Armagideon Time

The second edition of Warhammer 40,000 dropped in the autumn of 1993. Unfortunately for me, Games Workshop’s pre-release hype-storm had attained its desired effect and made finding a copy of it nigh impossible for a few weeks following the game’s release.

I did eventually come across one at Pandemonium Books in Harvard Square (back when it was located in a tiny space above the Wursthaus) while I was dicking around waiting for Maura’s shift at a nearby cafe to end. The asking price was steep — somewhere in the vicinity of seventy-five smackeroos — but it one I was more than willing to pay. (Actually, it was the first item I put on my shiny new credit card, kicking off a whole ‘nother dubious legacy.)

That investment netted the buy a good deal, though. Unlike the modest (but also pricey) hardback edition of the original 40K: Rogue Trader rules, the new incarnation of the game was released as a massive boxed set full of things for a starry-eyed fan to gawp over and silence any feelings of buyer’s remorse. Following the model first pioneered by the publisher’s Dark Future and Adeptus Titanicus vehicular combat games, the second edition 40k bundled everything a prospective player needed to get into the game into one captivating package.

The biggest draw were the figures, sprue after sprue of plastic Space Marines (rocking a kicky new armor design) and Orks just awaiting assembly and deployment. They were accompanied by punch-out cardstock ruins to battle over, and a dazzling array of dice (both mundane and task-specific), measuring sticks, and a staggering assortment of cardboard tokens, reference sheets, blast templates, vehicle and special wargear cards to sift through. The meat of the game was represented by a trio of softcover books — one for the actual rules, one covering wargear, and one to provide background info on the history and various factions of its fictional universe — and a supplement pamphlet containing placeholder army lists.

It was a lot to take in, and a few weeks of ooh-ing and ahh-ing elapsed before I began to delve into the meat and bones of the revised rule systems. What I discovered was something interesting but vastly different than the 40k I had known. The original rules were designed to serve as a RPG-wargame hybrid involving maybe a dozen models on each side. Formal unit lists were eventually rolled out via White Dwarf and other in-house publications, but as “suggested serving methods” for use in an open ended venue.

The second edition stripped away that messiness by establishing fixed, faction-specific loadouts and unit structures. The days of throwing together a squad of random figures based on their coolness factor were over, replaced by clearly defined rosters with mandatory inclusions. The squad-based skirmish focus was inflated to platoon-level actions, with forces running anywhere from twenty to fifty units on a side.

(A cynical soul might observe that this upscaling meant having to buy more models from Games Workshop, and I wouldn’t contradict them on that point.)

In addition to the emphasis on larger scale battles with formal rosters, second edition 40k also made some rules revisions which would have a profound effect on the flow and balance of the game. Some of these fixes, like simplifying the group of redundant “mental” stats into a single “leadership” value, were welcome and long overdue. The revised melee and overwatch mechanics, however, had much larger (and probably unintended) consequences over the long term.

Melee combat was given a greater emphasis and increased lethality, giving it the potential to rout and destroy entire squads in the course of a single turn. The problem was that it gave a nigh insurmountable advantage to the unit with the higher weapon skill stat, meaning high WS factions could steamroll through their less adept opponents with impunity. If you were playing, say, an Imperial Guard detachment, there was no reason whatsoever to get stuck in. Even melee-based units with the faction — like Orgyns or Rough Riders — didn’t stand much of a chance against generic infantry mobs with a higher WS stat, and so were better relegated to the cupboard than deployed on the field.

To counterbalance the lethality of the melee combat, the second edition 40k rules introduced an overwatch mechanic where a player could suspend a unit’s action in their own turn in order to take a ranged combat action during their opponents’ movement phase. The idea was to provide a means to blunt the charges that kicked off a melee assault, but it tended to result in scenarios straight out the WW1 Western Front — each side exchanging potshots from behind cover until one got desperate or bored enough to throw their forces into a concentrated storm of fire.

These static tendencies were further encouraged by the second edition’s adoption of a “victory point” system which incentivized hunkering down over playing for the objective. Why expose my little dudes to destruction on open ground when I can cover the capture point from multiple angles at a distance and rack up more points by routing and wrecking any enemy force that approaches it? It was problematic to begin with, and only got worse as the game introduced additional units which broke the meta and turned every battle into a arms race decided before the opposing forces hit the tabletop.

Those issues would come to characterize my second edition 40k experience, but that was still a ways down the road. My late 1993 honeymoon period with the game featured little if any actual tabletop action. After attempting a couple of short battles with an unenthusiastic Lil Bro, I decided to focus on building up my Guard and Eldar armies to the minimum required standards, customizing hero and leader characters from miscellaneous bits, and crafting approximations of as-yet-unreleased vehicles from cardboard scraps and balsa wood.

In other words, I found a way to make the model train enthusiast lifestyle even geekier.

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