Back in the early 90s there were a couple of failed coups on Warhammer’s dominance of fantasy wargaming. These attempts came not from inexperienced ‘enfant terrible’ but by big names in the gaming world at the time:-
Nick Lund (Miniature Designer who’d worked for several manufacturers and was chiefly known for his distinctive style of Orcs, Trolls and Ogres) wrote Grenadier Miniature’s ‘Fantasy Warriors’.
Gary Chalk (Illustrator, Model Maker, Writer and ex Games Development Manager for Games Workshop) and Ian Bailey (White Dwarf contributor, ex Head Buyer/Financial Director of Games Workshop) wrote Folio Work’s ‘Fantasy Warlord’.
The latter of these two works was probably the least successful attempt from both a financial and gaming perspective to rival Warhammer so we’ll have a look at it.
Fantasy Warlord saw publication in 1990. Due to poor reviews in the independent press it sat on retailer’s shelves collecting dust in droves for the next few years. At the time I was a Sales Consultant in a City Centre Games Store. Part of my job was buying the RPG, miniature and wargame stock. Fortunately I didn’t buy this product, the Store Manager did. The ten copies we had remained untouched until they were heavily discounted to get rid of them. Other retailers in the area told the same story.
Despite it’s notoriety at the time I never read it and I doubt my gaming friends and colleagues ever did either. I’ve often wondered if the bad press it received was really justified. So I recently bought a copy off eBay for a quid and flipped through it to find out.
This isn’t a review of the nitty gritty game mechanics but more of an overview of the book in general, to see what really happened and if it has anything to offer now. Here goes. All illustrations, photographs and text reproduced below from Fantasy Warlord are copyright of Gary Chalk and Ian Bailey and have been used without permission.
It has been said that the cover illustration was garish and I have to admit it’s not the strongest of Chalk’s works. Beyond that my first impressions on flipping through were of a well presented professional offering. It’s a soft back A4 book with 192 pages plus reference sheets and templates. This was clearly aimed at the Fantasy wargamer who would have been playing Warhammer 3rd edition.
The paper and printing quality are comparable to similar products of this period and from what I remember it retailed in the UK somewhere around the £10 to £13 mark. Time, effort and considerable money had been invested into it’s production. Further reading about it revealed that Gary Chalk apparently lost a considerable amount of money and suffered immense stress over it’s failure.
The books starts out with a quick introduction to the usual mechanics of wargames – dice, scenery, what armies you would want to play etc before moving on to the rules.
As far as the gameplay each game turn seems overly complicated with eleven (yes, you read that correctly ELEVEN) phases –
1. Compulsory Moves
2. Order Test
3. Issue Orders
4. Reveal Orders and Charges
5. Charge reactions
6. Normal Movement and Reaction Movement
7. Automatic Moves
8. Missile Fire
Are you still there? Good…
9. Charging Home and Evading
11.Post Combat Morale
Combat uses a D100 instead of the ‘buckets of D6’ familiar to Warhammerists. Commanders issue orders to troops with differing morale classes using order counters.
Magic Users can cast one spell at any point in the game turn as long as they aren’t attached to a unit in combat.
Another note of interest is that there’s a whole section on character creation used to create characters to lead your army. There are skills and attribute tables for Warrior Heroes, Priests, Warrior Priests, Magic Users, Thieves and Discipline Masters. This seems very fantasy RPG, character classes were of course a part of just about every fantasy RPG at this point in time.
The system does seem overly complicated but without actually playing it (which I have no plans to do) I can’t comment further on just how claggy it would become with several units in combat. Warhammer 3rd edition, well know as the worst version of that game from a playing perspective, does look rather easier to grasp.
This game was a reaction to Games Workshop’s perceived ‘dumbing down’ of fantasy gaming. I’d like to know how many playtesters they involved in the process and the amount of market research done as no one seemed to have checked just how big a mature gamer market there was out there.
The book is full of Chalk’s distinctive illustrations, mostly in black ink but with some colour plates. People who have ever read a White Dwarf pre issue 100 or Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series would instantly recognize his work. A lot of these drawings are placed rather randomly within the book and often don’t actually relate to the adjoining text. Some are lifted from previous games that Chalk illustrated. Illustrations of a Gorgaz (Lone Wolf) and a mounted Slann (Warhammer) are just two obvious examples, there are plenty more.
Clarification of the rules are shown by photographs of actual miniatures on a wargames table in mocked up play. As these are purely for illustrating play situations most of these are a bit on the small size and in black and white so we can’t see the paint jobs.
The photographs that are colour are mostly ‘staged battle shots’ and have some wonderful old miniatures well painted as you’d expect from Chalk.
What I find do find strange is that a lot of the miniatures photographed for the book are made by Citadel, part of the very same company the authors, as apparently disgruntled ex employees, were trying to compete with. Alternative Armies had the rights to produce the official miniatures to this game so why weren’t they used from the start? I understand it would have been a limited range at the release of Fantasy Warlord but still, if you’re trying to compete wholesale with Games Workshop you wouldn’t put photographs of their products in your book.
The second part of the book is an entire background for the game – Vortimax. This is 47 pages detailing the world and it’s inhabitants. All the standard fantasy races appear to be present with some incredible detail on the kingdoms of mankind. The world seems influenced by Lone Wolf’s Magnamund, Clark Ashton Smith’s Swords and Sorcery stories with hints of Warhammer around the time of Orc’s Drift and McDeath – before WFRP solidified the concept of the Empire as the major powerbase of mankind. This is a neat piece of work which I will be plundering ideas from to use in my own Swords and Sorcery RPG setting I’m sure.
So in conclusion if this was 1990 and you had wanted to use Fantasy Warlord as your wargaming ‘go to’ or as an alternative to Warhammer you’d be disappointed. The reviews of it as a wargame were probably correct.
I doubt anyone will ever want to play this game but as a piece of gaming nostalgia I would wholeheartedly recommend picking up a copy if you can find one cheaply. It’s rammed full of Chalk’s illustrations, has a few nicely painted miniature pics and more importantly has a mass of well written fluff that could easily be incorporated in to your own campaign – be that a wargame or an RPG. It certainly hadn’t been done on the cheap as a cynical cash in on Warhammer’s success, this was a real labour of love, albeit misplaced.
So what happened to the authors? Last time I’d heard about Gary Chalk was in a wargames magazine in the late 90s before my gaming hiatus. He was living in France and making made to order wild west buildings. I decided to have a look what he’s up to now and it appears he’s still living in France and illustrating the latest versions of Runequest and Lone Wolf amongst other things. It’s good to see he’s still in the business.
Ian Bailey seemed to go to ground after Fantasy Warlord and didn’t come up on my radar again. A quick Wikipedia search reveals he hasn’t really continued to be part of the gaming industry although has carved a successful career in other industries and educational posts.