As a bonus for our tribute to the Specialist Games range I’m delighted to be able to bring you a post about Warmaster. It was a game I always wanted to play but never got the opportunity so beyond reading the rules a very long time ago my experience is all but nothing.
But the community came to my rescue in the form of @SimonHolyoake who has written a last salute to this rather special but often overlooked game…
GW has officially and finally yanked the threadbare and hole-ridden rug out from under the Specialist Games range. Every single one of them a masterpiece and each one loved by so many.
For me, although involved with the Games Workshop hobby for the last 22 years, Warmaster was a very late blossomer for me. I started out with a copy of Epic: Space Marine and when my friends moved to Warhammer, I followed them. I remember being excited when Warmaster was released, but hid it when my friends snorted at it and derided it as merely Games Workshop cashing in off the back of Epic 40,000 & Battlefleet Gothic.
I wish I’d spoken up and dared to be different back then, but I was a young, geeky teenager, I didn’t have the money to support two games, and playing Warmaster would have necessitated finding other players!
So my relationship was one of distant admiration. I would look wistfully at Warmaster models and imagine the truly epic battles I had always dreamed of whilst playing Warhammer. I spent so many years playing huge, unwieldy games of Warhammer, far outside the 2-3k “armies” it was intended for, trying to capture that epic feel that I’d seen in so many films.
Then after university my gaming group scattered all over the country, and indeed globe. I found myself alone, trying desperately to arrange times when our schedules lined up…then we started getting married, and one by one we started having children and I finally accepted that I was never getting the band back together.
One day I was sadly browsing the Games Workshop website and thought I’d have a look at the Specialist Games section. Next thing I knew I’d ordered some Epic models and joined a forum… I found some like-minded players and before I realised, I was playing weekly games and going to tournaments! Things were great, I had so many Epic armies planned and then decided that when they were done, I’d pick up some Warmaster at last. Things were great!
Then the great cull hit…
My epic armies were largely complete, but I never got the chance to start my beloved Warmaster forces. Then a ray of sunlight: a guy selling off a dwarf army, super cheap! I swift payment a big kiss for the posty and my journey began. I had downloaded and bound the rulebook years before, and read it cover to cover, time and time again. I got in touch with a guy who said he’d show me the ropes, we met up for a couple of games and I was utterly hooked!
Fortunately for Warmaster, many of the standard fantasy archetypes (Dwarfs, Elves, Orcs Etc.) are not the sole invention of Games Workshop (despite them doing everything in their power to convince people otherwise…) and as I looked, I found many great manufacturers producing excellent 10mm scale fantasy miniatures, which has enabled many people to continue their journey, and like myself, start on new ones!
Warmaster is so great because it’s everything Warhammer wishes it could be: fluid, tactical, and elegant, and most importantly heaps of fun…
For the uninitiated amongst you, I’ll give a brief run down: Warmaster armies are composed of only a few discrete elements, infantry, cavalry, monsters and artillery. Most armies only have 1-2 types of each as the game is highly abstract, a high elf player may have several units of spearmen, phoenix guard and swordmasters, but from the point of view of Warmaster, they’re *all* spearmen, they fight and behave the same in-game, and when you think about it, that’s probably how it works out in Warhammer. Swordmasters are better troops, but they are more expensive so you have less… On rough averages they’re about the same in game terms.
You have the option of brigading up to 4 units together so they move as one, this is very useful when moving units about as the game doesn’t work like Warhammer in that respect and you need several characters to tell your units what to do which is exactly as it would be considering the distinct lack of iPhones in the Warhammer world.
In fact the real genius of the game is the use of characters. No more chaos lord on a dragon rampaging through 7 units on his own! Characters are primarily in the game to give orders (they can fight by joining units, but they don’t take over the combat phase in any way). In the game, character models are little more than tokens to denote where the character is issuing orders from as without characters units are quite limited in what they can do. They can use their initiative to charge if they’re very close, or they can evade, and they’ll shoot if they have a target in range, but that’s it, you need characters to get them into position and set up ambushes and the like.
Characters also introduce a huge element of tactics as you have to decide which order your characters issue their commands in, when a character fails to order successfully, the next one in the queue starts, however units can only be ordered by a single character, and if the general fails to order the turn ends. Also the thing to consider is the ‘push your luck’ element. You can order units to move, then move again, and indeed move again, each successive order gaining more and more penalties. This can be a double-edged sword because if you need the character to order multiple units, do you take the risk or play it safe? Do you let your hero try to move something, or is it better to save it for the general?
You’re also allowed to move your characters around once per turn, so you often find yourself shuffling them all over the place for optimum effect, then chewing on the table edge in frustration when you remember the unit of cavalry behind the woods who are now out of command range!
Shooting is comparatively weak, missile troops rarely kill things (artillery can be a little more effective on the other hand – I love my cannons!) but their strength is in their ability to drive units back with every hit they score, this can also break up brigades which can be a huge headache for your opponent who now has to issue more orders, each with the risk of failure!
Combat is the meat of the game – as it should be – but is very abstract. No comparing weapon skill, strength, toughness or initiatives. Each unit rolls a number of dice equal to its attack statistic and scores a hit on a 4+, charge bonuses, defended obstacles or flank charges are represented by bonuses or penalties to the number of attacks. After both sides work out their hits, the side with the most wins, and the side with the least falls back (providing it wasn’t wiped out). There is a lot of subtlety to the combat rules with making way and support from other units, I would try to summarise but would suggest reading the rulebook or pestering a local player to teach you the game!
I’m still a newcomer to the game, but the fact it has spawned Games Workshop endorsed historical variants, as well as other standalone versions and the entire “…War commander” series means it’s probably the Specialist Game most likely to continue growing and changing in some form or other, and I will certainly continue to carry the torch!
Warmaster is dead, long live Warmaster!