Games Workshop’s (GW) newest game, Warhammer: Age of Sigmar (AoS), was released to very mixed reviews. Some people were willing to try out the drastically different game while others had a more explosive reaction. One of the key points of debate is the absence of points values for their models, a metric which has historically been used to balance two armies into roughly equivalent forces. Having spoken to a representative of the company to hear their defense of why they were abolished I spent some time pondering what felt off about it.
In a nutshell, GW no longer wishes to put any sort of restriction on how players use their models. They confessed that none of the previous rule sets were 100% balanced and they do not endorse any of their games as being fully competitive. Over the years many of the games created by GW have been used in a competitive setting. Whether it’s in smaller more casual tournaments or the official ‘Ard Boyz tournaments sponsored by GW, people liked using their armies in a roughly fair setting. Recently though, they stopped supporting the tournament scene. They no longer host the ‘Ard Boyz events, they don’t provide prize support to smaller venues, and their rulesets are more open to having incredibly unbalanced army lists. Every codex, army book, and rule set which is released has a certain amount of backlash from the existing community over the differences between the new and the old. To combat this they went in the completely opposite direction for the new game. The core rules for AoS are very, very, simple. Instead of the 200+ page tome which normally accompanies a new edition of one of their games, AoS’ rules are 4 pages long. I really enjoyed this aspect of the game, but could not shake the feeling that something was missing.
It occurred to me that outside of pre made campaign-style battles, there is actually no way to start playing a single game. Before AoS, to play a game both players would agree on a points total for their armies. Then the players would reference their army book, or codex, to create a list of models that was less than or equal to the agreed upon total. Each army had little quirks associated with them which gave them a unique feel which was incorporated into how you made lists. Some armies would be more elite, so they would have smaller units of models who were stronger than average. Others would be swarm armies; they would have many more models per unit. For AoS, there are no point value for the models. Creating a list of any kind is no longer possible. Players can grab any number of models for any number of units with no limitations of any kind. There are several suggested methods of balancing the games (starting with one boxes’ worth of models, or using the ‘wounds’ value to try and make points for the models), but in the rules pamphlet all it says is ‘you may use as many models from your collection as you wish.’ Games Workshop has said that they no longer want to put any sorts of limitations on what players may do with their models, but I believe this is not an effective method of making a game more fun.
A large portion of many player’s enjoyment of the game comes from a sense of ‘fairness.’ No one thinks that the rules for all the armies are completely even, but they don’t need to be. They just need to be even enough. When testing AoS I looked into my case of Skaven models, then to my opponent’s Ogre Kingdoms force, back to my Skaven, and so on; and actually had no idea where to begin. Do I grab a handful of clan rats and toss them down? Do I grab only the largest models I can find? These questions are answered by GW with a slap on the back and a smile, “Do whatever you want!” What if I want to have a fair starting point? What if I don’t want to demolish my opponent easily or be demolished in turn? These things could potentially happen in any of the previous GW games, but they were mostly up to chance (i.e. dice rolls).
One of the aspects of miniature games I enjoy is the duality between random chance and known quantities. While the amount of points a model is worth is constant, the effectiveness is not. A lone wounded soldier could take out an entire alien battalion, but it is very unlikely. Just as a whole squadron of machines could somehow miss that one Marine twiddling his thumbs out in the open. The inherent randomness of dice makes for very interesting and fun scenarios which occur naturally. AoS has removed the known quantities from the game. There is no longer any way to play a game on equal footing with an opponent, or even play a game separate from a larger campaign or story line. The random chance is still present, but now it is random chance piled ontop of random army combinations.
Losing is never the most fun thing that can happen when playing a game. Losing in a previous GW game is particularly frustrating because of how long the games can take, but at least usually there were funny stories which came out of it. On top of that the losing player could ask themselves “What did I do wrong?” They could go back to their list and see what was not effective, see what worked well, and tweak their army for the next game they played. They could learn which upgrades were effective against which armies, they could see what was ‘too many points’ for a given upgrade, and they could learn how their army functions on the table. The equal starting point made it so that the players could generally know where the mistakes were made. Did they play the army poorly? Did they choose to attack the wrong target? These questions are reasonable and can turn a loss into an opportunity for growth. It is the known aspect of the game which acts as a grounding point for what went wrong. Without the point values for the models losing in AoS is just frustrating. I don’t claim to be a mathematician, but I can generally understand the logic of some theories. If you have 2 variables in an equation and one constant, then it is easier to figure out what the answer would be. In GW games, the two variables are list building and playing the game and the constant would the point values for the models. You can tweak the variables to find a winning combination and the constant gives you a sense of security. “At least I know my opponent is only bringing 2,000 points worth of stuff.” With all aspects of AoS being unknowns there is no sense of security.
There are many interesting things that GW attempted with the AoS release. Most notably, they managed to successfully cater to both their old crowd and to new players. AoS replaced Warhammer: Fantasy, but GW put out updated rules for all the older models. They also made it so that the square bases from Fantasy are compatible with the round bases in AoS. On top of that, the rules are so light and easy to understand that new players won’t be intimidated away from trying out the game. All this would be great if there were a straightforward way to start a game. Without the points system all the other changes to me are irrelevant.