Last week was the week that the changes that Games Workshop had in mind for Warhammer Fantasy became clear. After months of rumours the rules for Warhammer: Age of Sigmar were finally published online through the means of scans and digital photography. Based on these rumours I looked ahead compared the changes made in Warhammer: Age of Sigmar with Warhammer Fantasy (now Oldhammer). Today I finally had time to sit down and read through the four pages of rules that comprise the entire rule set for Age of Sigmar.
Like I argued in my post on the rumours concerning the rule set for Age of Sigmar, less rules is not a bad thing. Many excellent games – in fact many of the best games out there – have only a few pages of rules. But what is lacking in the rule set for Warhammer: Age of Sigmar are the examples that illustrate and clarify the rules. Even the rules for one of my favourite games – Ticket to Ride: Europe – are 8 pages long. Eight pages for an easy to learn game. A game that is considered an ‘entry game’ to get people in the board game hobby.
I have to admit that most of the rules for Ticket to Ride are pictures which explain the rules, but it is this part that is severely lacking in the four pages of rules for Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. Because the lack of examples and images in the Age of Sigmar rules cause quite a few questions. In fact, there are already number of questions that need to be FAQ-ed as shown by Warseer user Avian. And even though most of these issues are now clarified or shown to be false, it does show that GW still needs to do something to further explain the rules for Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. Still I have to be to be honest and state that the rules for Age of Sigmar are quite a clean rule set. The big question is, is it a good rule set and what does it offer us as gamers?
Unlike Warhammer Fantasy, designing your army in Warhammer: Age of Sigmar knows no limits. You want an army made out of the vicious enemies Dark Elves and High Elves? You now can do that. You want a Keeper of Secrets in an Empire army? You are free to do so. Basically, you can use any model in your collection and include it in your army using a corresponding Warscroll – a reference sheet which explains the stats and special abilities of your unit. – Like the rules for Age of Sigmar, you can download the Warscrolls for your army for free from the Games Workshop website.
This anything goes approach is a huge break from the past incarnations of Warhammer. Even though you cold take ‘allies’ in Warhammer Fantasy, the choice you had concerning your allies was limited. Indeed, the effectiveness of allied units depended on the allegiance and closeness of the two (or more) armies you were combining. In the new rules for Age of Sigmar, this lack of synergy is removed and replaced by a system that allows you to really mix and match any model from your collection. Not a bad thing in my opinion, but I do think that it takes away the uniqueness of the different armies.
Even though you can now use any model or unit in your army, this does not mean that your army selection is totally free. Just as the formations in Warhammer 40k, – which offer clear benefits if you take a pre-set combination of models and units – Warhammer: Age of Sigmar uses a system of formations. Taking a Warscroll formation (and thus taking a predetermined set of models), gives your army some benefits you would not get from simply selecting the models you like best. Army selection has therefore changed a bit towards the selection in Warhammer 40,000 and the formations from the different Codexi. Still, Age of Sigmar still offers quite a lot more freedom in your army selection.
Where is the balance?
One of the biggest questions surrounding army selection in Warhammer: Age of Sigmar – and also one of my biggest questions – is the issue on balance. Unlike most war games, Warhammer: Age of Sigmar has no point system. Instead, a system is in place that balances an army based on model count. A system that is very easy to use, as you only need to count the models in your army, but also causes quite a few problems.
No points for units
There is a good reason why war games use a point systems to balance the game. The most important reason is that a points system allows game designers to create units and models with vastly varying abilities, while preventing one side from being over powered. Simply put: stronger units cost more points and thus you can have fewer models in your army. A Chaos Warrior is example, is much stronger than a Goblin. But for the point cost of that super powered evil powerhouse of destruction, you can have quite a few Goblins. Enough Goblins that (in theory at least) could overwhelm the Chaos Warrior. A points system is therefore a tried and tested method that makes it possible to have vastly varying armies and play styles.
The new system in place for Warhammer: Age of Sigmar seems to forget this balance issue as the earlier mentioned a Chaos Warrior counts as one, while a Goblin also counts as one. A fact that makes balance an issue for more competitive players. The system even goes as far as to stimulate army selection based on taking fewer and stronger models instead of many weak models. This is because in Age of Sigmar you get a clear benefit when your army is outnumbered by more than 1/3 of models. This benefit is an extra victory condition known as “Sudden Death victory” that allows a player to win the game without killing all enemy models (the normal victory condition).
Let me explain this Sudden Death victory through an example. Say your army consists of 20 models and your opponent has 30 models. In this case you get a “Sudden Death” mission objective that ends the game when you complete the objective. At first glance this benefit does not seem so unfair: you have fewer models and (in a balanced game) and have a chance to kill all enemy models. However, this is also true if you take an army comprised of 20 super powered characters and your opponent takes 30 lousy Goblins… Even though the Goblins stand NO chance at all against the super heroes (of villains), the Sudden Death mission objective goes to the super powered player.
In conclusion I would say that Sudden Death adds a cool extra mechanic to the game. But the terms on which the Sudden Death benefit is gained is at least arbitrary and potential game breaking.
It’s up to us
Because there is no balancing system in place with Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, playing a balanced game is up to us the players. This means that you and your opponent will have to agree on lists that you consider fair. While this is probably no issue when you are playing with friends, it could cause problems in a more competitive environment such as tournaments or – to a lesser degree – gaming clubs. Something that might be alleviated as there are rumours that GW is going to release an add-on rule set to make competitive play in tournament style possible.
A minor additional issue is the fact that Age of Sigmar is still a very new game. This means that the relative strengths and weaknesses of different models and units are not yet known. I expect that this will soon be cleared up as more players try out Age of Sigmar and post their idea’s on the different internet forums. But until then, exploits and balancing could be a considerate issue and we as players have to agree on ‘fair’ game and ‘fair play’.
Big blocks vs few heroes
While Warhammer: Age of Sigmar is played until one player has been exterminated, you could end the game at any moment during the game. In this case, you calculate the percentage of your models that have been killed. This is calculated from the models that started on the table, and not based on the entire armylist including ‘reserves’ that enter the table later.
Again percentage system opens up possible exploits because of the fact that reserves could severely alter the calculation of the casualties. Say you start with an army of 10 heroes and during the game you have a block of 30 Skaven Clanrats entering the battlefield. Even though your army sized is increased significantly your percentage is still calculated from the initial 10 models. Killing all 30 Clanrats thus results in a casualty rate of 300%!!! In this case, it is more interesting to start the battle with a few large units, and have the heroes arriving from ‘reserves’ at a later time. Killing all heroes, and having the Clanrats survive only results in a casualty rate of 33%!
There is one big question concerning reserves however, up until now, I have not yet seen a way to get extra models on the table. This might be included in the special rules of a Warscroll, or might be described in a future expansion for Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. At this moment however, I have no clue to on how to get extra models from reserves on the table.
All setups are possible
Another new, I think probably interesting part, is the way that setup goes. Unlike the pitched battles from “Old Hammer” you now divide the table in two equal sides. In the rules sheet Games Workshop gives a couple of examples, but basically you can divide the table in any way you want. Because the table is split in any way that equally divides the table in two halves, you could get very interesting setups. Some of these setups I have included below to illustrate the varying options you would have.
Setting up your army is in a large part similar to veteran Warhammer (40k) players. It goes in alternating turns, with each player placing one unit (or character model) on the table. If one player has placed all models on the table, the other player places all his remaining units on the table. Afterwards, the player who finished his or her setup first gets the first turn. The turn order after the first round is determined randomly, a system that will be familiar to Lord of the Rings players, with both players rolling a dice and the player who rolled highest getting the ‘initiative’ for that turn.
A round of Warhammer: Age of Sigmar is divided in 6 phases, where each phase has a clear function on what is happening. Like most wargames, the turns follow a full “I-go You-go” system where one a player completes an entire round – and thus all six phases – before the other player goes. This is a practice well known to Warhammer players, but it also means that the player has little ‘interaction’ during the turn of his or her opponent. This seems like a bit of missed chance, as some other systems offer an alternating system (eg: player 1 moves, player 2 moves – player 1 shoots, player 2 shoots etc.) that keeps involvement going on.
It also seems that, with the exception of the Hero phase, it is not possible to ‘interrupt’ the turn of your opponent. And while this makes for a clear and easy system, the extra options for ‘interrupts’ as used in for example Infinity, add extra involvement for the player who is waiting for his or her turn. All in all, the turn order is very clear and well thought out. At the same time is also offers great opportunities for expansions that further build on the basic turn order. Something that, based on the rumours, Games Workshop is already planning. Finally, it could be possible that a model or unit has abilities on their Warscroll that allow for ‘interrupts’ and add extra dynamics to the turn order.
One of the things I like best about the new Warhammer: Age of Sigmar rules is the introduction of a Hero phase. This phase starts the turn and allows your models to use a ‘command’ ability or cast spells. This is also the phase where you could interrupt the turn of your opponent and use Command abilities that specifically state that you can use it in ANY hero phase.
Basically the Hero phase can be seen as the orders or briefing phase. I would imagine a general shouting orders to his troops on what to do in the upcoming stage of battle, or a wizard making attempt to hex an enemy unit that your troops will charge in a later stage of the turn. This also makes the Hero phase one of the more tactical oriented phases in Age of Sigmar, as the decisions you take during this phase could have some cool effects later in your turn.
Casting spells is done in a similar way as Warhammer Fantasy (or Psychic abilities in 40k). The player who wants to cast rolls two dice adding the results. If the dice roll is equal or higher than casting value of the spell, the spell is successfully cast. After a spell is cast, and you have a wizard within 18″ of an enemy wizard AND have line of sight (thus your wizard MUST be able to see the wizard) you can try to unbind – a fancy new name for disspelling – the spell. If you want to unbind a spell, you also roll 2D6 and if you roll higher than your opponents casting roll you unbind the spell and the effect is cancelled.
What is a bit disappointing it the fact that magic only has 2 spells now. Spells that every wizards knows. Additional spells are detailed on the Warscrolls for the corresponding model so there is still quite a bit of variety. However, spellcasters are now a lot less flexible which I think is a shame, but considering the different abilities, choices and options in the Hero phase, this could well be one of the most interesting parts in a turn of Warhammer: Age of Sigmar.
The movement phase is done in a way that most war gamers know. You select a unit, and move that unit a maximum distance indicated by the movement stats of that unit – in this case shown on the Warscroll of said unit. – After you have moved you unit, you select another unit and move that, until all the units you wanted to move have been moved. A big change in movement is the fact that units now have 360 degrees Line of Sight and can move into any direction they want. This is a system that is used by many games (such as Warhammer 40k or Lord of the Rings) and makes moving easier. On the other hand, the new movement phase is also a bit less tactical as you do not need to worry about exposing your flank or rear.
Climbing walls takes up movement
What is interesting is the fact that models cannot move through scenery – although moving through a forest would still be a move as normal. – Instead, models have to climb over terrain pieces. This is quite a change from Warhammer Fantasy, where you simply ‘moved’ your units through a wall and ‘climbing’ over the wall had no impact on your move allowance. If I read the rules correctly, you now have to measure the height of the wall – as your models ‘climb over it – , and deduct the height of the wall from your total move allowance. My question is however, do you have to deduct both climbing up AND down the wall, or just climbing up and consider the models ‘jumping’ of a terrain piece and not taking up movement to go down…
Retreating and running
On last important chance is the fact that you are not allowed to move within 3” of an enemy model. In fact if you started your turn within 3” of an enemy you may only remain still OR retreat. Retreating itself is not really explained but based on the wording it means that you move your model or unit outside the 3” bubble surrounding the enemy models. In case you are retreating you cannot shoot or charge but you can run. Like retreating, units that run are not allowed to charge or shoot, so combining a retreat with a running move seems like a logical choice to get some extra distance between your models and the models you are retreating from. However, as running is based on a dice roll, the effect of running might be limited.
Shooting might be one of the most streamlined rules in the booklet and roughly follow what we already know from many other games. First measure the distance from the unit that shoots to the models that you want to shoot. Then you roll a dice and see if you rolled higher or equal to the ‘hit’ value of that model. After you hit you roll another dice and see if you wound and finally your opponent has a chance to save himself with his or her armour save. Armour saves can be modified with the ‘Rending’ stat of a weapon and are the only stats that can be modified in the game.
Unlike Warhammer Fantasy, units with shooting weapons are now allowed to shoot into combat and suffer no casualties yourself. Something the Skaven players in Oldhammer would be very envious for… In addition, if your unit was within 3” of an enemy but remained stationary, they may ALSO shoot. So models that could be considered ‘in combat’ can now shoot as well.
What about cover?
Cover is also streamlined and now applies to all attacks, whether they are close combat, magic attacks or shooting attacks. Basically if you are within 1” of any terrain piece, you add +1 to your armour save. The only exception is a unit that has made a charge during the same turn. If a unit charged the turn it is making saves, it does not receive a bonus to its armour save.
The charge phase can be best compared to the Warhammer 40,000 assault phase minus the fighting. Any model or unit within 12” of an enemy model can try to make an assault to try to get into physical and bloody hand to hand combat. To charge a model, you roll two D6 dice and add the two dice together. This is the distance that your model can move to get into combat. A charge is successful if your model gets within half an inch (0.5”) of an enemy model. If you are not successful, your models will stand still and pick their noses, ready a naughty magazine or browse their enemy stats on their smartphone to see what they were actually charging…
The random charge is something we already know from the last (8th) edition of Warhammer Fantasy and something I never really liked. In my opinion, random charge (and march/run) distances take away a bit of tactical thinking and plotting moves ahead. However, for a light ‘beer and pretzels’ game that Warhammer: Age of Sigmar wants to be, it seems ok. Also, getting your models closer to an enemy model/unit makes chances of ‘getting into combat’ more likely. But the fact remains that even if you are a mere 3 inches away from an enemy model, you can still fail your charge on a snake eyes (double 1) roll, something that seems rather odd in my opinion.
The combat phase in Warhammer: Age of Sigmar is the same as the Assault phase in Warhammer 40k minus the charging bit. Any unit that completed a successful charge or was within 3” of an enemy model, may fight in combat and make an attack with ALL its melee weapons.
The first step in the combat phase is ‘piling in’. During this stage you move your models a maximum of 3” to get within ‘striking range’ of an enemy model. What is unclear if only the unit that charged during the turn piles in, or that models from your opponent also pile in. From the wording in the Age of Sigmar rules, it appears that the player who goes first piles in (and then makes its attacks) and then the second player piles in and makes his or her attacks.
The second step in the Combat phase is the actual attack. Here each model in the unit attacks with all the melee weapons it is equipped with. What is interesting is the fact that actual physical combat is resolved in the same manner as a shooting attack. You roll dice and compare the results to the ‘to Hit’ and ‘to Wound’ stats described on your Warscroll. If a wound is not saved, the model is slain and removed from the game. After the first player has attacked and calculated how many unsaved wounds have been caused, the second player makes his attacks. This appears to follow the same order, thus pile in and then attack.
All in all it is clear that the new Combat phase is considerably streamlined from the old combat phase in Warhammer Fantasy: there is no longer need to compare Weapon Skill, Strength and Toughness, which streamlines combat quite considerably and takes away a big barrier for new players.
It is important to note that combat is done ‘unit by unit’ and not battle by battle. So having multiple units in combat does not result into more attacks that add up in battle for the final end result. Also units can only attack once. This means that if you have multiple units fighting one enemy unit, the enemy unit may only fight back against one of your units. Even if not all models made an attack, they cannot strike back. I suppose this will be clarified so that a unit fighting multiple enemy units will be able to attack multiple times, or at least the models that did not attack in the first combat round will be able to attack in subsequent rounds.
Benefits for smaller bases or longer spears
Another big change is the fact that models now have a ‘range’ for their melee weapons – usually 1” – that is used to measure if you can actually hit an enemy model. Based on this range, you calculate how many models are within range (and thus are allowed to fight) and you roll dice equal the number of attacks that all models within range have combined. This means that models with a ‘longer’ range such as spears (with a range of 2”) can support other models in the same unit.
Because of the rules for weapon range, it seems that having ‘smaller’ bases is rather beneficial. This is due to the fact that you can get more models and support attacks from having smaller bases. The models are closer to the enemy after all… In addition, extending the spears on spear wielding models also yields benefits. This is because distances are measured from the model and not the base and by having a long spear you can get ‘spear tips’ in range so you have more attacks.
On the more positive side, the new ‘range’ stat for weapons opens up opportunities for ‘mixed’ units (like the Rohirim in Lord of the Rings) where half your unit has shields and swords, and the other half uses spears or pikes. This way, you could get models with a higher Armour Save value in front and have less tough units in a supportive role. I looked up in the Empire State Troops Warscroll if this was possible, but those troops specifically state ‘either’ so no ‘cheesy’ mixed units for Empire players like me 😉
The last round of a turn is the Battleshock phase, basically a streamlined Leadership phase from the old Warhammer game. Instead of fleeing units, your units are now unbreakable and suffer casualties based on the difference of wounds during the combat phase. It also is a phase that can result in some spectacular events with units getting wiped out.
In the Battleshock phase, you roll a dice and add the amount of casualties your unit suffered during combat. If this total is higher than the (highest) bravery of your unit you remove one model for each point that this total exceeds the bravery. Basically this is the system that was used for Deamonic Instability or for the Undead when they failed their ‘breaktest’.
All in all I think that Games Workshop has created a rather slick and fast paced game. A game that seems to be quite a bit of fun, but at the same time lacks a lot of the more strategic and tactical options of “Oldhammer”. This does not mean that there are no tactics involved in Age of Sigmar, but that the options you have are much more limited. The question is therefore if Age of Sigmar has the long time hook that Warhammer (40k) had, as once you’ve figured out the basics you could get into a flow of ‘sameness’.
The problem of sameness could very well be solved. There are already rumours going around that GW is planning on quite a few expansions. Expansions that not only add new models, armies and terrain pieces, but also offer opportunities to add exiting combos through Warscrolls and added rules. Also, having so many warscrolls and the options to play with different styles using formations or odd ‘mix and match’ armies could very well be great and differentiating experiences. Although the issue of balance still has to be resolved.
In addition, we know that GW has divided the world in 9 different Realms, based on the eight Winds of Magic from Warhammer Fantasy plus Chaos. But at the moment we only have information about the Realm of Heavens – where the good guys led by Sigmar reside – and the Realm of Fire where the first Sigmar Crusade is going and the Khorne warband from the starter box live. All these different realms could come with exciting campaigns attached, new models and cool looking scenery spiced up with some realm specific rules (something GW has already hinted to in the rule leaflet and in the White Dwarf). Age of Sigmar thus seems to get quite a lot of support and possibly exiting new experiences.
All in all I have to say that Warhammer: Age of Sigmar is a gaming system in its infancy. There is a solid foundation that allows for fast and (hopefully) fun battles. At the same time I’m very curious about the further direction this game is going to. Age of Sigmar is not for everyone, and lacks the depth found in “Oldhammer” or other more mass battle focussed games. If you want that, you’ll have to jump ship and leave for ‘greener’ pastures like Kings of War, Dropzone Commander or Bolt Action.
At the same time, mass battles were not what GW was looking for. No, GW seems it was looking for a system that allows for storytelling and fresh new experiences that will be released in the coming months and years. A game that is also (or especially) appealing to ‘non wargamers’, a game that is easy to learn and play, and a game that can be played in a short time span so you could fit it into a ‘gaming afternoon’ with friends and family. And although I think that GW has at least succeeded in that last bit, it is unsure what it will offer for more experienced players OR what the future will bring. For the time I’d say, try out this new game (the rules are free) and see for yourself. You might just find a game that you would like!