The Year in War Games 2019 - Fantasy and Sci-Fi Miniatures30 Dec 2019 1
2019 was very much an up and down year for fantasy and science fiction miniatures wargaming. We've seen a few shocking new releases land unexpectedly (see Warcry), but even more so we've seen a very deliberate and iterative approach to hallmark systems.
While brand identity is the result of quality miniatures in design and materials, it's also very much reliant on fantastical settings and established narrative that is evocative. It's not enough to provide us some toys and fancy three dimensional doo-dads, you have to give us worlds and scope to kindle that imaginative fire pit in our skulls. This past year was all about reigniting the fire. Let’s take a look at the big three mover and shakers in this industry and how they did just that.
Games Workshop recently emerged from their dark age. Not every step has been successful. We've seen a few slip-ups this year and it's been discouraging at times. It's far too early to designate Aeronautical Imperialis: Wings of Vengeance a failure, but it's certainly not the brightest of stars. The main issue here is this game is tethered to the past and to its external competition.
The core box is weak for a new Games Workshop release. It features bomber units lacking their rules, a weak paper mat, and it struggles to offer a full experience straight from the box. It was very much a starter set but it's stuck in this awkward middle ground where it's attempting to be a package similar to Fantasy Flight's iconic X-Wing, but it's also trying to offer more. It can't quite pull off the move and it's floundered a bit. I'd be very surprised if this game boasts a substantial competitive scene in 2020.
Necromunda was sort of a similar story in 2017 as it suffered from a limp launch lacking the gravitas needed to match nostalgic fan enthusiasm. 2019 saw a pivot to a new core set with entirely new gangs. It feels a more complete offering with full 3D terrain and a revised rulebook that's cleaned up the surprisingly numerous typos of the original. Alongside this we have all of the original gangs finally making it to market and the rules available in a hardback compendium. It's difficult to measure the success of this move as Dark Uprising is in its infancy. Still, it's hard to view this as anything but a course correction for a past mistake.
Their boxed game line - a fancy way to describe their board game offering - is still firing at full thrust. Warhammer Underworlds: Beastgrave is leading the flotilla as a spectacular new release of an already established system. This game is pushing three "seasons" now and it's better than ever, still skillfully catering to both casual and competitive players. Likewise, there's been an unexpected level of support with new material for the excellent Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress. New enemies, allies, and modes of play have bolstered this excellent dungeon crawler.
The two main properties of Warhammer 40k and Age of Sigmar are seeing divergent paths. 40k 8th edition has proved wildly successful and fans have taken to the new Primaris Space Marines in a big way. The continued success of this edition has even given rise to the new Apocalypse expansion which has been the most exciting development in the game for some time. These rules streamline the faff associated with individual unit control to facilitate large battles of epic proportions. This has proven very popular as it's afforded exciting new strategies such as fielding multiple super heavy units; something that was impossible in standard 2,000 point games.
The real success with this format has been the ruleset's accomplishment in offering huge 3,000 point battles that don't take an entire day to resolve. Some would argue this is 40k at its best and I'm frankly not going to challenge that statement. 2020 will likely contain an even further plunge into this "more is better" philosophy.
Unlike 40k, Warhammer: Age of Sigmar is at a crossroads. With the recent announcement of the Old World’s rebirth it's left fans of the new fantasy setting nervous and uncertain of the future. Certainly Age of Sigmar will not be dropped, but it may find its player base partially cannibalized and split. While the Old World relaunch is not slated for several years, 2020 may see a shedding of the fantasy community as participants are hesitant to commit their time to a system without a clear future.
Many are already choosing to move to the excellent Warcry or even further delve into Warhammer Underworlds. This huge push for smaller bites and streamlined play have proven their worth.
I also foresee a continued push to the American market with their success at the retailer chain Barnes & Noble. This wave of simpler boxed systems and easy to assemble miniatures are the perfect eye candy to pull in a newcomer and allow them to dip their toes into the various Warhammer worlds.
While we've seen some missteps, this is overall a very exciting time for Games Workshop fans. Several systems are absolutely stone cold killers, and even the releases which were dead on arrival the past few years - Speedfreeks and Combat Arena notably - have proven enjoyable. When your misses still result in noteworthy designs that provide fantastic gaming moments, you must be doing something right.
Fantasy Flight Games
Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) is in a weird spot. X-Wing has moved from a line that has shattered all expectations to now suffering from a fractured fanbase and awkward position. Moving to a second edition was likely the right maneuver, but it understandably pushed some fans out of the game and harmed wider community discussion.
With that being said, X-Wing 2.0 is fantastic and the recent huge ship expansion has proven wildly successful and is a surprising pivot from the past ruleset.
Their smaller scale and larger scope Armada system, however, continues to hang on with life support. Expansions have slowed to a trickle and the announcement of the huge Imperial Star Destroyer was perhaps a harbinger of the end times. Still, this design has a very fervent and respectable fanbase that will continue to play the game indefinitely, support or not.
One of the most stark realizations of 2019 is that FFG is decidedly a miniatures company. Sure, Runewars failed (and if the rumours are true, cost them the 40K license-ED) and X-Wing is not quite humming in sales like it was a few years ago, but their mainstay board and card game releases are now viewed as an afterthought. This was most clearly noted with the pivot from their dungeon crawler Imperial Assault to the battlefields of Legion.
Star Wars: Legion has not yet yielded the payout of the Star Wars meets 40k potential, but it still has grown and found a measure of life. 2020 is looking even better as the game is finally offering a skirmish version, perhaps attempting to compete with the Kill Teams and Necromundas of the world. It is yet to be seen whether this will take off or receive more than a modicum of support, but the opportunity is there.
I expect more of the same over the next year. Fantasy Flight has not shown a penchant for taking especially big risks and that will likely continue. We won't see a Warcry-like product as they forego bold for reliable and stable. Perhaps the most risky or unexpected strategy could be a new edition of their moderately successful Star Wars roleplaying game, or perhaps a large push of the new Legion skirmish system.
Mantic is an interesting company because they've moved out of the shadow of Games Workshop to some degree, forging their own identity and offering some really stellar game systems. Their most successful hit of the past few years has been the wildly successful Walking Dead: All Out War.
This Walking Dead miniatures game has a strong focus on narrative while offering both cooperative and competitive modes of play. The design choice of having zombies function as dynamic terrain that lurches about the board is brilliant. The game earned its way into a healthy sales stream and fans have responded by eating it all up.
Unsurprisingly, this game is still moving forward. We now have the full All Out War storyline with gangs of survivors fighting each other and squaring off in skirmish battles. While the game has migrated from its cooperative scenario-based origins, it's managed to maintain an exciting lifespan that's felt fresh the entire way.
2019 was also a big year for their flagship title Kings of War. I've been critical of this fantasy mass battle system in the past describing it as bland. However, they've recently released a completely revamped third edition that is surprisingly rich. The setting has been given a complete makeover in an attempt to fill that Old World void in our lives. Yet that comparison isn't entirely fair as this is really its own thing with factions and races that are given unique life and colour. Sure, we still have orcs and elves and all those check-boxes are ticked, but there's a wonderful suite of surprises baked into the setting with a healthy share of unique units and abilities.
Accompanying the new ruleset is a large swathe of fresh sculpts. These can be used in both the main Kings of War game or their recent skirmish system release, Vanguard. The latter has been a cracking success, drawing a solid community and offering a very interesting game in its own right. There's hope this will receive ongoing support and continue to evolve.
Beyond these iterative developments of longstanding systems, I've personally found Mantic's board game take on Hellboy to be one of the most innovative and interesting dungeon crawlers in recent years. This is a superior design to competitors such as Warhammer Quest and Mansions of Madness, offering an enticing blend of investigation and violence. If you're a Hellboy fan and haven't checked this out yet, give it a long stare.
The big three have had an overall positive year adding vitality to their classic systems and product lines. It's a pretty satisfying time for fans of these games and surely many of those dabbling with the contained boxed releases have felt the urge to experience the wider world of tabletop miniatures gaming. 2020 may be more exciting yet as all three continue to compete for our precious money and steal our creative energy. I'm not quite sure what the ride has in store for us, but I can be sure that it will be thrilling as my enthusiasm for this hobby remains as fervent as ever.