Although I have a great fondness for all the Specialist Games, the greatest lament for me is the passing into legend of Battlefleet Gothic. If there was ever such a thing as a perfect game Battlefleet Gothic, in my opinion, is it.
It came out during what I consider to be the Golden Age of Games Workshop (1998-2002) when everything they did had the customer at its heart. Games were good and models were better. Gothic was the proverbial golden egg as it not only had superb rules, phenomenal back story and staggeringly good miniatures, it was also beautifully presented.
Aside from being a landscape book which was a one-off until Dreadfleet beached itself on our shores, it was the first game to use any kind of computer jiggery pockery in its artwork. It was a gorgeous game.
But Gothic, aside from being a brilliant read, lovely to look at and having some of the best models ever made by the Games Workhop, or anyone for that matter, it was utterly inspired for two very good reasons. One, the rules were incredible and two the background was instrumental in opening up the 40k Universe that Inquisitor and the Black Library ran with.
It was a brave thing to set a game in a specific point in the 40k timeline but it gave the game a sense of drama and occasion. This meant that game stayed focussed and meant that ranges of models weren’t rushed out to meet demand. Gothic also spelled out just what a monstrously complicated thing it is to mobilise a space fleet, let alone navigate it safely from one side of a segmentum to another. And the cherry on the cake was just how grim life could be on an Imperial warship. The iconic illustration of the indentured crew manually reloading the torpedo tubes will stay with me forever. It epitomises the Imperium and the Warhammer 40,000 universe as a whole: staggering scale, unimaginable destructive power, barely understood technology and the blood and sacrifice of the nameless masses.
Battlefleet Gothic’s setting became an integral part of the 40k canon, not only giving us some insight into Abaddon’s ambitions and tremendous foresight and deviousness, but set up events for the 13th Black Crusade which, I’m fairly certain, is technically still raging. It gave us the mad as bat shit planet killer and the mysterious Blackstone Fortresses. The latter of which would be referenced and speculated upon for years to come.
It was a brilliant, brutal and unrelenting tale of loss and tragedy. Of sacrifice and nobility. Of desperation and hollow victories. And the tireless, unrelenting work of the servants of the Emperor to bring to heel the foulness of Chaos. Whole worlds burned at the whim of madmen and for the pleasure of dark Gods. And millions stood against the darkness so billions could live at the behest of Warmasters and the distant Emperor. It’s was a space opera of tremendous scale and it was destruction on a scale never matched before or since. Apocalypse may have some massive kits but for all the strength and AP, nothing could compare to the misery an Imperial Warship can unleash on a world. Or a planetkiller.
But all of that is just the setting for the game itself. Which is brilliant. It was an evolution from the Epic 40,000 mechanic. Actually it was more than that as it took all the things that worked and made them better. Then made it work for spaceships. Not just any spaceships though: the lumbering clapped out old crocks of the 41st Millennium.
What made it really clever though was that it turned those lumbering clapped out old crocks into elegant, glittering shoals of destruction. Battlefleet Gothic is the most elegant game I’ve ever played. It perfectly balanced all the phases so movement was as important as shooting. Special Orders could swing the balance of a game just as a well-timed torpedo volley. Because the majority of fleets had to move every game was a delicate dance of fleets forced to sail through enemy lines, braced for incoming fire, all the while seeking ruin upon them. It consistently challenged the gamer to perfect every move so even if an attack failed they would be well placed to come about and try again.
The other thing that made the game so clever was the simple concept that so many games before and since have failed to grasp…space combat happens over tremendous distances. Hitting a moving target hundreds of kilometres away with solid ordnance is roughly the same as me trying to hit a flea at the end of my back garden, with a bow and arrow, whilst hopping. It is a staggeringly complicated thing to do. There were more than a few gamers that hated the ‘take x number of dice and subtract y because of range and positioning’ but it made sense. It was simple and it prevented huge swathes of your fleet being annihilated on the first turn. Like another game I could mention.
That’s not to say some fleets didn’t have advantages and often the opening gambit could be the winning gambit but this is true of naval battles throughout history. And beauty was that no matter which fleet you chose, if you were smart and understood their strengths that win could easily be yours be it for the Imperium, Orks or anyone else.
The real tragedy of Battlefleet Gothic was that it was almost perfect. The rules were solid. The models brilliant. It had nowhere to go. So when it was moved under Fanatic and subjected to a wave of ill tested rules and some truly horrid sculpts the thorough bred felt like a mongrel. It started to feel cheap, and messy and unloved. And the greater tragedy is that the people charged with its care loved the game but were starved of the resources to take it where it needed to go. Which was out of the Gothic sector and into the wider Imperium.
And they tried. I mean they really did. Battlefleet Armageddon came close but never really worked because Fanatic couldn’t resolve the casting issues surrounding the Armageddon ship variants. Unfortunately the money had already been spent and it killed any hope of trying anything new. So Gothic, perhaps more than any of the other Specialist Games was left to drift.
Battlefleet Gothic’s legacy however doesn’t just lay in its own pages or models but on those of Epic Armageddon. The success of Gothic and its evolved mechanic gave new life to one of Games Workshop’s greatest endeavours. There is no denying that the community brought about Epic’s revival, or that it played a direct part in taking it to a finished, printed, product. But it was Gothic that gave it life. Like a doner, shared the very best of itself to make something great.
Battlefleet Gothic is my absolute all time favourite game. It’s my favourite because it’s a brilliant game. It’s my favourite because it’s a brilliant story. It’s my favourite game because of the brilliant models. And it’s my favourite because it was the beginning of something. It proved that the story was as important as the game. That the story inspired campaigns and grand fleets and grander games. It validated Black Library’s efforts – the novels Execution Hour & Shadow Point that accompanied the game were seminal – and paved the way for Inquisitor and later Epic Armageddon. Battlefleet Gothic was, for me, the brightest star in the Golden Age and a star that gave life to other parts of the hobby. And it did it all without anyone one realising.
Good hunting Battefleet Gothic.