[Review Thing] White Dwarf – September 2016 – It’s A New Dawn, It’s a New Day, It’s A New Life…

Ah, White Dwarf. Once, GW’s in-house monthly magazine was a must-buy: a vital source of developer insights, new rules, battle reports, hobby tips, cardstock accessories and Mike Walker. Then, things changed. The battle reports didn’t illuminate aspects of the rules or the tactical choices of the players. The developers’ notes became hype by another name. The cardstock accessories vanished over the horizon. In-house magazines walk a fine line between “provide useful and valuable content that builds loyalty” and “lovingly felches the new releases until the editor’s tongue falls off.”

White Dwarf crossed that line some years ago and I stopped buying.

We don’t need White Dwarf any more, I said. We have blogs. Blogs do most of what White Dwarf used to do. Blogs are free, and they’re not (usually) glorified adverts. The errata are all downloadable PDFs now. White Dwarf just isn’t necessary any more. GW know this, which is presumably why they’ve returned to the big fat monthly format full of raw stuff.

I bought this one out of a temporarily renewed interest in the Grim Darkness of the Far Future. Also, it had a model on the front. Even if the magazine turned out to be trash, £5.99 for a plastic Citadel miniature ain’t bad going. (Yes, yes, I know it’s a marketing ploy, I fell for it, wake up sheeple etc. etc. You’re terribly clever. I quite like my Slaughterpriest though, so jog on with you.) It also gave me a chance to take GW’s pulse. Relaunching White Dwarf is an attempt to define What The Hobby Is About. Is the Hobby About something interesting yet?

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Observation I: “Blimey, GW make a lot of board games these days.”

Leaving aside my personal horror at seeing Chris ‘Ninjabread’ Webb gurning up at me from the team photo page, there’s a shocker in this issue. Old grogs have banged on about ‘gateway games’ and ‘lower buy-in’ since The Great Points Value Theft Of ’98. GW seems to have listened.

I was tangentially aware of things like Deathwatch Overkill, but there are going on a dozen of these things now. Most of them contain the seeds of or a useful addition to at least one Proper Army. Most of them look like self-contained, enjoyable board games, i.e. games closer to the experiences and expectations of the non-hobbyist. Gorechosen might lead to the assemblage of a Khorne army for Age of Sigmar. The Chaos lads from Assassinorum: Execution Force might be the core squads of a Chaos Space Marine army. You might split a Stormcloud Attack box with a mate so you have a flier each and a side game to muck around with.

GW makes a lot of gateway products now. This big fat magazine has some extra rules or missions or something for all of them. All of them surreptitiously offer an ‘expansion’ purchase that leads one toward collecting a proper army. That’s what White Dwarf should be doing. Yes, it’s a sales tool, but it encourages sales through providing content and building experiences. That’s better than blathering on about how great the new toys are.

Observation II: “GW aren’t half riding the nostalgia train.”

The White Dwarf makes an appearance: new model, new Age of Sigmar rules. Guy Haley shows up to lend the new magazine his blessing. (I’m sure they use the phrase “in all their glory” on every other page as an in-joke for Haley-era readers. At least, that’s what I want to believe.) There’s a fresh iteration of the Tale of Four Gamers Warlords and a flashback to White Dwarf 202 (1996, if you’re counting). Even the layout is oddly reminiscent of those older White Dwarfs, with the little shout-outs to third party products like the computer games.

It’s almost like someone noticed that Oldhammer was popular, and that someone decided to acknowledge the past instead of flinging it down the memory hole. This is a token gesture, but it soothes my ruffled feathers a bit.

Observation III: “Those High Fantasy Proper Nouns get everywhere.”

In many respects, I applaud Age of Sigmar. It’s a brave attempt to reinvigorate a dying game line. Free, minimalistic rules and no points costs? That almost counts as an innovation after years of industry-defining “points match, fat rulebook” development. I can’t take it seriously, though. Nobody can have “two hand weapons” or even “a sword and a flail” any more. They have to have a “Hackblade and Wrath-hammer”.

This sort of thing is the enemy of immersion. When everything has an ominous and discrete name there’s no shared vocabulary, no sense that actual people in the world talk to each other about these things. Using all the High Fantasy Proper Nouns creates a forced and almost unreadable text. If you want proof, look at the Age of Sigmar battle report in this White Dwarf. Even the staff writers don’t bother using the ‘proper’ Age of Sigmar names for everything.

This makes for a much more readable report, although it’s still some way from the Platonic ideal of good battle reportage. Unless they’re showing you how the new releases work on the tabletop, illustrating some change to the core rules, or illuminating something about styles of play, battle reports are a print equivalent of Telling Me About Your Character, i.e. either a sign of autism or probable cause for protective manslaughter. This one is the bad kind. It tells you, in almost tautological detail, about a game that a couple of Studio lads played. That’s it. It’s only there because battle reports are part of “the complete White Dwarf experience.”

Observation IV: “This is either Index Astartes or blatant filler.”

In the good old days, White Dwarf often filled pages with material reprinted from a Codex. In the slightly-less-old White Dwarf often stuffed itself with additional background material to compensate for the lack of space in the elegant, allusive, stripped-down, god I miss them third edition Codices. Yet another example of how White Dwarf, at its best, made itself essential by offering something that you couldn’t get anywhere else.

‘The Ultimate Guide to Imperial Knights’ could be either of these things. In the Age of Ten Thousand Codices, though, flat-out reprinting material isn’t the insult it used to be. Not everyone’s going to buy/borrow/blatantly pirate every last book. Therefore, these overviews of factions are a welcome opportunity to catch up on the bits you just don’t want to spend £30 on. The article’s pretty detailed. It offers a mix of background, historical details, breakdowns of the Knight miniatures and colour-scheme inspirations. This is good stuff. This is the sort of stuff that made me start whole armies back in the day. I’m particularly grateful for the spotter’s guide to Knight guns: they’re new, and I don’t know them all by sight yet. Background articles which provide a covert handhold for gameplay are double-plus-useful.

Observation V: “This advice section is almost helpful.”

It’s nice to have a look at some of the fancy-dancy extremely busy tables/dioramas made by the Warhammer World lads. However, if the text is talking about the creators taking photos of real life things and using them as inspiration, I’d like to see the photos. I don’t need to see a whole column pimping Warhammer World.

It’s nice to know exactly which bits John Blanche used to build his Kill Team, but I’d rather know how the great man decides on themes, characters and poses, and how he decides when ‘enough’ is ‘too much’ in the detail department. Sticking bits onto other bits is basic kitbashing. Blanchitsu is artistry and it’s the artistic process that I want to know about. This is doubly aggravating since it manages to have less content in it than another article about kitbashing in the same issue.

Well, I don’t know if it’s really ‘kitbashing’ if you’re using sprues which were from different kits but are now being packaged and sold together… Cheap shots aside, though, the walk through the Tau Kill Team is genuinely useful. I particularly like the breakdown of the bare heads in the range, organised by the kits in which they can be found. More ‘sprue anatomy’ pieces, so we can see what’s in a kit when we’re planning our conversions, would be really helpful.

I’m not going to sass Paint Splatter either. Every so often one needs to print a Hobby 101 article. The first issue of the relaunch is as good a time as any to do it. I am going to sass the Designers’ Notes for the Deathwatch, but I’ll sass every Designers’ Notes that doesn’t explore the kits and rules in depth and justify damn near every decision. These things are never deep enough for me. At the very least, a starter list or some advice on how to begin putting a playable force together would be nice. Between Formations, Allies, Detachments and supplements, it’s not easy to plan a manageable project. Some insight from the people that write the rules might lend a machete to a few intellectual thickets.

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Shoot for the moon, hit the Hubble Telescope

What little I’ve seen of GW’s current operating procedure, viewed through the lenses of my orbiting space station as I prepare for the final chemical bombardment that will scour this world of pestilential Life, suggests that GW is trying to do things differently. They’re not entirely sure how they should be doing things, so they’re doing lots of things and seeing what works.

Therefore, the White Dwarf revamp does a lot of things. It volleys forth Something For Everyone, except those benighted sods still playing the Hobbit SBG. (Frankly, there’s no helping anyone who’s still associated with that creative trainwreck.) This leaves it unable to push a few features quite as far as they can go. If the mag cut away some dead wood – if, for instance, it only did battle reports when battle reports offered more value than the chatter of the local counter monkey – it could give features like Blanchitsu and developers’ notes the breathing room they need.

Most of White Dwarf’s content is still competing with the thousand blathering voices of the Internet. Any fool can offer advice on kitbashing a Tau Kill Team or show you pictures of their Khorne Daemonkin. White Dwarf has unfettered access to the people who actually write the rules, create the models, and set the creative vision of the Warhammer universes. It can afford to ask these people to justify their decisions and show their working, and give them space for considered, developed answers. It should not fear losing or alienating the readership. If readers can understand the rules of Warhammer 40,000, they can understand a conversation about why Space Marines look the way they do.

Likewise, when White Dwarf gives advice, it should be braver than “hey, did you know that one Space Marine shoulder pad will fit on any Space Marine’s shoulder”. If you have access to any Citadel part you like, you can and should go nuts with conversions. Build things that span the ranges. Ram together bits that have no business being together. Pitch the whole lot toward real gamers, who have budgetary limitations and who have to actually carry their models around.

I would pay cash money for a monthly article which busts open a kit, walks through the sprues part by part, and showcases a bunch of conversions across the whole Citadel range that use more or less every component in the box. I’d pay even more for a regular army building feature which takes two ranges – say Dark Eldar and Malignants – and shows a project of extensive cross-range building/painting/playing from planning to perfection. Hell, I’d write that if someone bought me the miniatures. That’s a fat sight more useful than “Dan won a game of AoS because he rolled a 5 just before he was tabled.”

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  • Thuloid

    They are trying, which is new, and welcome. It’s entirely their fault that I now have no interest in any of their current products, but I’m willing to change on that as well. Not on AoS–that’s dull nonsense, and I won’t encourage ReNameFest 2015.

    But if 40k suddenly got good (I don’t think it is right now), or they did a worthwhile new edition of a game I like (say their new BloodBowl), or something altogether new (could happen, right?), I’d consider it.

    Selling more small kits is good, because it opens up more kitbash possibilities. They had worked very, very hard to make all that as expensive as possible. Hope it’s a trend.

    • Von

      The kits are still sufficiently pricey that I wouldn’t buy one just for heads. It would have to be a Project on the same sort of level as my Army of Sylvania from yesteryear: damn near every piece must be used, to justify the expense of additional kits.

      I’m vaguely interested in 40K right now. There’s a more clear pathway into building a new army than there has been for a while – the Start Collecting Formations, the return of Kill Team, and… in theory, the “buy this whole Formation” deals, although £235 for a whole army is ONLY good for planning projects (it’s a big spend and there’s a big, intimidating pile of plastic to deal with). That and I have the itch for some Chaos lads.

      • Thuloid

        Rumors abound that they’re heading for yet another edition change in 40k, maybe a dramatic one. Pretty much everyone recognizes that right now, the game is too much of a zoo to get a handle on. But it’s not like they’re going to get rid of Chaos.

        • Von

          Even so, nothing snaps my wallet shut quite like ‘rumoured edition change’. A closed pipeline is a source of imminent dread, especially when you realise that some of the miniatures you’re into are quite dated and likely to be superceded or otherwise replaced…

  • The Warlock

    Given that the free mini retails at $50 AUD, I preordered this. Mainly interested in AoS as a painting project more than actually playing. Still, GW has turned around aside form pricing since Tom Kirby was ousted from the Chaos Pantheon. Chaos minis look better on rounds, especially the warriors on 32mm’s as it gives them a sense of gravitas that isn’t accomplished by the 25mm squares. Breaking down the factions into subfactions is helping diversify chaos among others. Tis a bit sad though that Chaos Undivided, the true form of Chaos is being forgotten but well, progress and change happens. True fact: The mustache-less fire dwarf dude is based of chaos dwarf designs (outside of being a Roman/Spartan Dwarf). Interestingly enough, the fire dwarf subfaction does seem to meld the old slayers with chaos dwarf weaponry and BIG FUKKEN HATS.

    Tis interesting to see all the boardgames being released as they were somewhat before my time (LOTR BGiME magazine was the gateway drug before the BFSP set). Even if they are two random boxes of minis with some rules, it’s still good to see that the new CEO is turning the sinking ship into something of the old GW.

    Pronouns and VerbNouns and NounNouns are ridiculous as a sword is a sword is a sword. Not a hackblade, definitely not a slicestabber and never a penmightier. It’d be nice for consistent rules regarding items and armour such as shields. According to the internet, there’s about 4 or so different effects shields do, when in WHFB it was +1 to the armour save.

    The start collecting boxes, while prices $10 lower than what the old battalions used to be are still decent enough value as they contain (for better or worse) a centrepiece model or large, expensive unit in most of them. I did…um…get the Sylvian one or whatever the dryads are called now as their new branchwitch thingy- the thing that looks like a sprite controlling a suit made of honeycomb and angry trees looks friggin’ badass. Aaaaaand I want to practice painting wood and stuff before tackling some Malifaux stuff. Google says she’s called Drycha Hamadreth or some such weirdness. Anyhow, honeycomb + water effects + colouring = hobby awesome.

    Kitbashing is kinda cool, though if White Dwarf does show more of it, it better not be space marines. Their factions are pretty much kitbash central (outside orks too perhaps) so some Eldar+Dark Eldar corsair kitbashes/conversions could be cool.

    • Von

      I’m uncharacteristically impressed with some of those Start Collecting sets. The Death ones in particular are a bargain and a half (there’s one which boils down to “buy this Mortarch kit and get five Black Knights and ten skelegogs for an extra £2”). I’m honestly tempted, if only because bits for daemon engines don’t grow on trees.

      (Memo to self: wooden daemon engines?)

      In the event that I ever receive an AoS statline, I demand to dual-wield the fearsome Penmightiers.

      • The Warlock

        I am going to make a Warscroll for ya 😀 You’ll be in Grand Alliance Death. Mortarch of Interns, perhaps?

  • Benderisgreat

    Funny, back in the wild and woolly days when you could order bits pell-mell from them they would do exactly as your last para suggests: put all manner of things together out of all manner of things, and then tell you what the bits were so you could order if you wanted to. You know who does that now?

    Anvil Industry, a bits maker.

    Ah, the 21st century, full of wonders….

  • Mike Walker

    You are most kind to remember me as a positive feature of White Dwarf. Sadly it has been quite some time since I have pushed my armies around the table. I do occasionally glance whistfully at the garage and remember with fondness the entertaining games earlier this century.

    Mike

    • Von

      Good lord, the -actual- Mike Walker? I’m honoured.

      (If this is one of our regular commentariat pulling Disqus shenanigans – shame on you sir, a thousand shames.)

      Either way: I calls ’em like I sees ’em. Amusing articles from which a bloke stands to actually learn something are golden. I dug out the Battle of Ironaxe Pass the other day as I contemplated gaming on a 4′ x 3′ kitchen table. Still sound advice.

      (I wish I could get my paws on the one Walkerese battle report, though. I had that issue of the Dwarf once upon a time, but they’re all lost now, like tears in rain or potentially valuable goods at a car boot sale, half an hour before opening time.)

      • Mike Walker

        I can confirm that it is me. I remember turning up in Nottingham for that Battle Report. It was great fun to play, but boy did my Dwarves get pummelled by those maxed out Skaven.

        Good luck with your endeavours to battle in the kitchen. Glad I was able to offer some good advice.

    • Gregory Rigler

      It’s great to hear you’re still about. Thanks for all the articles – I’ve started collecting the White Dwarves with your musings about 2 months ago having sold all my copies some years back. At the risk of being cheeky, can you recall what numbers your articles appeared in please? It was rather serendipitous seeing you post here as no one on Facebook or GW could tell me. Any help would be appreciated.

      • Mike Walker

        Hi Gregory – I’ll have a dig through the issues when I get back from holiday. It is good to know that people are still interested in the stuff I wrote.

        Mike

        • Gregory Rigler

          Thanks Mike, I appreciate that. You’ve got quite a cult status, particularly recently, so get some moody black and white profile pics done! Are you writing for anyone else now? Enjoy your holiday and I look forward to hearing from you in due course. Cheers.

          Greg

          • Mike Walker

            Hi Greg – I dug through my vast pile of old White Dwarfs and it looks like I wrote 20 articles between August 1998 and September 2004. These are all the UK editions.Here we go:
            224 August 1998 – First Encounters of the Warhammer kind and The Battle of Newberry Pass
            226 October 1998 – The Battle of IronAxe Ridge

            230 February 1999 – Thump & Grind
            231 March 1999 – Putting the Ploy back in Deployment
            232 April 1999 – Fighting with Cold Blood

            233 May 1999 – Like a Rat out of Hell (Battle Report)

            236 August 1999 – Top Gear?
            241 January 2000 – A Touching Dliema
            246 June 2000 – The Gentle Art of Getting Fired
            253 January 2001 – Dicing with Magic

            254 February 2001 – Unnatural Selection
            256 April 2001 – Dansing with Wolvees
            257 May 2001 – It aint Easy being green
            258 June 2001 – Fifteen ways to leave your cover

            260 August 2001 – To Kill a Bloodthirster

            270 June 2002 – The Strong, The Short and The Small

            273 September 2002 – Pale Riders
            282 June 2003- The Black Art

            289 January 2004 – Dice Rolling (?) This is the only issue I dont have to hand – so I can’t confirm the name of the article.
            297 September 2004 – How to lose at Warhammer

            To answer your question – these represent the only writing i have ever had published. I spent an excellent 5 years emersed in the Warhammer hobby and was fortunate enough to be allowed to share my enthusiasm with other gamers.

            Mike

          • Gregory Rigler

            Hi Mike,
            I hope you had a good break.

            Thanks for the in depth list. Must have taken you ages. That really is most kind of you and will help me track down the remaining back issues on ebay.

            It’s a pity you haven’t published anything else. There’s clearly an audience out there. If you decide to go back to wargaming even a blog would be followed enthusiastically no doubt!

            Kind regards,

            Greg Rigler

          • Mike Walker

            No problem glad to help.

            Mike

          • Mike Walker

            Ah missed one – for some reason I was not credited as a contributor:

            290 February 2004 – Extreme Measures

            Mike

          • Thuloid

            98 to 2001 was the heyday (perhaps the only day) of my regular White Dwarf reading, so a number of these are vaguely familiar. Thanks!

          • Mike Walker

            My first White Dwarf was number 4 way back in 78. Essential reading to support my Dungeons and Dragons habit. I devoured every issue in those days.

            Glad you enjoyed the issues around the turn of the century

          • Thuloid

            I have most of the Dragon run from about ’80 to ’85. Was young then–really that was my older brother’s, but I kept it after he lost interest. All I know of White Dwarf in those days is the ads that ran in Dragon.

            Warhammer and such came much later for me.

          • Gregory Rigler

            Thanks Mike. Added to the Watch list!

            Greg

          • Von

            I second Gregory’s comment: you’re a true gentleman, Mister Walker, and a fat sight more helpful than the forum johnnies who’ve failed to compile a decent list in the past…

          • Mike Walker

            You are most welcome. I was surprised by how many there were and the fact that there were a couple I could not initially recall writing.

            Mike

          • Gregory Rigler

            Got ’em all. Read ’em all (not once not twice but thrice!). Fantastic fun. Gonna read’em again!

            Greg

          • Mike Walker

            I am impressed with your determination to get all those issues. Glad you enjoyed the articles.

            Mike