Space Marines and Orks. Which is the most reliable and which is the most random? Surely the bold and courageous Space Marines are the most reliable, and the battle-crazed Orks are random as hell, right? Wrong! It’s all about the dice…

Picture a small, elite Space Marine army, full of expensive troops like Terminators – perhaps it’s a Deathwing or Grey Knights force – probably numbering only 30 or so models for your 1,500 points. Then picture an Ork army, full of Boyz – maybe there’s a hundred models in the army. Now the key thing with dice, is that the more you roll, the more the results will average out. For example, if you rolled 50 dice, you’d never expect them all (or even half) to come up 6s – no, you can pretty much rely on a roughly even spread. On the other hand, if you roll just 5 dice then getting four or even five 6s is not nearly so rare – I’m sure we’ve all seen it on occasions, perhaps when an Ork player takes his 6+ saves (followed by a little dance to celebrate his good fortune). Which brings me back to the Space Marines and the greenskins. The fact is, a big Ork army will roll far more dice during a game, and all those extra rolls make the outcome far more predictable – luck becomes less of a issue.

Another factor is the effect of an extreme dice result. If the Orks roll five 6s to pass their saves, they’ve been lucky, sure, but it’s no big deal to either side. If the Space Marines roll five 1s (exactly the same probability) to fail their Terminator saves, it’s game changing. The elite army is far more susceptible to bad luck, and because they are rolling less dice, they are more likely to suffer unusual dice results. And it’s this double whammy makes the Emperor’s finest a surprisingly random army to play.

Those of us with longish memories remember a time when things were a little different in the 41st Millennium and the Warhammer world. A time when things developed, when things changed. Cities fell, new races rose up, mighty heroes died and, well, stayed dead. In other words, the timeline progressed.

This phenomenon was created under the rule of then-Games Development supremo Andy Chambers. There were broad, sweeping storylines that could be discerned from stories and background text published in White Dwarf, new army books, supplements and the major web-based campaigns that GW ran.

For Warhammer, the Ogre race started its migration into the Old World, the mad count Maruis Leitdorf was slain, the Supreme Patriarch of the Colleges of Magic was replaced, Eltharion was blinded – and then there was the Storm of Chaos. This, the last of the history-changing worldwide campaigns, saw Archaon launch the next major incursion, rivalling the Great War Against Chaos. The Grand Theogonist got himself captured by Daemons, Sigmar’s heir (allegedly) appeared in the form of Valten, and it all culminated in the siege of Middenheim. In theory the city could have actually fallen, had the bad guys’ battle results not been so rubbish.

In 40k Ghazghkull invaded Armageddon for the second time, Captain Tycho was killed, the entire Necron race awakened (heralded in subtle ways in the Gorkamorka supplement), and the Tau Empire came to power suspiciously quickly. The Eye of Terror campaign saw Eldrad Ulthuan slain, and had the potential for a major shake-up – the introduction article in White Dwarf claimed that a big win for Abaddon could see Chaos gain territory in the heart of the Imperium, while the opposite might result in a new age of expansion for the Imperium. As it turned out, the results were fairly even - not a massive surprise, statistically speaking, but the possibilities were huge and far-reaching.

More recent years have seen a much more conservative approach. The summer campaigns, while perfectly entertaining, have been ring-fenced or limited in scope, so that no ongoing consequences were possible – not fundamentally different to the campaign a large club might invent and run. In fact, a lot of the ‘progress’ I’ve mentioned has been back-tracked or ignored. Tycho seems remarkably well in the new Blood Angels codex and the current Empire Armies book scarcely mentions the events of the Storm of Chaos.  The background of both games now presents an unchanging snapshot – a moment in time.

So why the new approach? There are two main reasons that I can envisage. Firstly, the static method means you’ll get the same worlds to play in whether you start gaming now or in ten years’ time. Because there’s always the danger that a new storyline may not be as good as the old one – a new age of expansion for the Imperium may seem superficially tantalising, but is it really as dramatic as the Imperium approaching destruction? Look at any long-running TV show – series 5 is never anywhere near as good as the early days, as the producers struggle to keep things fresh, integrate new cast-members and new ideas, but still keep the spirit of the original show alive. The frozen time method is more like remaking a classic film – the effects get better, but the essential story remains unchanged.

The other obvious advantage with keeping time still is that they don’t invalidate older books and models. Of course you’d never have expected them to kill off an entire army or anything, but imagine how disheartening an introduction to the hobby it would be to collect an Empire army, paint it blue and white following the Army book, only to find out that “Sorry, Middenheim got destroyed.”

I understand both these sensible reasons. Yet like it or not, there is something undeniably appealing about change. World of Warcraft is doing it in a big way with Cataclysm – a massive sweeping change that will get existing and lapsed players excited, and no doubt net quite a few new ones too. Of course it’s not a trick you can pull very often (there’s only so many times you can nearly destroy the world), but I do wonder if, some time in the future, that Games Workshop will be tempted to stage their own cataclysm?

You only have to flick through the book and take a look at the new templates and other kit to get the message: Warhammer Fantasy Battle is no longer stuck in the corner while 40k gets all the glory. It’s telling that the flash animation that pops up on the Games Workshop website to advertise the new game does little more than show you lots of the pages – this book sells itself. It’s a thing of lavish beauty, and there isn’t a single section that doesn’t disappoint. Of course, I’m more than a little biased – I sweated over every part, drove the designers to distraction with hundreds of changes and corrections, and reworked the order dozens of times as pages were cut and added. You wouldn’t believe what a nightmare it was getting that big fold-out of the Siege of Volganof in the right place. It was well worth everyone’s effort. The Design Studio can be justly proud of this tome – I certainly am.

But enough gushing, and down to the serious business of gameplay. For all the stunning art and photography, this is a rulebook, and will ultimately be judged on what it does to the Warhammer battles on your tabletop. Incidentally, you may notice that official Games Workshop coverage tends to avoid making disparaging comments about the previous version. I, on the other hand, have no need for such omissions!

You’ll soon realise that this is a huge shift. In terms of the amount of change, it blows away the unadventurous 7th Ed whose most exciting new feature was changing ranks from 4 to 5 models. 8th makes dozens of changes that each has more impact. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that this is the biggest development for the Warhammer game since the invention of army lists.

How does it play?

Overall, the new system feels much more meaty, hard-fought and involving. Chess-like manoeuvring with teeny units and winning because you know the mechanics best are considerably less prevalent. It is less of an abstract, thinking man’s wargame and a big step nearer to Warhammer 40,000, where you win by killing lots of stuff. Don’t get me wrong, it is still the more tactical and more challenging game, but it also feels like a desperate, bloody fight with decent sized regiments in a warp-twisted, magical environment.

Bloody rules

More things get killed in the new game. A lot more. And I don’t mean units run down and destroyed, I’m talking about chopping someone in the head with an axe with a proper attack. Gone are the days of ‘I killed one, you did nothing back.’ The fact that at least two ranks get to attack (or shoot) and that casualties don’t stop the rear ranks fighting back, drastically ramps up the number of dice flying around. However, the biggest change here is the Steadfast rule, which effectively makes you Stubborn if you have more ranks than the enemy. This means that big units stick around and combats go on for longer (entailing more death), allowing in turn the chance for reinforcements to charge in and increase the kill-count still further. Trust me – it’s much more fun this way.

The end of charge/break/win

A common tactic (possibly the core tactic) in Warhammer has always been to take your fast-moving, heavy-hitting uber unit, and slam it into an enemy so hard that breaking them is pretty much a foregone conclusion, then running them down, shattering the enemy battle line and getting your own unit out of arc to avoid counter-charges. Competitive players quickly learn to calculate the likely outcome, and the game will often be won and lost in that single turn. This kind of thing is now much harder to predict and to pull off. For a start, the random charge move means you can rarely guarantee you’ll get in, and if you charge a unit with lots more ranks, it doesn’t matter how much combat res you get – they’ll still be testing on their base Leadership. Then, if they pass, they’ll likely have counter-charges ready to slam into you.

Of course, the favourite counter-measure to those uber units was to place a small, worthless sacrificial unit in their path, set at a bizarre angle so the chargers would have to align and then be left in an unrealistically vulnerable facing, or chase them off and be left equally out of position. This annoying and gamey practice has been largely negated because you can now reform after winning a combat if you don’t pursue.

These two shifts in the mechanics make the flow of the fighting seem much more intuitive and ‘realistic’ – it’s harder to predetermine the results and there’s less sense that the rules are at odds with what would actually happen. Of course, there are bound to be new loopholes and tricks to discover as the rule-set is tested to destruction (especially with so many sweeping changes, there’s just no way playtesting could have caught everything), but hopefully they will not be so jarring.

A World of Chaos

Terrain is another thing that’s really changed the feel of the game. Of course you can still play on a flat green golf course if you want to, but you can now get in and amongst the terrain without it slowing your army to a quarter-speed. Much like 40k, you can set up a great looking battlefield and play across and over it instead of avoiding anything that isn’t open ground. In addition, the terrain does stuff. It eats you or scares you, zaps you with spells or heals you. Sometimes it even wanders around the battlefield. It really makes you feel that you’re fighting within a fantastical, dangerous world, and not Kent – that your battle is a real event, not an abstract game.

The tale of a battle

A more subtle change, but a great one in my eyes, is that the game does a much better job of telling a story. Previously the single generic scenario, the slightly abstract, chess-like feel of the gameplay, and the fact that you avoided terrain like the plague, all made one Warhammer battle play very much like the next. Now, the six basic battles in the main rules instantly provide a reason for your battle to be taking place. The landscape and scenery are fully interactive. The magic is spectacular, dangerous and fickle. Your characters never get left out of a fight. Even little things like the additional rules for Flaming Attacks burning enemies out of buildings. All these elements lead you to picture the scene a bit more and calculate mechanics a bit less. Even if imagining the story leaves you cold, and you just want to pound your opponent in the most efficient way possible, you’ll still find yourself playing in a way that much better portrays a ‘realistic’ Warhammer battle.

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