Sort Of Like Chess: These Games I Play

Toy Story (c) Pixar.

It’s time for the third installment of Sort Of Like Chess!  The previous article talked about what it’s like to wargame, and in this one I’ll go into the games I have knowledge of, what I think of them, and whether/how I’d recommend them to people who’ve never played them before.  I’ll be speaking from experience as much as possible, so this is going to be far from an all-encompassing overview (just take a look at the many, many categories on Arcane Miniatures to see what I mean).  Instead, this is going to read more like a short review of a couple of companies and the games they make.

Let’s begin with the most popular.  Tabletop company Games Workshop has been producing the 28mm-scale (a human figure is approximately 28mm tall) Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 for decades now, along with several other titles which I’ll get to in a moment, and has amassed a large player base as well as establishing a sizable chain of retail stores selling exclusively its own stuff.  Warhammer (fantasy) and Warhammer 40,000 (epic sci-fi) are big, brassy game universes full of demons, evil wizards, hordes of orcs, you name it.  40K, which actually has an extremely engaging setting (arguably its best point), takes the lot to space and adds in exploding planets, robots, world-eating bugs and so on.  The games themselves are large-scale army combat with some of the best miniatures on the market.  The rules aren’t amazingly well-written – problems crop up with balance, power creep and inconsistency – and lack depth, but this actually makes them perfectly suited to friendly games where the players aren’t really bothered about what happens on the table and want to chat and have a laugh.  It’s a (so-called) ‘beer and pretzels’ game.

Space Marines, Bloodletters (c) Games Workshop []
Such levity.
The vast majority of wargamers start off playing Warhammer 40,000.   There are several reasons for this.  The game is eye-catching, simple, and absolutely everywhere by wargaming standards – its popularity leads to further popularity, as most wargames become known to new players largely through word of mouth, even online.  If you’re going to a new wargaming club and you’re unsure what to bring, GW’s flagship title ought to guarantee you a game, unless it’s an explicitly historical group.

The games’ scales unfortunately lead to them being really expensive to play, and Games Workshop’s habit of acting like it has a monopoly and raising prices all the time makes the cost of entry all the more forbidding.  £18 for 10 infantry is not bad considering the incredible quality of the kits and the unique designs, but when you need 60 infantry and several tanks and most of those infantry are specialists which cost way more (£25 for 5 guys?), it’s problematic.  If anything, I’d suggest that GW’s Warhammer/40K kits are best used to play other, smaller-scale games, where the plastic models are still cheaper than metals and can be assembled with a huge variety of poses and weapons (something only GW really seems to do).  But then, I’m a jaded veteran.  Doesn’t change the fact that I have around 5-6000 points of Tyranids (about three armies’ worth).

We’re not even done with GW yet, though!  Games Workshop also produces several other games.  The third title you’ll see in their stores is their licenced Lord of the Rings game.  This is apparently actually pretty good, and much cheaper than the Warhammers to boot.  The miniatures are less exciting, and it’s less well-played, but the system is decent from what I hear, and dude, they have a Balrog model.  (And a Múmak.)  Their smaller “specialist games” are largely only available online, but cover a much greater range of playstyles and are often – again – surprisingly good.  Getting hold of the miniatures (which are occasionally old and/or rubbish) for them is difficult, but can be worth it, and the rules can be downloaded for free off GW’s website (the link points to one game’s rules as an example).  My favourite of these has to be Necromunda.  It’s a quick, dirty gang skirmish games in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and it’s brutally fun.  Gangs persist from game to game, and your gang members (of which you will usually have approximately 10 or 12) level up and accumulate stat advances, equipment, skills, and of course, horrible injuries/random deaths.  It’s really rewarding to see your gangers go from boring Average Joes with pointed sticks or second-hand rifles to superhero swordmaidens and expert marksmen who can snipe two guys at a time.

Would I recommend any Games Workshop games?  Sure.  Necromunda is awesome fun, cheap, and characterful.  Battlefleet Gothic can be very slow at times, but encourages a lot of thinking ahead, and the factions are extremely diverse.  Those are the two Specialist Games that I’ve played and liked; I tried Inquisitor once, and had a pretty unenjoyable experience, although I think that was mostly to do with my opponent.  (I tried a stripped-down version of it with several other people at a convention once and had a blast.)  The Warhammers (I play 40K) I’m currently apathetic about, but people do have a lot of fun with them and – like I said – the miniatures and background are amazing, so if you’ve got the cash to spare, don’t let me hold you back.

Battlefleet Gothic art (c) Games Workshop.
It's as big as it looks.

Whew.  That was long.  Right, that’s Games Workshop covered.  The other game company I play games from is its biggest competitor, Privateer Press.  Privateer’s main export is the mighty Warmachine (and its sister game Hordes – the two are compatible).  A steampunk skirmish game, Warmachine centres around big steam-powered robots and the highly-trained mages who control them.  Your army will typically consist of a warcaster (one of these mages), some big robots or giant monsters depending on whether you’re using a Warmachine or Hordes faction, and supporting infantry or, as of recently, enormous war machines.  Warmachine has a distinctive style, and Privateer’s miniatures have been improving and improving for several years now – the level of detail on their latest offerings is fantastic (although the price tag reflects it!).  On top of that, the rules are clean, extremely well-written, and tactically deep and diverse.  Privateer are going from strength to strength, and are now creating the huge and horribly expensive colossals, which says a lot – miniatures of this size and level of detail were hitherto the exclusive domain of Games Workshop.

The main downside to Warmachine is that its complexity can be very harsh on new players.  Not that the rules are hard to grasp – if anything, they’re pretty simple and easy to teach someone on the fly – it’s just that winning is very difficult without a healthy application of tactics, which requires rules knowledge.  (Contrast the Warhammer 40,000 approach of ‘throw two armies at each other and roll dice’, where advanced tactics are largely optional if your target priority is sensible.)  It’s generally a good rule of thumb to find people of approximately your skill level to play anything with, be it video games or tabletop, but this goes double in Warmachine; handled properly, about half the factions are capable of completely destroying someone who isn’t really comfortable dealing with them without fear of recrimination or failure.  Warmachine does suffer from having too many hard counters – there are units, tactics or combinations capable of temporarily or permanently rendering other units/tactics/combinations completely useless.  Fortunately, most tournaments of the game are built to mitigate this problem (you bring two army lists of the same faction and choose one after seeing which faction your opponent is playing), and if you’re willing to be patient and accept early losses as learning experiences, the game is deep and massively rewarding.  The first time you bring a former nemesis to her knees will gladden your heart.  Also, those giant robots I mentioned earlier?  They can pick up and throw each other.

Stormwall, Ironclad, Stryker (c) Privateer Press []
What... what is that? Can I have one?
I’d definitely recommend Warmachine, despite my warnings.  It’s cerebral, challenging, and a great example of how to make a competitive tabletop game.  It recognises that sometimes you want to move some miniatures around in extremely clever ways and have a battle of wits with your opponent, and other times you want to throw six-ton robots at each other and watch the sparks.  (Sometimes both in the same game.  Or the same turn.)  Of the games I’ve played, it’s probably most deserving of the “It’s sort of like chess, but…” description.  The miniatures are not cheap, although you don’t need a huge number of them; you should be able to buy a large army’s worth for £150, and due to the warcaster-centred, tactical nature of the game, changing out one or two models (i.e. your caster or some other central piece) can radically redefine your army’s playstyle.

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