This weekend, Ben Panting Esq. and the Faithful Dan are crossing the Border and playing some Warhammer Fantasy Battles on my home turf: which means a) Wales and b) the King of Editions, the Edition of Kings, WFB Sixth Edition. This above all things you must recall, else nothing that follows may seem wondrous.
Sixth Edition is unfamiliar territory to both the lads, and Ben in particular has taken every opportunity to sound out the greater Middlehammer movement and seek counsel. Which means he’s had a lot of advice from former tourney-heads. Which in turn means he’s been applying that advice and fine-tuning his list for what he might expect from me. Tailoring it, almost. And back in the day the very thought of list tailoring had me spitting into my snakebite and black*: that’s what Beards and Cheesers and Bad People do! A Good Player can build a Good List and Take All Comers! So say the forums and so mote it be!
And in the context of the time, I was right. But in the context of now, I am wrong. Allow me to explain.
Let us bring Dan into the equation. Dan is playing Hordes of Chaos. He is playing Khorne. And he is a little short for models and wants to use his Daemon Prince, so he has assembled a 2000 point army in which every unit is Marked and many are Chosen. Every unit has immunity to psychology until beaten in combat, at least one bonus attack, and generates an additional die for a Pile of Denial that stretches into the low stratosphere. He has more Dispel dice than my previous list had Power.
In short, purely by playing what he wants to play in the manner in which he wants to play it, knowing nothing of the King of Editions, the Edition of Kings, Dan has tailored a perfect Vampire-brutalising list. To give him a decent and rewarding game rather than the damp squibs I usually churn out when undertuned**, I will have to do likewise. Tailor into him and his collection. It’s the decent thing to do. He’s using what he has; I have the luxury of choice.
When I was a lad, playing fifth edition, I did not. Nor did anyone I knew. And so we ran our regular pocket-money-and-birthday-present lists into each other, because that was all we had the capacity to do. It was rare enough at first for anyone to even bother with points and an army list. I was happy if we had, at least on paper, a fair fight, and so week after week I sent my Chaos Warriors trudging up the field into hails of bows, bolts and bloody High Magic spells, or lurching after Skinks who merrily hovered within eight inches but without ninety degrees for the entire duration. Because that was the only way I could play at all: constrained by the figures.
Later, in those heady glory years of playing sixth edition with my first serious disposable income, the chief constraints were not the figures, but the available space and time. Games were played in GW branches or clubs above pubs, on four foot by four boards with, generally, a queue to use them. There was no time to write up a list on the night – we’d hold things up – and so the games were pick up affairs at modest scale. 1500 points standard, with the occasional top heavy 2000 pointer so we could use Vampire Lords and Dragons and such without crowding the board. But we could get a Border Patrol in, and when we were building new armies or pressed for time, we did. And if there was a Mordheim league or similar on, we’d play that for a month instead. And I played, week after week, because that was the only way I could play at all.
Later still, as a starving graduate student, when the King of Editions had collapsed into “if only Pitched Battles are played, then only Pitched Battles shall be provided!” and my army was showing its age, I tried building another with the limited means available. I had 1000 points of Chaos Warriors, again. The local store played exclusively 2000 point Pitched Battles in preparation for the tourney scene.
If I wanted to play at all, I had to borrow half an army and play with some jank I hadn’t made my own and learned and honed through the slow process of scaling up from Skirmish band to Border Patrol to 1000 to 1500 in scenarios that were built for mismatches to baby’s first 2000 point game – and my opposition would be loaded for bear, as the saying has it. And if that was the only way to play, I wasn’t interested, and WFB began its slow decline into second hand armies, a morass of trading and swapping and desperately searching for the game I had loved in the game it had become.
Now, I am an adult. I play my irregular games in modern, spacious gaming centres, on twenty-four or even thirty-two square feet of sleek neoprene, with a CHAIR. Each! Maybe even a side space for rulebooks, templates, casualties and the midgame pint***. Such, such are the joys. And these games are scheduled weeks in advance with other adults. They are anticipated, pondered over, thirsted after, and gleefully reported on. These games are a big deal. They should be more than the constantly, carelessly shovelled takeaways of the pick up game. They are more of a fine dining experience; a nice treat****.
And this is what makes me think. Dangerous, I know. It reminds me of the admonishments of Brother Ranz, of yesteryear, that a wargame is not escapism: it is played in the real world with and against your chosen opponent. With… and against. With… and against. With… And it’s that With that matters.
When one is an Adult, you see, playing Warhammer for (and against, and with) other Adults, one takes responsibility for fun, rather than expecting the game system to guarantee it. If the Faithful Dan is bringing a Pile of Denial that reaches such a grand extent, and a Daemon Prince, it falls to me to provide a force that can contest with his, that can make the game worth playing.
Back in the day, when we all stuffed our face with the unsatisfactory kebab-stuff of the pickup game twice a night three nights a week, we could afford to write off the duff ones. But now, when every game is arranged with care and anticipated for weeks if not months, we can – nay, must – curate those games to ensure that they are worth playing.
We may wish for an unequal contest. There are scenarios for that, which curate the experience and frame it. That is well and good. What is neither well nor good is the complete stomping that comes out of the blue, when both participants have prepared for their own different sense of a game – and prepared separately.
Which means that my outdated sense of the Ultimate Spirit of Warhammer, derived from Stillmania and authentic Middlehammer as it may be, is still wrong. It is born from a gaming culture and game circumstances of yesteryear, when we all did this all the time. Here and now, walking the one list into every game is leaving too much unplanned and unprepared for. It is on me, and you, and all of us, to play With each other and properly curate our battles, so that when we come to play Against each other we actually have a good time.
Here, for reference and record, is my own sense of the Ultimate Spirit of Warhammer (Revised Standard Version).
The perfect game is arranged a month or two in advance. A scenario is chosen and unless teaching and learning are the goals, it is not a Pitched Battle. Army lists are constructed through a discussion; what do we want out of this game and how can we be sure we get it?
On the day, the big game is teased and trailed with some warm-ups. A Skirmish or two, perhaps a Border Patrol before lunch. The afternoon is the Big Game, a stout 2000-3000 point affair ideally. Play proceeds at a gentlemanly pace without any “gotcha” moments or playing for the draw because it’s a bad match up.
It’s all over by teatime, and the outcome and the pitch for the next game can be discussed over your choice of hearty meal***** and adult beverage. Paid for by the winner, to ease the sting of defeat.
I haven’t quite pulled it off yet. But I live in hope.
* Half lager, half cider, dash of blackcurrant, all from the cheap end of the bar. A foul concoction beloved of goths, students, and anyone else with a minimal desire to remember tonight tomorrow.
** My 4000 point game with Ben was just such a disappointment, and an object lesson in what happens when army lists are not prepared in mutually inclusive detail. Of course, Cheater Panting had two generals, and full control over the best magic deck in fifth edition, so some of this comes down to administrative error and a little can be blamed on the system, but mostly it’s on us for not explaining what our armies did and what our circumstances were.
*** Of shandy, because my liver isn’t what it used to be, possibly because of the snakebite and black.
**** I was waiting for a breakfast order while I wrote this. Can you tell?
***** Or, if you’re me, a cheeseburger shorn of bun, chips and layers of sauce, forced to rely on its own flavoursome properties or lack thereof. No-carbs-where-poss diet, see?