LET'S OPEN UP THIS PIT
There’s few better ways to spend a rainy afternoon than pushing tiny models around a table, committing the kind of acts that would have made Genghis Khan blush. With more and more indie games designer getting in on the wargame action, John Power Jr jumps into his power armour, grabs his trusty chainaxe and goes looking for trouble...
Just as roleplaying games have been dominated for most of their commercial life by Dungeons & Dragons, in the brutal world of wargaming one name rules them all, Warhammer.
Since Games Workshop released the first edition in 1983, ostensibly to give people an excuse to buy more of their models and then have something to do with them, Warhammer has crushed its enemies, driving them before it, much to the lamentation of its players’ wallets.
Whilst competitors have risen, snapping at the Nottingham behemoth’s heels before falling back into line they, like Games Workshop, have tended to be miniatures companies too. After all, as Games Workshop has shown, there’s gold to be made selling people buckets of plastic goblins. So whether it’s Mantic, Warlord or Privateer Press most contenders to the skull throne have arrived with their own extensive range of war dollies in tow.
But as much as a successful miniatures game might appear to be a license to print cash, actually developing, manufacturing and maintaining that range is a pretty high barrier to entry. Even if you do make a successful entrance, make too many changes or take too many risks with a new edition and the price of alienating your audience can be potentially fatal.
So, whilst a whole host of misfits can exist, in both symbiosis and angry fist shaking opposition, in Dungeons & Dragons’ shadow and driving innovation forward, wargames have despite their longer lineage often evolved at a more stately pace.
In recent years though that state of affairs has started to shift and today more and more new wargames are popping their heads above the parapet, ones that often seem to have more in common with the kind of indie RPGs that have flourished in recent years.
These upstart games, often with no desire to unleash a new wave of single use plastic on the world, are designed to be played with whatever you have lying around whether that’s Citadel’s tiny terrors, lego men, toy cars or cut out paper soldiers.
Freed from needing to develop, manufacture and service expensive model ranges, indie wargames can be weirder, wilder and take more risks. Today the discerning 28mm warlord can choose from a range of games to satisfy any urge, from the likes of Joseph A. McCullough’s award winning narrative wargame Frostgrave to games whose rules make Age of Sigmar’s original 4 pages look bloated in comparison.
Meanwhile as wargaming, and certainly Warhammer, have kept pace with other tabletop games recent surge in popularity we’re also seeing more role-playing game designers throw their hat in the ring, blurring the lines between wargames and role-playing once more.
After all role-playing games evolved out of wargames and there’s always existed a liminal space between the two. Read Rick Priestley’s original Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader book (and you should, it is a strange, if awkward, masterpiece) and, as much as it was derived from Warhammer Fantasy Battle, it could easily be played as some kind of RPG.
In our debut issue Chris McDowall, author of acclaimed RPGs such as Into The Odd and Electric Bastionland, wrote for us about his recent turn to wargaming. For McDowall the indie wargaming scene today is reminiscent of roleplaying’s OSR scene when designers were recapturing ‘the feel of a hobby that wasn’t fully fleshed out yet.’
This year’s ZineQuest, a useful barometer of what’s hot in indie games and usually the preserve of RPGs, notably featured several new wargames, whilst every month another new contender appears, from Max Fitzgerald’s bizarrely vegetal and endearingly bleak Turnip28 to McDowall’s own sci-fi skirmisher GRIMLITE.
RPG designer Casey Garske, whose 2017 RPG Stay Frosty was at least wargame adjacent with its recreation of ALIENS style bug hunts, was one of those who took advantage of ZineQuest to launch what he described as his ‘wargame heartbreaker’, Space Weirdos on the world.
‘Describing it as a heartbreaker is only half serious,’ admits Garske, ‘but I was trying fix stuff that bugs me in wargames. I don't really like I-Go-U-Go games where you might get totally bulldozed just because you didn't get to go on the first turn. And it didn't start out this way, but using random tables injected some unpredictability into the game that I really liked.’
A slimmed down squad based skirmish game, Space Weirdos not just does away with Warhammer 40,0000’s I-Go-U-Go approach to play but also simplifies everything from movement to measurements to attacks.
In that it’s typical of many of the new breed of wargames, such as the popular OnePageRules series, catering to people who have plenty of, often unused, models and just want to play a fast, fun game without having to wheelbarrow the several kilos rulebooks that even the latest, allegedly more streamlined, edition of Warhammer 40,000 might require
As for the current influx of RPG designers into the scene Garske suspects the pandemic may have played some role. ‘I've been working on my space game, Snubfighter, for many years’ he says, ‘but I do think that Covid has something to do with it. With nowhere to go for months on end, I think a lot of people got into Warhammer or Frostgrave style stuff as a way to pass the time.’
‘It seems to me that RPG designers who write a wargame tend to put narrative first,’ adds Garske. ‘Dolorous Stroke or GRIMLITE for example. It's not really upfront in Space Weirdos, except once you start looking at your motley band of minis you can't help but start thinking about what their story is.’
As for the future Garske expects to more narrative-first and solo games to appear and believes we’re already seeing the results of that. ‘I think we're seeing it in 40K's Crusade campaign rules, and something similar is going to be in the new Kill Team,’ he adds. ‘I don't know if the GW writers are reading the really obscure stuff, but they must see the appeal a game like Frostgrave has to both new players coming over from RPG's, or older players who miss Mordheim.’
“I DON'T KNOW IF THE GW WRITERS ARE READING THE REALLY OBSCURE STUFF, BUT THEY MUST SEE THE APPEAL A GAME LIKE FROSTGRAVE HAS"
As the line between the two continues to blur, see games like the recent Forbidden Psalm, another Zinequest title that married art punk RPG MÖRK BORG with a miniature skirmish game, Garske expects to see even more try their hand. He’s certainly got the bug. ‘Turns out I really like this zine format I used for SW. I'd like to finally finish Snubfighter, but I also have a mech game in my head, and people seem to want a fantasy version too.’
Both Garske and McDowall cited Frostgrave as an inspiration on the new generation of wargames and it’s easy to see why. Originally released in 2015, and updated in 2020, Joseph McCullough’s Frostgrave sees you play a wizard, leading a warband through the titular ruined city in search of ‘ancient treasures and the secrets of lost magic.’
With its low model count Frostgrave allows a degree of customisation that large scale wargames can’t provide. Importantly it also has a narrative campaign structure baked in, something even more pronounced in McCullough’s solo/co-op play sequel Rangers of Shadow Deep. Its influence on the likes of Games Workshop’s Warcry, possibly their best game of recent years, is hard to ignore.
Whilst many RPG designers entering the field appear to be treating it more like an interesting exercise, and focusing on ultra-lite rule sets and zine formats, McCullough is part of a group of game designers who are actively looking to shake up wargames from within.
Together with game designers Sean Sutter (Relicblade), Mike Hutchinson (Gaslands), Ash Barker (Last Days: Zombie Apocalypse), Joey McGuire (Reality’s Edge) and graphic designer Ash Horton, McCullough recently launched Blaster an occasional magazine/book where the five of them share new standalone games, scenarios and thoughts of wargames.
A space for the designers to play and try out new ideas for their existing titles and introduce entirely new games, its success is a further sign of the growing interest in indie wargames and hunger for new ideas.
The latest game to hit our tables is the brash and bloody Reign In Hell. Devised by Adam Loper from the hugely popular Tabletop Minions YouTube Channel along with Warhammer Weekly’s Vince Venturella, Reign In Hell sees you command a cabal of demons set on achieving diabolic superiority.
Finally finished thanks to the ‘boredom of lockdown’, Reign In Hell is, like most of these games, happy and in fact encourages you to use whatever models you might have to hand and sees kitbashing models as part of the fun.
‘We wanted to make something miniatures-agnostic because we saw no reason to get into the world of miniatures production at this time. especially with the rise of 3D printers and Patreon-funded STL creators,’ Loper explains, ‘and we love the creativity you can have with using the models you want to use.’
Only released this June Reign in Hell is already a ‘Mithral’ seller on DriveThruRPG, with wargamers attracted by it’s none-more-metal theme and fast paced action. With further campaign and solo rules on the way and Loper hopes its success will encourage others to both try new wargames and design their own.
‘I'd love to see more and more folks producing indie games,’ he adds, ‘with electronic and print on demand options being so easy, I'd like to see more people producing fun games that don't get updated every few years with a slew of new books to buy.’
As we’ve seen in the RPG scene once a community of designers get the bit between their teeth the result can be an avalanche of creativity. Not everything will be great, or even good for that matter, but even bad ideas can, in their wretched awfulness, point to new directions of thought.
Indie wargames won’t challenge Warhammer in the same way that an RPG on Itch.io about being a bumble bee will never threaten D&D’s hegemony. But they can innovate and react to other game’s innovations in the time it might take a designer at Wizards or Games Workshop to get a reply to an email from their bosses.
Break the link that ties model x to game y and designers and players alike can be downloading new games, grabbing some minis (or just print off some paper ones) and playing within minutes, and if something doesn’t work, ditch it and move onto the next one.
Right now we’re mainly seeing people attempt to fix things that bug them about existing games or streamline existing ideas. But already we’re seeing the beginning of people not just questioning how a wargame should be played but what it even needs to be in of itself.
Themes, settings, rules, right now everything is up for grabs. War never changes, goes the quote, but just maybe wargames can.
Fancy throwing yourself into the weird and bloody world of indie wargames? Clear your kitchen table, grab a handful of models (or anything really, maybe print off our paper minis), a tape measure and some dice and give one of these Wyrd Science approved wargames a go...
In its short, miserable, life “blackened art-punk” RPG MÖRK BORG has already spawned an astonishing amount of 3rd party content but it fell to Kevin Rahman to hit upon the brilliant, and seemingly obvious in hindsight, idea to bring miniature wargaming to the haunted streets of Kergus.
Built upon the RPG’s bare but brutal engine Forbidden Psalm features 5 model warbands in the somewhat dubious employ of the the Mad Wizard Vriprix.
With a strong narrative campaign element the game can be played in solo, co-operative or versus modes.
Described author, Casey Garske, as his wargame ‘heartbreaker’ Space Weirdos is a gonzo sci-fi throwdown that refuses to take itself too seriously. Despite that you’ll still find a load of fun of rules for throwing together a gang of murderous misfits, customising them to your heart’s content and throwing them headfirst into the meatgrinder.
If you like the vibe of early Warhammer 40,000 but fancy a rules set around a hundredth of the size, and importantly alternate activations, then maybe Space Weirdos is your jam.
Mammoth Miniatures have released a couple of endearingly odd and refreshingly concise wargames over the past couple of years.
Following on from last year’s sci-fi skirmish game Planet 28, they’ve just revised the rules for fantasy games with their latest zine, Brutal Quest.
As you might guess from the title this is no polite fair of gentlemanly dueling but rather a chance for your miniatures wreck their way across corpse strewn battlefields (or your kitchen table) as they build up Brutality points which can then be expended to wreck even more carnage.
What’s not to love?
REIGN IN HELL
We’ve had fights in fantasy lands and the cold void of space so why not the infernal regions too? After all you’d be hard pressed to find any Warhammer supplements better loved than the two Realm of Chaos books. Reign in Hell from Tabletop Minions’ Adam Loper and Warhammer Weekly’s Vince Venturella is a fast paced, brutal game of hand-to-hand (or should that be claw-to-claw) combat between rival gangs of demons. Yep, this is all demons, all the time.
Build your cabal around a hellish philosophy, fill your warband with tentacled beats and torture masters and then take to the streets, ruins and desecrated temples of Hell to wage war against those who do not share your particular beliefs. A robust style of debate style even Wittgenstein would have approved of.
We could have filled this entire list with games by the people behind Blaster, who between them are responsible for some of the best, and more influential, indie wargames of the past few years. Whilst supergroups historically have a patchy history we’ll let this one fly as Blaster is packed full of new rules, scenarios and campaigns for the designer’s own titles alongside brand new standalone games.
Issue 3, for example, includes new for Lovecraftian magic and monsters for Joseph McCullough’s Frostgrave & Rangers of Shadow Deep, a campaign expansion for Mike Hutchinson’s Gaslands, alongside Sludge, a complete wargame by Relicblade’s Sean Sutter, whose use of “Gore Tokens” should tell you all you need to know about it.
With each issue wading in, probably waist deep in the aforementioned gore, at well over 100 pages there’s plenty of wargame action to get stuck into here.
Want in on the action right away? Head to either wyrdsicence.itch.io or DriveThruRPG and download for free, two teams of murderous paper minis designed by our feature artist Łukasz Kowalczuk right now.
This feature originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1 / Issue 2