Now with 99.99% less rules lawyering!
I have to say that one of the strangest moments I have had in a lifetime of gaming was sitting down on our living room floor with a green square of felt laid out, getting ready to play Warhammer 40k with my children. It was strange not only because I didn’t really expect to ever get back into 40k after my last roundelay with it a decade ago, but also because I was doing this with my children and with a set of rules and figures specifically oriented by Games Workshop to be kid-friendly, approachable and easy to manage. We had the usual assortment of painted, primed and bare plastic figures out among a battlefield we made from Heroscape trees and ruins. They were excited to see the figures that they had helped build and paint set up and ready to fight.
The new Battle for Vedros set ships with a rules set that is probably just about as streamlined and edited as anything remotely resembling Warhammer 40k could possibly be. They are shorter than the free Age of Sigmar rules. They are shorter than any tactical skirmish game rules I can call to mind. In fact, almost everything you need to know at least on a very basic level is on two pages that are mostly pictures of obnoxiously well-painted miniatures, as is standard for Games Workshop ephemera.
Veterans of 40k will immediately go down a checklist of what is missing not just in the rules, but also in the component list. There are no templates, markers, scatter dice or anything like that. On the page, there are no rules for Psykers, cover, morale, unit cohesion, or any of the more complex concerns of miniature wargaming. And there isn’t a whole lot of variety between units with a lot of statistics and ability homogenized down to the barest minimum. All you do is move your unit or model’s movement rating (or double it to run, trading out your shooting phase), then you shoot with anything that has line of site, and then there’s a charge phase. You roll 2D6 and can move that much to get into melee. On the fight phase, the Space Marines always have initiative and fight first. Then the Orks. Then the other player goes. Six rounds. There are no scenarios provided, and the rules read like you're supposed to just line up the forces and attack each other.
The streamlining means that the combat subroutines are quite a bit different. Space Marine models always hit on a 3+, Orks on a 5+. But there are some things that fudge that, like how Gretchin get a +1 to shoot. Wounds are always 4+ unless specified, there is no toughness. And then there are armor saves, which do have a corresponding statistics. You can’t go to ground, there are no bonuses for cover. Yet it still manages to feel mostly like Warhammer 40k, even if all of the rules lawyering and debating has been stripped away from it.
For the kids, this totally works. Within a couple of games, they understood things like how the Ork Nobz are total killers in melee, but not that great at range. They learned to get the Space Marine with the rocket launcher into a good spot where he could stand still and shoot. They learned to use the vehicles (Space Marine bikes and an Ork Wartrakk) to move in quickly or to intercept approaching forces. I was surprised at the concepts they were able to grasp quickly and I think keeping the actual mechanics and rules at a minimum helped them to get to the frankly more interesting elements more easily.
But the streamlining comes at cost. I found myself wishing that there were more detail, that there was a stronger sense of leadership and a greater emphasis on unit differences. I really don’t like how, as written, the Space Marine Dreadnaught can only be damaged by the Deffkopta’s rockets or the Warboss’s Power Claw. I think that’s pretty stupid, but the rules are lacking any of the more detailed armor and vehicle rules that would add more complexity to it.
Another cost is that the rules are very under-written in an attempt to make them simpler for general audiences. This creates a lot of questions that I think might frustrate newcomers who have never played 40k or a miniatures game before. It’s not really clear, for example, how mechanics like shooting and fighting work with individual models and units. I found myself referencing my own 40k rules knowledge to sort out some of the vagaries, but those who are sitting down to play this for the very first time with kids might find themselves scratching their heads more than they ought to with a starter set of rules. That said, Battle for Vedros is probably less complex than Heroscape or its more recent incarnation as Magic: Arena of the Planeswalkers- as long as you can work through the bits that seem under explained or omitted. The lack of scenarios or guidance in terms of force composition or terrain setup is a huge oversight, in my opinion.
What I keep coming back to though isn’t the rules anyway. Let’s face it - 40k has never really had the best or most interesting mechanics and in fact I think that some of the system is genuinely bad. But just as I’ve felt in the past, all the bad stuff (for example, the laughably antiquated “roll to hit, then roll to wound, then roll again to save” thing) doesn’t really bother me. Because 40k is so much about the look, feel, atmosphere and setting. When we sat down and saw our Ultramarines and our Goff Orks on that felt, it was that same feeling I had in the 80s and the 90s and ten years ago- that we were playing Warhammer, and we were going to have these greenskins screaming and bellowing while they smash into these Space Marines blasting away with their bolters, Purity Seals billowing in the hot wind of battle. I taught my kids about “Dakka”, the Emperor, the Ultramarines, explaining to them bits of 40k lore the whole time we played and they were fascinated, as if I were telling stories about real history or cultures.
This is why 40k is great, not because the rules are good. So it kind of doesn’t matter that it’s missing so much in terms of process, mechanics and stricture. It’s not hard to almost wish that Games Workshop would completely overhaul the 40k rules set and winnow it down to something more modern, direct and without so much bulk. Maybe Battle for Vedros is a step in that direction.
I’m at an odd impasse though, because as much as I like how basic it is I want to bring in more rules to see how far my kids want to take it. But then there’s a part of me that wants to keep it simple with the Battle for Vedros rules. I think the happy medium, at least until they are old enough to read a Codex, is for Dad to work in new units and models with extremely simplified versions of their abilities and traits from the main game if Games Workshop doesn’t support the Vedros line with more products. Whichever way we go with it, Battle for Vedros has made Warhammer 40k a family activity in our home and that is not something I expected to happen until my kids were ten years older, if at all.
Next time- Where do we go from here?