What is Age of Sigmar?

Thomas Turnbull-Ross

What is Age of Sigmar?
August 16, 2020 Thomas Turnbull-Ross

In 2015, Games Workshop retired their original miniatures wargame, Warhammer (sometimes known as Warhammer Fantasy Battles), in an apocalyptic series titled The End Times. In the wake of this, Warhammer was replaced with a bold new approach to tabletop wargaming: Warhammer Age of Sigmar. Age of Sigmar reworked the Warhammer system and world from the ground up, with everything from the rules to the story being entirely new. While initially flawed and met with negative reception, the last five years of development — most notably the release of its second edition in 2018 — have changed Age of Sigmar into a worthy successor to Warhammer. This month we introduce you to the game’s setting and major factions.

The reasons for Age of Sigmar’s creation, while never stated outright by Games Workshop, have been inferred from circumstances within and surrounding the company in 2014–15. At the time, Games Workshop was facing the negative reception to the 2014 edition of Warhammer 40,000, as well as legal disputes over copyright with Chapter House Studios. The fans of both Warhammer settings were unhappy, and Age of Sigmar was viewed by many as an attempt to ‘save’ the company, by removing the least popular of the two games and creating an all-new product. The initial launch was arguably a minor disaster, due to the rules system lacking proper balancing mechanics — and this ultimately led to a change in management for Games Workshop.

Despite the launch of Age of Sigmar, Games Workshop has continued licensing various video game developers to create games set in the old Warhammer world. Some of these have proven immensely popular, most notably the Vermintide (2015) and Total War: Warhammer (2016–17) titles. Nevertheless, Age of Sigmar continued to receive support, with the greatest change coming in 2018 when the second edition rulebook was published. This saw the return of several popular conventions in Warhammer products, and a surge of popularity for Age of Sigmar.

The game is not simply a carbon copy of Games Workshop’s other products. Age of Sigmar strays from the grimdark tone of its predecessor and its older brother, Warhammer 40,000, though does not entirely abandon it. Outwardly, it appears as a ‘noblebright’ fantasy of golden heroes vanquishing dark overlords — but the truth is more complex. Unlike Warhammer 40,000, where even the supposed ‘heroes’ are a fascist, xenophobic regime, Age of Sigmar presents even the corrupt worshippers of Chaos as heroes of their own tales. Perspective is important in Age of Sigmar; every faction has wronged another at some point, and most of them have just reasons for their quarrels.

With Age of Sigmar reinventing old factions and introducing new ones every few months, there are a huge array of factions that can be played in the game. Each one falls into one of four Grand Alliances: Order, Chaos, Death, and Destruction.

 

The setup

Age of Sigmar is set thousands of years after the events of its predecessor. The world of Warhammer is known as ‘the world-that-was’, and most of the few survivors of the End Times storyline became gods or demigods. Most notable of these is Sigmar himself, formerly a Conan-style barbarian who founded the Empire. He was worshipped as a god by the people of the Empire, and his symbol of the twin-tailed comet was a recognised portent. During the End Times he was resurrected as the deity the Empire believed him to be, wielding his signature weapon, the legendary hammer Ghal Maraz. Following the destruction of the world-that-was, Sigmar clung to the husk of the planet as it hurtled through the cosmos, until finally coming to rest in one of the Mortal Realms.

The eight Mortal Realms were created by the eight disciplines of magic from the world-that-was; Aqshy (Fire), Ghur (Beasts), Chamon (Metal), Azyr (Heavens), Ghyran (Life), Hysh (Light), Ulgu (Shadow), and Shyish (Death). Each Realm in some way embodies the aspect of magic it came from; Shyish, for instance, contains every underworld or afterlife believed to exist by the myriad cultures of the living. That is not to say the Realms are simply vast stretches of a single biome; rather, every element of them is somehow linked to what they represent. Humans, duardin, aelves, orruks, and all manner of other creatures are commonplace in every Realm, though some species naturally gravitate towards one Realm over another. The barbaric orruks are most at home in savage Ghur, while the tree-like Sylvaneth are rarely seen outside of Ghyran.

Initially, descriptions of the true nature of the Realms were left vague by Games Workshop, and only with the 2018 release of Age of Sigmar’s second edition did a more detailed exploration of them come to light. Each Realm exists as a rough disc within its own immense ‘realmsphere,’ a cosmic space formed of the raw stuff of magic. The centre of each realmsphere is the most hospitable and propitious for life, and thus most cities and kingdoms exist within this region. Towards the edge of each disc the elemental magic of that Realm takes greater hold, with areas ultimately becoming totally uninhabitable. The fringes of Chamon, for instance, may transform all matter, whether organic or not, into gold or silver.

The Realms are linked by portals called Realmgates, which are essential for trade and travel between the Realms. As Sigmar set about reconstructing societies and searching for fellow gods, they proved invaluable. However, the Eightpoints — a nexus existing outside the Realms and possessing gates to all eight — remained and still remains under the control of Chaos.

The Pantheon of Order

On his travels through the Realms, Sigmar found Grimnir and Grungi, two gods of the duardin, as well as several aelf deities including Tyrion, Teclis, Malerion, and Alarielle. Nagash, the Arch-Necromancer, was awakened as a god of death, and the ‘kunnin’ but brutal’ Orruk gods Gork and Mork had fused into the dual god known as Gorkamorka who briefly allied with Sigmar after he proved his strength in combat to them. Known together as the Pantheon of Order, these gods shaped the Realms and guided their people into a golden age of prosperity.

However, the ancient and primal forces of Chaos were not gone. Khorne, Tzeentch, Nurgle, Slaanesh, and the newest addition to the Ruinous Powers, the Great Horned Rat, looked on as Sigmar and his allies created peace and order. Turning to the man responsible for the End Times, their Everchosen champion, Archaon, they struck — intending to destroy all that the Pantheon of Order held dear. Archaon’s assault across the Mortal Realms was swift and deadly, and against such outward pressure old rivalries in the Pantheon of Order flared up, and the gods separated. The final blow was struck when Ghal Maraz was taken from Sigmar by Archaon, forcing the god-king to retreat to Azyr and seal the Realmgates to his home. In the centuries that followed, Chaos was rampant across the Realms, and it appeared Sigmar had abandoned his people and his allies.

But all was not lost.

 

The Stormcast Eternals

While locked away in Azyr, Sigmar still watched his people. Chaos was overwhelming, but there were still those few heroic men and women who stood and fought, even in the face of insurmountable odds. Whether mighty king or lowly peasant, gentle priest or fierce shieldmaiden, Sigmar would snatch away their soul at the moment of their inevitable demise. Deep within Azyr, these heroes were ‘reforged’ upon the Anvil of Apotheosis into immortal, divine warriors. These were Sigmar’s Stormcast Eternals, and once an army of them had been raised, Sigmar struck back at the forces of Chaos. Thus the Age of Sigmar began.

Often likened to their Warhammer 40,000 counterparts, the Space Marines, due to their distinctive, brightly-coloured armour and their prominence on promotional art as the ‘face’ of Age of Sigmar, their similarities are only skin deep. If a Stormcast Eternal is slain, their spirit returns to Azyr to be reforged. However, the reforging process is imperfect; every time a Stormcast Eternal is reborn, an aspect of their memory or personality is lost. The oldest Stormcast Eternals, those who have fallen again and again, can seem hollow or emotionless, much of their humanity eroded by the reforging process.

Nonetheless, the Stormcast Eternals were instrumental in turning the tide against Chaos, and they still fight at the frontlines, descending from on high in bolts of heavenly lightning to wherever they are most needed. Not all Stormcast Eternals are soldiers, however. Those of the Sacrosanct Chambers combine the roles of priest, wizard and scholar, searching for the reason behind the reforging flaw and, ultimately, the secret of immortality. Meanwhile, Lords-Veritant and Lords-Castellant act with their cohorts as enforcers in the cities of mortals, although their uncompromising view of justice means they sometimes take extreme measures to root out suspected corruption.

 

The forces of Order

With the arrival of the Stormcast Eternals, some of the forces of Order were able to rebuild and reunite. Humans, duardin, and aelves built great cities to defend the reclaimed Realmgates, and contact was made once more with Sigmar’s old allies. Most of them remained loyal, with a few exceptions. Grimnir was destroyed, while Nagash and Gorkamorka had gone their own ways. As Sigmar’s forces set out to reclaim the Realms, their quest of discovery has been followed by the players.

Kharadron Overlords

A major group of duardin (similar to Tolkien’s dwarves) are the sky-faring Kharadron Overlords. Following the destruction of Grimnir and the invasion of Chaos, these duardin turned to technology for salvation. Initially taking to their airships, eventually the Kharadron Overlords built great skyports: huge airborne cities in which they were relatively safe from the predations of Chaos. Unlike many duardin, not all Kharadron are afraid of progress and change, and many will happily abandon old traditions in the name of pragmatism. Their main motive is profit; they are consummate traders and merchants, who value the gaseous, lighter-than-air ‘aether-gold’ above all else.

Daughters of Khaine

During the End Times, the Chaos God Slaanesh devoured the souls of every aelf in the world-that-was (when they were still known as ‘elves’). When the newborn aelven gods awoke in the Mortal Realms, three of them — Malerion, Tyrion, and Teclis — hunted down Slaanesh and imprisoned him between the Realms of Light and Shadow. With great and sinister magic, they began to extract the souls of the old aelves from the Chaos God, with the goal of rebuilding their civilisations once more. The first soul to be rescued was that of Morathi, the spiteful mother of Malerion and supreme sorceress of the world-that-was.

Warped into a hideous half-snake creature by the power of Slaanesh, Morathi demanded a place alongside the aelven gods, and soon became the high priestess of Khaine, the old aelven god of murder. Wielding a fragment of Khaine’s iron heart, Morathi drew a cult of fanatical and bloody-minded witch-aelves to herself, frenzied warriors who dive into combat without armour or shield, relying on their own reflexes and the favour of Khaine to protect them. Such blood cults existed in the world-that-was, and while often brutal and appalling in their actions, their ire is at least directed towards Chaos — for now.

The forces of Chaos

To those familiar with Warhammer 40,000, the forces of Chaos in Age of Sigmar will be easily recognisable. The four Ruinous Powers of Khorne, Tzeentch, Nurgle, and Slaanesh are the same, as are their daemons. Their mortal followers are also very similar, with the classic heavily-armoured and darkly-blessed Chaos Warriors from the very earliest days of Warhammer serving as the original inspiration for Chaos Space Marines. The mutative power of Chaos receives particular emphasis in Age of Sigmar, with entire factions given over to the Beasts of Chaos and the infamous ratmen, the Skaven.

Slaves to Darkness

Above all worshippers of Chaos, and arguably rivalling the Dark Gods themselves, stands Archaon, the Everchosen. It was he who destroyed the world-that-was, and he who coordinates the efforts of Chaos as a whole to defeat Sigmar once and for all. Bearing the blessings of all the Ruinous Powers, yet beholden to no one god above another, Archaon is the sole force that can unite the disparate clans and warbands of Chaos. His seat of power is the Varanspire, a mighty fortress constructed at the Eightpoints, a nexus of Realmgates linking every Mortal Realm, yet he has never sat upon his dark throne. He refuses to rest until Sigmar lies broken at his feet and the shining spires of Azyr are toppled.

Those mortal servants of Chaos who follow Archaon, or who simply owe allegiance to no particular Chaos God, are known collectively as the Slaves to Darkness. Controlling the majority of the Mortal Realms, these tribes and warbands are the descendants of those cut off when Sigmar closed the gates of Azyr, whose only course of survival was to join the very forces despoiling their homes. In their eyes, Sigmar abandoned them, and their continued survival is only further evidence of the strength of Chaos over Order.

Khorne

Khorne is the Chaos God of bloodshed and slaughter. Sat atop his throne of skulls in the Realm of Chaos, Khorne watches over all those who seek to further themselves through strength of arms and pitched battle. He is often deemed to ‘not care from where the blood flows, only that it does.’

Tzeentch

Tzeentch is the Architect of Fate and Lord of Trickery, patron of those who seek power through knowledge. He is cunning and devious, a trait many of his Disciples inherit. Sorcery is commonplace amongst his followers and daemons alike, and wherever the touch of Tzeentch can be found, inconstancy and change are inevitable.

Nurgle

The God of Decay and Lord of Plagues, Nurgle is a surprisingly jovial Chaos God. He considers the diseases he bestows upon the Mortal Realms as gifts, and his Maggotkin followers often perceive him as a generous grandfather. Characterised by bloated, sickness-ridden bodies, the mortal Maggotkin bear great resemblance to their patron’s daemons, and share the same disgusting resilience despite their festering, ravaged forms.

Slaanesh

Long ago imprisoned by the aelven gods, the Lord of Excess and Temptation nonetheless still holds an insidious sway over the Mortal Realms. Slaanesh is empowered by any addiction or indulgence, and clandestine worship of this profane deity often occurs in the highest echelons of society. In the absence of their god, some hedonites seek to find and rescue Slaanesh, while others, in their arrogance, seek to supplant him as a new God of Excess.

Skaven

The skaven are humanoid rats, and arguably more despicable than any other followers of Chaos. They exist outside of the Realms, in an interdimensional warren known as Skavenblight, from which they can burrow into any Realm save Azyr. They worship a fifth Chaos God, the Great Horned Rat, who embodies ruin, pestilence, and treachery. Every skaven, from the mightiest warlord to the lowest slave, is utterly self-serving and supremely paranoid, and they bear no goodwill to anyone other than themselves. Nevertheless, thanks to the power of an unstable element known as warpstone, which the skaven covet, they are some of the most ingenious inventors in all of Age of Sigmar, with artillery and war machines rivalling even those of the duardin in effectiveness — if not reliability. 

 

Forces of Death

For time immemorial, Nagash has been synonymous with necromancy and undeath. All undead, from the most mindless zombie to the ancient sorcerer Arkhan, owe ultimate loyalty to Nagash. Such is his control of death he can raise entire battlefields of corpses with but a gesture or obliterate the life force of an enemy with a single touch. To be in the presence of the Arch-Necromancer is to know one’s own mortality, and even the vampires shudder in his presence.

Once part of Sigmar’s pantheon, Nagash now pursues his own goals. As god of death, he views every mortal soul as his rightful property, but increasingly the other deities have been defying him. The Chaos Gods consume the souls of those who pledge themselves to their dark worship, the Idoneth Deepkin steal souls from the living to replace their own, and Sigmar himself snatches the souls of ‘heroes’ to make his Stormcast Eternals. Each and every theft is noted by Nagash, and so he sends forth his undying legions in ever greater numbers to enact retribution.

Nighthaunt

As part of Nagash’s attempt to take revenge, he began enacting a great ritual in Shyish, the Realm of Death. If successful, it would have caused every soul to be drawn to him at the moment of death. However, due to the unintentional intervention of some skaven, the ritual was only a partial success. A wave of necromantic energy was sent out across all the Realms, causing the spirits of the dead to rise from their graves and seek Nagash’s vengeance upon the living. These unquiet souls are known as the Nighthaunt and, much like Dickens’ Jacob Marley, they all bear darkly poetic punishments for sins they committed in life. Murderers take animalistic, predatory forms, while headsmen are forever haunted by the skulls of innocents they killed. At the head of the Nighthaunt hosts drifts Lady Olynder, Mortarch of Grief, a cunning manipulator in life who crushed the hearts of noble suitors to advance her own ambitions, cursed with a suffocating aura of sorrow in death.

 

Forces of Destruction

Gorkamorka, the twin orruk gods, love nothing more than to fight. This attitude extends to their savage children, the orruks, grots, ogors, and gargants of the Realms. Encapsulating ideas of orcs, goblins, ogres, trolls, and other such monsters as widely seen across many fantasy settings, the forces of Destruction have no unified goal or desire. They live for the moment, whether it be the thrill of battle or the joy of a feast. They do not care for the struggles of Order or the ambitions of Chaos, they merely exist to do what they are best at: fight.

Ironjawz

Amongst orruks, size is deemed equivalent to strength and power, and there are no orruks bigger or stronger than the Ironjawz. Like most orruks, the Ironjawz still hold to many tribal traditions and beliefs, with shamans enacting strange rituals to ensure the favour of Gorkamorka. However, the Ironjawz differ from the rest of the kin in their use of rudimentary suits of armour. Most Ironjawz are encased almost completely in battered plate, with stylised spiked lower jaws covering their mouths from which they draw their name. With their armour, many Ironjawz are easily twice the size of even the herculean Stormcast Eternals, and they retain all the ferocity and more of a normal orruk.

Gloomspite Gitz

Grots, unlike most creatures of Destruction, are small and skinny, but possessed of a sharp and malicious wit. Some of the sneakiest grots are those who dwell deep underground, farming hallucinogenic mushrooms and the ferocious red bipeds called squigs. Led by utterly insane shamans and ruled over by the prophet-lord Skragrott the Loonking, these Gloomspite Gitz revere an unusual deity known as the Bad Moon, potentially an aspect of Gorkamorka, potentially something more sinister. Regardless, when a Gloomspite shaman deems that the portents are right, vast hordes of black-cloaked grots will spill from their mountain caves to achieve whatever vision-induced goal their shaman has set.

 

The tabletop

There are a formidable number of other playable factions in the game, with more being added regularly. Some, like the Cities of Sigmar, are a revival of old favourites (in this case, the Empire, Dwarves, and Dark Elves), while others, like the upcoming Sons of Behemat, are entirely new. Those which have been covered here are among the most thematically unique in the setting (like the Daughters of Khaine) or ones which fully embody their Grand Alliance’s ideals (like the Ironjawz). Others, like the Kharadron Overlords with their airships, are notable for how wildly their playstyles differ from the norm on the tabletop.

While each faction has their own favoured approach to the tabletop game, the broad strokes are always the same. Combat in Age of Sigmar uses Games Workshop’s familiar ‘hit, wound, save,’ system, and measures everything in inches, but every element is streamlined. There is no cross-referencing strength and toughness values, no comparing of initiative scores, or flipping through catalogues of special rules. Heroes are generally powerful individual combatants, but will also grant bonuses to nearby units of a similar type (a mounted general will improve nearby cavalry, while one on foot will improve infantry, and so on).

The simplicity of these rules, while in keeping with Games Workshop’s apparent aim of increasing accessibility, belie a surprising depth. Knowing when to commit and when to hold back is a key skill for any tabletop wargame, and this is especially true of Age of Sigmar with its mind games of charging and counter-charging.

From what was arguably a desperate and misguided move from a company unpopular even with its customers, something unique and interesting was created. While Age of Sigmar doesn’t have the fame of Warhammer 40,000 or the pedigree of Warhammer Fantasy Battles, it has been unafraid to test new waters and grow into something entirely its own. Whether compared to its predecessors or simply to the fantasy genre and wargaming in general, Age of Sigmar provides an unfamiliar view on familiar things. It’s certainly worth a try, and makes for an excellent gateway into tabletop wargaming.