Why 9th Age will last, but never succeed
When in 2015 WHFB stopped, one of the ‘The Ninth Age’-community spokesmen, co-founder Sir Joker, wrote,
“People around the world don’t know how to move forward because their beloved hobby has been terminated. We offer you the chance to reunite the community (…) Our goal is to create the rule system people deserve, a rule system that is designed to be played competitively, a rule system build by the community for the community.”
Fast forward three years, where are they now? A 9th-age-player concluded that the game was made for
a dying breed of gamers. And all the stuff we love in the game are what keeps new players, modern players, from loving it.
How can a game be an ambitious rewrite of WHFB 8th ed. with a quite active tournament scene, and still be a ruleset on life support? Because of that. The project team has made several strategic errors – some irrepairable – that have turned the project – imho – in a Grailseeking quest. And although I admire the hard work, the great layout, the blood sweat and tears of T9A, I predict that ‘The Ninth Age’ will in the end be nothing more than a fringe movement in mass battle fantasy wargaming.
Not a dominant ruleset that attracts new generations.
The decline, actually, is quite sad. Non-profit volunteer games have my sympathy. I write this blog not because I hate 9th Age or fantasy battling, but because I wonder about a gamer’s community that still dream that they are the world’s next Games Workshop.
How many people actually play 9th age?
Google Trends shows how often 9th Age has been queried, since 2015. The graph below is a comparison between Age of Sigmar (blue line), Kings of War (yellow line) and T9A (green line).
After a boost in the beginning AoS fell down to about 11.000 queries per month, but the trend is upward, to 29k past months: KoW started at 15-19.000, but is now down to 6-7000 per month: 9th Age Warhammer has been seldom queried last three years, 1000 or lower.
Actual numbers are a bit hard to estimate. The 9th-age slim rulebook was downloaded 160,000 times, the v1.3 army books 40.000 times, the 9th-age forum has 11269 members. 1129 filled in a poll. About 1000 players play the game once per week or more.
However, the USA scene is rapidly declining. Aenarion43, Assistant Head of Playtesting, wrote an alarming post.
He collected USA tournament data, 2014-2017.
- 2014: 37 WHFB tournaments, 32 attendees on average
- 2015: 52 WHFB tournaments, 26 attendees on average
- 2016, 33 T9A tournaments, 33 attendees on average
- 2017: 22 T9A/30 attendees on average.
He points out that the increase in player attendance from 2016 to 2017 was correlated with a 16% drop in players overall.
So it wasn’t “the game growing” as ‘people were forced to concentrate as the game diminished’.
He expects the trend to continue:
Less tournaments with slightly higher attendance and a drop in the number of overall players.
He and his group collated a large number of anecdotal reports of people of people stating that their communities had died, moved on to other games “sick of changing rules”
He concludes: “Personally, I wouldn’t consider a game that’s only played by a small coterie of hardcore tournament players to be successful. That feels like where the game is headed if it continues on its current direction. 9th Age is digging itself into a hole and dying. Unless there is a MAJOR change in the game’s design direction, it’s going to die in the USA within 2 years.”
That’s the USA, where large gaming convention Adepticon canceled all 9th-age games in 2018. Europe is less clear and probably in a much better state. However, DeBelial, a Polish player and Tool Support member, collected the total number of Polish tournament players last few years. He writes:
I noticed the same trend in Poland. (…) when you look at overall number of tournament participants, things are not looking good:
- 2014 (WFB): 834
- 2015 (WFB): 545
- 2016 (T9A): 474
- 2017 (T9A): 381
Artegis from Vienna writes: “Sir Joker knows that 9th Age community in Vienna is almost null. Rarely you see people playing… “
Few years ago, there were plenty of tournaments in 8th Edition. Now the quantity of players is reducing slowly.
Traumdieb writes (in German) about the Müchen scene: the casual gamers don’t come to the 9th Age tournaments anymore, to many rule changes, three more or less active 9th-agers (formerly 10), a canceled tournament, a club not playing 9th age anymore.
And Frederique from Oslo reports: “I could also blame my gaming club in Oslo, where 90% of the Norwegian ETC fantasy team has always come from, since they all switched to warmachine (!) after Prague.
The majority of the club did not have faith in the longevity of a fan-made project, and I admit I shared that view to some extent.
My general impression – sorry Sir Joker, sorry Warhammer fans, sorry friendly volunteer rule writers – is that T9A is not succesful at all and is fighting a losing battle against AoS and many other more popular wargame rulesets. Capture the Flag or King of the Hill? Not T9A.
It’s the result of several mistakes that I will list below.
Error #1: Prominent 9th-agers talk disdainful about Age of Sigmar
Check this discussion, (p.31)
Taki, from the T9A Background Team, called AoS in this thread:
full of stupidity and bad game design
Morgan Treeman, T9A Community Engagement, reacts. He thinks the only reason why so many people play AoS is
that it has the name ‘Games Workshop’: attached to it. If any small company had come out with this game, nobody would be playing it.
GW games are not good. They are for 12 year olds (…) just lazy rules writing
Yatagarasu, from T9A Lectoring team, quarreled during AoS-games with AoS-players because his opponents played for fun. Thus he dislikes AoS-players as a group. he has
not so much criticism of Age itself, but more so of the types of players I have encountered while playing.
During an AoS game, he lectured his loose-on-rules-opponent about the charge rules, and was branded as “toxic” and “hyper-competitive”.
He calls the AoS-rules
horrid (…) players getting rewarded for poor play (…) it just reeks of poor design and laziness (…) I would be happy if I never looked on a General’s handbook again
Such takes on AoS and Games Workshop are – I quote T9A-forum veteran Baranovich – are very
cynical and unappreciative of the good things that GW brought to the hobby over the past 30 years
So all this banter and bluster about how GW supposedly ripped us off is nonsense. You might think AOS is a juvenile game that is beneath your maturity and depth level. But if you think that then you miss the entire point of AOS. The game has competitive depth if you want to find it. But the game also allows those two friends to play with their little, tiny forces of ratmen and skeletons.
And that’s important for the future of the wargaming hobby. Getting new players to enter the hobby is a constant priority on these forums and a constant topic of discussion. AOS accomplishes that for new fantasy players…at a crucially important young age.
Isn’t gettting new players into the hobby a GOOD thing? Well that’s precisely what AOS provides, despite your dislike of it for its supposed “lack of depth” and its supposed failure to meet your “level of statistical balance”. That’s why you should play AOS.
And also he is getting
quite tired of every thread turning into an AOS- bashing thread. AOS has its issues like any game does. But to imply that if you don’t like 9th Age then go play the kiddie-version of fantasy is simply insulting.
Kings of War, btw, is in the forums generally described less unfriendly but still disdainful as ‘bland’
Why disdain is a problem
Many new (fantasy) wargamers enter the hobby via Games Workshop. If you send the AoS-fanbase the message that they play a stupid, horrid game, that AoS is inferior, if you belittle AoS-players, then the T9A-community is estranging itself from the dominant fantasy fanbase. You don’t win the sympathy battle this way. Before people play your game, they first must like you.
Error 2: the overambitious staff and lawyers ruled out ‘fair use’ of GW IP
Players have asked why WHFB 8th Edition needed such a complex facelift. Why so serious? Why not a set of simple house rules based on the intellectual property of Games Workshop, just like Blood Bowl? House rules are not forbidden. Bugman, head of public relations, wrote in reply in the T9A-forum:
If house rules contain no IP, then you would be correct. If those rules contain IP and are shared amoungest friends then that’s okay. If you publish them in the internet then that’s not okay. If they end up being played in thousands of homes and hundreds of tournaments every year, then that’s also not okay. Yes there is a lot of Blood Bowl fan made material out there but none of it has the breadth, length or reach of this game, not even close. The need to rebalance the game and army books does require publishing of stat lines and other rules/names. That is illegal and it’s not our IP, therefore we can not do it.
And Lawgnome, member of T9A’s legal team, wrote about the impossibility of fair use:
the goal of T9A is to reach as wide of a market as possible so that we can have neat things like global tournaments and new people joining the hobby so that it can continue in perpetuity.
This is why we aren’t doing this: we want this to be a game that we can play for years, rather than putting an old game on life support until all interest fades
PR-team member Blonde Beer wrote that the original idea was clean up the old game and make it tournament ready but that lawyers told them
they needed to do something else (not sure what, just something else). So, the concept of creating a new game was born (…) something other than Warhammer (damn lawyers …) but needed to fill the void left by the demise of that game.
The two American volunteer IP lawyers that advise the community advised against contacting GW explain that they
have not entered into any discussions with GW
relating to securing their approval, for two reasons: 1) distrust “they are not on our side” and 2) the correspondence could be a threat “if we became really successful”. They continue:
“we expect our project to have a much greater market penetration (…) This is not simply viewed as a fan made project, but rather we have taken a global perspective to produce the very best fantasy based table top wargame out there.”
(…) if our game got too big (like if it was basis for a large number of tournaments around the world, for example), then it is a prime target for getting shut down, which would really suck for everyone that doesn’t want to play AoS of KoW.
In short, they fear legal action and because the community doesn’t have the resources to fight a legal battle, only a fantasy battle, the lawyers have advised to be careful, stay on the safe side of the road and create something ‘different’.
Why ‘we are different’ is a problem
House rules are often not a problem. I wouldn’t trust GW too quickly, but their official IP policy nowadays sounds relaxed. They say they are unlikely to object if the product is non-commercial, not professionally distributed and clearly unofficial. GW didn’t object to
- the Blood Bowl living rulebook
- the Grim&Perilous Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay ‘retroclone’, (but) later rewritten and now published as Zweihänder
- Warmaster freely republished by Rick Priestley
- War & Conquest, the ‘spiritual successor’ of Warhammer Historical, commercially published by former GW manager Rob Broom
- or War & Sorcery, the fantasy conversion of War & Conquest
- the Oldhammer movement
- Blackhammer, a French Warhammer-living rulebook project
- The WarhammerCE-project, a 7th-edition living rulebook, with balanced and rewritten rules
- Fluffhammer, presented (in German) as an updated version of 8th edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Just like T9A they present themselves as a living rules community project, but they are more positive about AoS (‘ínnovative, but just not what we like’), they maintain the Old World background and make clear that they are non-commercial, unofficial and that the copyrights belong to Games Workshop.
- The Warhammer Armies Project, 8th/9th edition Warhammer singlehandedly edited by a Swedish fan,
The ‘we want global domination’- approach of T9A brings only one big advantage. A shared feeling that the community is busy with something huge that will result in the Second Coming – the return of the good times. But it brings many disadvantages.
- A feeling of competition with GW makes a soft compromise with the mother company impossible.
- Legal problems quadruple.
- The decision to throw all GW IP overboard bears the risk of losing a large group of GW-fans who loved the old IP. If the group of quitters is larger than the group of new recruits, the player base declines.
- The project becomes larger and harder to manage. Instead of only updating the rules – not a simple task as such – you need marketeers, PR, a legal committee, new background… T9A indeed has organized such teams, which is excellent, but players complain that the decision making process is bureaucratic.
- If the Second Coming is delayed, people lose faith.
Besides, (being a lawyer myself) I wonder how useful all the legal camouflage is. Project co-founder Tiny wrote on July 24th, 2015 about T9A in the news section (link):
Basically it will be an updated version of 8th warhammer. Pretty much like how 7th edition was an updated version of 6th.
In theory, this quote would be enough for a simple cease & desist letter that the T9A lawyers fear so much. And only this simple cease and desist letter, they claim, would already be enough to kill the whole project.
Error 3: The community is overstressing ‘balance’ in a WHFB mass battle game
T9A is focused on balance and tournament play. The community leaders play the game as a Warhammer team tournament at the European Team Championship. That means that all armies should have a roughly equal strength to give all teams an equal chance.
Thus, the community is constantly evaluating and playtesting points, rules, army lists, army lists used in tournament, tournament results and battle reports to get the ultimate balance.
T9A founding father and head of Rules Team Fjugin, also ETC tournament boss, wrote
External balance (all armies of equal power level) is something we value highly (…) Internal balance (choices within the army of equal power level) is something we also value highly.
When beta-version 0.99 was published, Tiny wrote:
The task of balance is a major one, and no one can expect perfect balance within so little time. It’s easy to overlook something. It’s easy to make wrong calls. But time and tournament results will tell all, and from this information we can only further improve.
And: “With all that said we’re also aware that balance is still not perfect, but we’re certain this is a step in the right direction towards a better and more balanced game. In the coming month the balance work continues. Army book committees will focus on improving the internal balance”
Just_Flo, head of Tournaments Analysis, collects with his team the worldwide tournament results and use Excel to analyze the results statistically. The teams calculates average results.
between 0,45 and 0,55 we consider armies to be balanced. Under 0,45 they underperform and over 0,55 they overperform
Skargit Crookfang, Community Engagement Team, commented in a thread:
The obsessive need to balance and test rather than bring the fun out of it all is kind of telling.
Aenarion43, Assistant Head of Playtesting, gives as example a simple magic spell that the rules team made more complex for the sake of balance:
And that’s what the project always seems to be doing. It takes something that is NOT broken, and “fixes” it by adding restrictions or making it harder to use
The obsession with balance and making a game that is purely determined by skill is hurting the project. Oftentimes it feels like the [staff] would much prefer to take dice rolls away entirely, and are pushing to make them a formality in this game.
To solve the problem of complexity that blocks newbies to start with 9th-age, the community has developed a simpler Quickstarter, a T9A beginner’s version. Head of Quickstarter Team writes:
another important thing to say is that we are now focusing on fun, flavour, identity, money, painting, not on balance. we cannot work on balance until we’ve done the necessary adjustments to the rules.
Why single focus is a risk
The quest for balance is important for tournament players who want a level playing field for every fantasy army they use in every tournament. But:
- true balance is impossible(link1, link2)
- it’s eternal. Values and rules are continuously finetuned, but to which avail?
- Finding the optimal unbalanced winning army composition is for many players a key part of the game, while others want a weak army
- Focus might be wrong. True balance never was a sales argument. The earlier versions of WHFB gained mass popularity despite severe balancing problems. Same for 40K
- Focus on balance might be unimportant for new players/newbies. They want painted armies, fluff, huge warmachines, impressive regiments, cinematic action. Fun. Balance is only important for players who want a kind of ‘fantasy chess’
- marketing is more important than rules. If the average player thinks Age of Sigmar or KoW is just as balanced – or more balanced – than T9A, they will buy and play AoS/KoW and never go back to the nonsupported, nonmarketed T9A. Why should they?
- The rebalancing of older WHFB armies estranges the old guard who discover that their strong armies are suddenly significantly weaker. T9A is nicknamed ‘Nerfhammer’ for that reason.
So, again, this bears the risk of losing a group of veteran players while the ‘better balance’ doesn’t attract a new generation.
The quickstarter brings a new focus, namely, simplicity, quickplay and (more) fun. That’s good for attracting new players and a smart move, in fact. However, the quickstarter game has to compete against commercial publications like free Kings of War, free Age of Sigmar, or (for total newbies) other games like Oathmark, Star Wars Legion, Warhammer 40K.
The future position of T9A on the wargames market
The wargames market is a niche market. Young teenagers buy armies and play games against peers. Older gamers collect armies and often play casual games in shops, at home or at a club.
To summarize the general state of the hobby:
- Thanks to the Internet, wargaming has a wider audience than ever before.
- A lot of companies and groups and independent writers publish rules.
- Rules are free or quite cheap. The Osprey books for example are about 15 GBP, KoW and AoS are free, Bolt Action digital is GBP 20.
- Kickstarters and niche skirmish games dominate the trade. The wargame magazines publish mainly reviews and scenario’s for skirmish games
- Quickplay is popular.
- Many popular historical rank-and-file wargames (the Warlord Black Powder series in particular) are casual multiplayer games.
- Point systems are often (not more than) a guideline for a quick pick-up game
- Some wargames have a small but loyal though fractured tournament scene. The games DBA, DBM, DBMM, Fields of Glory, Art de la Guerre (all not supported by large companies) have an active tournament scene. Warhammer 40K, AoS, FoW, KoW, Bolt Action and X-Wing are very popular tournament games, supported by the wargames industry.
So, will it die?
No. The wargame De Bellis Antiquitatis, an Ancients/Medieval balanced ruleset, was published in 1990. The game, that evolved into DBM and DBMM, was very popular as a tournament game in the nineties. The game mechanics probably were an inspiration for the creators of Blood Bowl. The game ran out of fashion – badly written rules, amateur layout, rise of other rulesets – but still a small, grey and very dedicated generation of wargamers plays tournaments.
Same with Blood Bowl, that survived a long Out-Of-Production time. Same with older WHFB editions.
Same with Oldhammer. On Oldhammer.net one recently could apply for the Warhammer 4th Edition Scottish Masters, with 7 players.
Likewise, T9A, the love child of a dedicated community, will not die as such. As long as the same incrowd organizes the ETC as independent Warhammer/FoW tournament, the game will retain followers and local fans will organize local tournaments. That could go on for years.
A sad decline?
However I’m sad.
The community hastened the inevitable decline by single focusing on the European Tournament Championship. If Fjugin and a few others quit, or the ETC decides to drop the game, then the final curtain falls and T9A will become one of the many projects on freewargamesrules.com or Wargames Vault.
The current approach requires an intimate knowledge of the arcane art of armylisting and unit combinations. It’s the miniature wargaming variant of a collectible card game. Such a game is only a challenge for veterans, not rookies/casual players.
I’m not optimistic about the Quickstarter. To publish a simpler Quickstarter as introductory WHFB-style game is a good idea. The game looks fine. But why should casual gamers like the QS more than KoW or AoS? Or LotR, with excellent reviews?
I get the impression that the community overlooks the fact that AoS has improved since the General’s handbook and that a group of smart players will probably design AoS-house or tournament rules. Just like the 8th Ed. gamers did. In fact, they did already.
Besides, casual play relies on having other casual gamers around. Fact of life: KoW and AoS already have more casual players, so why switch? And how many will move to the T9A ‘mother’-rules?
The community has no money for agressive marketing.
The fact that a few influential WHFB-gamers jumped offboard is a bad sign.
It’s sad. I liked the rebel thing of T9A, you can kill our game but you can’t kill us. But in the end they kill themselves.
Can the community turn the tide?
With a change of focus, the good things can be preserved
- Bashing of ‘other systems’ should stop. Age of Sigmar is not childish. Kings of War is not ‘bland’. It’s different, but not ‘inferior’.
- Stop the megalomaniac tone. 9th Age is no competitor for Games Workshop.
- The group should focus more on compatibility with other systems. Square bases or round bases shouldn’t make a difference
- The community should start a new website with a webshop and a paid membership. The current website is more a volunteer forum with many toxic threads and free downloads, paid by volunteer payments. Not very inviting, not generating enough money for agressive marketing.
- Think about unequal battles. Blitzkrieg Commander II for instance, a WW2 Warmaster adaptation, explains that battles are never equal and has a system to make army lists deliberately different. But the inequality is rebalanced in the victory point system, an army that is 25% stronger needs 25% more victory points.
- Quickstarter and tournament game should be more integrated. Simple basic rules and advanced tournament rules in one booklet. Now the Quickstarter appears to be an undervalued downgrade from the ‘main’ rules. Maybe this simple LotR/WHFB-style wargame with a 9th-age upgrade has more chance of survival among the casual players than a complex tournament game with a simplified ‘pearls for the swines’ edition.
- Think about kickstarters. pay-to-print, and higher tournament entrance fees to finance T9A development costs.
- Think about scenario books. For example, Et Sans Résultat is a Napoleonic mass battle game roughly based on the (outdated and overly complex) Empire rules. ESR is one of the many Napoleonic rulesets and not the most popular. The company however has published beautiful scenario books with conversion guidelines for other rulesets. In the same vein: why not rework a Battle of the Bulge campaign guide as “Fantasy Battle of the Bulge”-guide with several linked scenario’s. background, a gallery and an online conversion scheme for AoS, KoW or other fantasy battle systems? Or give an outline how to link separate scenario’s as a ‘best of five’-campaign (like BKCII).
- Emphasize more the fun part of fantasy battling, not the tournaments and the advanced rules.
- Ask around. What do seasoned game designers like John Lambshead, Rick Priestley himself, Alessio Cavatore, Tomas Pirinen, Brian Ansell think of 9th Age? Is it good, is it good enough, what would they change?
- O – and don’t kill every discussion with “you shouldn’t be so negative about us volunteers who work so hard”, “we are different” or “wait until our next edition”. Not al criticism is unfair. Some is in fact helpful. Not listening – thàt would be the saddest of the story.
PS: I published this blog in the 9th-age forum. Only reaction: an immediate permaban and deletion of the link, for “trying and undermine with his misleading information, toxic blog.” And a thread with weird accusations, like “probably a covert advertiser for Age of Sigmar”, who “claims to be a lawyer”. Sorry guys, I’m just a regular beer drinking guy who loves wargames since a was a kid. Lion in court. Lamb at home. Two lovely kids. I have blogged about speedpainting, 6mm, wargame campaigns, Waterloo, scenery – writing is part of my wargames hobby as well. If this blog made you angry, read the label. If you wonder why I don’t react in the T9A-forum – it’s impossible for me. If you wonder why I’m critical – because I covertly advertise for your survival. Not your death.
I tried to reply to the weird accusations but the reaction was banned as well. But you can read my reply as a separate blog post here, if you really want.