perjantai 15. heinäkuuta 2016

Age of Casual Salvation


After a brief pause in my posting (due to my job) I decided to address a topic today that has been on my mind for a full year now.

What makes Age of Sigmar so good?

That is an interesting question which I ask myself too often to be considered healthy anymore. I love the game, I love the models and I love the setting. What more can I say?
Well, quite a lot actually as now you poor people will have to sit through my review of the game and the reasons that make it one of the best tabletop wargames I've ever played.

First of all let's walk you through my Warhammer history so you can better understand that I have the viewpoint of a rather experienced Games Workshop addict fan. It all started nine years ago when I walked into an antiquarian as a young boy with my weekly pocket money held firmly in my sweating fist. I had heard rumours of tiny toy soldiers being sold there, and it turned out to be more than just a rumour. Shelves upon shelves of boxed miniatures filled my vision and made my senses swim. I still remember the strong scent of old books that hung heavily in the air.

I walked timidly around the shop with my jaws on the floor, stunned by the colourful boxes and pictures of miniature warriors that posed heroically on the sides of each one. Near the counter there was a small plastic fortress with miniatures all over it, frozen in an eternal conflict for the joy of the shop's customers. All painted up, it seemed to me like they were alive. I could clearly see the orc model jumping down from the wooden ramparts to hack at a human warrior beneath, who in my imagination looked much cooler and would thus cut the orc down with his sword.

Beside the fortress there was an open cardboard box with various unpainted models in it. The shopkeeper behind the counter was a lovely fellow, with a big belly and a friendly face all covered in beard (which now in retrospect looked extra bushy!). He smiled down to me and explained what the models were and that there was a game that could be played with them. The models in the open box were 1€ a piece, so I slammed my precious few coins on the counter and walked out of the antiquarian with a small plastic bag containing a couple of one-poser Night Goblins, a lonely Wood Elf, some paint pots and two White Dwarf magazines the shopkeeper gave me for free. The following weeks I would spend devouring the magazines and painting my first models with a brush I found at home.
That was my first ever touch on miniature wargames.

This poster was on the back wall of that antiquarian. It holds so many good memories.
What caught my eye and soul in Warhammer was the chance of creating epic stories and stunning battles with miniatures you had painted yourself and were immeasurably proud of. The models on the battlefields and in the artwork of books and wallpapers came alive in my mind, captivating my fascinated soul (and thinning wallet) for all eternity. I read the books for fluff and rules like a madman, many times over just for the immense fun I got from it.

Throughout the 7th and 8th editions I enjoyed myself painting various armies and pitting them against those of my little brother and my two close friends. The first few years it was great, then it was nice, and finally I found myself not wanting to play a single match anymore. What had gone into me? It was the only hobby I had managed to keep throughout all those years, with many others coming and going along the way. Why didn't I want to practice my all-time favourite hobby anymore?

The reason was a mystery to me, until a few months of brooding were rewarded with a realization clear as the Tilean dawn: I was burned out.
I wasn't tired of painting, I wasn't fed-up with playing, but I was tired of painting units that were bad on the field and couldn't find a place on my army lists. I was tired of playing the same numbing Pitched Battle with army lists that only changed if someone among us bought something that was more powerful than something he had owned before. Everyone played with a list that was honed to the max and changing anything in your list would lead to defeat on the field, and none of us wanted that.

I was caught up in an arms race.

It all escalated when we started to threaten each other with buying models like Zombie Dragons and Steam Tanks, trying to search our Army Books for something overpowered to boast with it to the others. We knew we couldn't afford any of those big spookies, but somehow the thought of your army having the option for something more powerful than the others was satisfying. Even finding a piece of fluff where your faction smacked the factions of your friends was something to boast with.
We still made army lists, but only to boast with them. We seldom reached the game table with our models anymore.
How sad is that!

When you play miniature games with your mouth rather than the models themselves and your battles are fought verbally outside the battlefield itself, you know it's time to bail out. Or at least take a break.
I chose the latter, occasionally painting a couple of models but mainly engulfing myself in Warhammer books, wikis and magazines, searching for a new zeal to continue the hobby and fire up the spark that still lurked in the depths of my teenager self.

Then one beautiful summer day I was getting back home from a summerjob when I decided to visit the local game store that was located near my workplace in the city. One of the shop assistants suggested that I put up a Warhammer club in my hometown. That's what I did, and it turned out great!

The effort of putting such a club working was fully recompensed by the sheer number of fresh opponents that I could have enjoyable games with. Many came in saying they'd never even heard of this hobby, so me and my mates introduced Warhammer Fantasy Battles 8th edition to the newcomers. None of the new people understood the point system, so we just threw stuff on the field and balanced it out with our eyes to get them playing as quickly as possible. The club was (and still is) a success, and you can read more on it in one of my previous posts.

It was then that a bolt of Azyric energy struck down from the skies to take us all by surprise...

The Age of Sigmar had arrived, heralded by immortal demigod human warriors that almost reduced this old Empire-supporter to tears of joy. These guys seemed to actually be a match for the depressingly overpowered Chaos forces that had massacred citizens of the Empire from the very start of the franchise!
Wait, what? The entire Warhammer reality got blown up? No more Empire? No more Ulthuan? No nothing?

What a hammerblow that was. At first my thoughts were "Was this it? This is where all my years of warhammering led to?". I watched with sorrow in my heart as the community fell into a chaos that culminated into a civil war between the haters and supporters of AoS.
"Negative" is a very mild expression of what the hobby atmosphere felt like back then. Everyone was upset, of course, but some brave souls approached the new game with open minds while others fell on their backs in the trenches and cried out their grief to the uncaring skies. Those who approached AoS begun to say it was not that bad, even good. The grieving community followed, giving the newcomer a try. Comparing AoS to it's predecessor, many criticized the living daylight out of the game because it was not the Fantasy Battles they had loved so much. Negative reviews and outbursts everywhere. Kings of War and 9th Age prophets claimed many souls in those turbulent times.

I looked at all this curiously, before walking up to the AoS camp to stand under their flag. Why? I couldn't say. There was something... fresh that appealed to me in this game. With the echoes of angry cries and waving torches from the Fantasy encampment at my back I decided to embrace the new instead of hunching in a pool my ex-favorite game's blood to curse GW to the deepest of hells.

That was the best decision of my entire Warhammer life.

Now to the point of this whole post, before it gets too lengthy. Why is Age of Sigmar so good?

It's everything I've ever wanted from a Warhammer game. I like the balancing system, the core rules, the lore, all the various scenarios and most of all, the freedom.

Balancing System
Everybody's heard about the AoS balancing system, with all the social contracts and all. Yes, the game actually involves meeting other human beings socially and conversing with them to balance your game! Who could have ever imagined that was possible?
Some people keep telling you that with no points system everyone's going cheese the holy crap out of every match they play. That's not how it goes. If some poor soul feels winning a game of plastic toy soldiers at any cost helps their confidence or something then that's fine, they just shouldn't expect many people to want to have a game with them after that.

Back in the days of points and "balance", a player could justify his army list by saying he's allowed to take these super cheesy OP bullshit models to the field so he takes them, it's all perfectly by the rules. The points justified being an asshole. But when you stand there with your much younger opponent over an empty game table and he puts down his very first miniatures, say, a 10-man unit of Bretonnian peasants, you really do think twice before reaching out for that Nagash in your miniature case. Why? Because he/she is a human being just like you and you don't have a point system to justify your actions. You don't want to be a cheesy cheeser as then you would have nobody to play with anymore. You'll need to fill the board with something more reasonable and ask your opponent if the setup looks good and balanced to him or not. That way you're both headed towards an enjoyable close-call epic battle of pure Warhammer!

Speaking of opponents, what are they, really? In Fantasy Battles the opponent was your enemy who you had to outwit, outmaneuver and slaughter mercilessly to acquire victory. In Age of Sigmar your opponent is actually your friend, a co-director of an epic film that's going to unfold on your tabletop battlefield. Instead of as many cheesy units as possible, you and your opponent have filled the board with ordinary troopers, regiments of warriors that look good and really give you a feeling of leading a proper army to battle. Moments of "wouldn't it be cool if..." when you make up house rules and discuss with your opponent are just one of the treasures AoS has to offer us, and they really enhance the gaming experience. In the end it doesn't even matter whether you win or loose, you just had an enjoyable and epic battle to behold before your own eyes!

Those who gave AoS a fair chance now stand together in a unified front, ready to ignore any hate tossed in their general direction.
The Rules
The Age of Sigmar rulebook was initially 4 pages long (or short, depends on how you look at it) and within those few sacred lines of text the foundations of the game were laid down. Streamlined, easy-to-learn, casual. Yet still when combined with the (free!) Warscrolls for every unit in the game this compact ruleset makes deep strategy possible. And by strategy I don't mean the fracture-of-an-inch carefully measured unit wheeling and turning maneuvers of the Fantasy Battles, but real strategy regarding unit placements and threat zones on the battlefield, unit synergies for buffs and debuffs and keeping in mind the true objective of the game instead of mere mindless slaughter. I'll talk more about that in a minute.

No charts to memorize or to look up. No riffling through the near 300-page rulebook in search of a single special rule. Everything's included in the unit Warscroll, every rule you might need when using the unit on the field. It's ingenious!
The all-new Battleshock is no bullshit either, it's actually much better than the Panic Tests of Fantasy. Tired of seeing your 40-model eggbasket unit run away from combat and get trampled to death by four cavalrymen due to one poor roll? Yeah, that's all past now. Models do still run away, but not a unit at a time like before. Now the courage of merely a couple of individuals might fail, still weakening the unit as they run for the hills but not routing the entire regiment due to someone in the back row wetting his trousers.
I like this new mechanic very much.

The combats are a joy to witness. No geometric blocks of models standing there staring at each other in base contact but a mass of troops locked in a swirling melee to the death! Many models will get a swing at the opponent and usually the combats are swift and deadly, instead of multi-round slow grinding combats of Fantasy that sometimes got truly boring.
I also have another aspect of the rules that I like. The weapon stats! All the time I played Fantasy I brooded over the simple fact of models' weapons. Your Empire General had a awesome-looking sword that was probably forged by some of the most skillful smiths of Altdorf, but on the battlefield you always replaced that sword with some kind of a magic weapon. Why? Because default hand weapons were crappy!
Now the model Warscrolls contain Wicked Blades, Darksteel Axes, Sigmarite Hammers, Freeguild Swords, Crooked Spears and whatnot, names that describe the nature and look of the weapon itself. I'm in heaven Azyr.

I mentioned getting tired of Pitched Battles, didn't I? Well, luckily AoS introduced us this magnificent gift straight from the golden halls of Sigmaron: Battleplans.
Instead of simply tabling your opponent in a Pitched Battle, you now have a plethora of fluffy scenarios to choose from. Each Battleplan has its own unique victory conditions and goals for every participating side, complete with scenario-specific Command Abilities. There are examples of similar AoS storyline battles listed in the Battleplan description, really giving you the idea of what that battle is all about, or what it could be about. But it doesn't end there, the examples are just examples. In the end it's up to you and your opponent to choose the story for each of your scenarios, to make it whatever you want it to be!

Freedom & Lore
Now on to the lore. I loved the backstory and setting of the World-That-Was, I really did. I enjoyed immensely recreating a Beastmen ambush on a Talabheimer military column near an abandoned poacher's hut deep in the dark woods. Small things, real things. The setting was grim and dark, but it had this gritty reality-like feeling that really inspired my mind. But the thing is, you really had to think to fit your own stories in there. The setting was already quite tightly packed. Which state did my Empire army belong to? Where could it fight it's battles without conflicting with the lore? What if Special Characters join the battle, why would they have interest in 1000-2000p games that are basically the size of border skirmishes?

Those questions were difficult to find answers to, but now with the new setting you really don't have to bother with many of them. There are Nine Realms to choose from, each more than capable of housing your army along with countless of others, each Realm being a near-infinite plain of reality with many mysteries and unexplored regions. And they have a history. Thousands of generations have passed since the birth of the Realms, which is a fact that gives the players near endless possibilities of choosing their army's background story and the stage for their glorious battles.
Want to base your army on some ancient civilization that has miraculously survived the invasion of Chaos in their hidden mountain city of gold and amber? You can do it. Want to command a ragged band of survivors from several races that struggles to make a living across many Realms as mercenaries? Can do. Want to lead a warband of warriors setting up a stronghold on unknown territory, fighting enemies and hostile environment alike to have their holdfast grow into a prospering fortress city? Yup, it's all possible.

At first of course all the walls of quicksilver, rivers of skulls, bonemarrow waterfalls and floating lava-islands were a bit... overwhelming, to be honest. The setting seemed like reeaally high fantasy, with many unbelievable and unnatural things that made it hard to anchor your army to it. What facts can you contain in your army's backstory if there's no realism to anchor to?
It all turned out to be just the start. Soon we learned that the Realms were vast and varied, and the high-fly examples given in the very first maps and fluff were just an example of what was possible in this new, fresh, powerful setting. The Realms may be as high fantasy or realistic as you want, it's only up to you. This freedom is something we've never had before.

This freedom and power handed over to us is ever amplified by the game rules I mentioned before. Creating your own battle-specific special rules is easier with the core rules being so compact. Creating your own units and characters for narrative games is easier due to the simpler weapon & model stats, not to mention that creating your own Abilities for your custom units is now very tempting as you don't have to search through 300 pages of rules to check everything your custom one would conflict with.
Have an itch for Duardin-forged automatons to guard a forgehold? No problem. Need a minor Aelven god on the battlefield to play out a heart-pounding chase through the Realm of Metal as the followers of Tzeentch try to consume his/her power? Just go and type yourself a warscroll. An Ironweld Arsenal zeppelin to bomb the crap out of a rampant Ironjaw Waaagh? Go and make your dream come true!

The options are endless, and there is space for every player's imagination and creations. Each of us has their very own corner of the Mortal Realms which we can shape to match our likes, dreams and fancies. Our armies can be anything, our backstories can be anything, the theaters of our battles can be anything. We can be anything. It's incredible.

Uncle Sigmar wants YOU! (come on now, we've got a point system)

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