Necro: Bringing Back Warhammer Fantasy is not going to be easy

By Charles Theel 09 Dec 2019 0

Warhammer Fantasy Battles always felt like the step-child of the Games Workshop family. When people think of  the UK table-top war games company, they think of the glorious Space Marine donning armor as hard as Abaddon’s heart and wielding a massive boltgun. By comparison, a morose green knight from Bretonnia never had a chance.

It’s been four years since the Warhammer Fantasy Old World setting was brutally slaughtered in 2015. This death was a massive blow and affected many of us. It was highly controversial as Games Workshop ceased official support a ranked mass-battle fantasy system. Instead we were given Age of Sigmar, a post-apocalyptic progression of their 20 year old setting that introduced the Stormcast Eternal – a veritable fantasy version of the Space Marine.

While shocking, it felt all too familiar and was ultimately quite depressing.

Age of Sigmar Diorama

This was a tumultuous time for the company. With the rising cost of models and the evergreen popularity of the sci-fi property, the fantasy line felt stale. Management was cutting off vestigial organs left and right, refusing to support their historically popular specialist lines such as Necromunda, Space Hulk, and Blood Bowl. The axing of the Old World was perhaps rock bottom in Games Workshop’s descent and was akin to slamming a huge ol’ Warhammer into the pit of our stomachs.

Thankfully we still got to experience this compelling setting via the release of several video games, including the fantastic Total War: Warhammer 2 and Warhammer: Vermintide 2. Despite a sizeable chunk of Games Workshop fans being content pushing around their faux-Space Marines, many still loved and missed the Old World, which might explain why it’s now, quite randomly, making a comeback.

No one really knows what this means but that hasn’t stopped speculation and unbridled hope. There’s a large gaping hole in Games Workshop’s product line waiting to be filled with that dearly missed flavour and those wonderful factions. This is a time to be excited.

warhammer fantasy battles big battle

RETRO IS IN

The burning questions all concern how this will be handled. Will we see a reboot? Hopefully not, as that’s virtually what we saw with Age of Sigmar. Perhaps they will pretend nothing happened from a setting perspective and undo “The End Times”, launching a new retro ruleset that leans heavily into the signature ranked warfare and square bases. Square bases were cryptically teased on social media by GW, so we can be reasonably confident this will be a core part of the new line.

There are several challenges. Games Workshop have laid the groundwork to regain the community’s trust with their handling of similar old-school properties, but not everyone will dive in headlong. People will be cautious and wait to see how this new line is supported.

Warhammer fantasy battles small battle

They will need to strike a balance between fresh presentation and nostalgia. I’m not simply talking about the lore and engrossing setting but the rules themselves. Fantasy Battles was a much more complicated game than the current offering and there’s a general reluctance in modern tabletop game design to explore florid systems.

Age of Sigmar was not truly a replacement. It was no substitute for the mass battles of yester-years and functionally was only a step above skirmish level. There’s a definitive feel to wheeling a large block of Skaven or crashing into multiple ranks of Imperial soldiers with a goblin fanatic and Age of Sigmar didn’t come close. Round bases and the facsimile Space Marines made this appear a low-rent 40k and the end result was much less inspiring than the spin-off setting’s potential. The Nottingham company was trying to funnel its fans into the most popular segment of their production, eating their own and homogenizing their properties. They lost sight of the fact that their unique colour and setting was a driving force for a large number of players. And we wouldn’t soon forget the Old World.

GLUTTONY

I for one hope they don’t go overboard shifting the system into either mechanical extreme. We need something with meat on its bones, but we also don’t want to dive too far into excess. A large battle needs to be able to resolve within a couple of hours and without needing five different rules supplements and army books.

There’s also concern about price. With costs escalating like a Dakka Jet pushing the sound barrier, how will anyone afford larger units? Of course a starter will likely offer a nice bundle, but they get you on those expansion units. Will my new Dwarf organ gun cost £60? Ouch.

In the shadow of Warhammer Fantasy a couple of alternatives do exist which could create downward pressure. Mantic’s Kings of War is perhaps the closest offering but this simply pales in comparison. Kings of War is focused on rapid resolution and expediency of play, a great direction for sure, but this comes at the sacrifice of colour and setting resulting in a bland design that lacks the rich punch of its competitor.

Kings of War Battle Scene

Fantasy Flight’s Runewars was an enticing launch but it fizzled almost immediately due to high costs and a fiddly movement system that mimicked their golden son X-Wing. Likewise, Jake Thorton’s God of Battles is a fine game but it never caught on and isn’t a true successor. Rank and file, it seemed, was pretty much dead.

Until it wasn’t.

While bringing the Old World back is a bit of a surprise, this really coalesces with the company’s recent moves to revitalise their brand across the board. In the wake of Age of Sigmar we’ve seen successful re-launches of Blood Bowl, Necromunda, and Warhammer Quest. Everything old is new again, including the oldest of them all.

BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME

From Games Workshop’s perspective they seek to regain an audience they’ve lost. There are thousands of gamers out there still fielding their fantasy armies and playing with a dead ruleset. They haven’t committed to Age of Sigmar and looking for something to pull them in.

Unfortunately this is still at least three long years away. There will be thousands of words spilled on speculation in forums and articles such as this. We’ll beat each other up and let our imaginations run wild. We have our end covered. The real question is whether GW will come through on theirs.

Header image is from the 'The End Times' Warhammer Fantasy Fandom page, uploaded by Grey Knight Dante. 

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