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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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by Games Workshop


Cleaner, more balanced Warhammer that deemphasizes superheroes and magic in favor of tactics.

Downs:  No army lists included.

System Reqs: Lots of money, big table.

Even though I’ve been playing Warhammer 5th Edition since it was released in 1996, and even though I possess three Warhammer armies and play in Grand Tournaments, I’ve always thought that 5th edition Warhammer was a seriously flawed game. I’m hardly alone in this estimation—almost everyone who plays the game has a gripe with it. Though the game had a lot to recommend it—including excellent core mechanics, beautiful miniature figures, a deep and detailed fantasy world and pretty good support from Games Workshop—the rules themselves had some serious shortcomings. First and foremost, the Warhammer 5th edition rules were unclear and ambiguous, so much so that there’s a fan-generated 90-page FAQ on the rules that every hardcore gamer considers essential. Some of the more incomprehensible rules never quite got figured out—for example, the skirmish rules are so poorly written that I’ve never seen any two gaming groups play them the same. Not only were the rules terribly written, the entire game system was so loosely balanced that Warhammer games tended to devolve into “Herohammer”—since there were very few restrictions to army composition, it wasn’t at all unusual to face armies made up of a few uberpowerful magic-drenched heroes and a couple of elite units led by champions with king-hell weapons and armor. And don’t even get me started on the over-the-top magic items and spells available to troops—there’s nothing like facing a 30-model army decked out with the Forbidden Rod and Curse of Years. I know that some like playing this way—in my experience, most 13-year-olds and almost everyone from California. But this tended to force a certain style of play that placed a premium on nasty magic items and powerful troops (in Warhammer parlance, “cheese”) at the expense of well-balanced and “characterful” armies. This got so out of hand, in fact, that it wasn’t long before White Dwarf (the official Games Workshop magazine) began suggesting restrictions on magic items and troop types, and enforcing such restrictions at Grand Tournaments. Adding to this imbalance, a whole new host of army books were released for the various Warhammer races. Starting with the Brettonians and the Lizardmen, the army books offered increasingly powerful armies and unit types. So powerful, in fact, that the armies that did not get new books—especially Empire and Dwarfs—were uncompetitive, and rarely seen on tabletops or in tournaments.

So most Warhammer fans were looking forward to the new edition, especially when it was rumored to emphasize clear rules and toned-down armies. There was some trepidation, however, after the new edition of Warhammer 40K came out. Warhammer 40K had many of the same problems that WHFB did, but the new edition of 40K—to me, at least—seemed to solve those problems by “dumbing down” the game system. Whether this was just laziness or an attempt to appeal to the increasingly important younger players, it turned off a lot of old-timers, who commenced to worry about just how simplified Warhammer would become.

We need not have fretted. Warhammer Fantasy Battles 6th edition is a resounding success. Though the game retains its core mechanics, the rules are much clearer and tighter, with copious illustrations of game situations and very helpful appendices, a trend I attribute to the influence of the stern Finn engineer and co-author Tuomas Pirinen over the loosey-goosey “let’s have a pint” GW Brits. And yes, the emphasis is on tactics and balanced armies, and away from superheroes and elite units. As in 40K, you’ll be limited to the number of elite units you can select for your army, and core units are now required. Stat lines for units and characters have been toned down, as well—don’t expect invulnerable generals anymore. Besides this shift in philosophy, the biggest change is the magic system, which has been simplified (thank God!) and made less dominating.

The rule book itself runs to 288 pages, and is crammed with information. It includes core rules, advanced rules, about 30 pages of fluff on the Warhammer world and its armies, sections on scenarios and generating battlefield terrain, and a very useful set of appendices that includes rules for campaign, skirmish, and siege games (sort of a mini-Mordheim and Siege rules set). Most importantly, the appendices include a very clear section on gameplay “gray areas” that will prevent a lot of gametime argumentation.  Absent are army lists—you’ll have to pick up a copy of Ravening Hordes for that—though there are a couple of pages of stat lines and Orc and Empire sample armies. Overall, the tone of the rulebook is graphically darker and textually tighter, more precise, than its predecessor. Gone are the colorful marginal cartoons and bright armies of 5th edition, replaced by much grimmer black and white drawings and many fewer color photos—even the painted armies pictured have more subdued color schemes. Textually, the book is much better-organized and more thorough. Illustrations of complex game situations abound, and some of the more egregiously baffling rules from 5th edition---for example, how to use skirmishers in combat—are here clearly explained.

Throughout the rules, you’ll notice subtle changes intended to deemphasize the role of superhero generals and highlight the importance of core troops—for example, generals have much less powerful stat lines, magic items are more restricted and less powerful, and your units don’t have to take panic tests if your general dies--to me, this is the most significant of the changes. In 5th edition, you had to buff up your general to ungodly standards—if you didn’t, you could be sure he’d die a quick death, and your army, bereft of his leadership, would usually fail its panic tests and flee the board. In sixth edition, losing one’s general is still a significant blow, but it’s not a gamebreaker.

In 6th edition, your troops will win the battle for you, not your general. It’s interesting that the most powerful weapon in the just-released Empire army book is the Imperial doctrine of using detachments. This focus on battlefield tactics is most welcome, and seems to presage an attempt to differentiate tactical doctrines from army to army, giving each a distinct “feel” that goes further than troop types.

While they remain mostly intact, there has been some fine-tuning of  the core rules, and I’ll try to cover the most significant changes here.  The most noticeable change in the game turn is that the magic phase (more about this later) no longer comes last, but rather between the movement and shooting phases. Other than that, the game turn sequence looks much the same, as do the movement and shooting phases, although there seems to be a concerted effort in these rules to eliminate the pernicious practice of  “clipping”.

On the other hand, there have been some important changes to the close combat phase. First, corner-to-corner “diagonal” attacks are now officially legal. Readers of White Dwarf have seen this coming, and it’s a welcome clarification. Secondly, figuring combat results has changed a bit. You no longer get a bonus for both a unit standard and the army battle standard—just one. And you do get a +1 bonus for outnumbering your opponent, which is determined by unit strength ratings—each infantry stand is worth one point of unit strength, each cavalry worth two, each monster worth its number of wounds. This of course gives less-powerful but larger core units a boost in combat, and is again in line with the game’s general shift in character. An “overrun” rule has also been added, which allows you to charge an additional 2 or 3D6 if you destroy a unit during the first round of combat, and prevents the much-maligned but often-used practice of using a few cheap troops to absorb the charges of an opponent’s elite units, thereby setting them up for a countercharge. 

Psychology has been fiddled with a bit as well. Some troops are now “stubborn”, which means they ignore any modifiers in break tests. The major change, however, has been in frenzy, which now adds only +1 attack, rather than doubling attacks. Anyone who has ever faced a Khorne army may now smile. Another change for the better is the elimination of “flying high”, which probably caused more arguments than any other rule in the game. Now fliers can move 20”. That’s enough. 

Let me tell you how much I love these rule changes. In my first tournament game last year, I faced a Khorne demon army. First turn, my opponent faces his Khorne demon away from my army and flies high. Second turn, he lands his demon on top of my modestly-kitted general, attacks with a frenzy-induced million or so attacks, and slaughters him. After panic tests for my dead general, I’ve got three units left on the board. Game over. Now all of this was well within the rules, and I don’t begrudge my opponent (who was a really nice guy) his victory. But it wasn’t much fun. And you know what? In the new rules, this could not happen. No flying high, no overpowered demon with massive frenzy attacks, no panic test for general’s death. This leaves me free to actually fight a battle. And that’s the major difference between the 5th and 6th editions.

Of course, the most striking change is in the magic phase of the game. The card-based system is gone. Spells are generated on tables, and the Winds of Magic cards have been replaced by a dice-based system. There are eight types of magic—Fire, Metal, Beast, Light, Heavens, Shadow, Life, and Death—and each has six spells. High Magic and Dark Magic are apparently forthcoming in the High and Dark Elf army books, and I can imagine a slew of special rules for Necromantic armies as well. The magic phase works like this—when it’s your magic phase, you get a certain amount of power dice—you start with two, and add an extra one for each level of wizards in your army. Your opponent gets dispel dice, again with a base of two, but they add only 1 extra for a level 1-2 wizard, or 2 for level 3-4. To cast a spell, you look up its casting cost and try to roll over it. You may use as many power dice as you have, but once rolled you can’t use them again that turn. If you roll over or equal to the casting cost, you get to cast the spell. But your opponents may choose to dispel it, and if they (again rolling as many dice as they wish) roll over your number, the spell does not go off. There’s some interesting variations, of course—two sixes means the spell is cast with total power, and two ones means you’ll be visiting the ‘eadbanger chart. Overall, the magic system is faster, less complex, and less powerful than before. For instance, the Death Magic Drain Life spell costs 10+ to cast, and causes D6 str 3 hits with no armor saves on all units within 12” of the caster. That means it takes at least 3 dice to get a 50/50 shot at casting a spell that does D6 str 3 damage. And that’s before dispel rolls. Magic, my friends, has been cranked down from 11.

As you know by now, I’m all in favor of these changes. Warhammer Fantasy Battles, sixth edition, is the best and cleanest set of rules Games Workshop has ever produced, and continues the welcome trend towards clarity and comprehensiveness begun in Mordheim and Warmaster. The new Warhammer is an explicit move away from gamesmanship and cheese and towards generalship and tactical savvy. While I could pick a few nits with the some aspects of the rule book—there’s not nearly enough background fluff on the various armies, and the lack of the Ravening Hordes army lists is inexcusable—there’s nothing about the rules I don’t like. We’ll be reviewing all the new Warhammer army books, and keeping an eye on how the edition develops, but for now, Sigmar be thanked, things are looking very promising in the Warhammer world.   

 --Rick Fehrenbacher