Matt Ward, Dark Omen, and WFB.8

BUT ask an avid player of Fantasy like me, who really started playing properly during third edition Fantasy if they recognise eighth edition as Fantasy and they give you an interesting response. They’ll say it’s a vastly different game now to the one that it was, and quite often between editions there are deliberate…

Mr. Frontline said these words over at his blog thing, and reminded me that I’d had some words on this very topic backed up for a while.

See, lots of people have been saying that eighth edition is not the game that [their favourite] was. We have a lot of ideas about what eighth edition is not, and most of those ideas seem to boil down to “anything that I recognise as Warhammer”.

But it is something that I recognise. I’d thought it was just a few of the names for rules – the Enemy Sighted! and Flee! and Hold Your Ground! – but the more I think about it, the more I start to realise that eighth edition WFB is something I recognise as Warhammer.

It’s Dark Omen.

For those not in the know, Warhammer: Dark Omen is an RTS game from the late 1990s, loosely based on Warhammer’s fifth edition. I say ‘loosely’ because it’s not even turn-based, apart from the magic (which in itself worked pretty differently from how the tabletop did it at the time), but a lot of the strengths and weaknesses of the units, effects of the spells and magic items, and of course all that other stuff to do with setting and background and aesthetics and what-have-you, are pretty faithful.

Dark Omen was a bit of a ball-ache to play. It was characterised by, let’s see now:

– units which could be ordered to charge, but would move a random distance, and maybe not make it

– the generation of a random number of resource points with which to cast and dispel spells with, renewed every few minutes – and a dispelling mechanic which focused on layering defences onto key units, with each wizard able to put one, two or three points of dispel-fu onto a friendly target (cf. Magic Resistance)

– devastatingly powerful spells and war engines that would cheerfully scoop whole units off the map, with a corresponding certainty that one was well and truly buggered if one managed to lose the Bright Wizard or the Cannon early on

– a tendency to favour wide deployments in infantry units and narrow ones in cavalry units, as far as I recall anyway

– a generic set of magic items with two or three unique ones for each of the playable races

I’m not sure how old Mr. Ward is, but I’d bet he’s about the right age to have been of an impressionable age when Dark Omen came out. I’d bet money on it, if I had any money to bet. Warhammer.8 feels like a spirited attempt at a tabletop, turn-based rendition of Dark Omen. It’s not exactly the same – the prevalence of big monsters and monstrous infantry stands out as something significant by its absence from the computerised variant. That said, there’s definitely a traceable influence here, on Mr. Ward’s army books as well as his vision for the core game. The Vampire Counts have plenty of elements – Zombies being the only thing you can make new units of, Wind of Death being a unit-murdering purple cloud which you’ll probably have better things to do than cast, and units crumbling in a complete tizz whenever a combat doesn’t go their way – that remind me very strongly of the PC game.

So far, so blindingly obvious to anyone who’s played Dark Omen. What of it? Well (he said, in his best answering-rhetorical-questions voice), the thing about Dark Omen is, it was a) a single player game and b) it had a save-and-replay system.

a) is important because nobody else is going to be offended if you decide that this game is a bastard and this computer is a bastard and, in point of fact, everything in the world that’s ever born the appellation ‘Warhammer’ is a complete bastard, especially Necromancers, and throw a bit of a wobbler induced by the arbitrary bullshit the game was capable of putting out.

b) is important because the thing about arbitrary silliness is that it’s a lot easier to bear when you know that you can go back and run this exact same mission again and this time you’ll know what’s going to happen and you can be prepared for it. It’s a characteristic of those late-90s games. I tried replaying the original Thief a while ago and was struck by how sodding difficult it is, and how many save-reload-try-something-a-bit-different runs I was actually making. And the thing about WFB.8 is… for a game that’s so much easier on the surface (as Mr. Frontline has so vociferously pointed out, it can boil down to “I CAST PURPLE SUN SIX DICE I WIN”, or at least it can if you are not cursed with the inability to roll 21 or more on six dice, as I appear to be), it’s surprisingly difficult to deal with, because of its tendency to spring more unexpected and arbitrary nonsense on you.

It’s the sort of thing that you could try and try and try again, hoping that this time your unit will charge a decent distance or that this time you’ll be able to cast more than one pimpsy little spell… except you can’t really do that, because tabletop games are very seldom played in a context or fashion where do-overs are acceptable. And I’m wondering whether Mr. Ward’s vision has necessarily taken that arrestingly obvious fact into account – because if he is trying to make tabletop Dark Omen, it’s a fairly fundamental issue which I think needed to be thought out at some point.

11 thoughts on “Matt Ward, Dark Omen, and WFB.8

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  1. Now if only 40k could be as cool as the ol’ Chaos Gate PC game (cultists ftw), or better yet, as cool (and balanced) as Dawn of War.
    Sigh…I haz sad now.
    Even Kroot were badass in Dawn of War…and there’s cultists, too.
    Cultists make everything 40k betterer.

    1. Ha, I have… memories of Chaos Gate. Mostly involving the level editor, and designing an interactive version of my EPIC FANFICTION NOVELLA (which I thought the WORLD of at the time… more fool me), but some actually involving the game too. Especially the hilarious Cultist death animations, and the sheer brokenness of an Assault Sergeant who’d nabbed far too many extra action points for his own good and a shiny relic power axe.

      Cultists do indeed improve matters. Something I would like to see borne in mind for the new Chaos Codex…

  2. Hiya Von,

    I read this when it was first posted and was going to comment then. But, I felt I had to try and dig this Dark Omen game up and see what I thought for myself. I managed to… erm… find a copy ‘somewhere’. and gave it a quick blast.

    Firstly it was a dire game with very little to commend it. In fact there were far better RTS games from that era so I can see why it sunk without a trace and did actually entice me to try it the first time round. Its interface couldn’t have been less friendly if they tried!

    As to your observations… I think they might actually have some merit. Obviously we’ll never know exactly what Mat Ward was thinking about when he wrote 8th Edition Fantasy, but there are some clear parallels between the two games. I’d also go as far as to say that Dark Omen wasn’t Warhammer Fantasy either. I still feel though hand on heart that he was actually still doing what GW have done for many years… and that’s copying RicK Priestly.

    Much of WFB 8th ED in terms of mechanics and feel to the play has been lifted from much of Rick’s work at Warlord Games. It’s almost like they can’t do anything without Rick influencing them. The sad thing is that Rick’s following a design brief at Warlord and creating games specifically for a marketplace that exists. While GW appear to be making games by copying what other companies are up to now, getting it wrong and not listening to what their marketplace wants.

    Still, a very well observed parallel Von, and as always shrewdly done.

    1. It was, and let’s be fair now, pissing awful. I bought it on release (being thirteen and not knowing any better) stuck it out to the last mission out of sheer bloody-mindedness but then the 3D card on my desktop blew out and mercifully prevented me from driving myself nuts finishing it.

      “I think they might actually have some merit.”

      You mean they usually don’t? :p

      Yeah, Dark Omen wasn’t the same animal as tabletop WFB by a very long shot, though it painted itself up to try and look like her.

      I haven’t had the chance to check out Mr. Priestley’s work for Warlord, but I must agree that that’s the essence of WFB development – adding new widgets to the machine he designed (and then taking them out again when they don’t work).

      1. Not always!!! :P

        No I think Mat Ward certainly was influenced by RTS games with WFB. The pre-measuring thing for a start is a majotr component of pretty much most RTS games with random movement and range. I also think th huge damage from spells is more computer game than wargame.

        Honestly, I would have preferred it if Mat Ward had just totally scrapped WFB and written something completely new from the ground up. At least he might have created something that was internally consistent, instead of the half way house to nowhere we’ve got right now.

  3. That was really enjoyable to read Von. I love it when people suddenly notice something that should have been obvious all along. Never played Dark Omen myself, but saw it played a few times as a youngster. I’m now glad I spent my video-game time in that era playing Golden Eye and Super Street Fighter with a room full of mates. “Pissing awful” does not sound like game time well-spent.

    Hey the gang’s all here! Hi Sinsynn and Frontline. I hope you fellows are well.

  4. Ah, Dark Omen, the sequel to the horribly buggy Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat.

    Borrowed a friend’s copy many moons ago and happily completed it. To my memory it was a half-decent tactical game, to my mind very much what WFB would’ve been if the tabletop game had been real-time. The multiplayer, which you probably didn’t sample, was rather fun… for someone aged fourteen anyway. Armour upgrades, unit veterancy and managing recruitment costs between battles, all very new features for something made in 1998.

    I think we’d patched it, though. Maybe that made for a lot of our entertainment, no bugs equals fun game. That and Night Goblin Fanatics. And the army editor. Facing ten level 4 Vampires led by your devilishly grinning best mate when all the options you really have is a Bright Mage and a bunch of horsemen is quite the challenge, no matter how many gold pieces are on the table.

    Arbitrariness is part and parcel of tabletop gaming, but when it becomes silly it takes the fun out of the game. The chance of you rolling below 21 on six dice is not that low by the way. I’d say it was 0.5, but that’s an offhand guess.

    Wait, it is 0.5. MATHEMATICS WIN

    Thing is, in this increasingly ADHD world, how do you make a tabletop game that can compete with the instant gratification of a decent on-screen RTS? Relic Entertainment and Dawn of War have a lot more to answer for than people realise.

    “Let’s make these Undead… just plain dead.”
    – Morgan Bernhardt, “Warhammer: Dark Omen”

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