Reviewed by Rick Hudson
I’ve been a fantasy gamer since the 70s and I can categorically state that I have never witnessed uproar in the gaming community on the scale that it saw in 2015 when Games Workshop withdrew its long-standing Warhammer Fantasy Battles and replaced it with Age of Sigmar. Emotion was high. Tears of sorrow and rage were shed. It was quite phenomenal. Nearly three years down the line, and despite the prophets of doom who saw this game as a huge mistake that would bring GW to its knees (of which I was one), AoS has become a huge commercial success. Now that the game has settled in the market and established a fan base, it is timely to review how successful it is as a game rather than a commercial property.
Irrespective of what we may or may not feel about AoS, it is true that back in 2015 WHFB needed a major overhaul. The game, that had seemed so new, fun and exciting back in 1983 when it was first released, now seemed awkward and slow. It was over-prescriptive and dictatorial regarding what armies you could field, what units they consisted of, and players often felt their imaginations were stifled by a dogmatic gaming system. The fantasy gaming market was changing, the price of miniatures in real terms was significantly higher in 2015 than it had been in 1983. Fantasy games produced by other companies provided game systems that required smaller and consequently cheaper armies. 2015 saw Osprey produce both Frostgrave and Dragon Rampant. These games were not only cheaper to play due to them requiring fewer minis, but the game rulebooks themselves were very competitively priced compared to WHFB: Frostgrave retailing at £15.00 and Dragon Rampant at £11.99. Furthermore, neither Frostgrave or Dragon Rampant required additional army books or supplements. These rival games eschewed the traditional ‘moving blocks of soldiers’ style of wargaming that WHFB employed in favour of more fluid skirmish style combat.
Age of Sigma did not so much renovate WHFB but became an entirely new game in its own right. In order to review AoS I’m going to talk about the game system and the game milieu entirely separately. So, firstly, the system. As a set of wargame rules AoS is vastly superior to WHFB; armies are no longer arranged in strict blocks and games are consequently more fluid and more exciting. Army lists and who can fight with who, and what can be done and so-on are far less dictated by the rules and players are allowed to use their imagination far more. The rules are far simpler, easier to learn, newbie friendly, and – even for old hands – just make for a far more pleasurable game. Although GW have a whole product line of AoS books, the fundamental rules are just four pages long (and free): that is how simple they are. So, in terms of its system, AoS beats WHFB hands down. In term of its milieu, however, AoS is pretty weak.
The Old World – the game world of both Warhammer Fantasy Battles and Warhammer RPG was a great and detailed game universe. A thinly disguised medieval Europe, it was a grim, dark, yet humorous take on the standard fantasy setting. It had a subtlety and narrative depth that had an appeal that extended to older gamers. AoS has replaced the Old World with a new setting: The Mortal Realms, a far more fantastical environment. This is where the problem with AoS lies: The Mortal Realms has proven popular with younger gamers – who are after all GW’s key market – but for older gamers the over-blown nature of this environment and the characters in it rob the game of narrative depth, subtlety and ambiguity. The Mortal Realms are strangely flat, despite their fantastical quality; they just do not have the character and down-at-heel, warped charm of the Old World. For me, AoS, then, is a great game system which I do play on a regular basis, but I have not bought into the franchise and community of AoS gaming. I’ll describe myself as an occasional AoS dabbler, who is perfectly happy to take part in a game at my local club or game shop. But my fantasy gaming heart is now drawn by alternatives that have the personality that Age of Sigmar lacks: Frostgrave; Dragon Rampant and Malifaux.