Old-fashioned Heresy

Here’s an update for those of you who don’t follow the news from science fiction and space opera wargaming: Very soon (next week or thereabouts) Fantasy Flight Games will be releasing their much-anticipated “Horus Heresy” — a big box o’ plastic bits style wargame based on their Warhammer 40,000 licensing agreement with Games Workshop.

But hang on a minute. Before we go there, let’s climb into the Wayback Machine for a quick trip into the past.

Horus Heresy circa 1993

Horus Heresy circa 1993

In 1993, Games Workshop published the original board game version of “Horus Heresy”. It was part of their now-defunct ‘Wargame Series’ product line that included “Battle for Armageddon” and “Doom of the Eldar”. The games shared fairly common systems and common styles of design: Moderately sized, mounted maps; large (one inch?) counters and very bright color palettes.

All three games were set deeply into the story line of the Warhammer 40K universe. “Horus Heresy”, in fact, is set some 10,000 years before the ‘main’ game setting and covers one of the major events of backstory — the Chaos-driven revolt by Warmaster Horus and his Traitor Legions, which leads to the final, epic battle between Horus and the Emperor.

As you can see in the accompanying photos of my slightly aged copy of the original “Horus Heresy”, the graphic design was not restrained in its choice and use of color. I believe the gaming world was then playing 2nd Edition Warhammer 40k, and Games Workshop’s artwork in that era still tended toward the bright and cartoon-y end of the spectrum.

Tucked into my game box is a copy of White Dwarf issue 161, which announced the release of Horus Heresy and included a sort of stand-alone ‘trim and play’ mini-game that carried the Horus Heresy game theme into orbit aboard the Warmaster’s Traitor Battle Barge. The ‘Citadel Miniatures Painting Guide’ in the back of the magazine confirms that bright and cartoon-y was still the 40k players’ version of RP.

Some of the colorful stuff in the box

Some of the colorful stuff in the box

All of the ‘Wargame Series’ material in those days was designed by Jervis Johnson, one of the driving personalities behind the early success of Games Workshop. His design fingerprints are on Warhammer 40k and on nearly every GW game that ended up under their “Specialist Games” division.  (As a quick note, he’s on my short list of favorite designers. In 2002-2003 I also had the pleasure of corresponding with him as a play-tester for the Epic Armageddon rules set.)

But the Wargame Series days at GW are long gone. The design teams have turned over more than once, 40k is into the Fifth Edition rules set now and GW’s intellectual property holdings are geometrically more vast than they were 17 years ago. Games that didn’t plug directly into the profit mainstream – Epic, Bloodbowl, Necromunda and others – got shovelled into “Specialist Games”. The Wargame Series (and a number of earlier board games) disappeared entirely from the catalog.

The mounted map

The mounted map

I’m happy to see an older (and interesting) design like Horus Heresy end up in the big lump of IP licensed to Fantasy Flight Games.  From what I see in the various previews, it looks like the legendary battle between the Emperor and his traitor Warmaster are getting the “Tide of Iron” treatment from FFG.  There are lots of plastic bits, figures that poke into spikey bases, markers that snap onto the bases, several decks of cards, a big mounted map with 3-D terrain bits and a chunky rule book – and that’s just for starters.

It would be nice if this re-design of Horus Heresy was the forerunner of more remakes of the old Wargame Series titles. I will note that Horus Heresy is the most ‘original’ of the three 40k-based wargames. The other two games — at least to my eyes — are space-opera derivatives of historical battles. Battle for Armageddon clearly strikes me as a situation modelled after the German invasion of the Soviet Union.  Doom of the Eldar strikes me as a situation akin to Rourke’s Drift writ large.

You can read more about the new version of Horus Heresy at the Fantasy Flight Games website. There’s even a PDF of the rules now available for download.

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