I just picked up my delinquent copy of No Quarter 55 the other day, and I just heard the rumblings of a Theme Force for Dr. Arkadius, the mad scientist of the Thornfall alliance. This has got me thinking about theme forces, and what they do for all games, not just for Warmachine.
I started tabletop games playing Warhammer 40k, and in that game, there was a ton of theme built into every army. While every codex presented the vanilla force of the faction, they also had tons of themed forces you could run. Cadians, Evil Sunz, Black Templars, Biel Tan and specific Hive Fleets dictated your army selection and gave you different benefits for taking them. From the beginning, though, some were obviously considered more powerful than others, and certain books, especially campaign books, boosted it to a completely different level. I remember playing an army of Warp Spiders that was completely bonkers, and might have even been good if I could have proxied it to try it out. Instead, I ended up buying and owning the very characterful Lost and the Damned, which was dropped from the main lineup as soon as the Eye of Terror campaign was over.
The LaTD list was really powerful because it combined sepecific aspects of armies that were otherwise balanced separately into a single force, while limiting the forces that would normally be available to the main (Imperial Guard) force. This is the core of almost every themed army I’ve encountered. Its also why they have such a pull on the communities that they are involved in. If your allowed to run only your favorite model/unit in an army and get bonus’ for it, who wouldn’t?
But thats the rub, here. Most people don’t want to limit themselves because its creative, fluff filled, or interesting. Many people simply want bonuses to how a game functions for limiting themselves in their model choice. I don’t think theme forces really have a place, and though they are tempting, they are generally loose/loose for the communities they are part of.
Inherently, themes break the rules of the game in a drastic way that is extremely hard to balance correctly. This leads to themes that become either the default play style, or that are never used. They are simply black and white, with no gray in between. In Infinity, the use of sectorial armies, and by extension their link teams, is a large part of their discussion of list building and play strategy. I don’t vehemently hate them like I once did but I still cannot see why I wouldn’t just use them in every game, because the link teams are so extremely strong, in my opinion, that they can only be overcome by out-skilling your opponent, becoming a win-more button. Warmachine and Hordes have the signature theme lists for each caster, and sometimes more than one. These, too, I find moderately bothersome. These give various bonuses to the army you play because you restrict yourself in unit choice, but sometimes the restriction is a moot point because the caster in question would only want to use those models anyway, thus rewarding the clear and normal build for a caster. I wouldn’t be against this if it was true for all of them, but many of them are fairly divergent from the normal way the game encourages you to play, and instead promote strange and janky army lists.
I think Malifaux does it the least wrong, but that’s because it has rules on the models cards that reward you for taking thematic models with them. The Ortegas have family, and the Drill Sergeant buffs models of the guardsman type. This form of theme building is interesting and more balanced to me because the model as it is intended has synergy with other specific models, thus rewarding you for taking them. It is build into the basic premise of the game instead of adding another layer of rules on top.
So, what do you think? Are themed lists and armies the way to go?