Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Grim Darkness in the Far Future: 25 Years of Warhammer 40,000

Well, all signs point to a new edition of Warhammer 40,000 coming out this summer. Fifth edition just came out in 2008, and I only started introducing the Apprentices to it in 2009. It had been on a fairly reliable 5-6 year update schedule, but this one is happening after only 4 years, probably because this is the 25th anniversary of the game and hey, might as well release an update, right?

I sometimes wonder how many of us who played the original version of the game are still playing the current version. I suspect many people drop in and out as the years go by but for a few of us it has been a  constant presence, though even I admit to some ebbs and flows in there.

The first version was really more of a skirmish game than any kind of manual organized for serious tournament games. It was a glorious chaotic source of wonder, somewhat akin to the original Dungeon Master's Guide. Actually 40K RT was a lot like AD&D - full of cool ideas & inspiring art, constantly being patched and updated in the monthly magazine, and intended to be tinkered with by its players.  Much like later editions of D&D the tinkering aspect would decrease with later editions as the game became more successful and was forced to become more of a professional product than a cool thing for hobbyists. I built up a pretty decent marine army (Howling Griffons! Saaa-lute!) and dabbled in Eldar because they were cool looking figures. Oh and Harlequins ... oh my Harlequins ...

Second edition was the first one to come in a box with miniatures, some of which I still use today. This was a more cartoonish-looking version art-wise and was clearly aimed at a younger audience. This is the edition where the "Codex" approach began - putting army lists out as separate softcover books to encourage players to "pick a team". This one also tended to favor super-powered characters equipped with powerful gear and battles were often dominated by a few powerful individuals on each side. It was still fun but this seemed less appropriate for a sci-fi game than for a fantasy game, though Warhammer Fantasy was dominated by the same issue at the time. Vehicles were still rare in this edition, other than dreadnoughts and bikes / jet bikes, which had also been true of RT. One or two tanks per side was about all that we commonly saw in this one. I played it quite a bit, a lot of it with a group of friends at a local game store, and this is when my Eldar turned into a full-on army.

When I wasn't playing 40K during these years I was playing "Space Marine" or "Titan Legions". These were the "Epic Scale" game of massive battles in the 40K universe where you could actually field a company of Land Raiders and some of the gigantic war machines known as Battle Titans. I built up a massive pile of fully panted Epic Scale armies and for about 5 years we played it as much as we did regular 40K. Then they came out wit ha new edition in 1997 called "Epic 40,000" that completely changed the mechanics and pretty much killed the game. Ah well, I still have the armies and the older rules - one of these days they will return ...

Third edition 40K came out in 1998 and was a very different game - as drastic a change as D&D 4E was compared to 3E - in that terms and names were often the same but the way the game worked was very different, from army construction to turn structure to the mechanic of the game in play. Gone were the overpowered characters and the dominance of psychic powers. Vehicle-heavy armies suddenly became possible and viable. Building an army involved thinking about a force structure as a whole and not just figuring how many points could be dumped into that Inquisitor Lord or Greater Daemon. The artwork and atmosphere took on a much more serious and mature tone. This was Grimdark, dern it, and you were going to notice. Also, making stuff up began to really be discouraged in many ways as the tournament culture started to dominate online and even casual conversation - can't have any made-up stuff showing up in a championship fight - it might be unbalanced! The creative aspect of the game was pushed more into conversions of existing models to represent things not yet available from the official source, and god forbid you use mini's from another manufacturer.

Despite this direction we had a lot of fun with this new edition as the rules were a lot cleaner and less fiddly and the lessened importance of characters made it feel more like a battle and less like an RPG, which was an improvement at the time - I have RPG's, and I don't need $100 worth of mini's and a 4x8 table covered in terrain to play them. We also noticed that armies were getting larger. In 1st or 2nd edition, 3 marine squads, a leader or two, a dreadnought, and a landspeeder or predator tank made for a decent force. In 3rd, the new force organization meant that more squads were on the table as were more tanks and other vehicles. In contrast, Codexes got a lot smaller, often half the thickness of their 2E predecessors. Plastic kits were produced for each army - maybe I should say good plastic kits - and became the standard. One of the first 40K products produced after the RT rulebook was a box of 30 plastic multipart marines and there were other sets for Orks and Imperial Guard and Squats as well during the RT days, but they were fairly limited in components and poses. By the time of 3rd Edition the kits were quite a bit improved and made for a pretty decent way to bulk out your forces. We played quite a bit of this edition and during it I built up a second force of marines (Crimson Fists!) and finally got my Orks together and built them into a credible force as well.

Fourth edition was released in 2004 and was basically a tune-up of 3rd. This is the edition I played the least and is the biggest "ebb" part of my playing history. I had committed to 3rd pretty heavily and, as sometimes happens when new editions come out,  I was not thrilled about another cycle of rulebook and codex updates. I sat most of it out. This is the only edition of 40K that had a boxed set that I do not own. I came around on it late in the edition cycle and played a few games, mostly in time to find out that 5th edition was on the way and get annoyed all over again.

Fifth edition came out in 2008. I gave it a year as I was busy getting married and stuff.

Once I read it I was quite pleased. It was very much in the same vein as 3rd but it fixed a lot of the little things I did not like about 3rd. Some of which might have been in 4th, but I didn't play that one long enough to really notice the details. The army books were better too, for the most part. There seemed to be a genuine movement to bring back units and characters from older editions in a from that didn't suck and that was a positive move in my opinion. To make up for my lack of 4th edition boxes, I bought two for 5th - and gave them to the Apprentices.

The boys had seen me play before and they had played the Dawn of War computer game (which was a fine, fine piece of work by the way) and they were ready to get started with the "real thing". I let them haggle over who got what army and they eventually worked it out. These boxed sets are a pretty good introduction to the game and they come with two opposing forces in the box. This version is by far the best set of mini's yet ( a marine dreadnought - in the starter box! Terminators! Nobz!) and splitting the contents of two boxes with a buddy gives you a very credible force to start out with. Apprentice Red ended up with Orks while Blaster took the Space Marines (going with Space Wolves as he had just read the novels and the new codex had just come out) and they have both had a ton of fun with them. They have also begun learning the art of painting miniatures thru the game, which I expect they will be doing for a long time.

We've played a lot of games and they have played even more against each other, with the forces changing as new units are added and painted and expanded. Equipped with their own rulebooks and dice and armies they dove right in and had fun both playing and arguing over the rules like old pros. I've played with them and against them and won some and lost some. It's funny in some ways to play out a battle where my entire army is made up of figures older than both of them that have been painted and organized and fighting on the tabletop longer than they have been alive too. Some of the terrain is older than they are too. As are some of the dice. Wow, I have been doing this for a long time. It's bad when you can note your kid's age by what edition of a game was out when they were born ...

During this revival I took the opportunity to build out some Chaos Marines into an actual army (still not painted though), and to convert my Warhammer Fantasy Chaos Daemons into a 40K army since I play a lot more 40K than fantasy and thought a sci-fi army (technically) with no guns was an interesting concept. I also updated my old RT marines to the newer base types (to better ally with Blaster) and turned my old footslogging Orks into a mechanized death machine (to better ally with Red). Finally I decided to re-acquire an Eldar force (having traded mine to a friend back in 3rd edition in return for his Orks) with the intention of allying with my friend and schooling both Apprentices. This has yet to happen but I remain hopeful.

Just recently, here at the end of 5th Edition,  a friend of mine ran across some 40K stuff at a garage sale, picked it up super-cheap, and gave it to me - thanks Jer! - resulting in two more armies now living in the garage, the Necrons and a pretty sizable Imperial Guard army. The Apprentices are angling to claim them but I haven't decided what to do with them just yet. More options are always good, and it wouldn't hurt to give them a second army to try out - I'm just not sure that these two newcomers are those options.

I suppose it says something that most of my armies take more than one edition to build up to a useful level and to paint an entire force. I still have a fair number of Rogue Trader era figures that need to be integrated into an army, not to mention all of the ones from later editions. Some people buy up whole armies, paint them up, play them for a year, then sell them off and start the whole process over again with a different army - inside one edition! I just can't do that. I take a long view and paint them up slowly, and by the time they are "done enough" to consider a standing army I've spent so much time with and on them that I can't just hand them off - they're my guys! I should probably be less attached to them - and it might help me paint faster - but that's just how I feel about it, and a lot of the appeal of miniatures game is the feel. I can think that a particular unit performs poorly in a particular game or edition of a game but if it has that perfect paint job that I managed to do over 5 years, well, I'm going to try to find a way to include it. Because I like having it in use in the game, regardless of the numbers. I suppose it's still somewhat RPG-ish in that respect - a character you never have to retire.

With Sixth edition I expect we will dive back in with our multitude of armies, build some new terrain,  and probably recruit some friends to come with us. If the typical 5 year schedule holds then the Apprentices will be in college by the time the next edition comes out, so this will be the last one where they're "kids" and need a ride to a friend's house to go play 40K. Right now I hope to play a whole lot of it, so it better be good. Come on Games Workshop, let's get this one right.


Martin R. Thomas said...

Very nice write up and overview. So funny - I had a 40k post on my list of "Things to blog about" that I keep so I don't forget stuff.

Based on your timeline above, I'm guessing I started with 2md Edition. This would've been around 1993 or 1994. I had geen laid off from my very first post college job by a stupid ad agency that clearly didn't see my potential ( of course!), and my buddy and I spent the next four months while I tried to get a job playing Magic the Gathering, which was brand new at the time, and collecting and painting 40k figures - Space Marines for me, and Eldar, Chaos Space Marines, Gene Stealers, and Tyrannids for my friend.

I made up my own Space Marine Chapter, and really enjoyed the painting and the kit-bashing aspects of sawing, filing, and molding new figures. The game play... Not so much. I found the set-up to be long and tedious, and I sucked so much at the tactical aspects of the game that it was almost obvious very apparent after the first turn that I was going to lose badly.

When the next edition came out, I rememer my friend really got into it, and he kept saying things like, "They changed this part so there are no more gene stealers" or "Tyrannids don't work that way any more" or whatever, and it was the first time in my history of gaming that I began to understand that these games were not made by hobbyists - they were made by companies that needed their customers to continually shell out money to buy more stuff. And that just rubbed me the wrong way, even though I would continue to buy so-called "splat books" for D&D and that's really the same concept.

I haven't played it in years, although a friend is considering doing a short 40k RPG campaign using the Space Marines book.

Jeremy said...

My pleasure, glad they found a home where they'll be appreciated.

Blacksteel said...

Hi Martin - Yep, MtG came out during 40K 2E so you're right on that. I will say that the setup and play is a lot cleaner now than it was back then. If you get a chance to catch a game in a store you might get the itch again. There are lots of YouTube Battle Reports which can be fun to watch if you have any familiarity with the universe at all. It's not cheap to get into, but eBay can be a great aid here.

Of course, like many things now that I'm older, money is less of a problem than it was in college, but the time to play is at a premium. I still try to keep them from gathering too much dust but it's tricky with multiple armies and the time to play maybe once or twice a month. Maybe when I retire ...