Monday, 11 February 2019

Revisiting 40k: War(hammer) Is a Continuation of Politics by Other Means

Clausewitz said "War is a continuation of politics by other means", or words to that effect. But he also said "war is nothing but a duel on a larger scale". Resolving this thesis-antithesis is what cleverer people than I am say is the purpose of his On War. Another way of putting it might be that war is a continuation of politics in the abstract, but when it comes down to the concrete matter of how it is fought, it turns into a plain wrestling match.

Tabletop wargames, naturally, very much focus on the latter aspect of this - one would expect nothing less from a game, after all - and Games Workshop games do this most of all. Warhammer and Warhammer 40k not only focus on Clausewitz's "duelling" aspect of war like all wargames do; the political element is reduced to the most brutish and rudimentary consideration of all - total destruction. Whether it's the Chaos Gods trying to corrupt all humanity or an ork warband waking up one Tuesday morning and deciding to go on a rampage or an Eldar Craftworld deciding to wipe the human vermin off the face of a star system, the reasons why 40k factions go to war are basically always the desire to exterminate (or defend oneself from extermination), as though every single conflict that ever takes place is a more extreme variant of Operation Barbarossa. 

This lends things a sense of drama, clearly, because every single battle is couched in a wider context of two sides attempting to literally annihilate each other. It also makes in a sense for what Ron Edwards would probably have called "coherent" play: Warhammer battles are always always fights to the death, with one side achieving total victory and the other utter destruction. They are also always battles of attrition in the technical sense - fought to kill enemy soldiers and nothing else. There might be terrain, and there might even be notional "objectives" on the terrain which give victory points for winning, but the interest of the players is in destroying one's opponent's troops.

The odd thing about this is that the size of Warhammer engagements - often with fewer than a hundred models on the table - is so resolutely undramatic. Barely even a skirmish in the grand scheme of things - something akin to two forces conducting recon-in-force, I guess (which makes it even odder that they frequently include generals, mighty champions, famed heroes, etc.). In this sense at least 40k in particular is incoherent - it would be more fitting if battles were fought not between a few score troops on either side but between forces of hundreds of thousands, bigger even than epic scale.

What I would like to see is a strategic version of Warhammer 40k - a Birthright for the 41st millennium (or better yet a Crusader Kings II for the 41st millennium) which made the whole thing properly reflect the genuine "grimdarkness" of a setting in which the political objective of war is, basically, genocide and ruin. I would pay money for a game which did that.

22 comments:

  1. Forbidden Stars is a board game set in the 40K universe and takes a wider look at the conflicts within. It's still about war, but instead it's at a galactic scale.

    It's out of print.

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    1. Do you mean this: https://www.fantasyflightgames.com/en/news/2015/3/17/forbidden-stars/ ? It was "new" in 2015 so it must have gone out of print fast!

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    2. That's the one. FFG lost the GW licence about a year after it was published.

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    3. That's a shame because it's probably burned GW's fingers on the idea now.

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  2. There use to be a couple of them. One where a small unit of 10 or so was represented by a single model, as you see with a lot of wargames. The other was in "titan" scale (or something like that). I don't think the sales were enough to keep them alive.

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    1. Yep - that's what I meant by "epic scale" (not "titan scale"). It was a lot of fun to play. But even that was a bit too small scale actually if you're talking about proper big battles. At most a couple of thousand individual soldiers on the table, which is small fry in the grand scheme of things.

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  3. The campaign mode for Battlefleet Gothic Armada might satisfy that requirement. Do I let this hive world of billions get invaded and devoured by Tyranids so I can, next turn, set up an ambush? Or do I gamble on a risky defense with a half-shredded fleet of second-rate ships? Do I ally with the perfidious Eldar against a greater threat or seize this chance to cripple them forever?

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  4. In almost everything there's a huge gap between the fluff of the WH40K universe, and its representation in the actual game. They are increasing the size of the space marines though, so maybe you'll get a massive battle game one day.

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    1. Yeah, I heard about that. Presumably on the basis that the old space marines don't make enough money??

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    2. I guess it's part of revamping the space marine range, which apparently still is the number one seller. Coming up with new shiny is a big part of the GW business model. At least they're giving fans something people have long been asking: big marines that match the fluff. And they're nice (or just smart) enough not to invalidate & remove the old range all at once.

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  5. I have recently come to consider 40k as in some sense fuelling a 'Hobbesian' theory of tabletop wargames in a fictional setting: of a war of all against all.
    To be more precise: every faction should have a reason in the background to fight every other faction AND to fight amongst themselves.

    (To make it clear: the Imperium's internal struggles are perhaps only matched by their external ones, Chaos is self-explanatory on this point, as are the Orks, the Eldar probably don't want to kill one another on an ideological level but are so arrogant and splintered that they might well end up doing so, the Dark Eldar are backstabbers to a man, the Tau are very much unified - with one important exception that allows for the rule to stand, the Tyranids will feed on each other as much as on others and the Necrons have come out of stasis with all their old grudges intact.) [I believe this also stands for the former Warhammer Fantasy; Age of Sigmar perhaps not.]

    Why should this be? Well, it allows for the maximum amount of in-person play, not needing any specific faction to have a game. Granted, it's going to look odd if one company of Ultramarines fight another company, but hardly unprecedented.

    To bring to the front the article-relevant notions here, this means that any strategy game would have to almost as complex an internal office politics tool as an external diplomacy one.

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    1. I like that - I also think civil war (non-chaos related) in the Imperium is an undertapped area in 40k - or maybe I just haven't read the right novels.

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    2. You get the odd Xenos-influenced conflict, I think.

      The Enforcer series by Matthew Farrer are good for inter-Imperial strife sans Chaos, but it never reaches civil war. Patrick Stuart has some Goodreads reviews.

      The Fantasy Flight Games tabletop 40k sub-setting had a civil war without any especial outside party - but this is more a secession than a schism in the Imperium. [https://warhammer40k.fandom.com/wiki/Severan_Dominate]

      The Age of Apostasy is perhaps the best bit of Imperial civil war fluff that doesn't rely on Chaos. I don't believe it has been adapted for the novels or for tabletop play. [https://warhammer40k.fandom.com/wiki/Age_of_Apostasy]

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      Aside from Warhammer, I have to wonder how far the Hobbesian theory applies. Not quite my field, though I should be interested to discover more.

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    3. There was a lot more "Imperium-on-Imperium" violence implied in the original 40K. That's been lost over the last few decades.

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    4. It's still very much alive in the Inq28 scene though. And let's not forget about the Horus Heresy, also a pretty big subfranchise.

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    5. Thank you for flagging up Inq28; I had only encountered the outskirts of that before.

      The Horus Heresy sub-franchise did occur to me, but given it is the Imperium's foundational myth didn't seem quite right for the type of thing under discussion.

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    6. I had vaguely heard about Inq28 and like the idea.

      But what I am specifically interested in here is civil war in the Imperium without the involvement of chaos. Not the Horus Heresy or even inquisitions. I'm talking about the fact that human beings fight each other quite a lot, for many different reasons, not all of them (presumably) being due to the malign influence of the dark gods.

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    7. One non-Chaos civil war that springs to mind is the aftermath of the Macharian Crusade; the hero Solar Macharius dies, and his generals fall into infighting as they carve up his holdings.

      It's Alexander the Great with the names changed, but it sort of counts. Unless it's since been retconned to be the work of Chaos, which is possible.

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  6. I'd like to see something like a 40k Mighty Empires, which I maintain, was thoroughly belting. It would have paired nicely with Epic scale.

    Another tangentially related (40k & politics) tidbit, though genuinely unmissable.

    https://youtu.be/Lv1FE88JVps

    Astonishing.

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  7. I think part of the (dark) humor of 40K comes specifically from the silliness of its default war-is-the-final-method-of-political-expedience thang. It's part of the absurdity of its original paradigm...an absurdity that appears to have become lost in the last two or three editions in the name of taking its setting seriously. Too seriously, in my opinion.

    I mean, "space orks?" Come on.

    It's a little sad to think of the possible effect dropping the self-aware absurdity has on folks. In an age where an American president can justify the use of torture based on its effectiveness as shown by (fictional character) Jack Bauer, the loss of satire seems downright dangerous.

    But maybe that's just me looking on the dark side again.

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    1. Real life now satirises itself. That's why there's no need for satire. Life has *become* it.

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  8. How would you ever represent the unimaginable scale of the implied setting of 40k in a board game (or even a computer game)? From what I understand the armies involved number in the tens of billions.

    I mean fantasy and science fiction tropes always have to foreground small struggles involving a few relatable figures on to which we can project - that's why its always a small plucky band blowing up the Death Star or few plucky Hobbits getting rid of The One Ring.

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