This is an article I wrote a couple of months ago for Issue 3 of the Uplink magazine [pdf]
“Play like you’ve got a pair!” is the catchphrase for this fast-paced aggressive game. If you like the sound of a wargame that has a stunning range of miniatures, is based in an immersive and compelling world, has some of the most beautiful books produced by any gaming company, is balanced and has a set of rules that are rock solid then Warmachine is the game for you! Warmachine has been around for about seven years now and is produced by Seattle-based Privateer Press. Its second version, called Warmachine MkII, released at the start of 2010 after an open field test in which thousands of players contributed feedback to tweak and refine the game and model rules. This award-winning game has earned Privateer Press a devoted set of followers worldwide who love their games equally for their strong character-driven storyline and fantastic gameplay.
I mean, what’s not to love, Warmachine is a game full of massive steam-powered machines of war that can headbutt, slam and throw their enemies to the ground before pounding them to oblivion. These machines, named warjacks (or just ‘jacks), are controlled by battle mages known as warcasters. The background of the Iron Kingdoms, a set of countries on the continent of Western Immoran, is one of almost constant war. The warcasters are the powerful protagonists at the centre of these conflicts that are tasked with leading the armies of their countries. They are warriors beyond compare who can wield potent magics to cast spells and boost their ‘jacks in battle. In the world of Warmachine the warjacks are sentient constructs of armour, weaponry, pistons, gears and steam-powered might centred around a cortex. The cortex is a delicate piece of magically constructed engineering that gives the ‘jack basic intelligence and allows it to operate autonomously. It also enables the warcaster to see through the ‘jacks eyes and push it to extremes. This is the unique selling point of the game, the focus mechanic that represents magic. The fact that the game has exceptionally well thought out and balanced rules doesn’t hurt either!
Before I can talk about how focus works, I first need to introduce the basic combat mechanic. Like most wargames every model has a set of stats that represent its movement, combat abilities and capacity to sustain damage. Warmachine does not rely on players learning off tables to calculate the chances to hit and wound an enemy. Rather a player simply rolls 2D6, adds them to a combat statistic and compares them to their opponents defense. Equal or beat their defense and it’s a hit. Wounding them is done in a similar manner – roll 2D6, add the strength (and power) of your weapon and if it beats their armour they sustain damage. It is in these dice rolls that the delicate balance of the game lies. Everything is based around average rolls. For example, most ‘jacks have a melee attack (MAT) statistic of 6. A high defense (DEF) on a warcaster would be 16. On average rolls a ‘jack would have a hard time hitting a ‘caster. Here’s were a ‘jacks controlling ‘caster can help out.
Every warcaster has a focus statistic (typically around 6 or 7). At the start of a turn the player can allocate focus from their ‘caster to ‘jacks to enable them to do exceptional things during their activation. With focus a ‘jack can perform power attacks, such as throws, slams, armlocks and headbutts, and importantly boost attack and damage rolls. Boosting allows the ‘jack to add an additional die to a roll. That DEF 16 warcaster seems a lot easier to hit now that the ‘jack is rolling 3D6! Focus allocation is one of the key skills in the game as the ‘caster can also use focus to cast spells and boost their own attacks. Every warcaster has a unique list of spells that they can cast to destroy their enemy, control the batlefield or help out their own army. They also have a once per game feat that can dramatically change the face of the game. When playing against a new warcaster the first thing you do is check out their feat to see what it does!
So, that’s the basics of the gameplay – you have a powerful warcaster (or two!) at the centre of your army who pushes it to excel in battle. Warcasters are so focal that changing a warcaster can completely change how an army performs. Armies are constructed in a similar fashion to other games, you set a point total and add ‘jacks, units and solos until you reach the limit. Warmachine is a game of synergies. Some units and solos work well with each other and specific ‘casters. Games tend to be scenario focused were there are two winning conditions – win the scenario or kill the enemy warcaster. Larger games, 50 or 75 points, can have a large number of miniatures on the table and will take 2-3 hours to play. At this scale Warmachine isn’t the skirmish game that it appears to be at initial glance. The carnage is beautiful and battles can change quickly as a player who seems to be winning the scenario suddenly finds his warcaster under threat. However, even small games that comprise a warcaster and a few ‘jacks are great fun. These battlebox games last less than an hour and are so-called because they are made up of the contents to a factions basic boxed set. Each of these boxes contains a warcaster, a few ‘jacks, their stat cards and a quickstart version of the rules (which are also available for download). If you’re considering playing Warmachine this is a decent place to start.
There are essentially six factions in Warmachine – Cygnar, Khador, Protectorate of Menoth, Cryx, Retribution of Scyrah and Mercenaries. Coming from games like Warhammer and 40k this might look like very few, but the fact that each faction has a lot of warcasters (as many as a dozen in several cases) really mixes things up. These ‘casters completely change the character of an army, so there is a lot of strategic diversity in the game. There are a lot of resources on the Internet that talk about the features and differences of the different factions, so I won’t go into them here. Each faction has a broad theme and a unique aesthetic. For example, the Khadorans could be characterised as a cold power hungry race that value superior armour and bone crushing weapons over speed and precision. Their large brutal ‘jacks are symbols of a stoic people and an ever expanding empire. Each faction has its own character. The factions are well balanced as Warmachine is released incrementally, i.e. each book release sees every faction get something new, so you don’t end up with army books developed under an old edition become obsolete. As MkII is a new edition of Warmachine everything was reviewed and updated. The releases of MkII during 2010 will see each faction getting a Forces book that details the background and rules for every miniature in that faction. From 2011 the game will return to the incremental releases
There has never been a better time to get into Warmachine. It is a mature game, with lovely miniatures and a great set of rules. Ask a friend to give you a demo, or take the plunge and pick up a couple of battleboxes, but whatever you do remember to “play like you’ve got a pair!”.