Saturday 8 April 2017

Shadow War: Armageddon - Look At What You Could Have Won

This is a warning: What follows is not an unboxing or a review. It's a healthy dose of personal opinion by somebody with an inflated sense of self-importance. I will be reviewing the game at a later date; but by posting this article first, I can focus my review on the actual game and not the shit show surrounding its launch.

Space Hulk, Dreadfleet, and Shadow War: Armageddon

So, here I am with my brand new copy of Shadow War: Armageddon. I should be excited. I kinda am excited.

But I'm a bit depressed too.

For anyone who hasn't been keeping up with current events, Armageddon is a revamped version of Games Workshop's classic game of gang warfare, Necromunda. It was hyped to heck and back, and went up for preorder at 10am on April 1st.

It sold out at 10:10am.

And it wasn't an April Fools joke.

After weeks of build-up and excitement, a large number of people had to wake up to the fact they weren't going to be able to get a copy of the game.

To make matters worse, it became apparent that Games Workshop were releasing this as a limited product "while stocks last" and weren't intending a reprint.

The official line was, online sales were done, but you might... MIGHT... get lucky at a local store when the game went to retail this morning, April 8th.

Yay. It's the National Lottery, brought to you in association with Games Workshop.

Shadow War: Armageddon dice

Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and Games Workshop eventually deciding to release the rules at some point. And of course, all the lovely new scenery is being made available separately (at a not inconsiderable mark-up).

My local games store - big shout out to Devizes Toys - managed to reserve me a copy, so I'm all right, Jack. But it's a miserable situation to be in when you are prepared to cover an exciting new game that many people may not be able to get.

Now, Games Workshop die-hards may not see the problem. You can already see their comments in various forurms:

Shadow War is going to be fine. Game Workshop are going to make the rules available separately. You only need the rules and a box of models to play. All the scenery is being made available in separate packs. Everything's fine. We're all fine here. It's fine. You're all just butthurt...

(Little aside... if you use the term butthurt, ever, we don't need to talk. Just saying.)

But, the absence of a good starter set is a huge problem, and it speaks volumes about how important Games Workshop thinks this game is. It actually speaks volumes about a lot of things, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Shadow War: Armageddon contents

The problem with not having a starter set is... well... there's no starter set. To get someone interested in a new game, it really helps if there is some way to get everything you need in one place. You need a path of least resistance. People are more likely to try a game if they can buy a box that has two armies, some scenery, tokens and dice, and the rules. Because it's easy. Having to buy all those things separately, or make your own scenery elements, requires much more than a passing interest in seeing how the game plays.

Sure, Warhammer 40,000 players with massive armies, loads of scenery, buckets of dice, and blast templates may only need the rules book, so Games Workshop's approach may be great from their point of view. But it makes Shadow War an incestuous product. It taps into the existing fan base; it doesn't serve as a gateway for new players.

And as for the cost involved with buying everything separately...

Well, Shadow War was £80 (£64 if you were lucky enough to get a discounted online preorder). Just the scenery elements purchased separately costs £105. The miniatures in the box are worth an additional £49 (although they are all old models you may have no interest in anyway). Then you need to add in whatever Games Workshop wants to charge for the rules, plus sourcing dice and templates.

Shadow War: Armageddon rules book

But anyway, I got a copy. Why am I so depressed?

Several reasons, really.

First of all, I am a big supporter of Games Workshop. I have a strong nostalgic connection with the company, and even in recent months my hobby has been a source of calm in a holy shit storm. I defend a lot of the company's choices, and even a lot of their pricing. I have seen how much they've changed over the last two years, and I love most of the games they are making.

So when they do something like this, I take it a bit personally, I guess. It makes it harder for me to defend them, or argue the incessant online noise from the people who still insist Games Workshop is run by the devil.

Now, I know you should never attribute to malice what you can explain with stupidity, but I have a little theory about Shadow War. I may be wrong, but this is how I see it:

Games Workshop wanted to make some new terrain elements.

Games Workshop wanted to test the popularity of Necromunda before unleashing their "Specialist Brands" division on making it.

Games Workshop wanted to ensure they didn't lose money.

Shadow War was never meant to be a new game system, or a gateway game.

It was a test.

They printed exactly enough copies to pay for sculpting and tooling the awesome new terrain. The game pays it's way, and starts off the new tax year with a sellout hit that they can wave in front of the shareholders as an example of how great business is.

At the same time, they now know how much demand there is for Necromunda. Hell, this game sold out, and it only uses the rules for Necromunda. It doesn't have any of the classic gangs, and it even strips away some of the more elaborate campaign elements, yet it was still a sellout hit. Just ask the shareholders. They know.

And I don't mind if Games Workshop releases a product as a test. If it's a good product, I just don't care. But I do care when people who want to support a new product can't.

I like covering Games Workshop games on my blog; and I like talking to other fans about those games. But here I am, writing about a game many people may never see, or at least may not see for a long time. It's difficult to muster the energy to write a review that feels pointless. It's difficult to give Shadow War the praise it deserves.

And that's the most annoying thing of all.

Shadow War is beautiful. It's exciting.

It should be the best thing that's happened in ages, but instead it's surrounded by an air of negativity. (And yes, I know I'm adding to that negativity; but that's the point. If I sound negative, imagine the people who didn't like Games Workshop to start with.)

The truth is, anyone who manages to get a copy of this box is in for a bit of a treat. The box itself is huge. It's bigger than the Dreadfleet box, which in turn was bigger than the Space Hulk box. The reason for the size is because of the new terrain.

Boy. Pictures don't really do it justice. I was surprised by just how big and heavy it all is. The silos are massive. The sprue of support struts has real heft to it. It's brilliant; and this is the first time I've ever been excited about terrain. I'm going to buy one of each set, and treat myself to a battle mat for it all.

Shadow War: Armageddon terrain size comparison

The other standout component is the rules book. It's a thick 120-page tome that feels very much like a war game book you might buy separately. There is lavish artwork and photographs on nearly every page, and 20 pages of fluff to help you get a better feel for the setting. It's just gorgeous. You could happily put it on your bookshelf, and I'm even enjoying reading the charts of weapons and skills, and imagining how I'll use them in games.

As great as everything looks, there are a few unusual things of note:

First, this is the only Games Workshop boxed game I am aware of that's manufactured in China.

Shadow War: Armageddon - made in China

The printed rules are actually by Panda Manufacturing. I'm pretty sure all Games Workshop scenery is now made in China, so they probably decided it made more sense to do the whole thing off-site for this game. I'm hoping it doesn't mark the beginning of a serious move away from keeping the bulk of production in the UK.

The dice included in the box are also incredibly small. I seem to remember scatter and artillery dice being quite chunky things when I used to play Warhammer Fantasy Battle back in the day, but these ones are 12mm things.

Shadow War: Armageddon scatter dice

The other thing I thought was interesting is that the token sheet seems to have a "working title" name on it: Kill Team Armageddon.

Shadow War: Armageddon token sheet

Oh, and one minor point. For the first time ever, I received a Games Workshop game with a smashed sprue. It was some very, very minor damage on one of the templates, and it was easy to fix; but the sprue itself was broken to pieces. I've never seen that before.

Shadow War: Armageddon templates

Anyway, this isn't really a review or a "first impressions" piece. It was just somewhere to gather my thoughts so that when I review the game I can talk about the actual game and push all this other stuff to one side.

The takeaway from the piece (and apologies if you were expecting something more profound), is that Games Workshop have produced a fantastic product, and I hope the ham-fisted way they rolled it out doesn't impact on it's long-term success. I certainly hope that everyone who wants to play it eventually has a way to do so.

As for now... I've read through the rules, I've started to clip out the scenery, I'm assembling a kill team.

I'm ready for war.

I guess that's why I have this mixture of adrenaline-fuelled excitement and the sinking feeling in my stomach that comes from an uncertain future.

Although the Shadow War: Armageddon starter set is no longer available, you can still buy a softback rules book (plus miniatures, templates, and terrain) from Games Workshop stockists.


  1. You're not wrong, the artillery and scatter dice were 16mm back in the 90's. They were still in use -- albeit shrunk to 12mm -- up until the most recent revision of the main games. GW used to sell a dice cube, which was twenty five d6s, an artillery die, and a scatter die, all in a box that was also a die, but those are now gone.

    Yes, the way SWA has been handled is disappointing. I can't quite believe GW's claims to be surprised at the game's popularity after the same thing happened with Blood Bowl four months ago.

    1. I'm disappointed with how they are handling Blood Bowl too. Stuff is constantly out of stock, and if I want to flesh out my skaven and dwarf teams I have to make my own conversions or buy awful Forge World products.

      I continue to cross my fingers and hope they eventually realise that people really do want to buy their products.

    2. The short run boxed games never fail to bamboozle me. Time and again we end up with things selling out in minutes, stores only getting a handful of copies which immediately sell out, online scalping and a total inability to sell a starter game to a new generation of gamers who want a games-night-in-a-box. It was Hero Quest and Space Crusade that got me into the hobby as a kid; it was messing about with Blood Bowl in the mid-2000s that drew me back in as an adult. The failure to offer up that sort of entry point again leaves most beginners facing a substantial learning curve and cost to begin play and it just isn't doable for normals.

      The first time round with Space Hulk back in 2009 I can maybe accept, but there was no excuse in 2014 and I don't think there's any excuse with SWA either. Blood Bowl too got some cool opening releases but the minimal access to the archive of figures and the way the rules have been released makes it still mostly a thing for established hobbyists.

      I think the biggest problem GW has had in the last decade or so has been the lack of a good starter product that's priced down in the "normal person board game" price and has appropraitely entry level rules. I'm not sure how else you keep new ten year olds feeding into the hobby.

    3. It's an incredibly tiresome practice. There are certainly people who want to buy these products, but GW seem reluctant to embrace that.

      While I agree with you in general, I do think Age of Sigmar proves that Games Workshop does know how to do it. The main starter for that system is £75, but it's packed with content and actually cheaper than some other options. Furthermore, they pushed the boundaries by making the Spire of Dawn set, which was only £50, and also the Storm of Sigmar set, which was only £20 and is an absolutely fantastic "pocket-money" level entry point into the system. Now, they have announced they are re-doing the starter, with colour-coded pieces, a vinyl mat, and a box that acts as terrain. If that's priced less than £75, I think it's one of their most exciting moves for a little while in terms of opening doors.

      But of course, Age of Sigmar is a core product. I don't expect the same level of commitment from them when supporting sideline games; but there's clearly a market for them, and they should be doing more.

      It's going to be very interesting to see how they support Shadespire. People who have played it are already suggesting it could be a "game of the year," and it looks amazing. They've also played it clever by including a female stormcast and a stormcast without a helmet, securing purchases from their core demographic. I remain eternally hopeful that it might be the first step in turning a corner for non-core lines.

    4. Yeah to be fair Age of Sigmar does have a few elements in it that assist starting gamers off. The loss of metal Troops blisters was an issue for me as it moved almost every model out of pocket-money-gamble range and into a dedicated purchase - but I see there have been some efforts to do something more manageable.

      While I know the rules for AoS aren't to everyone's taste the downloadable army sheets, minimal rules and ability to combo any models together means you can grab a few boxes of figures, sit with your friends and play something super quick. Like the Necromunda/Blood Bowl/Space Hulk of the old days you're only assembling and painting a dozen or so figures at a time, a much more manageable amount for a newbie. In contrast even a 500K Ork army is going to look a daunting prospect both in cost but also in admin time before you get to The Fun.

    5. Ah, I used to loved going into the GW in Swindon with my pocket money, perusing the racks of blisters. Never really sure what I wanted, but knowing I wasn't leaving without something cool to paint. Even though I was exclusively a Fantasy Battle player, I still picked up some metal orks and terminators, just because I liked the models.

      Shadow War could have been a really good gateway game to 40K, I think....

      You want to play Cadians, so you buy a box of shock troops. After a while you realise you need a sniper or a melta pistol, so you buy a HQ box. Then you think you wouldn't mind bringing an ogryn for some muscle, so you buy a box of them; but you don't always want ogryns for special operatives, so you pick up a commissar as well. Suddenly, you look at what you've got, and realise, "Hey, if I buy a tank, this is a 40K army."


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