It’s a matter of weeks now before 8th Edition rolls out, with many, many changes afoot. It also happens to be close to the 3rd anniversary of Variance Hammer getting started. As we approach the twilight of 7th Edition, it seems reasonable to look back, see what’s come from this most recent edition, and look toward the future.
Let the belly-button staring commence!
Defining 7th Edition
In my mind, every edition has a defining flavor, something that made it “special”. Well, except maybe for 6th, which I don’t think hung around long enough to really develop its own character besides “not 5th and not 7th.” For me, 7th Edition was about an explosion of flexibility – and all the good and bad that came along with that.
The Three Paradigms of 7th: Within 7th edition, I’d argue there were three distinct eras, defined by the codex design paradigms that came from them. The first, from which the Dark Eldar, Space Wolf, Orks and Grey Knights emerged was the earliest, and the most removed from the flexibility that would come to define 7th ed. I’ve taken to calling this period the “Ensimpling”, when some very flavorful armies had some of that flavor stripped out of them. This also marked GW actively experimenting with alternative force organization charts and a few “If you take everything, have some neat rules” formations.
Following that was the age of the “Decurion” – and some of the most powerful codexes in the edition. The “formation of formations” birthed some very powerful armies, as did army-wide mass rules (such as the free transports of the Gladius). I’d assert that this period also featured some of the best written codexes in the edition. The Necrons played like they feel like they should, an unrelenting and durable force. A genuine Space Marine company was a viable (if somewhat dull) force. The Dark Angels were, for the first time in a long time, something other than “Like the Space Marines but worse”. The Eldar enjoyed a codex with few poor choices, and a number of paths to competitiveness.
I will freely assert that I think that if all armies had been lifted up to this level it would have been a great thing indeed.
But alas, it was not to be.
The third and final era of 7th edition threw open the doors – several long neglected, new and fan-favorite codexes, like the Deathwatch, Genestealer Cults, and the combined Talons of the Emperor got books, while mainline army codexes came to something of a screeching halt. Instead, a series of campaign supplements, expansion books, and what I’ve come to term “Codex DLC” patched and added to existing codexes. This added some very powerful things to the game (the Cyclopia Cabal, Ghostkeels and Riptides, and Magnus the Fucking Red), but they also did two rather frustrating things:
- They didn’t fix underlying problems with the Codex. Bringing the various *Claw units in the Space Wolves codex aligned with the Space Marine Scouts. Kroot and Vespid are still trash, etc.
- In failing to do so, they primarily added power to army by piling up new formations with collections of special rules.
This last phase was honestly getting…cumbersome. Multiple books needed per army, rules stacked on rules, and some lingering weirdness that persisted through codexes. And, to be frank, some growing frustration in myself and some other folks I knew as patches did or did not fix underlying issues, some armies went without badly needed updates, etc.
Freedom, it seems, was a little bit of a double-edged sword.
What I Liked About 7th Edition
Allies as a First-class Mechanic: I expect this one will be a little controversial, as abusing the allies rules also brought about some fairly un-fun things (Riptide Wings for everyone!).
But I’ve always liked allies, and I’ve been playing with them since 3rd Edition, when a valiant squad of Imperial Guard mounted in a Chimera fought alongside by Sisters of Battle. For the Imperium especially, the allies rules opened up a lot of interesting builds and a wide-open narrative space. That and allies were a great way to scratch an “itch” to build a few models without committing to an entire army. And as much as they were often used to punch up a force to make them tougher, they could also be used for the opposite – using Harlequin or Dark Eldar allies to take some of the teeth out of a Craftworld Eldar list while still maintaining a thematic force.
And while they were definitely abused, I’d argue they weren’t to root cause of that abuse, as a number of mono-codex armies were just as egregious.
Maelstrom Missions: There’s still a huge amount of resistance to Maelstrom missions, and this makes me sad. First, because I own an embarrassing number of tactical objective decks and love excuses to play with them. But more importantly, I think the Maelstrom missions were better for the game. They didn’t promote the last turn turbo-boost to victory plans. Games where one side was getting clobbered were often closer score wise than they appeared. They forced people to adapt, to change their plans, and to deviate from what their army was “built” to do. Maelstrom made for better games.
Now this is not to say they weren’t without problems. The “you can auto-discard a card that never would have been possible” is likely the most prevalent house rule I have ever encountered. And a few of the missions were just bad. Contact Lost and Deadlock especially seemed to promote “If you’re winning, win harder” as their primary mode of operation.
New Factions: Bringing back some old favorites (Genestealer Cults), fleshing out some previously underdeveloped units (Deathwatch) and some genuinely new forces in the form of the Sisters of Silence and the Custodes is cool. I’d like to see that continue.
But please GW, seriously…Sisters of Battle. It’s time.
The Mixed Bags
Recently on The Independent Characters, there was a discussion of wanting power to come from the fluff – play an army the way it’s “supposed” to be played and you should get bonuses for it, as this often involves some suboptimal choices. This is often interpreted as “play a single codex”, but I’d assert that Formations were already doing this.
Consider one of the most notorious Formations, or more accurately the “Formation of Formations” – the Gladius. Did you ever see anything even remotely resembling a Space Marine Battle Company on the tabletop in competitive play before that? A formation is the mechanic for “Take a fixed set of things to represent an element of the background, and be slightly stronger than that collection of units on its own”.
Unfortunately that’s far from the only thing they did. They also allowed for extremely efficient builds, skipping even the most basic of “tax” units, or allowing only the strongest units from an ally to be used. Yes Riptide Wing or Doom of Mymeara-fueled Aspect Hosts, I’m looking at you.
The Psychic Phase: I get what GW was trying to do with the psychic phase. Turning it into a mini-game with interaction on both sides and a little more strategy than it just being a “buff up and occasionally attack” phase. And with two or three Mastery Levels per side, it was enjoyable enough.
The problem was that it did not scale. As the number of warp charges goes up, powers become cumbersome to generate and to case. Everything slowed down, and because of the sheer volume of psykers on the field, the interaction of being able to try to Deny the Witch fades away under the avalanche of things being cast. And on the defense, there comes a point where, with enough dice being thrown, even needing 6’s doesn’t provide an obstruction to shutting down an opponent’s phase if they only have a caster or two.
Whether or not that’s “balanced” it’s anti-fun – you sit there while your opponent rolls dice, and with two, three, or four Mastery Levels being functionally equivalent to none, you sit there staring at your Librarian going “Why did I even bother?”
Similarly, this amplified the strength of already powerful units. A Librarian throwing Iron Arm on themselves is good, but not overwhelming. But a powerful unit with several overlapping protective and offensive powers is another thing all together, especially with the existence of several overtly unbalanced powers (Invisibility being the most obvious but not the only one). Which leads us to…
What I Didn’t Like
Deathstars: Some people might love Deathstars. I don’t. It is my great sorrow that one of the few competitive ways to play Space Wolves comes in the form of one. Between the USRs shared from the psychic phase, character rules, formations and artifacts, it was relatively trivial to dump heaps and heaps of rules on a single unit.
Now Games Workshop has said in some of their 8th Edition coverage that Deathstars were the results of “some sort of loophole in the rules that people are exploiting” and that they worked in ways that were “never anticipated”.
So here’s the thing. Deathstars weren’t the result of arcane, unexpected rules interactions. Most of them were dead obvious. Many of them didn’t even involve dabbling in multiple codexes. The idea that these arose from unexpected rules interactions is either not really true, or suggests a…worrisome…grasp of the rules by the people designing them.
Nor are they particularly new. There’s a grand history of piling characters into expensive units that’ll roll their way up to the board.
“We don’t like these and would like them to go away” is a perfectly sound, defensible design goal. Just say that.
Balance: Partially because of the different “eras” of 7th Edition, and partially because of some codexes that just worked particularly well with 7th Edition, the 40K meta is in something of an unhealthy place. While there’s a broad swathe of reasonably even-footed forces, the competitive 40K scene has both some clear winners and losers – and those factions have also been relatively stable. There’s a staleness to that that isn’t good for the game – on every level from the national tournaments to a small store where a new player wants to start up Eldar and starts taking flak for it.
My Hopes for Eighth Edition
I’ve been fairly quiet about the upcoming edition change because I don’t think making much of rules that come out piecemeal without grander context is worthwhile. But I do have some specific hopes for eighth.
Regression to the Mean: Lets get this out of the way first – 40K has never been balanced in the entire time I’ve been looking at it, and that’s been 8 years now. And I’m willing to put money on the game not being balanced in the next edition.
But what I am hoping for is that, with the slate being wiped clean and all the army rules being redone, that regression to the mean will kick in. What’s that mean? Basically, that things will tend toward the average, which means that powerful armies should decrease in power and the weaker armies will increase in power if army power is accidental, and not the result of the design studio having a hate-on for a particular faction.
Continued Development of New and Obscure Factions: As a longtime Dark Angels player, part of me dreaded every new edition of 40K. It meant that the clock was running for a redesign of the Space Marines codex and other popular armies. For 8th edition this will be a bigger deal – literally every faction in the game will have rules, but the space for dedicated, free-standing faction codexes is entirely open. Which means GW can have several years worth of productively redoing content before they run out of material.
My hope is they don’t do that. I’d like to see new things. I’d like to see some of the dark and obscure corners of the setting getting some light.
I’d like my goddamned Sisters of Battle. Last time I mention this, I promise.
General’s Handbook Style Updates: 7th Edition experimented with fixing the problems in codexes by using formations to layer on special rules for the use of under-used units. And I’m willing to say that by and large it didn’t particularly work. And while I’d like to see concerted tweaks to the underly mechanics of units (see …Terminators), points represent the most straightforward way to modify a unit. Make something cheap enough, and people will take it. Make something more expensive, and you increase the opportunity cost behind taking something powerful.
The General’s Handbook for Age of Sigmar represents a fast, dynamic way to adjust points costs without entirely reissuing a codex. It allows tweaks that don’t justify a full-on rewrite. I’d like to see something like that for 40K – frequently updated, dynamic rules changes.
Three Styles of Gameplay: This is a hope for the community, rather than the rules. Games Workshop has said that they’ll be providing the mechanisms for competitive, casual and narrative play.
My sincere hope is that we use them all. That there is not one “default” that we try to shoehorn the entire game into. That given a way to keep the tournaments out of our narrative and our narrative out of our tournaments, we don’t immediately tear down that separation.
The 7th Edition of Warhammer 40,000 is, despite being relatively young by release standards (though not compared to the Mayfly of 6th Edition) is starting to show its age. There’s some clear design debt that’s dragging the game down, and some of the terminal edge cases of the ruleset have been found and exploited. Like many things, 40K benefits from an occasional cleansing reset of the core assumptions of the game, the rules, etc.
That being said, I think it’s also important to recognize that this edition has served us well. There is a healthy and vibrant 40K scene. The plot has, in several directions, moved forward. As much as I’m looking forward to 8th, part of me will miss 7th when it’s gone.
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