Road to the Age of Sigmar

Welcome to the road to the Age of Sigmar!  This is the newest release from Games Workshop, and the first game in a long time that will be supported as a range of products rather than a one-shot “special release.”  The Age of Sigmar is a fantasy battle game using 28mm-scale plastic miniatures to represent individual troops on the battlefield.  It is a “skirmish-level” game, meaning that the battles tend to be small.  This is not a clash of armies, more a conflict between heroes and small squads.

So, where did it come from?  And more importantly, where is it going?

A Painful Departure

For those of you who may have been out of the loop, Age of Sigmar replaces Games Workshop’s venerable Warhammer Fantasy Battles (WFB) line.  Warhammer Fantasy Battles was one Games Workshop’s earliest releases, and lasted around thirty years.  It was once the company’s flagship product, though lagging sales reduced it to a pale shadow of its peak glory.  According to 2014 sales figures, WFB accounted for around 15% of sales.

Replacing this grizzled old veteran of a game was no doubt a difficult choice, and it is a big gamble for Games Workshop in general, who have seen difficult financial times in general over the last year or two.  If successful, this could provide a much-needed boost to the company.  If it fails, it will hurt Games Workshop who have thrown a considerable amount of resources behind the game launch.

There’s also the gamers to consider.  While WFB was losing “market share,” those who supported it were rather fanatical in their support.  There’s no need to detail the reactions that came with the announcement of the new game.  At best, the gamers were cautious.  At worst, the gamers raged (a YouTube video shows one fellow burning an army with an estimated value of over $1000 US).  Many decided to move on to other games, but many also decided to give this new game a chance.

Make no mistake:  Age of Sigmar is a new game.  It is not an evolution of Warhammer Fantasy Battles in any way.  The rules are completely different, which means the game plays very differently.  In fact, it seems the only thing the new game and the old game shares is the range of miniatures–but even that might change as Games Workshop is rumoured to eventually merge the 15-odd different army products into a much smaller selection of “factions.”

A Rough Ride

Any game launch is risky, but to utterly replace what many consider to be a pillar of fantasy wargamming is really high-stakes.  Will the game be successful?

Games Workshop has been hedging their bets as much as possible.  The core rules and all the army rules are free online on the Games Workshop site (including the rules for newly-released units and terrain).  This is a massive change from the increasingly expensive hard-cover rulebooks and army books traditionally released.  The company also took the unusual step of sending free starer kits (worth over $100 US each) to a selection of major WFB-focused podcasts and blogs around the world.  These were sent two weeks before the actual release date, to allow time for people to digest the changes and play with the new rules.  This is also a massive change, as Games Workshop company policy previously was to not interact at all with amateur media agencies at all.

That’s not to say the game is without expense.  The starter set alone is around $125 USD, and the first “campaign book” is $75USD.  It’s clear that Games Workshop intends for customers to still feed money into the game to expand armies and collect additional books.  The new terrain pieces are also noticeably more expensive, with model kits looking to be around $20 more expensive when compared to the old WFB scenery and building kits.

There is also, of course, the massive fan rage the new release triggered.  This is a game with a considerable amount of history and a large portion of the WFB players have no interest in giving the Age of Sigmar the slightest chance.  Several long-running WFB podcasts have changed formats to cover a wider range of games, different games completely, or even shut down altogether.  In attempting to attract new players, Games Workshop appears to have alienated a significant number of existing players.

Far more interesting, though, is the reaction of many of the people who have tried the Age of Sigmar:  They like it.  It may be a reluctant admission from some, but others have been far more enthusiastic about the introduction of a game with simple, easy-to-grasp rules that also manages to bring some depth to the game play.  There have also been a number of comments on the shorter set-up times, faster games, and flavourful feel of the new army abilities.  Smaller unit sizes also mean smaller model counts for players looking to get into the game, which translates to less of an expenditure to get started–provided the prices for existing models remain steady.

A Long Way To Go

At this point, it is difficult to say whether the Age of Sigmar will have the longevity of its predecessor.  It will definitely need some time to find its audience, and already has one significant hurdle in the form of disappointed fans who have moved on to other games.  Games Workshop’s finances are another hurdle – down again this year (according to preliminary examinations), the company has called for a review of all of its product lines with an eye towards “streamlining.”  It is unlikely that Age of Sigmar, barely started on its journey, will face much risk, but the poorer-selling armies of Warhammer Fantasy Battles will not get off so easily–especially those where competing companies can produce miniatures of similar quality for less.

On the other side, this is a rare opportunity to get into a Games Workshop game right from the very beginning, at a point where there are no experts and everyone is trying to figure out how to best enjoy the experience.  Should Age of Sigmar stay the course, it definitely has the potential to grow into something significant.

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