Thursday, 15 October 2015

Fantasy Warlord

So. It's 1990. Games workshop are at the height of their powers. They are still run by the Auteur-like Bryan Ansell and are still producing material for Rogue Trader and WFB 3rd Edition. So if you are one of their Illustrators or an ex-head buyer and Financial Director what makes more sense than attempting to launch a rival game in order to steal away their custom? Thats exactly what Gary Chalk and Ian Bailey decided to do. Fantasy Warlord is a set of Fantasy mass combat rules that was intended to rival GW's behemoth. They even launched a magazine to support their new game. I think the name they chose adequately illustrates their attitude to their competition.

So. Did it have a chance? Was it better than WFB? What was it like? 

Well. I got my hands on a copy so lets find out!

Illuminate me!
First, the similarities. You still build your units into blocks of figures. These are still 28mm and you still have dwarves, orcs, goblins etc. You still have monsters and you still have characters and they still move around the table top and bash each other and shoot little missiles at each other.
You still have movement and shooting and combat and you still use morale tests to avoid your troops running off when they lose. So far so simple.

Fantasy Warlord does a lot of this stuff differently though. Lets start with characters. In WFB, characters tend to be little one man units for wandering around killing stuff or they are little performance boosters for a single unit. In Fantasy Warlord your characters actually do what they should do. They lead.

First of all you get to choose a hero type. Are they a Warrior Hero? A Priest? A Warrior Priest? A Magic User? A Thief? A Discipline Master?

Once you've decided on this you get to roll to see how heroic your leader is. One of three levels can be rolled and each one gives you a number of further rolls on a series of skills that personalise them more. In addition to skills each character gets to roll for a Command Factor, a Morale Factor and a Combat modifier.

The Command Factor dictates one of the other interesting parts of Fantasy Warlord. The Brigade.
Your army is organised around brigades. Each brigade is made up of two or more units led by a character. The leader can have as many units under his command as his Command Factor.
So your army is divided into brigades of units led by a Character who has some influence over their moral and combat.

It's not all that straight forward though. In order for your units to do what you want them to do you have to pass a order test. If your unit passes then you can hand it an order, if it fails then the unit sits around looking confused. This is the infamous 'fog of war' that Von Klauswitz alluded to. The idea that you can never guarantee what your troops are going to do. It's an idea that you can see in Black Powder/ Hail Caesar or Lion Rampant and it's something that Too Fat Lardies build their games around.

Once you've worked out which units are listening to you then you can hand out some orders. There are 24 different orders you can hand out covering pretty much anything you can imagine you want your unit to do. In order to give your order, you place a chit air marker next to the unit. The idea is that the order marker would be unseen by your opponent. But to be fair he'll be busy. He'll be handing out his order markers as well.

Cos you'll be doing it simultaneously.

Yep. That's right. You won't be reacting to your opponents moves, you'll be pre-empting them. This is obviously quite a different approach to WFB. It makes you think a lot more about what you need your units to do and act accordingly.

The markers are turned over at the same time and the units follow the orders that they've been given. This means movement of both sides are carried out at the same time. Quite neat.

Recognise some of these?

Is that the boys brigade over there?
Shooting and combat are worked out by referring to a series of charts on each of the races profiles included in the back of the book. Each figure that fights adds a percentage to the total. This is modified by a variety of things, whether they are a hated foe, whether they are wearing armour, whether they charged etc and then this is all added together. For every 100% an enemy figure is killed. If there is a surplus of percentage points then the controlling player gets to roll 2d10 and if he rolls under the surplus then another figure dies. Obviously this method means that both sides are fighting at the same time so all the figures in both units get to fight.

However, to get all this simultaneous combat and movement to work, each race has a profile page full of charts to work through.

Each race has a double sided A4 page of charts and modifiers that represent their profile. This is possibly the point that breaks the game. If you thought the WFB profile was a bit long and unwieldy then this would break your heart. The looking up charts to work out casualties reminds me of Foundry's 1644 rules and seems like there is very little 'fear' of the results. The threat of a set of bad rolls has been mitigated by the modifiers that you can build into the unit from step one. Lion Rampant does a similar combat method where you need to have a certain number of 'successes' in order to remove a model but the successes are random rather than pre-ordained and the modifiers are minimal. I'd imagine running through a combat in Fantasy Warlord would quickly become mired in hunting for modifiers and screwed up faces as head maths is attempted.

The methods of building armies is interesting in that the book gives rough outlines of the composition of various armies set with in the games world. It sets limits on the make up of your army by placing a maximum percentage upon the types of weapons or armour that troops are allowed to be armed with. So you may be allowed to army no more than 50% of your army with halberds or on only 30% of your army are allowed to have heavy armour. The book promises an more detailed army book to come but this obviously never appeared.

The armies are based around the forces present in the world of Vortimax, the world setting created for the game. You get some geography some, some history and some background to the various races and lands in which you set your battles.
Google wants me to look at Vertimax instead which is a very different thing!
As you'd expect when one of the authors is an illustrator, the book is full of Gary Chalk's illustrations, some of which are classics of the era and you may have seen before but been unaware of their source. The book is well presented and easy to read and I'm glad I got myself a copy.

But what happened to it? Well, to put it bluntly, the authors were wrong. They had brought Fantasy Warlord into being as they felt GW was heading into a overly commercial territory and wanted a more serious wargame that reflected real life battlefield situations, where the troops didn't always do what you want and the commanders lose the ability to control their brigades as the battle continues. Turns out thats not what the Fantasy gaming community wanted. One of the biggest complaints was that the balance in the combat left no room for suspense or run away victories. Gamers stuck with the game they knew or tried Grenadiers Fantasy Warriors instead which game out at the same time and muddied the issue with a similar name.

Red Giant only ever published two issues and no further Fantasy Warlord books ever came out. The company, Folio Works, closed in 1993 and the minatures ranges (some of which were sculpted by Bob Olley and were cast by Alternative Armies) were sold off.

Neither of the two authors are particularly positive about their experince with Fantasy Warlord. Gary Chalk saying that it caused a lot of stress and heartache and Ian Bailey saying that he had misjudged the fantasy market. 

The thing is, the game does have some interesting ideas and one wonders how the more successful WFB would feel with some of these ideas built in.
Can you imagine moving your armies units at the same time as your opponent? Once you've decided on an set of orders for a unit they would have to be carried out no matter what the opposing units ahead of you had decided to do. Imagine if your characters were given charge of several units, that they actually led them rather than just acted as mini-units, how would this change the way you used them in a battle. How would you brigade your favourite army?
Imagine there was a chance that your units wouldn't do wanted them to do. That you had to roll for each unit to see if they'd follow orders (just like Orc and Goblin commanders do for some of their units). It would certainly be an interesting experiment to marry some of these ideas to WFB and see what kind of a beast would be created. It wouldn't take much engineering as some of the mechanisms are already in place. Roll on intelligence to see of the unit are alert enough to take orders. Place little order chits next to your units that pass and both players reveal them at the same time. Give units a negative if their brigade leader isn't within 6 inches. Simple changes but they'd be make for a fascinating game.


  1. Re: Leadership? What about an Intelligence/Leadership matrix, similar to the WS/WS matrix used to resolve attacks?

  2. Lovely illustrations. The order system sounds great too. But that approach to combat: urgh!

  3. I still have my copy of Fantasy Warlord. Never played it though ...
    Anyway, a lot of the ideas of orders etc. were already being explored at the time in historical rulesets. Also, if you look at the book "Fantasy Wargaming" by Martin Hackett (1990), it has some similar ideas.

    Some 70s and 80s era fantasy rulesets (e.g. Archworld, Royal Armies Hyborian Age, Middle Earth wargaming ...) also offer alternative views on what wargaming could have become if not Warhammer monopolised the field from the mid-eighties on.

  4. it' strue the ideas you point to add flavour to a game of WHFB are very good, I have to say I only read this book in diagonal at Gaj's and haven't pushed it very far but there are good ideas to take from most games I reckon.

  5. We tried it back in the day, as we were getting bored of WFB3. Played a few games, found it enjoyable, and had some interesting mechanics, but in the end we just went back to what we all knew best, which was WFB. I might try and pick up another copy at some point, and give it another try.

  6. I really like the idea of simultaneous actions which are unknown to your opponent (the fog of war idea is familiar to me with animosity amongst my orcs and goblins - which imo adds to the game anyway).

    I'd love to experiment with Fantasy Warlord's structure and 3rd Edition's combat, an experiment for BOYL next year?

    Great illustrations too.

  7. I have played this and it was fun belive it or not! The hardest part was designing the characters. If you fancy a game of it let me know.

    I also have both edditions of Red Dwarf which has some cool stuff in it including AD&D and CoC.

  8. I'm going to have to check this out. Even if it's never played of sound like a good read.

  9. Very Interesting Blogg Entry, Sir!
    I too have a copy of Fantasy Warlord and luckily I also got one of each of the two Red Giant. Love the name! I have also, as you did, have had the idea of a mixture between WFB 2nd or 3rd Ed and Fantasy Warlords. I have even in my mind lately been rking on some ideas to a little campaign.
    Very glad to see your exellent analysis of this game, Thanks

  10. To echo what Phil said above, Orders and morale rules do appear in a lot of and in Rick and Hals Reaper (Gilberts Archworld is absolutely lovely too). The Ld tests for manouvers in 3rd, standards and various psychology special rules, routing etc, do go some way to handling Morale. Even then Warhammer simulates ideas around command / control very poorly, which is where traditional Kriegsspiel was situated - with the players giving orders then interpreted on the field by subordinates - because alongside resources, communications are the biggest challenge faced by a battlefield general, (hence Guy Debords Situationist version of Chess places considerably deeper emphasis on lines of command) The 'game' as such isn't about smashing armies into each other and rolling dice to find out who wins, but about writing the best orders so that armies smash into each other and rolling dice to find out who wins.

    But where I think FW went wrong was largely in the presentation of the rules, tying it to the world of Vortimax which had the pitfals of being very specific (eastern orcs, western orcs etc.) whilst simultaneously very generic (orcs!). Then Warhammers growth had as much to do with GWs retail and distribution muscle as its virtues as a game.

  11. What a great article! Thanks for shining this light on a dark corner of wargaming history.
    I remember my brother telling me about Fantasy Warlord back in its day, with its fascinating approach to giving orders. But I haven't thought about it in years. Zhu's point is spot on: command and control are central to the best/most realistic wargames, and it's something that Warhammer has always been bad at.
    Plus, Gary Chalk is my favourite GW illustrator. Great. Now I feel compelled to track down a copy of this game.

  12. This does sound like it would play better as a computer game, with the maths being taken care of for you. It is a nice looking book though.

  13. I played Ernie at this game but can't remember much about it, other than the fact that I loved the idea of Eastern and Western Orcs......................................... I was very young to be fair to me.

    On the topic of orders, earlier in the year I read a book on solo wargaming (if we're honest then we've all had a go at a solo game or if not then we've definitely considered it) that had an idea of using order systems to allow for working out what units did and their leaders effectiveness influenced their orders. It would make it a slower game BUT if you're going solo then time is less of an issue. It worked around a similar principle to: if unit A is armed with missile weapons and they can see two enemy units, one is under half range, the other over half range then the chance is that they'll fire on the enemy unit closest to it. If the leader incompetent (worked out before the game) then there is a chance they won't fire or select the lesser danger so the die roll needed is affected. It would be quite complicated but once you get used to it I guess it would be less so, especially if you were playing a campaign, you'd get used to each character and how they lead.

  14. Hello! I am working on better organizing my miniature collection and came across five shrink wrapped Fantasy Warlord cards. I am looking for PDF versions of their catalogs and or any other PDF material I can get so I can match them up accordingly.

    Thanks in advance!


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