Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Warhammer list building from Fantasy Battles to Age of Sigmar

The first wargame I played (somewhere in the eighties) was based of AD&D rules. My brother bought it at a gaming convention where we were both impressed by a (static) wargaming table featuring a bearded man (who filled his day yelling 'don't touch' at us kids). The AD&D game was chosen because the ready to use counters looked practical and more affordable then the metal miniatures. I remember the game was awful but I can't for the life of me recall its name

Undaunted by this bad experience my brother decided to invest more pocket money in the book featured to the left here,. Yes the start of the addiction for me was Warhammer Fantasy Battles 3rd edition. The book not only contained comprehensible rules for playing wargames, it also featured all the information you needed to play in the back. Points cost per race, special attributes and so on. The AD&D game taught us you could skip dropping pocket money in miniatures by grabbing the lid of a shoe box and making your own cardboard warriors. Our first Fantasy Battle featured four players (no GM) battling with 20.000 points each....

....I'm going to assume that the older readers have by now wiped the coffee of their screens ;) I don't think we ever got past round two, but we did enjoy the spectacular scenery (a grey 110mm diameter PVC pipe serving as a tower and green and brown crayoned paper serving as area terrain). We had some ways to go and the first step consisted of mail ordering miniatures.

Luckily in 1988 Warhammer Armies arrived on the scene to sort us out. This venerable tome featured a collection of the races with their special rules and army lists. A dab of nostalgia is probably in play here, but I still love this format for two reasons. First you could pick up a single book, check out the armies and pick the one you like. Second you had a chance to check out the rules of opposing armies without having to buy another book. Here is a spread from Warhammer Armies Orcs&Goblins list (as I'm currently stuck in an Orcs&Goblins frame of mind, I'm going to follow development of Da Green Skum here).

From 1988 on Warhammer Armies helped us pick a reasonably coherent army.
Before moving on I'm going to take two steps back. A year before third edition and Warhammer Armies Games Workshop released Ravening Hordes as a supplement to second edition. It had general rules for every race but offered no real structure for building lists. Here is a sample from the Orcs&Goblins as the rules stood in 1987.

This was the way Ravening Hordes gave a helping hand with the same task before that.
Before this tome appeared players had to just brew their own lists. I did find an even older (1983) book of battalions. The intro is wonderfully telling of early days at GW. "This volume has been compiled by the many Warhammer players living in and around this bit of the East Midlands (Nottinqhamshire and Lincolnshire). This isn't part of Forces of Fantasy - bul a free supplement. It has been written and produced partly at night and week ends, and is based on the forces of the players listed below." I opens with a Goblin army.

This free publication from 1983 gave us the army lists of (by the look of it) most of the original GW staff. 
All nice and fun for collectors, but not much of a guideline for playing, especially competitive play. Let's zap back to 1987's Warhammer Armies. Here's the second spread from the Orcs&Goblins.

The other Orcs & Goblins page from warhammer armies. Lots of familiar models on these pages.
Warhammer Armies tried (in part) to solve the old problem of having narrative gamers/collectors on the one side versus the competitive players on the other. In my opinion both types of wargaming are equally valid as long as you don't mix the two types of players (there is nothing sadder then seeing a lovingly assembled army with a backstory getting wiped of the table at high speedby a highly competitive kill all comers enemy). Warhammer armies maximized the number of certain units you could take and gave a minimum ammount of some others. So in this case every Orcs&Goblins Army had to take at a minimum 20 Boyz, 20 Arrer Boyz and 20 Gobbos. There were also separate rules for the general and unit commanders as these heroes had to be bought separately.

The first Orcs & Goblins Army Book gave more freedom to pick our own basic units, opting for a percentage based system instead. 
Warhammer 4th edition was the last one I played before going on a 'hobby hiatus'. It made the rules smoother and faster paced (no more endless pushing back and forth over the table). It also introduced separate Army Books for each faction. I had the Skaven Army Book way back then (and still have it somewhere in the book case. The picture above is from the fourth edition Orcs&Goblins Army Book
(1993). From this point on armies no longer had a minimum number of certain troops instead a quarter of the total points allowance had to be spend on 'Mobs' (basic troops). Orcs&Goblins could spend up to fifty percent of their allowance on heroes. I only hear the term 'herohammer' later, but it does quite accurately describe second edition. I recall kitting out a Dark Elf general with a potion of strength and a sword of dragon slaying to kill an particular High Elf general that was dominating all battlefields. Also a lot of fights against undead devolved in using stone throwers to find, hit and kill the cowering necromancer leading the lot. Good times/Odd times/Silly times...hey its a wargame, don't take it too seriously!

Prior to sixth edition a new version of Ravening Hordes helped players use their armies in the new edition.
Looking at the source of all my 'date of publication knowledge'. GW published army books for all races between January 1993 (The Empire) and May 1996 (Wood Elves). The concept of all these was as described above. The army books lasted for quite some time, being usable for both 4th and 5th edition Warhammer. The period after the first army books sees the release of races I still see as new and odd (as I missed their original release way back then) like Bretonnia, Lizardmen and Vampire Counts as well as a freash tome for Chaos and High Elves. All these army books where replaced by a new edition of Ravening Hordes in 2000 (pictured above). Ravening Hordes was meant as a bridge to the new Warhammer Edition (6th) and it harkens back to Warhammer Armies.

The last Orcs & Goblins army book was more of an iteration of the first one then a radical new approach.
Between 6th to 8th edition Games Workshop replaced most of the army books, but the publication did not keep pace with the newer Warhammer Fantasy Battles editions. This is a big problem for competitive ones as newer armies tend to feature newer rules that help win games. I came out of my hobby hiatus around 2008 with the release of Warhammer 40K 5th edition. I really wanted to get back into Fantasy but by then I had trouble making sense of the vast array of army books and options. In the end I bought the Isle of Blood box and an 8th Collectors Edition book. Played a few games and got wiped every time by purple suns, invincible dwarven cannons and the like. It quickly soured me of gaming and I just painted some models while sticking to 40K.

AoS was not met with a joyful reception everywhere.
(I'll give you old timers another brief break to wipe yet more coffee from the screen).
That lasted right until the release of Warhammer Age of Sigmar. The first release reminded me of my 20.000 point Warhammer Fantasy Battle. With absolutely zero guidelines on how to make an army most games consisted of a table filled to the brim with models. That was actually quite a lot of fun although we never got to finish a game during gaming club evenings.

As with Warhammer Armies the appearance of the General's Handbook solved this problem by reintroducing points values, giving us all a handle on how to arrange a battle that can actually be finished in one evening (around 2000 points assuming the club starts at 19.00 and plays until 23.00-23.30). It also gave the competitive games a chance to do their thing again: finding the ultimate 'kill them all lists'.

The past month saw the release of the General's Handbook 2017 (I think there is a hint in the title as to what we can expect in the future ;). The new book updates the previous version, changing points values, updating (abused?) rules and giving more missions, extra campaign rules and so forth. For old timers I think a comparison to the old 'Chapter Approved' books/White Dwarf articles is fair. I like this approach as it keeps the game fresh without completely turning all the rules upside down.

So far so historical, but how does list building in Age of Sigmar compare to older editions?
I'm going to approach this from two sides: narrative and competitive. I'm also going to take the safety off my very (un-)humble opinion. I'm going to assume you play a point valued game as this helps narrative players get a sense of the time required and keeps a lid on the worst excesses by competitive players. To summarize the previous methods for balancing armies. Warhammer Armies gave some mandatory troop choices and capped the number of models per unit type at a maximum. The Army Books introduced percentages of points you could spend towards different types of unit. Age of Sigmar takes some of the old, adds some new things and leaves a lot of wiggle room.

For points you can just use the values as guidelines and go from there. If you take the Matched Play rules you get a mandatory amount of 'Battleline' units you should take (3 for a 2000 point battle). These would be the Orruks (Orc Boyz) for instance. And the maximum amount of certain other models is capped (no more than 4 artillery pieces at this size). The keywords every unit in AoS have are used to determine which is which. These keywords also determine allegiance, which is the force that helps theme armies. You can have an army that mixes everything (Chaos Lords fighting side by side with High Elf Princes) this looks strange (unless you are a painting god with narrative skills to match) and gives you a disadvantage. If you make sure all your models fall within one of the four Grand Alliances: Order, Death, Destruction or Chaos you're army get a special ability, an ability for your general and a magic item. You can roll for these or pick them. As they are different for each alliance they help theme armies to a great extend. Destruction forces get advantages on closing the distance, Death is harde to kill, and so on. You can also pick a more detailed alliance. For instance make an army that consists entirely out of Tzeentch worshippers (all units have the Tzeentch keyword). In this case you can use special items and army rules from the Disciples of Tzeentch battletome. General's Handbook 2 adds a simple rule for allies to this. It allows you to add units up to a small value of points (400 in a 2000 point game) without the required keyword (but within restrictions) to a themed army without taking away the special rule.

I'll get back to some other intricate details on the competitive side, and maybe foam at the mouth a bit at the end. Lets look at narrative gaming first.

The AoS app.
Narrative list building in AoS
For a narrative gamer Age of Sigmar offers the easiest list building in the world. If you (and your opponent) are really laid back you just select the warscrolls of your units. If you want to keep the battle size within a certain constraint (for time purposes or other). Each unit has a points value for a certain amount of models. These are listed in the General's Handbook. Count your models, check their values and you are ready to go. Weapons, banners and other stuff is entirely dependent on what you glued onto the models. Points are not factored in for this. You can pick a battalion and take advantage there (more on these later), but it is not strictly necessary. The only step after selecting your units is checking your allegiance and game on. With the app containing all warscrolls you can be up and running a game within ten minutes (including calculating the points from a table in the General's Handbook). You are quite free to add complexity based on the 'matched play rules'. Assuming you're playing an actual fellow casual or narrative gamer this works out quite well and maximizes the fun you can have with your precious Warhammer time (I have a wife, a kid and a job, free time is precious).

Narrative list building in older editions
A casual gamer in older editions has a more work cut out. You have to calculate points cost for your models based on equipment and type. Then you have to calculate percentages for your army. You also have to take a bit of time to select magic artifacts and banners. Bagage trains and other details can also be sorted out with a wink and a nod, but basic calculus is required for a game. Preparation time can vary. All the way to zero minutes if you play with a standard army up to as long as you like if your collection has grown to big for normal games (insert uncomfortable cough here).

Competitive list building in older editions
Yes, I went for a switcheroo here and started with the older editions. Competitive list building in older editions could get very involved very quickly. The first step is finding the best combination of rules to get a maximum advantage for your army (exploit is such a strong word). This usually involves finding a combination of magic items, character abilities and spells. For example (my personal trauma) adding a fortified dwarven cannon to a ruin giving it an almost unbeatable armour save, add a dwarf engineer to the back so it never misses or misfires and using that to mow down the enemy as the mandatory Dwarf Warriors lean on their axes and discuss brewing through the ages. For a lot of players the hard work of searching for this magic combination could be solved by hopping onto the internet and reading the best combinations there. Yes this is not my cup of tea, but it still works as long as both players get onto a table with these kind of lists.

Competitive list building in Age of Sigmar
In competitive games AoS does not give points value to equipment, so the unit as a basic building block has a fixed price. A competitive gamer in Warhammer Age of Sigmar looks for two important things: drops and battalions. A battalion in Sigmar is a collection of units. For instance if you take three to five units of Orruk Brutes together they can form a 'Brutefist'. This gives the group an advantage, grants the player and extra magic item for use by a hero and it allows you to place the entire battalion on the table in one go. Placing a unit, or 'drop' as it is called is important. The player who sets up his entire army first determines who takes the first turn . As AoS has developed you now have battalions consisting of other battalions. This makes it possible to set up an entire 2000 point army in one drop whilst getting some extra advantages and magic items. On the plus side this forces a bit of narrative, as even highly competitive armies are forced to take a reasonable wide range of units. On the downside, as always over the years, certain rules combinations are more powerful. From a building perspective it works out reasonably nicely, until you hit the foam at the mouth part of Age of Sigmar (as far as I'm concerned).

Foaming at the mouth over Age of Sigmar part one: battalion confusion
Playing with battalions is quite an important aspect of AoS. It even plays a role in casual games. It helps theme armies, motivates you to pick coherent groups of units and helps formulate a basic narrative in the even the most competitive player's army ('this is a Freeguild Regiment that has joined my Stormcast Aetherstryke Force'). Unfortunately it is also a bit of a hot mess for the following reasons:
  1. As AoS developed battalions have popped up in background books, Battletomes, as part of 'getting started' boxes and so on. It has gotten near on impossible to keep track all battalions. The AoS App has most of them available (except for instance for the getting started ones). This has turned forming an army of battalions into a tough administrative task.
  2. GW differentiates between narrative battalions and matched play battalions, giving the former no points cost in the General's Handbooks. This makes it hard to impossible to use these even in a casual game that uses points for scale purposes. 
  3. General's Handbook 2017 has taken battalions that previously had points out of the lists. It is unclear whether the old points are still in use or if these have been removed from matched play considerations. As a lot of the missing battalions are from the original free rules pdf's this makes older armies unplayable in a competitive setting.
  4. Because battalions are everywhere the app is the logical place to look them up. However to see what is in a battalion you need to buy the associated book (rules pack, whatever) in app. Owning a hard copy means nothing. Also for the points cost you need to buy the General's Handbook in app. I bought the previous version which is now useless as the new version has cancelled out my ability to see points. The only useful remedy is using hard copy, Excel and leaving through lots of books and tomes. 
All in all if it where up to me I would like to see all battalions given a points cost and get access to at least one place that brings all the available ones together. It would've been nice if all pointed battalions were listed in the latest edition of the General's Handbook. A bit more like Ravening Hordes and Warhammer Armies in that regard. 

Foaming at the mouth over Age of Sigmar part two: lack of generic Battletomes 
The other thing that I'm missing in AoS as far as lists are concerned is the lack of generic Battletomes. Since its release in 2015 we've gotting five hardback Campaign Books, 4 Grand Alliance books collecting the general warscrolls, 1 fortifications book, 2 expansions, 2 General's Handbooks and 17 Battletomes for different subfactions. That is one hell of a lot of publications in the span of two years. But (being a greedy gamer) it would be nice if we could get a few battletomes that help us get the most out of our existing armies. Regular Greenskins, Skaven, Elves, Humans and Undead really need a bit more attention. Their miniatures fill the shelves but without a book to support them it is getting harder and harder to keep on building armies with them. At least, that is what I think. 


  1. Thanks for putting all of that together!

    The battalion rules exemplify what I do not like about GW rules writing from the last few years or so... mandatory grouping of units for "free" bonuses, and then you can group these groups to pile on more bonuses. At least there are not free UNITS like in the 7th edition 40k formations.

    I much prefer the 4/5/6/7th edition army books... all you need for an army in one book, and some fluff too. Lists were more complicated to calculate, but then also gave you the feel of being very accurate in your points too. (if only it worked out that way in practice!)

    1. To each his own :) To be sure I do appreciate that the formations themselves actually cost points as well so the bonus is not free which stops some shenanigans especially as the General's Handbook 2 puts new points cost on overtly powerful (and overused) formations. As to the free unit and bonus thing, that marks a true low point in Warhammer (40K) for me as well.