Why Did Games Workshop Blow Up Warhammer Fantasy Battles?
This seems like a long time ago to some people, but to others the wounds are still fresh. Warhammer Fantasy Battles took place in what is now called Warhammer: The Old World, a world which Games Workshop's lore writers and designers quite literally blew up. The Old World exploded, a few of the gods survived, and a new world (or, rather, a series of realms) came to be.
But why did Games Workshop get rid of Warhammer Fantasy Battles? The honest answer is just that Warhammer Fantasy Battles wasn't selling very well. The game was stagnating, not bringing anyone new into the hobby. There was also a major issue to do with intellectual property and copyright. Let's look at both issues in turn.
Warhammer Fantasy Battles Was Stagnating
Warhammer Fantasy Battles was not selling very well, period. Games Workshop's fantasy line has always paled in comparison to their sci-fi line--it still does--but Warhammer Fantasy was really doing poorly. The rumor (I don't have hard numbers, but this is the generally accepted theory) is that Space Marines themselves were outselling the entire fantasy line. It was simply not profitable.
Why was Warhammer Fantasy Battles not profitable? The prevailing theory, which I tend to agree with, is that Warhammer Fantasy was a difficult game to play, particularly because of the "rank and flank" style. What rank and flank means is that the units move in rectangular blocks--with a few exceptions--and there is a lot of strategy in trying to get the front side of your unit to attack the flank side of the enemy's unit. A lot of wargames are still played this way, especially historicals, but there's a funny thing about historical rank and flank games: they don't sell very well.
Why this is I don't know. There is definitely a strategy to these games that makes them harder to play than a 40k where units merely are grouped together in a loose mob, and then assault into and around other units. While I don't mean to put down 40k in any sense (I love 40k) Warhammer Fantasy Battles was chess and Warhammer 40k was checkers. Chess is a more strategic game that rewards thinking many turns ahead and maneuvering perfectly and striking at the exact moment. Checkers requires skill, but it's an easier game to play, and an easier game for beginners to understand. There's a reason that people have heard of the great World Chess Champions and no one has ever heard of the World Checkers Champion.
Again, not trying to denigrate 40k in any way. I'm merely saying that 40k is an easier game to understand and an easier game to start in. Which leads us to one of the main problems with Warhammer Fantasy Battles' stagnation: it wasn't bringing new people into the game.
Because Fantasy was harder to learn and harder to play, it was a difficult sell to new people who were interested in Games Workshop's products. If someone went into a Games Workshop store and saw two tables--one with Fantasy and one with 40k--and they watched each game for twenty minutes, they'd probably have figured out a lot of how 40k works while they were probably confused by Fantasy.
Of course, I'm speaking in generalities, but generalities are what make business decisions. Games Workshop didn't look at the handful of customers who were exceptions to the rule--they looked at the decreasing revenue from Fantasy and the increasing revenue from 40k. They had to make a business decision. There had to be something to fix the stagnation.
So they decided to blow up the Old World and introduce an entirely new game: Warhammer Age of Sigmar. Age of Sigmmar had some of the same characters from the lore as Fantasy had, but it was a different world and, more importantly, all of the rules were extremely streamlined. It wasn't AS EASY to play as 40k; it was EASIER.
Now what doesn't often get mentioned in these conversations, but probably ought to be, is that Warhammer 40k was having a crisis, too. It was bloated and it was getting hard to play. It was easier than Age of Sigmar, but 7th Edition was something of a hot mess. It was 40k that had been wounded and patched up and wounded and patched up so many times that the rules could get very convoluted.
So Warhammer 40k *kinda* got blown up, too. 8th Edition was a much more streamlined and easier-to-play version of 40k. The big difference, and the main reason why people weren't incensed by the end of 7th Edition 40k (or, at least, AS incensed as they were at Age of Sigmar) is because 8th Edition 40k kept the same lore as 7th Edition and, more importantly, it kept the same models.
Yes, with Warhammer 40k 8th Edition, you didn't have to throw away your old models (or burn them, as one angry YouTuber famously did) the way you did with Age of Sigmar. Warhammer 40k was the same world, same models, same names, just easier rules.
All of which brings up the question:
Why Didn't Age of Sigmar Keep the Same Factions as Warhammer Fantasy Battles?
Copyright, pure and simple. Think about the main factions of Warhammer Fantasy Battles: Wood Elves, High Elves, Orcs, Goblins, Empire, Dwarves. None of these are intellectual property that Games Workshop owns. Yes, they can own the named characters, but any company can make a box of high elves and call them high elves and there's nothing that Games Workshop can say about it.
So Age of Sigmar corrected that problem by taking the Fantasy factions and calling them something else to make them different. The elves became three different types of used-to-be-elves: the Sylvaneth (tree elves who are kind of wood elves but mostly living plants), Idoneth Deepkin (underwater elves who are an entirely new take on elves--they ride sea turtles and sharks), and Lumineth Realmlords (who are kind of the nature-loving elves who ride weird creatures including, I'm serious, a fantasy version of a kangaroo).
Now, that's not to say that Warhammer 40k didn't have its own copyright issues that it was fighting. For a brief silly period they tried to trademark the name "space marines" but failed. So they took their factions and just renamed them Imperial Guard became Astra Militarum. Eldar became Aeldari. Orks just... remained Orks. But these were already somewhat more copyrightable than the Fantasy factions: you can make a fantasy orc model and say you were inspired by Tolkien, but can you make a space orc model and claim you were inspired by anyone other than Games Workshop?
So Age of Sigmar reinvented everything from the ground up, and Warhammer 40k 8th Edition renamed their troublesome IPs.
Now, there are some people who say "What about Tomb Kings? Aren't they an original idea? Why can't we still have those?" And the answer to that is just that Tomb Kings is and always has been Egyptian-inspired fantasy, and Egyptian-inspired fantasy has been around since the time of the Greeks.
"What about lizardmen?" Now, THAT'S an interesting question, because lizardmen survived the Age of Sigmar explosion, and just got rebranded as Seraphon. But in appearance they didn't change significantly. And I think this is exactly illustrative of the intellectual property issue. Yes, "lizardmen" isn't exactly a genius idea, but lizards riding dinosaurs with Mayan iconography? That's a different ball of wax. That's a copyrightable idea, and so lizardmen survived the purge.
Interestingly, there are certain elements of Warhammer Fantasy Old World that remain in Age of Sigmar: for example, the new Soulblight Gravelords have undead skeletons and zombies and they are as non-copyrightable as vampires. Which are... also in the Soulblight Gravelords. (Games Wokshop has done some work to make their vampires more exclusively theirs: before the Soulblight Gravelords were around, the vampire army was the Flesh Eater Courts, who were a much more rabid and feral version of the vampires.)
Will the Old World of Warhammer Fantasy Battles Ever Return?
Well, supposedly. They made an announcement in November of 2019 that it would be coming back but we haven't seen very much since then to back that up. The biggest sign that the Old World isn't dead is the massive popularity of the Total War: Warhammer games that remain in the Old World. That said, the announcement says that Warhammer: The Old World will be return would be "a long way off. Years. More than two. Like three or more. Definitely not soon."
There is a strange kind of precedent for bringing it back, as it (kinda) parallels Warhammer 40k's little brother, The Horus Heresy. That game is also in the 40k universe but takes place in the year 30k and is based on the rebellion of half of the Space Marine legions against the Emperor. If Warhammer: The Old World is going to be like that then we can expect limited rules, limited model availability, and limited support.
Could Warhammer: The Old World be a flagship game? It might be, but it's hard to imagine that they would introduce a new flagship fantasy game when they already have a flagship fantasy game that's doing really well. (By my best estimates, based entirely on Google's search traffic, Age of Sigmar is about half as popular as Warhammer 40k--but that's still really good. Warhammer: The Old World has very low search traffic, but because it's not available yet that's not necessarily indicative of how popular the game will be.)
Warhammer Fantasy Battles was not selling well because the game was hard to play, hard to get involved in, and had a high barrier of entry to new player. It also was very hard for Games Workshop to copyright or trademark their intellectual property because the factions were so generically fantasy. Warhammer: The Old World has been announced to be returning, but that announcement said the game is expected far in the future.
Are you excited for Warhammer: The Old World, or were you happy to see Fantasy Battles die and get reborn as Age of Sigmar?