I was listening to the wonderful HeelanHammer last night, and something cropped up that I find common to all Fantasy podcasts: they hate 40K. I realise that this is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited solely to podcasts. For whatever reason, Fantasy players look down on 40K, safe in the knowledge that their game is far more tactical, far more rewarding, and far too intelligent for the average 40K player.
They are wrong.
Let me get this out of the way first: I do believe that Warhammer Fantasy provides a greater degree strategic play than Warhammer 40,000. The extent of this difference is, however, marginal. I would also argue that the reasons for Fantasy’s greater depth are far more nebulous and indeed nefarious than people generally believe. I’d like to try and put forward an explanation for this, and I hope that I can do this without igniting another flame war. Small hope, I know.
Before we start, I should point out that this article compares the two most recent rulesets: 5th Edition 40K and 7th Edition Fantasy. No other comparison is valid at this time.
So: more tactical, more rewarding, more intelligent. That’s pretty much the way the argument normally goes. I’ll try and tackle each point in sequence, explain why I believe it to be false, and provide a reason why Fantasy players should pick up 40K after each explanation. First up, then, is the belief that Fantasy is the more tactical game.
If you were to casually browse the Fantasy section of the Warhammer Forum you’ll find that the majority of topics tend to focus on rules discussion, far more in fact than the 40K forum. There is no doubt that Fantasy has a steep learning curve, and there follows that there should be a large amount of discussion relating to the rules. The problem is that a lot of people seem to formulate an opinion along the lines of ‘more talk about rules = greater tactical depth’. This is of course patently false; Fantasy is not a more tactical game than 40K, it is simply different.
The reason why there is so much discussion about rules is because Warhammer Fantasy is fundamentally an imprecise ruleset. It isn’t broken as some people suggest, it’s unclear. This lack of clarity provides the steep learning curve; it doesn’t provide the game with its tactical depth. What depth there is – and let’s be honest, there’s a fair old amount of it – is complicated the further you look into it by being poorly written. It’s like peering into a lake and thinking it deeper than it is because the bottom is so murky.
Conversely, the latest incarnation of 40K is the tightest ruleset that Games Workshop has ever produced. That’s not to say it is flawless – no rulset can claim such a thing – but it offers very little room for interpretation of the rules. 4th Edition was, even by GW’s own admission, a bit of a mess. But they have learned from their mistakes, and provided clear and concise information throughout. I suspect that most of 40K’s naysayers would see this as a distinct lack of depth – why, how will we debate this sentence for 15+ pages on our favourite forum? No, 40K does not lack in depth… it’s just easier to see the bottom.
Lesson #1: Having a more streamlined ruleset allows you to focus more on the core skills of generalship. You don’t need to spend half your turn discussing an outcome that isn’t covered in the rulebook because chances are it’s already covered. And the times that something odd does occur, you can normally follow a very logical path to reach a mutually agreeable solution. Put simply, it gives you more time to put the rules into practice than arguing back and forth about the definition of the rules.
My second point is to do with the perceived depth inherent in the Fantasy ruleset, and the notion that this is why it is the more rewarding game.
In Fantasy, each phase of the game is its own mini-contest, with players frequently planning two or three turns ahead, setting up charges and counter-charges, and trying to plot their opponent’s downfall over the full course of the game. 40K, at least to the casual observer, is a far more reactive game. It relies on situational awareness more than any form of long-term planning, and is arguably a more accurate simulation of a real battlefield scenario.
Admittedly this is a gross over-simplification, and the nuances present in each army contribute more to the moment-to-moment battle than the overall ruleset, but bear with me for the time being – I’ll get onto armies later.
Essentially then, Fantasy plays the long-game. This is, in my opinion, the single biggest contributing factor to Fantasy’s greater perceived depth over 40K. If the game makes you think further ahead, it must have more depth, right? Well, no, it’s not right. All this really means is that the rewards take a much longer time in coming: something you set up at the start of the game can take until the last turn to come to fruition. Are the rewards therefore greater? Subjectively, yes, but that’s only the same as eating a burger after a week of salads – it’s still just a burger.
Lesson #2: 40K rewards players who think on their feet to a much greater degree than Fantasy. The game is played at a faster pace, requiring each general to weigh up a large number of possibilities in a very short space of time. Not only are you learning to plan and execute strategies more quickly, you are also enjoying the positive benefits of ‘lots of little rewards’. Again, this is not better, just different, and experiencing one allows you to enjoy the other more thoroughly.
My last point relates to something that really grates on me: Fantasy requires a greater degree of intelligence to play than 40K. To my mind the only reason that this even crops up is because Fantasy contains such a massive quantity of data to consume. Armies are extremely diverse, despite the trend in recent army books to unify certain rules. Each list has an almost completely different set of magic items, lores and special rules. 40K instead has one ‘master’ armoury, with flavour added to armies through subtle variations and additions.
We can argue indefinitely about the merits of both systems – I’d imagine I could happily stand in either corner – but the fact remains that 40K has again been a victim of its own streamlining. Please do not confuse intelligence with knowledge. Fantasy requires a greater degree of the latter than 40K, but no less of the former.
Lesson #3: Less surprises lurking in your enemy’s list means more time spent outwitting them on the field. You know that model is armed with a Plasma Cannon because you can see it. You know what a Plasma Cannon does because it’s the same Plasma Cannon that you’ve got in your list. Does that make it any easier to deal with? Of course not – but your thoughts are on how to beat your opponent, not on how to beat the list.
And that’s it in a nutshell. I don’t expect that this is at all definitive, nor am I naive enough to think that I can change peoples’ minds with one over-long rant. I am simply laying out the state of play as I see it – I am only able to appreciate the merits of both games because I treat them both equally. You could, in fact, do this whole thing in reverse, and list the reasons why 40K players should play Fantasy. I suspect the outcome, however, would prove more benefit to them away from the game than during it.