The Changing Face of Warhammer

The Warhammer world is changing, and players who left the hobby 10 years ago might not even recognize their own armies anymore. But are the changes all for the better?  

In the last few years I have discovered myself playing more and more games with my Orc and Goblin army. I think this is largely due to the fact that I tend to play fairly regularly in tournaments, and as such I tend to use the army for which I have the most miniatures painted. Certainly I assumed that this was the main reason, and thought nothing more of it. But then in the last few months I have started collecting a Dwarf army. Not just any army of Dwarfs, however – the majority of the miniatures that I have collected for the army are very old. I have always liked the old Dwarf miniatures, and this I attributed to my dislike of largely single-pose regiments (such as the current range of Dwarf Hammerers and Longbeards). This theory was supported by the fact that I do quite like the current plastic range, which are multi-pose and easily converted. Again, I was satisfied with this explanation and ceased to ponder the matter. I try not to probe too deeply into my own subconscious, as it scares me (and those around me)…


Today I ran into another one of my subconscious oddities – one that was not quite so easy to explain. I was telling my wife that I no longer enjoy reading the battle reports in White Dwarf as much as I used to. I had never really tried to understand why this might be, but it is something that, thinking back, I have felt for a number of years. There were a number of possible explanations. Perhaps I was simply jaded, having spent the last 15 years of my life playing Warhammer and reading battle reports. I don’t really believe this, given that I still love playing games, and look forward to reading each White Dwarf when I buy it. Maybe it irritated me to read about tactical blunders or poor (ie less than optimal) army selection. This seemed possible, given that I have continued to grow in experience and knowledge of the game over the years, and often find it difficult to watch a game being played at our games club when the players are less than masterful and the mistakes are evident. But I do not think I have developed into such an intolerant and competitive gamer that such things would really spoil a battle report for me.


It was suggested that perhaps the game itself had changed over the years, and these changes had either affected the ability of the report writers to convey events, or even affected the spectacle that a Warhammer battle presented. However, despite 3 new editions and the passage of time, the basic mechanics of the game – the things that make it tick – remain largely unchanged.


Maybe it was the changes in White Dwarf, and the way the reports were written that I enjoyed less. In the last battle report that I read, turns were group 2 at a time, there were far fewer maps of the movements of the units during the battle than I remembered, and the description was from the perspective of the players, with no real narrative. Frankly I had trouble working out what was going on. These things do irritate me, but I did not think that they were solely to blame.


In order to identify what felt different, I had to think back to the first battle report that I ever read. It was way back in White Dwarf 159, and was fought out between Jervis Johnson’s Orcs and Goblins, and the Dwarfs of Bill King (well, borrowed by him anyway). This battle report is what captured my imagination in the first place, and would probably be my favourite if I had to choose one. The battle was described purely from the perspective of the characters involved, and as such it had a story-like quality to it. The report was far more exhaustive than those you read today, including a distinct map and description for every turn. The pictures (and paintjobs) were bright and colourful, as were the descriptions, and the miniatures were cute. It was fun to read.


It was at this point that I finally worked out why reading battle reports was no longer the same for me. And, in fact, the reason why I like old Dwarf figures and Orcs and Goblins. Warhammer is no longer cute. The paintjobs in White Dwarf are darker and more serious than they used to be. Model ranges have changed from characterful and exaggerated to (in the case of some armies) as serious and realistic as they can be. In fact, the whole Warhammer world has changed in much the same way.


These changes are not accidental. In the recent exhibition of “The Art of Warhammer” held in Nottingham Castle (which we were lucky enough to attend, despite it being on the other side of the world from our normal home), the introductory blurb on the wall acknowledged the shift. It spoke of the game’s sense of humour not having disappeared (citing examples such as Goblin Fanatics), but basically admitted that much of the comedy of Warhammer has been replaced by a darker and perhaps more believable atmosphere. As it is unlikely that Games Workshop have merely observed these changes from afar (or noticed them suddenly as they were preparing the exhibition), it seems safe to assume that the change in perspective is intentional.


I don’t know what drove these changes in the world of Warhammer, but there are a few possible explanations. It could be that the development team at Games Workshop has changed, and that the different people brought with them a different perspective. Or it could be that the same people have changed over time, or had always wanted to be making things this way, and have been given the license to do so. More likely though, I suspect that the Powers That Be decided that the appeal of Warhammer would be greater or more universal if the world was more realistic (and darker). 


As you may have gathered from the way this article has been written thus far, I do not necessarily approve of the changes I see in my chosen hobby. In truth, I am somewhat torn by it. Having armies of Elves, I find that I almost invariably prefer the newer, sleeker miniatures on offer today to those from 10 years ago. Gone are the round faces, replaced by sharper-featured, more angular ones. I feel that an increase in the level of sculpting skill is evident in these miniatures, perhaps more than the style itself.


However, for all that I love the newer range of Elves, it is the old figures that drew me to Warhammer in the first place. The round-featured Dwarfs with their bushy eyebrows and large noses, the gangly Orcs and the hilarious Goblins (each and every one of whom reminded me of Toadwart from the Disney cartoon of Gummi Bears – some of you will doubtless know who I mean) all appealed to me far more than the less exaggerated (and arguably more realistic) models offered by other miniature manufacturers. I think that in some ways, the whole thing struck me as a big cartoon, and I loved it. The armies looked glorious in the photos, and I could think of nothing I wanted more than to have an army like that and to be able to make battles like that in my own home.


And so I find myself buying ancient models on eBay, and shifting ever more towards the ever-comical forces of the greenskins who have, through sheer force of character, resisted many of the changes that have been wrought upon the rest of their world. They are still funny, and would likely lose much of their following if they ceased to be so. But is this appeal isolated to those who love Orcs and Goblins, or could it be that Games Workshop risks alienating a whole generation of gamers who would otherwise be drawn in by the surrealism of it all?


It appears that all of the armies are becoming the same. Things that used to look vastly different are being altered to fit a similar theme. Perhaps to make them look like they come from the same world, and belong together. I can understand wanting a certain level of belonging for each army, and it would look a little strange to have fights between miniatures that appear to have come from a whole different range. However, the variety in Warhammer is one of the keys to its appeal.


Different armies appeal to different people. My wife was drawn to the clean, noble High Elves and Bretonnians. Since then, some Bretonnians have been hit with the ugly stick, bearing scars, primitive stitches, and a generally darker theme. This is particularly evident in the art work for the army. The same could be said for Wood Elves, who seem to become more dangerous, bitter and insular with each re-release of the army. One starts to wonder whether they are in fact a “good” race at all. Again, this brings the races in line with the darker imagery prevalent in Warhammer nowadays, but is this narrowing the army’s appeal? Or, in trying to bring all of the armies into the same atmosphere, are they narrowing the appeal of the hobby as a whole?


The forces of Chaos have always been darker and more sinister than those of other armies and this seems fitting, given that Chaos is invading the Warhammer world, and its occupants are in a constant struggle to avoid going under. But it seems in some ways the rest of the world is being brought into line with Chaos, rather than the contrast being emphasized. In some ways, the whole world is indeed being subverted by the corrupting influence of Chaos, but it is the artists and designers of Games Workshop who are making it so.


I am one of those who would rather see a world full of colourful and distinct races standing against the tide. Obviously not everyone will agree with me, but then that is why there are different armies, with different character. If all of the races blend into one big mixing pot and come out looking the same, then I think Warhammer is in danger of losing a lot of its appeal.