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Age of Sigmar 4e will evolve Warhammer with a single word

Warhammer Age of Sigmar’s new edition promises big rules changes - but I think one of its tiniest tweaks might have the biggest impact.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar 4th Edition Wounds Health stat change - Games Workshop image showing a Stormcast Liberator emerging from fire in the new edition trailer

Warhammer Age of Sigmar 4th edition is on the way in the next couple of months, and Games Workshop has finally started sharing details about the major rules changes afoot for AoS. It’s been rife with controversy so far, and Wargamer will cover the big developments – but I think one tiny, one-word rule change might be remembered as just as important.

For context: a lot of Age of Sigmar fans are very cross about the AoS4 announcements so far. It seems GW purposely got all its ‘bad news’ out of the way first: all your existing 3rd edition Age of Sigmar battletomes are going bye-bye, as are 82 soon to be discontinued Age of Sigmar kits, in a bloodbath of a rotation that’s shocked even hardened long-time fans with its scale and speed.

Now, Geedubs has moved on from stick to carrot, revealing brand new Skaven Clanrats that have my whiskers very much aquiver – with many more jaw-dropping new toys still to show, no doubt.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar 4th Edition Wounds Health stat change - Games Workshop image showing the new Skaven Clanrats models, on a blue hex pattern background

But hidden amid all the hype and noise, shining dully like a semi-precious gem lost in dusty clutter, is a nominally tiny change in the AoS 4th edition rules that you shouldn’t overlook. It’s something I’ve wanted to see in GW’s miniature wargames for many years, and it could have a disproportionately positive impact for new wargamers.

I’ll keep you in suspense no longer: Age of Sigmar 4th Edition is renaming the ‘wounds’ statistic of each in-game model to ‘health’. That’s it – just a simple name swap. Not a structural rule change, not a thrilling new game mechanic, just a change of label from one word to another.

Buried halfway through a Warhammer Community post about the new edition’s unit Warscrolls, GW ‘announces’ the change with its trademark offhanded manner, explaining that Health is “the current Wounds stat [name] changed for sense purposes”. The casual reader could easily assume it to be a trivial technicality, barely of note.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar 4th Edition Wounds Health stat change - Games Workshop image showing part of the new Nagash warscroll, including the new Health stat instead of Wounds

Viewed in historical context, though, this little term switch symbolizes so much more, and it could prove to be one of the most influential decisions wrapped up in the new version of Age of Sigmar, subtly removing a barrier to entry for new players. To explain why, we need a little background.

For a long time, almost all Warhammer games have followed a strange convention that’s at odds with most tabletop games and practically all videogames: they measure damage ‘positively’. When a model takes damage, you don’t subtract from a pre-set total number of hit points, life, or health; you instead ‘add’ one or more ‘wounds’ to it, until the count climbs to that model’s listed ‘maximum’ wounds stat, and it is slain.

I’m no behavioral psychologist (step forward instead, Wargamer psychiatrist-in-residence Joe Stammeijer) but the ‘negative’ system – found in Dungeons and Dragons and almost every other combat game under the sun – has always seemed preferable to me. It feels more intuitive and useful to visualize a character’s life as a finite resource, and incoming damage as a simple one-time subtraction from that resource.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar 4th Edition Wounds Health stat change - Games Workshop image showing the new Stormcast Liberator model, and a comparison between the old and new Skaven Clanrat models

Imagining wounds as additive effects stacked on top of a character, by comparison, has always seemed to me perverse. Wounds don’t add to you, they take away from you! It might work in zoomed-in, narrative driven tabletop RPGs like the marvelous Blades in the Dark – but for a fantasy wargame simulating large, diverse, interactive battles? Nope.

Warhammer’s flagship games have thus been doing damage ‘backwards’ for decades – but that’s not the biggest problem here. It comes to the same thing, after all; whether you count up or down, the number is the same. The real bug in the system – the problem that GW has studiously ignored for years and is finally addressing for AoS 4e – is that it’s always used the word ‘wounds’ to mean two different things at once.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar 4th Edition Wounds Health stat change - Games Workshop image showing two tabletop forces of Seraphon and Ossiarch Bonereapers in a battle

In Age of Sigmar, Warhammer 40k, and many other Warhammer games, engaging in combat consists of three successive dice rolls, each needing a given target number or higher to pass. First you roll to hit the enemy model. If you succeed, you roll again to see if that hit inflicts a ‘wound’. Then, if you successfully ‘wounded’, your opponent rolls to see if their armor can ‘save’ them from that wound. If they fail, they add one wound to that model.

In olden days, this made basic sense: you’ve hit them, you’ve wounded them, so now they ‘have a wound’. What’s more, in earlier Warhammer editions most models could only take one wound before dying, so you didn’t have too much ongoing ‘woundedness’ to keep track of. Warhammer The Old World reminds us what that’s like, to some extent.

But GW’s modern game systems have evolved. Nowadays loads of models can take multiple wounds before dying, and so we now have oodles of multiple-damage weapons to kill them with. Each unsaved ‘wound’ from one of those translates into several points of ‘damage’, which are then magically transmuted into ‘wounds’ again, as you count them upwards against the target’s wounds stat. The result is unnecessary terminological confusion, with one unsaved ‘wound’ actually inflicting many wounds.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar 4th Edition Wounds Health stat change - Games Workshop image showing a screaming skaven clanrat in the new edition trailer

Imagine for a moment that we’re not talking about combat games that have dominated the tabletop scene for decades, but designing a new one. Our game contains small, fragile units and big, tough units – so the concept of one successful attack dealing multiple points of damage seems a pretty basic requirement. We could go about designing this in countless ways – but one thing we definitely wouldn’t do is use exactly the same term to mean both ‘successful attack’ and ‘health point’. The idea is laughable.

And yet that’s exactly the post GW has tied itself to until now, forcing its poor designers to build around this obvious sticking point, even as the proliferation of muti-damage weapons and mechanics like Mortal Wounds made it even sillier and more aggravating.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar 4th Edition Wounds Health stat change - Games Workshop image showing a Stormcast Eternals prosecutor swooping down and spearing a skaven in the new edition trailer

Much of the official GW rules text these days has quietly surrendered to the inherent logic of counting down – referring to models having “three wounds remaining” rather than having “taken three wounds”, for example. But the legacy approach to ‘wounds as HP’ has stuck around for edition after edition, like a bad smell or a vestigial organ – at best easy to ignore, at worst a pointless cognitive obstacle.

And so I’m surprised and overjoyed to see GW finally lance this boil. At long last, we will roll to hit, roll to wound, and then inflict damage per wound that will count down from the target’s total health. These are just words, of course – and the change might seem inconsequential to experienced wargamers. But I’ve taught a lot of friends to play Warhammer over the years, and I’ve had to apologetically over-explain the ‘wounds’ oddity every single time.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar 4th Edition Wounds Health stat change - Games Workshop image showing three 3d animated versions of a Stormcast Eternal character in three evolutions of armor

Unlike many of the best board games, miniature wargames have a lot of overlapping rules that are compulsory for new players to get their heads round before they can play a single satisfying game. With so much necessary complexity to handle, there’s absolutely zero room for unnecessary complexity, even in the smallest things.

The first edition of Warhammer Age of Sigmar, released in 2015, was a runaway commercial success that recruited a gigantic swathe of new customers into the Warhammer hobby. Among other factors, it achieved that by stripping the original Warhammer Fantasy Battle of its complex rules interactions, confusing game terms, and laborious dice-rolling tables, to produce a game that was markedly simpler to teach and learn.

Right now, fourth edition doesn’t look like it’ll make AoS any simpler at the macro level – but swapping ‘wounds’ for ‘health’ in unit stats is long overdue, and a wonderful sign for Warhammer overall. It’s a small yet meaningful indication that GW is still willing to tear down its peculiar little traditions for the greater good. Personally, I hope it’s a sign of things to come.

In the meantime, we’ll have to make do with devouring morsels of fresh 4th edition news as they arrive – there’s still lots we don’t know about the rules; GW has a whole starter box full of new Stormcast Eternals and Skaven minis to reveal; and faction focuses diving into the various other Age of Sigmar armies can’t be far off. To stay up to date, follow Wargamer on Google News and bookmark our Age of Sigmar news homepage.