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Dreadfleet? More like Dreadfail!


Games Workshop’s latest one-shot game has been out for a couple of weeks now, and reviews are beginning to come in. There’s something of a mix of views. There is almost universal agreement that the components are top-notch. The ships are well sculpted, the playing mat looks fantastic, and the extra bits are actually useful. The disagreement comes in when you look at how the game plays.

Some reviewers say it’s a fun game, while others are less forgiving. One former Games Workshop staffer has even called it ‘the worst game they’ve ever made’. Personally, I haven’t played the game, let alone seen the contents of the box in person, but I can see where the complaints come from. When I first read the details of the game, I had to pause and read it again before I could believe that GW would actually release something like this.

Skulls, skulls, and more skulls. It's a Games Workshop game alright.

On the surface it made sense. Naval wargaming had become popular recently thanks to the efforts of Spartan Games‘ Uncharted Seas and Dystopian Wars. Games Workshop had delved into this area back in the early 90’s with Man o’ War, many fans (including myself) assumed this is what we would be getting when the first teaser hit the internet. The more we learned about it, however, the less the premise made sense. Here were the things that immediately stood out to me:

  • Where are the Dark Elves? In the Warhammer world, the Dark Elves are naval raiders, coming over the horizon in their Black Arks and enslaved sea dragons to lay waste to all they encounter. If there was any race that really must appear in a naval game it would be them, right? Apparently not. Instead we have Skaven sailing around in a hollowed out dead sea monster and a Tomb King ship, both of which make little sense, but were probably easier to design. There seems to have been more focus on making ships that look cool than ships that make sense.
  • Who is the target market? One off boxed sets normally have pretty well-defined target markets. But not Dreadfleet. Its simple rules mean it feels like something for younger gamers, but the amount of construction required and the overall price of the game seems to work counter to that. Space Hulk also contained multi-part models, but they were relatively simple to put together and didn’t require painting. Dreadfleet comes with a number of smaller ships that look identical, needing some sort of marking to tell them apart.
  • That’s a lot of effort for not much game. The great thing about re-releasing a game like Space Hulk is that most of the hard work is already done. The basic rules already exist, the model design is pretty much done (and later reused in the respective armies). Dreadfleet, however, was likely designed almost entirely from scratch. Ship design and rules design would take a fair bit of time and effort, time that isn’t being spent on GW’s ongoing games. The only pieces that are usable outside the game are the islands, and some of them contain items that will look grossly out of scale in Warhammer or 40k.
  • Needs expansions, but won’t get them. As with GW’s previous one-shot boxed set, Space Hulk, there isn’t likely to be any support for this game beyond the initial release. Sadly, this game would really thrive with a couple of small add-ons. New missions would be one, perhaps an all new narrative mini-campaign. New races would be the other. As mentioned enough, there are a few prominent Warhammer races missing from this game. Dark Elves, Lizardmen, Orcs, Bretonnians, and Chaos are all ready and waiting to sail into the fray.
  • Try, or at least see, before you buy. Games Workshop made a major change with the way they sold this product. The preorder for Dreadfleet opened up before details of the product had even been released. People were actually putting down money without a full idea of how the game played. GW are one of the few companies who can do this and actually get away with it. After reading some of the reviews it looks like a few people are now regretting their purchase. I do wonder if it would have sold as quickly if they had been more forthcoming with information before opening it for preorder.

Taking all these points into consideration, Dreadfleet was still the right choice for Games Workshop, at least in the short-term. It’s almost guaranteed to sell out, no matter how many people complain about the rules. All up, it’s a great way for GW to earn good money pretty quickly, especially from Australia and New Zealand. You may remember my earlier post about the cost of product here in NZ, this is another example. In the UK, you can pick up Dreadfleet for £70. Here in NZ, you’ll be forking over $220, almost $80 more than if you bought it direct. That’s a lot to put down for something that is, essentially, a glorified boardgame. If the pieces were reusable in other games it mightn’t be so bad, but that simply isn’t the case. At that price I’ve not even interested in going halves with someone else to pick this up.

I did mention short-term earlier for a reason. Once Dreadfleet sells out, that’s it. It’s gone. Tutto finito, as my grandfather used to say. There won’t be a second printing or any expansions. If Space Hulk didn’t get them, then Dreadfleet is sure not to. To be fair to Games Workshop, they already have two major product lines that they are supporting (and a third that’s probably being redesigned now). There are only so many products the company can focus on at one time, and one more ongoing line may simply be too much for them. That said, they don’t have to release another Warhammer Fantasy to make an ongoing game successful.

Take Warhammer Quest: when Dreadfleet released, Warren from Beasts of War thought that Games Workshop’s dungeon crawling game from the mid 90’s would have been a better choice. He argued that GW could have designed the game to encourage players to purchase models from the Warhammer range that they might not have previously considered, simply to use them in WQ. I love this idea. I already buy models on that basis that I like their look, not because I am building a particular army. Allowing me to use them in a game would be the icing on the cake.

Another good option would be Blood Bowl. Sure, you can still buy the game from GW’s site, but they could have repackaged the game, given it a new high-quality board (like the corridors and rooms in Space Hulk), and updated all the teams with newer models. Sure, it might not have much success as an ongoing product, but it just requires a shift in thinking. All new miniatures would be a success, and not making the boxed set a limited release item would keep the game going for much, much longer than Dreadfleet ever will.

Eight years on and still going strong.

Oddly enough, there may have been a reason why neither of these products got the attention they could have used so well: Fantasy Flight Games. FFG are possibly the biggest producer of Games Workshop products, outside of GW themselves. Two of their products are pretty similar to the ones listed above. Firstly, they publish the latest edition of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying Game. While it isn’t identical to Warhammer Quest, there are enough similarities that it could be considered a threat. Secondly, they are about to release Blood Bowl Team Manager, a card game that breaks down an entire Blood Bowl season into a two-hour card game. Just like WHFRP, this isn’t an identical product, but Blood Bowl could have drawn sales away from FFG.

I guess, in the end, Games Workshop were caught between Scylla and Charybdis. They had to release something to help boost their cash reserves, but couldn’t release things that might have been more long-term products. Who knows what they’ll do next time, but one thing is for sure, we shouldn’t expect anything until at least 2014. With the rumoured release of Warhammer 40k 6th Edition and support for the upcoming Hobbit movies, they’ve got a lot of new stuff in the pipe to keep the sales high. Hell, if we’re lucky we might even see a second wave of Tyranid miniatures to help fill out that range.

And pigs might also learn to fly.

Reader Participation Time!

Which game of Games Workshop’s past do you think they should bring back, either as a one-shot game or a limited product line?

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