40K Deep Thought: The State of the Grimdark
Keep your hands and d6s inside the ride at all times… Sudden drop ahead.
A matter of Balance
In one of my past articles, I said that I didn’t even trust GW to pull off a pay-to-win design for their games; if that was the case, recent models like Warpsmisths, Gorkanauts, Warp Talons, Dark Talons and Haemonculi would be top-tier instead of sad jokes. Well, it seems like someone there is learning, or at least stumbling closer to that general direction.
It’s not a hard math to consider, when you think of it. Space Marine players are the ones who buy the most stuff, so let’s make more and better stuff for them to buy. At first it was stuff like Centurions, IG and Inquisitor allies, then Imperial Knights. After those, it seems, the dam broke, but rather than putting out models, which cost a lot of money to make, formations became the new thing to hype. Buy 2-6 more of X, Y or Z than you normally would, and you get these rules. Some amazing, some crappy, some merely adequate. We’ll churn them out by the bucketload and some will stick and bring in cash. Heck, just fill out this formation and we’ll throw in the transports for free, since they cost cheap in points but dear in cash!
Doesn’t matter if Kharn’s Butcherhorde costs 900+ points of lackluster stuff for awful rules and the Canoptek harvest costs far less points worth of great stuff that then becomes amazing. Doesn’t matter if Imperials, Eldar and Tau currently have more and better big beasts than Orks, Tyranyds and Chaos, the guys who, you know, are all about unleashing cataclysmic monsters. And don’t even get me started about the glorious, giglging insanity that is the new Skyhammer Annihilation Formation.
It’s not all strictly about marketing to the eager pockets of Marine/Imperial players, of course. Eldar and Necrons are there to prove that there’s enough recklessness to go around the roster. But when you rush a new edition, then rush Space Marines, Dark Angels and who knows what other codexes, one starts to notice certain…trends.
The Cart and the Horse
A this point, I’m not even frustrated with a lack of balance of the releases. I’m actually worried about the fact that beyond having no balance or schedule or communication, it’s now a game that makes no sense.
I asked a friend of mine who has a ton of armies and plays tournaments a lot what was the main weakness of the new Necrons (which he also plays). We basically just drew blank stares at each other trying to reach any answer. Speed? They have it i spades, being able to place troops almost anywhere on the board within the turn. Durability? Holy crap, yes. Firepower? The best in the game before Eldar brought the D to the masses. Melee, the old stumbling block of the skullbots? Even if it wasn’t mostly underpowered in this edition, Wraiths, pimped-out overlords and even the once-bland Flayed Ones can more than handle wrecking stuff. Flyers? Yup. Anti-air? Yup. Anti-armor? Basically the whole army.
Turning that around, we started pondering what Dark Eldar had that was strong and/or unique to them. Speed? Eldar, Tau, Necrons and even Harlequins do it better. Firepower? They have nothing past 36 inches and what lances they do have, regular Eldar do better and more reliably. Melee? Holy crap, no. Air power? Their flyers are stunningly mediocre. Durability? This army will have half of its troops being killed by their own transports exploding on a good day, and by the time your Power from Pain amounts to anything you’ll have almost nothing left on the board. Anti-air? Nothing. Basically, they have poison, and against T3 infantry that’s actually a negative. Sure, it’s good for T6+ monsters and such, but for those the armies that are actually good have stronger weapons that also negate tons of saves (Grav-stuff, D-weaponry, etc).
The Merit of Consistency
I could actually deal with a system in which all factions/supplements were crazy and murderously strong. Likewise, I am fine with games where everything is mostly similar and the differences amount to some tactics and gear to orient how you play. But doing both in this manic-depressive rollercoaster is disheartening. Codex A will be bland, Codex B will be game-breaking, Codex C will be bolter fodder, Codex D then comes along and makes B look like a bunch of anemic grots.
It’s not so much a case of favoritism as a case of knowing who your meal ticket is. Marine/Imperial books and models have a larger customer base, so they are likely to get more attention (Never mind that when other lines are paid more attention to, like the Dark Eldar revamp of 5th edition, their sales actually increase). Every Sisters of Battle player could quit the game and Games Workshop would likely lose zero seconds of sound sleep; 10% of Space Marine players putting their armies up on eBay and going to play Bolt Action is a five-alarm catastrophe.
So we’re seeing a two-tier system of releases taking shape. Space Marines, IG and Knights are likely never going to see a book that is less than good. As for the rest, it’s a crap shoot; some stuff will be great, some will be abysmal, most will be passable/mediocre. It will just not receive the same level of attention.
Careful what you Wish For
The worst part of it is that I feel I asked for this. While I was waiting the 5-12 years it took for codexes to be updated back in 5th, I’d often tell my friends about how cool it would be if Games Workshop had a more active release schedule, gave supplements more importance, and so on. Books for Iron Warriors, Night Lords, Harlequins, the Mechanicum, Speed Freaks. And of course, I got what I wanted, to my current regret.
Of course, that’s just the way things are meant to be, as far as some players are concerned. It’s not a competitive game, forge the narrative, we’re just mad because our codex is not broken anymore, this crap army ranked 3rd at DerpCon, etc. There are a thousand arguments and we’ve all seen them.
And if you’re having fun with the status quo, I can’t fault you. I’ll say this, however. My gaming group has some very accomplished players, who’ll travel a long way to attend a tournament and put lots of care in making their armies and painting them. One such player has been winning pretty much every 40k tournament he comes across for a while. Our schedules used to match, so we played each other often. Every time he bought his beloved Dark Angels to bear, he’d lose. He tried tons of variations, Deathwing, Ravenwing, Doublewing, you name it. Whenever he’d bring something else, he’d nearly wipe me off the board.
That upsets me. The deciding factor for victory or defeat should not be which army you packed before leaving home. And nothing is more of a joykiller for me than feeling that I wasn’t even the one responsible for my own victories. Its half a step above just building a pretty diorama, then flipping a coin to determine who won that battle in the fluff. And barely a step above bringing your army men to a friend’s house and smashing them together making pew-pew noises.
As much as we like to think that path will lead to the company’s downfall, these things happen slow (until they happen fast, that is). Wargamers might actually give Apple cultists a run for their money when it comes to brand loyalty. For all of their problems, Games Workshop does good enough models and retains a strong enough brand that it will take quite a few bad screwups in a row to really put them in emergency mode. I’m not saying it cannot happen; there are other companies making gains with cool products, great communication with their customers, and just putting out rules and army builders out for free online. But the power of brand is a hell of a thing.
So enjoy it, if your army is currently on the gravy train. As for the rest, hang on tight, and hope the rollercoaster has more ups and downs for your favorite plastic dudes.