I play miniature war games, mostly Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy and Fantasy Flight’s X-Wing. Last year, Games Workshop replaced Warhammer Fantasy with Age of Sigmar. I’m not a fan of this new game. I’ll tell you why.
I’ve already spoken about the different aspects of the miniature wargaming hobby. Today, I’ll talk about the actual rules of such games. Collecting, painting, and army building is all well and good, but in the end all those miniatures are meant to be used in a game.
I’m a casual wargamer. This means I occasionally play a game, but I don’t spend time endlessly poring of army books and rules to come up with the perfect army. Every now and then I invite over some friends, we play a game or two, then have some beers. So, the games I play have to be fun for me in that situation.
The reason I’m talking about Age of Sigmar, is that it’s the successor to Warhammer Fantasy. Games Workshop tossed out all the old rule books – you know, those big tomes – and several old armies, then created a whole new game.
X-Wing is a science fiction wargame that has taken the market by storm. It’s the best selling miniature wargame as of this spring. When Games Workshop decided to overhaul Warhammer Fantasy, they clearly looked at this game.
Like X-Wing, Age of Sigmar includes most of its rules in the boxes with its miniatures, where it used to be in army books. The big rulebook of Warhammer Fantasy has been replaced by a few pages of rules, like in X-Wing, and the game is no longer centered around units of troops, but loose skirmishing models. Those changes don’t make it a good game, though.
Bear in mind, this is my opinion. You do not have to adhere to it. If your opinion is different, that is fine. I’m just explaining my reasoning so that others can follow the same reasoning or choose to have a different one.
The basics of a good wargame
A miniature wargame has five elements:
- A playing field
- Unit-based rules
The general rules govern how these five elements work together to form the game. If you compare how this is done in X-Wing and Age of Sigmar, differences start to pile up.
The Playing Field
This is usually a rectangular space with some terrain or backdrop on which you deploy your troops. In Warhammer that represents a section of land, and in X-Wing a section of outer space. The rules govern how miniatures (units) move across the field, and what the effects of distance, facing, and terrain are.
X-Wing has very restrictive movement, allowing only a limited set of movement templates for each unit. Facing is important, as is distance, and collisions between units matter.
Age of Sigmar has very few rules. Distance is the only important thing. Units can move wherever they want, as long as they move no more than a given maximum. Facing doesn’t matter at all. Yes, Age of Sigmar is less restrictive, but that also means far more limited tactical opportunities. The only two strategies are ‘keep your distance and shoot’ or ‘pile in and fight’.
In real life, the outcome of a battle is only partially the result of rules and training. Part of it is less predictable things like morale, the weather, and just dumb luck. Wargames usually factor this in by adding dice roles. This is not a requirement. Chess, for example, has no randomness at all, while dice games are almost completely random.
In X-Wing, the randomness is limited to the attack and defence part of the game. One unit shoots, the other tries to evade. Both sides roll. Depending on the ship and pilot, damage occurs and ships are destroyed (taken out of game).
Age of Sigmar uses dice rolls for attacking and defending, but also for morale, charge movement, magic, and even the terrain effects. An Age of Sigmar game is a lot more random that way. Again, this weakens the tactical opportunities, since no matter how brilliant you are, your opponent might luck out.
Tactics in wargames are partially centered around keeping things from your opponents, and guessing what they are keeping from you. The best board game example of this is Stratego, where all your board pieces start out with a secret rank and you and your opponent have to try and capture the opposing flag.
In X-Wing, you choose a movement template in secret, and so does your opponent. You have to guess what they are going to choose and adjust accordingly. Or not, and bluff.
Age of Sigmar… has no secrets. It’s like chess that way. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however, combined with having only two possible strategies, this again leaves little room for tactics.
Miniature wargames usually have special rules for each type of unit. This adds to the unique flavor of each unit and for strategic use. Just like a real army has specialized units.
Both X-Wing and Age of Sigmar have unique stats and rules for each unit. Both games allow you to break certain basic rules with your units. X-Wing adds a lot of choice to this: you can choose pilots for each fighter and you can choose upgrades for each ship. In Age of Sigmar, the unit can do what the unit can do.
One interesting thing to note is that Age of Sigmar has far more unit types than X-Wing – 15 armies with 10 to 20 unit types each, meaning somewhere around 200 to 300 unit types. Because of the limited use of playing field and a lot of randomness, the possible Age of Sigmar stat variations are smaller and less pronounced. It boils down to three stats: movement, attack/damage, save. X-Wing adds differences in movement templates to this, and a host of special items. So the game with ten times more unit types, has markedly less variety in stats.
When you play casually like me, you want to put down armies quickly and fight a good fight. In tournament play, you want to use the rules to their fullest to win games.
X-Wing uses a point system to try and balance things out. That, and they think long and hard on each unit to try to balance out its special rules.
Warhammer Fantasy also used a point system, but it was always a dicey proposition to try to balance 15 armies with hundreds of units. Each iteration of the game rules and army books would usually throw out a host of rules and replace them, instead of tweaking them for balance, resulting in a mess. Point costs were often too low or too high, according to different people, but there was hardly any way to prove that certain armies were unbalanced.
Age of Sigmar ignored the problem of balance, and simply removed the troublesome point system. The new ‘bring what you have’ rule is equivalent to ‘YOLO’, and it was a deathblow to tournament play.
In a friendly setting you can balance out your own armies, but for people like me who don’t have the time to pore over all the rulebooks, this is too much work.
The end result: Games Workshop has re-introduced the point system for Age of Sigmar in a separate rulebook. Wait, didn’t they try to create a simpler game where the rules were free to download?
All of the previous adds up to me not playing Age of Sigmar. Warhammer Fantasy gave this awesome feeling of commanding powerful armies made of units of troops marching under a sea of flapping banners and at the sound of echoing war horns. The extensive rules gave it a sense of depth, even if it also caused balancing issues.
Age of Sigmar exacerbated the balancing issues of Warhammer Fantasy, then removed the feeling of commanding a large army. It tried to mimic the ‘simple’ ruleset of X-Wing, which requires no expensive books, but had to create a new rulebook to re-introduce a point system. Games Workshop also made the mistake of not just simplifying the rules, but also removing most tactical possibilities. As a side effect, it dumbed the rules down so far that the differences between the 200+ unit types in the game became bland.
All in all, I’m playing X-Wing instead of Age of Sigmar. And maybe some Warhammer Fantasy on the side, for old times sake.