Whilst a new generation of Skirmish Games are making their bloody mark, a thriving scene is keeping one of Games Workshop’s best loved but long abandoned games alive. Luke Frostick takes to the cursed streets of Mordheim in search of answers...
I recently returned to miniature gaming to fill the lockdowns with something that didn’t involve a screen. I soon found myself drawn back to the streets of Mordheim, one of Games Workshop’s most influential settings. I started by hunting through the internet, hoping to track down whatever remnants of the game still existed; perhaps a few poor-quality scans of the core rule book, a supplement or two, or fan material on some archaic websites. What I’ve found instead is that Mordheim isn’t just alive, it is thriving.
Almost all of the rules for the game have been lovingly curated on broheim.net. Site webmaster Turhan told me that after the shutdown of The Mordheimer, he felt obligated to gather as much material for the game and preserve it, which certainly sees use.
The Mordheim Facebook page has a healthy 15K members that share warbands, some stunning boards and terrain, optimistically planned games and tournaments for the post-pandemic world and discussions of the minutiae of the game. It is well-moderated and a decent place to hang out by internet standards. Discussion of base shapes is forbidden.
The original creators are still very much involved in the community, chatting to fans and posting art, which is exciting. Tuomas Pirinen, Mordheim’s writer, wants fans to know that it is rare that artist John Blanche is active in the Mordheim community; something he doesn’t do in most other fandoms. The continued involvement of the original creators certainly contributes to the feeling that Mordheim is something special.
Mordheim has retained its popularity for two core reasons: Its rules and aesthetic. The rules are pretty bare-bones. However, in comparison with the non-skirmish games that Games Workshop has produced, it is a reliably quick game.
Moreover, as a teenager, I was more excited about Mordheim than Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Not only did the mechanics created a sense of progression, your warbands story progressing as your characters got stronger, but there was always the possibility your brother might capture your fallen heroes and sell them to the fighting pits, something that hurt far more than the sometimes stakes-less casualties of Warhammer. These mechanics were also integrated with a minimal number of dice roles, one aspect of the game that Pirinen remains most proud of.
The other strength of the rules is flexibility. Pirinen says the warbands were deliberately designed for multiple interpretations. The vampires could be from any bloodline, the possessed worshipping any god and the mercenaries and men from any part of the Old World. As the game progresses, the options grow.‘You want an ork with a blunderbuss?’ says Pirinen. ‘You can have it.’
“YOU WANT AN ORK WITH A BLUNDERBUSS? YOU CAN HAVE IT”
Moreover, unlike games such as Battlefleet Gothic or Blood Bowl, Mordheim bands could be built and kitbashed from either Games Workshop’s or third-party miniatures since official support ended.
The aesthetic of the game also continues to resonate. Pirinen and artist John Wigley emphasised to me that there was a lot more creative freedom on the Mordheim book than on other Games Workshop projects at the time. John Blanche was given free rein to implement his vision and it shows. The art is dark, claustrophobic and macabre.
Alexander Winberg, creative director of 28 Mag, the spiritual home of all the Warhammer World's dingiest corners, describes the characters in the game as broken, beaten and a bit pathetic. 28 featured a large number of warbands in their second edition. Winberg points to the work of Ana Polanšćak of Gardens of Hecate in particular as translating the art into miniatures.
It is hard to disagree. Her possessed are frantic, dirty and disturbing. All the warbands featured in 28 Mag 2nd edition were amazing. With a lot of freedom in the art, it is an invitation to not worry about crisp-edge highlights or seamless colour transition on miniatures. Mordheim’s not that sort of place.
The art and aesthetic of Mordheim goes beyond people making elaborate conversions and boards. With the exciting advances in 3D printing and resin casting, players are able to scour STL sites and third party producers finding models that fit into the intentionally loose warbands of the game. Successful kickstarters like the recent Citizens of the Old World line of miniatures draw direct inspiration from the art of Blanche and Wigley. There is a range of other small miniatures companies and individual artists producing work that fits nicely into the game.
There is an open question in the Mordheim community of if Games Workshop will or should relaunch the game. For the will, who knows. Workshop remains characteristically silent. The should is more interesting. The people I spoke to for this piece were divided, some excited about the idea of the game being rereleased especially regarding the possibility of new miniatures, others thought that it would harm the community.
In some ways, it doesn’t matter. If a new game comes out, some will play it, some will use just the minis, some will ignore it completely and carry on as they are. In Pirinen’s words: “It is not a company that decides if a game is dead or not. It is the player base.”
Explore the dead city of Mordheim for yourself at broheim.net
See more of Ana Polanšćak's work at gardensofhecate.com
This feature originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1 / Issue 2