If you're familiar with Games Workshop and its Warhammer franchise, what does the company actually mean to you? I'll take a guess: expensive miniatures, bloated rules, ruthless trademark trolling, and aggressive disdain for customers. That's the reputation that Games Workshop made for themselves in recent years, and that's the reputation that Warhammer 40K's revolutionary new eighth edition has to shoulder, overcome, and perhaps even change.
It's a tall order, because nothing is more synonymous with Games Workshop than Warhammer 40K, and Games Workshop's blighted reputation is a legacy that was decades in the making, the company's inheritance from now-departed CEO Tom Kirby. Kirby transformed Games Workshop from a bunch of metalheads working tabletop alchemy in basements into a market-dominating corporate behemoth. But the late stages of Kirby's tenure at the company in the 00s had disastrous consequences, as he changed the company's mission from "we make cool games" to "we make boutique display pieces."
There was a strange sense of menace to this, as though Games Workshop didn't want to be known, that maybe they couldn't be.
It went deeper than just the products they put out. Ostentatious indifference became a corporate ethos. Until very recently, Games Workshop basically had no internet presence beyond their online store. It was suspicious of video games, even the ones based on its own worlds; there was an old saw that video games were the enemy, in diametric opposition to the collect-paint-fight-socialize ethos of Warhammer. Worse, a company which was once defined by its colorful personalities—Andy Chambers, Jervis Johnson, Rick Priestley—hid everyone behind a corporate rampart. Authors' names stopped appearing in rulebooks. There was a strange sense of menace to this, as though Games Workshop didn't want to be known, that maybe they couldn't be.
Enter Kevin Rountree, Kirby's replacement, who took the helm early in 2015 amid shaky sales and closing stores with a mission to set a new direction for the company. It's hard to sort out what is directly attributable to his leadership, what comes the management team around him, and what is the product of ideas bubbling up from the rank and file, but Games Workshop has become a company transformed. It's much closer to the 1990s days (before Kirby's authoritarian bent really started to express itself) than at any point in its recent history.
We've seen Age of Sigmar, a maligned mess when it came out, turned into something interesting through rules tweaks and lore elaboration. Price increases have slowed, and while still expensive, if you're willing and able to front-load your costs a bit, you can get a solid start on a force for either Age of Sigmar or Warhammer 40k for a little more than the cost of a AAA studio's video game.
But more than anything, Games Workshop is suddenly willing to communicate with people again. They have a vigorous outreach program which has only really sprung up since Rountree came in: a website updated multiple times a day with news tidbits, active Facebook accounts for their games, and a Twitch stream. They even have something a mascot, an affably nerdy painting expert named Duncan Rhodes, who does seriously good painting tutorials every day and has moved into conducting interviews at Games Workshop events.
All of this—the communication, the sudden rush of affordability, the reinjection of personality—has culminated in the new edition of Warhammer 40K, the eighth edition of Games Workshop's flagship. It is a radical departure in the shape of its mechanics from the previous editions; the last time such a large shift in the rules happened was the transition from second to third edition, almost 20 years ago.
40K has always run on a fairly simple basic mechanic: role a single six-sided die after comparing various stats representing combat ability or strength. A 50-50 chance would be represented by success on a four or higher; so if I have Strength 4 and you have Toughness 4, I hurt you on a 4 or higher, because we're equal. But if you have Toughness 3, I would hit you on a 3 or higher. That's it. That's the game. Or it used to be.
By its seventh edition, 40K had become awful to play, bloated and trapped in the house of mirrors that its ever-expanding ruleset had created.
But after nearly ten years of endless expansion and addenda with minimal refinement, the simple mechanics metastasized into something else. One of the dirty secrets of game design is that more rules and complexity usually indicate deeper conceptual problems, because it's often easier to add more subsystems to a tabletop game than it is to add depth and flexibility to familiar core systems. Games Workshop's design team over the past decade kept adding more and more to the straining chassis of its basic mechanics.
By its seventh edition, 40K had become awful to play, bloated and trapped in the house of mirrors that its ever-expanding ruleset had created. The simple dice mechanics became beholden to serial rerolls, extending a single combat to interminable length. Armies became wildly unbalanced, and the only way to impose order on Games Workshop's godawful rules was to play in very cookie-cutter ways.
It was the logical endpoint for a game from a company which insisted it wasn't a game company at all, but a sculpture business. Because if you're in the business of selling figurines destined for glass cases, who gives a shit whether they're fun to play with? As a quick look at Games Workshop's slow decay and flatlining revenue reveals: a lot of people, it turns out.
So a restructuring of the basic rules which Games Workshop has used for ages was long overdue, and we got it. It's impossible to do a full accounting, but some very old mechanics, synonymous with 40K for 30 years, are now gone. The morale system has changed forever. Save modifiers have replaced armor penetration, a throwback to the second edition of 20 years ago. This is a distinction lost on the layperson, but it's a huge deal, introducing a lot more variability and decision-making to a system that was very much a series of foregone conclusions. It's also had the knock-on effect of bringing unit statistics over 10, something which blows up the 1-10 scale which has underpinned Games Workshop's game math since day one. Armies are built in new ways.
It's good. I don't know any other way to put it. It's fast, where for years it was slow. The armies feel balanced, at least for now, and my beloved Orks are suddenly on par with other armies after years of consignment to the realm of "actively unfun to play". Weapons and relative power levels make it difficult to immediately pick out "the best" option, though that will be figured out. 40K feels vibrant again, something I don't know that I've been able to say without qualification about the game in forever.
But is it 40K anymore? That seems like an odd thing to say, but if you think the debates around mechanics as play, ludonarrative dissonance, and the like are controversial in video games, you've no idea the battles fought in the tabletop space, whether roleplaying game, wargame, or board game.
There's nowhere to hide the math in tabletop. It's there for you to see, omnipresent and guiding every instance of play. This isn't the calculation of a sword swing disguised by what Link does on the screen. It is guileless and naked.
In Epidiah Ravachol's roleplaying game Dread, the tension of dramatic moments at the table is enforced by removing blocks from a Jenga tower. There is no separating the game, the mood, and the rules which demand you pick up blocks. If you remove the tower, you're not playing Dread.
Dungeons & Dragons was, for the first third of its history, a game about resource management and puzzle solving. The rules reflected that, and as it turned into a game primarily about high fantasy and fireball flinging, the rules reflected that; anyone old enough to have played the original D&D can tell you it would be highly unsatisfying to play the game as it's currently envisioned with the old system, because the rules don't really support that sort of play. And vice versa.
So is this still 40K? With such a radical departure, I'm not sure. The morale rules—as the eighth edition implements a single morale phase, as opposed to a potentially endless daisy-chain of unit-by-unit morale checks—are so wildly different from the last 30 years of 40K history that it represents a real, lasting break with everything which has come before.
Significantly, Games Workshop's quasi-independent subsidiary, Forge World, is keeping the seventh edition for their Horus Heresy game and miniatures lines, a mark that someone in charge of development is a little leery of how far this eighth edition might be straying.
But does it matter, if the game is fun and satisfying? If my Space Marines are still fighting your Orks and the flow feels better but still authentic? I don't know. I don't know if it's definitely 40K or the start of a new thing, as assuredly as third edition D&D broke with so much of what was recognizable about prior editions in order to move forward as its own identity.
I know that it's fun and it's worth getting into, either for the first time or as a returnee. I wouldn't have said that about any edition in over a decade. That is mostly down to the rapid shift in how Games Workshop conducts its business now. Eighth edition is a product of the revivification of this venerable game design studio. You can't talk about one without the other. Whatever this edition ends up being—a continuation of the old or an irrevocable break with it—it means that Games Workshop is back with a style and enthusiasm that many fans thought lost in the history of the company's earlier years.
I may not be able to tell whether this still feels like Warhammer 40K. But I know it feels like home.