Friday, August 7, 2015

Some musings on the Death of Warhammer

In this post, I take a break from my typical painted model pictures to offer a bit of musing on Age of Sigmar, the Indy GT scene, and the future of competitive fantasy wargaming in the US.

OP Skrox are OP.
Well, it's been a while since Warhammer: Age of Sigmar came out, and nobody can argue that the Fantasy tabletop army game scene is the same that it used to be. I've gotten nine games of Age of Sigmar under my belt now – one game for every army I own, and an extra one for the Lizardmen (just to prove to myself how OP they could be), and an extra one with the Orcs and Goblins (because that's how I Waaaagh).
Age of Sigmar is a fun game. It's very simple, and when you don't have a lot of rules, you don't spend nearly as much time arguing about rules. If you're meeting with buddies to drink beer and throw dice, it's an ideal game. It's very approachable, and you can pick it up almost immediately. If you want a fun game, you've got one.
The author, seen here in his natural environment, enjoying some green-on-green action.
I have two gaming tables set up at all times in my house, and can expand to two more by putting custom tabletops over my kitchen tables and island. I maintain at least four beers on tap at any time, and my fridge is always stocked with beer. For years, I've talked about how I only play to have fun and, as most everyone can guess from the title of this blog, I enjoy adult beverages while I’m playing. I am the typical "beer and dice" player. When I'm playing games at home, I don't care whether or not I place unpainted models down on the table (as my Darklands battle reports can attest). I don't play at the local stores: with my home setup, why should I bother driving across town and losing an afternoon when I can have my three year old run up to the table, kidnap an orc, and run off to let "the Waaagh guy play with the ponies" in the next room?

I have complete control of the situation at my home – I have all the terrain, I don't have to pack up any models, nobody's going to complain if I spill beer on one of my F.A.T. Mats, and if I have too much to drink, the couch is 10 feet away. In this respect, I'm the perfect target gamer for Age of Sigmar – I play to have fun, and don't care too much about winning or losing.
 However, even though I purport to only want to play "fun" games, I'm massively active on the highly competitive GT scene – note that I deliberately said "active" and not "competitive". I go to tournaments to show off painted models. I go to tournaments to enjoy playing against strategies that I don't see with my normal opponents at home, or the regulars at a gaming store. I go to tournaments because an active tournament scene keeps Warhammer alive. I strongly believe that the emergence of the Indy Grand Tournament (GT) scene in 2004 is what has kept Warhammer Fantasy alive in the United States. I believe it so strongly that in 2012 I agreed to take over one of the oldest Indy Fantasy GTs here – the Alamo.

Why do we even need Grand Tournaments?

The Indy GTs provide to the Warhammer community what conventions provide to other geek cultures: a place to congregate as a community, to discuss something you love, and enjoy being in the presence of others who feel the same way you do about something. They're a place I go to showcase my painting – I don't paint for the internet or competitions, I paint to show up at a GT and see people checking out my army when I'm standing across the room. When I'm not painting for a GT, I'm likely not painting at all; it's rare I paint a model just for the heck of it. Games Day used to provide this outlet, but for some reason Games Workshop got out of that promotional expense about the same time they stopped running their own events.
What are all these people doing? Having fun.
I know a number of guys who are still in the hobby because of the GT scene; if they weren't going to events, they wouldn't be buying the models, painting them, or talking about them. Guys come to these things just to hang out – it's not unusual to have people at the events who aren't playing, but are just drinking beer and BSing with the players and organizers. The South region has gone from five GTs a few years ago to seven: Shiloh Slaughter, Lone Wolf, Moonshine, Paul's Carnival of Chaos, Bayou Battles, Rock Wars, and the Alamo. Austin just dropped theirs, but it could be added back into the WAR Games Con very easily. Corpus Christi is talking about adding one. One of the local San Antonio stores was talking about adding one prior to Age of Sigmar dropping. The fantasy wargaming community is on its way up, and the emergence of so many multiple-day, 50+ player events just further supports that evidence.

The author, expressing himself at the first Master's.
Better still, the strength of the Indy GTs in the past five years has spawned its new version of a Warhammer Championship: the US Master's. The United States is broken into regions, each region sends between eight and ten of its best (based on year), and they compete to find who the Best Player in Warhammer is. It's a triumph of cooperation, trust, and compromise among all the regions to come up with a single set of rules to balance things, a mutually-agreed-on comp system to restrict list building advantages, and create an event that every region will support. The past two years have been fantastic for the United States Warhammer GT community, and I was looking forward to ninth edition coming along and providing us another six years of growth and development.
Instead, Age of Sigmar has come along and killed competitive Warhammer.

Why won't Age of Sigmar work?

Right now, running a Warhammer: Age of Sigmar event would end in disaster. As a Tournament Organizer (TO), my job is surprisingly basic – it's my job to make sure the majority of people have the best possible time that they can. If people come to my tournament and don't have fun, they won't come back. This is especially true at the Alamo, where 60-80% of our attendees are from out of town, and almost half come from out of Texas. If they don't have a wonderful tournament experience, they're not going to take the time off work, pay for a hotel on the Riverwalk, book a flight, and pack their armies to come down here.
This unit won a Grand Tournament!
"But Ryan," I can hear one of you asking. "If Age of Sigmar is a game for fun, and you agree that it's af un game, why are you worried that players won't have fun?" It's a simple answer: playing when there is something on the line is different than playing when it's just for fun. Grand Tournaments come with prize support: trophies and models that winners get to take home with them. I've seen people lie, cheat, ding sportsmanship scores, and "make mistakes" filling out score cards to angle for an advantage in winning an award. Even with no prize support for winners, the bragging rights of saying, "I won a Grand Tournament!" is too much of a temptation for some people to play nice.

All it takes is one guy deciding to be a jerk to ruin the weekend for five other people. With 8th edition, TOs had a lot of recourse that we could use to minimize that. Alamo requires players turn in their lists ahead of time, so that we can review them, make sure they are legal, and reject any that we deem likely to guarantee that opponents will have a bad game. In a system with no points, no system for constraining unit choices, and no comparative way to weigh armies against each other, that protection is gone. Even if a point value system is implemented, and force organization makes its way back in, the summoning abilities of daemon and undead armies give them a massive advantage against non-summoning armies. It's almost as though the game developers decided, "Meh, players will police themselves! Nobody will go out of their way to find a broken combination and use it." Anyone who's ever played in even a store tournament knows that attitude is nonsense. Another mitigation TOs have is the threat of a Bad Game vote: if players have an atrocious time, they can ding their opponent to let the TOs know there was a massive problem, and their opponent gets a penalty. The problem with Bad Game votes to mitigate bad behavior is that it only works as a threat. If a player has to give a Bad Game vote, the system has already kind of failed. Morseo, players out to win Best General don't care about their Sportsmanship score; as long as they have a high battle, that's all that matters! Alamo attempts to mitigate this by disqualifying players from winning ANY award if they get three bad game votes, but some people are willing to take that risk.

Don't mind me, Imma just summon a bunch more stuff.
Age of Sigmar almost requires an informal contract with your opponent: "We're going to play this game to have fun. You won't be a dick, and I won't be a dick, and it'll be great." This kind of friendly agreement ensures your opponent doesn't just bring five Keepers of Secrets and a few Flamers, summon dozens more of both, and wipe you out through summoning and shooting in the first turn. Or he doesn't bring a single chameleon skink unit, hide it in the forest, and then claim underdog victory when it emerges into that one terrain feature he picked. I guarantee that every player who's touting the excellence of Age of Sigmar has not played a game against an opponent who cared more about winning than having a fun game. In a GT, especially on top tables in later rounds, these situations happen.

I wasn't part of this game to begin with!
Now, where's that model I'm here to assassinate?
 Age of Sigmar was not meant to be a competitive game. Indeed, I fear it cannot be competitive without massive amounts of effort expended on the parts of the people who run the GTs. I made my own attempt at it, and had to stop when I was six pages into house rules. If I had to write more than the actual rule set, I reasoned, I was just rewriting the rules for them. The simplicity of the rules works against their implementation in a tournament environment: there's a lot of grey area that isn't addressed at all in the rules. For example: do you have a to have a unit on the board to be able to use a spell to summon it into the game? Those familiar with Battlescrolls in 40k argue that you do, but nothing in the rules states it. 8th edition had pages and pages of FAQs and clarifications, and every tournament added its own on top of that. Games Workshop has stated in the past that they're a Models company, not a Games company (despite what it says on the tin). Age of Sigmar just continues that apparent tradition.

What does the future hold for GTs?

I wish I could answer this question with certainty, but all I can do is make predictions.
  • Just Keep Going. I know there's a community that just wants to keep playing Warhammer 8th edition at Grand Tournaments. While a noble goal, this choice would ensure the death of GTs. Games Workshop has already started pulling 8th edition rulebooks from stores. A year from now, they'll be hard to come by. If the rules are hard to get, gaming stores will discourage players from playing 8th edition games in favor of playing the new system. New players won't come in, and the game will die a slow, three year spiral of declining attendance. People will still play it in their garages and living rooms, but it'll effectively be dead on a national scale, just like Mordheim, Confrontation, and a bunch of other games that died similar deaths. Of all the options out there, this is probably the worst choice.
  • Just Update 8th. There are also increasing voices that would like "someone" to create a Warhammer: 8.5th edition by FAQing the existing ruleset and just updating it as new models come out. I wouldn't mind this option, but it has its own problems, foremost among them being getting all the different GTs in the country to agree to a single authority to handle it.
"Sir, someone painted you blue and put you next to other
company's models."
"Hail of Litigation arrows equipped. Summon the lawyerdancers. "
  • Make our own 9th Edition. I know the authors of the ETC and Swedish comp sets are banding together to create The Ninth Age. While admirable, I just don't know that this is the right answer.  ETC and Swedish comps are very controversial things, especially down here in the South region where we don't bother with much comp (except very occasional "Dude, no" rejections of lists). The US Masters community group went with Swedish because it was a system that gave no region an advantage – the Northeast already used a ton of ETC, Mersey comp varies wildly between armies, and uncomped was obviously not going to fly. Writing a comp pack is very different than writing a rule set. Moreover, whatever rule set they come up with, unless done exceedingly carefully, is just one Games Workshop Cease and Desist order from being shut down entirely. Anyone think Games Workshop is unlikely to sue someone for trying to preserve one of their legacy systems and bring down support for Age of Sigmar?
  • Fix Age of Sigmar ourselves. It can be done, sure. But is it worth the effort? In addition, this solution gives us the same problem as the previous two: finding a single authority that everyone can agree on. Given the difficulty in getting the Masters regions to agree to even basic "grey area" clarifications in 8th edition, I don't see this solution happening without the appointment of an entire committee to do it, and I think the more people that are involved in this labor, the worse the resulting product would be. Also, this suffers from the same risk as the one above: Games Workshop deciding it wants nothing to do with competitive gaming, and sending a Cease and Desist.
    "Really, your Bretonnian rulebook will be out soon!"
  • Wait for Games Workshop to fix it. Games Workshop has burnt a bridge with a lot of gamers as a result of Age of Sigmar. I've talked to players in recent weeks, including several TOs, who say they're done with Games Workshop. Even if they come out with a comp pack for Age of Sigmar and some form of tournament rules, there's so much of a bad taste in people's mouths that they're going to lose market share regardless. After keeping 8th edition, I think this is near the bottom of the list of options available to us.
  • Find a new game. This is the option I hear floated the most often, and it's the one I'm leaning closest to getting behind. Even if we go with Age of Sigmar, we're choosing this option. However, this option will split the fantasy wargaming community in the US unless a lot of discussion takes place about it.

What game should we move towards?

There are a couple of options out there:
  • Age of Sigmar. This is basically the option Games Workshop hoped people would stick with. I think it's one of the least likely.
Not allowed at a Warmachine tournament.
  • Warmachine/Hordes. While this would seem like an easy transition, I don't see it happening. The "Indy" part of the Indy GTs has always been their insistence of their control of their own events. Warmachine/Hordes already has a very large tournament scene, supported and bolstered by Privateer Press in a very intelligent fashion. If your event is not a qualifier for their national championships, people won't go to it. Part of the requirements for being a qualifier is that you have to follow Privateer Press's rules on what is required for a tournament. Since Privateer Press-only models and huge restrictions on conversions are requirements for a Privateer Press-sanctioned event, the Alamo will never switch to this model. I prize conversion and alternative models more than I value a sanction from the company that makes the product.
You mean you don't mind me using them in other games, either?
  • Kings of War. This seems to be the option that has gained the most momentum. The rules are tournament ready out of the box, and will require very little manipulation by TOs to ensure good play. Mantic Games has gone above and beyond on their outreach to displaced Fantasy players, going so far as to release rules for models they don't even make, just so Warhammer armies have comparable factions in their own system. More importantly, both the "hobby" camps and "competitive" camps in Texas have advocates for this gaming system. If it can gain traction between both subgroups, that can only help its standing.
  • Malifaux, Darklands, Warthrone, Anima Tactics, and Confrontation. Every game listed here is one that has been proposed to me in conversation as a potential replacement. Unfortunately, they just don't have the mass appeal right now to migrate hundreds of players over in the next six months. In addition, the vast majority of these are skirmish games, and Age of Sigmar has given a LOT of people a bad taste for Skirmish games. In addition:
    • Warthrone, the only non-skirmish option, has extremely complicated rules, and I only know one guy who plays it. 
    • Similarly, I only know one guy who plays Anima Tactics. 
    • San Antonio has a few Malifaux players, but the one game of it I watched seemed closer to WarhmaHordes than Warhammer (small encounter forces, low model count). 
    • Confrontation is dead; its latest edition taught a valuable lesson about getting away from what makes your game awesome that Games Workshop should probably have learned from. 
    • While I love Darklands, the rules aren't officially released yet, and it's going to take a year or two of getting it out before it gains the traction it needs to take off. Once the support is there I would love to incorporate Darklands under the Alamo bubble, but it's still a few years away. 

The sky is falling! What now?

I expect a lot of conversation between TOs in the next few months to try to figure out what they want to do. If you have an opinion, I strongly encourage you to reach out to your local TO (or even me), and make it known! Rock Wars GT in September is going to have a TO Hangover Brunch on Sunday, where a number of TOs (myself included) from the South and Midwest are going to discuss how we move forward.
After a lot of preliminary discussion, the South TOs already have a semi-formal agreement to jump together - if we switch to a new game, we're all going to change to the same one. Lone Wolf won't go to Kings of War, Bayou to Age of Sigmar, Rock Wars to Warmachine, and Alamo to Darklands. If you're used to playing the Texas tournaments, whatever game system we go with will be used at all of them.
If you're in a different region, things aren't so cut-and-dried. I know the West Coast groups are still in spirited debate over how to move forward; last I'd heard, the Las Vegas Open had announced it was going to be using Age of Sigmar. One region has sworn they will never adopt Age of Sigmar. The fracturing of the community has begun.
I expect tournaments to have lower attendance next year than they had this year. Alamo has already had more drops this year than we had at this point last year. This doesn't mean the GT scene is going away, though! The end of 7th edition prompted a similar drop in attendance, which then skyrocketed as new players picked up the game. I fully expect the GT scene to be recovered by 2018.
We live in exciting times!

Embedded image permalink
You know you want to listen.
As a final random note, I recently joined my friends Mark Cox and Jeff Swann in a podcast, called The Beer Phase. If you're bored and want a gaming/beer related podcast to add to your listening list, I encourage you to visit us on podbean (, or look us up on iTunes.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the info. I am looking forward to embracing KoW myself, so I hope that's the direction things go. My wife and I both play miniature games and are now empty nesters and looking for to excuses for traveling (i.e. GT's.) Hope to see tou at one soon.