The Ninth Age Fantasy Battles: Is It Improving?

My two Ninth Age articles are the least read but the most debated articles of this blog. I shattered dreams in 2018. And then the dreamers tried to cancel me from their own and every other wargame fora. They were not right, but was I? Here’s my update.

9th-Age is a fan-driven version of Warhammer 8th-edition. It’s designed/written by a committee of hard core tournament players, lead by an execuive board. The founders/core members of the project were frustrated when in 2015 Games Workshop dumped WHFB and the whole ‘Old World’ and returned with Age of Sigmar, a simpler skirmish game.

Calisson, assistant head of PR, writes that “The Ninth Age project was created in this context, to restore The Hobby into its glorious prosperity. This is done firstly through the provision of a new game: Fantasy Battles: The 9th Age. The game is designed to fill the unaddressed needs of Hobbyists (…) The second step is to gather the community once again, and to grow it around a solid rank-and-file fantasy game.”

That was ambitious, to put it mildly. As if “The Hobby” aka WHFB was the true and only religion that would convert many, successor Age of Sigmar would have no appeal at all, and no GW rival or existing ruleset would be able to fill the gap.

What I discovered in 2018

Let me summarize theirs and my 2018 position. I started with some sympathy for the movement. I’m a former Warhammer Fantasy Roleplayer who had hours of good fun in that good ole Old World, and besides, the idea of independent nerds who battle Big Brother GW like Han Solo the Evil Empire is always appealing.

However, I noticed that interest in 9th Age was waning while Age of Sigmar was gaining speed, after a major game update in 2018. And according to worried messages in the Ninth-Age forum, the number of active 9th-age-players was gradually dropping, every year since 2015.

Google Trends. Red: Age of Sigmar, blue: Ninth Age. Ninth Age has declined sind 2017. AoS is peaking in 2018.

I was trying to find an explanation. So I studied their forum messages and approach. All unpleasantries and elitism, sadly. Age of Sigmar was “full of stupidity and bad game design” prominent players wrote, GW had killed their love child WHFB 8th edition and 9th agers were sure that GW IP lawyers would do everything to kill spiritual successor and rival 9th age,. The new all-encompassing group task was to rename/reinvent/reconceptualize all old WHFB lore. Every single comma. Lastly, 9th-agers were looking for the perfect balance, a miniature game that would be as fair as checkers.

I concluded that the combined risk of this course would be that 1) the resentment toward AoS will deter new young players to start with T9A 2) old players will lose patience with their old game, they see old lore deleted, and old powers endlessly rebalanced (‘nerfhammer’) 3) designers forget that relative balance is not a sales argument for newbies. Tournament fairness not important for them. Fun is.

Change course or die

In the end, I thought, the ship that set sail so swiftly will slowly sink if they go on like this. The community withers away and the game dies out. A hollowed out trunk of old gamers will continue to play the game, and remember the good times.

I thought that they should change course.

  • they should try hard to be compatible with the elephant in the room, Games Workshop/ GW basing;
  • they should pay more attention to marketing and making some money, to promote a game you need media campaigns
  • they should develop scenario books, and fun campaigns for casual gamers
  • they should try to get a more accessible, easy to master, casual game

They didn’t like that. My blog was heavily attacked by senior players. The American lawyer mr Owl (who is now in the Executive Board) accused me of cherry picking quotes. OK, unlike other seniors he didn’t believe that T9A would rule the world, but he was certain “the US is poised for serious growth (…) I have people gathering around the table in my LGS every time I play. The game (and well-painted models) sells itself.”

Fast forward to 2022. What’s the state of the 9th Age-fantasy movement? First the good side.

Better website

The website looks much better.

YouTube explanations

Fans like below do their best to explain The Ninth Age on YouTube:

Friendlier forum

Many unfriendly, aggressive or otherwise uncivil posters seem to have left the forum. Of course, the group still thinks their game is ‘better’ than (m)any other game(s), but the regular bashing of Age of Sigmar and Kings of War is a thing of the past. The original poster of the thread ‘This Game Should Be More Like Age of Sigmar’ for example was not hammered down, vilified or banned, as was common until 2017-2018.

The forum moderators promote tolerance and patience. In December 2021 they announced:

“lately we have received several (seriously more than a few) complaints from forum users about the toxicity of our platform (which directly leads to losing potential useful feedback). This happened together with an impressive surge in reporting of both community and staff members. Particularly, we have been struck and saddened by the fact several users complained the forum is not a welcoming place for constructive and useful discussion, for newbies in particular.(…) What the management asked to our forum governing bodies is to support freedom of opinion and to elicit constructive criticism (…) Our current system do not lead to direct bans; it’s instead built on a progressive system leading to bans only when a specific behavior is persistent. This system was created to avoid bans and sanctions on a single event and thus to allow users to correct their own behavior and allow them to set the right approach to leave their comments & feedbacks.”

Quickplay Version Available

The Quick Play ‘Essence of War’ rules are featured prominently on the opening page. Layout looks professional.

Unfortunately this fastplay version is underrated and mainly regarded as a dumbed down version of the core rules. The Essence of War project coordinator writes, in a thread:

Essence of War is meant to be both an introduction (with 20 pages of rules and premade rosters) and a standalone game with advanced rules (10 pages) and modular armylists that can be personalised by each player.

It will definitely have its own events. truth be told, i also expect official T9A Fantasy Battles event to append a EW event for extra outreach. so the kids can come play the easy version on day 1, and stay to watch the mass beautiful armies the next day (…) as warmup before the main program.

More fun and casual play

The forum has a section with homebrew scenario’s. Faster games, faster scenario generation, campaigns, a T9A-lite version, narrative campaigns and a painting competition.

Sadly, there’s also a bad side.

Less new players, less forum activity

From November 2015 to June 2016, interest peaked: form 3000 to 8000 active users in 7 months. The Executive Board reported:

“In one year, you (team and community together) have started 13,423 threads (36 per day) with 316,529 posts, 867 posts per day!”

In 2017, the Executive Board reported:

The activity went a little bit down. In one year, team and community together have started 12,179 threads (33 per day), i.e. less than the 13,423 of last year despite 45% more members. The 337,764 posts (925 per day) exceeded the previous 316,529 posts, showing longer threads in average. Posts per person dropped from 40 to 30, members are less involved than last year.

In 2018, the Executive Board reported:

The growth on the forum, as predicted, has significantly slowed down, with 13,552 members on June 30th, a growth of 2283, to compare to 3476 the previous year (…) 11,076 threads started this year, totalling 338,482 posts (927 posts per day); the trend last year of less threads and more posts is confirmed, which seems to indicate more focused conversations.

In 2019, the Executive Board reported:

We have now 15,216 members, 1664 more than last year, the growth slows but still a growth.
5 948 threads started this year, half of last year; they totaled 203 904 posts, a bit more posts per thread.
124 News articles were made, another decrease from previous years.

In 2020 and 2021 no forum statistics were published by the Executive Board, for some reason. The current website statistics mentions 17625 members (2409 more than in 2019) and 90 posts per day.

In other words, in comparison with 2017/2018, number of posts per day decreased with 90%. The number of new accounts – new members that register – peaked in 2017. Since then this number has has been decreasing every year. Old inactive accounts are still counted (both my inactive T9A-accounts still exist, for example).

I immediately admit that ‘forum activity’ is not a good indicator – forums are history, it’s all Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter. Many forums are withering away. But 90 percent in four years is quite – much, may I say that?

For the first time in years Bulgaria has in 2022 no players to send to the European Team Championship, and Croatia, lead by team leader (and Executive Board Member) Giladis also has problems recruiting. That doesn’t bode well.

Bureaucracy

We had the bureaucratic structure below, the website (with some irony) writes.

But now it’s this.

Much better, isn’t it?

But that’s in fact this structure:

To get a better idea, T9A has

  • an Executive Board (4 members)
  • HR Team (4 members)
  • HR Support Team (2 members)
  • an Advisory Board (13 members)
  • a Rules Team (3 members)
  • a Rules Advisory Team (2 members)
  • a Game Design Team (25 members)
  • a Legal Team (3 members)
  • a team of proofreaders (8 members)
  • a Background Team (15 members)
  • a T9A Vision Team (5 members) that will advise about the 3rd edition of T9A

(I haven’t even mentioned the teams of playtesters, the Essence of War quickplay team, the rules support teams… check it all here)

So the core team is about 80 people (some have more than one job). Many successful rules that I know (from for example Too Fat Lardies, Phil Barker, Sam Mustafa, Osprey, Kings of War, Blitzkrieg Commander, Mortem & Gloriam) are designed by 1-3 designers, not by a bureaucracy.

A camel is a horse designed by committee. Designing rules in the T9A environment will be slow, conservative and dominated by cautions compromises. Big risk is that players leave the community and rivals will introduce newer, better or faster rules, while T9A is too slow to adapt or react.

Complexity that nobody wants to change

In 2016, Fjugin, founder of T9A and head of the rules team, wrote: “Speeding up the game is something we are working hard towards, anyone should be able to play a game in under 3 hours without rushing through the last turns. Which currently is not the case.”

In 2018, Eldan tried to write a fastplay version for casual players.

Simply, the Ninth Age rulebook is too complicated, too technical, not very interesting to read and daunting to newcomers. And honestly, also not always well-organized. Therefore, the idea of this project is to simplify the rulebook.

What do we want here? Not just a simpler language version of the rulebook. Instead, I want something similar to a Learn to Play as you might find it in a Fantasy Flight Game, or Magic the Gathering’s beginner’s site. A shorter, snappier rulebook that covers 95% of the rules cases that come up in a casual game, but where you would occasionally have to look up the full rules to understand a corner case.

The quest failed.

And in a disillusioned thread, ‘The Ninth Age is the coolest game in the world – why aren’t more people playing it‘ Art of War writes:

“I think the 9th Age Project was in a unique situation in 2015. WHFB was buried by GW, but a large community was still there and many wanted to continue… Now when GW is starting with a new Warhammer Fantasy game (TOW) (…) it may become much more complicated. [The 104 page manual] is indeed a problem and an obstacle for new players to start with the game. The 9th Age is a complicated game for experts. I don‘t see that anybody is going to change that. And no, the Essence of War doesn’t really solve this problem.”

Veteran Razon, who has been playing T9A since 2015, requested a new direction in 2021.

“I think this game needs to change. It is in an evolutionary dead end, and it’s heading further with each new book. There are rules, special rules, special special rules and special special special rules (…) The average game time for this game has been increasing after each new change. It started from 2h with the legacy game. With the last 3 books, IDDE and VS the average game time has increased again, it is over 4h. On average?! One can expect that new books will continue this trend. And that is a dead end. Only a handful of people want to play a single regular game of T9A that lasts 5h or more.”

Veteran player Redbeard writes:

“I honestly have to agree with this, especially the 3rd layer rules you call out are a headache for me when introducing the game and even when playing, its to many for all the books and its no fun either looking all those up all the time during a game or forgetting them and then either go back or play on with the feeling you misplayed your army or ur opponent.”

Berti agrees:

“I agree to the amount of special rules, but as we can see in every [army book] discussion thread half the people think their army and units are “boring” without huge amounts of power creep rules.”

And Benni, a Swede from the first generation of players, adds:

“When I open up an army book I get a headache after having to go back to the main rulebook for every entry.”

Staff Member DanT reacts that earlier, games shorter than 3 hrs were feasible, in his experience.

“I have done some analysis of why game time has changed (…) I believe the answer is not so simple.
(…) Moreover, I think it is not fixable without massively prioritising some parts of the community over others, and anyway not fixable until 3.0 (…) And I am not opposed to some streamlining of core rules in a way that speeds things up. I suggested some that did not get accepted during my tenure on Rules Team. But what you want requires basically re-writing everything (…) I think dropping everything to do this now is not on the cards.”

WhammeWhamme reacts

“a simple, fast and easy to learn game” is not what T9A was created to be. It is in fact fairly literally what T9A was created to be an alternative to and opposite of. This is a game with built-in cruft [=poor design]. Three types of elves, because people wanted three types of elves, not because there’s clear, easily defined niches for each of them to slot in. Rules that make single model units fast, nippy and maneuverable compared to blocks because this was going a rank and flank game and making sure that the ranked units don’t just move in whatever direction they feel like was important to people, knock-on effects on gameplay be danged. Books put together by sixteen different committees because that’s how it formed, and that created an environment that all subsequent design has to be informed by.”

Another Dan, from the Ork&Goblin design team, recommends Razon to leave: “Serious question to the OP: have you tried KoW? The rules are much more streamlined and the games, overall, tend to be quicker as a result. That might be more your style since many of your grievances regarding game and special rule complexity are, for some, precisely why they prefer T9A to KoW.”

Fortitude! Aegis! Nerdiness!

The whole approach results in totally incomprehensible discussions. Check this. A player writes that the special fortitude saving throw and the special aegis saving throw are essentially the same. No! No! No! Hombre de Mundo, from the Background Team, replies.

“Fortitude was regeneration (…) a healing factor [follows a long example about a troll shot by a cannon] to regenerate each one, which is considerably different. And I think that would be more intuitive and also more fun as it adds to the character of these creatures [follows a long example about a Skaven monster hit by a dagger in the chest] That should be represented by Aegis, whereas Undead creatures that lost an arm and has it re-attached by necromancy magic should be represented by regeneration.

WhammmeWhamme from the Hobgoblin Supplement Team shows he’s a know-it-all and adds/corrects Hombre de Mundo wat regeneration is/is not:

“Fortitude is not regeneration ; the new Hydra regenerates and it actually regenerates, being able to heal to where it started. Fortitude in T9A is a “just that tough” save, and flavour-wise is basically the same as more Resilience. If it actually regenerated wounds, we would call it regeneration. It doesn’t.

Supernal is even more precisely accurate: models with Supernal come from the heavenly realm. Which is also the hellish realm, because all the gods are in the same place, but the Bull of Shamut (based on the “Bull of Heaven”) is bang-on for being Supernal.

It’s not “daemonic”. Frost Phoenixes, Bulls of Shamut, Medusae – they are not Daemons. Again, no issue with our game having daemons – but we’re not going to misname things that are not daemonic (by our definition thereof). Like, seriously, the only word I could think of to use instead is “Celestial”, which is essentially a synonym for Supernal.”

Which is still not enough in the eyes of Dan, from the Ork and Goblin Team, who replies to WhammeWhamme

Probably “Otherworldly” if you’re trying to strip away the connotation of words like “daemonic” or “angelic”. “Supernal” means heavenly, and while the lore might suggest it’s all the same place you’re still running into the same problem you brought up regarding a Frost Phoenix being called a Daemon if you’re instead calling your Daemons angels.

The problem with “Fortitude” meaning “extra tough” is that we already have a mechanic for being extra tough: having extra resilience points. It also doesn’t make sense that if the intent is for the fortitude roll to represent extra feats of resilience that it’d be susceptible to flaming attacks. I’d actually prefer the hydra’s regen rule just replace fortitude entirely and be called “Regeneration”. Makes a lot more sense than just having fortitude/regen effectively be an alternative Aegis save.

It’s an orgy of nerdiness. Theology. It’s very Monty Python, but for these influential players, it’s reality. With players like these, who immerse themselves in endless linguistical discussions about the special characteristics of special monsters, casual players will leave.

Disbelief, disappointment, lack of opponents

Long time Warhammer player (since the nineties) and T9A veteran (since 2016) Bloody Misfire started in 2021 the disillusioned thread “This game needs to become more like Age of Sigmar

“I’m the only one in my gaming group who still plays this game. The rest have switched to other more accessible games, and have to some extend brought me with them. Especially once we became dads we have less available time. Sometimes months go by without a game of T9A (we play something easier & faster like Warhammer Quest).

When I finally get to play T9A it is against a stranger, since my friends have given up. And then, even I have to look up a lot of rules, and I have played T9A since the beginning, and Warhammer since the 90’ies. I actually hope I will be playing against someone who plays a lot more than me, so he will remember the rules. A problem is of course, that such a veteran is likely to win big time. I see more people leaving than entering the hobby. (…)

This is a good game. However, if this game is to survive on the long run, it needs to be able to bring in new players and keep the ones like me, who love the game, but cannot be as dedicated as we once were. A rules simplification could be a step in the right direction.”

In a 2022 thread ‘Google Trend of 9A’, ‘Flame’, player from the start and a former fan, angrily admitted that he lost his belief. He checked Google Trends (just like I did, four years earlier). Posted the results. Veteran Ninth -Agers replied ‘this can’t be true. Doesn’t say anything’. Denial.

Flamer replied, with a little sarcasm:

well as a guy who has been in IT sector for 25 yrs, running 2 companies, we usually take Google trends very seriously. As the overwhelming majority of the private sector in the globe:) Sure, it doesnt “display” anything. Lets sum up the meaningless findings i;ve been erratically putting down.

– Forum logins. Dramatic fall. Sure it doesnt say anything. Well with 2-3 bans / month I wonder why there are indeed people left here 

– Google trend. A steady decline. Also doesnt say anything. Just go on and check KOW or Warhammer Armies Project. I wonder why they are of different trend. KOW i think is increasing? Why ? Because…. they dont have forum ? Lol… No because people like me are feeling insecure for this project and considering alternatives. Sadly. – Dramatic player reduction on line. Also, doesn’t say anything.
– Tournaments. I am sure its covid, whatever. But 40K? With 3 tournaments per week ? Oh wait its GW. But GW has “not been doing well” as marcema says. Man i am confused 

– People saying their community is gone. Sure unimportant also, as long as Poland and Scandinavia are ok.

I wonder what would it take to alarm you? Do you honestly think i do this for some personal agenda or i try to raise awareness and alarm people?

He later in the thread sums up:

When GW killed WH and AOS emerged many of us had a choice. Rebase, or believe in the project. We opted for the second, continued the “investment”, bought, converted, 3d printed, painted, played, provided feedback. Sigh, what a disappointment, Some of us have 10 armies but cant get a game. Me and 2 of my mates are switching to “boring” 40k just because of this. Honestly, if i knew then how it would evolve, i would have round based without a doubt. I am dead sure many of us agree.

7 years after, you guys still don’t get it. It is a hobby, not a physics contest (…) Someone will make a harsher comment, i will reply on the same tone, i will get banned. Thats how it works around here. (…) PS. And i dont care if i am in in any of the project. I just want a bigger community so that i pass my 25 years of miniatures to my son and he actually plays 9th age. The game is pure gold. It will be a pity if it doesn’t turn into the linux of wargaming.”

Intermezzo: what happened with WRG/DBA?

During the seventies and eighties, Ancients wargaming was sloooooow. Suddenly Phil Barker, himself earlier the designer of the quite complex WRG-rules, published De Bellis Antiquitatis. DBA is a 10-page rank-and-file-rulesystem that allows players to battle competively with less than 50 15mm figures. American wargame veteran Bob Beattie remembers the before and after situation:

“Truly a paradigm shift if there ever was one. Would I be going to far to say it was like the impact of Rock and Roll on popular music in the 50’s!? (…) [Before DBA] I saw folks at conventions, bent over tables filled with beautiful figures and colorful terrain, seeming to have much fun “discussing” the rules. They did not play all that much, mostly lots of discussion. [After the introduction of DBA] We were not discussing the rules that much, we were actually playing games; 4 in an hour! I put on a big battle of Hydaspes that was not even in the program but which filled up as soon as I set it out.”

Original DBA has only 15 generic troop types, pre-made battle lists and the philosophy that many ancients troops are quite similar.

After years of success the pitfall of complexity lurked. Barker developed DBM and DBMM, more complex versions of DBA. His former co-designer Richard Bodley Scott developed Field of Glory. Variants from other groups evolved. American gamers for example rewrote the DBA rules because they didn’t like Barkers dry, legalese text. A French designer successfully developed Art de la Guerre as tournament game because DBA was too simple, and DBMM too difficult and outdated.

The current DBA 3.0 version is more complex than the original 1.0 fastplay rules but still fast compared to ancestor WRG. The DBx system, although not perfect, less played than before and less in fashion, has been very influential. It still is a cheap independent rulesystem published by just independent designer. WRG is out of date.

T9A: then, now and in 2027

Old fantasy gamers look back in love to the games that they played in their youth. They tend to forget that ‘complexity’ and special rules were also a marketing tool for a big company to sell tons of unique WYSIWYG-figures with unique weapons/skills and to cater collectors. When the Lord of the Rings/the Hobbit-hype was gone, that outdated marketing tool was useless. The Ninth Age-community has copied and prolonged a system with unique characters, races, abilities and weapons. This group will never abandon the 8th edition principle: complex=good.

It’s impossible for them to radically revise their rules. Heresy. We spent so much time to balance the stats, re-edit army books, write background: we made enormous progress. In a way, they did: I’m really impressed by the books and art and all the hard work. Quickplay Essence of War looks OK, too.

And still it’s stagnation: theology for orthodox clerics. The revised rules are like the beautiful Bibles that were by hand copied in Medieval cloisters by monks, who never expected the Reformation.

The game is invisible. Age of Sigmar, Kings of War, Oldhammer, Warhammer Renaissance, The Warhammer Project, Oathmark, Dragon Rampant are in the eyes of the common (casual) wargamer just as good or better than T9A, and often better marketed. T9A fails to extend the player base. Stagnation is regression.

The community will deny it and will point at the scattered groups and players that organize tournaments every year. In 2027 T9A still exists. But it will be a fringe movement, even more than now, with a yearly decreasing player base. Outdated. The future lies in a quickplay tournament system with simple army lists, or co-op Beer & Pretzel fantasy battle games, Black Powder Fantasy. Rules that bother about fortitude/regeneration/aegis rule exceptions are not viable.

Mr Owl, rulesmaster Fjugin and other senior T9-agers will of course deny that. But the instruction for rank-and-file-fantasy wargaming is the same as for dinosaurs: adapt or die.

One thought on “The Ninth Age Fantasy Battles: Is It Improving?

  1. Let me add that this blog was immediately censored in the 9th age forum and Facebook group. So much for constructive criticism…

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s