Rackham’s Confrontation

by Angus McNicholl

Rackham’s Confrontation
July 13, 2020 Angus McNicholl

There have been a few games that really captured my imagination. Usually it’s because I am a magpie with an eye for shiny miniatures; other times it’s because the rules or concept really spoke to me. With Rackham’s Confrontation, it was both the shiny models and the pocket-sized rulebooks… and the cards covered in the most magnificent art. While cards are a common component of skirmish wargames these days, back in 2000 the idea of cards for model stats, magic items, spells, and even just character background was fairly novel.

 

Rackham had its beginnings in 1996. It was founded by Jean Bey and, as the editorial and artistic director, it was primarily his vision that was translated by the many writers, designers, artists, and sculptors that joined his team. Confrontation would eventually coalesce into the world of Aarklash and spawn several other games based in the same world, including the dungeon crawler Hybrid (2003), the Rag’narok battle system for fighting large-scale tabletop battles in 2005, and the Cadwallon roleplaying game in 2006. In addition, a number of fan-formed (and Rackham supported) ‘Confederations of the Red Dragon’ (CORDs) sprang up around the game. This writer was an early member of UKCORD, the UK-based fan group. Every year Rackham would produce a limited-edition miniature that could only be purchased by CORD members. 

In 2008 Rackham began a restructuring that saw it floated on the stock exchange and began the transformation of the company into Rackham Entertainment. Jean Bey was sidelined in the management reshuffle, retaining the title Creative Director, but no longer the principal creative force behind the company. 

 

So what made Confrontation’s world special?

It was a fantasy skirmish game at a time when Games Workshop ruled the tabletop with its Warhammer rules. If you played fantasy, you played Warhammer, you did so with Citadel miniatures, and it was all very Tolkien-inspired. Dwarves were short and beardy, elves were tall and pointy, human armies were armoured knights, and then there was Chaos that covered everything in spikey bits.

So imagine the revelation when I saw miniatures that didn’t come out of that mold. The first models I saw from Rackham were the imposing Wolfen. These guys were massive; twice the height of a regular human model, on a large base. These feral wolfmen came armed with blades strapped to their arms. Most were positioned in snarling poses or, in the case of their shamanic spell-casters, brandishing menhir-like totems. All were cast in metal.

Of course, the magpie in me couldn’t resist. Buying a blister pack here and another there became something of a habit. I bought gorgeous models across all factions long before I actually convinced other people to give the game itself a go. Once the door to Confrontation was open, I persevered with the poorly-translated rules for the sake of the wonderful models.

I had been used to the Games Workshop approach, which involved paying a small fortune for a rulebook and an army book before you could even start collecting. So imagine my delight when I discovered that the rulebook was a tiny 30-odd pages that fitted neatly into the blister pack, along with all the cards the model needed for play.

In time the little book edition of Confrontation — which was its second edition, the first edition having been the French language version — gave way to Confrontation 3, which was a hardback book with a single companion book called Dogs of War. This was not only an attempt to consolidate all the rules, spells, and magic items in one place, it was also a concerted effort to improve on the English translation. Unfortunately, the language was still a little stilted and unnatural, though it was an improvement. The ‘current’, fan-maintained, version of the game is referred to as Confrontation 3.5.

Confrontation grew from a few basic army factions into a massive, sprawling world, with no fewer than seventeen different races fighting over the future of Aark’lash. Many of these racial armies were further subdivided into seven or more themed armies. Those few that had not yet been fully developed might well have done so had not Rackham come to a crashing end. More on that shortly.

The story of Aark’lash, and the Rag’narok, is quite a complex one. The end times are upon the world and the forces of light and dark are rising to clash. Each of the armies was themed around a ‘totem’: on the side of the Light stood the Griffon (human religious crusaders), the Lion (human high fantasy knights), and the Minotaur (the noble savages of the Kelts). Against them, on the side of Dark were arrayed the Ram (the undead of the lost Dutchy), the Scorpion (alchemical hybrids), and the Hydra (the possessed patchwork dwarves of Mid Nor).

Interestingly, there was a third group, called Destiny. These forces fought for their own interests, or simply for survival itself. Amongst them were the two Wolfen factions: the Wolf (noble hunters) and the Hyena (the ‘devourers’). The Rat included the thirteen goblin tribes, the Tree-Spirit of the orcs – escaped sorcerous creations – seeking their place in a hostile world, and finally the Boar were weird techno-powered dwarves.

Of course that doesn’t account for all seventeen factions, but it gives a flavour. Others were added as time went on but two of the three elf factions were never realised. Of these factions, many were broken down into further themed armies. The goblin tribes, for example, included pirate goblins with boat hooks, anchors and tricorn hats, and the fantastic oriental-inspired samurai goblins.

Another highlight in the range were the undead models. So often in fantasy wargames the undead are just rank-and-file human skeletons and zombies, and the forces of Ram certainly had those. But they also had undead from other armies — zombie wolfen, undead centaurs, and the like — which made them feel like part of the world.

But it was the more outlandish factions that interested me. The Mid Nor, for example, were dwarves that had ventured too deep, been captured, tortured, ripped apart, stitched back together, and possessed by demons! Each of these strange, misshapen models carried tiny ‘canopic dolls’ that were believed to house the demonic essence that possessed and animated their sewn flesh. The Wolfen came as both noble hunters and followers of Yilla (the moon), and as the vile and degraded Devourers. There were the Ophidian snake people and their slaves. But most of all I wanted the evil spider elves — which, unfortunately, never existed beyond a few pieces of concept art.

The army that I played the most, and suited my playstyle the best, was the Scorpions of Dirz. They were alchemical monstrosities raised from secretive laboratory cloning vats. Each of the themed laboratories had its own set of heroes, strategies, and monsters beyond the shared basic clones.

Confrontation introduced me to non-Games Workshop paints and painting techniques. I switched from Games Workshop product lines to Vallejo paints and Winsor & Newton brushes. I painted models because I wanted to make them look good on the tabletop, not just slap on a coat and call it done. I adopted (at least, tried to adopt) the Rackham studio style, which was the first time I’d seen models painted in a non-metallic metal technique.

What made the gameplay so memorable?

In Warhammer there was a lot of waiting around, as first your opponent moved their army and then you took your turn and moved yours. Confrontation wasn’t like that — it used a random activation mechanic. The stat cards for your force were shuffled together with your opponent’s cards, and used to randomise which units would activate at a given time. The whole approach was called ‘fog of war’, representing the confusion of battle. You could game this to your advantage by using multiple units of the same type which contributed multiple copies of the same card to the deck, so at least you could choose which of your possible units it represented to activate — which is why the Scorpions faction worked so well for me, with a lot of cheap clones to throw an the enemy. Sure, the clones were rubbish — but they were an effective tar pit allowing my hero to maneuver and strike at targets I wanted to take out.

Actual combat was interesting too, once melee pairing was sorted out. Most warrior models had two dice to roll for attacks (and heroes often had more), but you could assign them to attack or defence. Need to hold the line against an enemy charge? Put both dice in defence. Need to break through the line? Stack them both in attack. Or, if you needed a more balanced approach, assign one each way. This meant that there was a lot of critical decision-making all the way through the game. On top of that, poor translation often meant there was a lot of discussion and ‘house-ruling’ to make it through a game.

In 2006 Rackham began serious expansion. They branched out into a new sci-fi game called AT-43. This new game departed from the principles that had made Rackham great, and shifted to pre-painted plastic models — which were, frankly, very good, even by modern pre-painted standards. Though I’ve yet to play the game myself, I do own a copy. AT-43 was clearly aimed at a different customer base from Confrontation. It makes good commercial sense to diversify and bring new people into the hobby, but it prompted Rackham to try and build the next edition of Confrontation on the AT-43 model, which alienated some fans.

Confrontation 4 (actually called Confrontation: Age of Ragnarok) tried to do what had worked for Games Workshop: produce a core rulebook with supplemental army books for each faction. The basic game mechanics were ‘upgraded’ to run on similar principles to AT-43. The small warband concept of a hero supported by a handful of warriors was swept aside in favour of larger units and larger battles.

The major selling point for Confrontation thus far had been the all-metal artisan miniatures. These were to be phased out and replaced by pre-painted plastic. Again, even by today’s standard, these were very good pre-painted plastics; but that wasn’t what the artisan community around Confrontation wanted.

On top of all that, Rackham changed the basing structure from square bases to round — which meant a lot of work for players, rebasing their existing miniatures that they had spent a great many hours lovingly painting. What followed was two years of decline, then financial difficulties and ultimately the collapse of the company.

The property still exists, with the rights to the game currently in the hands of the French company Sans-Detour, but with little action in the last few years most diehard fans keep their passion alive through eBay purchases and local play. It’s a great pity that, despite a Kickstarter campaign to revive the miniature lines, nothing seems to have been delivered.

Despite recent history, Confrontation was a trailblazing game with a massive line of very stylish miniatures, and rules lovingly crafted (if often poorly translated). Rackham did a number of things that have shaped many games that have come after it. The use of miniature stat cards for one, which have since been adopted by Privateer Press’s Warmachine and Hordes games, and now laterly by Games Workshop with their Age of Sigmar and WarCry lines (though Confrontation went further, with cards shuffled together with an opponent’s to form the initiative deck for activation).

Confrontation still holds a special place in my heart. I have sold off many armies for games I no longer play, but I’ve kept every single Rackham model I have ever owned. I cannot bring myself to give up even a single one. I just wish that some company, somewhere, would take over the licences and make a go of it.