With serious competitive Age of Sigmar growing quickly, we take a look at the game, its growing popularity, and what makes it worth playing.
It isn’t a secret to readers of my articles, that I love competitive table-top wargaming, but also approach it with the belief that it can be rewarding to more than just those who chase the top-table exclusively, with a revolving door of armies. It is with that in mind that I have to say I just love Age of Sigmar as a serious, competitive, system. Sure it has its boogymen armies (more of those later), but it also has a shockingly diverse meta beyond those outliers, and those armies offer something really special… uniqueness.
Before we dive more deeply though, allow me an ultra-condensed timeline of Age of Sigmar. At launch, AoS was table-top’s wild west… a lawless place without points, with rules that would give buffs to players with the most glorious mustache (no, that isn’t a joke). I recall being laughed out of a venue when I offered to run a comp’d event, and while fun over a few drinks with friends, to say it was a non-factor competitively, would not be an understatement.
The release of the General’s Handbook (now a yearly place to address rebalances, shore up mission quality, etc) rescued the game by adding points, and slowly working to remove sheer comedy based rules.
Flash-forward further still, and we are now three battletomes (read: codex for our 40k readers) away from a FULLY updated 2nd Edition. With other additions in the form of Endless Spells, faction terrain, and more, Age of Sigmar has matured and evolved into a rock-solid game both familiar and unique to 40k.
The result is a game that took some time for tournament organizers to notice. I can’t begrudge anyone for not keeping up with a game that didn’t necessarily make the best of first impressions, but word of mouth has a way of getting around. 2019 feels as if it has been the critical-mass year for the competitive scene, however. More than 75 ranked, GT or larger events have been held this year, around the world! That number has grown year-over-year, and is helped in large part by an incredibly dedicated, fanbase, that in my experience is among the most fun groups of gamers I have interacted with.
So what is it about Age of Sigmar that makes it more than Warhammer 40k’s high-fantasy cousin? Some of those answers are obvious, and others are surprisingly subtle. I will be devoting articles in the near future to elaborate on these next points in greater detail, but here are some broad strokes.
- Wildly different army mechanics: To a far greater extent than 40k, you can really feel the long leash afforded to AoS battletome designers. Rather than a small army specific buff, most AoS armies have a handful of significantly unique mechanics. Nurgle literally have a plague-cycle which featured various buffs depending on the turn, as well as ways of spreading (and rewarding you for it) the very idea of Nurgle’s Rot. The Legions of Nagash raise the dead from previously set up grave-sites. Khorne collects blood from the deaths of enemies OR friends to power a blood tithe. Each army generally does something characterful that already informs a unique playstyle before you have even created a list. Likewise, the manipulation of your army-specific mechanism provides another layer for clever designers to play with when creating individual units, as well. Armies feeling soooo different has really made me feel curious about every single release.
- Movement is king: While one could casually assume AoS is to melee, what 40k is to shooting (and not be wrong per se), it is actually the movement phase where competitive AoS really happens. This is an awesome, albeit subtle throwback to its Warhammer Fantasy parentage, but to succeed in AoS is to play a game of thoughtful positioning. Even the humble charge or pile-in (with subtly different rules from 40k) reward skill from a player. Carefully considering not only what to pull into combat, but how much to pile-in or deny enemy pile-in, can make or break games, and a ruthless unit coherency rule makes it possibly to put opponents in really bad spots. Perhaps best of all is the realization on the designer’s part, that this is the case, as all competitive missions (which just keep improving), really hinge as much on ideas such as table presence, and board-control, as they do removing opposed models.
- Spells can be real, tangible things: With the edition of Endless Spells, AoS saw a really fun, but also meaningful addition. A pool of largely universal spells is available to most armies, coupled with army specific ones as well. When cast these take the form of models physically on the table, representing iconic (or infamous for Old-World Ogre players such as myself) forces such as The Purple Sun of Shyish. These all provide value beyond their individual abilities as they become road-blocks to impede enemy movement, ways to snipe otherwise difficult to pick-out support pieces, and more. A big part of why they have helped craft a largely stronger competitive game, however, comes from the fact that nearly any army can benefit from them. This can be a great equalizer, and I suspect is one of the low-key forces at work keeping the game balanced outside of a couple aforementioned books.
Now, before I wind down this brief introduction to competitive AoS, I have to address an entirely valid sticking point. It would be naive to suggest the game’s balance is perfect. Arguably, the game’s greatest strength, its wildly diverse mechanics from one army to the next, can also be its weakness at times. If every game aspires to a 50% win-rate for every single faction, it becomes obvious that the Hedonites of Slaanesh sitting on a 76% win-rate is well outside of acceptable. That said, the twice a year rebalance passes the game receives have generally fixed the extreme cases of imbalance, and mercifully problems at this level have been rare. To their further credit, that vast majority of the armies are sitting at +/- 5% of 50% which actually speaks to very solid balance beyond a couple of books.
One last point, regarding balance, and something unique that I have observed in the AoS community. I have noticed that hardcore fans recognize any army at a GT capable of going 4/1 as being solid, and this mentality really comes across as the healthiest of competitive mind-sets. There can only ever be one winner at an event, but, as I always profess as a believer in semi-hardcore competition, there can be many people that do well while taking whatever it is that they love. For what it is worth, in 2019, nearly every single army has had at least one 4/1 GT showing.
If you are still reading this, I want to thank you for indulging me in my Competitive AoS primer. If you had been on the fence, or curious, I hope I have piqued your interest in maybe taking your AoS experience to a next level. I authentically, gleefully, love a game system where you can fall in love with really specific models, or a really oddball mechanics, but also have the confidence that you may be able to put in a good tournament showing as well.
Starting next week we will begin taking deep, looks at specific armies competitive play, as well as general ways to elevate your skills and make the most of the places where 40k and AoS differ. I have a whole lot of armies to get through, but if you would like to see anything in particular, drop a comment below and I will see what I can do.
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