Before I start I want to make clear that I don’t like Age of Sigmar (AoS) simply because they changed the old and familiar Warhammer I was comfortable with. Far from it.
I agree that Warhammer needed a change and a big one at that. It needed a new strategy to attract new players.
No doubt about it.
This is not a blog from a stoic old-school player hurt they dared to change his comfort place in wargaming.
But I must admit that when I think of Warhammer I think of two battle lines facing each other.
Total overhaul for just one problem
I believe the declining sales of Fantasy had mostly to do with the game rules being designed to promoting the use of ever more and more models. Eventually hitting the boundary where new players are simply scared away because of the daunting numbers of models they have to buy (and paint) to start playing.
(I must add they’re doing the exact same thing with 40K)
In the meantime old veterans already had several armies and only sporadically buy models to add to their collection.
So logically sales started to drop.
They needed to make Warhammer more accessible to new players and lure veteran players to start new armies more often. Making the game easier to learn and playable with a much lower model-count was the right conclusion.
What I simply don’t agree with is that they needed to completely dump the old Warhammer setting and over 30 years of lore. I also don’t think that changing Warhammer to a skirmish based game was a smart move…at all.
Warhammer was in a unique position that it was the most prominent regiment based fantasy game out there.
GW already had 40K as their main skirmish based game.
I can imagine the rubbing of hands of many smaller companies to claim this unique niche in wargaming after GW threw it in the bin. Especially Mantic has made great strides in claiming that part of the miniature scene and with it many fateful GW customers.
Getting new customers is one thing but you can, and should, do this without totally alienating your old fan-base.
But even if GW was right and changing to a skirmish game was the right choice in the long run I believe they could have done that in a much better way without dissatisfying the regiment-based fans.
In fact, they already had it in the first place!
They could have re-introduced a more robust version of Mordheim to get new players hooked on a small skirmish based game and adding options to expand this into a smaller and simpler version of regiment based Warhammer.
Best of both worlds and it would fit comfortably in the old fantasy setting.
Not accounting for taste
Even then I’m not against a good fantasy skirmish game or a new setting.
And I don’t dislike the new AoS models in style and technique. Still the best plastic models in the business.
I simple think the Age of Sigmar Setting and it’s armies are very poorly designed.
And I’ll be trying to explain this from a design point of view so not to influence this with my aesthetic
taste for the models.
Now some of you might think: “Ok, but the setting is just dressing for the models so it shouldn’t be such a big deal. And the setting is still new so they have ample time to expand on it”.
Let me start with what I think made the old Warhammer (I will call in OWH for now) setting unique and original.
OWH is not original in many ways and has looted loads of ideas from other fantasy setting left and right and changed it a bit.
What made this combination of fantasy tropes original is the grim-dark situation they are set in and the huge contrasts their inhabitants are faced with.
Warhammer isn’t a “fair” world. Most of their inhabitants are literally doomed and how unfair the odds are is almost hilarious. The armies were designed to display this huge contrast.
Notice the realistic influences and subdued use of color to emphasise the grim setting.
It’s all in the contrast
Many of the “good” armies are very historically influenced and very conservative with the fantasy aspects. The Empire is very recognisable as 16th/17th century western Europe with the fluffy pants and big feathers. The Bretonnians are mostly classic Arthurian knights and peasant support. The high Elves are more “fantastical” but even they are restricted to classical weapons like bows and ballistas. Their magic is powerful but restrained to not be lured by it’s chaotic pull and their dragons have almost all died off.
Something GW changed at the end of OWH to level the “cool” factor of some armies and add in some big monsters for them… already showing they were forgetting their original design focus for the setting. But I will come to that later.
Dwarfs are the literal underdogs. Besieged on all sides but stubbornly refusing to rapidly apply new technology to combat the unstoppable waves of enemies. Restricted by their proud ways and traditions.
Not all the good armies are this obvious but the theme persists one way or another.
The “evil” armies are the exact opposite; uncountable numbers of huge scary warriors that have no restrictions except fighting each other too much. Most of these are your typical fantasy arch-types like hulking brutes, heavily armored warriors, undying horrors that will never tire to hunt down the living, daemons that can only be temporarily banished.
Of course with a wide range of support of huge monsters to make them even more daunting.
While nothing of this is particularly original it is this huge contrast that makes it unique.
It makes it extra special when the underdogs survive to fight another day or sometimes even win.
This isn’t just prevalent in the background stories but also enforced by the miniatures.
When you see an Empire soldier in fluffy pants and feathered hat fighting a gigantic warrior encased in spiky armor or a small dwarf fight an enormous undying daemon it almost seems comical.
The setting needs this contrast provided by the grim-dark outlook… with a humorous wink of course.
Now lets take a look at Age of Sigmar.
GW started big by showcasing their new “good guys” the Sigmarites.
Now the new good guys are also huge warriors encased in armor that can’t die but get resurrected…and loose a little bit of their soul and character in the process.
Against an endless stream of “evil” warriors encased in armor or undying daemons…
So nobody can really die or loose anything or gain anything.
There are no stakes anymore. Nothing to fight or root for.
To make it even worse they now all live and fight in “realms” that are not really defined or explained properly. Making them simply arenas for endless battle without much reason or motivation.
In contrast the OWH setting had a world eerily similar to earth. Everybody immediately had a sense of placement and position of the various forces because of this similarity.
The Sigmarite models further exasperate this by all wearing helmets. They are all face-less warriors.
I know why GW did this; By giving the customer big simple models without fiddly details to paint (like faces) they hoped it would encourage new players to rapidly paint models (and thus collect more)
But people have to (often unconsciously) be able to identify themselves with the good guys to feel infested in them.
In this case to collect and paint them.
Another big reason for the choice of the Sigmarites is to mirror their golden sellers the space marines (pun intended).
The “concept” of space marines is nothing original and used abundantly throughout sci-fi settings.
What makes GW space marines such a big seller then?
You could argue for their unique look, which is almost clunky and crude instead of the usual high-tech look. But that’s not the whole picture. They are called “space marines” but are more Zealous warrior priests like historical crusaders. Small groups of elite crusaders that all have their own unique iconography, colors and deeply ritualized customs.
What is so unique about GW “space marines” is that they took an historical concept and placed it in a sci-fi setting. Very symbolic for the whole setting actually.
Very similar to another very popular sci-fi concept; the Jedi in Star Wars.
This is also taking inspiration from historical eastern warrior monks and putting them in a sci-fi setting.
Again, nothing really new or original but it is the contrast that makes the concept shine and be so timelessly popular.
Now lets look back at the Sigmarites.
GW wants to put “space marines” in a fantasy setting; so from a design point you want to put an historical inspired concept in a fantasy setting.
Well, that’s not original in any sense nor results in any contrast in itself.
And to be honest; this has already been done countless times before in fantasy settings
You now have unanimous armored warriors fighting unanimous armored warriors as your selling point for a new setting.
Even if you add an intricate setting and other forces into the mix the main focus is still extremely shallow…
Big, bigger, biggest!
“Those are not the only armies you can use in Age of Sigmar!” I hear some say.
Correct. But lets look at these armies from a design perspective.
Which is pretty simple; take all the elite troops from the old setting, make them even more extreme and take that as the basis for an army.
Orcs: The big elite Black Orcs and make them bigger! Whole armies of them. (adding another heavily armored army to the list) with some savage orcs (no new models) as a small side dish for variation.
Dwarfs: Take the elite Slayers and make an entire army of them! And add some big monsters of course.
Wood Elves: Take the rare tree creatures and make a whole army of them! Elves? They now are the big scary tree creatures. Bigger is better obviously.
Honorable mention goes to the Lizardmen who didn’t get any new models but are now astral projection that can appear or disappear on the whim of their masters.
And we basically have another undying force in the setting…
World of Warhammer?
The bitter irony is that this approach to Warhammer was basically done before…
The hugely popular game World of Warcraft is heavily based on Warhammer. They mostly removed the grim-dark aspects and put both sides (alliance & horde) in an eternal counter-balance of power. Adding other planes or dimensions to add to the scope of the setting. And while every player can be a “cool ass-kicking” warrior they did keep some of the contrast that Warhammer has as well. The little adorable Gnomes (and later the goblins) were a successful nod to the “underdog” design philosophy.
But basically they took Warhammer; made it less grim and more colorful. Give everybody cool big shoulder pauldrons to wear and shiny magical toys to use and let them duke it out in an eternal clash that no-one will win.
A perfect setting and arena for a MMO game and hugely successful.
But it’s really sad when you start to copy your own copy-cats GW.
All by design
“When everybody is special nobody is special anymore”
Just making everything bigger and better is generally not a good design strategy.
People will simply get bored of it sooner (even if they don’t exactly know why).
“Less is often more” is a design wisdom GW seems to have forgotten.
This also applies to the models which are more and more crowded with details.
And while they are the undisputed masters in highly detailed plastic models…more details doesn’t always mean better models aesthetically.
And to be honest everything reeks of lazy design.
I’m not even going to get into the new names like “Aelves” or “Fyreslayers” by adding or changing a few letters for copyright purposes. Or the literal spam of the words like “sigmar” and “blood” in unit names.
I really don’t mind cheesy names…or I wouldn’t be playing war-games now would I?
But this is just overdoing it.
While the setting may be serviceable in the short term to sell models I don’t think it will hold up for the long run very well.
Something we’re already seeing now that the game isn’t that new anymore.
AoS picked up momentum at the beginning very fast with loads of new models but this has quite quickly dropped to a very slow pace with very few new models since. Mostly re-releasing old models with round bases. In the meantime GW has increased focus on 40K and released staggering amounts of new models and even whole armies. They even added to that with a new plastic 30K line.
And even the exciting prospect of new Tzeentch models for fantasy are for the most part being released first in 40K with a fantasy release to follow.
In addition to that they are now releasing loads of stand alone games for the express purpose of appealing to new players and re-releasing old favorites and classic stand alone games to entice the veterans alike.
Make of that what you will…
But it almost seems like they lost fate in AoS attracting enough new players and were shocked about how many players they lost in the process doesn’t it?