I've had my hands full working on a large scenery commission over the past few months, and I've let my weekly blog updates fall to the wayside as I focused most of my attention on that. I also found myself experiencing a fair degree of hobby paralysis– Not knowing what (if anything) I should work on; the new Soulblight Gravelords battletome was out and would soon be followed by the 3rd edition of Age of Sigmar. My initial take on the Gravelords was pretty hot, but now that some tima has passed and everything is out, along with the 3rd edition rules and the FAQ, I think I can look at it with a clearer head.
Back when we were all still awaiting the announcement of a Soulblight Gravelords battletome, I was excited for what it might bring to the table. I suspected that it would replace the Legions of Nagash (not a difficult guess, mind you), and had been saying for almost a year that when a new battletome came, we would lose a few of the older units when GW dropped them from production: The Wight King on Skeletal Steed, The Wight King with Black Axe (formerly Krell), Bat Swarms, Fell Bats, and the "Legion" Black Coach were all ancient metal kits that had been relegated to Finecast resin or online exclusives. In Facebook threads, I would see people asking if it was better to convert their Vampire Lord to have wings or riding a Nightmare, and I would think "neither" because there's no way GW was going to keep those options in the book when they dropped the plethora of old vampire sculpts.
And I was right, but at least the Vampire Lords in the new battletome just have the innate ability to fly and move a little faster, so vampires modeled with wings are still very appropriate. And we got brand new plastic sculpts for the Wight King on Skeletal Steed and the Fell Bats, so that was a pleasant surprise. The warscroll for the Wight King on foot now says that it is simply armed with a "baleful tomb blade" so that can easily represent a model with either a sword or black axe. Likewise, there's hardly any mention of shields as specific, called-out equipment on the warscrolls, so there's more freedom to model the characters however you like without worrying about in-game equipment. All that matters is whether the model looks better with or without a shield.
It's a shame that the new Black Coach model can't pull double-duty as a Nighthaunt and Soulblight model. I mean, it got its start as a Vampire Counts model! I'll miss the Bat Swarms too, but I understand that multiple sizes of bat might be redundant. Personally, I'd have no problem using a Bat Swarm base to represent a Fell Bat and have a mix of both on the field– One big bat or a bunch of small bats; eh, what's the difference?
Speaking of which, the new Fell Bats are beautiful! We've finally got bats with proper wing anatomy (long-time readers of my blog will know I'm a stickler for that). And even though I've seen some people (myself included) question the fact that their legs are backward, I looked it up and it turns out that bats do have inverted legs.
I picked up some Fell bats and they were so quick to clean and assemble. I've added them to the queue to be painted with the rest of my Cursed City critters.
I was really impressed that the "perched" bat isn't molded as part of the stone. The underside of his wings are completely sculpted, so he could be placed on something else like a fence, or maybe in an upside-down hanging position, and the rock carving could become a piece of scenery.
Even the new Dire Wolves finally look like wolves instead of whatever the hell these other things were supposed to be:
In fact, all of the new models for the Soulblight Gravelords look fantastic. And that's where my praise for the release ends. Looking back at the rumor engine images, only three of them were from genuine Soulblight Gravelords models. As I feared, the majority turned out to be Cursed City and Underworlds models (or were unrelated, like Be'lakor's wing). And, sure, they've been included in the battletome, but those are mostly unique special characters or unobtainable. The book doesn't add any new troop types. All the new models are just resculpts of the same old units that already exist. (But units that all desperately needed an update, I'll grant you!)
Every "new" unit entry in the book is a unique special character– Radukar, Gorslav, Torgillius, Halgrim, Prince Duvalle and company, Belladamma, Kritza, Lady Annika, and Lauka Vai. The generic Vengorian Lord is the only new addition that's not a "unique" hero.
Now that the FAQ is out, at least the Cursed City models don't have to be taken as a single "all-or-nothing" block. You can now include the Vargskyr, or units of Kosargi Nightguard and Vyrkos Blood-born. But, as I alluded to above, they only come in an unavailable boxed game, or a prohibitively expensive (and currently sold-out) repack of the "Cursed City "enemies" sprue, so the Vyrkos Blood-born can't be reinforced to a 6-man unit without buying doubles of all the special characters. And other things from the Cursed City box that seem like they should have been included in the Soulblight book are absent– How is Kritza the Rat King in the battletome but the Cursed City Corpse-rats are not?
I just do not care about special characters. Other than being nice models for conversions, they do nothing for me, so I generally don't use them. I much prefer to create my own characters and army hierarchy whose background and story I can develop as I build and play. I was hoping for some new Age of Sigmar-exclusive units– Something that would give me a reason to build some models and an army that was explicitly set in the Age of Sigmar universe, maybe even re-base some of my Vampire Counts models to fit. But it's just the same old stuff (skeletons, zombies, wolves, bats, blood knights), most of which I already have, with limited options to develop characters, so there's nothing pulling me into the story.
Invest in models and you'll never go wrong; invest in rules and you'll always be disappointed.
I'm not really going to discuss the rules; others have done so ad-nauseum. But it seems like so much of this book is just copy-pasted from the Legions of Nagash battletome. (Even the spell lores are the same, just tweaked a bit, although the Locus of Shyish now seems like a redundant non-rule since most of the spells can't benefit from its doubling ability.) I'm sure it's all fine, but at the end of the day, rules don't excite me, new models and the story of how they will fit into my army is what gets me excited to build new stuff. There's nothing for me to do story-wise with a special character whose background is already written, and whose story will progress as the designers see fit. And the sad fact is that most of this book is special characters. (Even the Nighthaunt battletome suffers from a lack of large centerpiece heroes that aren't unique special characters.)
I have some story hooks that I've been playing around with, but the generic Vampire Lord warscroll is so underwhelming. It's as if, in order to have any measure of competency at a game-play level, you have to use the big special characters or you're wasting your time.
I'm seriously considering skipping this Soulblight Gravelords battletome. Mostly because of GW's recent shenanigans with releasing a battletome for half an army and then releasing the rest of the army and a new battletome only a year later. That's crap, and it's happened to Lumineth Realm Lords, Hedonites of Slaanesh, Sisters of Battle, and if my suspicions are correct, Soulblight Gravelords will get the same treatment. I'm sure it's no coincidence that there's an absence of Vyrkos wolf-themed units in the book, and I predict that we'll see a new Soulblight Gravelords battletome with all that extra stuff in about 10 months.
We've reached the point where players are expected to spend more money on rules and rulebooks than on miniatures. I'd rather spend my money on more models than pay $40 for a full-color, hardcover battletome that has a shelf-life of less than a year, and is essentially obsolete on day one thanks to FAQs and points updates (that come in another book!). If the rules are going to have that short of a lifespan, MAKE THEM DISPOSABLE– Soft cover, black and white with a color insert, for $20. (Especially considering the current environment of trying to produce less waste.) Hell, the rulebooks in the Cursed City box are full color, but they're printed and stapled like a comic book, and that would be a perfectly fine format for a battletome or especially the General's Handbook. I wouldn't feel as bad about having to replace it every year.
So, maybe I'll pick up the "finished" Soulblight Gravelords battletome when they release it in 10 months. Until then, I'll focus on Cursed City andgeneral hobbying. I'll have to play a generic "Death" army anyway if I ever want to field my Morghasts again. (That's assuming we can even use Grand Alliance armies anymore.) Maybe I'll take a look at those Anvil of Apotheosis rules and go full narrative.
The first edition of Age of Sigmar was free and only four pages long, and yet people still couldn't be bothered to read it all. I can't tell you how many times I'd see people on Facebook, asking if a model can split their attacks to target different units. Come on– it's literally the second paragraph under "Picking Targets" on page 4! The initial rules unfortunately had no structure for building armies, but that was remedied with the first General's Handbook.
Second edition was a bit longer, mostly because it took all the additional stuff from the General's Handbook and simply made it part of "the rules," but remained elegant in its simplicity. The problems with 2nd edition arose from certain battletomes muddying the rules by adding activation-order nonsense, summoning points, etc. Essentially the fantasy version of 40K's "codex creep." Every new battletome quickly became more convoluted than the last.
But third edition– We've achieved the absolute pinnacle of pedantry, and people still can't figure some things out, even with the FAQ. Chef's kiss mwah!
Back in 2017, I wrote a post saying that 8th edition 40K was a better rules set than Age of Sigmar. At the time, I was comparing it to 1st edition Sigmar, but a few games quickly disabused me of that notion. I thought the new 40K was a better rules system because it had dumped a lot of the superfluous minutia of previous editions and because it played faster. And it was faster; it turns out that games take much less time when one player essentially doesn't get to participate! When the 2nd edition of Age of Sigmar released in 2018, it was a damn near perfect game.
I gave up reading the 9th edition 40K rules halfway through, because it started to over-complicate things again. There had just been a new Space Marine codex (which I fortunately skipped), only to be replaced in less than a year (with a system requiring you to buy TWO books! Yay!), plus all the Psychic Awakening supplements. It was going full circle back to the bloated rules, stack-o'-books fiasco that had turned me off of 40k in the first place.
I used to joke that 40K and Age of Sigmar didn't feel like they were produced by the same game company– On one hand: Free unit warscrolls, simple army construction and point values, with compact, elegant rules. On the other hand: Pay-to-play datasheets, army construction pointed down to every minuscule piece of wargear, with bloated rules that don't even include how to set up a game. Well, here we are with Age of Sigmar (but at least I finished reading it all).
I just want a rule set to play games with the models I've invested countless hours building and painting. I've never been a fan of overly-complex rules systems– More rules and "tighter" rules does not make the game "better." In fact, I'll go so far as to say air-tight rules and perfectly balanced points are an illusion. Stop chasing it.
The stratagem system of 40K is one of my least favorite aspects of the recent editions. And Age of Sigmar is rapidly approaching that with an entire page of extra Command Abilities, Heroic Actions, and Monstrous Rampages to keep track of during the battle. The game seems to be heading back toward the complexity of Warhammer Fantasy (with units now needing to "rank up" and the ability to react to charges), but with smaller armies and fewer models because 3rd edition limits the number of units that can be increased from their starting size.
I keep thinking of a line from White Dwarf when Age of Sigmar was first announced: "The mightiest battles of the End Times were but mere skirmishes in the face of what will happen..." And it makes me laugh, because I have yet to play, or even see, an Age of Sigmar battle as large as a Fantasy battle. And that's disappointing, because for me the whole point of Warhammer is to have a vast army of miniatures on the battlefield. But the very nature of moving individual models multiple times a turn (in the movement phase, the charge phase, and then piling-in in the combat phase), combined with the "interruption abilities" and now every army potentially returning models in both players' turns makes that impossible.
Rather than simplify the rules so we can play with (and therefore purchase) more stuff without games taking forever, GW has gone the opposite direction and made the game require fewer models with more rules. Oh well, maybe the next edition will be better. At least we won't have to wait very long.