So, the rumors have been floating around the tubes of the internet that Warhammer Fantasy Battle 9th Edition will be utter, unrivaled insanity both in setting and gameplay revamps. I wanted to touch on my thoughts about this, as well as what I would have recommended as an armchair CEO for Games Workshop.
A quick disclaimer before I start: I have never been a frequent player of WHFB. I have a small Vampire Counts army, and a slightly larger Arabian-themed Empire army, but neither of them has seen more than a half-dozen games total, and that’s not likely to change soon. However, I grew up with WHFB and 40K, absorbing every snippet of rules and fluff I could, and as a result I love the setting and the game itself, even if I’m not as much of a fan of actually sitting down and playing it.
What Has Come Before:
So far we have a really clear image that GW is panicked with WHFB. Numerous anecdotes seem to indicate the entire range sells poorly at best, and the ratio of 40K to WHFB players seems to support this as well. Understandably, poor sales should be remedied, and GW wanted to take steps to fix this. The first of these steps we’ve seen have been the End Times megafigure releases, like nagash, Khaine, and friends. The fluff, and to a lesser extent the rules, for these models seems to be laying the groundwork for the massive changes GW looks like they want to be enacting in 9e:
Folding numerous factions into each other to minimize it into 6 factions at edition start. I don’t doubt for a second that others like Lizardmen and Brettonians (Who are rumored to be in line to be cut) will come back in some form after the initial release, but for a while at least people left with those lines will be out in the cold. However, I fear for the future of a lot of faction’s identities as they get combined (Wood/High/Dark Elves will be particularly susceptible to this I think).
Breaking the setting, literally, into separate “bubble” universes, allowing them to get even more apocalyptic-y grimdark than WHFB was already. This part to me feels like a fluff justification for all of the other changes, rather than a change made for the betterment of the setting and story as a whole. WHFB’s basic setting was nothing to write home about (Although I did like the UFO-denial style of public opinion about Skaven amongst the Empire), but I’m worried that this will take it from being a cohesive setting into something more like a collection of D&D splatbooks. Bubbleverses authors and designers are interested in will flourish while the rest suffer, and it makes interactions between bubbleverses just a collection of conflicts rather than any kind of cohesive history like the original WHFB setting had.
Changing up how units and armies are sold and assembled, focusing on much smaller Skirmish scale and with a handful of “core” units and everything else up in the air for inclusion at some point or another. This is completely not a surprise, as it is the underlying reason GW would want to take a hammer to it’s oldest IP. 40K has sold better probably in no small part due to the relatively-smaller scale, and currently it takes the better part of a grand or more to make a full WHFB tournament-minimum army (Compared to a few hundred tops for most 40K factions). GW also needs to find some way of generating a new revenue stream, and what better way to accomplish that than invalidating 90% of most player’s models.
Overall, this is incredibly cringe-worthy. GW wanted to change the fluff, and looks to have decided to do so in a big, no-take-backs way, but I’m worried they both missed opportunities for profit along the way as well as shot themselves in the foot for keeping any existing fans happy. The one thing I am happy about is an advancement, any advancement, in the story, and I sincerely hope 40K does the same at some point (Perhaps using the 50K Age of Exodus setting?), and I really hope that the bubbleverse or whatever comes of the End Times doesn’t just stagnate for another two decades like WHFB and 40K’s existing fluff.
Warming up the Armchair:
So, if I were CEO, I would follow the same general model as GW has, but with a few significant changes to the timing on the current timeline of events.I think their underlying idea was good, but I think they rushed several potentially valuable steps in order to try and reboot WHFB as quickly as possible.
Firstoff, I believe that the End Times were a sort of way to test the water for GW. The following is my personal unsubstantiated suspicions/hunches for what GW did and why: Following the trend of releasing new, large multi-use kits for armies, they wanted to see if they could spark a lot of purchases for the End Times beasties by allowing them to be used with a lot of armies. My guess is that this idea went poorly, as despite the months of hype for Nagash, Khaine was rushed out on his coattails very quickly afterwards, and each successive End Times character has had less and less forewarning before being popped out. After the sales numbers for Nagash, and possibly Khaine,came back, they knew to push ahead with 9e as quickly as possible rather than ride out the wave of End Times profit they were hoping for. 9e was already going to be the shattered universe we are about to know and love, but I think they were holding out for as long as possible before committing to it.
As CEO, I would continue on with the End Times, but stretch out each big beastie to be at the very least 3 months apart, if not 6. Give each one time to be integrated into the meta, painted, adored, and exploited, before moving on to the next one. At the same time, start the merging of the factions, but slowly, and with concessions to help ease the change as well as open temporary new profit streams. One example of this would be Brettonia; In the fluff for the Skaven End Times character (Thanquol), Nurgle is described as having managed to overrun and destroy the nation. Brettonians have always been a fairly poor-selling faction, even by GW standards, but I think GW missed a huge opportunity to milk them for some profit one last time before throwing them under the bus.
I would still have the destruction of the Brettonian Nation from Nurgle, but would at the same time release a new temporary Army: The Plague Knights (Or something to that effect). Include the rules to play with most of the Brettonian line, as well as select Nurgle forces, and release a new model kit or three to commemorate it. This would ideally result in something like the Legion of the Damned codex did for 40K, where you have a surge of interest in the new army despite it being a mishmash of two existing codexes, and would at least provide some use for the Brettonian models before the army list is retired. Heck, with enough interest you could split that off into it’s own bubbleverse and make it a permanent establishment, but at the very least don’t abandon multiple model lines just because the models weren’t selling in their original incarnation.
In addition, the new combined-factions fluff for the End Times really should have been accompanied by new model lines specifically for this. For combining of Vampire Counts and Tomb Kings, why didn’t we see Black Chariots or Wraiths riding Ethereal Scorpions? For the OmniElves, why didn’t we see Treemen Artillery (With Bolt Throwers nestled in the branches), or Dragon Knights armed with Repeating Crossbows? (Hydra Knights?) They don’t need to revamp the entire line immediately, but a small handful of kits that help emphasize the newfound partnerships would both help patch over the roughness of the combines fluff, as well as give GW a chance to really stretch their creative muscles before they jump into whatever zaniness they concoct with the new 9e units.
Words Words Words
For the fluff itself, I personally would much rather have seen a Chaos Triumphant result instead of breaking apart the world: Rather than resulting in a lot of awkward questions about why there’s still an atmosphere and why cities don’t get universally mashed to paste by the uncountable meteors, instead have Chaos finally manage to break free en masse from the gate at the roof of the world, and flood the planet. You still get everyone beaten back into their respective corners of civilization, and can still have clashes as people compete for the same resources when the waves of Chaos wane, but now you have a delicious background apocalypse feel without all of the messy scientific questions.
Plus, the omnipresent tides of daemons would allow for interesting new mechanics, such as appearance of daemons that attack everyone, terrain that is understandably deadly rather than due to air-quote “mysteriousness,” and a clear reason why various objectives are so damn important (They are life-giving food/supplies/weapons). Chaos woulds till be a faction, and would just represent a more cohesive army of Daemons rather than the leaderless morass (And hey, Chaos is chaotic, so there’s no reason why the omnipresent daemons wouldn’t attack a Chaos army). The setting also leaves the door open for eventually returning to a more stable status-quo, possibly in an Eye of Terror-style worldwide campaign.
Plastic Crack, and How to Sell It
For the model lines, as much as I hate the idea as a potential player, I do think having a set of “Core” units and then changing the other allowable units is a smart business move to keep WHFB from becoming stagnant. However, rather than flat-out erasing units, go to a Magic the Gathering style where you have a rotating “set” of units that are allowed in your official “Standard” tournaments, but then have anything-goes “Legacy” style tournaments that allow people to use non-current units.
For example, using the Undead faction, one of the Core units will apparently be Skeleton Spearmen. Examples of the rotating units then could be Wights, and the new Wraiths riding Ethereal Scorpions I mentioned earlier. Maybe in the current set, the Wights are out and the Scorpions are in for a Standard army, but if I was playing a Legacy army I could use either. Let the older units cycle back in for each set, along with the brand-spanking-new units; My suggestion would be that each army has their 3 basic Core units, and then access to 6 additional units at any time. Of those 6 non-Core units, 4 would be older existing models and 2 would be the new hot kit. Over time however, keep track of the new units released, and eventually the 6 non-Core units would be 2 old, pre-9e models, 2 would be previously released post-9e models, and 2 would be the new hot kit.
That way you keep the old models people have in circulation, so they never get abandoned entirely and keeps people with huge pre-9e collections happy, you keep your newly released kits in circulation, and you also have incentive to get the new kits. There’s always the legacy format for those who don’t want to upgrade, but that way you can heavily encourage the meta to shift to the new hotness. A requirement for this is that GW would need to support tournaments again, which might be a forgone hope, but if they don’t support 9e with official tournaments I predict a large-scale snubbing of new model lines just as we saw for the End Times models.
Brace for Impact
So overall I’m hesitant about the 9e Bubbleversegate. I feel like they dropped a lot of golden opportunities, and are rushing into the bubbleverse without really going over how best to monetize the game for the long-term besides taking a hatchet to their fluff and model lines. On the other hand, WHFB is undeniably changing, which is akin to saying a tree just began a singing and dancing routine; Not only is it unexpected, it’s exciting and vaguely unnerving.
Personally, I will remain firmly cemented in playing One-Page Fantasy Battles, but watching how 9e unfolds/crashes and burns with great interest. Maybe, just maybe, a miracle will happen and their rules will see a similar shakeup, and WHFB might become a game I’m mechanically interested in again. For now, however, I’m not holding my breath.
So, what are your thoughts about 9e and the bubbleverse? Excited? Nervous? Frothing with unfathomable rage?