What Is Middlehammer?

Right! That’s it! I’ve had enough! Everyone sit down, pin back your earholes and listen. I’m laying down the law and anyone who still disagrees after this is wrong.

(You are, of course, entitled by the Great Powers of Subjective Experience, Relativism, Bullheadedness and Free Speech to be wrong, but you’re still wrong.)

Oldhammer: That which predates the coming of the Great Beast called Tom Kirby

Which means the first, second and third editions of Warhammer Fantasy Battles, the first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Role Play, and the legendary Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader.

Everything produced before 1992 is fair game here and I’m grudgingly going to concede that includes Talisman, Heroquest and Space Crusade because they had an air of the anything-goes, not aggressively factionalised and brand protected pre-Kirby vibe about them. Maybe the original Adeptus Titanicus too. Blood Bowl is Oldhammer in spirit even if it’s survived, thrived, and taken on the aspect of each later period: it transcends all else and endures, magnificent, as quite possibly the best thing GW have ever done.

This period is characterised by big hardback rulebooks, a vaguely interwoven background in which it’s just possible the WFB and 40K universes coexist, by terrible puns and pop culture references, by outsider art, and by a random table for literally everything on God’s clean Earth.

People who like Oldhammer can be aggressively puritan and I for one have not forgotten being one of those Kids for whose Pocket Money GW is Ruining the Hobby, back in the day, but I do like their battle reports and their general sense of humour.

Middlehammer: That which hails from the reign of the Great Beast called Tom Kirby

Which means the fourth to eighth editions of Warhammer Fantasy Battle, the second to seventh editions of Warhammer 40,000, the Black Industries edition of Warhammer Fantasy Role Play and Dark Heresy et al from Fantasy Flight. Also all Specialist Games except Blood Bowl. Anything from 1991 to about 2015, especially if it came in a big cardboard box with rulebooks and swarms of near-identical single-pose plastic models in it.

I’m ruling out Hogshead’s WFRP because it’s a republication of the original and quintessentially Oldhammer game, a wrap-up of a legacy product that’s extremely off brand for the Kirby period and would be replaced before the Great Beast gave up his throne.

This period is characterised by big boxed games, and an attempt to get a big boxed game under the bed of every adolescent lad in the country. At first, things are bright and idiotic; later they’re dark and even more idiotic, once GW figures out that teenage boys like edgy shit. Compartmentalised ‘Army Books’ or ‘Codex Books’ deliver the rules for models in convenient faction-sized chunks.

The period subdivides further into three categories:

Herohammer

Second edition 40K, fourth and fifth edition WFB, Warhammer Quest, Space Hulk, Necromunda, Gorkamorka, Mordheim, Space Marine, Titan Legions etc.

Overpowered characters with a plantation’s worth of Wargear cards, cardboard counters, cardboard datasheets for their vehicles, cardboard vehicles in some places, and cardboard buildings. Game balance for competitive play is an emerging concern but they’re not getting it right yet.

Tends to be the most popular among Middlehammerers, especially the ones who drifted away roundabout the time they discovered Women and Beer. (I never found it that hard to have Gaming, Women and Beer in my life, but then I’ve never held down a Real Man’s Job for more than nine months, so that probably explains a few things about me.)

Borehammer

Third, fourth and fifth edition 40K, sixth and seventh edition WFB. Warmaster, Battlefleet Gothic, Epic 40,000. Black Industries’ WFRP.

A backlash against the dominance of overpowered characters and the overproduction of cardboard gaming accessories. Tournament players are hired to write and contribute to rules and the games enter their most streamlined, balanced state to date.

The core experience is admittedly a bit bland compared to the excesses on either side, but more variants are built into that experience than ever. This is the age of worldwide campaigns that work, Cityfight, Combat Patrol, Kill Team, Warhammer Skirmish, the General’s Compendium, and all that stuff. The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game is not Warhammer but has a distinctively Borehammer feel to it and came out at the right time, so in it goes.

Lorehammer

Sixth and seventh edition 40K, eighth edition WFB. Tournament types are out, Forging the Narrative (or having it forced on you by GW, if you’re a WFB player) is in. Balance goes out the window in favour of Herohammer nostalgia. Armies, models, rulebooks and destructive potential are all embiggened and while things look better than ever, the play experience is best described as an exercise in riding the randomisation waves.

Fantasy Flight’s WFRP and Dreadfleet are the quintessential Lorehammer period gaming experience; they look fantastic but basically play themselves and you’re along for the ride. On the plus side, the Horus Heresy starts to take off and get the rivet counter crowd into 40K. On the downside, GW is still locked into Kirby’s suicide pact with Peter Jackson’s dignity and we get saddled with The Hobbit as an ill conceived ‘battle’ game.

Newhammer: that which emerges blinking into the harsh light of dawn as the Great Beast called Tom Kirby cedes control

Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, Warhammer Underworlds, eighth edition Warhammer 40,000 and revived Necromunda and Adeptus Titanicus. I don’t count the PC games here because they’re all self-consciously tied to Middlehammer intellectual properties that might otherwise fall out of copyright. Nor do I include the technically new Warhammer Fantasy Role Play because it’s set in the Old World and is self-consciously modelled on the Black Industries one from 2003. The AOS RPG will be definitively Newhammer though. Fans of Newhammer cannot be blamed. They like something that’s not really to my taste and that’s all there is to be said on the matter.

 

Obviously my tongue is firmly in my cheek throughout all of this and I don’t actually think my pronouncements are world-defining as the Plan of the Old Ones (although I am fat, somnolent, and possessed of a wart, so I have something in common with their chosen people the Slann).

I do genuinely, sincerely think that the rise and fall of Tom Kirby mark a sea change in how GW did business and developed games, and thus serve as useful parentheses around the ‘Middlehammer’ period.

Let me know if I’ve left anything out and I will either steadfastly ignore you or command the Skinks to double-check the ancient tablets and possibly even make… a change… to the ancient scriptures.

Here endeth the lesson.

3 thoughts on “What Is Middlehammer?

  1. Thanks for this, I’ve never cared enough about the various “categories” of hammer to actually research how they’re defined by the community that does care. But I have kind of always wanted to know just so, you know, I don’t feel left out I guess when I read things. And reading this, it looks like I actually dabbled in every single great age except for Newhammer, and I have to say I don’t really want to. Have officially transformed into rivet-counting Heresy grognard.

    But still, that feels like an accomplishment of some sort. I liked them all too. Oldhammer is responsible for the shape of my aesthetic taste to a huge degree, which is pretty funny. Blanche and Miller is Good Art to me. Herohammer was bloody good fun as a boy with my friends, playing on a ping pong table against armies based with lurid green sawdust. I still remember the day my cannon guess landed a cannon ball right in Nagash’s face and obliterated him. That was just, you know, a small skirmish between three or four Dwarf and Undead units, plus the High King of all Dwarfs, one or two other named Dwarf lords, the afore-mentioned Nagash, Arkhan the Black and maybe one of the Von Carsteins. You know how it is.

    Borehammer I really enjoyed actually. 5th edition 40k was (is?) my favourite edition. Shame about the competitive community coming along and making it Srs Business. A tight(ish) ruleset that works but a relaxed vibe is my dream communal game. So borehammer almost got there for me if it wasn’t for those pesky kids and their BoLS.

    Lorehammer has a lot I like. Forging the narrative is fun. The rules are acceptable to me. What I don’t like though is the aesthetic that has evolved. It’s just not like off-beat, intense Miller and Blanche at all, it’s florid and huge and I’m just too old to appreciate it.

    Oh hey, that explains why I’ve been sucked into Heresy! It’s an oldhammer aesthetic with rules that are a middle ground between bore- and lore-, and a community that is like-minded, at least where I am.

    You’re a hero hammer guy right? Although like me your ideal -hammer would probably be a combination of elements.

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    1. Believe it or not, I am mostly a Borehammer man; at least, that’s what I played week in week out during my golden years. I have a soft spot for fifth edition because it’s where I started, but I’ve played enough of both to recognise sixth and seventh as a more restrained and structured experience that’s also more to my liking.

      The current Herohammer drift on the blog is mostly because Herohammer is more likely to lure people off the pot and into the gaming venues: it gets the “I played that when I was a teenager” crowd in. Introduce the Tournament Battle restrictions and the more grotesque excesses of the game are neatly sheared off, with one or two exceptions (High Magic is bullshit and I don’t mind saying so).

      I’ve never been able to really appraise Lorehammer from the WFB point of view: it wasn’t a kindly time for the Undead, and I didn’t have the monies to invest in radically revolutionising my army to immunise myself against the turn in mechanics. If I want that play experience I turn to the PC: Total War Warhammer conveys the appropriate monstrous scale and has all the big monsters smashing around but I don’t have to buy the big sods myself. The occasional DLC pack is affordable compared to a unit of twelve Vargheists, you know?

      As far as 40K goes I don’t think there’s ever been an ideal edition for me. Maybe third. Aggressively streamlined, with the crusts torn away and flung to the four winds. Or fourth. Which one did Cityfight come out for? That was my favourite 40K: tense, location-based scenarios, the play and interplay of stratagems, grey bases for everyone and no smegging templates.

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