Today I talk about the common topic of game balance.
Warhammer Underworlds has always been a fairly balanced game with the odd blips now again but recently their have been a lot of discussions online about the state of the game, which is completely fine. I’ll be adding my thoughts on the subject with a reflection on the state of the game. While I can’t speak for global trends and metas, I can contribute based on my time since starting with Shadespire.
There’s a lot of talk about how some Nightvault warbands are just too good (I’m looking at you Cursebreakers) due to their prevalence in tournaments and the seeming decline of other warbands such as the Shadespire ones. Now this is due to a number of reasons, the Nightvault warbands generally have a better spread of faction cards meaning they’re less reliant on universal cards. The Shadespire warbands generally have the opposite issue, rather weak faction cards resulting in a higher dependence on universal cards for strength. This looks like a change in design process for warbands so seems like an inevitable shortfall for older warbands as time goes on in game development.
Another difference is the depth of warbands. Nightvault warbands mostly have more mechanics or rules built into them which gives the player more choice in regards to gameplay. For example only the Sepulchral Guard and Spiteclaw’s Swarm feature faction card abilities in Shadespire whereas 7 out of the 8 Nightvault warband all have unique fighter card abilities.
One more important point is that players from the Shadespire era have mostly moved on to different warbands out of boredom/overfamiliarity with the Shadespire warbands. This is one of the main reasons for myself not going back to Spiteclaw’s Swarm. After playing them for over 9 months I just wanted to try something new. Some people can happily play the same warband forever but not everyone.
People often use tournament results and faction numbers to support the issue of imbalance. It’s completely fine to do so and is a good sign of balance and imbalance with a game as well as warband representation. You still have 4 very commonly picked Nightvault warbands (usually Cursebreakers, Mollog, Profiteers and Guardians) whereas Shadespire warbands have mostly dropped off the radar at a few events, which is also what happened during Shadespire’s lifetime.
One factor people are missing is that no single warband is dominating Grand Clashes or store clashes. Sure you have a few repeats in the top 8 or 16 but winners are still varied. Garrek’s Reavers even recently won a recent Nightvault Grand Clash. This does bring up another issue though.
All Shadespire warbands have won a Grand Clash at least once (Sepulchral Guard have won 2!). For Nightvault warbands however only 5 out of the 8 have won a Grand Clash. These are: Stormsire’s Cursebreakers, Thorns of the Briar Queen, Mollog’s Mob, Thundrik’s Profiteers and Ylthari’s Guardians. This leaves us with Zarbag’s Gitz, Eyes of the Nine and the Godsworn Hunt as the victor-less 3.
A fair mention is that Eyes of the Nine did win the German Masters earlier in the year but I’m only including official Grand Clashes for the sake of comparison. This also means I’m excluding store clashes. People may not care too much about store clashes but I feel they’re also a good litmus test for the game. Of course every single warband has won multiple store clashes which I feel is a better measure of the game. I’d be far more worried if no warband could win a store clash. Sure you can argue store tournaments are less competitive but it really depends on where you live as generally I find store tournies tend to be very competitive in the UK.
Now this is a very interesting subject. While the points raised above suggest why some warbands are rarely or no longer seen at Grand Clashes there is once again another factor. Local player preferences. I can’t speak for other parts of the world such as Europe or America but in the UK players generally pick what they want to play because they enjoy using them, not because they’re the strongest or best. Sure have people doing the opposite but it’s more of the former here. If you look at UK Grand Clashes, generally every warband is represented. Our store tournaments also have similar statistics.
As before there are lots of reasons for this but I believe it’s more to how players in the UK approach games.
For a glimpse at the American side of things, here is faction information from NOVA 2019 via Well of Power. The data shows 12 out of 16 Warhammer Underworlds in-use. Sepulchral Guard, Ironskull’s Boyz, the Farstriders and Eyes of the Nine were left at home from a 48 player event.
The Top 8 from the NOVA Clash does raise potentially worries as it was comprised of 5 Cursebreakers, 2 Profiteers, 1 Mollog and 1 Thorns. No Shadespire warbands in-sight with 5 of the same warband in top 8, a first for the game at a Grand Clash as I believe. If we compare this to the Scottish Grand Clash 2019 were the top 4 (I can’t remember the top 8) you had Thorns of the Briar Queen, Spiteclaw’s Swarm, Stormsire’s Cursebreakers and Zarbag’s Gitz. Now this was only a 28 player event from 48 but there’s still a big difference.
Looking at Gen Con 2019 thanks to Hexes and Warbands their top 8 was as follows: 3 Mollogs, 2 Profiteers, 1 Gitz, 1 Fiends and 1 Reavers. This event was not using the latest banned and restricted list but apparently every list was playing as if it was enforced. Still that’s a very good mix, even for a 26 player Grand Clash. Plus it’s an American clash so it shows NOVA may just be a blip in regards to representation.
How to Alleviate the Issue?
I’ll say that Nightvault warbands are easier to win with as they have more tools and mechanics compared to Shadespire warbands. The older teams are still viable however, it’s just not as easy to win with them. So what to do?
An option I hear is for Games Workshop to release a new cards pack with updated rules for Shadespire warbands. While that’s a fair shout I personally feel the Shadespire warbands are fine for the most part. Sure Ironskull’s Boyz and the Chosen Axes need a little tinkering but it’s nothing too huge. While all the Shadespire warbands would love more faction cards I’m just not sure how it’d fit into the design schedule for GW. They usually work on projects very far in advance so seemingly quick card changes would take a long time for us to see (outside of errata’ing factions and their cards online which would be wrong due to all the mess it would cause).
People also say faction cards should be restricted. While I get why people would want this I’m not a fan as if you start restricting a single faction’s cards, arguments could be made for all factions. It’s also something GW have spoken about being against too.
You could also limit the number of restricted cards certain factions could take. I dislike this as it’s a nightmare to implement fairly and maintain. Warbands consistently shift and change throughout releases and while the list could be updated too it would be a lot of work. Even then you would need stats from every event (Grand Clashes and other tournaments) to get wholly reliable restrictions in place.
I’m not saying the above is impossible, just that it’s very difficult to maintain and balance such options.
What to do then?
Personally I’d just wait it out. We’ve had 2 (technically 3) Grand Clashes since the latest Banned and Restricted list which have had a really good mix of warbands and varied top 8 except for NOVA. There’s 1 more Grand Clash at the Warhammer Citadel before Beastgrave hits plus with season 3 coming so soon I’d rather wait for that to hit and settle before any drastic changes are made.
Overall I’d still say the game is competitive and balanced as ever with the latest banned and restricted list helping to level the playfield for all warbands. Also, as I’ve said earlier, there’s still no single dominant warband. Remember it took Relics winning 2 Grand Clashes back-to-back and a slew of store tournaments before GW stepped in and we haven’t seen anything that bad.
Plus all the warbands are still winning everywhere else, I’m not sure other game systems can say the same thing. Yeah the Nightvault warbands have an easier time of winning but it just takes more work to win with Shadespire warbands, it’s not an impossible task. If the issue persists I’m sure GW will do something about it. Just remember that anything’s possible, especially with crits.