With the End Times rolling in, and today’s announcement of Total War: Warhammer, it’s time to look back at Games Workshop’s successful forays into videogames. For the longest time, Games Workshop gave its sanction to very few videogames, given their size and global reputation. Notably, lot of those were also pretty mediocre. Despite that, there were some true gems in the list. The company has also loosened its strangely anti-videogame stance in the past few years, with more games out in the past decade and many more on the horizon.
Even as the tabletop games are entering a period of transition, there’s been a flourishing of Games Workshop games in the past few years, with more to come. I’ve kept promising public alphas like Mordheim off the list.
Also as a small note for the newbie, Warhammer 40000 is shorthanded in the list as 40K, while Warhammer Fantasy Battle is truncated to Warhammer or WFB. This should not be confused with the Warhammer world or 40K universe, which are both settings rather than titles. This all makes perfect sense and is not convoluted at all. Welcome to wargaming.
Platform: PC, Playstation
Publisher: Mindscape, SSI
A realtime strategy game when we were all still trying to figure out what made those tick, Shadow of the Horned Rat takes players through a series of battle scenarios. You take on the role of Morgan Bernhardt, mercenary commander and Empire citizen. You’re given wide latitude in how your troops evolve and even what troops you have available to you at any given time. Paired with a decent story, it’s a really solid game, let down only by its absolutely brutal difficulty and clunky interface.
Warhammer Online was shut down last year, meaning we can’t revisit the MMO. It’s not enough to say that it will be remembered as a disaster; it’s liable to be remembered as one of the great MMO failures of all time after its astonishing initial sales turned into a subscription nosedive a scant four months post release.
The fact is that Warhammer Online was let down by some disastrous engineering and design flaws in the mid to late game, but the first third was spectacular. It nailed the feel of the universe, most of the classes were interesting and useful from level 1, and its blend of PvP and PvE in the early game was awesome. Absolutely the best introductory MMO experience I’ve had, still, and I’ve played them all. Shame about the rest of it.
Games Workshop, despite their reputation being made on turn-based tabletop strategy games, is more associated with real time strategy in the videogame realm. They’ve always been a bit skittish about 1:1 translations of their IPs, for fear of people going in on the more accessible videogame route.
So it is with Dawn of War II, the second and last in the Dawn of War series. We may never get a direct translation of 40K for the PC, but a good RTS can suffice. Dawn of War II moves away from the first game’s more traditional RTS framing, going for smaller armies and no base building. Pick your battle, deploy, and fight your way through the narrative. In some respects, it’s a welcome throwback to Shadow of the Horned Rat, a game which came before the “right” way to do RTS games was established.
Platform: PC, iPad
The most recent game on the list, Armageddon may not be the same game as 40K’s miniatures based version, but it does go the turn-based strategy game route and does it well.
Slitherine goes for a Panzer General style with this one and nails it. That may feel a bit creaky to some (Panzer General style games have been around for an awfully long time), but in these days of hunting for retro gameplay it’s downright great. You play an Imperial Guard general fighting the famed Armageddon Campaign with a nearly complete suite of units at your command. The sheer variety of tactics and units available to you, combined with the surprisingly variable missions, makes for one of the more solid beer and pretzels wargames of the past couple of years.
There’s probably a hair’s breadth difference in quality between the two Dawn of War games but the first just edges the second for me. I think turn-based strategy is the best way to experience any Games Workshop game, but if we’re going real time in 40K I want to go with the style I came up with. I want bases. I want huge masses of troops and resource gathering. I want a game that relies on my slow fingers and distracted brain, meaning I get to yell at the wall when both let me down in multiplayer.
It maybe leaned on its expansions just a touch too much, but this still hits a sweet spot for me that Dawn of War II didn’t. I’ll also trade the sequel’s Tyranids for Sisters of Battle and Tau any day.
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
A few panned its linear play, but no game has ever captured the on the ground feel of 40K like Space Marine. Some of this is by process of elimination; very few games in the 40K universe have gotten away from the strategy milieu. But most of it is just that the game is very, very good at what it does. I’ll lean on the well-work clichés of it being “solid” and “visceral” because, despite the groans that might elicit, it’s true. It was just a fun, well-crafted hack and slash game with great fan service.
Pay special attention to the sound design on a playthrough. The orks and others are made alive at least as much by sound as sight, and the creaks and explosions of Forge World Graia make it seem like a real place.
Developer: Random Games
This is the first of what I’d describe as the forgotten Games Workshop games. A turn based squad RPG, basically X-COM or Jagged Alliance, set in the 40K universe? With accurately modeled troop types? Yes, please.
The game isn’t any more or less than that. It’s a formula which you’re familiar with if you’re into PC games at all. Make a squad of Space Marines, upgrade them as you wipe out the forces of Chaos, rinse and repeat. And the game is hard, as most of the late 1990s Games Workshop games were. It also had its share of bugs at release, in keeping with the reputation of the company’s licensed games. But, patched up, Chaos Gate is wonderful, the kind of “just one more turn” masterpiece X-COM is.
Developer: Holistic Design
Here’s a secret: one of the best Games Workshop miniatures games was also arguably their least popular. Epic) was a 6mm massive army game set in the 40K universe. The idea was to model gigantic walking war machines (Titans, in the game’s parlance), massed tank battles, and huge numbers of troops. When you think about it, this makes total sense with a galaxy populated by billions of soldiers. It’s the smaller scale Warhammer 40000 which is weird.
Final Liberation takes this version of the 40K universe on with aplomb. As with Armageddon, you are cast in the role of an Imperial commander. Unlike most of the other games on this list, Final Liberation is as close to a 1:1 recreation of Epic as you’re going to get on a computer screen. This means that some of the granular actions are abstracted (e.g. there’s no choice between throwing a grenade or firing a boltgun), but you get a top down sense of scale no other 40K game offers.
Special mention should also go out to Final Liberation’s completely bonkers metal soundtrack and absolutely serious, in no way cheesy FMV cutscenes. There’s never been a more 40K thing on a computer screen than those cutscenes.
Platform: PC, Playstation
In Dark Omen, sequel to Shadow of the Horned Rat, you’re once more cast as Morgan Bernhardt and, once again, you’re fighting orcs. Only this time, the orcs are fleeing from something even worse (spoiler: it’s undead, as you might expect).
The difference between the two games is one of degree rather than kind. It’s just that everything Horned Rat does, Dark Omen does better. The UI is much cleaner, the graphics crisper, and the story and dialogue are more engrossing. Maybe more importantly, there are way more units available and, correspondingly, more tactics to use. It carries over the high difficulty of its predecessor, but it’s such a great game that you’re more willing to stick it out. In Horned Rat, there was always a point that I inevitably threw up my hands. Not so with Dark Omen; I always wanted more when I played it.
Platforms: PC, 360, PSP, DS
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
It never quashed all the bugs. There were three releases of the game when one would’ve sufficed. The UI for online play is a mess. The PC version was the only one which was complete. And it’s still the best Games Workshop game ever made.
Why? For once, nobody involved screwed around with the IP. Cyanide did the simplest, best thing they could: they just released straight up Blood Bowl as a videogame. That’s all it took to make it the best game possible. Once most of the teams were in, it played exactly like the tabletop game, except a notoriously long playing game at the table played out in around 30 minutes.
If you’re a novice, Blood Bowl is a turn-based hybrid of rugby and American football, except the players try to kill each other and the teams are all various fantasy races from the Warhammer world. It’s a frustrating, hilarious, completely imbalanced game of risk management—an acquired taste for many, but one which leads to addictive gameplay once you embrace the chaos the game forces upon you.
Despite their sometimes iffy handling of DLC rollouts, Cyanide did it right. Who’d have thought that all you really need to make a great translation of a tabletop game is to just put it into videogame form as is?
Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.