As it’s the final day of 2021, we’re looking back at the year that was, chock full of releases, excitement, and changes. In this first part of this two-part series, we looked at the year of competitive play for 9th edition. Today we’re looking at things from a narrative and casual perspective, and talking about how things are shaking out and what we’re looking forward to and hoping for in 2022.
The State of Casual Play in 9th Edition
We’ve already spent an entire article talking about the state of the game competitively, but that only covers a small – albeit more engaged – portion of the 40k audience. How does the game feel for players who aren’t dragging their armies to events and grinding out 3-9 games half a dozen times per year or more? Have the game’s rules delivered a strong experience for casual players, and is the stream of new releases helpful or harmful?
Crusade: Did GW Finally Get Campaigns Right?
2021 saw a lot of new Crusade content. In addition to the new rules in the various codexes which released throughout the year, we’ve seen the release of multiple Crusade Mission Packs, a ton of stuff to draw from in the Campaign Supplements, and even a few tricks here and there in White Dwarf.
SRM: Playing in the GHO Narrative was like being caught with a cigarette by your parents and having to smoke the whole pack. It was the most Crusade I’d gotten to play, and with a double xp modifier it moved way, way faster than the small Crusade I’ve been playing with a friend of mine. After playing a bit, I do feel that Crusade hits a weird point where it’s not quite for the competitive or truly casual player. Competitive players won’t like the focus being shifted so firmly away from balance, and casual players aren’t going to have the bandwidth to keep track of all the extra rules and abilities bolted on to their units after a few games. The GHO Narrative was a ton of fun, don’t get me wrong, but if anyone played the whole event without missing some of their leveled up Crusade rules, I will PayPal them five dollars. It’s frustrating because Crusade is such a rich vein of narrative and thematic rules writing, with some of the coolest rules 40k has ever had within it. It’s just a shame that it requires so much mental work for smoothbrains like me.
Greg: I didn’t play a ton of Crusade in the second half of the year, but I think the biggest and best change GW made was to finally admit in the Octarius books that 40k campaigns benefit greatly from having a GM. There was never anything stopping you from nominating one – Rob did a great job in that role managing his campaign – but sometimes it’s best to explicitly state it, because it empowers players to do something that might seem obvious, without feeling like it’s a “house rule”.
Rob: Yeah I think Crusade is their best attempt at narrative yet, but it still needs a GM and someone running your campaign. There’s also just way too much stuff to manage in a Crusade campaign, and adding rules on top of that makes things stupid complicated. Crusade really needs a tool for managing most of the bookkeeping, and then on top of that it needs simpler missions or a more intuitive way to understand what you’re doing and why.
Also damn, I need to get back on that and start up the campaign again or get a new one going. I have many, many ideas for that in 2022.
SRM: I feel like the cleaner way to do campaigns is more along the lines of the old Imperial Armour method. Here’s some missions, here’s some consequences of the missions, you get a treat here and there, maybe there’s some force restrictions, and we’re good. That’s a lot less exciting than the bounty of rules in Crusade, but is easier to track and is probably how I’d run a narrative event. Don’t get me wrong, Crusade is extremely cool, it’s just A Lot.
Pendulin: “A Lot” is exactly what I think of Crusade. I played and organized a significant amount of Crusade this year: participating in two campaigns, Goonhammer Open’s Crusade event, and then organizing and running two campaigns myself each with a dozen or so players. There’s Terry Gilliam’s Brazil-levels of paperwork involved, and much like Harry Tuttle, I frequently found myself getting carried away by it.
I sent out a survey at the end of my latest campaign, and found that the plurality of players simply ignored a good portion of the Crusade rules because 40k is a complicated game as it is, and it’s not made more fun by making it more complicated. That being said, each of the campaigns I participated in was a blast but jeez GW, maybe dial things back a bit.
Beanith: I’m loving this edition’s Crusade content and I’ve already mentioned in my Year in Review that almost every single game I’ve played this year was in an ongoing Crusade campaign with a small group of friends. We’ve found that we prefer to stick to the more “Match Play” balanced missions that are typically found in the earlier Mission Packs.
I don’t agree with the “too much paperwork” issues raised because of handy tools that are available such as Charlie B’s Automated 40K Crusade Roster and Greg’s Buttscribe. They have helped immensely in keeping track of the various Battle Scars, Traits and Weapon upgrades I have across my various Crusade Forces. Buttscribe is particulary handy in this regard as I use it to make laminated cards for each of my units as an aid to help me remember which squad has the handy re-rolls and which ones have taken an arrow to the knee.
Campaign Supplements: Great Additions or Too Much?
In addition to nine new Codexes in 2021, we also got four campaign supplements, which added new Crusade content to the game as well as new rules, datasheets, subfaction supplements, and armies of renown for matched play.
Greg: It is and it isn’t. If you honestly tried to play with all of these, it was way too much. If you didn’t, and I strongly suspect that no one did, it wasn’t. That’s the thing about these supplemental rule drops – the new campaigns and settings and battlezones that show up in various books and White Dwarves – you can just not use them. That’s technically true for any book, but ignoring Crusade supplements is very different from skipping out on points adjustments from Chapter Approved. The former is just picking and choosing how much obtuse rules-layering you’re willing to accept, the latter would be playing a different game entirely. It doesn’t fracture the player base the same way.
A small but vocal portion of players will argue, in what is largely bad faith, that this is GW grabbing for money and “forcing” them to buy extra books, but: come on. No one is doing that. The entire point of these mission packs and campaigns is that they aren’t tethered, and you can play or not play whichever ones you want. There’s probably a local group out there that’s still grinding out Beyond the Veil missions because they aren’t “done” with it yet, and another group that got heavily into Plague Purge but never bought or read the Book of Rust. It seems insane to me, as someone who primarily plays Strike Force games using the GT packet, but I think that’s also the point.
SRM: Long gone are the days where a player might buy every Codex/campaign book, and I think more people need to understand that they do not have to catch ‘em all. I think the last non-Chapter Approved/BRB time I played a mission was the 5th edition Battle Missions book. As a result, I haven’t done more than a cursory glance of most of these new mission packs. I think, conceptually, it’s very cool that you could run a Book of Rust campaign or whatever and rotate through those missions. If your casual group is hardcore (try doing the mental backflip on that one) and wants the variety to their Crusade games, I think picking up one of these mission packs once in a while is a nice way to add some variety. The missions, much like the rest of Crusade, have a lot of room for the more creative and narrative-focused side of GW’s rules writing to really shine. Armies of Renown are a neat idea and recontextualize the Formations of old into something that isn’t inherently bad for the game, but I have a gut feeling they’ll just kinda linger until support is dropped. What I’m saying is I wouldn’t buy stuff just to build an Army of Renown, but I’d gladly use an existing collection for one if they happen to align.
Greg: The armies of renown are interesting, and highlight a real problem here. The interesting part is that they’re matched-play legal, in contrast to the rest of the campaign stuff. The problem is that they’ve doggedly stuck to splitting out the books in each campaign release and I can’t understand the logic behind it. Why does one book have the competitive/matched rules, the fluff, the narrative campaign, and the crusade rules, and the other has more Crusade rules as well as the mission pack. No one wants to read another random dork having ideas about How I’d Run Games Workshop, but the current setup is not my favorite.
Pendulin: All Armies of Renown are equal, but some are more equal than others. Armies of Renown are, in a word, inconsistent. Some are just a method of giving Matched Play rules to specific forces from 40k lore, and others are created to give a strong competitive edge to a faction, and others still are just laughably bad. While nobody is expecting rules like this to be entirely balanced, it nonetheless feels bad when a faction is eagerly waiting for new toys, only to be given an AoR that either destroys the meta or is forgotten a week later.
As for the sheer quantity of these supplements, it’s a bit much. I personally love having my bookshelves filled with splat books, even if they contain rules I only occasionally reference, or lore that I only read through once. But even I stopped keeping up with the treadmill of content because there was just too much of it.
Beanith: We’ve barely touched any of the Warzone books campaigns which is a shame because whilst they are fantastic for the most part, because of our small group, it really felt like we didn’t have enough players to make use of them properly, especially the Campaign settings from Charadon. We’re planning on expanding our gaming group next year to hopefully remedy this.
The Armies of Renown have been interesting to watch for the most part. Largely an issue for Match Play in terms of balance which Games Workshop has shown willing to step in and fix sooner rather than later with the quarterly Balance Dataslates.
Rob: I really like the Campaign books when it comes to what they add to Crusade. I feel like these rules fly under the radar but some of the most interesting missions, campaign add-ons, Battle Scars, and relics have been in these books. They also do an OK job of giving armies without a Codex yet some rules they can work with, and relics they can chase after.
The most recent Campaign supplements have started including tree campaigns of varying sizes which I feel are great additions to the book since they give you exactly the kind of “play this mission, here’s what happens” structure that SRM is looking for in his comment above. The problem is they aren’t super great for larger campaigns with many players, and on top of that they just use the core rulebook Crusade missions, which are mostly terrible, especially at lower points values. So they need some tweaking to be their best selves. On the whole these campaign books are the best of the actual campaign supplements we get, and in my mind are better than the Crusade books/mission packs.
Crusade Mission Packs
This year saw the release of four Crusade Mission Packs adding additional settings, rules and upgrades available to your Crusade Rosters to grow in interesting ways. Plague Purge had two different sets of Stratagems available depending on the mission being played. Amidst the Ashes introduced an optional upgrade tree for Psykers and Vehicles alongside unique Stratagems for those missions. Containment saw the return of Planetstrike and lastly Catastrophe was Games Workshop’s attempt at 3-4 player games. Each book helpfully included all of the Core Rules including the Advance rules along with updated Agendas.
Rob: God, seriously. It’s insane that you can’t get the Crusade rules outside of the Core rulebook. There’s important stuff in there and for some reason they keep reprinting the core rules in every crusade book like what we need is another version of the rules that doesn’t incorporate FAQs and errata.
Beanith: I’ve had a blast but will agree that sometimes the sheer amount of optionals bits to remember get to be a bit much at times. I can’t count the number of games we’ve played from the Mission Pack Plague Purge where we just completely forgot about the existence of the Assault/Recon Stratagems or just flat out ignored the Corrupted Pysker upgrade tree from Mission Pack Amidst the Ashes.
I was initially skeptical of the 3-4 player rules in Catastrophe but have found with the very simple solution of redoing the Turn Order every round, it made the game much more tolerable for everyone and the person going last every turn wasn’t just twiddling their thumbs whilst their force was shoot off the table. That might have been me but on the bright side thanks to the Underdog System, I did earn enough points to mark every unit for Greatness so swings and roundabouts really.
Rob: Amidst the Ashes is the best of these and it’s not particularly close. The vehicle upgrade trees are really cool and none of the other Crusade books really hit the same high of grabbing you immediately. After that, Containment is probably the second best, just because its Planetstrike missions offer the most novelty from a “what are we doing on the table” standpoint and the mechanics are pretty novel and easy to remember – one of you is in fortresses and the other is dropping in.
Greg: Catastrophe was neat because it expanded the game in a different direction. Instead of just throwing more rules on top of the existing format, it tried to create a new game mode entirely. I’m not sure it worked, or that anyone was exactly asking for this, but I applaud the attempt. I’d like to see more goofball takes like this – sort of like spinning Quake into Team Fortress, maybe GW can implement DotA in 40k, I don’t know. Make it a racing game, or basketball.
White Dwarf Flashpoints
In addition to Campaign supplements and Crusade books, we’ve also seen monthly Flashpoints articles from White Dwarf that expand on each warzone with additional missions, Crusade rules, and matched play rules.
Greg: We sure did. The missions were neat sometimes and I know at least one person who loved the Torchbearer stuff, but for me this was just too much and I hit my saturation point of being able to absorb new 40k content. I checked out.
Beanith: There has been some amazing content released this year in the White Dwarfs along with a few clangers. Torchbearers is number one on my list but it was a tight run race against the Theatre of War – Ice Fields of Death of Bianzeer which had the avalanche progressing across the board
But as Greg pointed out, it’s scattered throughout several different issues making it a pain in the ass to keep track of. If only there was some sort of Subscription Service where you could give Games Workshop money and they could have an ebook called the White Dwarf Crusade Annual with all of this content…
Rob: You read ahead and stole my idea.
The Narrative of 9th edition
With the release of 9th edition GW took a big step backward, going back 100 years to the start of the Indomitus Crusade in the game’s lore. Since then we’ve spent time going into greater detail with the events of Charadon and Octarius, spending more time on the wars between the Mechanicus and forces of Chaos in the former and the Orks, Tyranids, and Imperium in the latter.
Greg: The move toward warzones has been interesting. It’s a throwback to the Armageddon or Eye of Terror format, though maybe Netflix-era Arrested Development is the better comparison. Instead of spending the edition moving the entire galaxy forward, we focus on a few armies at a time, in detail, and pan across the galaxy over a shorter time period. It removes a lot of the need to jam every possible army into one planet, which has become ever more untenable as codexes get added, and the extra breathing room from releasing five times as many books lets what would have been a paragraph-long blurb in a sidebar really expand out. The downside to this is that the stories still aren’t particularly varied or interesting. Oh word, Chaos wrecked up a planet, but the Imperium somehow still hung on? Wild. Here we are with some Tyranids eating the absolute hell out of Necrons or whatever, that’s cool, did any named characters bite it? No? Ah, well, maybe next time. Sound and fury, yes, but signifying what exactly?
Greg: I’ll say this for the Horus Heresy: at least it has an endpoint in mind, that it’s building toward. 40k, by its nature, can’t, shouldn’t, and won’t “end”, but if we’re not setting the stories in well-established fluff then why not get weird? I get that you can’t have Angron rock up to Armageddon again and blow it up, but if you invented Vigilus, if you just made it up, maybe let Chaos have it for real? There are zero stakes here. No one had heard of Vigilus before, they aren’t invested in it, so no one will mind if it goes away. What’s the point of a million worlds if you aren’t going to burn one now and again, let the bad guys win.
SRM: It feels like there’s a lot set up in 8th edition that they haven’t really gotten to mine yet. Outside of Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s absolute banger of a novel, Spear of the Emperor, I can’t think of much written that explores the Imperium Nihilus. Splitting the galaxy in half so we could have Warhammer 40k Classic in the Imperium Sanctus and Warhammer 40k Baja Blast in the Imperium Nihilus was a great move, and one I’m still waiting on them to go harder on. I’d say I’m curious about how Genestealer Cults fighting the Custodes on Terra will work out, but I’ve seen what happens when a bug meets the bottom of my Timbs before.
Rob: I agree with all of that. I’m happy to see we’re going back to Vigilus though, even if I expect to be disappointed with the actual outcome. One of the things I think they haven’t quite figured out is that they can do a push-and-pull with the story – it’s OK to have different factions win for a while and gain ground, then lose it later. Age of Sigmar does this pretty well, I think, where one day Nagash is on top ripping shit up and the next Morathi is making her play. It seemed like 40k was doing this with the Indomitus Crusade, but then they sent us back a hundred years and the Silent King showed up and… nothing happened? I’m still not sure what the conclusion to all that was, or if it even mattered.
The Model Releases
We had a number of model releases in 2021, some large – the Sisters of Battle, Orks, and Black Templars all got massive range updates, while others were relatively small – Death Guard, Drukhari, AdMech, and Dark Angels each got 1-2 new models added to their ranges this year. How did you feel about the release of models and new units – were those too much, and was what we got on par with the quality you expected? What were the stand-outs?
Greg: We’ve been over this already.
SRM: This might be recency bias, or this might be the literal thousands of words I wrote about them, but the Black Templars release was laser beam focused on my interests. Aside from just being great models on their own, the artistic touchstones of “all the old Mark Gibbons artwork I like” had me hootin’ and/or hollerin’ on multiple occasions. You can read my reviews for the aforementioned thousands of words, but you can probably get the gist of how I felt about them here.
The Ork release was weird; all the Beastsnaggaz stuff have some real Horizon: Zero Dawn meets Age of Sigmar Ironjawz and it kind of feels out of place in a non-Snakebites army. Aside from the Kill Rig I think it all looks baller, but kind of like a separate army next to your classic Boyz, Trukks, and Kans. Speaking of, I’m a big fan of the new Boyz kit, as the old one was extremely long in the toof.
I don’t feel like there was “too much” – I definitely remember the 2-3 army releases a year of like, 2008-2016, so this is all gravy to me. However, I’m fortunate in that there usually isn’t more than one army I need to add a bunch of shit to per year.
Condit: Honestly, the biggest release for me was Incubi and Drazhar – not having to use the stupid Finecast Incubi was the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time. That and the Himbo Intercessors, which I definitely did not buy far too many of to ever get painted. God damn do I love gravis marines.
Rob: Drazhar and the new Incubi came out in 2019.
Pendulin: I could nitpick and point out one or two things I didn’t like about this year’s model releases. The Ork Boyz having fixed wargear is a bummer, the Sister Dogmata’s pose is entirely uninspired, stuff like that. But I have to dig deep to find those complaints as, almost without exception, the new models from 2021 have been unbelievably high quality. Beastsnaggaz, brilliant. Black Templar, gothic-brilliant. Skitarii Marshal, beeping-booping-brilliant.
Beanith: There have been some amazing new releases this year and a couple of them weren’t even for Age of Sigmar which was nice. The standout for me this year was the Beastsnagga range followed very closely by the new Ork Kommandos, I love my Killrig with it being chock full of attitude and character. The worst this year for me was the new Necron Flayed Ones from the Pariah box, spindly little bastards ready to fall apart explosively and disappear onto the floor never to be seen again.
Looking Ahead to 2022
This isn’t purely about looking back – there’s already loads to look forward to in 2022, both in terms of what GW has officially announced, and what they’ve hinted at.
Genestealer Cults, Custodes, and T’au Are on the Horizon
Greg: My opinions are gated behind the release of the T’au Empire codex. That book is basically my warhammer event horizon for now. The astrological phenomenon, not the movie, though if the Fourth Sphere debacle was anything to go by I guess it’s the movie too.
Otherwise I don’t really have a horse in this race, so I think the ideal outcome would be GSC becoming the mother of all glass cannons and finally putting the Drukhari out to pasture, and Custodes finally getting some builds that make them competitive without having to rely on any resin models. This is the funniest, and thus best, outcome.
Condit: I’m buying the Custodes book solely for my Torchbearers force, though I’m honestly hopeful that T’au finally get a codex that makes them anywhere near as fun to play against as they are to build, paint, and admire. They’ve really gotten a bad reputation over the years and I’m hopeful that we may finally be moving into an era where the shithead who makes fun of the local T’au player gets shunned and we can get back to ostracizing the real sickos: Dark Angels players.
Pendulin: As someone who built around 50 Mechanicus models in 2021 for a whopping total of about 1000 points, I’m eagerly looking forward to Custodes. I crave a low-model count, elite army, and Custodes have what I crave. That being said, Genestealer Cult have always been a pie-in-the-sky dream army of mine. Industrial rebels on dirt bikes stir up powerful emotions in me. But I just can’t stomach the idea of the next 50 models I build only being a small fraction of what’s needed in an army.
Beanith: I get to add in my two cents post-Railgun reveal and I can’t wait for SRM to read out all of these very angry views in an upcoming Badcast episode. I would also like to welcome back our T’au Overlord Richard Siegler? I’m not too interested in the GSC but I suspect I will be very tempted to jump on that bandwagon once I get a hold of the Crusade Rules or I accidentally win lotto and can afford to collect another horde army. I too have been sniffing around the Torchbearer rules as well and Pendulin’s suggestion of a low-model count army does appeal so chuck Custodes into the shopping crate.
Craftworlds Eldar and Chaos Space Marines are also in the mix
SRM: While it would be extremely funny if the Chaos codex was just a 3rd printing of the 8th ed one solely for the psychic damage it would cause Rob, I’m genuinely hoping they come out decent. I have an Iron Warriors army I haven’t played since 6th edition and I’m happy to be at the stage in my hobby where I can just pick up a codex every few years and not need to worry much about adding to my armies. Real curious what their Crusade section will look like though; the Eye of the Gods stuff has always been rad as hell, and Crusade really seems like the place for that to flourish.
Condit: I’m honestly really looking forward to Chaos getting some love, as I’ve off-and-on painted an Emperor’s Child or two in between other projects over the course of the past year. And I guess I could stand to finally build that wraith construct force I’ve been considering for the past few years.
I guess what I’m saying is that I am a mark, and am going to buy all this shit.
You monsters, what other fresh horrors awaits my poor defenseless wallet?
GW’s Proposed Seasons for 40k
Greg: From my perspective, this just means two Chapter Approveds instead of one. I do worry that the pace isn’t sustainable, or even a good thing, given the lead times inherent to printed materials, but it’s worth a shot.
SRM: Having a more formalized release schedule for these things probably isn’t a bad thing. It sounds more like a branding shift than anything else though, as campaign supplements seemed to be coming out every 6 monthsish anyway.
Pendulin: Shorter iterations are a good thing. However, releasing two different Chapter Approves each year is not how I’d do it. As it stands, it already feels kind of bad buying one Chapter Approved book bundle each year. I feel like releasing twice as many will result in fewer sales overall, especially from a casual play perspective. “Why would I buy this Chapter Approved book when it’ll be out of date in summer?” I also share Greg’s concern about print lead times, as faster iterations are only good if you are actually making good use of the shorter cycle.
Rob: From a casual standpoint I very much miss the old style of Chapter Approved, with its mix of competitive and casual content. If you’re going to give us two Chapter Approveds a year, stop reprinting the core rules in every book and give us more cool stuff in them. Hell, just reprint White Dwarf content, even. A White Dwarf Crusade Annual filled with Flashpoints is already something I’d like to see.
SRM: It’s kind of shocking how well GW was able to pivot to the ongoing upending of life as we know it. We’re closing out year 2 of Hellplague: Championship Edition, and GW’s release schedule has hardly missed a beat. With the frequent balance changes, Chapters Approved, and fast-paced release schedule, 40k really feels closer to a living ruleset than ever before. Hell, the app’s even pretty okay.
I’ve felt for a minute that AoS has the more inventive team, and is a place with a lot more freedom to write and design whatever the hell they want. Crusade puts a wrinkle in that line of thinking, as even with my own misgivings about its complexity, it’s clear the folks writing those sections really, really care about what they’re doing. I do think there are firmly too many books out there, but I’ve aged 20 years in the past two and am happy to just play with my codex, main rules, and the most recent Chapter Approved.
Rob: It’s kind of crazy to me how bland the Path to Glory rules ended up being in the AoS core rules. They’ve started to fix some of those problems with the new battletomes but my excitement for the AoS campaign rules vanished when I realized it was just an updated version of the old-ass campaign rules from long ago. Crusade may have way too much going on, but it’s a good chaos and it isn’t boring. Turning 40k into Necromunda is a much better problem than making a campaign system that’s boring.
Beanith: It boggles the mind that the AoS team just didn’t get a Work Experience kid to sit down with the Crusade rules and just use the Find and Replace tool to find words like AP and Invun saves and replace them with Rend and Ward saves. I had a whole bit planned out for this section for why the Arty kids didn’t want to talk to the Cool kids in their leather jackets about wanting to copy their homework and somehow it spiraled into my rewatching Grease instead. Wella wella, let me tell you more about my high hopes for 2022 instead. On the Warhammer side it’s looking fantastic with quarterly Balance Dataslates and the biannual Seasons and a ton of my Crusade content from all the codex about to drop. On the Real Life side, hooo boy… Look over there, it’s a distraction!
Pendulin: I may have complaints about Crusade, but it being boring isn’t one of them. The constant supply of fresh new rules and supplements means there’s always some new wacky mechanic to try in your next roster or campaign. This year has been great. Well, not for my wallet. Nor for my bookshelf which is getting weighed down by frankly too many rulebooks. Also not great for the whole virus apocalypse thing going on outside. So in conclusion, 2021 is a year of contrasts.
Greg: The entire edition is going to live and die under the shadow of this godforsaken plague, and we’re still out here getting games in, talking about the future like it’s going to exist in the first place. Either it’s a great time to be playing Warhammer, or we’ve all gone completely goddamn insane.
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