in large part due to Sigmar’s flexibility. Adding unique narrative rules to AoS is easy because you don’t have to worry (both as an event organizer and a player) about how they’re going to interact with – and potentially break – hundreds of pages of non-negotiable core rules. Those scenario specific rules made games not only more interesting, but required a greater degree of strategic and tactical planning than a traditional pitched battle / kill-point / static objective game would have required.
We also noticed that while some armies were slightly tougher or softer than others, no one felt like the game was already over before the dice were rolled for the first time. The community designed balance system worked fine, and Age of Sigmar’s set dice values for hitting and wounding enemy models (instead of hitting and wounding based on comparative strength and toughness statistics) meant that, for example, even the lowliest goblin had a chance to wound the mightiest dragon. Players tended to stay invested in their games right up to the last turn, because as long as they had at least a few models on the table, they had a shot (even if it was a long one). That was a welcome change over a few other game systems I’ve played that, while claiming to be balanced with a point system, often feature hugely unbalanced match ups even when players bring the same points values.
Lastly, and most importantly, we noticed what kind of a player base Games Workshop seems to be consciously engineering with Age of Sigmar. The game has a reputation of not being a super tightly-tuned tournament style wargame, which is absolutely correct. While a lot of gamers see that as a downside, we saw positive side-effects. The crew that showed up for the Age of Sigmar event (and we counted more than a handful of Warhammer Fantasy veterans among them) were attracted to the event precisely because of the non-hyper competitive reputation of the system. It was a room full of gamers who were more interested in having a good time and adapting their play to an interesting narrative system than playing a win-at-all-costs style tournament, and the atmosphere in the room was hugely positive because of it. Gone was the tension that I’ve witnessed at other events that feature games with purely competitive tournament focused rules; Age of Sigmar is casual by design, and that appears to breed a more casual, positive gaming environment. That’s not for everybody, and I get that, but it is what we were all looking for in a game, and Age of Sigmar provided it while still being tuned well enough that we felt our decisions and the games we made them in mattered.
Age of Sigmar gets a lot of flack in online communities, and I understand why. It’s a new type of system; one that consciously departs from ultra-tight, complex, point-value based rules in favor of a more uncomplicated system. I don’t think that’s a bad thing though. Having played several games, it’s becoming apparent that Age of Sigmar relies more on a flexible ruleset and a social contract between two (or more) players who are willing to work together to have a good time than non-negotiable points values and ironclad rules. That contract by design breeds a more casual community of gamers, and that casual community has (at least in my experience so far) led to a more communicative and friendly environment for everyone involved than more traditional, competition-focused wargame.
I’m looking forward to helping Age of Sigmar grow in my gaming community, and it looks like it’s not going to be a hard sell.
Editor’s note: every Wednesday in May, we’re hosting Age of Sigmar, we also have dedicated beginner nights (with a set mission, army restrictions and some spare armies available for anyone to use) that will fall on May 4th, 18th and June 1st!