If you don't want to read me praising Warmachine/Hordes, or dissing Warhammer 40k, or generally geeking out about minis wargames, turn back now!
This post is strictly about game design. I'm not talking about the ethics or business sense of either Privateer Press or Games Workshop, not today anyway.
"Warmahordes" refers to the entire conglomo-game that is Warmachine + Hordes. "40k" means Warhammer 40,000.
- Smaller armies
One of the things that draws people to 40k is the sheer spectacle of two large, painted armies facing each other. If you like the feeling of an epic clash between giant armies for the fate of a planet, well then 40k is going to be more your game than Warmahordes. For my part, I like the fact that in Warmahordes every model is significant. Paint a handful of new Warmahordes models and I can have a new list with very different gameplay. Paint that many new 40k models and all I've got is a few extra wound counters to take off the table as soon as the ordnance starts flying.
With less stuff to buy and paint in Warmahordes, you can either get your army done quicker OR spend more individual attention on making each model look good.
- More balanced armies
Warmahordes has no "default" army like Space Marines. The ubiquity of Space Marines in 40k is just silly because it seems like half of all games are Space Marine vs. Space Marine. They're all supposed to be on the same side! Why are they fighting each other?
At the recent Warmahordes tournament I saw every army represented about equally.
Each new expansion to Warmachine or Hordes adds choices to every army at the same time in order to keep them in balance. So there's no out-of-date armies like there are in 40k. It's not like PP is doing anything special with their updates - it's really the minimum we should expect from any competent game company; it's just that GW handle their updates so very badly that PP looks good by comparison.
Games Workshop is the only game company I know that comes out with a new core ruleset and doesn't update every faction to the new ruleset together. They update them piecemeal, one at a time. The less popular 40k armies go years without an update. Sisters of Battle and Necrons are still on their 3rd edition codexes even though the 5th edition of the core rules came out 2 years ago! Much of the rules text in those 3rd-edition books was written to interact with core rules that no longer exist, meaning that exactly what effect those abilities have in play now is just a big open question mark.
And because the power level of GW codexes seems to creep upward over time -- or at any rate, the points cost per model is creeping downward, which amounts to the same thing -- the older codices can't compete with the newer ones.
Of course Space Marines get a codex update instantly after each new edition. And then half of the codices that come out are for minor Space Marine variants - Blood Angels, Dark Angels, Black Templars, Space Wolves, and Grey Knights. The release schedule roughly alternates between Space Marine and Non-Space-Marine factions. If you don't want to play Space Marines (maybe because the ideal they represent is essentially Fascism?) then you're out in the cold.
- Less focus on listbuilding
Most of the internet's 40k strategy articles are about building a better list. There's a good reason for that - most of 40k's strategy is in the listbuilding. In 40k, listbuilding is complicated because there are like a zillion options for every unit (most of them too crappy to consider, but still). But once you've deployed, the tactics are pretty basic - the list almost plays itself. I feel like 60% of victory or defeat in 40k comes down to the matchup of the lists (and most of the rest is deployment and luck of the dice).
In Warmahordes I feel like more of the choices are during the game. There are still good matchups and bad matchups, but there's more you can do to mitigate matchup with skill during the game. Listbuilding is simpler because point costs are lower, each unit has only one or two options, and there are no mandatory choices or "force org" chart. Most importantly, when I lose at Warmahordes, I don't feel the urge to change my list up - I feel the urge to learn to play my list better!
If you give a "good" Warmahordes list to a new player, they won't have a clue what to do with it, because its power doesn't lie in the raw stats of the units, but in their interactions and the tactical possibilities that they open up.
While listbuilding can be fun, it's a solitary activity. These days I prefer my gameplay to focus on what happens at the gaming table with the other players.
- More options during play.
In 40k you can't shoot into a melee, can't shoot out of a melee, can't voluntarily run away from a melee, etc. If you've got a 20-man unit and the enemy's got a 20-man unit then as soon as one of your models' bases touches the edge of one of his model's bases, the entirety of both units are "in melee" and everybody in both units suddenly loses the ability to walk anywhere else, shoot, or be shot at. It's arbitrarily restrictive game design.
In Warmahordes you CAN fire into a melee, but at -4 and with a chance of hitting your own guys: a harsh but fair penalty. You can voluntarily run away, but the enemy gets a free boosted back strike on you. Most of the time it's not worth it to fire into melee or to run away, but once in a while it is.
There are other examples too. A fleeing unit in 40k runs a random distance towards your side of the board. In Warmahordes a fleeing unit can't do anything except run, and it can't run towards an enemy, but aside from that you get to decide how far and which direction it runs, so you can at least retreat intelligently. Models in a unit have much more independence than in 40k; they can spread out more, one of them can be shooting at one enemy while his squad-mate is in melee with a different enemy, etc.
I greatly prefer the game design philosophy of "you can do tht but there's a steep penalty" vs. a flat "no you can't do that", because the need to evaluate the risk/reward of such actions adds more skill to the game and opens up more opportunities for creative plays.
In 40k I used to play Tau. That was in 4th edition when after winning a close combat you could "consolidate" into base contact with another unit, thus jumping from one close combat to another. Tau die to anything (even Guardsmen) in close combat. As soon as somebody got into close combat with one of my units, they would just roll down my line chewing up everything. Because there was no option to run away or to shoot them, there was literally nothing I could do once the assaults started. And it seemed like every army I played against had some trick to get into close combat with me early. I remember a first-turn charge from the one and only time I played a Dark Eldar army. Great, I'm so glad I spent all that time painting all these pieces so I could take them off the table and put them back in the box before they get a chance to do a single thing.
In Warmahordes I always feel like I have a lot of options. At least there's always something I can *try*, even if it's got a low chance of working. Even when I'm down to my last few models, maybe I can't win but at least I can spend all my focus on some crazy, one-in-a-million chance at an asassination run and end the game with a bang. And that brings me to...
- Warcaster / Warlock asassination. The warlock of a Hordes army or warcaster of a Warmachine army (collectively called a "warnoun") is like your king in chess. If you kill the enemy warnoun, you win. All of the tactics of the game revolve around this: Defensively, you need to protect your caster, and offensively, you need to find a way past the enemy defenses with something capable of taking the caster out.
Since your warnoun has powerful spells capable of changing the course of battle, and those spells have limited range, there is a constant tension between moving your caster forward to use their spells vs. keeping them back for safety. There is also a tension between attacking your enemy's army to reduce their hitting power (attempting to win through attrition) and trying to go straight for the warnoun (win through asassination).
Planning a combination of moves that might resut in asassination takes some foresight and some flying by the seat of your pants. It's an opportunity for creative, memorable plays. It's also high-risk, high-reward (since you're comitting so much to the asassination, you will probably lose if it fails) which makes it very exciting. Finally, you can win through asassination even if you're far behind in terms of objectives or army attrition; this creates opportunities for a skilled player to make a come-from-behind win. A typical design problem for purely attrition-based wargames is that being the first to damage the enemy's army puts you at a huge advantage as it takes away their ability to retaliate. Once you start losing pieces you go into a death spiral, which isn't fun gameplay. Caster kill means that it is often worth it to sacrifice all the rest of your army if it can get you into position for your caster to kill theirs.
Army leadesr in 40k (called HQs) are merely super-units (sometimes with list building benefits) but have no special game signficance. The basic objective of gameplay is to kill more of the enemy's army than he kills of yours (although to be fair this is modified in location-based objective games). I personally find this rather dull and one-dimensional compared to the intrigue of caster-kill.
- Resource management. Warmachine warcasters have a pool of Focus which they can spend to cast spells and power their giant robots, as well as a few other tricks. (The equivalent resource for Hordes warlocks is called Fury and works in a different way, but let's not get into that right now.) You never have enough focus points to do everything you want, which means you always face tough choices between casting spells, boosting jacks, getting extra attacks for your caster, saving the focus to increase your armor, etc.
These decisions are key to victory. A game where you feed most of your focus to jacks plays out very differently from one where you put most of it into casting spells. Judging how to spend it on any given turn is a difficult skill, especially since you have to allocate to jacks at the beginning of your turn before you know how any of your die rolls are going to go. This adds a large element of risk/reward evaluation -- giving maximum focus to a jack can be a game-winning move or a complete waste of focus depending on whether you manage to set up that charge or not. Often after a loss I think "if only I had allocated my focus differently on that last turn". As I said, it's not your list, it's how you play your list, and focus management is one of the reasons why.
40k has some characters with psychic powers, but there's no equivalent resource management aspect to its gameplay. The drawback of 40k psychic powers is that you might get your brain eaten by demons from the Warp, but that's just a random die roll - your only choice is to use the power or not.
- Different warnoun = completely different play experience. Each warnoun has a unique feat and a unique spell list, in addition to special weapons and other abilities. Some are offensive, some defensive. Some want to get up close and personal, others want to sneak around firing off spells, others want to stay behind their army casting buffs on it. Changing your warnoun changes how you play and how you maneuver. Their bag of tricks is so powerful that you build your list around it. Change warnouns and it's time to re-evaluate how you use all of your other models. That jack that's only good as a wall in one caster's list might become an asassination threat with a different caster in control.
If you get bored of a Warmahordes army, you can buy a single new warnoun model, swap it in, and you've got something that plays like a new army. There's no equivalent in 40k. Most 40k leaders are just grunts with better stats. If you want a different play experience, you need to build a completely new army.
- Rock-em-sock-em robots. Besides warcasters and infantry units, Warmachine has magical steam-powered giant robots called Warjacks. (The Hordes equivalent are Warbeasts.) You can play an infantry-heavy army with maybe one or two jacks for support. Or if you love giant robots as much as I do you can build an army that's mostly or entirely jacks. (I probably would have liked Battletech, but it was popular before my time and nobody plays it anymore.)
Jack-on-jack fighting in Warmahordes is fun because of all the different moves you can do - headlocks, armlocks, slams, throws, pushes, headbutts, and tramples, spending focus on charging, running, boosting to hit, boosting damage, and extra attacks; and that's *before* you factor in the special abilities and weapons of particular jacks and all the spells their casters can use on them. Warjacks have damage locations that can cripple certain systems (it's the most streamlined damage-by-location system I've ever encountered, by the way - it slows down gameplay barely at all). Sometimes have to figure out how to make best use of a warjack who can't use its best weapon because that arm was cripppled.
It's a lot more exciting than 40k's vehicular combat. Yes, vehicles in 40k can have weapons destroyed, can explode, can be forced to disembark their passengers, are more vulnerable from behind, etc. But most of these effects are simply random and are not the outcome of choices made by the players. There's also no such thing as an all-mecha 40k army because 40k always mandates 2 units of Troops per army.
- Exception-based design. Warmachine learned the right lessons from Magic: the Gathering's rules design. Almost every unit has some kind of special ability, so the interactions can get quite complicated. But the core rules are designed to handle and explain these interactions. Every ability has situations where it's useful, other abilities that it synergizes with, and abilities that counter it, and when two rules seem to interact in a weird way you can always look at the fine print and figure out what happens.
In 40k, back when I played, there was a Chaos spell called Lash of Submission that let you move some of your enemy's infantry. It was game-breaking because the rest of the game was not designed with this possibility in mind - unless your army had access to psychic hoods or you put all your guys in vehicles, there was no way to counter it, and a forced move threw off the timing that the rest of the game balance rested on. It also raised a ton of unanswerable rules questions because being moved out of turn was not something that other rules were designed to mesh with.
In Warmahordes, the game is designed for effects that move models outside their activation, so it is very clear exactly how this works. Every army has access to abilities that move enemy units, as well as abilities to make extra moves with their own units and various other abilities that can be used to counteract or nullify a forced move. It's an integrated part of the game instead of an unbalanced one-off.
- Sequential activation.
In 40k everything moves, then everything shoots, then everything assaults. This means there's no such thing as using one unit to create an opportunity for another - you just move everything together to make the best of the opportunities that exist at the beginning of your turn.
In Warmahordes you choose the order for your models to activate, and you do everything with one model/unit before activating another. It seems like a small difference, but this flexibility allows you to use one model to set things up for another model -- if you plan ahead well enough and activate them in the right order.
One model might knock down a target for another to hit more easily. It might push or throw an enemy into range of another model's attack. You might need one unit to power up another with a buff or maybe just to get out of the way so a charge becomes possible. This is especially important because almost every model has one or more special abilities that you can use to create combo attacks.
Sequential activation creates opportunities for creative plays and for the more skilled player to triumph. Oftentimes when I lose I'm like "Oh, I should have had this guy go first on my last turn so I could have done this other thing..."
- Competitive attitude. The 40k community tends to have strong opinions on "fluffy" vs. competitive gaming. It is actually frowned upon to build the most effective list you can because this involves "spamming" a.k.a. having multiples of the most effective units. It is considered better form to make a "fluffy" list, i.e. one based on the 40k background (or your made-up background for your personal army) and what units that faction "would" take. It's essentially a simulationist attitude (if this can be understood to apply to non-roleplaying games) where what is being simulated is the 40k universe. This attitude is partly a response to the fact that 40k isn't really designed for competitive gaming. Most codices have choices that are so clearly inferior to others that they would never be taken apart from fluffy reasons. More positively, the emphasis on fluffy lists reflects the fact that the 40k background setting is really cool, one of the best in gaming, and daydreaming about that background is one of the best things about 40k. Unfortunately there's a lot of frustration because exactly what makes a list "fluffy" is impossible to define, and fluffy lists generally lose to optimized lists unless somebody rolls really badly.
What it boils down to is having to listen to 40k players whining "waaa waaa my opponent took three Wraithlords, that's so cheesy and it's not realistic because each Eldar Craftworld only has a few Wraithlords and would never deploy them all to the same planet at once!"
Lame. Three Wraithlords is a completely legal choice by the book. But instead of people going "Hey, Wraithlords are pretty strong for their point cost, maybe this game isn't balanced well" they blame their opponent for being "cheesy".
Some 40k tournaments even have an "army composition" score, which means that your army list gets ranked on this imaginary "fluffy" vs. "cheesy" scale by a panel of judges - or sometimes even voted on by your opponents! - according to completely arbitrary, subjective, and undocumented criteria. I'm not making this up! Can you imagine bullshit like that in any other game?
Maybe people don't care about "fluffy" in Warmahordes because its background fiction (aka "fluff") is nowhere near as cool or interesting as 40k's. The Warmahordes fluff is fairly disappointing, actually - a fantasy world undergoing an industrial revolution is such a cool premise, but the writers do nothing interesting with it.
But at least Warmahordes is properly designed for competitive play! There are fewer (I won't say zero) auto-includes or never-includes in any of the army lists in Warmahordes. Sure, some units are seen more frequently, but the value of a unit depends a lot more on its synergies with the other things in the list, so there is some kind of use for almost everything. I've never heard anybody complain about their opponent's army list being "cheesy" or insufficiently "fluffy". They just say "Oh, nice combo you got there", then roll up their sleeves and figure out how to beat it. At the tournament I was at people congratulated each other on good moves and talked about learning to play better.
The infamous Page Five of the Warmachine rulebook lays out a "No whining!" social contract. Once you get done rolling your eyes at the ridiculous testosterone on display, Page Five is like a manifesto for a "Step On Up" agenda. There's no question whether Warmahordes should be played with a gamist attitude or a simulationist attitude - it's pure gamism all the way and no apologies, which I find refreshing.
- The models actually correspond to the rules. 40k, having been around for many years and through many editions, has an endemic problem with this. There are models that no longer have stats, and there are units in the books that don't have models. The plastic guns that come in the box don't correspond to the weapon options that the unit has in the rules. It's a minor frustration, but it's a frustration.
The up-side of 40k's model ambiguity is that it invites creative model custimization to represent model-less units. One of the best things about 40k in general is that converting custom models is easy and fun due to the many multi-part plastic kits that include lots of extra bits. Warmahordes doesn't support kit-bashing nearly as well since most of the models are metal and come with only the parts they need.
But at least Warmahordes has a one-to-one correspondence between models and rules! Each model even comes with a stats card when you buy it, which is great for playability and means you don't have to buy the army book for the stats if you don't want it. It's a sensible system.
- Human faces and personalities. OK this is a really minor aesthetic quibble, but look: I like painting minis with human faces. They have more individual character.
In 40k you're either working for the Imperium of Man or you're some kind of hideous chaos mutant and/or faceless alien menace. The Orks have some individual character, I guess, but if you play one of the other factions get ready to paint a lot of identical helmets or skull heads! Fighting to prop up a decrepit theocratic totalitarian state doesn't appeal to me, but if I want to paint people with faces then that's the side I've got to fight for.
Warmahordes has multiple human factions (plus elves, dwarves, trolls, etc.) that have different philosophies, styles, and goals, but they're all people with faces.
- Female soldiers This is another minor aesthetic quibble. It annoys me that most 40k armies are exclusively male (the Space Marines proudly and explicitly so). The Imperium's attitude towards women is the classic madonna/whore dichotomy: if you want women soldiers you're either playing Daemonettes of Slaanesh, who are grotesque monsters with naked boobies! or you're playing Sisters of Battle, who are literally NUNS! IN! SPACE! Nuns with power armor. That has pointy crosses across the boobs. Remember kids, the female body is evil and must be restrained or else Chaos will take over!
In the 40k universe, Orks are all male and reproduce by spores, the Tau Empire has exactly one female, the Tyranids are sexless bug monsters, the Necrons are skeleton robots but are still coded as masculine, the Space Marine genetic enhancement regime only works on people with Y chromosomes, the Imperial Guard only employs men... apparently the Eldar/Dark Eldar are the only race who let women into their regular army.
Now I'm not going to proclaim Warmahordes is some kind of paragon of feminism. It still features the kind of slutty outfits for female characters that sadly seem to be par for the course in fantasy games designed by men. Especially the evil characters. (What part of a Cryxian War-Witch's job description requires her to bare her midriff exactly?)
But hey, look at this: Every single faction has a mix of male and female warcasters to choose from. Khador has three female warcasters, they're all dressed sensibly, they're all in poses that emphasize their competence and not their sexiness, and one of them is an old lady even. And the troops that they can lead: one of the four Widowmaker sniper models is a woman. So is one of the Manhunters, one of the Kossite Woodsmen, the unit leader of the Winter Guard... almost like women are just a normal part of the Khador army, even if a minority. The Trollbloods' female warlocks are unapologetically big and chubby and aren't portrayed as hideous because of it. There's even a female dwarf! Amazing!
No, wait, it's not amazing. It's, like, the bare minimum we should expect from representation in our fantasy gaming.