By the Blood of Khorne! Part 1

Dawn of War, Mark of Chaos and Blood Bowl

Welcome back to our in-depth look at the graphics and gameplay evolution of video games. Today we’ll discuss how the biggest tabletop war gaming franchise entered the world of video games.


The Warhammer universe, brought to us by the creative minds at Games Workshop, is the setting for the world’s premier tabletop war game. The popularity of this universe has allowed it to grow into a massive and profitable IP, expanding into all types of gaming experiences, including video games. The realms of both Fantasy (rebranded Age of Sigmar in 2015) and 40k have been represented in this digital medium, to varying degrees of efficacy and success.

These games cover several genres, expanding the appeal of the Warhammer universe beyond its wargaming roots. Here, we’ll be looking at some of the most popular titles, examining their graphics, mechanics, and how well they tie into the Warhammer universe.

Our first three titles are all strategy games; two real-time, one turn-based. Given that they are based upon existing strategy games, this makes sense. Wanting to capitalize on the popularity of the existing games means making something similar enough that the same sort of audience will be interested in playing. Of course, taking the turn-based war game into real-time is a big shift, and so those games would need to draw on the existing examples of real-time strategy games to create a game that is not only a Warhammer RTS, but a fun Warhammer RTS. In Dawn of War and Mark of Chaos, we see some of the basics of unit control that are familiar from games like Starcraft or Command and Conquer, though their graphic fidelity is much higher than those games, though they do trade absolute unit control to achieve this (having no singular units apart from some heroes). Blood Bowl, on the other hand being turn based, is trying to be closer to an exact reflection of its tabletop predecessor. Being turn-based and individual unit-based also allows for slightly higher graphic fidelity, since not all units will be moving at once. You could compare this approach to XCOM, and Blood Bowl certainly matches that game in its unforgiving brutality. Let’s get into our deeper dive.

Dawn of War (PC, 2004)

With great cinematic flair (seriously, that opening scene is still amazing) comes our first entry, Dawn of War, a real time strategy game in the futuristic 40k setting, developed by Relic. This game’s single-player campaign revolves around a Space Marine chapter known as the Blood Ravens. Captain Gabriel Angelos and his 3rd Company are sent to repel an Ork invasion on the planet Tartarus. With the additional appearance of Eldar, an ancient space-faring race (essentially space Elves), and Chaos Space Marines, former brothers corrupted by the Chaos gods, it becomes clear that there is more happening on Tartarus than a simple Ork incursion [ 1 ].

This game was the first 3-D RTS launched for this IP, so it was obviously important that Dawn of War needed to be a well-built title. Previous attempts at strategy games on the PC were lackluster, having very simple graphics and choppy frame rates. While they may have been sound in terms of gameplay, their chugging nature made them less than enjoyable. Dawn of War took quite a leap forward in all these respects. While its graphics are not on the extreme side, each of the various army units has enough little details to make their art stand out. The Space Marine Captains wade into battle sans helmet with gilded pauldrons adorned with skulls, bearing their choice of Chainsword, Forceblade, or Daemon Hammer, alongside a Bolter Pistol or Plasma Pistol. The Orks’ Shoota Boys wear spiked helmets and carry chain-fed machine guns, hailing the battlefield with rapid and inaccurate shots. The Eldars’ Howling Banshees, clad in white armor and bearing their Shuriken Pistols and Power Swords, weave their steel seamlessly on the battlefield. Daemons of Chaos, their malformed bodies gross to witness, charge forward with fervor, tearing into the melee ranks. The aesthetics and movements of every army’s units fit perfectly into the lore of Warhammer 40k and allow the player to be instantly immersed in the grim future of the 41st millennium.

The first Dawn of War game was a living testament to what Starcraft could have been, with all the flavor promised. It was busting-at-the-seams so much, that each expansion could almost be considered an entire game unto itself, with its own factions, storylines and so on.

Dawn of War’s HUD follows a standard pattern often seen in RTS games, showing resources and supply cap in the top right of the screen, with the minimap on the bottom left, unit statistics in the bottom center, and the unit command card on the bottom right. While this sounds simple, this setup shows a plethora of information, all of which is important for any player to keep track of. Requisition points, gained by holding Strategic Points on the map, are your basic income that is spent to build new buildings, train new squads, and upgrade existing and future squads. Next is Power, which comes from constructed Generators, and is needed to power any buildings created (apart from Generators) and is also used in vehicle construction. In this case, Power is not a “constant” number, rather a resource pool, like Requisition points. To the right of these counters, we see our Squad Cap and Vehicle Cap, both of which can be raised to an extent with upgrades. These caps show how many Squads and Vehicles you can have present on the battlefield at once, with each Squad or Vehicle costing a different amount. This is the same for Eldar, Space Marines and Chaos Space Marines. 

The Orks, however, increase their unit caps with WAAAGH Towers, which also act as a defensive structure. The next thing to consider after material resources are the Squads themselves, which have individual unit caps that can be depleted as soldiers fall in combat and replenished for some Requisition points. On top of this, Squads usually have individual upgrade options for their armaments, which will be displayed just to the left of the command card. A standard Space Marine Squad can have the option to equip Flamers, Heavy Bolters, Plasma Guns, and Missile Launchers, changing the nature of the squad itself based upon this choice. Want to gun down your foes from afar, or hold a high ground position? Upgrading to Heavy Bolters can accomplish this. Need an extra punch to destroy heavily armored units and vehicles? Missile Launchers will help you out. Each squad type will have different upgrade options to help you customize your army to your specifications. The last thing to keep track of is unit Morale, which will go up with victorious combat engagements and down if a fight is looking grim. With low morale, squads will disobey orders and break formations, making them more of a liability than an asset. This is both a complex and simple system, having many moving parts that synchronize quite well and, along with the variations in each army, create a large web of strategies and counter maneuvers.

In playing the single player campaign, you’ll go up against a seemingly endless tide of Orks, Eldar, and Chaos Space Marines in the name of the Emperor. The various map challenges are sometimes simple, and other times require a good amount of planning and strategic execution. You can’t just roll all your Squads into one position and charge and expect to win, you must consider high and low ground, flanking, explosives radius and so on. The enemy’s AI is quite well programmed, though the single-player scenarios introduce both friendly and enemy units slowly, allowing new players to adjust to the changing tactics of their foes. It also gives the player a chance to face each of the other armies—Orks, Chaos Space Marines, and Eldar, rounding out their experience to prepare them for multiplayer, should they choose to pursue that. It’s a very well-constructed campaign, and it contains a compelling story, featuring prophesies, betrayal, and of course, war.

Where the design of this game tends to fall short is in map visuals. While the planet Tartarus is obviously under siege, the planet itself seems to be a mostly empty wasteland. Terrain is largely brown-grey dirt with mountains and valleys, broken up by the occasional greenery and city ruins. A few map doodads, like sacrificial pyres and small crusts of fiery earth break up the monotony, but not enough to make the terrain itself interesting apart from areas of cover and choke points formed by the hills. Outside of the single-player campaign, there is a skirmish mode, where the other armies can be played against AI for fun and practice. As mentioned earlier, there is also the multiplayer mode, where a player can match up against a random opponent online to engage in glorious combat. Of note, there are limited heroic units for each army that can be attached to individual squads to empower them or left as singular units to fight their own battles. These heroic units reflect their tabletop war game cousins and bring just a little more of that 40K flavor to the game. They also have limited interaction execution moves, which are displayed when one hero duels another to the death, adding just some of that visceral Warhammer feeling to the game. 

Dawn of War: Soulstorm was yet another feat entirely, bringing to life the ghastly structures and pratices of the Dark Eldar, inclusive of their torturous cages for their captives.

Dawn of War’s positive reception and resulting expansion showed that the Warhammer 40k tabletop game, with its huge rulebooks and often slow play, could be translated excellently into an RTS format. While the game is not a direct, rule-for-rule imprint of its tabletop ancestor, it holds onto the things that make that game exciting and parses the rest down into easily digestible chunks. Particularly, the stunning details of miniature, customizable soldiers (that would take many hours of real time to paint) now fully realized in 3-D animation make for quite the spectacle. Dawn of War showed that the Warhammer 40k setting could be done quite well in the medium of video games, where previous entries fell a bit short of a fantastic experience. It’s hard to gauge a wider market effect, but Dawn of War absolutely paved the way for future game titles in the Warhammer universe.

Back in 2004, I was not the biggest fan of the 40k setting of Warhammer, preferring the fantasy variant, as it had its own role-playing game that I enjoyed. This game allowed me to explore the world of 40k with new eyes and showed me how epic and fun this aspect of Warhammer could be. It also filled a void in the video gaming world for Warhammer fans. Relic and Games Workshop did an excellent job bringing the 40K universe to life with this title, and its success no doubt led to more investment in PC-based games. Currently, the Dawn of War franchise has three installments with several expansions, continuing the story of the Blood Ravens and Gabriel Angelos [ 2 ]. Any fan of Warhammer 40K should do themselves a favor and play these amazing games.

Mark of Chaos (PC, 2006)

Delving into the Warhammer Fantasy setting, we come to Mark of Chaos. A game that, at the time of its release, I was personally looking forward to. Developed by Black Hole Entertainment and published by the famed Namco Bandai Games, Mark of Chaos is a real time strategy game, where the player will take control of one of several armies, including the Empire, High Elves, Hordes of Chaos, and Skaven. The player can choose to pursue the Empire or Chaos campaign, leading their respective war hosts through the Old World, completing objectives and conquering their foes [ 3 ].

As we’ve not moved too far into the future since Dawn of War, the graphics in Mark of Chaos have not gone far beyond that landmark game. This is not necessarily bad, as the presentation of Dawn of War was excellent. The art direction is also similar, with each unit having its own look and animations. Regiments of Gunners, wearing their small iron helmets with attached feathers and dressed in puffed shirts with leather armor, fire their volleys semi-simultaneously, creating a visual of a unit attempting to be synchronized in the chaotic battlefield. Mounted knights charge through enemy lines in V formation, crushing foes beneath their hooves and lances. Daemons of Chaos tear through enemy ranks in a frenzy, disturbing formation and breaking morale. The awesome visuals of the Skaven’s Warpfire Throwers and artillery is both glorious and terrifying. Every aspect of this game’s art and animations portrays the epic struggle that is intrinsic to the Warhammer Universe.

The game HUD is presented semi-letterbox style, with most of it being on the bottom portion of the screen. From bottom left to right is the mini map, heroic unit cards, army cards, and the command card. On the top left is the total current gold and on the top right are the menu buttons for dialogue, objectives, and the main menu. It’s a good setup, not complicated and not lacking in any way. While this is an RTS, Mark of Chaos does not follow traditional base building and resource gathering, instead focusing on tactical movements and battle strategies. In the single player campaign, new units can be purchased between missions and old regiments replenished with gold when their numbers grow thin. This puts an emphasis on conserving units, making the in-combat choices matter even more. In multiplayer, army values have a set cap and cannot be replenished, so it’s up to each player to use what they have to the best of their abilities.

The game maps are decently varied, featuring deep forests, grasslands, rolling hills, mountain ranges, underground Skaven tunnels, and even the frigid and desperate Chaos Wastes of the north. Each map features fun little details to it, like spiked barricades, water hazards, high and low ground, and so on. Some maps are siege based, having you either defend or attack a fortress location. Throughout the Empire campaign, the player will move their armies through the heart of the Empire, heading north to meet the oncoming threat of the Chaos forces. The Empire features a mostly pristine landscape, dotted by small villages and towns, and of course the shining capital cities. Each time you achieve victory in a mission, you are brought to the world map screen, where you can visit these towns to replenish forces, purchase upgrades for your heroic units, and purchase new regiments of troops, as I mentioned before. The same occurs in the Chaos campaign but recruiting from the Norscan villages instead. Your total army cap increases slowly over the course of the campaign, so even if you are flush with gold, purchasing more regiments is not always best. The special items can increase your heroic units’ survivability and effectiveness in combat. It should also be noted that both heroic units and regiments have levels, which they gain with experience on the field, up to a maximum of three for regiments, and fifteen for heroes. This method of troop advancement makes replenishing a regiment much more important, as training up new recruits takes time.

While this game’s story is quite good, it has several unfortunate flaws. Loading times are long, even on higher-end machines, adding a lot of wait time seemingly unnecessarily. If the game had been better optimized, this wouldn’t be the case. There were also features promised, such a cooperative campaign play, that did not make it into the final version of the game. It also does not follow many tenets of the tabletop war game, which a lot of fans were hoping for. This, atop promises of thousands of characters on screen, which is decidedly not the case, led many to disappointment with this title. Personally, I wanted to like this game, but its clunky nature turned me off despite my interest in it. Its story is well written, so it’s worth going through for the diehard fans, but other gaming enthusiasts should steer clear. A better fantasy war game has since been released, but we’ll come to that later.

The poorer reception of Mark of Chaos thankfully did not sink Games Workshop’s interest in pursuing more video games under its Warhammer Fantasy setting, though it could have. Obviously, it’s never a good idea to promise features in any product and not deliver, but doubly so when you are handling a famous IP such as this. I can only speculate that Games Workshop wasn’t thrilled with the result, as I can’t find any hard evidence in interviews. Still, we can all learn from failure, and there was plenty of room for more Warhammer content in gaming. 

Blood Bowl (PC, 2009)

When most people think of Warhammer, they think of the tabletop war games. There are, however, other variants of tabletop game set in this universe, one of these being Blood Bowl [ 4 ]. This game is a tabletop adaptation of American Football, bringing the armies of Warhammer Fantasy onto the gridiron. The PC version of the game, by Cyanide Studios, is mostly the same, importing the rules from the tabletop and presenting the game in an immersive 3-D setting [ 5 ].

Being made in 2009, Blood Bowl benefits from having detailed graphics and a high frame rate. Each team’s player’s appearance come from a list of preset appearances that can be customized, to a limited extent. The second part of appearance is the team member’s armor, which comes in three tiers, and changes as the individual player levels up over regular play. While there isn’t a whole lot of variance in player faces or hairstyles, there is just enough to give them a little bit of their own personality, and the overall team aesthetics reflect the established art style of the fantasy tabletop war game. Human teams have a German renaissance appearance, with winged helmets and breastplates atop puff-sleeved shirts and combine this with the football style facemask and cleats. Human teams can also employ Ogres for some heavy hitting muscle. Orc teams have a rougher appearance, having little to no chest armor, asymmetrical shoulder pads, and helmets that look pieced together from scrap metal. In the game’s Legendary edition, there are a total of twenty different teams, including Vampires, Skaven, Chaos, High Elves, and more. Each team brings its own style of play and artwork to the game, making Blood Bowl quite the feast for the eyes. On top of the excellent unit art, the animations are smooth and viscerally entertaining. Imagine sending your massive Ogre in to smash some comparatively small Orc defenders, watching him bludgeon them down with his meaty fists. Or picture your agile High Elf catcher slipping through the enemy Vampires’ defenses to score a touchdown. It could be compared to other popular football video games, but honestly having daemons and undead on the field is a lot more entertaining than the regular game. 

Blood Bowl’s HUD is complex. There are many standard rules and variant rules, so if you are playing the variant style in a Campaign, prepare to be bombarded with information. The left side of the screen shows logos of the two teams, with a highlighter around the individual scores to indicate whose turn it is. These logos also show the number of team re-rolls available directly below them. In the top right is the total number of turns taken for each team, with the maximum being 16 (or 32 when added together). Right below the turn counters are the individual game buffs, that may or may not be active depending on what the player decided to purchase before the start of the match. These buffs can range from extra re-rolls to temporary team member buffs from training. The final indicator is on the top center of the screen, which shows any relevant weather effects. We also have a pseudo-HUD feature in the Injury and Backup boxes of both teams, just offside of the field. In these boxes you’ll see how many players have been recently injured or killed, how many are recovering from a stun, and how many backup players are left.  As you can see, there is a lot going on in any given match of Blood Bowl.

The game’s stadiums are themed around several of the Warhammer Fantasy armies. Vampires and the Undead have the underground crypts, a stadium of gothic splendor that is sure to send a chill down the spines of the living. The Human themed field resembles a more traditional football stadium, albeit crafted in an old-world style, with rough wood planks and an overgrown grass turf. There’s a winter stadium for the Norscans, a Ship-based stadium donated by an anonymous entrepreneur, a Dwarven fortress, a Chaos field, an Orcish desert gorge, and more. While the stadiums offer a bit of variety in the field of battle, the remainder of their setups is the same—they have stadium seating for fans and injury boxes for those who take more punishment than they can handle.

The Blood Bowl game, likewise having been “scooped” by competitors like Mutant League Football, was determined to make a splash with later iterations.

The gameplay is another complicated aspect of Blood Bowl. Each player on a team has a stat block of Movement, Strength, Agility, and Armour Value. These basic stats determine how good an individual player is at any given task—Movement for how far they can go, Strength for blocks and tackles, Agility for dodging and catching, and Armour Value for how good they are at taking punishment. On top of these basic ability scores are individual Skills. The list of skills is extensive, but they generally follow some basic routines, ala additional rolls and re-rolling of dice. What you first need to know is that Blood Blow has two dice types: the basic d6, and the Block dice. The d6 is used for various regular moves, like catching and passing, or when a player tries to move beyond their movement allowance.

The Block dice are used when a Block is attempted, with possible results of Pushed, which forces the defender to move, Defender Down, which knocked the defender down, Defender Stumbles, which is the same as Defender Down but can be negated with the Dodge skill, Attacker Down, which means your attacking player is instead knocked down, and Both Down, meaning your attacker and the defender are knocked down, but can be negated by the Block skill. I’ve already mentioned two skills, Dodge and Block, as part of these basic dice rolls. Other skills include Catch, which allows the player to re-roll a failed catch, Pass, which allows a re-roll of a failed pass, and Sure Hands, which allows a re-roll of a failed pickup, and guards against the Strip Ball skill. These re-rolling skills are quite important, as a failed roll on any of the dice actions means a Turnover, which you absolutely want to avoid. There are many more complicated skills, some of which are limited to specific teams. Bloodlust, for example, is a trait only found in Vampire teams, and is used as a sort of balancing mechanic for the powerful Vampire players. Chaos teams may receive Mutations, which change parts of their bodies, giving them things like Big Hands that allow them to ignore weather penalties, or Extra Arms that add 1 to any rolls to pick up, catch, or intercept. With this much variation in individual players, no two teams will end up being alike in Blood Bowl.

Blood Bowl has a multiplayer mode, where two players can go head-to-head online with teams of their choice, using an agreed-upon gold value for their teams. In the single-player Campaign mode, a player has their choice of any of the 21 teams, starting off with a set amount of gold to build their team with. During the campaign, they will have to manage all aspects of their team—recruitment of new players, purchasing better equipment, tending to injuries, signing sponsors, hiring cheerleaders, hiring apothecaries (doctors) and so on. There is a lot to keep track of when it comes to your Blood Bowl team. You play the game as normal, traveling to various stadiums based upon your team’s renown, which naturally starts at zero. There is a lot of tension created in these matches, as you are going to be taking a team of rookies up against much better teams basically every time and have to do your best to overcome the odds. 

Not being the biggest fan of football myself, but somewhat a fan of Warhammer Fantasy, the idea of Blood Bowl was intriguing to me. I found the game quite difficult at the start, as I didn’t quite understand the rules. Over time, playing this game becomes easier, and really the only way to learn this game is by playing it. You must be prepared for a long, and possibly loss-filled haul, as the random results of dice rolls destroy your perfectly planned strategies. You could compare it to XCOM in that way, as even your most elite units have a chance to be outright killed on the Blood Bowl field. Recently, Blood Bowl 2 was released, featuring improved graphics and a more in-depth campaign mode centered around the Reikland Reavers. Both games are quite fun, once you get into them, and I’d recommend both for their different campaign sections alone.

I’d have to call Blood Bowl the most ambitious video game title to come out from Games Workshop and Cyanide Studios. It takes the purist approach and recreates the tabletop game, rule-for-rule, in digital format, while also injecting entertaining animations and beautiful visuals. This game could have easily gone very badly, as the complexity of its rules alone could create so many issues in coding that I shudder to think about it. Its success, not just critically, but in how well it performs, makes it a standout among all the other Warhammer games. It may not have the flare of its video game cousins, but it oozes with style, and it shows that you can take a complex rule set like Blood Bowl’s and make it work in other formats. 

Join us next time for part two in which we will discuss other entries in the Warhammer franchise.

Images

  1. “The first Dawn of War game was a living testament to what Starcraft could have been, with all the flavor promised. It was busting-at-the-seams so much, that each expansion could almost be considered an entire game unto itself, with its own factions, storylines and so on.” Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War: GOTY Edition. PC/Windows, Relic Entertainment, 2006.
  2. “Dawn of War: Soulstorm was yet another feat entirely, bringing to life the ghastly structures and pratices of the Dark Eldar, inclusive of their torturous cages for their captives.” Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War – Soulstorm. PC/Windows, Relic Entertainment, 2008.
  3. “The Blood Bowl game, likewise having been ‘scooped’ by competitors like Mutant League Football, was determined to make a splash with later iterations.” Bloodbowl – Legendary Edition. PC/Windows, Cyanide Studios, 2010.

A man of many talents, Clayton has worn several hats. His work focuses on visual mediums like film and gaming. A practiced martial artist and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design & New Media, he brings both tactile experience and academic credentials as measures of his considerable expertise. Clayton is both Manager of Steam-Funk’s core writing staff and part of the firm’s senior creative team, helping craft both The Living Multiverse and firm policy.

Resources

  1. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War: GOTY Edition. PC/Windows, Relic Entertainment, 2006.
  2. Relic Staff. “Dawn of War.” Dawn of War, Relic Entertainment, dawnofwar.com/. Accessed 16 January, 2020.
  3. Pisti, Isti. “Warhammer: Mark of Chaos for Windows (2006).” MobyGames, Blue Flame Labs, 31 Jan. 2007, mobygames.com/game/windows/warhammer-mark-of-chaos.
  4. Games Workshop Staff. “Blood Bowl.” Games Workshop Webstore, Games Workshop,  games-workshop.com/en-US/Blood-Bowl-2016-ENG. Accessed 16 January, 2020.
  5. Bloodbowl – Legendary Edition. PC/Windows, Cyanide Studios, 2010.