Normally, this blog only chronicles my slowly-growing collection of painted miniatures. But I will indulge in an opinion piece for once.
Recently, Games Workshop launched “Warhammer – Age of Sigmar”. And that offering marks the sad ending of a franchise that has been a companion of my Wargaming life for almost three decades. In one fell swoop, Games Workshop appears to have wiped out the game system, narrative and intellectual property of what is possibly the most widely known fantasy franchise in the history of Wargaming – competing with the Lord of the Rings franchise in the non-wargaming arena. Such a move seems so insane that, even now, I am wondering whether it can be true. I am still waiting for the “April Fools” style announcement… But I don’t think that’s coming so let me dig into all three big changes
Game System: Warhammer Fantasy Battle has always been about mass combat of ranked units. And while Games Workshop has nibbled away at this core model in recent years with the introduction of big monsters and other “single base” additions, this was always the central principle of the Warhammer system. No more. Individual skirmish-style models, a la Warhammer 40k, are now the default.
Even if Warhammer – Age of Sigmar is latter augmented with a ranked variant, it will at best be in the style of the Lord of the Rings system where movement trays are merely a convenient tool for the movement of “model blobs”. And that just feels wrong. There is a reason why static formations have been the mainstay of warfare over thousands of years of human history – from ancient phalanxes to Napoleonic lines. Absent radios and rapid-firing guns, static formations are simply the most efficient way to command, control and fight units! The perfectly neat squares of the Wargaming world are of course an abstraction, but pre-radio/gunnery wargame generals really should have to worry about formations, flanks and manoeuvre. Because without that, combat will just devolve into pushing everything into a giant hand-to-hand combat blob in the middle of the field.
Fortunately, there are other rule systems to cater to the ranked mass combat gap such as the conveniently released Kings of War 2.0. And maybe one day there will be a generic mass combat rule system designed to fit the historical wealth of Warhammer forces (e.g.a bit like Studio Tomahawk\’s SAGA rule system was designed with Gripping Beast Dark Age models in mind but could clearly work with models from all manufacturers). So in some ways this is the least dramatic of the three changes introduced by Games Workshop today.
Narrative: Changing the fundamentals of a 30+ years old game system clearly wasn’t enough, so Games Workshop also threw out the entire Warhammer World. Gone are the Empire, Bretonnia, Ulthuan and the Grey Mountains. The world that gave us the adventures of Gortrek and Felix, Teclis and Tyrion, Nagash and the van Carsteins, as well as countless other heroes and villains – all gone up in flames. A world that was literally decades in the making, and has a more comprehensive background development than possibly any other fantasy narrative and hundreds of books covering it, has been wiped out in one stroke. And I don’t get it.
Over the last year I have been watching the End Times release cycle which narrate a cataclysmic ending to the Warhammer World, but I always just thought of it as a kind of appendix to the overall narrative. A bit like the world of Warhammer 40k describes the final battle where the Primarchs arise to fight once more – a hinted-at ending to the narrative but not a literal ending. Instead, Games Workshop appears to have decided to literally end the Warhammer World.
I can, abstractly, understand that the game developers might want material for new creatures and battles, but why not do so by selecting a different slice of the Warhammer World timeline? Mordheim comes to mind as an example. Similarly, Warhammer 40k has quite comfortably created a full second narrative in the 30th millennium with their Horus Heresy saga. The Horus Heresey opened up room for new models, new design paradigms, new forces and a new story line of breathtaking depth. All without abandoning the core of the 41st millennium narrative. Why not do the same for the Warhammer World?
There are plenty of alternative fantasy game systems out there that offer equal or better gameplay to Warhammer. Game rules are relatively easy to create so there will always be small businesses with new rule sets. Making good quality miniatures is also, quickly, becoming accessible for smaller companies. So what really set Games Workshop apart were its massive franchises around the Warhammer and Warhammer 40k worlds. Those took decades to develop with a combination of rule sets, background books, fiction books, magazine articles and many other tools far outside of the budget of a new independent game developer. Throwing this away seems foolhardy in the extreme.
And all of this wouldn’t be so bad if the new narrative were inspiring. Instead, we get golden-armoured winged angel warriors led by a god-emperor into battle against their chaotic counterparts across random worlds? Really? That’s replacing the depth of the Warhammer World? I get Games Workshop’s obsession with Space Marines but that really feels about as lazy as story writing can get. Ironically, I just finished painting the Sanguinary Guards for my 40k Blood Angels so I guess I can easily put together a proxy force for the new Age of Sigmar :).
Helge’s Sanguinary Guard (Elite Warriors of the God-Emperor of Mankind in the 41st Millennium)
Games Workshop’s newly released “Prosecutors of Sigmar” (Elite Warriors of the God-Emperor of Mankind in the “Space Bubbles” of the new Warhammer World…)
Intellectual Property: As depressed as I am by the above changes, this one really takes the plum. Not only is the Warhammer World gone up in flames, but Games Workshop has also decided to shift its entire intellectual property portfolio. Orcs are now Oruks, Elves are Aefls, Dwarves are Duardin, Lizardmen are Seraphons, and so forth for ever-more awkward attempts of generating unique nomenclature. This is truly crazy.
Believe me, I get that Games Workshop wants to own proprietary terminology for its games. While I am not an expert in the legal aspects of miniature games, I actually do make a living with intellectual property (the technology kind) and worked at/with some of the most recognized intellectual property brands in the world (including working at a company who makes more profit from IP licensing than Games Workshop cumulative from its entire business since the creation of the Warhammer World some three decades ago…). So I get the value of strong intellectual property and the need to protect it. But Games Workshop’s current approach seems to be very misguided. A successful brand strategy depends on two slightly opposing elements: penetration and protection. The latter is obvious – you need to own the intellectual property rights of all or some of the new material to exploit it commercially – but the former requires a bit more thought. To build a strong brand, you need to create something that penetrates the market quickly and dominantly. The best way to achieve this is to leverage historical brand strength as well as common concepts that are already in the market. That’s where the conflict with protection comes in because, by definition, those common concepts can’t be protected. But despite that trade-off, this is still the best way to build a strong brand. Hence, Apple, the most brand concious company in the world, still has an “App Store” and an Apple Watch – not a “Aeph Shtore” and an “Apple TimeTeller”.
Similarly, Dwarves are a deep stereotype of all fantasy worlds – doughty warriors of short stature who dwell under the mountains and love gold. Either, the new “Duardin” will have those characteristics or they won’t. If they do then they will be referred to as Dwarves and if not, then there won’t be Dwarves in the new “Age of Sigmar” universe. Even Tolkin, a professor of philology obsessed with new nomenclature, understood this. That’s why there are Dwarves in Middle Earth who are sometimes called Durin’s folk and occasionally wander in the Druadan Forest to meet up with the Dunedain. Because that’s how this is done. You leverage archetypes of existing common elements and then add unique people, places and cultures to create your own intellectual property. That’s, ironically, how the Warhammer World became such a successful franchise in the first place! And give the example of Middle Earth as possibly the most lucrative fantasy world intellectual property portfolio ever, it is clearly a strategy that can also be monetized just fine.
In summary, this seems like an extremely misguided strategy. Introducing a new game system is a good move – Warhammer was due for a face lift – but killing one of their two largest franchises seems patently insane. And regrettably that move will destroy the foundation of many co-dependent games as well. Warmaster, Mordheim, Blood Bowl, and long list of video games all draw upon the Warhammer World as its setting. Eliminate that world and its creatures, and you pull out the rug from beneath all of these games. Incidentally, this raises the interesting question of how Games Workshop will be treating upcoming games based on this settings. For example, the Total War franchise of video games appears to be working on “Total War: Warhammer “and, at least in the pre-release info, Orcs are still Orcs (not Oruks). It will be interesting to see whether Games Workshop allows the parallel existence of two “Warhammer Worlds” or will try to force the Total War franchise to shift to the new narrative (a clash of titans since the Warhammer and Total War franchises have probably similar value right now and similar annual revenues).
As a long term gamer who was captured by the Warhammer World narrative almost 30 years ago, this change makes me sad. As business man, I just find it baffling that any company would abandon the foundation of a large franchise in this way. It truly is the end of an era.
As a tribute to the Warhammer World of old, I will be (finally) preparing some of my Warhammer forces for the photo booth and get them up on this site over the next couple of months. From Imperial Dwarves to the hordes of Undeath and the valiant men of Bogenhafen, let’s unleash the visual spectacle of the Warhammer World for one last hurrah!