The 9th Age: Essence of War – Streamlining design notes

Something I’ve been working on a LOT over many months now for The 9th Age fantasy tabletop wargaming project is the ‘Essence of War’ ruleset, so I thought it was worth sharing some of my game design experiences from working on that here on Agoners too. It’s been very interesting trying to create a more streamlined variant of their rules, whilst working within careful constraints, and especially with the playtesting and balancing, to some extent, it feels like I’ve been able to put into practice many of the things talked about here on Agoners for many years now, at least to some degree. However please note I don’t want to take too much credit here at all for anything regarding EoW because it’s very much teamwork, and many other people have heavily contributed to this more than I have, including the writers from the previous “T9A Quick Starter” version that we worked from as a very solid foundation.

The latest version of these rules will be published on the 9th Age website, with a hugely updated new version coming out later this week at the time of writing this, if you’d like to read or even play a game for the rules I’m discussing here. It is currently still in alpha (not feature complete yet), and later versions will of course will be updated there at the website as we release them. We have a lot of ideas for further enhancements, information, ideas for better ways to present this material, and even supplements and all kinds of things – however it remains to be seen of course how much can realistically be achieved too. But regardless, this week’s release version feels like an especially good milestone, as it essentially reaches the stage I’d personally wanted to hit of a fully featured “Basic rules” version – essentially “completing” the previous Quick Starter version which was the first miniatures wargame I had played in a long time back in 2019.

Whilst the rest of this article below was written aimed at existing T9A players who are already aware of the complex rules for their “full game” known officially as “T9A: Fantasy Battles” and how they can understand the changes made for EoW specifically, I thought I would share it here as well, as I feel it has some nuggets of game design applicable to other more general interests here. This also allows me to publish this in my own web format so I can make additions and amendments to this over time. I should note that, whilst the majority of this was by me, as I said above, we work on almost everything as a team, so this also received edits and additions from other people on the team too.

How different is Essence of War to Fantasy Battles?

The Essence of War design team has been very busy over the last months on a new major version for this ruleset, which will be published later this week.

As you know, Essence of War (EoW) is designed to be played not only by new players, but also by veteran T9A players who are looking for a quicker (60-90min) rank-and-files miniatures wargame experience, while retaining the same feel & core rules as Fantasy Battles.

Essence of War streamlines many of the mechanics of the game so that it can be read, learnt, taught and played much more quickly. Our design goal is to only remove & simplify things from FB – we don’t change any rules to ‘contradict’ something in FB, unless there are very good (or necessary) reasons for it. It is still recommended though that you read the EoW rules though before you play it – the good news is there are only around 20 pages of the Basic rules for EoW!

To make players be better aware of the differences between EoW and FB, Designer Remy77077 from Essence of War Team will be talking us today through some of the most relevant differences:

  1. Model´s Rules fully unnested
  2. Model´s Height removed
  3. Terrain rules simplified
  4. Equipment “baked” into the unit profile
  5. Fixed units formations
  6. Ranks counted as “full rank” with 1 model
  7. Some Discipline Tests are removed
  8. Some Combat Charge & Score bonuses are simplified
  9. Characters must join units only during deployment or remain solo
  10. No Command groups or Duels
  11. No ‘Stand and Shoot’ reaction to charges

To make things easier, we also collected a more extensive list of differences between EW and FB. We will publish it in the forum after the EW release, and we will update it with your comments. But in the meantime, here are Remy´s design notes for each of the main topics mentioned above:

1. The golden rule when playing at either Basic or Advanced level when it comes to unit and model abilities is: If it’s not stated, then it doesn’t have it!

The Golden Rule!

There are no “nested” rules to worry about in EoW, no “hidden” rules to remember. Every unit functions in the same way by default, unless it has a clearly written special rule that affects it, which will always be written on it’s profile.

This means there are some “nested” rules from FB that you may be used to assuming, that do not apply in EoW, for example – all Cavalry or Beast models having Swiftstride is a common one; that is not the case in EoW – if a unit has Swiftstride, it will always specify it. The same thing applies to Model Classifications, these don’t exist in EoW, so if a model has a ‘Stomp’ – it will specify it.

Note that as you move to EoW Advanced, more model special rules are introduced. You can think of it as a continuum in some ways for how far models get from having rules that make them function differently than just their stats: EoW Basic -> EoW Advanced -> FB.

Why? To make things easier and clearer for players to not have to remember so many special rules. Anyone who’s tried to pick up FB as a new player – with the amount of special rules and nested rules you need to remember – the reason for doing it like this in EoW will hopefully be obvious!

2. All Heights of models for line of sight etc are the same unless noted

This is similar to the no nested or “hidden” special rules thing. If a model’s height or size affects a model in some way (e.g. Towering), it will be specifically stated on that model’s profile or rules. Other than that, all models are classified at the same ‘standard’ height in EoW.

Why? Height is one of the concepts we just haven’t felt was needed to be put into EoW, as the game was working fine as it was and it would be an extra complication that we felt was not necessary. Things like larger base sizes taking Dangerous Terrain tests for moving quickly through Hindering Terrain are instead written into the core rules.

3. Terrain rules have been streamlined

EoW has Impassable Terrain, Elevations & Hindering Terrain as more “generic” types of terrain.

My own tabletop as an example of a terrain map layout

Why? This is partly another simplification as per other rules, but also it makes it easier for newer players who will have more choices for how to use whatever scenery pieces they have available within the rules, rather than needing a lot of specific types of terrain.

4. Units do not have specific weapons or armour to select or remember rules for

Instead, their equipment is “baked into” their stats and potentially any special rules for a unit. This is removing another layer of “nested” rules that new players now don’t need to remember.

Why? The advantages of ‘the stat sheet says all you need to know’ here are hopefully obvious! It also allows us to be quite generalised when it comes to factions’ units to allow players to effectively play with a wider variety of models too. Whilst everyone enjoys a game more with beautiful painted miniatures accurately reflecting the players image of that faction – WYSIWYG models, and especially exact model equipment is very much NOT meant to be a requirement at all for EoW!

For example, any Goblin models you have available to use will do fine for the entry as ‘Goblins’ for the Orcs & Goblins faction. If you are aware of their stats from FB and notice their stats reflect them being equipped with Bows & Shields & Light Armour, and want to make models that way for them, that’s great, but it is very unnecessary to do so for the purposes of EoW, as this exact equipment does not need to be modelled to distinguish them from other similar units with different equipment, as those units don’t exist in EoW.

An example of this is my own painted Dwarvern Hold Patrol, where I’ve chosen to represent the ‘Clan Marksmen with Crossbows’ with Dwarves with handguns (& even a bomb!) instead, just because that’s the models I already had. They can still be easily identified in a game.

5. Unit formations can never be changed (whatever the unit is taken as, is how it stays)

This simplifies all of the reforming options and complex rules situations that can arise because of it. Note that in the Advanced Armylists, there are more options for different sizes/formations that units can be taken in.

Why? This allows players to focus on the units as written and their numbers and stats, without another variable they can change to have to take into account during a game. It is also very much on purpose as a practical advantage for players to make, provide and use fixed size movement trays during a game, without having to worry about needing even more trays for when units change their formation.

6. Ranks are always counted as a “full rank” with ANY number of models (even just one)

2nd rank!… FIRE!

This means that separate full ranks rules for different sized models are not needed, and we can “bake in” the number of ranks into the formation of a unit.

Why? Again, it’s an obvious simplification, and this is also really important for the balancing of units in EoW and to allow units to function ‘properly’ at smaller numbers of models, especially in cases where we’ve had to make units even smaller than their normal “minimum” size in FB army books for balance reasons. A 20 strong 5×4 unit in EoW is a very “big” unit at this scale – and due to these rules is more likely to keep it’s effectiveness for longer too when you need to remove 5 models before it loses it’s full rank bonus.

7. Some Discipline tests related to movement are removed

You don’t need to take these Discipline tests in EoW: March Tests, Restrain Pursuit or Panic tests for casualties from terrain.
In addition, whilst there is a Discipline check for the loser of a combat to pivot/shift a unit after a combat round, it is not modified by the break test modifier.

Why? With less ways to mitigate Discipline tests in the smaller EoW lists (harder to get high Dis or re-rolls etc), especially in the Basic rules with only 4 turns of play and a 100% objective based win condition, we wanted to retain the ability for players to have full control over their movement options as much as possible.

Movement is perhaps the most important part of the game

8. Some Combat Charge & Score bonuses are simplified

Charges add +1 to combat score, but don’t add a bonus to agility, and flank and rear bonuses are simplified too.

Why? We haven’t felt the need to add any extra complexity to these areas of the game – in playtesting charges and flanks are often extremely powerful as is in EoW, which is how we want it to be for a ranks & flanks game, even at a small scale.

9. Characters must join units only during deployment or remain solo

The Character rules are one of the areas that have been significantly simplified in EoW. Characters joining a unit in deployment also replace a regular rank & file model from that unit.

Why? We want the focus on the game to be on the units as much as possible in EoW, especially as at low points battles using FB rules, such games are often highly dominated by characters that are more difficult to counter at that scale. Single model solo characters still have strong movement capabilities in EoW, and is still often the preferred decision as it gives more tactical options; but it means that players aren’t then surprised by a character suddenly leaving a unit to charge, chaff or escape. It makes the decision of how to deploy your characters a more important one too with clearer pros and cons. Replacing models from the unit with a character added in deployment also avoids the issue of a character changing the movement tray & unit formation, and for the Advanced rules, where more combat orientated characters come into play, only allowing a single character to join a unit allows them to buff a unit’s combat potential, whilst also preventing the creation of any “death star” style units.

This is partly why we reduced the number of characters from 2 per list down to 1 when you compare an EoW Patrol (left) vs the old Quick Starter pre-made lists (right)

10. There are no Command groups or Duels

Again, these are removed to keep the focus on unit vs unit combat in EoW and hugely simplify melee combat too.

Why? Another benefit of this is to allow any model options to be used – if players have standards, musicians or champion models, that’s great, but it isn’t required.

11. There is no ‘Stand and Shoot’ reaction to charges

This is another simplification in EoW – but most units can still choose to Flee or Hold vs a Charge.

Why? ‘Stand & Shoot’ as a rule is surprisingly complex in terms of rulebook text as it then introduces quite a few out-of-sequence actions & consequences – shooting in your opponents turn or a unit panicing and fleeing in the charge phase! We’ve also balanced shooting units around this. Whilst we don’t want shooting power to dominate games in EoW as the focus is meant to be on manoeuvre and melee for the most part, shooting still has an important role to play for most factions. Panic from shooting in particular is a more powerful aspect in EoW that you may overlook when your opponent has less access to higher Dis and re-rolls on any panic checks. In addition, due to the way ranks and flanks work in EoW, even small missile units are more effective in melee combat than they can first appear to players used to FB, and they don’t need the Stand & Shoot rules as much as they are less vulnerable in melee anyway.

There’s a lot more I could talk about on the design of Essence of War, about adjusting power levels, balance of the factions, about intentionally keeping a reasonable “luck factor” in the game to help beginners and various other things, and I may do so in writing in future perhaps 🙂 If you’d like more right now – I also discussed a lot of it in audio/video format a few months ago over on Mat ‘At’s “Paint Desk Ramblings” on his youtube channel here. Highly recommended viewing!

2 thoughts on “The 9th Age: Essence of War – Streamlining design notes

  1. Oh Remy, your juggernauts of articles always intimidate me to read 😛 My smartphone switched it’s facing a few times and every time I had to search where I left of. Now I now the wordpress reader is utter garbage, at least used on my phone…
    Now I really like some of those changes. I only vaguely remember how it was before with the Quickstarter stuff but I remember thinking that there were too many changes. Maybe it was relicts from previous editions of 9th Age? It put me off of them a bit. But when I see your little armies I somewhat start to want to paint a few Dwarves as well.
    Also: what is this? 9th Age Kings of War? 😛 😀
    I’m a bit intrigued by the balancing process, did you point all units with new points based on the differences to the main game? :O

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hehe, this one is short by my standards I think! 😀 But thanks again for reading & commenting! I must admit, I don’t really write things for phone-screens (mine is way to small to want to read something like this!)
      Glad this piqued your interest, that’s definitely the idea!

      I think a lot of people’s “issues” with the old QS were often misconceptions, and actually, that was my original motivation to write this (I started taking notes for this years ago!) – to explain things more clearly so people didn’t just go “why did you change this?” about everything, or worse, don’t notice the changes.

      EoW sounding like KoW is a complete accident really, I promise! 😀 (I was very involved in that re-naming process! hehe). However it’s really interesting to compare the two games for me. I think their overall “complexity level” is quite close, but the huge difference is that EoW works as an interesting game even at a very small scale (3 units +1 character Basic Patrols rules), whereas from my limited experience & reading I believe KoW only gets interesting as a game at a much larger scale (min: 1000 points I think)…. so if you want to play a =small= rank & flank game (in terms of number of models anyway), I honestly don’t know much else to compare with EoW – maybe Runewars, which you can read earlier I’ve tried that out and want to play more of it too (but no OnG for us means it’s limited interest ofc!).

      For balance, the points values from T9A FB are used as a very rough guide to start with, but it’s mostly adjusting that later to how we know EoW actually works – and also playtesting and theory-testing (& a bit of numbers crunching) based on that too. I am sure EoW Patrols aren’t perfectly balanced – I have my opinions right now on which factions are slightly too strong or too weak (also easiest and hardest to play and most ‘RPS’ matchup dependent factions!), but we will still work to improve those as much as we can. Luckily at the end of the day, we don’t need to attain perfect balance for EoW. At least at the Patrol level it’s not really intended for a “tournament game” – however, that said, I do REALLY want to organise at least one tournament for it! 🙂
      When it comes to EoW Advanced, points values are introduced into EoW & again, you’ll see they don’t exactly match the FB points values as they are then adjusted. I am not too involved in that part of the design at all, since I am still a newbie to T9A overall! However I can say for certain that we still have a lot of work to do there on expanding to more factions and testing the balance & points values… you’ll see a bit more of what I mean when the latest version gets released though in a few days 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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