Sunday, 1 July 2018

Battle Masters: Rethinking Iconography

Further on the journey of remastering the MB Games / Games Workshops board wargame Battle Masters.

Having played two games I'd already decided that the addition of the move frequency stat needed to be done for further testing purposes. This means updating and reprinting the Battle Masters: Pocket Edition Prototype and also creates an opportunity to revisit the rest of what is going on.

The main problem with the icons as they currently stand, is that they don't really help communicate the tokens game role to the player. A great example of that is the Chaos Archer, which is just the head of a guy with a mohawk. The second problem is that several aren't very easily distinguished from each other, the Man-at-Arms and Crossbowman just look the same, as do the Chaos Knights and Chaos Lords.

What do you mean, you're not thinking 'archer' right now?

So my first approach is to draw full-body figures that attempt to visually communicate a bit more about the troops, and help differentiate between them, more like the icons of traditional Fantasy Hex and Chit wargames.

Rather than fiddle around with detailed character designs, at this stage I just want to block out the basic shapes and ideas, to ensure the information is being carried forward and the images are readable. Has to be remembered that the tokens are only ½".  Once the basic concepts figured out, the design silhouettes are settled, these can be worked up, detail defined and forms finalised - still plan on using white-on-black for the Evil side and black-on-white for the good.  Overall  have the forces of  forces of light facing right and the forces of darkness facing left, going against natural reading direction, rather than with it. Not only does this makes them more sinister, but reinforces the difference between the two sides.

So these are my first thumbnail roughs of a "Fantasy Dark Ages" silhouettes for Battle Masters, ditching the late middle ages, central European Warhammer Empire tropes. I'd be lying if I said I spent more time drawing them than writing this blog-post. I wanted to visually express that the Knight gets more moves than the Lord, so the Knights horse is at a trot, and the Lords is standing to attention, as well as detail the arms and armour, the crossbow doesn't quite read as clearly as the archer, but there is no getting away from that without replacing the whole figure with just a weapon icon, which is just a bit too abstract. 

The Evil Side of Evil Darkness, presents a great opportunity to go back to the original imagery of Warhammer from the early 80s rather than the tired and derivative 1990s designs that Battle Masters was based on. The silhouettes are largely inspired by 'pre-slotta' figures, such as the Chaos Broo for the Beastmen, and the gangly C16 Orcs, an C30 Amazonian Tribeswoman seems to have crept in as the Archer, and the shadow of Uthmog Elvenblade makes an appearance as the Chaos Warrior. In our games Gorefist has become a female character, so a Lady McDeathMorganna Le Fay,  Narnian White Witch type or perhaps something inspired by John Blanches gothic-punk use of fetish tropes. I realise this is fallen into the trap of portraying the feminine as irrational 'chaos' but there we are.

And there I stopped. 

The roughly drawn figures all seem to work as intended, a bit of rifinement up here and there and they'd be done. But something wasn't quite right, and it bothered me, so the rough thumbnails were put aside, while other more pressing matters were attended to. Then it occured to me that the problem wasn't in the drawings, but the design direction of Battle Masters itself.

Battle Masters presents a conflict between a multi-racial, diverse force (orcs, ogres, goblins, beastmen, men) against a mono-racial ethnostate (men men and more men), and uses the cliched tropes of 90s fantasy to code the ethnostate as goodly 'human', and the diverse state as an 'unnatural' evil. The arbitrary nature of this coding is made all the more clear when there are no mechanical differences between a Beastman and an Orc, they just look different, wheras the Men are only visually differentiated when there is a mechanical requirement. So the representative scheme across the two sides is not equally applied - and diversity is only used to represent evil. Looking at the lines of silhouettes of the two factions made the uniformity of the good and the diversity of the evil even more apparent.

This good vs. evil = ethnostate vs. diversity mytheme isn't one that I'm interested in reproducing, at all. In fact, quite the contrary, but not only are such clumsy ideological constructions tedious in their own right, the heroic portrayal of monocultures have little to do with the traditions of Fantasy literature.

Pauline Baynes | Fellowship of the Ring

In Tolkien's Middle-earth it is the multi-racial, multi-ethnic alliance of Men, Elves, Dwarves, Eagles, Ents, Hobbits, Woodwose, Oathbreakers, Rohirrim and Gondorians, that stand against the evil mono-racial ethnostate of Orcish tribalism and their Nazgûlian supernatural overlords.

Pauline Baynes | Aslans Army

In C.S. Lewis, Narnia,  we have centaurs, satyrs, fauns, and a menagerie of talking animals against an equally diverse roster of Evil under the White Witch (except the profoundly racist A Horse and His Boy).

Druillet | Mercenary Army

In Flaubert's Salammbô the mono-cultural Carthage is portrayed as the corrupt and spiteful enemy and it is the leaders of the multi-racial Mercenery Army of Campanians, Greeks,  Iberians, Lusitanians, Balearians, Gaetulians; Gauls, Libyans, and Nomads, who garner our sympathy.

I could go on, from the expected diversity of the average Dungeons & Dragons party, to the diverity described in the original Warhammer scenarios, Sven, McDeath, Lichemaster, to the heroes of Star Wars vs. the monolthic Empire, to the multicultural crew of Star Treks vatious Enterpises. Different people work together to overthrow evils of the world, rather than evil being whatever appears to threatens a single homogenous group.

Despite all this, we ended up with this insipid racial monoculture nonsense dominating fantasy wargaming from the 90s onwards, with the Codexes and racially determined Army Books, and here we are with Battle Masters. As I'm re-designing the icons anyway, it seems like a golden opportunity to go back to the literary roots of Fantasy to diversify the racial profile of the Goodly side, and also, perhaps draw the 'technology' more towards the Dark Ages.

Out goes the Mighty Cannon and in comes a mad greybearded wizard with random magic - his rules would be the exact same so his magic would destroy friend and foe alike, a dangerous Odinic wanderer choosing the slain from the battlefield. The Crossbowman becomes a Gnome, drawing on gnomish tinkerers, the Archer an Elf (what else), and the Knight a Centaur.  The King holding up his magic sword as a bare cross might be a little over-egging the Narnian influence (see also Valhalla Rising) and end up looking more like Van Helsing than King Arthur, it may be Joan d'Arc figure to counterbalance Gorefist.

The more diverse line not only looks better (well except my dodgy centaur!) but also allows for a more imaginative fantasy narrative to emerge.  Having almost settled on the concepts for the diversified goodly side, next decision is whether to pull the evil side inline, have the massed uniform  perhaps all Beastmen or all Orcs, or maybe the Undead as they're unequivocally evil (except in Tolkien, of course), and just use variations of weaponry and size to distinguish between the mono-racial forces of darkness.


  1. Well done, both in the technical/skill sense, as well as choosing a more positive scheme thematically.

    One of my gaming recently completed Empire in flames. A bunch of neophyte gamers who weren't very familiar with the warhammer setting played. When we finally 'saved' the empire from the mutant emperor-heir, and his terrible mutant acceptance decrees the coin finally dropped. Everyone started looked a bit pained that we had made the empire safe to pursue it's cleansing of mutant defectives and heretical thought.

    It's funny/sad how a lot of this stuff slips through when un-examined.

    1. Hey, thanks daveb, glad you enjoyed the thumbnails and the new direction.

      Your experience with Empire in Flames is really interesting. I've not had the opportunity to play TEW all the way through to the end, although I have read the modules. If I remember, the PCs role in supporting the new Emperor is heavily railroaded by the module, and the options for taking the narrative in a different direction severely limited.

      It would be nice to think that 'penny drop' moment, where the players realise they've ushered in an age of tyranny and oppression was the intended reaction, I think there's a little too much cheering on of the witchfinders and no room for alternative, anti-authoritarian themes to emerge.

  2. I consider the diversity of 'baddy armies' to be a consequence of the many D&D monstrous foes. In a game like Heroquest, these got lumped together, so you had a gargoyle fighting alongside Orcs and skeletons.

    The Heroes of Heroquest were more diverse, but they would have come from 'monocultures'- the elf from his elfen people, the dwarf from his mountain fastness. The wizard did not learn his powers with the barbarian as his room mate.

    The fellowship was special to middle earth because of its diversity. Elves and men had fought in common cause before but not in mixed units.

    For all of AoS wicked evils, separating orc and goblins, restless spirits and necromantic skeletons is a good move thematically.

    The Battlemasters aesthetic is of a regimented state army versus 'these monster stereotypes you will recognise from popular culture'.

    It is civilisation vs barbaric piracy.

    The state army is historical enough that most people with a passing knowledge of history can see what they are and relate to them. The chaos archers and chaos knights/warriors are obvious dark counterparts to the imperials but highlight the inequality of that culture.
    The chaos archer must run around in a barbarian loincloth whilst his betters get fully enclosing plate. The Imperial archers get feathered caps, by sigmar, and some damned respect.

    Presumably the orcs and beastmen were either slaves or mercenaries. Their inclusion showed the depravity of Gorefist and his men- conspiring with clear monsters (in case the moral standing of a person called Gorefist was in doubt)

    I think your new icons are great and really draw the 'good guy' player into the fantasy world of Warhammer. I also think they dilute something of the visual unity of an army standing against monsters- the basic narrative thrust of Warhammer.

    1. Thank you for your long and thoughtful comment.

      Yes, indeed the complete erasure of the "visual unity of an army standing against monsters" is rather the point of changing the design direction. Diversity against the Monsters.

      Back in the day The Empire of Warhammer always had Halflings, Elfs, Dwarfs, Ogres in its civilian population and fighting forces, Crusading Knights vs. Monsterous Others was never the 'narrative thrust' of Warhammer. As mentioned in the post above, earlier incarnations of Warhammer are largely based around more diverse forces, and are all the more interesting and enjoyable for it. It would be a complete stretch to imagine the Elf, Dwarf, Barbarian and Wizard of Heroquest as citizens of ethnostates, as it would be to imagine He-Man, Orko, Stratos and Teela or Kirk, Spock, Uhura and Sulu in a similar fashion.

      Gondorians and Rohirrim are different ethnic groups, the Hourns fight alongside the Rohirrim, there are the Woodwose and the Oathbreakers. Bree is home to Hobbits, Dwarves and Men, the Town of Dale has Dwarves and Men. The Battle of Five armies sees a great alliance of Dwarf, Elf, Men, Beornings, Eagles, and so on and so forth. It makes no sense to claim The Fellowship and the Last Alliance as 'special' and ignore all the other occurrences Tolkien has of ethnic and racially diverse peoples working together and fighting alongside each other.

      The notion that 'ethnotatism - civilisation' and 'diversity = barbarism' in itself a boring and repugnant conceit that reflects neither historical reality, nor the human condition, nor does it reflect the majority of popular culture, not even Warhammer of the early 90s. A massed army of chaos warriors, orcs, goblins, ogres and beastmen is no more monstrous than a ravening horde of orcs. Suggesting otherwise begs the question why anyone codes 'diversity' as 'monsterous'. Equally an army of Men, Dwarves and Elves easily fits the marketing requirement of flogging a product with 'stereotypes you will recognise from popular culture', although kids love monsters, and having more different monster toys to play with is always fun, but then so is having more different hero toys.

      The Empire Archers only have padded armour and not given shields, whereas the knights are in full plate - the archers are equipped as lessers, there's a clear hierarchy at work in privileging the Lords, as one would expect from a pseudo-medieval army, the garish pomp and pageantry aside. Again, the contrast with the humility of Tolkiens heroes seems fruitful.

      In the final analysis the 'evil = diverse', 'good = ethnostate' motif in Battle Masters was just a result of poorly thought out design with no real benefits to keeping it.

  3. Very interesting post, Zhu!

    I really like your revision of the "90sHammer" theme of Battle Masters to a more traditional Middle-earth/Narnian/Dark Ages setting.

    However, I wanted to raise a couple of points of disagreement.

    1. It's not just orcs and goblins who work for Sauron, is it? Don't forget the Haradrim, the Corsairs of Umbar, the Hill-Men of Rhudaur, the Easterlings, the Variags, the Trolls, the Half-Trolls and the Wargs. In the past, Dragons, Balrogs, Bats and Werewolves have also worked for Sauron, and Morgoth before him. There's as much racial diversity among the evil forces as there is among the good.

    2. Also, I wouldn't go as far as saying The Horse & His Boy is overtly racist!

    Yes, the Calormenes are clearly inspired by a 19th century orientalist fantasy version of medieval Saracens/Turks/Persians, but they're not shown as racially/ethnically inferior to Narnian humans! They just so happen to be the political enemies of Narnia, and are presumably also enemies of Aslan, because they worship a bloodthirsty demon who is opposed to Aslan in a cosmic dimension, and therefore evil (as Aslan is the source of all goodness).

    1. P.S.

      3. That t-shirt with the mohawk actually did make me think "archer", because when I looked at it my first thought was: "Native American", which then immediately brought to mind an image of a bow-wielding Native American!

      However, you're right. The image in the Battle Masters iconography says: "punk rocker" more than "archer".

    2. Yes, there are several other races and ethnic groups are allied with Sauron than Orcs during the War of the Ring.

      I am a little surprised you don't recognise calling 'arabs' cosmically evil because they don't worship the Jesus Lion is as fundamentally racist as you can get. The Calormens as an entire ethnic racial group are portrayed as spiritually and morally inferior to the lily white Narnians to the point of being evil. The idea was as racist during the Crusades as it was in 19th C. Romantic literature as it was when Lewis wrote it as it is today. It's not really a defensible viewpoint.

      I'm certainly not the first to recognise The Horse & His Boy for its profound racism.

    3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    4. Sorry., hope you're not offended by the deletion.

      Life is too short to be arguing with someone who fails to see the Crusades as racist, or acknowledges the medieval construction of race was built along religious lines. I suggest reading "Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art" by Debra Higgs Strickland, as a start and perhaps, if you're feeling brave, look some of Julius Evolas work on spiritual racism.

      You're entitled to express your opinion, and defend Lewis or other texts that people have identified as racist, but my blog isn't really the venue for that.

    5. No, I am not offended; it is your blog and you can do what you like with it!

      I am a little sad you don't want to have the conversation, though. If your blog is the place to assert that certain novels are profoundly racist, I would have thought it was okay that not all your readers agree with you, and seek to discuss it. However, as I said, it is your blog and you have the authority here, which I respect.

      Even though we disagree on this topic, I hope you do not find my comments *personally* disrespectful.

      I will check out the book by Debra Higgs Strickland; I am happy to stand corrected if she convinces me.

    6. Well, I don't think I'm expected to have a conversation with someone about the earth being flat if I write that the earth is a globe!

      Enjoy the Strickland, she is excellent. It's been a while since I read it, and if she doesn't convince, at least the art is good.

    7. I certainly agree with that point, but I would suggest the assertion I'm questioning here is, to be fair, a bit more open to criticism/discussion than the shape of the planet!

      But anyway, I'm sorry if I upset you, Zhu; I genuinely don't mean any hard feelings here, I just wanted to politely discuss the topic.

      Early C20 fantasy authors I would claim were genuinely profoundly racist (by my understanding of the term) are H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. In REH's case, it's more apparent in his weird menace/historical tales than the Conan ones, in which race seems to define *everything* about a person. In Lovecraft's case, its apparent enough in his stories, but his letters are quite shocking in regard to his thoughts on non-'Teutonic' peoples.

    8. So, it turns out you can't purchase a copy of SD&J for less than £100. I will have to see if the library can help!

    9. I'm not emotional about it at all. You're a good guy with honourable intentions, but ultimately in this case, pursuing a flat-earth argument. I appreciate you might not agree, but then a flat-earther wouldn't agree either.

      I'm just not interested in having this conversation at the moment as my efforts and time are better served elsewhere. Sorry if I haven't made that clear.

      I appreciate you might have strong feelings about the matter and wish to discuss them. I again, politely, suggest doing this elsewhere will serve you better.

    10. Okay, I appreciate and respect that. Apologies for derailing your post with this subject; I do get a bit carried away sometimes!