A New Age for Games Workshop: A Review of Age of Sigmar

Well, kids, the time has come. It’s our review of Games Workshop’s Age of Sigmar. Let’s get right to it, shal we?

The first miniatures game I played was Warhammer 40k. My LGS in St. Louis (The Fantasy Shop, St. Charles, for any of you that might know of it) had a demo of 2nd Edition’s two-player starter set up. My friend Jared and I, who frequented the store in order to play the Star Wars CCG from Decipher had always walked by it, and occasionally looked at it, on our way to the card gaming tables. One day we tried it out. We liked it, so we split a box. That started a roughly 10-year period where 40k was my main game of choice. I stopped just as 4th edition was coming out. During those years, I never played Warhammer Fantasy Battles, but I certainly watched plenty of games of it. Back in those days, at the Shop, it was just as popular as 40k. So I’d watch giant formations of High Elves and Lizardmen in their nice, neat regiments duel it out on the tabletops. Fast-forward all these years and now Games Workshop (GW) has taken Warhammer Fantasy Battles (WHFB) and come out with something new. WHFB is no more. Now there is just Age of Sigmar.

Opening the box for the first time here in the office.
Opening the box for the first time here in the office.

For the Allegory of the Cave Crowd:
Age of Sigmar, (AoS) for those of you who don’t know (hey, there might be a couple of you out there still) is… how best to describe it… Well, it’s the game that seems to be in place to replace WHFB. While it uses all the old models from WHFB, and it’s fluff comes from a continuation of the WHFB fluff, both were taken all the way down to the foundation and built back up again. In fluff-terms, all the planes of existence were invaded by Chaos, fractured, and pretty much blown up. The last bastion of hope are the forces of Sigmar, who are looking to beat back the Chaos advance. That’s the overall gist of it. In terms of game rules (famously able to fit onto four pages), AoS uses new systems to deal with just about every aspect of gameplay. From army construction, to how units are set up, to how combat works has been redone.

AoS, being a total re-design with a new two-player starter set, is meant to be a place where gamers who have had no history at all with WHFB can jump on. As such, my opponent for a game of AoS was Jared (a different Jared than mentioned earlier. I know, it seems I only play GW games versus people named Jared. Contrary to the evidence at hand, that is not true). I gave you my history with GW up top. His can be summed up pretty quickly. He has none. Sure, he used to manage a gaming store that carried the product, but he never played either 40k or WHFB. He’s generally not a “miniatures gamer,” so we figured getting his reaction to the game, along with a “salty veteran” like myself, would help give a two-pronged attack to this review. You’ll see his thoughts sprinkled in throughout the article.

Some Assembly Required:
One aspect that Jared didn’t get involved in was assembling the set. You can’t rightly play a miniatures game with unassembled minis. However, as Jared was at SDCC (and I really wanted to put the figures together, as that’s my favorite aspect of the hobby), it fell to me to assemble the set. I’m not going to do a step-by-step assembly guide like I have for previous model kits (like my beloved Leviathans). That would take forever. But I will give you my general thoughts (and some photos).

All the sprues from the box set.
All the sprues from the box set.

I have taken hundreds of models off of sprues over the decades I’ve been a gamer. I have, however, never put a single model onto a sprue. I’m sure GW took a lot of time and effort to make sure that the sprues were as full as possible and used space as efficiently as they could. In terms of disassembling the models to fit on those sprues, I bet there was a lot of trial and error, working with the figures to make sure things turned out just the way they wanted. But on the opposite side of things, where most of us are, in terms of having to put the figures together, sometimes some of the choices for where a model was cut apart seemed strange. For example, the Dracoth (that the Lord-Celestant rides on) has his head split from snout to neck. His right horn is part of that side of his head. But the left horn is part of another piece that attaches to some of the barding, and ultimately ends with the Lord-Celestant’s hand. The Prosecutors, who have these gorgeous wings, were attached to the sprue far down at the ends of the tips of these long spikes. Cutting those pieces off the sprue and then cleaning excess sprue from the model was like brain surgery, as a single wrong move or too much force applied meant the delicate piece broke. I’m thankful I only had a few pieces break. One was part of the reigns of the Dracoth. The other was the long, middle fork of the Bloodstoker’s trident. Both were relatively easy to repair but still a bit of a pain. Speaking of pain, just about every inch, it seems, of these models is covered in spikes. I must’ve stabbed myself in the thumb a hundred times while putting the figures together. I also had one mispack. I had one too many 40mm bases and one too few 32mm bases. However, since bases don’t matter (more on that later), this wasn’t an issue. I simply moved the Bloodsecrator from his 32mm base to a 40mm.

But what of the sculpts’ quality? Both Jared and I agree that the figures, for the most part, look awesome. They are some of the best-looking GW figures we’ve seen. Stand-out figs are the Lord-Celestant, the Lord-Relictor, the Prosecutors, and the Blood Warriors. If I had one complaint about the sculpts, it’s that when putting the models together, there’s just ONE way to put the models together. I’m used to the Tactical Marine boxes from 40k where you could do just about anything you wanted with them. The AoS models were keyed in such a way that figures went together a specific way and no deviation would be tolerated (not without significant cutting and eventual gap-filling with greenstuff later on). Also, I wouldn’t really say that they were “new-model-builder friendly.” Sure, a lot of the Bloodreavers were 2 or 3 pieces, but some of the figures had some semi-intricate requirements for how the pieces went together. Thankfully, there’s a very detailed assembly guide inside the kit. But even then, and as a veteran model-builder, I’d look at the instructions, look at the figure, and think, “this is gonna be tricky.”

One of my favorite models from the kit.
One of my favorite models from the kit.

After a couple afternoons of clipping, shaving, and gluing, the models were ready to go. I brought them into the office to get in some games with Jared and then… waited a couple days until we both had a chance to play. Hey, we’re a pair of very busy (and wild and crazy) guys. Thankfully, our ISP here in the office helped out. By that, I mean the internet went down in the middle of the day and instantly we found ourselves with some time on our hands (it’s hard to update websites when you can’t actually get to the website). Jared wanted to play the “big surfing demon dude and the guy with the freaky dog” so he played Chaos and I played the Sigmarites.

A size comparison with a plastic 40k Blood Angel Terminator.
A size comparison with a plastic 40k Blood Angel Terminator.

Introducing a Newbie:
Since I had the set for the week, I’d read over the four pages of rules numerous times. I gave Jared a quick rundown of how things worked. Thankfully, I was able to keep things rather straightforward and not veer off into “back in my day, when we played, you compared Weapon Skill values to find your to-hit number!” The game is broken down into rounds, each consisting of two turns, which are further broken up into six phases. They phases are: Hero, Movement, Shooting, Charge, Combat, and Battleshock. Players progress through those phases, in that order, during their turn. Then their opponent does so. After that, a new round begins. One thing we forgot to do during our game, though, was that at the start of each round, both players are supposed to roll a die and the one that rolls higher is the one who goes first. Whoops. Our bad. We simply did “I go. You go.”

Jared's forces of Chaos
Jared’s forces of Chaos

Phases of the Moon… err… Round:
Hero Phase: This is where your heroes and wizards will use their Hero Abilities and cast spells. The specifics of the abilities and spells are on the character’s warscroll in question. These abilities come in all forms, from letting you heal units, to letting you put some sort of buff on a unit, to even attacking an enemy. Army Generals also get a Command ability. These are special to the single General of your force (that you pick at the start of the game). Even if your General doesn’t have a Command ability on their Warscroll, they can still use the Inspiring Presence ability, which allows a friendly unit from having to take a test in the Battle Shock phase. As for spells, every Wizard (as denoted by the model having the Wizard keyword on their warscroll) can use the Arcane Bolt and Mystic Shield spells, plus any others they may have on their warscroll, or granted by other warscrolls of units in their army. Every spell has a casting value. To cast a spell, a wizard rolls 2d6 and is looking to meet or beat that casting value. If they do, the spell works… potentially. Enemy wizards within 18” of the spell when it is cast can try and unbind the spell. That wizard rolls 2d6 and is trying to beat the roll the casting wizard made. If it beats it (not just meets it), then the spell doesn’t go into effect and the casting is wasted. Wizards can cast and unbind only so many spells, as denoted on their warscroll. It’s important to keep track of how many models were slain in units (if there are any) over the course of the turn. So if you kill anyone in the Hero Phase, make sure to note it down.

Movement Phase: While some things can happen in the Hero Phase, this is really where the battle gets going. In the Movement Phase, you can move each of your models in your army up to their movement value. If you want to go a little further, you can choose to Run with the unit. If so, roll 1d6 and add that value, in inches, to the amount that the model/unit moves. However, there’s a drawback. Models that Run can’t Charge or use Missile Weapons during the rest of the turn. And since you might just end up going 1” more, unless you really need to get somewhere, I wouldn’t suggest running. A special note is that, while moving, you can’t move within 3” of an enemy model. If you start your movement within 3” of an enemy model, you can either retreat or stand still. Retreating is like running, where you’re not able to Charge or make Missile Attacks during your turn.

Shooting Phase: In this phase, units with missile weapons listed on their warscroll can use them to attack the enemy. You can measure anything at any time, so you’ll know before you declare an attack if you’re able. Measurements are done between the closest points of models. Units that are in range can try and do some real damage to the enemy. Units are able to fire all the missile weapons listed on their warscroll (they don’t have to pick just one). If they do have multiple, they can split those attacks at different targets within range. To make an attack, count up the number of dice each attack makes and roll them. You need to equal or beat the “To Hit” number for that particular weapon. Those that do make it, you roll them again, this time looking to equal or beat the “To Wound” number. For each of those, your opponent has to make an armor save. That target number is modified by the “Rend” value on the weapon being used. If they equal or beat their modified “Save” number, no damage is done. But for each one that fails, a certain amount of Damage is dealt, based, again, on the weapon doing the attacking. Most weapons do just 1 damage, but some do 2 or more, or have a random Damage value.

Blood for the Blood God!
Blood for the Blood God!

Tally up the total Damage done. This forms the “Damage Pool” that comes off of the wounds of the target. In the case of attacking a single model, wounds are dealt to that figure. If a model takes as much damage as they have Wounds remaining, they are slain, otherwise, keep a total of the amount of Damage taken. Unless it’s healed somehow, it remains on the model. In the case of units, Damage is applied to models in the unit one at a time. The player who owns the unit gets to pick where the Damage goes. However, if a unit is made up of models with multiple Wounds, once they start putting Damage onto a model, they have to keep going with that model until either they run out of Damage points to spend or that model takes Damage equal to their Wounds and is thus eliminated. The models chosen don’t have to be closest to the figure(s) that caused the Damage. It can be any model in the unit that the owning player decides. The player whose turn it is keeps picking units to make ranged attacks until all of them that can have made their attacks. As before, keep track of how many models were slain in units. This will come up in the Battle Shock phase.

Charge Phase: Charging is the main way models will end up in melee with one-another. There are some qualifiers before a model/unit is capable of charging. They are: they cannot have Run or Retreated during the Movement Phase, they cannot already be within 3” of an enemy model, and you must be within 12” of an enemy model. If your model/unit meets those requirements, it can try Charging. I say “try” because the controlling player rolls 2d6 and that’s how many inches the model/unit picked can Charge. If that’s enough to get at least 1 model within .5” of an enemy, then the Charge succeeds. Move model(s) up to the distance on the dice, trying to get as many into range of the model’s melee weapons as possible. If it’s not, then the model/unit can’t Charge and none of the miniatures move at all. The player whose turn it is can pick any units they want to Charge to try and make it into melee with the enemy.

It's a long way across the board.
It’s a long way across the board.

Combat Phase: This phase is where most Damage is probably going to be done during the course of the game. Let’s face it, for as many wizards and bows and arrows as there might be on the board, there’s probably going to be a lot more swords, axes, and big clubs. As such, melee is going to be the deciding factor in much of the game (and it can get a bit tedious, but we’ll get to that in the conclusion). During the Combat Phase is when the player whose turn it isn’t actually gets something to do besides just make Armor Saves. Starting with the player whose turn it is, they pick one of their units that is engaged in Melee and performs a Pile In move (this happens even for units that just charged in the Charge Phase). A Pile in move is a 3” move for all models in the unit (or just the single model) in order to try and get more models involved in the melee. However, this movement is towards the “closest enemy model.” So you can’t jump from the model you’re engaged with to another one. After this Pile In move, the unit attacks in melee. These attacks are done the exact same as in the Shooting Phase, but with melee weapons. After that unit has finished their attacks, the other player picks one of their units in melee and also performs a Pile In move and then attacks with their melee weapons. This back-and-forth continues on until all units that are in melee have had a chance to make attacks. Like before, you’ll want to keep a tally of models killed in each unit.

Battleshock Phase: This phase is where all that model tallying comes into play. For each unit that has had models slain, the player that controls them rolls a D6 and adds the number of models slain to it. For each point that this total is above the unit’s Bravery stat, a model is removed from the unit. Note: you remove models, not wounds. So if a unit is full of multi-wound models, you’ll still lose full models out of the unit. The controlling player gets to pick which models are removed this way. Also note: this roll is made for any unit that lost models, so both players may potentially need to make them. (For you old-timers, this plays out a lot like old Leadership Checks for units of Skeletons.)

The first casualties. Beware of flying hammers.
The first casualties. Beware of flying hammers.

Games are played until one side has been totally removed from the board. However, if one player’s army outnumbers the other’s by 1/3 or more, the player with fewer models can choose one of four Sudden Death victory conditions. They are: Assassinate (pick a Hero, Wizard, Priest, or Monster in the enemy army. If you kill it, you win!), Blunt (pick a unit with 5 or more models in it. Kill that unit and win!), Endure (have at least 1 model that started the battle still on the field after 6 rounds and you win!), and Seize Ground (pick one terrain feature in enemy territory (the other half of the board from whence you started) and have at least one friendly model within 3” of it at the end of the 4th round and you win!).

The Controversial Topics:
So that’s all well and good, but what are Jared’s and my actual thoughts on the game? Well, there are several aspects I want to address specifically.

Measuring any time:
I don’t mind this at all. In fact, I think it can actually help speed up games and reduce disagreements between players. If both can measure anything any time they want, they can know if something is or isn’t in range and agree on it before an action is taken. This has apparently been in WHFB for an edition or two now, so it’s not a change for anyone that’s been playing up until now, but it was something new for me, who hasn’t played either game in some 12-15 years.

Measuring to part of the model and not the base it’s on:
This actually caused issues during our game. We both agree that measuring to a base is a lot easier than to a model. Also, since a base isn’t part of a model, you can have your base overlap another model’s base, technically. That is going to cause problems, potentially, for players who have created scenic bases for their figures.

Melee combat, the heart of AoS.
Melee combat, the heart of AoS.

No points costs for models:
We both would joke about this one a bit. When deciding what faction Jared would use, he originally just wanted to use the Khorne Lord. And… well… he could’ve. And I could’ve used the entire rest of the starter box and, again technically, that would’ve been just fine and legal according to the rules. Now, obviously, this wouldn’t be very well balanced and I would almost assuredly win, even with the Sudden Death rules (which don’t actually state that you have to tell your opponent which one you are picking, so an unscrupulous player could potentially claim they had always chosen a particular one, if and when they meet the requirements of any during the course of a game). There has been some talk of “Wounds = Points” but that doesn’t quite work, either, since two Goblins aren’t exactly equivalent to a Sigmar Prosecutor. I’m not sure how any sort of “quick and dirty” system could work, though, given the variety and number of models in the catalog.

The “silly” rules:
There are models that you get a bonus if you act like you’re riding an imaginary horse, or if you’ve got a better mustache than your opponent, or where you hold up a chalice and say, “For the lady!” We’re already in a game world where you have dinosaurs riding dinosaurs. Except for some of the ones that are clearly broken (such as the one character that can change a die roll to anything they want, and the Screaming Bell saying “you win if you roll a 13”), Jared and I don’t mind these being in the game. Maybe they’re a bit silly, but I played 40k back during the “Cartoonish” days of the Orks, where it was a race between you blowing up my army before I could blow up my army.

Melee, melee, melee.
Melee, melee, melee.

The changes from Weapon Skill/Ballistics Skill and Strength/Toughness to straight “To Hit” and “To Wound” numbers:
I’m mostly ok with this. It does speed things up a little. In terms of Ballistics Skill, it’s really just the same as it had been. Taking a bit of math out of the game by trying to figure out rations with opposed Weapon Skills is nice. Do I think it “dumbed down the game too much?” I don’t know if I’d say that. I didn’t particularly mind the old style, but the new one works essentially just as good.

“Skirmish style” for units as opposed to Regiments:
This, I think, above all else is what people who liked WHFB are really missing about the new game. For Jared, who had never played WHFB or 40k before, it wasn’t a big deal. It was just “how the game worked.” For me, though, it really just felt like I was playing 40k. The two systems had always been very close in rules. It was mostly the regiments and movement with them that defined one from the other. That is gone now. This really did just feel like “40k Lite” to me.

Did I mention we fought a lot in melee?
Did I mention we fought a lot in melee?

Not as “New Player Friendly” as it could be:
Jared would have liked to have seen more elements that would help make the game “new-player friendly.” Having stat cards would’ve kept us from having to pass the rulebook back and forth constantly, and flipping pages all the time to find our models’ stats. Both of us missed out on special abilities because we didn’t have the opportunity to really look at what our models did, since the other player almost always needed to see something in the book as well.

Also, having a “starter scenario” other than just “beat the other guy up” would’ve helped give some more flavor to the game and helped engage him more. Due to the lack of scenario, and since neither of us outnumbered the other enough to qualify for a Sudden Death win condition, by the end of Round 2, almost all of our models were engaged in melee in some from. From there, for the next several rounds (and about an hour of time), models rarely moved further than their 3” Pile In move, and the whole thing just turned into a dice-rolling endeavor. It actually became rather tedious and repetitive, as either one player’s attacks rolls wouldn’t be so good, or the other player just made all their saves, or whatever. Turn after turn, very little happened. A wound here and there. Maybe a removed model. But the game ground to a halt. When something finally did happen via a “miraculous” set of good rolls and some tragically bad ones in terms of saves, we both rejoiced because “Thank god, something happened!”

Honestly, this all seemed to take forever.
Honestly, this all seemed to take forever.

The Settling Dust:
So, where does that leave us? Jared’s not much of a miniatures gamer, and hasn’t suddenly become one now. But I doubt he would’ve become one even if the game had been a lot more interesting than it turned out to be. As for me, I had some high hopes for the game, actually. I have a Lizardmen Blood Bowl team (the Pangaea Punishers), and with the “fast and loose” army construction rules for AoS, I’d had some daydreams of making just maybe a few, small, supplemental purchases and then go use those figures on the battlefield. That will probably not be the case. While there’s nothing in-particular that turns me off to the game (it doesn’t tick any of my “I hate these type of mechanics” boxes), the game I played didn’t really pull me back into the GW fold like I was sort of hoping it would. That’s not to say I think it’s a bad game. I think it really does need some sort of fully-developed army construction rules to make it viable in any sort of organized play format. The game runs just fine. It all just sort of gets bogged down once you have most of your army in melee. Who would I recommend this game to? If you like 40k, you just might like AoS. It could be that “fantasy theme” game you’ve been looking for (if you’ve been looking for such a game, that is). If you’re a fan of pretty models, GW is still one of the best around for plastic figures. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

The final couple fights before it was all over. Sigmar's light won the day.
The final couple fights before it was all over.
Sigmar’s light won the day.

So if you were looking for a total bashing of GW and everything AoS, I’m sorry to have probably disappointed you. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the game (besides the aforementioned), but there just wasn’t anything new and exciting, either, to draw in either Jared or I. I’m glad for the opportunity to have played it, but it’s not something I’m going to be trying to get in regular games of.

A copy of Age of Sigmar was provided to TGN for the purposes of this review.