Warhammer: The Old World - 4 Ways It Can Go Terribly Wrong, Or Very Right

Image of Warhammer models fighting each other on a tabletopWhat sort of battles can we expect with Warhammer: The Old World? Games Workshop's dev team releases some hints.


Recently, the Games Workshop development team released an update on their Warhammer Community blog, vaguely detailing some of the rules that may be featured in the upcoming Warhammer: The Old World game. This exciting report features amazing photos of miniatures arrayed for battle, affixed to their new, larger bases, ranked up in glorious regiments. This, of course, stirs the nostalgia of a long-time veteran player such as myself, a guy who has played the older editions of Warhammer Fantasy Battle, and Mantic's Kings of War since Games Workshop decided to blow the Old World up.

While exciting, this blog post hints at some ideas that could go either way as far as gameplay quality. The forums that I am a part of received this news with what appears to be cautious optimism and piqued interest. Of course, there are trolls who complain no matter what is revealed, but who cares about their opinions anyway? Legitimate concerns were expressed on these forums as well, but it is obviously not wise to judge a game before you try it.

So, being a long-time fan of the game, I thought I would compile my thoughts here on how the dev team's revelation could go terribly wrong, or wonderfully right.

Unit Formations

"The rules encourage players to field units of varying size based on their type and role. Perhaps most importantly, the formations units adopt (how wide or deep they are) are just as significant as where they are deployed and how quickly they advance."

How This Can Go Wrong

Warhammer Fantasy Battles 8th edition taught us just how boring a game can be when the only ideal unit size is hordes. With core rules bolstering one unit size or formation over the others, the game loses a great deal of color and tactical relevance. In my opinion, the only way this could go wrong is if the rules themselves lend favor to certain formations or roles over others. A careful balance has to be introduced to the rules to make this happen. If one type of formation or role brings about the greatest chance of victory (such as the infamous "death star" units of Warhammer 8th edition), then this concept will not work. 

What is more concerning is, Games Workshop's dev team is probably made up of folks who do not play competitively. This has been evident in Warhammer 40k's balance issues over recent years.

It would be very easy to introduce rules that make such a concept possible, but not ideal as far as competitive play goes. Let's hope the dev team thinks "sweaty" when play-testing these ideas.

How This Can Go Very Right

If the dev team can make each unit formation/role useful in their own way, this could prove to be one of the best aspects of the game. It is so challenging to pull this off, as not only do you need to make sure each unit size, formation and role is useful, but you also have to make sure the units that can adopt these roles are balanced to a reasonable degree so that the players simply don't take multiples of such units in these formations and very few other things.

For legitimate options to exist within a miniature wargame, the choices all have to be useful in comparison to one another. This is very, very difficult to pull off. But if the dev team manages to pull this off, this could be extremely interesting as far as the metagame is concerned, as players would be able to create a variety of army builds featuring different approaches, formations, and so on, instead of simply taking their best units in the singular ideal formations.

Battle scene featuring miniatures charging at a chaos infantry formationI can see Chaos Warriors in a wide formation, throwing boo koo attacks in close combat.

Wide Frontages

"The rules encourage units with wide frontages, but the ideal number of models per rank is decided by the player, not enforced by the rules. To do this, we’ve ensured that as many models as possible can fight in combat, giving even those models that are within the fighting rank but not in base contact with the enemy the opportunity to bring their weapons to bear."

How This Can Go Wrong

There are a couple of concerning things here. Wide frontages with fewer ranks are actually interesting in that there hasn't been an edition to use this for fighting units except for maybe 3rd and earlier (those editions I have yet to try). Sure, you could always run wide ranks of Dwarf Slayers, or any unit for that matter, but unless there was a reason to (like being unbreakable and maximizing corner attacks), you would always give up rank bonus for a very little benefit offensively.

The second part of the above quotation explains that wide formations are possible because models can fight, even if they are not engaged directly with the enemy. This would certainly simplify things a bit on who can attack, as before you had to see which models were physically in base contact, but this could go terribly wrong if the game also features some sort of fight-in-ranks core rule (aside from spears and pikes weapon bonuses). Introducing a "supporting attacks" (models behind the models in the front rank can also attack) core rule alongside this would be too much I think. This could make the game into a "dice bucket" game like Kings of War or Warhammer 40,000. While I do like rolling dice, sometimes rolling 20-30 attacks makes the game so dicey that other elements of the combat simply pale in comparison. Why would I take a unit in deep ranks, only granting me 5 or more attacks and +3 combat results due to rank bonus, if I can instead take a wide formation giving me 20+ attacks and +1 rank bonus? For an average unit, you would be scoring +5 combat resolution from the attacks alone, plus you are scoring casualties against the enemy (something rank bonus won't do). 

I gather from the online forums that older gamers prefer a lower amount of attack dice so that static combat resolution bonuses such as rank bonuses have a much larger impact on the game. Personally, I prefer a lower die count but can live with a larger amount of dice if that ends up being the case. More dice means a greater likelihood of averages showing up, and some players feel cheated when they do well in combat, but still lose because the opponent stacked up combat resolution bonus points. I'm not sure there's really a way Games Workshop's dev team can make everyone happy with this element of the game, but I am certain that this could go very wrong if the game becomes dicey to the point that other core elements such as rank bonus become nigh irrelevant. 

How This Can Go Very Right

If Games Workshop's dev team strikes the perfect balance between static bonuses (such as ranks), and frontage attacks, this could be very interesting. The ideal situation would be that a deep-ranked unit function differently than a wide-ranked unit so that either formation assumes a different, yet comparatively useful function. Maybe deep-ranked units stick around longer, while wide formations push the enemy back more often?

Wide ranks are inherently more fiddly to move around, soak up a lot of viewable space for units behind them, and are open to double charges, so there are some baked-in disadvantages to running units so wide. It will be a delicate part of the game to balance for sure, and there is nothing wrong with certain units being fit for only one of these two formation types, as long as it's not a game-wide issue.

For example, it may be that units with extra hand weapons would be foolish to rank up into deep ranks, the same way units with spears would be foolish to take a wide formation. But units with hand weapons and shields could have reasons for assuming either formation. If this balance is struck, this could open up a wealth of army composition options which would mean a much longer life for the game, as far as competitive play and meta go.

Orcs and a giant do battle with undead
Will psychology play a more diminished role in Warhammer: The Old World? Is that a bad thing?

Break Tests

"One thing we were keen for Warhammer: the Old World to represent was the push and pull of battle, capturing the way in which a hard-pressed army will gradually succumb to fatigue and attrition. To achieve this, units that lose a round of combat will often give ground reluctantly rather than immediately breaking and fleeing, while the winner can advance to press their advantage."


How This Can Go Wrong

Many Warhammer fans online are likening this concept to the classic game Warmaster (a game also produced by Games Workshop). Warmaster is a beloved game, with a decent following even today, and very few fans that I have seen on the forums object to this change (though I admit this is anecdotal). Personally, I always enjoyed the high stakes element of the break test and panic test, though I have lost innumerable games due to failing re-rollable leadership 9 and 10 tests at the worst possible moments. While this concept interests me as well, I can't help but wonder if this sort of thing would lend a heavy advantage to units that fight well in hand-to-hand combat, and also possess some staying power.

One of the ways that such units are dealt with is with a swift charge from cavalry to break them before they can really grind down the attacker. Cavalry may suffer if this is the case, as once a cavalry unit gets bogged down in prolonged combat, they cease to be a swift hammer on the battlefield.  

Bretonnian players may be sweating after reading this, as prolonged combat for them often spells defeat. If, by losing I am simply pushed back a bit, then I am going to take tough infantry units that can also win combats. I am not going to take heavy cavalry at all unless there are some beneficial rules that make doing so worth it. Maybe they can be used as flankers? We'll see. The hammer and anvil element of Warhammer would fundamentally change under such rules, as it would be more about units that have the best staying power, yet can still win combats. With this concept, just about every infantry unit of a decently low points cost would become "tarpits" (units used to lock elite cavalry, and smaller elite "hammer" units up, opening them to counter attack). Of course, without playing these rules, I am simply engaging in conjecture. 


How This Can Go Very Right

As with all proposed ideas, this change, if done well, could create a fresh and interesting foundation for this edition, setting it apart from the other editions entirely (except for maybe the 3rd edition?). The way that players view deployment, maneuvering tactics and so on could potentially become more interesting and fun if indeed players can lay clever traps. Also, for new players, the idea of having your entire unit deleted due to a crappy break test result on two dice can seem a little over the top, so a gradual loss of troops may be more interesting to them. Given that I enjoy the older editions of Warhammer Fantasy Battle, I can always play a game of 5th or 6th edition if I get to missing the break test format. If this change proves to be interesting and fun, it could breathe sustainable life into a ruleset that, sadly, lost the interest of players, leading to its demise. 

The Magic Phase (Or Lack Thereof)

"...spellcasting has been liberated and spread throughout the different phases of the game, rather than restricted to just one. In doing so, we’ve ensured that every spell available to a Wizard can have a significant impact upon the battle if cast in the right place and at the right time.  

Situations where a single spell can decide the outcome of a battle are rare. The focus has shifted from keeping track of dice pools or hands of cards onto the positioning of Wizards."

Necromancer classic Warhammer miniature

How This Can Go Wrong

This is by far the most exciting news for me, as I have always had a love-hate-mostly-hate relationship with the magic phase. Full disclosure, I am a Dwarf player, and while we have arguably the best anti-magic, I managed to become the victim of so many template-wipe spells over the years that I can attribute most of my losses to them (and the corresponding failed, high leadership panic tests).

As with just about every edition of Warhammer Fantasy Battles I have played (since 5th edition), the magic phase has never been balanced, or right. Even the celebrated 6th edition's magic phase was over the top at times. I recall many a battle against the Empire gunline, where comets were targeting my line, pressuring my troops to move into a nest of handgun fire and unit-wiping helblaster shots. I believe that, in the later editions, spell casters are under-costed for what they do. They are the only units that can perform several significant actions within a single phase, each action having a moderate to game-winning effect on the battle. In 8th edition, spells also had extra abilities that would trigger if successfully cast, meaning the bonuses you gained from a single spell caster could stack pretty high.

The obvious potential issue with this announcement is that spells could become so situational that they are not useful in most cases, making spell casters not very useful in general. I highly doubt that ends up being the case, but it is possible. The positioning of the wizard seems to matter as well, which could be an issue if the spell caster has powerful spells that do not need to be within range of an enemy to have a significant effect.

For example, you could park a necromancer in the corner of the table, far away from the enemy spell casters, preventing them from having the option of dispelling your raise dead spells. So you could effectively pump freshly raised units into the battle with little recourse. The same could go for buff and healing spells, simply park your caster behind your line, a safe distance from enemy dispel, and keep your units buffed. I was never a fan of proximity when it comes to dispelling, and I could see this being an easily abusable part of the new rules.

Another potential issue with this announcement is the concept of stacking bubble effects. In my brief time playing 40k and Age of Sigmar, I got a first-hand education on the power of stacked bubble effects. A bubble effect is a special rule produced by a model that benefits allies within a specified range. When you take multiple models that do this and stack the benefits they grant, you can turn surrounding units into god-like murder machines. I could imagine placing a couple of casters behind your most dangerous units, buffing them with re-roll to hit, re-roll to wound, and all sorts of other madness. I'm not a fan of stacking effects for this reason, but some players may find this entertaining.

Giant spider fighting dwarf miners
No mention just yet of how monsters will play into all of this.


How This Can Go Very Right

I've always said, a game of Warhammer Fantasy Battles is often won or lost in the magic phase. The notion that a solitary spell will rarely decide the victor of a battle fills my heart with excitement. Nothing crushes the fun of a battle more than a well-laid-out plan coming apart due to a spell that wipes out an entire unit, or hoses a specific type of unit. I have been guilty of abusing magic myself from time to time (when I use other armies of course), having retired a good friend of mine from playing because I would take Lore of Light every game against his Tomb Kings, dealing bonus damage due to the lore's special rules against undead.  

Magic taking a utility role, with damage spells being useful but not overpowered, is the best approach in my opinion, and it sounds like they may be attempting this. While large, destructive spells are cool as far as the theme goes, a game of tactics and strategy shouldn't be decided by a hot roll from a nuclear spell.

Spells shouldn't be useless either, however. Each spell should have a use and have applications that are not so specific that the player simply doesn't choose to use them. I hope the dev team takes a look at some of Kings of Wars spells, as Mantic has, in my opinion, really nailed the concept of making magic useful, but not overbearing. 

Not having a magic phase is going to speed up gameplay tremendously. Heck, if they get rid of the miscast concept, I wouldn't miss it. While it is cool in that it creates a plot twist for the battle's narrative, it was rather over-the-top when a wizard would blow up in a mushroom cloud, killing everything around him. I'm all for a measured approach to magic, where it's a useful utility, but not a factor that decides the outcome of the battle. 



Final Thoughts

I must commend Games Workshop for taking their time on this game. I know the dev team hasn't released as much as we would like on the project, but it sounds like they are really taking the game seriously. I like that they are considering older editions of the game for inspiration, as I believe the work that the authors did on the earlier editions offers a lot to glean from. The game needs a good shot of the roleplaying game elements that 3rd edition is known for. Changing up parts of the game while retaining the familiar parts of the game we love is a good approach as far as I'm concerned. Warhammer: The Old World needs to feel very familiar, but also different. I think it would be a mistake to simply release a revised version of 6th edition, as many fans probably want. 

Given the track record of the game dev team's other projects, realistically I think the game will have some incredible elements to it, but also struggle with balance issues. Fully balancing a miniature wargame while still retaining the diverse flavor that makes it fun is perhaps an impossible task. All that I hope for from this team is a product that I can enjoy, that enables me to explore a variety of options that are all reasonably useful, and for most battles to produce those epic, memorable moments that made Warhammer my favorite game for over 20 years.  

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  • Cartoon pic of the authorJay C. Shepherd
  • Content Creator
  • Jay is a graphic designer, board game enthusiast, and professional wrestling fan who loves all things 80's, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and of course, video games. He is one of the rare few that believes that one can be a Trekkie and Star Wars fan at the same time.