Warhammer Fantasy Battle eighth edition – review: Balance is my New Filth

I promised myself to play Warhammer a full ten times before writing a review of the new edition and it happened, the review, which you are reading, and ten games (fourteen actually).  Finally after months of waiting, I can spout off about how much I love the current edition.  I love it so much I now (shockingly) have three armies for the game.  I wanted to get a second so I could play with people that don’t own anything and I got a deal on a third that I simply could not pass up (my main is Beastmen, second Dark Elves,  and last Chaos). One could say I am all in on this version, so if this review seems a bit of self-justification that’s because it certainly is, gods damn it.  Note, that reviewing a game like Condotierre or King of Tokyo after 10 plays means a few hours of play here and there, reviewing and edition of Warhammer Fantasy Battle after fourteen plays means 50+ hours at the table throwing vats worth of dice and probably 30+ more hours teaking an army list or ten, painting and priming and building a rather massive army of toy soldiers (if you can call packs of slavering, rapine goat-men soldiers).

A wave of unpainted goblins assault the partially painted undead and fully painted dwarfs.

To frame this review, I have to relay the shameful nerd path I have traveled in the hobby. It’s not very different than many people who were closeted nerds in their youth during the nerd-harsh 80’s–but I have to say I’ve always played GW’s big games rather casually and vastly preferred the skirmish games to the big fuckall table spreads like the current 40K and WFB. I started playing WFB just after junior highschool, around the same time Warhammer 40K first edition came out.  After saving for and buying the rather expensive 3rd edition hardcover, I dabbled in the game and got a few of the miniature box sets (rudlugs armored orcs, etc) that were around at the time, but never really played a ton because, quite simply, there was no way to afford enough lead to put out a decent sized army like the pretty pictures in the book.  Even in this early time, some of GW’s first plastics had come out, and while a few of the sculpts were OK, they didn’t stand up visually against the lead that was out at the time (this has drastically changed).  We did get in a few games, mostly with our old Grenadier  D&D miniatures (which had also been used for a battle using the ancient and comparatively rubbish TSR Chainmail/Swords and Spells rules) and a handful of citadel chaos warriors.

While Warhammer Fantasy Battle proper was an  unrequited love in High School, both because I was trying to eschew the kids stuff like D&D and gaming altogether (this failed after only a few weeks in 1987 after I found out almost the ENTIRE wrestling team not only had played D&D but wanted to again RIGHT FUCKING NOW!).  I didn’t get into the game hardcore until college when the Realm of Chaos supplement books hit the shelves.  This introduced a variant of play where you start with a small force of maybe 8-12 fighters and then slowly grew a warband as you fight battles against friends min a narrative campaign, eventually to gain daemon-hood from one of the fickle and capricious chaos gods.  We chewed through many weekends (and a lot of class time) grinding through short, decisive skirmish battles in a long campaign where dozens of warbands would be rolled under the dirt and new ones arise.  Notably, only one champion made it to the highest “honor” during the campaign.  The rest either croaked or became slathering, mindless spawn.  Great times, but that’s most of the Warhammer I’ve played, well, until now.

Fourth Edition, the edition rightly-deemed “Herohammer,” really set the bar high for production values and components to help you play. Gone were the big hardcover rulebooks (for a time that is) replaced by a big box with lots of plastic guys and softcover rulebooks, all the templates you need, magic item cards for everything rather than having to dig around in a book for them, and tons and tons of dice.  However, even from cursory plays, it was obvious that the rules were really about decking out a hero that can destroy armies all by themselves and started the system down the path of a highly competitive game that people would focus play at tournaments and leagues of one off games.  Rather than some scenario concocted with what miniatures you have, or a narrative campaign like Chaos Warbands, two guys get together with armies balanced out by points and fighting it out for the win.  This was to be what Warhammer is all about from this point on: single, competitive battles with pre-made armies, usually just a slugathon rather than any type of scenario.   Though I played a few dozen times, the game headed in a direction I didn’t want to go (and I still couldn’t afford to put an army on the table really, deciding to eat, however meagerly, instead).  Yet 4th was the ‘break out’ edition, and tons of people played and love it.  Additional distractions from GW at this time were Epic 40K and Necromunda– along with 3rd edition Blood Bowl, so while I was playing a lot of GW stuff, it wasn’t Warhammer.

I ignored 5th edition (what with Blood Bowl 3rd edition, Necromunda and Mordheim around at the same time, who needed it?).  After Mordheim fizzled out (our campaign went from 22 people to 6 or so in less than a month and that wasn’t due to anything but the rules being not too good), and with the release of Warhammer Fantasty Battle 6th edition I started officially! on my beastman army—and I really did want to play the normal, non-skirmish way that all the other dudes played–actually taking the time to put together a big army rather than a bunch of ragged bands of (unpainted) chaos warriors.  I picked up the main book and the army book for the Beasts and gave a run at painting on a regular schedule, but just couldn’t keep the momentum of painting and buying figs to get enough to the table.  Going from painting a few figs a year to a row of 50+ was quite daunting, especially since I refused to play the game with anything unpainted.

7th edition came so fast due to real life I barely noticed and it seemed only for the hardcore tournament players anyway and really just an update of 6th– and then came 8th in 2010, down from the heights of Nottingham to us gamers, what is, in my humble and rather inexperienced opinion, the best iteration of the game so far with the best production values for books and miniatures I’ve seen out of GW.   At a time in life where I have a couple kids, a pretty demanding job and just general “I have responsibilities now” chaos, I knew it would be a tough row to hoe trying to even find time to paint, let alone play a game– but THIS is the edition to set aside severely limited freetime for.  The hardback book is nothing short of incredible (and shockingly priced at 80$), with absolutely lavish illustration, photography, graphic design and content.  Granted, as a rulebook, it’s a heavy fucker to carry around, but it’s easy to find the pages you need to find via the index– it’s just that well over half the book you will simply not need during any given game as most of the book is not the rules at all, but page upon page of backstory stuff, illustration, and a giant painting showcase.  None of this stuff about the book quality and photography would matter if the rules themselves sucked–but they don’t and here’s why: from 7th to 8th the designers made some fundamental changes to the game, some subtle, some drastic, to make the game flat out more fun.  Now, 6th edition was fun with getting rid of the herohammer a bit, hell 4th was a great time until people were able to ‘break’ the game a few months in– but 8th blows them all away and while the reasons in the rules are below, the core reason is simply this: they let Jervis Johnson all over it and he made it more fun than it’s ever been.

First: any stuff can kill any other stuff.   If GW learned one thing from Rackham’s Confrontation, it’s that it’s important that every model on the table can pose a threat.  This is a huge change from earlier editions.  Essentially, from 4th edtion on, you had stuff on the table that could not be hurt at all by most other stuff on the table.  Picture a bunch of goblins are running around with spears.  We all know goblins are terrible in combat, run away a lot and generally get stomped, eviscerated, eaten, boiled, and basically harvested like bilious green wheat.  However, goblin players bring a lot of goblins to any dust-up, so many that for every 20 or so you mulch, 40 more are there to poke you or net you and scream insults.    In older editions of Warhammer, no matter how many goblins were out there, they were not going to be able to hurt your pimped out dark elf lord on a black dragon– even with the best rolling, they couldn’t touch him.  The lord could fly around without a care in the world if the table was filled with just goblins–essentially they became tar pits that he could get stuck in for a period of time murdering them, but they weren’t dangerous to him or his gods damn dragon at all.  In 8th edition, it’s the dark elf lord that’s afraid of the masses of goblins.  If he doesn’t position and plan right, he has a good chance of getting swarmed and trampled by little green hobnails because GW added this simple rule: a 6 always hits and a 6 always wounds.  That means no matter how badass you are, you have a 3% chance with every attack of having to take an armour save, no matter how high your weapon skill or toughness.  When you are rolling dump-trucks worth of dice, as goblin units are wont to do, that 3% happens a LOT.  Even with a 2+ armor save and a ward save of some kind, death can come quick to the heroes.

Second: charging distance is randomized.  A huge, simple and most welcome change, one that will be with the game probably forever after. Charges are now 2D6+movement.  So dwarves with their short little leggys can charge minimum of 5 inches (their max before was 6) and maximum of 15 inches on boxcars.  In older editions, units had a fixed charge range, usually double their movement.  This meant that people had to be very precise about when they charged and positioned. This took a long time and it wasn’t very fun.  Random charge distance makes things crazy fun.  This was the rule change that when I saw it, I had to buy and play the new edition.  Along with number three below, while the games may not be shorter, you are spending your time on the fun stuff and not the boring stuff.  This is key.

Third: you can measure everything at any time.  Another positive thing about randomizing charges is that it allowed the designers to simply let the players measure every single distance they want at any time.  Want to see how close your archers have to move to be in range of the pumpwagon?  Measure away!  Want to check your distances before declaring a charge?  Well you better!   This just cuts down a lot of the fiddling around with units and positioning stuff and painful guess work.  For measurements before 8th edition, I would set up my armies and then measure out the table– memorizing little landmarks like the side of a bush or a shadow on the table and such so that I knew that from X wall to Y scratch in the table it was 6″, etc.  This was just not that fun and felt beardy as hell when you are placing dice on the table and not moving them to mark off distances…

Fourth: the poor bloody infantry is king.  This is something 40K already had figured out: people like to see big close in dust-ups between big groups of models.  Battles are decided by positioning, tactics, magic usage, dicerolling all as part of getting your best infantry units winning combats against your opponents infantry units.  Games come down to one or two big blocks of guys hacking at each other and that’s why people want to play, so they made it king and called it a day. Sure heroes are important, but they are so much better in the midst of some crazy combat than fighting alone.  Can my 9 minotaurs stomp their way through 60 goblins before being perforated?  Can my horde of bestigor sustain the horrific casualties from the initiative 6 black guard to attack back with their slow but powerful great weapons?   Because infantry fights in huge units in 8th edition and has massive advantages over any unit that is unranked (such as the dread lord on a black dragon listed above), infantry dominates the battlefield: as it should be since the tactics around infantry positioning, movement and when to charge should be the meat of this type of game.  What changed?  Hordes (see below), the fact that the second rank can lend a supporting attack to the front rank fighters, even on the charge the fight is in initiative order and finally, the ranks behind the front can step up where there are fallen to continue the fight ( so no more charging units wiping out front ranks of units with no retaliation that turn).

Fifth: Hordes!  Hordes are units with 10-model frontage.  All this rule allows is another rank to add supporting attacks (so you need a minimum of 30 models to get the most out of a horde formation).  Normally the front rank gets their attacks, plus the second rank can lay in a single supporting attack (with the exception of monstrous infantry that get more).  With a horde, your unit will get two ranks of supporting attacks.  This is a great example of a simple rules change that has massive effects on the game.  The Hordes rule particularly combines with the “any stuff can kill any other stuff” above to help make the game a game of infantry fighting and not ‘my guy on the dragon kills everything without a scratch’ fighting.   You want to throw your Hydras up against a 40+ goblin horde with spears, the outcome is going to be one stone dead hydra while the infantry unit is still probably viable.  Combine an assault by some Dark elf spearmen with the hydra supporting or hitting the flank of the goblins, and you have what the game is all about.

Six (and this is the last one, I promise): Terrain does stuff.  Almost every game of Warhammer 8th will have some crazy-ass magical terrain that has an effect on play, sometimes drastic, sometimes not.  Phantom towers shoot out bolts of lightning into anything nearby, altars give every unit within range blood rage, and mysterious forests have random effects only discovered when entered by troops.  One could say this just adds whimsy and randomness, but it creates a bevy of critical tactical decisions that can be the key to victory.  Unlike mob-swarm 40K, unit placement and movement is everything in WFB, so tactics and placement around terrain that benefits or hurts your army is huge.  The eleventh game I played had a Dwarf Brewhouse right smack in the middle of the table, giving anyone nearby “Stubborn.” Since I was up against Lizardmen who had a unit that was innately Stubborn, fighting around the dwarf brewhouse nullified that advantage because we all had it.

Games Workshop has had almost three decades to work out the kinks with Warhammer Fantasy Battle and with this ruleset, it shows a change in the ideas behind the game moving away from something akin to controlled, balanced play and far more into the fantasy world of Warhammer with all it’s insanity and things getting sucked into the void at the worst times (for you anyway!).   While good tactics, placement and unit counters will win you the day, there is so much randomness in the game , and yet so much focus on having a balanced army, that I can see where it would put people off that are used to older editions.  For me, it all adds up to big death and big fun. This is the best big miniature game out there.