Soul Wars (Games Workshop)
Rising like a Flamespyre Phoenix from out of the ashes of Warhammer Fantasy, Age of Sigmar is Games Workshop’s new setting for fantasy-based miniature combat. Leaving behind decades of rules and editions, along with some models and armies, Age of Sigmar was more of a new game than a new edition. Epic battles between rank and file units of (sometimes literally) hundreds were replaced with smaller scale skirmishes fought between more hulking and dynamic models. Books upon books of rules, were replaced with free online data sheets and a 4-page core ruleset. Some of it was considered welcomed change. Some of it was considered heresy.
Three years on, Games Workshop has continued to work on some of the dramatic shift brought on by Age of Sigmar. Surprisingly for a company that had in the past seemed tone deaf to its fan base, real consideration seems to have been given to the response of the gaming community. Points were introduced for more balanced play, a General’s Handbook supplement added more nuance to the game, and now three years on, Soul Wars a beautiful new boxed game introduces the second edition for Age of Sigmar.
Filled with an impressive amount of Nighthaunt and Stormcast Eternal models, Soul Wars is another confirmation for Games Workshops’ reputation as a leader in sculpts. The lightning bolts and heavy hammers of the Stormcast and the cracked skulls and dangling wisps of the Nighthaunt, both are awesome in their own right – sure to excite different gamers for different reasons. The rules have also been neatly surmised with a Start Here guide, convenient data sheets for each unit, and a thick Core Rulebook with additional back story and optional rules for your many battles to come.
As with my review of the new edition of Warhammer 40,000, I have not had a chance to play the previous or the upcoming edition of Age of Sigmar. With weeks (maybe months) of modeling and painting before I can make it to the table, I turned to the seasoned veterans at my FLGS (friendly local game store), The Bookery to get their take on this new edition of the still very young fantasy setting.
Ghettoblaster: The roll out of Age of Sigmar polarized much of the Warhammer Fantasy base. Upon it’s release what were your initial thoughts?
Jonathan Brougher: My initial thoughts were, “those models are sweet but that game looks silly.” At first the game was extremely simple with just the 4 page rules and the warscrolls. Like most people I did not like the ‘grab a pile of miniatures and fight a battle’ style. As the game went on and they added in points for matched play, I learned about some of the subtle strategies within those 4 page rules.
Izaak Kemp: I worked for Games Workshop back when Age of Sigmar came out. I got to go down to Memphis, the Games Workshop’s US headquarters at the time, for a special preview of the rules. I had been a long time fantasy player and at the time had about seven fully painted armies. I was so disgusted by the rules changes that I sold all my fantasy armies before Age of Sigmar was officially announced. I’m glad I did, because those armies wouldn’t be worth half of what I sold them for now. Who needs 200 Skaven Slaves anymore? I guess you could call that insider trading. [laughs]
GB: Age of Sigmar significantly trimmed down a ruleset for Warhammer Fantasy that had become unwieldy and unbalanced over a number of editions. What do you enjoy about Age of Sigmar and what do you miss from Warhammer Fantasy?
IK: I did like the simplification of the datasheets. Having all the rules for a unit on one page is very convenient and really makes it easy to demonstrate the game to new players. As somebody who used to teach people to play Warhammer for a living, I can say that the Weapon Skill and Strength vs. Toughness tables were always difficult to get new players to understand.
The thing I miss the most about Warhammer fantasy is the mass combat, rank-and-file nature of the game. I grew up reading books by people like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and I loved the fact that there was this game where you could replicate the massive battles depicted in those kinds of fantasy novels.
Thomas Fritchman: Age of Sigmar moves fast! There’s not a lot of “spend one or two turns prepping” anymore. I do miss readily available first-party movement trays though.
JB: I love that Age of Sigmar got rid of ranked units. This mechanic made plenty of sense but really restricted the options for the models from both a design standpoint for Games Workshop and a hobby standpoint as a player. The new models are simply fantastic and are much more engaging than the stiff-backed troops that were basically just wound markers in Fantasy. That said, I do miss the extra layer of tactics involved in making charges into the flanks and rear of enemy units that made maneuvering such an important part of Fantasy though.
GB: After the initial pamphlet sized rulebook was released, Games Workshop has went back and flushed out a number of additional rules for Age of Sigmar, including the General’s Handbook from earlier this year. Three years after its release, what have you come to think about Age of Sigmar?
JB: I have gone from a skeptic to a true believer. The setting is fantastic and surreal. The models are gorgeous. The rules are easy to understand and play with but are rich enough to provide a lot of tactical choices and risk management is such a huge part of the game. Age of Sigmar uses a few core mechanics to make a diverse array of tactical decisions to make while playing.
TF: I really enjoy it! You have lots of options for Matched, Narrative, and Open play. So whether you want to play uber-competitively or just tell a story with some friends, the game fits that.
IK: Games Workshop is making the game more palatable, and I’m glad they got rid of a lot of the goofy rules that they introduced when the set first came out. Stuff like “if you are wearing a purple shirt on a Tuesday you get a +1 to your roll.” However I still think the game has serious balance and gameplay issues, such as the double turn and the complete imbalance between characters/monsters and infantry.
GB: Though previously on a heroic scale, the new Age of Sigmar models take this even further for massive and dynamic models. What are you feelings on the new figures? Do you have a favorite of the more recent releases?
JB: The new models are often inhumanly large when compared to some of the older models. This isn’t a problem though because Age of Sigmar has more of a mythical feel. Many of the armies are composed of warriors that are literally forged by gods and thus should be larger than life and tower over puny humans. I have a few stand out favorites from the new line, especially the ultimate units for many of the factions such as the Celestant Prime, Lady Allariele, Morathi, and the like.
IK: I do really like some of the new models, and I don’t have a problem with the scale creep, this has always been the case for Games Workshop. A current sized orc could swallow two second edition orcs and still have room for more! You see the same thing in 40k with space marines getting bigger, the new knights, etc. My favorite recent release for Age of Sigmar is the Morathi model. I’ll probably pick one up just to paint.
TF: The Stormcast Eternals just got Castigators and those models look like they shoot maces out of crossbows at people! It turns out they’re crystal vials full of Dracoth Breath, which can be further powered-up with lightning for when you really don’t like someone.
GB: The Idoneth Deepkin had been a rumored army for years. Are there any other far flung armies, either rumored or not, that you’d like to see made models for?
IK: I’d love to see them finally do a Cathay army, or since I guess Cathay doesn’t exist anymore, I’d love to see an army with that kind of eastern aesthetic. Chinese dragons, Kirin, terracotta golems, that kind of thing.
JB: Slaanesh. Seriously Slaanesh. Oh, and Slaanesh.
GB: Magic seems very strong in the new edition, what do you think about the changes?
TF: I love wizards and the Stormcasts finally get some wizards of their own! Above all, I like that there’s a reason in the ongoing story as to why magic is more powerful now. Nagash broke it.
JB: I like that they made magic such a bigger part of the new edition. Previously wizards seemed a little underwhelming with few exceptions, Nagash I’m looking at you. In a game about such extraordinary magical power a wizard should be counted on to be a little more powerful than five guys with swords. Now being able to summon permanent spells that lurk around the battlefield killing tons of enemies makes wizards a little more respectable.
IK: I did think that magic needed to become stronger in order to be relevant in Age of Sigmar, but these changes may have overcorrected.
GB: Wider spread command abilities seem to mirror some of the buffs that we’ve gotten used to in the new edition of Warhammer 40,000 – along with a lot more magic items, do you think this will make Age of Sigmar an even more hero-driven game?
IK: Age of Sigmar has always been a hero driven game, a lord on a dragon can kill an entire mob of infantry in a single round of combat because wounds carry over. I think what they are trying to do with the command abilities is give people a reason to bring their basic infantry units, which used to stay at home, because now they will have the command ability buffs. I’m not sure how well this will work, the game still seems to reward the person who brings the least amount of models.
TF: I think it will make heroes an even bigger target than before, but shooting rules have been changed to help heroes be slightly more survivable. I wish they called them something other than command points, because I’m going to confuse how they work with the 40k paradigm a lot.
JB: I feel like Age of Sigmar was always meant to be a hero driven game. It is a game of epic, mythical figures doing out of this world stuff. The pivotal role of characters buffing their troops and keeping them from fleeing the field is crucial to making the game play how it feels. Plus people like to play with a super dude that is their avatar on the field of battle.
GB: Beyond those changes, having had a chance to look over Age of Sigmar second edition, what do you think they got right and wrong with the changes?
IK: They should have gotten rid of the possibility for someone to take two consecutive turns. This is the most unbalancing aspect of the game period. Changing it so that the person who went first last turn wins ties helps, but it still makes the game effectively a dice off. There is a lot of criticism of the I-go-you-go turn structure in the game design world, and you see other miniatures games like Infinity doing interesting things to try to combat this, so I understand what Games Workshop was going for in their turn sequence. However for all its flaws, the I-go-you-go turn structure has been around since the time of games like Go and Chess and will probably be around for a very long time because it works. If you are going to try and replace it, it better be something better than just a dice roll off to see who goes first next turn.
JB: I think the rules are solid. There aren’t any huge changes from the previous edition but they really tightened some rules that were unclear or didn’t quite feel right. I’m not super happy with the General’s Handbook since they didn’t really change much for the faction specific rules and I found that to be a bit of a let down. Also they have a lot of tweaking to do on updated warscrolls and I have found several changes that make no sense or fail to mesh up with their previous incarnations. I understand that all that stuff is just a stopgap measure while they come out with the Battletomes though. Hopefully they will meet the same pace as the codexes for Warhammer 40,000.
GB: Over the last few years, Games Workshop has become more actively engaged with its games and the people who play them. What has this meant to how you experience the game, hobbying and playing?
TF: The “new” Games Workshop is way better than the “old” Games Workshop.
JB: I had given up on Games Workshop in the early 2010’s after over a decade of dedicated hobby enthusiasm. Games Workshop didn’t only disengage from their fans but became almost hostile to them. They refused to take part in social media, began rapidly publishing unbalanced digital only rules that made their games become almost pay to win, and they would often make changes to rules in a transparent effort to push more models. Now they focus on what the fan base wants and goes out of their way to engage and listen to them and subsequently give them what they want. It’s a new Games Workshop and thanks to that I’m back in the hobby more than ever before.
IK: I’m very glad to see Games Workshop finally start to interact with their fanbase. Their corporate culture was very acidic before and really made the fans upset. I mean seriously, what company in the 21st century doesn’t have a Facebook page? My only real complaint now is that the updates are coming out almost too frequently, which makes it difficult for the more casual player to keep up.