Warhammer Diskwars - A Retrospective

Warhammer Diskwars - A Retrospective

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Warhammer Diskwars

Warhammer Diskwars is the sort of game that could only ever fail.

I’m not sure who the intended audience was for a Warhammer game interpreted through the lens of Diskwars, a defunct goofball Tom Jolly design from the turn of the millennium. I doubt Fantasy Flight even knew who the intended audience was, because after a single year they killed the organized play circuit, which it frankly was not well-suited for in the first place. A scant two expansions came out, and then a few years of silence. Theoretically it was a casualty of the divorce between Games Workshop and Fantasy Flight Games in 2016, but it’s obvious that it was dead long before that. It’s too bad, because Fantasy Flight actually created not just a really fun tactical “miniatures” wargame, but one that actually overcame a lot of the logistical barriers to enjoying tactical minis. I’m not surprised that it flopped, but it deserved better.

The first thing anyone will notice when looking at this game will be the discs, large cardboard tokens that litter the battlefield and make the game look entirely unique. It can be tempting to chalk up the discs as something of a gimmick, but they actually present some terrific advantages. First of all, they are a lot less intimidating than the prospect of assembling and painting a miniature. The nice illustrations are a big help here, with all of the violent imagery and stylization from Games Workshop. In a strictly practical sense, cardboard discs are a lot easier to store than painted minis. Perhaps most cleverly, they drastically simplify movement, because the movement value now corresponds to flips of the disc, no measuring needed. But the single biggest advantage of this weird production choice is the fact that unique characteristics for each unit is now printed right on the unit. Once you internalize the not-inconsiderable list of keywords and icons, it makes the game flow really well.

There are actually a couple of design choices the guarantee this game will be just a touch easier to play. One of those is the melee combat, which is entirely deterministic. You simply compare a couple of numbers and deal damage to the two discs. This is a surprising choice, since dice-based combat is the bread and butter for tactical miniatures. But since this is a rough-and-tumble experience, where units are brawling almost right away, it actually streamlines the game considerably.

Fear not though, because there are still dice to be thrown. These come into play in ranged combat, a much more chaotic affair. It is here that the Games Workshop design sensibility is felt most strongly. Dice allow the game to yield some great narrative beats. First of all, there’s a decent chance that a ranged attack while hit a bystander, regardless of whether they’re an enemy. Friendly fire is definitely a thing in Diskwars. Most amusing is the “chaos” die symbol, used most effectively with the Hellcannon, a Chaos cannon that has a chance of flipping over and crushing an innocent bystander.

The other bit of design that speeds up the game is how damage is dealt with. Essentially, a unit only keeps damage if it takes enough to kill them. Otherwise the damage goes away at the end of the round. This damage reset at the end of the round allows players to be a little bolder and take bigger risks. If you make it out of a scrape you can hightail it out of there. Alternately you can get in a violent brawl and recover, ready to dive into another one right away.

That feeling of a savage brawl is really what Warhammer Diskwars imparts well. It strikes just the right balance between calculated no-luck combat and chaotic elements to provide a good tactical experience that still manages to clip along pretty well. There is something bold and refreshing about the game in how it approaches this whole genre. Maybe it’s flipping those discs, or using the terrain (also represented by cardboard tokens on the play area) to your advantage, but this is a very satisfying game to jump into. The only real barrier is a somewhat long list of keywords for both units and terrain. The difficulty here is less in the volume, and more in the fact that FFG didn’t supply a player aid. You’ll be referring to rulebook a lot for a couple games.

But that bookkeeping really isn’t that onerous, allowing Warhammer Diskwars to remain enjoyable at the casual level as well as for those who want to dig in a little. In fact, while I don’t have much proof of this, I think Warhammer Diskwars actually works best for people who want a full-fledged tactical experience, but one that requires comparatively less commitment from the player. This is exemplified by the army building rules. They allow for some depth and even some metagaming if that’s the kind of thing you are into, but they also make it easy to throw together an army in 5-10 minutes.

Warhammer Diskwars got a single core set and two expansions, a very small amount of product for what was undoubtedly intended to be a long product line. But in keeping with that low-commitment mindset, these products were all very fleshed out. The core set in particular is a real bargain, at least for the time being. There are four fully customizable factions, lots of terrain and strategy cards, and all of the tokens you need. You could easily get plenty of mileage out of the base set. The expansions each flesh out one of the “sides” in the game, either Chaos or Order. That means they add to the existing factions, throw in another full one, and a couple of smaller bonus ones. All of your favorites are here, the Empire, High Elves, Orcs, and Chaos in the base set, and Dwarves, Vampire Counts make an appearance in the expansions, along with less extensive races like Lizardmen and Skaven. The short lifespan of the game and the generosity of the sets means that it’s an affordable, closed environment that simultaneously has plenty of content for most people. I personally have two core sets and both expansions, and it is plenty for me.

Part of me wishes that Diskwars had really found its audience while it was with us. It’s a fascinating and unique tactical experience, one that clearly wanted to go on for longer than it did. But like TV shows that end after a season or two, I think that Warhammer: Diskwars will be one of those cult games that becomes more appreciated as we gain perspective, particularly now that Games Workshop themselves have moved on from The Old World as a setting. Certainly in our current environment of serialized releases and extravagant minis, Diskwars feels almost rebellious. It’s a miniatures game without miniatures, one that doesn’t demand deep pockets or endless army-tinkering. It helps that the design is really good too, brutal and entertaining. Lots of people own miniatures games with endless content and detailed sculpts, but just this once it’s nice to have a game that doesn’t own you.

Nate OwnesFollow Nate Owens

Reviewer

After a childhood spent pestering his parents and sister to play Monopoly, Scrabble, and Mille Bornes, Nate discovered The Settlers of Catan in college. From there it was only a matter of time before he fell down the rabbit hole of board gaming. Nate has been blogging since college, and writing about board games since 2007. His reviews have appeared on his blog, sanildefanso.wordpress.com, and on Miniature Market. Nate enjoys games with a lot of interaction, as well as games with an unconventional approach to theme.

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Posted: 04 Jul 2018 00:08 by hotseatgames #276853
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I've got the full set, sitting here staring at me, waiting for me to dive back in. I printed off unit lists from BGG so I no longer have to look at the discs themselves, with their tiny printing.
Posted: 04 Jul 2018 00:26 by san il defanso #276854
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My most recent experience with this game has come with my eight-year-old son, who seemed to intuitively understand the appeal of a bunch of fantasy army dudes killing each other. We played it like three times in 36 hours.

Not sure if I should be worried that he only ever wants to play the Chaos factions.
Posted: 04 Jul 2018 07:36 by Jackwraith #276865
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Great article. It replicates my thoughts about the game almost perfectly. When it was first released, I had the reaction that a lot of regular WHFB players did: "Diskwars?!", figuring it would be too simplistic and not give a clear insight into the widely divergent methods of play available to the different factions. I was totally wrong. Just like you say: it's Warhammer Fantasy without the cumbersome part of buying(!), assembling, painting, and hauling around a 3000 point army.

This was the biggest impact to me of the split between GW and FFG, as I was hoping for so much more follow-up (just like with Battlelore, 2nd Ed...)

And don't worry about your son. I've been a progressive activist for my whole life and I've always gravitated to the dark side in games. Never played Empire or any of the nominal "good guys." My favorite armies were 6th-7th Ed. Chaos Warriors of Slaanesh and my beloved Skaven, still over 10,000 points strong.
Posted: 04 Jul 2018 08:35 by MattDP #276867
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Sold my sets on, unplayed.

I wish I'd thought of the angle that this is the last playable game set in the Old World first.
Posted: 04 Jul 2018 08:47 by BaronDonut #276869
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Great read. I generally lack the patience to enjoy miniatures-based wargames, they tend to be too granular and slow-paced for my taste. I've always kept an eye on diskwars as something that might simplify the process enough for me to have fun while still scratching the same itch--this piece makes me even more intrigued.
Posted: 04 Jul 2018 12:13 by Shellhead #276882
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I played the original Diskwars once, back around 2000, and it was fun. I also saw people playing Doomtown Diskwars sometime after that. A few years later, I found a local game shop dumping Legend of the Five Rings Diskwars at fire sale prices, and picked up a bunch. I don't know why I haven't played it in all these years. Probably because I don't have a proper box of it on display on my gaming shelf. Instead, the discs are all in baggies inside a couple of empty boxes of Blackened Voodoo Lager. So I keep forgetting that I even own the game.
Posted: 04 Jul 2018 16:53 by Gary Sax #276889
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Buying miniatures games fill me with a sort of anxiety because of my nonexistent painting skills and very shaky hands. I 100% see the appeal. And I do love the old world!
Posted: 04 Jul 2018 17:08 by DarthJoJo #276892
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You think dice are trashy? Determining whether your arrows hit in L5R Diskwars by dropping a handful of arrow tokens from a foot above the target to determine hits is trashy.