So Age of Sigmar is here and sodium levels remain high amongst many. Now that I've had a chance to actually play the game and ruminate on it for a bit, I'm here to break it down for you and give some initial impressions. Note that this is merely the things that I found interesting and worth noting about the system; I'm not trying to convert anyone, just to supply some food for thought. If you get through it all, there's a battle report, and some pretty pictures at the end.
With that out of the way, let's do this step by step shall we?
This is where a lot of the controversy over Age of Sigmar has been coming from, how do you balance two opposing forces without any guidelines? In our game we chose units that we thought were roughly equal then eyeballed the two forces before we played and decided that they looked about right. That was fine for us, but we've been playing Warhammer in one way or another for years, and even in a brand new system, we know from long experience what will make for a fair game. For new players this could be a substantial hurdle, with the victory going to whoever has the most money. I wouldn't mind betting that competitive level play will be defined not by the armies you choose, but rather the scenarios you play. With each scenario limiting the forces you bring to fight it, round one siege, round two ambush, round three take the high ground, and so on each with their own rules on the type and quantity of troops that can be fielded. That's just an educated guess of course. I'm broadly in favour of the "looks about right" method of army creation, as it allows a great deal more freedom to take the things you want and build the army you think is cool; but I think that whether or not this area of the game is a positive or negative is very much going to be a matter of individual preference; more so that the rest of the system.
This is a brand new phase in which most of the odds and ends happen, magic, the abilities of heroes, and sundry others, anvil of doom, engine of the gods, and so on. I feel that there have been a lot of positive changes here. Magic remains strong without being overpowering, offensive spells chip away at units rather than wiping them out, and de/buffing spells make a unit worse/better without rendering it useless/unstoppable; countering those spell has become far less of a 'do or die' situation as the game if far less likely to hinge on one almighty casting as it often has in the past. As a caveat to my largely enthusiastic reaction to magic, I have yet to play with any summoning magic. While it does seem to be very powerful, I'm not sure if it is reliable enough to make it a dedicated tactic; many of the stronger summon-able units have quite high casting values, and even humble units of skeletons need to a roll of five on two dice to summon a mere ten of them. Relying on summoning to carry the day might be a trap, time will tell. Most heroes have some kind of ability they can use in the Hero Phase, normally to buff your troops, but there are any number of different effects. These are equivalent to spells in many ways and give an extra set of options and tactics that didn't exist before. Almost no two heroes have the same ability; on top of difference between different races and types of character, a mounted hero will normally have a different power than the same hero on foot in order to emphasise the difference in how those characters fight, and the same character on a monster will have yet another. I can't tell you how much I love this inclusion. In Warhammer Fantasy non wizard characters fell into three broad categories; one person killing machines, cheap leadership boosts for units, and vital inclusions without which weaker troops could never hope to win a combat. Now heroes interact with the battlefield in as many different ways as there are different characters, and your choice of heroes and their synergies with different units can totally change the way you build and play your army.
Running an extra d6 instead of marching to double your move adds a random element that is a double edged sword. It makes it significantly harder to manoeuvre into a favourable position when you have no idea how far you're going to move. On the other hand the base movement value of the unit means significantly more in Age of Sigmar. Most movement values have gone up, and with no real need to reform or wheel, high movement units like most cavalry are a lot more manoeuvrable being able to pick and choose where to fight. Also having to rethink your movement on the fly due to a semi random movement is no bad thing, after all what fun would it be if every plan you had always panned out? Being able to voluntarily leave combat at the expense of the rest of that units turn opens up some interesting plays, specifically being able to leave a multiple unit combat leaving your opponent stuck in combat with another of your units, unable to follow. Rolling off each round to see who acts first has its largest effect in the movement phase. Moving your units twice in a row can allow you to pull off a charge almost anywhere on the battlefield and choose the combats that take place on your own terms. The order in which players act doesn't make all that much of a difference to the rest of the turn cycle, but here it is vital. Taking two turns in a row has the potential to pull victory from the jaws of defeat, or to allow one player to completely run over another. This feel like the 'swingiest' part of the game to me, but I may well be over selling it, knowing that there is a fifty persent chance that someone is going to move twice in a row means that you can at least make the attempt to plan appropriately.
The range of weapons has largely gone down, and a static line of bows/guns seems like far less of a valid tactic. The largest change and one that seems counter intuitive is firing into combat, and firing while in combat. True line of sight means that units in combat will usually be restricted to firing at the unit they're in combat with but it still seems (and you will almost never hear me say this, particularly about a fantasy game) unrealistic. Being able to fire at point-blank range is one thing but shooting your longbow with one hand and your teeth, while fending off attackers with the sword in your other hand seems more than a little weird. I suspect that this was included to give a boost to shooting armies in what is clearly a more close combat oriented system. Your artillery won't explode on you anymore, which is going to result in fewer 'feel-bad' moments for anyone fielding them, but they are also far less likely to kill a large monster or similar model in one shot, so I feel that balances nicely, greater reliability but reduced damage potential. Aside from those things shooting remains largely unchanged; we'll be getting to the hitting and wounding in a moment, and still largely serves to whittle down the enemy before the melee begins in earnest.
All units charge 2d6 in Age of Sigmar, so whether or not a unit makes it into combat hinging on its normal movement in the movement phase rather than in the charging phase. The reason this is its own phase at all, as far as I can tell, is so that each unit that is going to be in combat is already in place for the combat phase, which is a little different now.
Now then, this is the particularly interesting bit. I'm going to be bold here and say that the combat in Age of Sigmar feels more realistic and visceral than any edition of Warhammer Fantasy. Combat has a tendency to sprawl out; engulfing other nearby units; and what might start out as an ordered battle-line quickly devolves into a desperate ruck; just like you would expect from an actual battle. There are a lot of tactical decisions to be made in the combat phase. As initiative is no longer a thing, players take it in turns to nominate a unit to fight. The order in which units attack and precisely what they attack can be hugely important especially in larger combats. For example: fighting with one unit before it is wiped out, trying to whittle down a powerful enemy unit to reduce incoming attacks, or attempting to kill off an enemy character to reduce a synergy effect. Initially I miss read how the combat order worked, but once I realised just what was going on it became apparent that a lot of the meat of the new system lay in the choices made in combat. The new moral rules (which we'll get to in a minute) means that combat is a protracted affair, and the number of wounds you can bring to a fight are more of a factor in coming out on top. With hitting and wounding having become easier the gap between elite and bulk infantry in combat has narrowed somewhat, the edge seems to go to the more durable unit, either multiple wounds or a large number of models will probably carry the day in the long run. A single lost combat won't normally swing the battle anymore; in previous editions a combat that went badly could turn the whole game into an exercise in mopping up, as whole units would break and flee, often to be cut down in their entirety. In Age of Sigmar a combat that goes badly, or well depending on where you're standing, will not necessarily signal the end of the game, for reasons we'll go into now.
This is another phase that hadn't originally existed, and its inclusion has had a significant effect on the rest of the games phases (well except the charge phase anyway). Battleshock has effectively replaced moral effects, what would have been a panic or break test during the magic, shooting, and combat, is now taken as one test at the end of the turn; and rather than fleeing on mass the unit loses a number of models (not wounds) equal to the amount it lost the test by. This is another reason that the number of models in a unit is significant. Units with a low bravery tend to be weaker individually, skaven, goblins, etc; and as such are prone to heavy casualties in battle, and as a result of battleshock. These units won't turn and run at the first sign of trouble like they used to, and as long as there are enough of them they can still attrition out a more elite unit. That both sides have to test for battleshock for all their units that suffered casualties each turn means that even a seemingly one sided combat can drastically turn against the victor, and elite multi wound units can suffer particularly as the unit loses whole models for every point they fail by. While we are on the subject of moral, there are as yet no fear effects or similar psychology rules. Presumably huge terrifying things are ten a penny in this brave new world.
So that's the phases done, let's talk about some of the other odds and ends that don't quite fit anywhere.
Comparing stats to determine what you need to hit and wound has gone, replaced by a static value for each weapon used. There are a few reasons for this, the first being barrier to entry. It's a damn sight easier to pick up a game if you don't have to reference several different tables, and consult your opponent's rules as well as your own before you roll any dice. The second reason seems to be balance, as weird as that sounds. In a world where you can take armies of powerful heroes or whole herds of enormous monsters, it ensures that everything is killable, and that winning on the back of one particularly strong model is unfeasible, helping to keep power-gamers on their toes, and ensuring that no one feels too dirty for bringing their huge and expensive daemon/dragon/what have you, to a knife fight.
On the subject of monsters, the offensive power of big multi-wound models being reduced by how many wounds they've taken seems to balance them quite well against infantry units, both losing effectiveness as the battle wears on.
Measuring from the model rather than the base has virtually no impact on the game as far as I can tell; there are very few models that leave the confines of their bases by any substantial amount, and those that do have to be surprisingly close to physically bridge the distance. For example the leg of an arachnarok spider might stick out from its base, but it's also held very high up.
You'll notice that I've not mentioned the "silly" rules that some models have. This is because a) the number of models that have these rules is almost statistically negligible, b) these rules are mostly optional and those that aren't (Settra's rule for example) you are free to ignore, and c) I don't care that much.
While this rule set is drastically different form Fantasy, it plays out in a surprisingly similar way, the game progresses in the same fashion, just at a faster pace. This is a very streamlined experience, but I feel there is a lot of room for tactical flair and many new interesting synergies to be found. In fact I suspect that synergies between warscrolls will become more and more commonplace as addition kits and factions are released by Games Workshop.
I can absolutely see why so many people have been so upset by these rules; they are very different and the change was very abrupt. Equally I can absolutely say that people have severely underestimated this game.
Try it, it might surprise you.
The opposing armies line up for battle and the Khornate forses surge forward.
The Lizardmen move forward cautiously, but a double movement phase sends the chaos warriors crashing into thier lines.
The Bastiladon claims the life of one Dragon Ogre, but casualties are high amoungst the Saurus Warriors.
Chaos Knights lose one of thier number charging through the deadly forest, but kill a Kroxigor. Yet more Saurus fall to the servants of Khorne.
Despite heavy losses, and hardly hurting the Chaos Warriors, the Lizardman line holds.
The Oldblood prepares to enter the fray.
The battle ends with the Saurus Warriors wiped out entirely, but faced with an array of wounded but angry monsters, they withdraw. An extremely narrow victory to the lizardmen.