No quarter: welcome to the Iron Kingdoms

Angus McNicholl

No quarter: welcome to the Iron Kingdoms
September 22, 2020 Angus McNicholl

Giant, steam-powered robots, duking it out in a fantasy World War I setting. Welcome to Warmachine

When I got into Warmachine, the models for that game were about the most butt-ugly, chunky, badly-proportioned lumps of metal you can imagine. Over the years since, they have improved tremendously; but back in the beginning, they were all cast in static, flat poses, like they had just run headlong into a window.

It was the concept and the gameplay that hooked this writer. So what was the concept? Giant, metal, steampowered robots beating the crap out of each other! It’s a great idea, and the rules really back up the concept. It has a unique resource management element, which involves your ‘warcaster’ — chief battle wizard, and resource manager — shuffling Focus around to power up his robots, called Warjacks. Focus powers their spells and generally enhances anything they do.

The setting of Warmachine has a long backstory. The world of Caern had begun development as a roleplaying game setting called the Iron Kingdoms, and its creators had flirtations with Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons 3 open license. What emerged was a world at war in a pseudo-fantasy version of World War I. Privateer Press published the skirmish wargame Warmachine Prime in 2003.

Though a few more factions (and a whole extra sister game called Hordes; more on this shortly) were added, the game opened with four major factions. Cygnar were mostly painted as the good guys, coming to aid their client state Lael that had been invaded by the great northern kingdom of Khador, a Tsarist Russia-inspired faction. The religious extremists of the god Menoth have also risen to war to carve out their own kingdom and convert the decadent Cygnar back to the worship of the ‘true god’. Taking advantage of all this, the Dragonfather of Cryx has summoned his undead thralls to march against the living kingdoms.

A roster of only four factions would suggest relatively little variety in the forces that you could deploy — but this is where Warmachine really inspired. All forces are led by a Warcaster, and simply switching one Warcaster for another — even if you changed nothing else in your army — changed the spells and tactics you had available! It made the same old army play like an entirely new army.

The Warcaster itself is like the ‘king’ piece in chess. If you lose the Warcaster, you lose your stash of Focus, your Warjacks power down, and you essentially lose the game. Depending on the type of army you’re playing, you should always have an eye open for a ‘decapitation’ strike being launched by your opponent — and be looking for an opening to make your own.

The four factions

Cygnar is an advanced arcane nation, ruled by a populist king who is not the rightful heir to the throne. The true king of Cygnar having been deposed, the kingdom appears united on the surface — but there are bitter undercurrents and divisions beneath. These aren’t really explored until some of the later releases, when named characters with darker agendas begin to appear in the army lists.

Cygnar produces the most advanced Warjacks which often have special abilities related to electricity or strange arcane effects. Also unusual for a fantasy game, they have a large number of sophisticated firearms; and their core troops, Trenchers, Long Gunners, and Gun Mages, resemble steampunk versions of WWI soldiers. Though Cygnar can fight hand to hand, they excel at range. Cygnar are the ‘toolbox’ army, bringing the right tool for the right job.

Khador, the Russian-inspired Tsarist empire, is attempting to reclaim its old glory days by retaking lost territory and pushing the newer Iron Kingdoms into the sea. Khador only field heavy Warjacks; they lack the intricate arcane sciences to mass-produce Warjack ‘brains’ and so invest those they can make into the heaviest chassis they can produce.

Khadoran troops are often fur-clad and dressed for a hard winter. With a preference for close-quarters fighting, their assault troops wear steam-powered, mechanical armour. They do also possess a few very capable long-range shooters, like the Widowmaker sharpshooters. If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail… And Khador are all about bringing the largest hammer to the party.

Menoth is the old human religion, and many in both the Iron Kingdoms and the north realm of Khador still follow, or are at least sympathetic to, the old ways. But Menoth is a disinterested god, caring nothing for his human children. The Protectorate of Menoth was once part of Cygnar, but by treaty have been granted their own realm on the desert fringes to the south of that nation. They aren’t supposed to have large numbers of Warjacks, but have been secretly building up their military assets, quietly converting labour ‘jacks for warfare over time.

Fielding both light and heavy Warjacks, they are supported by large numbers of poorly-trained, poorly-equipped fanatics, often with wildly inaccurate explosive devices. Other elite crusader-type knights are also available, but it is the synergies between all the parts of a Menoth army that make it sing.

Then there are the Cryx, the undead thralls of the Dragon-Father. Most, but not all, of this army are undead. Some are living pirates, some are zombie-like ‘mechanothralls’, and a few are spectral assassins. Their Warjacks — called Helljacks (heavy) and Bonejacks (light) — are powered by ‘soulfurnaces’ that glow with an eerie green light. They are typically more fragile and faster than other factions, and packed full of dirty tricks.

In the years that followed the release of Warmachine Prime came a number of supplements: Warmachine: Escalation (2004), Warmachine: Apotheosis (2005), Warmachine: Superiority (2006), Forces of Warmachine: Pirates of the Broken Coast (2007), and Warmachine: Legends (2008). Each of these supplements added new Warcasters, new Warjacks, new units, and new Solos to each of the four factions. Also released in 2007 was a cleaned-up version of the core rulebook, called Warmachine: Prime Remixed.

The story of the world and the war also moved on. Some of the new Warcasters introduced were upgraded — ‘Epic’ — versions of older Warcasters, representing how their stories had moved on and their powers had grown. Some died during the course of the narrative, but all versions remained playable and tournament-legal.

Warmachine needs only a few six-sided dice to play. Usually it’s a case of rolling two and adding up the total, along with the appropriate attribute, to score over a target number. There’s nothing particularly unusual there — but there were two facets of the system that made Warmachine particularly interesting. 

The first is the resource management aspect of a Warcaster’s Focus. Different Warcasters have different Focus stats — the higher the better. Not only does Focus affect the range at which you can control Warjacks, but it also determines the number of points you can place to power up the Warjack, power your ’Caster’s spells, and power-up the ’Caster’s own defences.

The second interesting aspect to gameplay is that there is no pre-measurement of distances — you just have to get good at judging them by eye. You declare your intention before the tape measure is used. This is a surprisingly nail-biting bit of gameplay; I have had armies decimated by a misjudged charge that fails to connect, leaving my units standing right in front of the enemy gunline.

Hordes

In 2006, Privateer Press released a whole new sister game to Warmachine, called Hordes. The core mechanics were the same, but the resource management Focus system was swapped out for the risk management ‘Fury’ mechanic instead, to reflect the savage nature of warbeasts. While in Warmachine Focus is generated and allocated by a Warcaster, in Hordes this is reversed. Warlocks harvest Fury from their beasts, but leaving a warbeast with Fury unharvested at the end of the turn gives rise to the risk of losing control of it, and it ripping your own army apart instead of your opponents’.

The beauty is that Warmachine and Hordes are based in the same world and are cross-compatible with each other, effectively giving ‘WarmaHordes’, as it quickly became known, an extra four factions to play with. The Trollbloods are a slow but hardy army composed of trolls, trollkin, and mighty dire trolls. The Circle of Orboros are tricksy, elemental-inspired druids, composed of wild tribes, feral creatures, and ‘wolds’ (elemental constructs). The Skorne are eastern ‘not-elves’ with a society based on slavery and pain, and a rigid caste system of warriors and beasts. And the Legion of Everblight are the dragon spawn of corrupted, blighted, arctic elves and eyeless dragon-spawned monsters.

WarmaHordes was mostly balanced. In conflicts featuring Warmachine versus Hordes, the beasts had an advantage, but weren’t unbeatable. The Fury mechanics meant that warbeasts hit very hard! If you could weather the initial charge and counterstrike, a Warmachine army could win the day; but more often than not you were put on the back foot, and struggled to recover. This forced the development of more inventive tactics and use of terrain by Warmachine players, which was no bad thing.

In 2009 Privateer Press released a fifth faction into the game: the Retribution of Scyrah, who were angry elves seeking revenge on the human kingdoms for their use of magic. The Retribution brought new high-tech, arcane toys to the field of battle. While their Warjacks were still large, they were all sweeping lines and high-tech aesthetics, rather than the chunky, steampunk look of the humans’.

Warmachine: Prime MkII, along with a supporting suite of army books called Forces of Warmachine, were released during 2010. This brought a host of rules clarifications and a general clean-up, along with a completely new points system to help players buying their armies. This was welcome and worthwhile. A further series of books supported the development of the setting over the next five years: Warmachine: Wrath (2011), Warmachine: Colossals (2012), Warmachine: Vengeance (2014), and Warmachine: Reckoning (2015). These books followed the same template as previous releases, supporting all factions with a selection of new toys with which to crush your enemies. 

Hordes, too, was upgraded; to Hordes: Primal MkII, as well as a suite of Forces books to mirror Warmachine. It also saw some rules changes intended to help balance between the games. Alas, I don’t feel it was fully successful in this; Warbeasts became easier to control, and as a result lost some of the enraged, feral feel that had made playing with them unique.

Warmachine: Colossals brought a new class of unit to the game. The Colossals pushed Warmachine to ever-larger battles, and it was at about this point that I began to lose interest in the game. I wasn’t that interested in ever-bigger armies or playing games with multiple Warcasters on each side; I preferred the original skirmish-oriented focus. 2013 also saw the release of a sixth faction: the super-advanced robotic Convergence of Cyriss, followers of the machine goddess. The models followed an art deco aesthetic, and I admit I was tempted. But in the end, for me, it was just sheer exhaustion after a decade of exhaustively promoting and running the game that held me back.

Warmachine MkIII (and Hordes MkIII) was released in 2016, and seems to be the final iteration of the game. Several limited-release factions have been added to pad out the world of the Iron Kingdoms, with themed mercenary factions and the newly-released Infernals. Alas, I have mostly missed out on MkIII, but Privateer Press have just renewed my interest with their recent Kickstarter: Warcaster: Neo-Mechanica.

Neo-Mechanica is a completely new game, unrelated to the previous WarmaHordes. Set in a sci-fi universe, the game features clashes between — you guessed it — giant robots! However, the game engine appears to have been completely reimagined. Custom dice are used for tests, and forces deploy through gates that can be moved around the table. Models that are killed on the table can be resummoned from a gate, so you never run out of troops! The game is entirely scenario- and objective-driven, with a limited number of turns to complete each mission. This appeals to me as I feel it addresses the issues that the original games had.

Now that my passion is being rekindled, it’s time to break out my old Warmachine and Hordes armies, buy the new MkIII card decks and download the MkIII rules, and set to work with my angry elves kicking seven shades out of my opponents again.