Starting Warmachine and Hordes: What is the Game like?

Startin Armies

Greetings readers! I’ve been unfaithful. I decided to look at other miniatures wargames, particularly small-scale skirmish based ones to see how well balanced they are and how they compare to Warmachine. I honestly didn’t find anything that answered my questions, so if anyone has a good/great place where mini wargames are compared objectively, please share! (I was looking at Malifaux, and especially Infinity).

It made me want to provide an overview of Warmachine that will tell you what to expect once you reach the real core of the game and the experience it provides. No-one wants to invest tens of hours and hundreds of monies only to realise they don’t like the game as it plays in actuality.

Why do We Play?

To me, wargames have a few different appeals. This first, and most obvious to me is:

Hobby – How nice do the models looks? How good quality are they? How expensive is it to buy and invest in the models?

  • Warmachine and Hordes have some gorgeous and attractive models, cohesive and interesting aesthetics across different armies and a compelling setting of steampunk fantasy. However some of the older sculpts look a bit dated, and some people consider the heroic proportions and love of shoulder pads a detractor. (8/10)
  • Their models are regarded as good but not the pinnacle of quality compared to larger companies. Especially the larger resin kits. (7/10)
  • It is not a cheap game. It is cheaper than truly large scale games, but the necessity to have more than one playable army, increases the cost to reach competitive play. However the game is very playable before that level as you build your force, so it is not difficult and in fact recommended that you slowly accumulate models as you learn the game. The models are individually quite fairly priced. (7/10)

Look at this guy! I am all that is mountain!

Novelty – Is the game fun to play? Does it provide new situations? Are you rewarded for skill and learning new interactions and tactics?

  • Yes! The game is composed of many enjoyable interactions. However I will say that as you get better many of the large gambles you make will be replaced with more careful and smaller gambles and hedging your bets. (8/10)
  • The game is primarily occupied with positioning relative to both the board and the opponent as well as your own models. This provides a large variety of situations to be faced with as well as the potential variety in opponent armies which is quite large. (9/10)
  • Warmachine is a difficult game to learn, but this is because of its high reliance on both player skill and to a lesser extent their knowledge of the many interactions that occur in the game. This is one of the selling points of the game, player skill is highly valued by the community and the game’s mechanics. (10/10)

Learning Curve – How long does it take to get good? How much will I lose until I get better? How complicated are it’s rules?

  • The drawback to a high skill game is that deep understanding of complex game takes time and practice. Warmachine has a very steep learning curve, the reward is an incredibly varied and thought provoking tactical game. However it can be difficult to face regular defeat in order to get good at the game. (6/10)
  • You will lose a lot on the way up, if you are prepared for this and eager to learn and better yourself you will find it rewarding. If you want to win games with minimal investment, this may not be the game for you. (5/10)
  • The rules for Warmachine are clear and often written with very little need for external advice or interference, but they are many and it can take a while to understand their interactions and ordering. (6/10)

Not an unusual sight at demos. Those arrows put out a lot of game shop lighting fixtures!

Balance/Competition – This is a really vital quality. If you start the game, you will often have a pool of models that you are supposed to collect, a faction/army/team, etc. For the purpose of this article these will be referred to as models. A collection of models that are legal to play together, and therefore what you should collect exclusively. Are these Factions balanced? Or do you always lose with certain Factions? Does this game have a lively and balanced competitive tournament system?

  • The Factions of Warmachine are very well balanced. They are not perfect, but your Faction is a smaller contributor to your success than player skill, individual army composition and luck. With player skill being by far the largest component. (9/10)
  • While some Factions are good against a set of other Factions, they often respectively struggle more against a different set. However the game has many tools to deal with these more difficult problems, and the design philosophy is to increase options to do so. Because of this trend towards greater relative Faction balance this is a highly regarded aspect of the game. (9/10)
  • Yes! Yet another draw of Warmachine is that it has an excellent tournament scene, with communities famed for good atmosphere and respect for player skill. There is also an absence of soft scoring and no-win situations. This is where Warmachine stands tallest to me. (10/10)

That last seems like it’s a load of unfun, mouth-breathers fighting over exploiting tricks and minute details to one up each other enacting a revenge on hygiene and good sense because they have to live in a basement. It’s the opposite. A well balanced game doesn’t have silly exploits, or tricks that auto win games, though it may have complicated interactions and strategies. The distinction seems minor but is vital. A fair game promotes fun and skill, an unfair casual only game just leads to wasted investment and bitterness.

In Warmachine & Hordes, what are the games like?

Warmachine and Hordes involves fielding a small army of models, usually between 10 and 50 models and more typically between 20 and 30. The game’s most unique quality is its warcasters/warlocks. These are powerful models which are both potent in there own right, and possess abilities which enhance other models or alter the rules of the engagement in some way. They are both your King and Queen in analogy to chess.

All hail the Qu-ing! (Excellently painted on, click for link)

These abilities are activated by spending points (focus or fury respectively) from a pool. The two types of points have their own unique rules for how they replenish. Where this gets interesting is with the inclusion of warjacks/warbeasts. These are primarily large (~12 foot in the game’s fiction) robots and monsters (again respectively) which harness the warcasters/warlock’s pool of resources in order to wreak havoc. They hit hard, are resilient, and provide a core to most armies. Collectively these are known as ‘heavies’. The warcasters/warlocks use their heavies to fight each other, exchanging attacks or spells/abilities on their caster for the powerful attacks of the heavy. This is typified in the beginners’ section of the game.

The game also includes infantry squads. Usually 6-10 model groups of human sized soldiers which must stay within a certain distance of a unit leader. These infantry may die easily to a heavy‘s, but they can spread out forcing the heavy to waste high quality attacks and stalling it in a position so that the enemy heavy can in turn attack and destroy it. This is known as screening.

Infantry that focuses mostly on giving a fair fight to other infantry and screening heavies by bodily obstruction or by stopping the enemy seeing the screened models are common and very useful. Other infantry specialise in removing the opponent’s screening infantry rapidly (often with ranged attacks) allowing your heavies to plough forward unimpeded, or some infantry hit heavies very hard allowing a rush of several such models to kill a heavy (these models often have large melee weapons and a special rule which causes more damage in close combat).

The game is considerably more complex, with different model types providing different abilities and counters to each other. If you take all heavies in your army enemy heavies will be destroyed as they fight yours. You have more heavies however so will have some left after the dust settles. Enemy screening models will only slow down the inevitable wave, while infantry killing models have little effect! Ha! Game success solved! Not quite, an opponent with many heavy cracking infantry models can kill your heavies with half of its value of models, leaving you at a huge disadvantage. You can’t even screen your heavies to keep them safe! You didn’t bring any infantry!

Wait Boss, let us throw our bodies in the way for you!

Into this mix we add solos, powerful individual models who either support your existing models, or can kill many models. The downside? These models are expensive and often die to the same attacks as other infantry. So we have a wide variety of model types and concepts.

It should be noted that Warmachine is a quite a fast paced game, with many models dying very quickly, and more being rapidly eliminated quickly in return. These exchanges can often be brutal and sudden, especially when you’re new to the game. This is not a game of being invincible, its a game of coming out a head in the aggression race, either by slowing down your opponent or pushing ahead hard.

How do you win?

Excellent question! We are playing a war-game after all! Warmachine and Hordes have two win conditions and a set of tie breakers if the game lasts longer than it’s time limit.

Assassination – This means killing your opponents warcaster/warlock. To stress again, that model is your most powerful model, but if he dies you lose the game. In fact the resources he spends are also what keeps him safe, so the more you spend the more in danger you are. But if you don’t spend resources, you can’t achieve as much as your opponent. It’s a delicate balance, and new players will get their warcaster/lock assassinated a lot.

Assassination also means that even when you feel like you are losing a game you can try your best to kill the opponent’s warcaster/warlock in order to win the game. This is obviously more easy in a strong position, but you are never totally out of chances to win the game as long as you can attack the opponent’s lynchpin.

There are two commonly accepted strategies to winning in this manner. The first is unhelpfully called assassination. It actually refers to trying to get around/through your opponents army in order to kill their warcaster/warlock early and with little concern for what his army is doing, or how exposed your own is to destruction.

The second is known as attrition, which is actually a strategy used in both win conditions. In Warmachine it refers to exchanging models with your opponent while losing fewer models than he does as they kill each other, the end result being that you have more models and more powerful attacks with which to kill their undefended warcaster/warlock. Specifically the idea might be to kill enemy heavies until you have the last one, then that heavy can kill their warcaster/warlock and you win the game!

I’mma gonna get ya!

Scenario – While scenarios are only provisionally in the core rulebook, these should be played as part of the full game. The scenario packet and its rules are called Steamroller, and are updated yearly. Scenarios involve moving towards the center of the board, and controlling areas of the board, or specific points by having the only models alive near them. Each controlled area often earns you a single point, though if you risk your warcaster/warlock by being in these central scoring zones you can often score 2. It can be easy to not pay attention to how your opponent can score points and lose the game when you’re new. Like keeping your caster safe, it comes with practice. As a general rule you want to move stuff with staying power into the scoring areas, while killing your enemies models in the same areas.

You can approach this in two ways, one is to play models who move or slow down your opponent. Also helpfully called playing for scenario! This minimises the models you have to kill to score points. Like going for an early assassination this approach relies on certain models to stall your opponent, and will often sacrifice models for the ‘greater good’.

Attrition is also an excellent approach to this, as you grind down your opponent it gets easier to clear an area of his models entirely, while still having enough to stop him scoring.

I own this space!

In reality, you will try to strike a certain balance between slow attrition, scoring points, and directly threatening your opponent’s warcaster/warlock in order to achieve victory at the highest levels of the game.

Who can we play with? What are they like?

The Factions of Warmachine are varied, and very well balanced against each other, though some factions have an easier time when playing their typical models against the commonly taken models of others. The individual casters/locks also provide a huge variety of playstyles and armies that can be explored. However, each Faction has a flavour and a certain approach, as well as distinctive feels and similarities.

As this is a new player’s guide, I will also talk about models that are difficult to use, less effective, or just generally misunderstood in the divide between fluff as written and the game as it is played. I will be talking about how the Factions play and feel at 50 points in Steamroller scenarios, which is again the fully realised form of the game, and the best balanced and most widely played. To begin with you will play battlebox games, and 35 points or lower before graduating this far, however this is the end goal.

I will go into detail about the different Faction’s next week.

Stay Classy!
-Eoin aka VagrantPoet

Here I talk about the Factions of Warmachine.

Here I talk about the Factions of Hordes.

7 thoughts on “Starting Warmachine and Hordes: What is the Game like?

  1. Ok, this is awesome. Thanks for writing this. The only thing I can think of that I disagree with in your ratings is around the rules. I’m not sure if you have the question, but I’ve found Warmachine/Hordes rules to be superior to any other game I’ve played, tho admittedly those are mostly board games.

  2. Nicely done! I usually recruit new players by forcing them to survive outside the walls with only a knife, fighting off wolves to survive, but pointing them to this article is probably a better choice.

    • Hmm. I’m not so convinced, meet me at the walls with a bowie knife, some wolves cubs, a poster for a journeyman league, ten rolls of tape and a crate of oranges… Wait you do love Orange Soda right?

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