The Weekender: Soul Wars Box Set Review

July 7, 2018 Off By Simon
Welcome to The Weekender, where we freestyle a little about what was good, what was bad, or what was notable about last week. This time, guest writer Simon Berman gives us a review of the brand new Age of Sigmar Soul Wars Box Set that just came out.

Cover of the Soul Wars box

A little preamble is necessary for this review, so please bear with me for a few paragraphs!

When Age of Sigmar first released in 2015, I was highly skeptical. While I’d never been the most ardent player of Warhammer: The Game of Fantasy Battles, I had always had a fondness for the beloved Old World universe and its mix of low fantasy, interesting corners of real world history, and general grimy aesthetic. Games Workshop’s announcements that not only was the current edition of Warhammer coming to an end but with it, a beloved setting that was almost as old as I am was not really news I wanted to hear.

What followed was a series of tone deaf marketing pieces and the launch of a new game, Warhammer: Age of Sigmar promising a radical new take on the game and setting. At launch Age of Sigmar did much to alienate its existing (if already waning) audience by not just dumping thirty years of setting material but also jettisoning some of its core mechanics like the list-building points system, a standard of Games Workshop’s flagpole games for decades. What had once been a stale massed-rank fantasy wargame was now a lean mass-battle game with a slim four page rules set.

While the initial starter box was well received the game struggled to find its place for months, ultimately resulting in the introduction of points and a more cohesive and familiar game system. By the summer of 2017, Age of Sigmar had finally come out from under the shadow of its troubled launch to find a rapidly growing audience embracing the elegance and simplicity of its rules set and impressed by the imaginative new armies and models being offered as part of the game’s vibrant new setting material.

With the release this month of the new edition of Age of Sigmar and its keystone box set, Soul Wars, Games Workshop has taken the opportunity to shed the last issues of the games’ trouble first edition.

Soul Wars is a competitively priced (USD $160.00) starter set that showcases Games Workshop’s strengths as a games studio and manufacturer. The box set comes with the beautiful packaging that has become the standard for Games Workshop’s big box games over the past few years and includes two armies worth of miniatures, starter rules and guides, peripheral items like dice, and the beautiful 320 page Core Book. It’s an exceedingly good value and excellent starting point for anyone interested in Age of Sigmar or just getting into miniatures wargaming for the first time.

Getting Started

getting started coverI actually assume that the Getting Started booklet will be the second thing most people look at since everyone is going to paw at the eight sprues of plastic miniatures first, but let’s pretend we’ll approach the box set like Games Workshop thinks we should.

The Start Here booklet is a small, 9 page introduction to miniatures wargaming and includes capsulized materializing summarizing the world of Age of Sigmar, the two armies included in the set (Stormcast Eternals and the Nighthaunt Spirits of the Legion of Death), and then a very brief overview of the other contents of Soul Wars concluding with a stripped down Battleplan scenario requiring just a handful of miniatures on each side. This pamphlet is primarily aimed at entirely fresh players and can be safely skimmed by experienced Age of Sigmar gamers.

Core Rules

The heart of the new edition, Age of Sigmar’s core rules set now weighs in at 18 pages, over four times the length of the previous edition! This is more than a little deceptive, however. Much of the expanded page count is devoted to photographic diagrams for clarity and I suspect the real page count minus graphics is closer to 10 pages.

The changes to this edition really amount to “quality of life” changes. The core of Age of Sigmar is still very much there as a fast paced and intuitive mass battle game, but the designers have taken the opportunity to tweak and clarify where necessary.

The game is divided into a handful of phases (Hero, Movement, Shooting, Charge, Combat, and Battleshock), with an easy to follow order of operations each turn. While it’s not a true alternating activations game as is in favor these days, its close combat phase does work in that manner and produces fast paced action with critical choices for each player each round of the game.

One of the most divisive elements of the first edition of Age of Sigmar, the so-called dynamic initiative turn has remained, but with a minor modification. At the beginning of each round, both players roll off to see who goes first. This means that in some cases a player will have back-to-back turns. This has been unpopular with a segment of competitive players who dislike any elements of randomness in the game’s structure, but adds an interesting twist for the rest of us. The major change to this rule has been that on a tied roll, the player who went last in the previous battle round now goes first. This does quite a bit to prevent too many subsequent back-to-back turns while preserving the unpredictability of the game.

Several other small changes along these lines have done a lot to improve the clarity and elegance of the game and I feel that Age of Sigmar is in a really solid place from a rules perspective with this release. There’s quite a lot more to say about the other changes to the rules but this is a review of Soul Wars as a set, not just its rules, so I encourage you to go find any of the other in-depth reviews of the rules elsewhere online!

Battle of Glymmsforge

This 38 page booklet provides an excellent narrative hook for the contents of Soul Wars. It spends several pages outlining the conflict between the heroic warriors of Sigmar and Nagash’s Legion of Death before drilling down to a specific location; the Free City of Glymmsforge and the forces arrayed to do battle there. It provides some fun stakes for players to be invested in and then details the various units from the Soul Wars box and their roles in their armies. This booklet is light on rules, though it does conclude with Matched Play points for all the models in Soul Wars. It’s principle purpose is to help players become invested in the setting and characters of Age of Sigmar, a goal it admirably achieves.

Core Book

The new Core Book for Age of Sigmar is tremendous improvement on its predecessor. Over half of its 320 pages (hardcover, and featuring a lovely gold integral ribbon bookmark) are devoted to the world of Age of Sigmar, presented in a manner that is engaging and compelling. The previous Age of Sigmar core book had presented a vague overview of the multi-dimensional setting that failed to enchant many players.

The new book’s setting material takes some time to explain the mythological history of the world but then takes great efforts to present them as understandable places. My greatest complaint about the previous edition was that the world was potentially very compelling to me (I love overblown cosmic high fantasy!) but failed to ground it in any kind of sensical framework and it resulted in a feeling of disconnect between games played in the world and their place within it.

The new setting material builds upon the previous edition but more squarely centers its overarching conflict as between the god Sigmar and Nagash, the lord of death. This is a bit of a breath of fresh air after the unrelenting focus of the previous edition on Sigmar vs Chaos (and most often the Chaos Gods, Khorne and Nurgle.) The new material adds some disquieting flaws to the previously invincible forces of the Stormcast and generally shakes up the setting in the way you want out of a new edition. It also set the stage for the separately released Malign Sorcery “endless spells” models and rules.

The new core book features detailed sections on each of the Mortal Realms (extradimensional planes) accompanied by maps of their terrain and brief descriptions of specific cities and sites to be found across the game’s universe. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to give a fantasy setting a real sense of place and they’ve done an excellent job in helping avoid the feeling of your games just taking place in a void. My only minor dissatisfaction with the writing is a lack of attention to “every day life” in the various planes. I have no need to know how much dung the average Nurgle worshipping inhabitant of Ghyran, the Realm of Life, must plow in a day, but just knowing that she exists goes a long way to helping my sense of immersion. There’s a little of this kind of material, but just a touch more would really elevate the setting.

The book goes on to describe all the various factions in the game and their place in the world before delving into the 18 pages of core rules.

From there the book expands to add Allegiance abilities, new rules for setting your games in each of the eight Mortal Realms, and a wealth of optional rules. Excitingly, the Open War rules, formerly a card set, are now included within the core book, along with new Battleplan scenarios, matched play rules, and a host of other ways to tweak the game to give you the experience you desire.

The Miniatures

Soul Wars includes 52 models split between the forces of the Stormcast Eternals and the Nighthaunts. These are truly beautiful and imaginative models and any fantasy gamer is sure to be captivated by at least one of these armies. Intriguingly, they’re also built as snap-together kits, requiring no glue. While I haven’t personally assembled any yet, I have had the pleasure of seeing a few built by friends in person and they are ingenious kits. Games Workshop’s model engineering is at an all-time height with these kits.

These kits are a real achievement in the industry. Hobbyists will need nothing more than a pair of clippers to build these models, though a hobby tool to remove minor mold lines will be a welcome help as with any plastic kit. Even the newest hobbyist should experience little frustration when assembling their first models.

An assembly/painting guide accompanies the models, as well as a small set of waterslide transfers for use with the Stormcast.

The Nighthaunts in particular are exceptional models. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a wonderfully realized line of ghosts for use in a miniatures game before and I’ll certainly be building an army of them for myself.

The Peripherals

Art on the back of the warscrollsThe box set also contains a handful of peripheral items, all of them of high utility and quality. Most excitingly, cards for each unit and character model in the game with all relevant stats are included. Stat cards for units have been an industry standard that Games Workshop has neglected for many years but their release with Soul Wars and as separately available packs brings Age of Sigmar fully into the modern wargaming landscape. Having to print your own unit references or refer to bookmarked pages in other books was a tremendous hassle for playing Age of Sigmar and I’m very pleased to see a new day dawning.

Soul Wars also includes a plastic range ruler and a lovely set of translucent teal dice.

Finally, and cleverly, the set includes a small pamphlet featuring an excerpted chapters from Josh Reynolds’ Soul Wars novel, available from Games Workshop’s tie-in fiction publishing house, Black Library. It offers a taste of the Age of Sigmar fiction line, and is a nice little extra to the set.

A New Age of Sigmar is Here

Soul Wars is a truly excellent two-player starter set. I would have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone looking to try Age of Sigmar or miniatures wargaming for the first time and it leaves me excited about the future of the game line.