Welcome back to our Introduction to Age of Sigmar! By now, you’ve got a good idea of what models you like, maybe eyed a Start Collecting! Box or two, but you likely feel overwhelmed by the options in front of you. How do all these Grand Alliance things fit together, anyway? Alternatively, you played Warhammer Fantasy back in the day, have a bunch of old models, and are thinking of getting back in but now the faction names are all different. “Seraphon? Duardin? What the hell is this?” you ask. Let’s set the record straight.
As a bit of background for the uninitiated: Age of Sigmar was the successor to the Warhammer Fantasy Battle game, which was Games Workshop’s mass battle fantasy game from the 80s through to 2015. In Age of Sigmar, the Old World (the world of WHFB) was destroyed in a cataclysm called The End Times. As a successor to Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Age of Sigmar uses many of the old models from that game, alongside new ones. Most of the old models are compatible outside of a few factions who were completely retired, and most named characters died in the end times, but their models can be used as stand-ins or “proxies” for generic models (e.g. Vlad and Isabella von Carstein are now sold as generic vampire lords).
When Age of Sigmar launched in 2015, the game had 4 factions called the “Grand Alliances”: Order, Chaos, Death and Destruction. These were only factions in the loosest sense, however – the problem with these factions was that they did nothing but restrict which models you could put together in an army. They didn’t offer any bonuses or special traits to customize your forces. Battletomes were released for a few factions but they only contained unit warscrolls (which you could get online anyway) and Battalions, which granted bonuses for bringing a specific assortment of units, but in most cases you could just work off the grand alliances when deciding what you should or shouldn’t include.
That started to change in 2016 when the Sylvaneth battletome was released. This was the first tome to grant unique spells, relics, and warlord traits for forces that consisted entirely of warscrolls with a specific keyword. Since then, Games Workshop has started to consolidate subfactions together to create more Battletomes and also re-release older Battletomes to be compliant with the new “2.0” design philosophy. As a caveat, this does mean you have to be careful: Many factions will have 2 battletomes: A newer one which you need, and an older one that is now virtually useless. Stormcast have had a whopping 4 battletomes released, and you only need the most current (and up-to-date) volume. In my faction reviews below, I’ll note which battletomes you’ll need and where to watch out for redundant or obsolete books.
On the bottom of each battlescroll you will see a “Keywords” section which contains a list of keywords for that unit in bold text. From left to right the keywords will be ordered from the most general to the most specific. The first will always be the Grand Alliance the model belongs to, followed by any subfactions the unit or model belongs to, if they apply.
After that you’ll notice that the warscroll contains a few more keywords. Keywords like HERO, MONSTER, WIZARD and PRIEST are not faction keywords (You cannot make a “Priest” list) but denote the character’s role. These keywords will be discussed more in part 3 of this series.
The last keyword will be the name of the model again, for the sake of knowing whether or not it is affected by certain auras or abilities. This all can be confusing at first, and probably should have been separated from the other keywords (datasheets in Warhammer 40k do this), but as you start to see the warscrolls from your faction, you will begin to see a method to the madness.
It’s important to note that the Grand Alliances still exist. If you want to throw together models that have the ORDER keyword you can do this and it is permissible. This is sometimes even done by people who are passionate about specific forces from old Warhammer Fantasy that are not yet supported in Age of Sigmar. The benefit to this is that it gives you a very wide array of models to pick from, but the benefits are generic and slim. Many players will want to focus on a more specific faction within a Grand Alliance as it gives more abilities that really help play to the strengths of that army. A comprehensive list of factions is hard to find as GW has been sort of cagey about which are “real” factions. Below is not an exhaustive list, but just the ones that have seen official support either through a battletome or the General’s Handbook. I’ve organized them by their grand alliance for convenience, and often forces of the same grand alliance can ally (more about allies in part 3).
Order is the largest and most diverse of the Grand Alliances. From the golden-armor-wearing Stormcast Eternals to the fish-elf Idoneth Deepkin, none of the alliances are quite so diverse. Despite the implications of the name, not all of these forces get along or are fighting for the same cause; rather they are bound together by their resistance to Chaos and Death.
Sigmar’s golden boys and the poster children of the game. Stormcast are reincarnated souls that Sigmar has recruited to fight his war against Nagash and Archaon. They have seen a lot of support by GW and are easily one of the more flexible and diverse factions, and a high point cost means fewer models needed to field a full army. In addition they can ally with any other Order subfaction, boosting their flexibility even further.
If you decide to expand into Stormcast Eternals, make sure to buy the right battletome. As a sort of test bed as Age of Sigmar went through its awkward adolescence, they received several battletomes (they have the most at 4!) and you don’t want to get stuck with the wrong one.
The current Battletome is here.
Naked dwarven mercenaries with a penchant for fire. Fyreslayers have a limited selection of models but have it where it counts. Hearthguard Berzerkers are one of the most powerful melee units in the game, and the army in general is one of the most durable. The army has no Wizards, but they do have priests. Hope you like painting orange!
This army was a very early battletome but has received a second release, so make sure you grab the newer one. The current Battletome is here.
Steampunk Dwarves. The only army with a transport option and the thing is a damn flying Land Raider. The army is extremely shooting heavy and will fold pretty quickly in melee. Has an interesting mechanic where you can choose a “code” consisting of 3 parts for your army, either a preset code or a customized one of your own from a list.
Dryads and other sort of tree folk. While fragile, Sylvaneth have a lot of solid shooting and teleportation abilities to keep your opponent guessing. The models are gorgeous and accommodating to a lot of very colorful painting schemes.
This army was a very early battletome, but has received a rerelease, so make sure you grab the newer one here.
Fish elves. As one would expect with elves they are quite fragile but are extremely tricky to fight against. As the battle goes on the tide changes which grant some powerful bonuses. If you time your attacks right to make the most of this mechanic your opponent will be powerless to resist your assault. The army does not have a lot of models but they don’t need them and it makes it an army thats very easy to complete a collection of.
Daughters of Khaine
An all-female cult of elves dedicated to the old elf god of war, Khaine. Morathi, the queen of the Dark Elves from old fantasy leads them, now in a half-snake/half-woman body. These girls are fast, and epitomize a glass cannon playstyle. If they get into melee they will absolutely ruin your opponent’s day. They won’t stand up well to the counter attack, but they don’t have to if your opponent is already dead.
These are the Lizardmen from fantasy. A tough and flexible army, their wide range of models allow a breadth of playstyles and possess some of the best wizards in the entire Grand Alliance.
The rules for this army are a little more nuanced. The army has a battletome, but it was released very early on and is effectively useless now. General’s Handbook 2019 contains their entire ruleset so just grab that. Despite being effectively without a battletome it is a very well supported army, being the only General’s Handbook force with unique spells and a wide range of army abilities.
Cities of Sigmar
These are the old Empire and Dwarves models sprinkled in with some elves. This Battletome is releasing soon so it’s hard to say exactly how they play, but they combine through older factions:
- Free Peoples are the Empire from the Old World. They’re basically the “normal dudes”, holding the line against supermen and monstrosities. In play they are a solid army possessing the best ranged attacks in the game.
- Dispossessed are the dwarves. As you might expect from dwarves they are slow but tough, and get to ignore morale checks about half the time. Solid for annoying your opponent as you absolutely refuse to get off the objective.
- Darkling Covens are the Dark Elves from fantasy. Their main strengths before were spellcasting, powerful auras, and wizard-heavy leaders.
Chaos is an uneasy alliance of the 4 (aptly named) gods of Chaos: Khorne, Tzeentch, Nurgle and Slaanesh. The armies consist of their daemon servants and mortal followers, or the Slaves to Darkness, who either worship multiple gods, or Chaos as a vague construct rather than any specific aspect. The followers of Chaos oppose Sigmar and all things good and pure. If you want to fight “The Man” and are into body horror, Chaos is for you.
A note going forward, because the books don’t make it entirely clear. There are books for each of the servants of the four Chaos gods, HOWEVER, the warscrolls in the book do not tell the whole story. Any unit with the God’s keyword can be included in their army.
As an example, say you wish to run the Maggotkin of Nurgle army. The battletome does not include Chaos Warriors as a warscrolls, but you can still include them. You can give Chaos Warriors the NURGLE keyword and now they are valid to include. This can be important for expanding your unit selection and giving yourself a little more utility you otherwise might not have.
One of two “Chaos Unaligned” factions. This is a really odd faction that might see support in the future. Everchosen basically consists of just Archaon, a Tzeentch Gaunt Summoner, and the Varanguard. This makes it a very elite army, and the models are very expensive (both cash and pointswise) so you likely want to look elsewhere. As a fun side note, Archaon has the KHORNE, NURGLE, TZEENTCH and SLAANESH keywords so he can be included in all of the mono-god factions. He’s pretty great so there’s some good arguments for including him.
This army has a battletome, but it was released very early on and is effectively worthless.
Slaves to Darkness
Slaves to Darkness are your salt of the earth types: mortal followers who fight for Chaos to get the recognition of the gods. The issue here is support is very limited; there are Army Abilities in the General’s Handbook but they’re pretty lackluster. A better way to use them is to assign them to a god and include them in one of the mono-god armies. Chaos Warriors are incredibly cheap for what they do and have a high armor save.
As an interesting side note, the warbands in Warcry have the Slaves to Darkness keyword so they can be added, though they cannot take a Mark of Chaos so they are notably hamstrung.
Blades of Khorne
BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GOD, SKULLS FOR THE SKULL THRONE! Khorne is a very melee heavy army. Despite the stereotype of Khorne worshippers being stupid, this is a very tactical army. Individually the units are mediocre but they have a ton of auras and abilities to improve one another. If you can exploit their buffs with proper placement, your opponent will be unable to mount a proper counter attack as you cut through the toughest of armor to get to the gooey bits inside. Khorne is also infamous for his hatred of mages and will put any upstart wizard in their place.
Blades of Khorne has 2 battletomes, so make sure to grab the newest one here.
Maggotkin of Nurgle
Followers of Nurgle, god of plague, pestilence and life. Nurgle’s followers are resilient, incredibly so. Almost everything in the army either has or can grant a feel no pain save (A save after your armor save that allows you to negate damage). Combined with an assortment of healing powers this makes them almost impossible to dislodge, even with the most dedicated of assaults. While they may seem slower than your average unit, there’s many ways to buff this, making any opponent who misjudges your movement speed regret that choice pretty damn quick. The downside is they lack much in the ways of Rending, so against high armor units they likely will require several attacks to down the enemy.
Disciples of Tzeentch
Worshippers of the Changer of Ways, Tzeentch has many different units to pick from, and they are one of the best caster armies in the game. If you like magic and psyching out your opponent, this is the army for you. Most of the Hero units in the game are WIZARDS and the troops are the other most ranged attack heavy in the game other than the Kharadron Overlords. The downside is the units are largely quite frail, with poor armor saves, so if your opponent closes the gap they’re pretty much through.
The Disciples of Tzeentch have a battletome which you should grab, but it’s an older one so you should supplement the rules with the General’s Handbook. You can get it here.
Hedonites of Slaanesh
SLAANESH IS BACK, BABY! Well… kinda. Slaanesh is the Prince of Pleasure and during the End Times he grew fat on all the dying souls of the mortal realms. Sigmar put him in a prison cell and there he remains, but his followers are no less dedicated. This is the most recent battletome in the Chaos pantheon and it shows. Slaanesh is powerful and easily one of the fastest armies in the game. They’re specifically designed as Hero killers, as their units benefit from wounding (but not killing) so multi-wound models are their wheelhouse. They struggle against hordes but can effectively counter this with their daemonettes.
Beasts of Chaos
When I said there was only the Slaves to Darkness if you wanted to go Chaos Undivided, that’s not technically true. The Beastmen are monstrous creatures who feel that organizing into cults goes against everything that Chaos stands for. They worship Chaos by constantly pillaging and raiding. On the table they field large numbers, move fast and have access to really good anti-armor options. They’re pretty fragile so it’s important you strike first, thankfully at the speed they move that won’t be a problem.
A bit of a wildcard to the Chaos scene. In the Old World The Great Horned Rat was the god of the Skaven, a race of anthropomorphic rats. After Slaanesh went MIA in The End Times, he stepped up to take the role. Khorne and Tzeentch aren’t too happy about it, Nurgle seems to enjoy it. They go bowling on Tuesdays.
On the table you have a frankly incomprehensible number of models both in variety and sheer number. The Skaven book unites all the old Skaven clans from Fantasy, which gives you a lot of options. It’s good you have a lot of models too, because Skaven are just as dangerous to themselves as the enemy since their powers tend to hurt them too. You can spare them, though. They’re just rats after all. If you enjoy armies with goofy rules, Skaven is right for you.
The Grand Alliance of Death consists of Nagash, the god of death, and his followers. They hate the living and spend all their time trying to kill them and expand across the mortal realms (their home base is Shyish, the Realm of Death). Pretty much all the forces in these armies are some sort of vampire, skeleton, ghost or ghoul. If you’re the type of person who gets excited for Halloween every year, Death armies are right for you!
Legions of Nagash
For those that played Fantasy, this is where pretty much all the Vampire Counts stuff went. One of the broadest factions in the game, the battletome for this army has no less than 5 different subfactions. One for Nagash and each of the first mortarchs, his generals, who longtime Fantasy players will recognize: Arkhan the Black, Nefereta, and Mannfred von Carstein. Finally there is the Soulblight faction, for those who want to play nothing but vampires without skeletons getting in the way.
Each subfaction has distinctly different rules, though they share the same unit pool. The army is a good way to experiment with different armies and playstyles while still using the same units. It’s also home to Nagash, the highest point cost model and the most ass-kicking magic user in the game.
Legions of Nagash has one battletome, so grab that. Make sure to check the errata as well, as some units from the Nighthaunt faction can be included.
Released with Age of Sigmar 2.0, Nighthaunts are the ghosts of Nagash’s legion. The army is characterized by a frankly absurd number of Hero characters to customise your forces with, and everything has a save that cannot be modified positively or negatively (they are ghosts after all). Laugh as your opponent sends all their -2 rend weapons at you and they do nothing. The army has a solid mix of elite troops and hordes giving you a lot of flexibility in how to approach list building.
Ghouls with delusions of grandeur. While the Flesh-Eater Courts are all undead horrors, Nagash cursed them with insanity, so they see themselves as noble kings and knights, fighting for the honor of their kingdom. They’re one of the more interesting factions for fluff and also one of the stronger ones on the table. Their main power comes from the ability for their Heroes to summon more ghouls onto the table, overwhelming the opponent if they don’t go after your Leaders first.
A more elite version of Death. This is a brand new faction built from the ground up for Age of Sigmar. Rather than hordes of decaying corpses, the Bonereapers are bone-constructs. Golems forged from bone and filled with the souls of deceased soldiers to create perfect war-time constructs. If you like the aesthetic of death but are turned off by the large number of models you will need to buy, this is probably a good starting point.
The final faction, sort of the wild card in the three-way war of Order, Chaos and Death. Destruction factions tend to care less about establishing a hegemony over the Mortal Realms and more about their own selfish goals, or just having a really good time pillaging and plundering. Hope you like lots of green!
Orks from fantasy, and one of the more iconic factions. Orruks just enjoy a good scrap and are just there for the glory of the fight. There were 3 major orruk factions previously, but Ironjawz and Bonesplitterz have been combined into the Orruk Warclans book, while Greenskinz seem to have gone away entirely. You can run the faction as either pure Ironjawz, pure Bonesplitterz or the “Great Waaagh” with a combination of the two.
- Ironjawz – More technologically advanced, for orruks anyway. They tend to encase themselves in metal which makes them high cost and but very durable. Deceptively slow but there are ways to mitigate this. They have a battletome but it’s old and worthless, use the General’s Handbook rules for now.
- Bonesplitterz – Closer to what people imagine orruks being in Warhammer. Cheap green horde, they tend to have high wounds and low saves. There is a Bonesplitterz Battletome but you should probably wait for the new Orruk book.
Goblins (or Grots if you prefer) from Fantasy got their own faction now and they’re one of the most fun armies to play. They generate a lot of command points and have a lot of mechanics that depend on luck but when it goes your way it is incredibly satisfying. While they tend to rely on hordes they have a wide variety of models which allow for different playstyles. The downside is their leadership is terrible, one of the worst in the game, so expect a lot of them to run if you don’t properly plan for it.
GW decided to combine the Gutbusters and Beastclaw raiders into one army. Both armies were a different type of ogre (now called “Ogors”) Gutbusters offer poor armor saves but high wound models with a lot of healing, while Beastclaw raiders offer super elite mounted giants. You can mix and match these as you please.
Next Time: Building Lists
And that’s it! This list will likely keep changing as time goes on because Age of Sigmar is in a period of major change: Old battletomes are being updated, new factions are being introduced and smaller ones are being consolidated to give players more options. Hopefully you have an idea of what factions might appeal to you and have a direction to go in knowing what models to buy. Check back for part 3, where we discuss list building and what goes into it.