Sunday, April 30, 2017

It's Time to Bring Back the Old World

"Let's make Games Workshop great again!"
The last year has been an exciting time for Games Workshop customers. Ever since new CEO Kevin Rountree took the reins of the company, GW seems to have turned the corner from the decline of recent years by adopting a new philosophy of engagement with the fan community, promoting their product through their use of online tools and social media, and putting more emphasis on streamlining their games while improving gameplay and tactical depth. Gone are the days when GW sincerely believed that 80% of their customers consisted of model collectors, while gaming was something which only a small minority of their customers engaged in. Instead, we've seen the return of the classic format for White Dwarf, the creation of the Warhammer Community and expansion of WarhammerTV and, most promising, the return of Specialist Games. In short, Kevin “Guilliman” Rountree has righted a ship which had been steadily drifting off course, and there’s no better time to be a fan of Games Workshop and their products than right now.

            Unless, of course, you’re a fan of Warhammer Fantasy.

            The mishandling of Warhammer Fantasy is possibly GW’s greatest blunder, discontinuing its oldest existing game which, just a scant five years ago, at least according to ICV2 reports, was the third bestselling game on the market. A game which had been seeing a massive renewal of interest with the release of the End Times books. One might assume that Warhammer Fantasy is dead and gone, never to return. However, the New Games Workshop has been hard at work correcting the mistakes of the old guard. Under the new administration, GW has charted an exciting course in which they’re bringing their customers a wide variety of new and never-before imagined offerings like the Kharadron Overlords and Adeptus Custodes, while reaching into the past to revive old favorites like Blood Bowl and Adeptus Titanicus. If games which were seemingly dead and gone for close to 20 years are now returning to the fold, why not Warhammer Fantasy, too?
  
          Of course, some may ask, “Why bring it back?” It’s a fair question. GW has successfully reversed their decline of the past few years and are now seeing rising profits, so surely they don’t need to bring back Warhammer Fantasy. Age of Sigmar, which by all accounts had dismal sales for its first nine months, successfully reversed its downward spiral and now accounts for approximately 25% of GW’s profits. That’s in contrast to Warhammer Fantasy, which made up 12% of GW’s profits at the time the decision was made to discontinue it. Getting right down to it, bringing back Warhammer Fantasy isn’t a question of financial necessity for GW, so why bring it back at all?

"Ohhh, yeah! The Griffster is
back to rock the hizz-ouse!"
And yet that same counter-argument could be made about the merits of bringing back the various Specialist Games. Why bother? GW doesn’t need Blood Bowl or Adeptus Titanicus. And yet, those games have either been released or are scheduled for a future release. And new games like Shadow War: Armageddon, based on the Necromunda rules, have been met with an immensely positive reception. Those moves have resulted in great success for GW, not just in terms of financial gain, but in garnering a great deal of good will from longtime customers. Listening to the fans and giving them what they want is partly the reason for GW’s most recent successes. AOS’s current success, likewise, is proof that the solution to a game which is ailing financially isn’t to toss it away out of hand, but to fix it. GW listened to its customers and addressed the issues they had with AOS, and that’s primarily the reason why a game which was very nearly dead-on-arrival went on to become a game which now accounts for a quarter of their profits. So why not take that new approach, which has so far worked extremely well, and apply it to GW’s eldest child and one of its formerly best-selling games, and resurrect Warhammer Fantasy?

"We're here for the Old World pub crawl."
At first blush, reviving Warhammer Fantasy would seem a herculean task. It is, after all, a major game system with over a dozen individual factions. But in a great many ways, reviving it would likely be far easier than recreating the various Specialist Games from scratch, because GW wouldn’t have to recreate the game entirely from scratch. A new player wanting to create an Empire, High Elf, Lizardmen, or Skaven army, as it existed in the most recent version of Warhammer Fantasy, would find just about every option still available for sale. As for the Bretonnians and Tomb Kings, one would hope that a reborn Warhammer Fantasy would include both armies, in which case they could probably be easily reintroduced as well. So as far as the models are concerned, 90% of the heavy lifting is already done. And indeed, a Warhammer Fantasy revival wouldn’t necessarily have to be limited to pre-existing Warhammer Fantasy armies, either, but could also include the new Age of Sigmar armies, from Stormcast Eternals to Kharadron Overlords, but more on that later.

            That’s not to say that there wouldn’t be hurdles. There are two major obstacles which would need to be overcome first before Warhammer Fantasy could be restored, the first and most obvious of which being that the Old World was quite literally destroyed during the End Times. But was it, really? In a world which is full of magic, miracles, and gods, all of which co-exist with ancient technological devices created by inscrutable spacefaring alien intelligences, any number of plausible explanations could be offered for the return of the Old World. For example, The End Times Book I: Nagash featured the return of Gilles Le Breton, who resumed his rule over Bretonnia, but then promptly vanished, never to be seen again. The last we hear of him is in The Lord of the End Times, where a brief mention is made of Gilles leading an army of Grail Knights alongside Abhorash to defend an unnamed monastery.

"So you're telling me that I'm an immortal king leading a
massive army of heavily armored, magically empowered,
superhuman warriors, the O.G. of the Blood Dragons and
his whole crew have got my back... and I did NOTHING
useful during the entire End Times?!?"
The return of Gilles Le Breton was an ultimately pointless plotline, as nothing came of it. It’s the equivalent of making a big show of introducing Chekhov’s Gun in Act I but never firing it. Why would Gilles return in a manner which promised epic deeds from him in the books to come, only so he could just as quickly vanish from the story? Why didn’t Gilles and his army of Grail Knights, along with Abhorash and his Blood Dragons, swoop into the last battle like the Rohirrim to turn the tide? The fate of the world stood on a knife’s edge, and rather than appear at the final battle against Chaos to shift the odds in favor of the Forces of Order, the combined Grail Knight and Blood Dragon army opted to defend a monastery instead. That adventure was apparently deemed so inconsequential to the main plot that it wasn’t even considered to be worth mentioning in The End Times Book V: Archaon. If not for the brief mention in the novelization of that book, Gilles would never have been heard from again.

That choice makes no sense at all in narrative terms, to throw two such disparate forces together into a desperate last stand, unless we allow for the possibility that Gilles and Abhorash were aware of a means to preserve, or possibly recreate, the Old World, and they chose to protect that and employ that Old One device/magical artifact/etc. to remake the world. That move would not only preserve everything they were fighting for, and would clearly take precedence over joining forces with Sigmar and the Incarnates in the final battle, but it would buy them a reprieve to strengthen their forces if the legions of Chaos were led to believe that they had won. That Old One device, artifact (Perhaps the Grail itself?), or whatever the McGuffin is, could then have turned the clock back to where the Old World was just prior to the End Times, restoring the dead to life and bringing the world back to the way it was, save for those heroes and places which were swept away into the Mortal Realms. And that’s just one way out of a myriad of possibilities which could be employed to restore the Old World without advancing the timeline too much.

            Whatever way the return of the Old World is accomplished, however, once restored, the narrative possibilities of such a scenario are endless, as inevitably the peoples of the Old World and the Mortal Realms would more than likely encounter each other. It would begin a new age for both settings, as old gods are reborn and interact with the new, the heroes of the Mortal Realms find themselves torn between their new lands and their homelands, and heroes in both settings find new opportunities when they come into contact. The discovery of the Mortal Realms would give the likes of the Empire, Bretonnia, and the High Elves the means to finally take the offensive against the forces of Chaos, while the Dark Elves, Chaos Dwarfs, and Orcs would salivate at the possibilities for the acquisition of slaves and plunder from the Mortal Realms. Likewise, the great powers of the Mortal Realms would also seize the opportunities presented to them with a new world open to them. We may find Kharadron Overlords plying the skies of the Old World and engaging in commerce from the end of the muzzle of a gun. Chaos may return in force to rain death and destruction on the world which they believed they had destroyed centuries earlier. And the people of the Empire, when they find themselves beset on all sides by their enemies and lift their hands and eyes to the sky to pray to Sigmar for deliverance, will find that Sigmar answers their prayers with an army of Stormcast Eternals. The return of the Old World offers endless narrative possibilities which could be used to enrich both settings.

But should the decision be made that the two settings shouldn’t interact, that doesn’t mean that they still can’t both coexist as separate, distinct settings for two separate game systems, which nonetheless still share many of the same models. Ultimately, the existence of the Old World doesn’t preclude the existence of the Mortal Realms, and the existence of the Mortal Realms doesn’t mean the Old World must cease to be. After all, when Blizzard introduced The Burning Crusade expansion to World of Warcraft, they didn’t destroy Azeroth to make room for Outland. The same is true of the Old World and the Mortal Realms. There’s no reason that both settings can’t coexist simultaneously, whether they interact with each other or not.

Round base, meet square hole.
The second major obstacle to Warhammer Fantasy returning would be the rules. The game would essentially have to be rebuilt from the ground up, as it obviously can’t return with the 8th edition rules. By the time 8th edition arrived, the game had become incredibly cumbersome and time consuming, all the while compounding pre-existing game balance issues with more imbalance. Warhammer 40,000 has long suffered from the same issue of rules bloat, as well, which is why the upcoming new edition will be the biggest overhaul to the rules which we’ve ever seen. But as we’re seeing with the coming edition of Warhammer 40,000, a game can receive a major rules overhaul without doing away with the setting in the process, or eliminating the elements which people love about that game. Which, in the case of Warhammer Fantasy, would be a rank-and-file combat game in which positioning, facing, and flanks matter. And while it’s certainly true that the difficulty in bringing back a rank-and-file game is compounded when older models and newer models are moving away from square to round bases, that again isn’t an insurmountable problem, as the solution to that is as simple as making plastic movement trays with round base slots in it. That would instantly resolve the issue of how to rank up round or oval based models.

 
Meanwhile, outside Mantic HQ...
          
When it comes to producing an evolution to the rules, the means to do so is once again to adopt the same philosophy taken to save Age of Sigmar and improve Warhammer 40,000; learn from past mistakes and address the concerns of the fan community. To add to that, it would also be wise to look at what GW’s competitors are doing right, taking their best ideas, and making them their own. Great game companies don’t just listen to fan feedback and learn from their own failures and successes, but they look at their competitor’s failures and successes, what they did wrong, what they did right, and learn from them as well. And the truly great gaming companies don’t just imitate the successes of others, they innovate on them. For example, there are several notable fantasy rank-and-file games available now (Some of which may very well be contributing to AOS’s bottom line, as many gamers buy Warhammer models not for use in AOS, but for use in those games), including Kings of War and 9th Age (a fan made revamp of Warhammer Fantasy 8th Edition). And Fantasy Flight Games will soon be entering the ranked fantasy combat market vacated by Games Workshop with their new Rune Wars game. When it comes to making a new Warhammer Fantasy, a good place to start would be to look at what some of those other games do right in terms of producing a fun, tactically challenging, and fast-paced rank-and-file combat game, and taking the best ideas. As the saying goes, why reinvent the wheel when you can steal one?

Let's be honest we all miss this sight.
            One competitor which GW could look at is Mantic’s Kings of War. It’s practically everything GW would want out of a game in terms of speed, ease of play, and tactical complexity. And it’s that way, in part, due to game concepts such as fixed unit sizes, unit stats versus individual stats, models no longer used as wound counters, and to wound rolls dependent on the defending unit rather than the attacking unit. The fixed unit sizes, for example, mean that units no longer reform into different formations midgame, which saves time. It also ensures that players need a very small number of movement trays versus a wider variety to account for multiple kinds of formations and unit sizes. Treating the unit as a single entity in terms of stats greatly reduces rules bloat and complexity, as a player rolls for attacks and damage for a whole unit, rather than being concerned with whether a specific model can attack or not. Models no longer being used as wound counters means that players no longer switch movement trays mid-battle as their regiment is reduced from a massive 60-model horde to a mere nine men, while maintaining the glorious sight of a ranked battle, which is what makes Warhammer Fantasy such a visually stunning game. Not to mention that it’s much quicker and easier to set up for another game afterwards when players don’t have to reorganize their models into ranks. And wound rolls being dependent on the unit being attacked rather than the attacker means that there are no incongruities where a human spearman has the same chance of wounding a Steam Tank as a goblin. Similar rules to these would be a great boon to an updated Warhammer Fantasy. For any games designer looking for inspiration on how to remake Warhammer Fantasy from the ground up, that would be a great place to begin.

            That should only be a beginning, though. As stated earlier: imitate, and then innovate. GW currently has the tools to take those elements and others, adapt them into a rank-and-file game of their own making, and introduce innovations on those elements, improving on them, and producing a superior gaming experience. For example, with GW’s plastic production capability and excellent design team, they could not only make their own plastic movement trays rather than requiring customers to go to 3rd-party sources for trays, they can go several steps beyond that. They could potentially make movement trays with a sliding lock feature which can lock oval, round, or square bases into place, which would eliminate the need to magnetize bases or multi-base. They could also include other features such as wound dials built into the movement trays to account for how many Wounds a unit has suffered, a dial to record morale or other effects, and so on. The movement tray could become an important component of the game system, and GW has the capability to capitalize on that possibility.

And while I generally admire Mantic’s damage system, one flaw with the system is that a legion of zombies which has sustained twenty points of damage fights just as well as a legion of zombies which hasn’t sustained any damage. GW, however, has already solved that problem with monster stats in Age of Sigmar. The more Wounds a monster takes, the more diminished its capabilities in combat. Simply adapt that system and apply it to a regiment of troops (Who, as stated above, would be treated as a single model rather than a collection of individual models), and you would have a fast-paced game which doesn’t require the removal of models but does see a unit’s combat effectiveness diminish as it continues to sustain damage.

Once again, imitate, and then innovate.

 
Catering to Warhammer Fantasy and Age of Sigmar fans
doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. Make everyone happy,
and both games will prosper.
         
Games Workshop has seen a great deal of success lately, and they’ve learned quite a bit. They’ve learned that when you strike out on the first attempt, you don’t toss your bat away and go home, but try again, because next time you might hit a home run. They’ve learned that by expanding play options, they expand their customer base for a game. They’ve learned that their best assets when it comes to improving their products are their own customers, who more than anyone else are aware of the flaws of their games and how to best fix them. Bringing Warhammer Fantasy back into the fold wouldn’t be contrary to the philosophy of the New GW, but would rather be in keeping with all they’ve learned recently, and applying those lessons learned to a resurrected Warhammer Fantasy would undoubtedly be a great success.

As we’ve seen with The General’s Handbook, “Three Ways to Play” is a success because not everyone wants the same thing out of a game. Instead, players prefer having options in the way they play their games. Returning Warhammer Fantasy would take that concept to the next level, providing yet another way for gamers to use their models to play, in a ranked combat game, and multiplying the number of ways to play by introducing new narrative gameplay options made possible with the return of the Old World. GW will have fans of both the Old World and Mortal Realms playing side-by-side, either playing both games as intended, as a rank-and-file or skirmish game for Warhammer Fantasy and Age of Sigmar respectively, or they could fight battles set in the Old World with skirmish rules, unleash bloody campaigns of conquest in the Mortal Realms using rank-and-file rules, or even wage interdimensional wars as armies from the Old World clash with armies from the Mortal Realms, and so on. It would be an exciting gaming experience.

"How come we never fight like this in Azyrheim?"
"Just shut up and stay in formation, Steve."
And for GW, it would be a win-win, as bringing back Warhammer Fantasy will increase the revenue for Warhammer models, as players with wildly different gaming tastes, whether skirmish or rank-and-file combat, would purchase Warhammer models to play both games. Likewise, both games would increase the interest level among gamers using their pre-existing collection to play the other game, increasing the player base for both, which in turn will bring in even more customers. Gamers are GW’s greatest evangelist for their products and the best advertising they could ever ask for, because nothing helps sell a game faster than a new customer walking into a game store for the first time and seeing people playing with Games Workshop models on every table, whether in the skirmish system offered by Age of Sigmar or a rank-and-file system offered by Warhammer Fantasy. And gamers who normally wouldn’t be interested in an army for one game or the other due to the rules or setting would suddenly find themselves more interested in it if they’re able to use those models in their preferred combat system or setting. For instance, there are many who don’t own any Stormcast Eternals because a skirmish game set in the Mortal Realms doesn’t appeal to them, but if they could play them in the Old World in a rank-and-file system? They would likely reconsider, and GW would have more customers buying Stormcast Eternals. Likewise, plenty would gladly play Bretonnians in Age of Sigmar if they were returned as a full-fledge force with new models and were resurrected along with the Old World. One game will elevate the other, all the while selling the same set of models to a larger pool of customers.

            Games Workshop can and should return Warhammer Fantasy to its lineup of games. If they take the lessons they’ve learned in the past year or so and apply them to a revitalized Warhammer Fantasy, it will succeed. If they produce a streamlined, quick, yet tactically complex game system which makes full use of the strengths and challenges offered by a rank-and-file combat game to set it apart from their other games, it will succeed. If they take the best ideas for a rank-and-file game out there and innovate on those ideas, it will succeed.  If they take all of that, put it into a brand-new Warhammer Fantasy starter set, possibly with Bretonnians (Who, per reputable sources, have had new plastics designed for them for quite some time but which, sadly, were never produced) and Tomb Kings as the starter armies, put them on round and oval bases, and include movement trays with built-in wound trackers which can lock the bases into place so they can easily rank up, it will succeed. And if that boxed set is accompanied by a setting guide detailing the miraculous rebirth of the Old World and the return of old favorites like Karl Franz, Gotrek, Settra, Orion, Vlad von Carstein, Abhorash, and many more, while accounting for how the world has changed due to the absence of former Old World heroes like Alarielle, Nagash, and Archaon, and the disappearance of locales like the city of Skavenblight, while potentially describing the first contact with the Mortal Realms, then it won’t just succeed. It will be a triumph.

For those who love the Old World, it’s time for their exile to come to an end and for them to come home. And it’s time for Games Workshop to revisit the world which first made them the company which they are today and do it the justice which such a grand setting deserves.


Doing the Happy Dance (Or: Revisiting My Hopes for 8th)

"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas..."             A little over a month ago I wrote a blog post titled A Cr...