With “Total War: Warhammer” on the video-game front, and AoS growing quickly as a competitive game, what else is out there for players to get excited about? Let’s take a look at some serious contenders on the market.
We are entering a bit of a Fantasy Game Renaissance. As tabletop war-gaming continues its year-over-year growth as a serious, competitive exercise, we are concurrently seeing a renewed interest in fantasy as a setting across all media. Amazon’s billion dollar investment in a new Lord of the Rings series, Total War: Warhammer taking the game to new heights of popularity (with a tournament community all its own), and Age of Sigmar becoming a GT mainstay, are all indicators that the market is really embracing this kind of material.
I wanted to try something new, this week, by bringing you the first in what I hope can be a companion series to Fantasy Fisticuffs. There are a handful of games, on shelves right now, that are quietly vying for their place in competitive fantasy gaming. I have sat in rooms with fellow game designers, and these are the systems whose names just keep coming up, in terms of impressive design. Each are candidates for your tabletop, and each are distinct enough to justify being played “as well” rather than, “instead of”.
What follows are four fantasy tabletop wargames that each have serious competitive chops, and just a brief, brief, glimpse at how they achieve that. While I am hoping to cover each in depth in the future, do let me know what games you hope to hear more about.
A Song of Ice and Fire Miniatures Game (CMoN)
What is it?: ASoIaF is the tabletop game set in the world of George R.R. Martin (known to many as Game of Thrones). It is a rules-light, and fast playing take on “rank-n-flank” or “mass battles” wargaming, that makes its unique mark through the presence of a “Tactics Board”. It is there that the game evokes the series’ iconic political gamesmanship, seeing non-combat units (such as Cersei, Petyr Baelish, and Varys) manipulating the game.
Pros: The game’s preassembled models, and very light rules make it highly accessible. Expect to be playing within thirty minutes of opening the box. The Tactics Board is frankly brilliant, largely filling the role of Magic from other games. Despite being rules light, players constantly find themselves needing to make meaningful choices, and generally strong balance means skilled play is rewarded. An EXCELLENT tournament game, to be sure.
Cons: The game’s inventory situation if frequently dire, with units going out of stock instantly, and for months on end. It can be difficult to start, despite an excellent price-point, as many times you simply cannot buy items you want. In terms of pure aesthetics the game’s terrain tokens must be used and create an occasionally “flat”, board-game aesthetic.
Conquest: The Last Argument of Kings (Para Bellum Wargames)
What is it?: Conquest is something special. While other titles on this list are overt carriers of the Warhammer Fantasy torch, Para Bellum, and designer Alessio Cavatore want Conquest to hold onto the high-level concepts people loved, while completely evolving the gameplay for a modern world. This is a nuanced take on “Mass Battles” that features both clean and accessible rules, but which do so without sacrificing the “meat”. The game evokes a real feeling of being at the ground floor of something special, making it something easy to want to be involved in from day-one.
Pros: Woah boy. Everything from the incredibly rich lore, to the deep and interesting army-list building feels like a masterclass in passionate game design. The game’s meaningful choices begin at list-building and carry through every activation. Games are quick to get started with a clever rolling deployment system, and considerations have been made at every step to make this a serious, balanced, highly competitive system. The entire set of rules is also available for free, and its two-player starter set is perhaps the most value-rich box in the industry at this time.
Cons: The growing pains here are simply market-penetration, and how new the game is. With less than a year on shelves, it will take some time to see this game played at your local venue, and without the backing of an established name brand, it may take a more grass-roots fanbase to build over time.
Kings of War 3rd Edition (Mantic Games)
What is it?: KoW, now in its third edition is the rank-n-flank game which garnered the most attention in the days that followed the ending of Warhammer Fantasy. A love-letter to that game, Kings of War very plainly wears in influences on its sleeve. Despite having its own model line, Mantic continues to support KoW as a model agnostic game, more concerned with unit foot-prints than any specific models. Its rules have been largely improved over its editions, and it remains a very familiar, clean-playing, pro-hobbyist, Mass Battles game.
Pros: A largely balanced set of rules make for a rock-solid tournament game, that rewards skilled play more often than army-selection. It is quick to play, removing ideas such as pulling models as wounds, creating a game that can visually sometimes feel more an abstraction of a wargame, but making for less fiddly of an experience. Only one player ever rolling dice during their turn means that despite being “I Go, You Go”, it can feel streamlined.
Cons: Despite improvements with each edition, armies can feel very similar. Choosing to ere on the side of game balance, designers have opted to have fewer unique abilities, spells, etc… versus the game’s progenitor, Warhammer Fantasy. While successful at improving the over-all balance, armies SOMETIMES lack an identity outside of raw statistics/unit costs.
Warlords of Erehwon (Warlord Games)
What is it?: The only fantasy game on this list that isn’t a take of mass-battles, WoE at a glance has more in common with Age of Sigmar, at least aesthetically. This model agnostic game is actually driven by a set of rules made famous by Bolt Action, and refined in Beyond the Gates of Antares, with a fog-of-war system that sees players making tactical decisions without really knowing which player will be activating the next unit. Model counts are low, making the game inviting to new players and Rick Priestley’s rules ensure a familiar, time-tested, gameplay.
Pros: A supplementary document released by Priestley features all of the “math” that went into designing the game’s units. This is a refreshing bit of transparency that helps elevate a more typical/traditional game, into one where competitive players can feel confidence in knowing the value of choices they are making. Being entirely model agnostic also means a lot of hobby freedom for those who weigh that and competitive gameplay more equally.
Cons: Being model agnostic, is ironically also a reason many retailers may not yet officially support this game system. There really isn’t a revenue stream for them outside of a core book, which makes it less likely to see enthusiastic store owners running events. Of the titles presented, it may also (aside from its unit activation mechanic) feel the most like games you are already playing.
Again, this is just a list of titles whose names keep coming up in my circles, but which offer something enthusiastic fans of skill-based, competitive games, will want to take notice of.
I would go so far as to say at least one of these systems is poised to really blow up at a competitive level, in the near future. I will be excitedly covering these games as they break-out, and encourage my readers to come on the journey with me.
One thing I love about this hobby is that all the power to make or break a game is in our shared hands. If what you LOVE about tabletop games is the test of skills, and a sense of mastery, maybe you will become the world champion of one of these games!
And remember, Frontline Gaming sells gaming products at a discount, every day in their webcart!