They say that the only things in life which are inevitable are death and taxes. Nagash, being a particularly formidable fellow, has found a way to combine the two, creating a legion of undead bureaucrats with which to harry to Mortal Realms. Today the Ossiarch Bonereapers come marching out of their crypts ready to demand everyone pay the Tithe of Bones. I’m not a huge fan of Nagash himself but no matter what I do I find myself around ever more tightly to his service. It seems that I have more in common with Mannfred Von Carstein than anyone realised..! Indeed my relationship with the undead dates back to an era in which Nagash was just an ugly miniature in a big hat and the swaggering gangsters of the Von Carstein family ruled the night. In many ways falling under the sway of GW’s undead proved to be the gift that keeps on giving because – in a phenomenon that space marine fans will doubtless find familiar – every few years they empty the crypts and shower the range with new models. Last year it was the turn of everything spooky, spectral and liable to go bump in the night, this time the focus is on the mailed fist of Nagash; the Ossiarch Bonereapers.
Naturally, given the scale and impact of this release, and my long-established affiliation with the living dead of the Warhammer universes, this seemed a fine moment for another of my rambling appraisals, not a review as such but a chance to chew over the release like a ghoul with your arm.
First things first then, who are the Ossiarch Bonereapers? On the face of it these are a new faction which joins the Death Grand Alliance for Age of Sigmar, and represent the military elite of Nagash. They join the Legions of Nagash (a fairly traditional mix of the undead, based around the Vampire Counts of yore), the Nighthaunt (ghosts) and the Flesh-Eater Courts (ghouls). To all intents and purposes these are a race of skeletons, although closer examination reveals them to be something a little more complex and interesting. Rather than being raised from the dead like the others and making do with whatever mother nature provided – and whatever decades of decay has left behind – these are built from the ground up using sculpted bones and imbued with a cocktail of souls, granting them a swathe of knowledge and skills beyond that possessed by any individual mortal, and providing even the most junior with a brilliant mind and an enviable degree of combat skills.
Unusually for the undead this is a professional army. The majority of the other three Death factions are essentially an armed rabble. Had they not been called to war they would most likely be doing something else, be that lurking in a crypt or simply mouldering. The Ossiarch Bonereapers however were built for war, with bodies literally engineered for battle and imbued with the spirits of great warriors past. In this regard the comparison with the Stormcast Eternals is so obvious it hardly needs to be made.
Typically the undead are mindless. Zombies, in books and films alike, either shamble laboriously from one meal to the next or, if they’re a bit more modern and scary, run frantically after survivors with impressive athleticism. Skeletons are even dimmer, being essentially bone automatons, whilst ghouls may possess animal cunning but let themselves down as the thinking man’s undead by being barking mad. Only vampires buck the trend but their blood-craving still defines them. They may fight like a black-belt and think like a Mensa member but they’re still junkies at heart and all too easily undone by their addictions. Not so the Ossiarch Bonereapers. Unlike the majority of the walking dead they can be reasoned with, and whilst a zombie won’t stop to chat whilst it’s chewing your arm off the Bonereapers have plenty of time to discuss things like grown-ups and avoid any fighting (which after all leads to broken bones). The problem seems to be that whilst Sigmar was gathering warrior souls to reforge into Stormcast Eternals Nagash was on the look-out for lawyers. Try dealing with the Bonereapers and soon enough documents will be signed, bills submitted and before you know it you’re paying them in bones to go away and leave you in peace (for a while at least). Of course if the haggling doesn’t work then they always have their skill at arms to fall back on. After all it’s easy to sign up to a bad deal in perpetuity when there’s an army on your border saying things like “Nice country, shame if something happened to it”. This protection racket is known as the Tithe of Bones, and is right at the heart of the relationship between the Ossiarch Bonereapers and the rest of the races in the realms. Play by the rules, pay up on time, don’t try to rip them off, and they’ll go on their way. In the short-term you can just dig up all the bones from the local graveyard. In the long term it may end up costing you an arm and a leg – but they might not come back for years, or even decades. You’ll think of something, or your children will. Ultimately GW knows as well as the rest of us that zombies are scary but they’ve got nothing on the taxman.
The problem with the Tithe of Bones, from a mortal’s point of view, is that everyone has bones to sell. Unless you happen to be a jellyfish you’re not going to be able to convince them that you don’t have anything with which to pay. If a fearsome looking army arrives looking for gold, for instance, you can try explaining to them that there isn’t any gold near here, or if that doesn’t work you can just hand over whatever gold you own – leaving yourself poorer but, on the plus side, not dead. The Ossiarchs on the other hand are only interested in collecting bone, and are well aware that whoever they’re speaking to probably contains quite a few. On the other hand the person who currently has their flesh wrapped around said bones is unlikely to be willing to give them up, at least in the immediate-term. One wonders if they leave the Sylvaneth in peace or if, for some reason, they have a desperate need for kindling?
Meanwhile, amongst those who serve Sigmar, the Stormcast Eternals are suffering a slow decline, becoming increasingly orderly and inhuman over multiple reforgings. In this respect the Ossiarch Bonereapers can be seen as a natural shadow or counter to Sigmar’s chosen, in much the same way as the chaos space marines are to their loyalist cousins. Of course it’s a crude comparison, the Stormcasts do not turn their coats and join up with Nagash’s legions. Rather what we see is a glimpse of the challenge Sigmar is struggling to avoid. After all despite their name the forces of Order are a (small ‘c’) chaotic bunch, given to indulging mortal foibles, when compared to the totally structured, unquestioning, authoritarian and above all orderly society planned by Nagash.
Furthermore we now start to see why the creation of the Stormcasts was such an insult to Nagash. According to the background we’ve seen so far Nagash has been left enraged by Sigmar robbing him of souls which he believed belonged in death to him. A notoriously petty individual, even before he became a god, it’s easy to imagine him as a miser, hoarding souls but never spending them, a big-hatted Scrooge of the underworld. Surely a more entrepreneurial outlook would suggest that the solution would be to invest a few heroic souls in expectation of a good return. With the realms firmly beneath the boot of the dark gods most souls would be swallowed by chaos long before reaching Shyish. In time the realms would be scoured of life and Nagash would starve. With the living gone the supply of dead would dry up and the Mortal Realms would become just another corner of the Realm of Chaos, ruled over by drooling spawn and capering daemons. Allow Sigmar a few souls and, with Chaos driven back, cities would grow, populations would flourish and soon a plentiful supply of souls would be making their way to the underworld. As any capitalist would tell you sometimes you have to spend money to make money, and the same appears to go for souls.
Allow Sigmar a few heroes today and tomorrow you can enjoy more butchers, bakers and candlestick makers than you know what to do with (and one look at the Nighthaunt should be enough to assure you that candlestick makers are something Nagash needs a lot of). Plus the percentage of souls collected by Sigmar was surely negligible. He sought only great heroes and even then he’s selective. Organising a tombola to raise money for disabled kids is to be celebrated and people will rightly call you a local hero but Sigmar isn’t going to make you immortal unless you’re willing to try and kill a bloodthirster using only your own face. And what was Nagash going to do with them anyway – make more zombies?
Now however we see the bigger picture. Those heroic souls were undoubtedly intended for the Ossiarch Bonereapers. Many of us are nodding in agreement and wishing that GW too had pouring more resources into something other than Stormcast’s back in the early days of AoS.
The Ossiarch Bonereapers miniatures are a mixed bunch. Some are simply outstanding, others are rather more ropey, although overall there’s little here that I really dislike. The real stand-out model however has to be Orpheon Katakros, the Mortarch of the Necropolis. Really this isn’t a miniature, it’s a diorama in a box, and easily one of the best miniatures released by Games Workshop this year.
Looming over the rest of his army he looks like a true god of war, outshining Nagash by a million miles and simply oozing with assured arrogance and authority. Look, for instance, at the way he’s holding his shield – not wearing it as he launches himself into battle, but standing back, observing the fight before him but clearly seeing no reason to lower himself to actually getting his hands dirty.
Some of my favourite elements however are actually the figures gathered around his base. These two bodyguards are particularly interesting, representing as they do troops with a very different appearance to anything else in the range. It’s a pity, I’d have actually much preferred these in place of the Necropolis Stalkers or Immortis Guard as the elite troops of the army. It’s nice that they’ve taken this opportunity to give us a glimpse of some of the other troop types or characters not represented elsewhere but a couple of units of these would have been just the thing. Likewise the bird-faced messenger is also fantastic and a great example of the kind of creativity that AoS does so well. The ghost crow is a bit naff but you can’t have it all and apart from that he’s pretty damn brilliant.
This is also the first of the Mortarchs to really click with me in AoS. As noted in my Nighthaunt review I wasn’t particularly enthused by Lady Olynder (unusual though I know this is!). The other three meanwhile were all very much products of the Old World and much as I love them (well, two of them, Arkhan is a teacher’s pet in a silly hat) it took me a long time to get used to seeing them in the Mortal Realms. Mannfred for instance was one of my favourite characters from Warhammer, a perfect villain, a swaggering gangster and a real lord of the night (indeed I loved the whole dysfunctional Von Carstein family). The miniature released for him during the End Times more than did him justice and so I was pleased to see him live on in the new era. On the other hand he does feel a little out of place, a character so iconic of a very different setting that his appearance almost feels like a cameo. Neferata is no better. Again the miniature is outstanding (she pulls off the big hats with far greater aplomb than either Arkhan or their boss Nagash – and presumably looks better in a bodice than they do too!).
I’ll admit to being a little bit in love with her, which is complicated because I already have a man crush on Mannfred. As a vampire it makes sense that she would have survived the ages and would continue to haunt the Mortal Realms just as she did the Old World. This doesn’t change the fact that it took me a long time to get used to seeing her as part of the new setting. It didn’t help that, with no chance of her returning to her old home in Lahmia thanks to the destruction of the world, she set up anew in Nulahmia (that’s right, Nu Lahmia – presumably when she’s at home she wears baggy trousers and a backwards red baseball cap. Mind you, this originated during the same era of AoS background writing which gave us the fyreslayers and their quest for Ur Gold – as in “We’re here 4 ur gold” – it seems that the spirit which brought us lizardmen with names like Xhoqui Bikki lives on but without the same degree of subtly…)
Not all of Katakros’ troops are on the same level as him however. Some miniatures just look awesome and as soon as you see them you are convinced of their qualities and want to paint them. others are dreadful and you can safely put your money back in your pocket knowing you’ll never inflict your brushes with such an abomination. Then there are those which are spoiled by an obvious flaw but which could be improved by a bit of converting or kitbashing. However the hardest to handle from a reviewers point of view are those about which you just can’t decide. I mean, what on earth are you supposed to say about them? Take the Necropolis Stalkers for instance. Four-armed, and thus presumably forewarned, they are one part General Grievous and one part Tyranid size zero model. They’re also just a bit unexciting, not a good sign for what should be the army’s elite.
Yet whilst the Necropolis Stalkers could be better at least they’re an improvement on the Immortis Guard, who failed to grab me at all. I don’t have any issue with detailed models, something that I know upsets some hobbyists to a startling degree, but these are fussy and over-detailed to an incredible degree, cluttered with odd elements that do nothing for the overall look of the things. The multiple faces of the Necropolis Stalkers take some getting used to but they’re a vast improvement on the silly grins worn by the Immortis Guard (and yes, I know that skeletons can’t help but grin but do they have to look so damn smug about it?)
For me they fall somewhere between two stools and are made the lesser for it. They’re not good enough to have me jumping up and down with excitement but they are not terribly bad either. They could have been improved by a bit more human, a bigger nastier version of the Mortek Guard which make up the rank and file. Alternatively they could have been more monstrous – with even more arms or roaring animal skulls. After all, Nagash could make whatever kind of soldiers he felt like from all those bones he’s been collecting, so why craft a pin-up from a teenage genestealer cultist’s bedroom wall?
However the concept behind them definitely deserves acknowledgement. The Ossiarch Bonereapers are not simply skeletons but constructs, golems of bone animated by warrior spirits. Rather than being forced to rely on recycling mother nature’s efforts Nagash was able to innovate, creating better bodies for his warriors. When someone suggested he take up bodybuilding he clearly got quite the wrong impression… More arms allow them to carry more weapons whilst multiple spirits, each of which specialised in their own martial tradition, allows them to switch seamlessly from one combat style to another mid battle.
Looking at them I wonder if we might be catching a glimpse into the future of the Stormcast Eternals. Whilst space marines always have the opportunity to better themselves by turning to Chaos the Stormcast Eternals, as previously mentioned, become less human with each reforging, compassion and mercy fading with each cycle of death and rebirth. How long before Sigmar start to see this not as a curse but as an opportunity? A human soul rescued from death will doubtless be glad to wake up in a human body, and if said body is tall and buff so much the better. However once all humanity has faded to be replaced by cold and ruthless logic why return the soul to a flawed human frame? I’m no expert on the reforging process but I wonder if these lost Stormcasts might find themselves awakening as something akin to dreadnoughts or other war constructs. After all Sigmar is in an arms race and given how many arms these guys have Nagash is in it to win it. The poor Stormcasts, cold, merciless and yet unfailingly driven to destroy the enemies of Order regardless of cost or consequence, would probably welcome the greater prowess of their new bodies, whilst their colleagues will be equally glad if they come fitted with some kind of off switch.
To a great extent the aesthetic success of an army rides on the quality of the rank and file. After all the core troops are something you’re likely to be painting a lot of. If they look awesome then a sizeable proportion of your collection will look awesome regardless of what other troops or characters you include. If they look rubbish then chances are, although you might pick up a few other models just for the joy of painting them, you’ll not be starting a whole new army. Luckily for the Bonereapers the Mortek Guard fall firmly in the former category.
So far the core of the undead armies that we’ve seen have been made up of the lowest of the low; skeletons, ghouls and hordes of ghosts. Weapons, if they have them at all, are rusty and ill maintained – the ghouls even make do with rocks, bones and their natural claws. Armour is even rarer and shabbier. The implication is that these are disposable troops, their value only in numbers – and as death comes to us all, especially in times of war, there will be plenty more where they came from. Weapons and armour of quality go only to the leaders, those elite lords who rule the night and command the hordes. For the undead it’s all about the 1%.
The Mortek Guard are clearly a cut above however. In any other undead army they would be the elite troops. There’s a real sense of weight to the models, reinforced by their heavy shields. A block of these tramping across the tabletop towards you would look very imposing indeed. Plus, admitting my bias, I’m a sucker for an armoured phalanx, and that’s not something we see much of from GW. When, oh when, will they heed my prayers and produce space marine breachers in plastic, preferably as Primaris Marines in reinforced Mk III style armour?!
The stylised masks are an unusual touch that helps them to stand out from the usual skeletal horde. Some of them also have bony crests, which makes for a nicely exotic touch, but the cleft in the chin is so deep it looks less like a manly jaw and more like a bum. As is traditional the commander shows his face, or in this case his skull, presumably just in case the enemy forgets that they are fighting the undead.
It may seem odd but, as one peruses the internet, one discovers that a lot of people are very, very upset – and not for any of the usual reasons. The cause of all this outrage? Simply that some of the models in the Ossiarch Bonereapers range have noses. Skeletons, as everyone nose, have no noses. Allegations that the legendary tirelessness of Nagash’s legions is a result of excessive cocaine consumption remain unconfirmed. I’m sure there’s another joke about supermodels just waiting to be made. The retort, of course, is that these aren’t really skeletons at all but construct made of bone and their faces are not skulls but masks. If only GW had taken this to its logical conclusion and named the Mortarch Axel Nose.
If you are someone who has been ranting about this online it’s worth keeping in mind that old proverb, nose whom the gods would destroy they first make mad. If it really bothers you why not chop the nose off and carve out a suitable gap (although the average skeleton needs that like he needs a hole in his head). Then again you may decide that this is a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Or why not simply incorporate the Briar Queen from Nightvault into your army as an ally? Every nose has its thorn after all.
Despite the potential of these options it appears that, on this issue at least, the noes still outnumber the ayes. And why has all this angst occurred? Nobody nose.
Being an old-fashioned sort of chap Nagash never seems to miss an opportunity to include some horsemen in his armies. The Legions of Nagash have the Black Knights, the Nighthaunt have the Hexwraiths and Dreadblade Harrows and now the Ossiarch Bonereapers have the Kavalos Deathriders. Only the flesh-eater courts have missed out, somewhat ironically given that they believe themselves to be knights. Just imagine how ghoulish cavalry in battered knightly armour might look. Surely a gap to fill if GW revisits the range.
However there’s slightly more to it than that. Despite appearances the steeds of the deathriders are not horse skeletons but bone constructs in the shape of horses (and indeed from what I’ve read ahead of this release it seems that the spirit animating it comes from the same source as the rest of the army, and may at times even be a warrior or general who’s managed to disappoint Nagash). I used to walk past a horse skeleton everyday at university (and who knew that horse skeletons even went to university?) but just in case you haven’t enjoyed such regular contact with horse bones they emphasise the point with large skulls, clearly not of equine origin. One appears to have belonged to some kind of rhinoceros, another to a large bird or griffin. There are other more subtle hints as well – a giant’s skull poking out from a shoulder blade for example.
The riders meanwhile look suitably fearsome although the effect is spoiled slightly by the fact that they appear to be wearing crop tops. We know that they are skeletons under their armour – we don’t need to see bare midriffs to prove it! Of course this is intended to tie them in with Nagash who also likes to flash a bit of belly but it’s no less silly for all that. That detail aside these are not bad on the whole. I say not bad because skeletons riding skeleton horses is a look that’s notoriously hard to pull off. GW nailed it with the most recent incarnation of the black Knights and these fall short in comparison. Overall though I like them, although I’m not quite jumping up and down in excitement.
The commanders of the army, the Liege-Kavalos and the character version – Arch-Kavalos Zandtos, also come riding on large bony beasts. Alas the level of fussy detail hits new heights here, swamping even my tolerance for it. Zandtos’ for instance rides something akin to a skeletal gryph-charger with three tails, which to my eye is two tails too many. Clearly someone on the GW design team thinks adding extra tails brings something to a model but to my eye it’s just overkill, and often spoils the miniature in question. I know it’s a matter of personal preference but this is my review and I’ll cry if I want to. Overall the idea of creating something which reflects the Stormcast Eternals is a clever one, and goes a long way to bedding these new miniatures into the existing world, but it just doesn’t quite come off here. Less would have been more with these, although I suspect they could be improved greatly by snipping off a few extraneous details and replacing some parts with plainer components harvested from the lower ranks. Kitbashing these with some parts from the Kavalos Deathriders for instance might make all the difference, as well as allowing you to create a unique-looking general for your army.
The range also incorporates three new types of wizard, each in my view vastly better than the Liege-Kavalos. The Mortisan Soulmason for instance is a nicely character-packed piece, looking downright curmudgeonly as he’s harangued by an escaping soul and actually managing to pull off the outrageous hats beloved by Nagash and his ilk. He’s also riding on a suitably weird ambulatory throne, which is just the kind of strange and creative thinking that AoS was made for.
The Mortisan Boneshaper meanwhile is a fantastic model spoiled by a silly spell effect. The floating, reforming skeleton has its merits but it over-eggs what is otherwise a rather cool figure. If it’s possible to build him without it I might be tempted though.
Seen from behind the effect looks more clever and less jarring, but it’s still a little OTT for me.
My dislike of fancy magical effects is well-known so how come I like Mortisan Soulreaper so much? The answer is that, in my opinion, most such effects are either overdone, unnecessary or both. The Soulreaper however is a perfect example of what it looks like when they get it right. The design here is extremely clever – observe for instance the way in which the eye is drawn around from any point on the model, along the haft and blade of the scythe, down the ghostly trail to the arm and back to the face, which is framed within a series of spirals. Continuing the style exemplified by the Nighthaunt there’s a sense of weightlessness to the character, their feet actually floating above the ground, which just wasn’t possible until recently. Furthermore the model has an alien quality, further evidence of the Realms breaking free of their Old World roots. We’ve not seen anything like this before but it isn’t quirky just for the sake of it and the result is weird and uncanny, but still functional and believable.
There’s also something faintly elven about him, with his slim features and the suggestion of pointed ears. Indeed I can see this model being used as the basis for converting a Ynnari farseer.
Meanwhile, it turns out that Nagash has a brand new Gothizzar Harvester and he’ll give you the key.
It’s a weird beast this one, part dinosaur and part corpse cart, a walking charnel pit with wrecking balls for hands. Luckily I have an affection for weird beasts. The problem with weirdness is that sometimes things are just too strange, too far out with the known or simply strange for the sake of it, and the result is something that’s hard for the viewer to engage with. Thus it took me a while to make up my mind about the Gothizzar Harvester but, after considerable consideration, I’ve decided it works for me. There’s a nicely ramshackle feel to it, it looks as though it’s been cobbled together out of all the leftovers once are the useful harvested bones have been used to build the rest of the army. We also get a choice of heads and weapons which by themselves go a long way to differentiating multiple models. This is always good to see and I’ll be interested to find out how much adjustments to the pose can add emphasis to this. Variety is always better. I also wonder how the spare head would look on a Chaos Knight, or for that matter an Adeptus Titanicus Titan.
It’s not a model without flaws however. This gory effect for instance just doesn’t work and should have been left on the drawing board.
You’ll also want to practice painting different styles of bone. There are a lot of different parts of this model but almost all of them are made of bones and the result risks being a bit of an undifferentiated blob, although if you’re in a hurry to get this onto the tabletop then washes will do a lot of the legwork. Take some time and enjoy it however and the result will be a striking an unusual centrepiece.
Just in case anyone thinks that they might be able to hide from the Ossiarch Bonereapers behind a nice big wall they’ve brought along a catapult big enough to make short work of even the sturdiest fortification. Again, it’s an odd one – far from the traditional catapults of old which were generally based pretty closely on a historical equivalent with some minor tweak (like being made of bone) to tie them into a fantasy universe. Not so the Mortek Crawler, which scurries into battle on bony legs and fires magical skulls at anyone who stands in its way.
The crew are especially detailed, a band of industrious skeletons (some might even say a skeleton crew), hard at work aiming loading adjusting, there’s even one in a giant wheel – presumably a means by which the arm of the catapult is tensioned prior to firing.
Just as the Nighthaunt borrowed the Black Coach from the Vampire Counts and rebuilt it, bigger, better and far more dynamic so the Mortek Crawler can trace its roots to the Tomb Kings Screaming Skull Catapult. Yet whilst the new Black Coach had a lot in common with the old one, the Mortek Crawler is clearly a very different beast to the Screaming Skull. Both are catapults (obviously), both are made primarily of bones and crewed by skeletons, both fire magical skulls of one kind or another, both even feature a carrion bird hoping for a meal. Yet despite these obvious similarities there is no more that separates them. Whilst the screaming skull catapult is made out of bones it is clear that these are just skeletons, or parts of skeletons, lashed together in place of more traditional materials. Where there wasn’t a bone to fit wood has been used instead and even a couple of mummies have been pressed into service. Skulls predominate and a couple of dinosaur skeletons have been used as a (rather impractical) base – presumably the mummies brought them along when they escaped from the museum.
The Mortek Crawler on the other hand is a much more fantastical creation. The vastness of the Realms (and the range of mighty beasts which presumably lurk there) has allowed them to create a huge skeletal construct more like a tank than an artillery piece. Other materials are almost entirely absent – even the chains are made of bone. The structure is far more complex too (as befits modern design) and considerably more creative – the dinosaurs replaced by a number of bone legs and the aforementioned wheel. Rather than three tomb kings standing around nearby the crew are all interacting with it – and I’m curious to get a proper look at what they are all doing.
When the first signs of the Ossiarch Bonereapers appeared on the horizon many people, myself included, jumped to the conclusion that we were soon to see a Tomb Kings revamp. With retrospect that was always a rather silly idea, although there’s no harm in wishful thinking GW are very unlikely to revisit the sands of Khemri when they can be stretching their creative muscles. Honestly I suspect that the only time we’ll ever see a Tomb King again they’ll be in a Blood Bowl team, and this reinvented Screaming Skull is the nearest GW will come in the Mortal Realms. Any tomb kings fan wishing to include these models in their WHFB army will need to do a lot of kitbashing and converting to create a seamless blend. This may be the best material they’ve received in years but the gap between the ranges is still wide, and not easily crossed.
Finally, it’s impossible to consider the Ossiarch Bonereapers without comparing them to the Morghasts. These winged undead appeared during the End Times of WHFB, by which time the doom of the Old World was already rolling towards its inexorable conclusion and the Age of Sigmar glimmered just over the horizon. Back then they stood out amongst both the Vampire Counts and the Tomb Kings. Clearly undead but not at home in either faction they were an enigma – and thus they have remained. Only now amongst the Bonereapers do they truly fit in. Much like an undead chicken and its eggs it leaves one wondering which came first – were the Morghast early concepts for the Ossiarch Bonereapers or did their design go on to inspire them?
Despite my affiliation with the undead I don’t plan to rush out to buy an army of these – my already scarce hobby budget being husbanded carefully for Necromunda; Dark Uprising, and my AoS painting plans focused more on all of the Nighthaunt I picked up cheap when Soul Wars was released. That said I did treat myself to Feast of Bones, managing to snap one up in the brief ten minutes or so that it was available.
Back in the spring I hummed and hawed over the Looncurse boxset. On the one hand I have an affinity for the Night Goblins (now Gloomspite Gits) and a long-standing, as yet unrealised, plan to start a little Syvaneth army (these being the two factions included in the box). On the other hand I’m not made of money to throw at every miniature that comes along, nor do I have enough time for the projects I’ve already started – let along adding any others. So I took some time to ponder and the set sold out whilst I was still scratching my head. This time, given my affiliation with both Nagash and Gorkamorka – and more specifically my interest in starting a little collection of ogres and dipping my toe into the Ossiarch Bonereapers – I snapped up Feast of Bones as soon as it was released, and not a moment too soon either because it sold out even quicker than Looncurse did. It’s almost like GW planned it that way…
I have mixed feelings about this however, because great though the miniatures in the box are there’s a lot to be pissed off about. Alongside a range of other models at a knock down price the set also contains an ogre tyrant and a Bonereapers character called Vokmortian. Both are cracking models and I have no regrets or trouble justifying the purchase to myself, but I won’t deny that GW’s increasing use of limited edition models and boxset-only characters leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Generally these models are released separately eventually but the wait to see them given a non-limited release seems to be growing longer and longer, whilst the prevalence of such limited releases only increases. A miniature appearing in a boxset a few weeks or even a month or two ahead of its full-scale release seems fair enough to me and serves to make the box feel a bit more special. However that kind of timetable is becoming the exception rather than the norm. Clearly this must suit GW’s corporate strategy but there’s no denying that it feels like a dick move. In the wake of these releases the limited edition models inevitably appear on eBay at vastly inflated prices courtesy of those cynical enough to exploit the situation to make a quick buck.
Often it seems as though GW is using clever marketing to sell a few new models at a price well beyond even their steep prices. Take the warlock engineer with the doom rocket – or Warlock Bombardier to give it its AoS title – which appeared in the Carrion Empire box earlier this year. The box set featured Skaven vs Flesh Eater Courts, neither of which particularly appealed to me. I already have an army of the former and certainly don’t need to get any more and whilst I like the latter well enough to be putting together a little Warcry warband, I certainly don’t have any interest in acquiring a larger collection than that at the moment. I did however like the look of that warlock engineer, but not enough to buy the entire box just for him – not at a cost of £95 anyway! Instead I decided to wait for him to appear separately – something which has yet to occur at the time of writing, some ten months later.
Where this becomes particularly exasperating is in cases such as the Skaven or the Ogres, which haven’t seen much attention from GW for a number of years. A new miniature is quite a big deal for fans of said army, and releasing it for only a brief window is simply irritating. Add in the fact that it starts to make part of the hobby feel rather elitist, with some miniatures aimed only at those who can afford to snap up a box set, racing against time as others rush to claim the limited stock as well, without the chance to plan ahead and budget. Sadly some elements of the fanbase have made such a habit out of permanent outrage that I imagine it just sounds like background noise now from GW’s perspective, and with so many people crying wolf all day every day genuine complaints will be lost in the tumult. On the other hand I know two people who abandoned the hobby after describing exactly this situation as the final straw so I felt I couldn’t let the occasion pass without comment, even if I have no doubt that the avarice of the GW finance department we’ll keep the entire company deaf and blind to the ill feeling these shenanigans create.
Anyway, let’s move on to a more cheerful topic. Looking at these latest additions to the armies of the dead one finds oneself wondering where Nagash, and GW, might go next. The undead have been a popular range, receiving regular updates and reinforcements over a number of years, and there is no reason to suspect that might be about to change. Assuming, as I think we must, that GW don’t intend to withdraw their support from one of the four grand alliances of AoS, what form might the next update take?
In comparison to Death the other grand alliances seem divided and discordant. Destruction can look like a bit of a hodgepodge but their core aesthetic is that of a ramshackle horde and this, combined with the fact that the two sprang from a single faction – the Orcs and Goblins – and of course that they all share the same green skin helps to draw them back together. The ogres are the obvious outlier and exception here but as monstrous, roving barbarians these pink skinned brutes have enough in common with the rest of the hoard to ensure that they fit in without too much trouble. Chaos is a bit more, well, chaotic. The background has them at each other’s throats far, far more often than they team up, with the primary enemies of each god being his brothers in the pantheon – leaving other forces and deities, even material reality itself, a very distant second. Aesthetically speaking there is even less to pull them together, the visual similarities between a Tzaangor and a Blightking for instance would fit into a thimble.
On the other hand, despite containing some very different aesthetic elements the Death Grand Alliance still feels very much like a single (albeit huge) faction. The ghouls may be scrawny hunchbacked humans, the skeletons bare bones in crumbling armour, the ghosts incorporeal wraiths, but they still manage to fit in well together and the result looks like a cohesive whole. There are several reasons for this. Firstly they all originated amongst the Vampire Counts. Just a few years ago they were all one army and many hobbyists will remember this all too well. Secondly we’re used to the idea of mixed undead armies from a range of fantasy fiction and games. it may be said that demons are a ghoul’s best friend but most of the time we see them hanging out with skeletons and zombies (which is odd when you think about it as these are a ghoul’s natural prey). Thirdly Nagash remains the undisputed overlord of the entire grand alliance. Both the Order and Chaos alliances have often fractious pantheons, whilst Destruction may pay lip-service to Gorkamorka in his various guises but he’s not exactly a hands-on kind of god, seeming to prefer to allow everyone to seek their own path to violence, especially as the conflicts this provokes allows for some propa’ fightin’.
The Ossiarch Bonereapers manage to repeat the trick, looking significantly different from their peers, but still slotting in neatly alongside them. However I wonder if this will continue to be case in the future. Will every Death faction continue this trend or will we start to see the divisions arising?
Despite attempts to liken the Ossiarch Bonereapers to the Tomb Kings the spiritual predecessors of the Death Grand Alliance as a whole is undoubtedly the Vampire Counts. During the later years of WHFB they received attention on what seemed like an almost annual basis. Meanwhile the Tomb Kings were left to wither. The Vampire Counts range could then be divided down into a series of thematic parts. There were ghouls of various sizes, ghosts, skeletons, zombies, necromancers and vampires. It was like a Halloween party without the sexy nurse and the killer clown. The ghouls went on to become the Flesh Eater Courts whilst the ghosts formed the inspiration for the Nighthaunt. Now the skeletons are fleshed out (boom boom) to give us the Ossiarch Bonereapers. Necromancers would be challenging – creating a whole army of powerful wizards always is, visit your local occultists and you’ll discover that they bicker over hierarchy like academics whilst expecting someone else to do all the real work. Of course before we dismiss them or the vampires, especially on the grounds that they only made up a very small part of the old vampire counts range, it’s worth remembering that so did the ghosts – until last year when they erupted into a spectral army.
However my money is on fresher corpses. The zombies are now amongst the oldest and ugliest kits in GW’s stable. If there was ever a time when they look good it’s far behind us now.
How about making zombies the theme of the next expansion in the Age of Nagash? As well as the shambling hordes we’re used to (refreshed with a nice new kit of course) we could see zombies of all shapes and sizes; stitched together flesh hulks, flying zombie beasts, corpse-cavalry (because Nagash would need to get horses in somewhere). All kinds of giant beasts could be raised as zombies – we’ve already seen zombie dragons for instance, and there could be specialist corpse carts, necromancers riding on flesh constructs, necro-surgeons to stitch everything back together and of course the Mortarch of Flesh to rule over it all. It would be a little gross of course but GW have shown they can make that work both aesthetically and financially with Nurgle, and the end result could still look very different to the plague god’s legions.
There is another possibility which is well worth future exploration; mortals. In the old days, in Sylvania, mortals were degenerate peasants living in filthy hovels and suffering in constant terror as they waited for their vampire masters to prey upon them. In Shyish however the relationship with the living seems to be rather more nuanced. Some of course like Warcry’s Unmade, struggle against Nagash and even throw in their lot with Chaos in defiance of his rule. Others worship him, venerating the god of death for saving them from still darker gods. I am reminded of the city of High Chromlech described in the novels by China Miéville. Although the city doesn’t get a lot of attention in the books that I recall the picture which is painted is one of a society in which the undead rule and zombies do the work, whilst the living are farmed only to be killed to create more zombies. Yet whilst zombies possess great physical strength they lack dexterity and complex motor skills and so the living are still able to secure an important place in society doing all the jobs that a zombie can’t. Ambitious social climbers may even go on to join the ranks of the undead themselves. It’s the sort of social setup which didn’t really seem possible in WHFB but could easily be imagined in the Mortal Realms.
Meanwhile in AoS itself the short story The Dance of the Skulls by David Annandale features human nobles attending a ball alongside their vampiric peers, whilst the AoS core book contains a passage in which an old woman is delighted to see her grandsons returning safely from battle – despite the fact that, to our eyes, they’re undead horrors.
Of course there are already living creatures fighting as part of the Death Grand Alliance; the ghoulish Flesh Eater Courts. These deluded maniacs turned to cannibalism during the Age of Chaos but, in a bizarre mass delusion, believe that they are heroic knights and men-at-arms. Crying out “for the lady” whilst you play isn’t compulsory, but it’s guaranteed to annoy any fans of Bretonnia! My congratulations to anyone who converts a ghoul to be bashing two half coconuts together.
Looking at the Flesh Eater Courts I do wonder if GW will ever do any more with them. Much like the lizardmen the miniatures were all designed long ago and the background that sets them in AoS was tacked on at a later date, in order to pad out the game in its early years. At that early stage in its evolution the backstory of AoS was very much a circus to which very little effort had been given and ideas seemed to be getting thrown around with little to tie them to the miniatures. Certainly one doesn’t look at the ghouls and think “oh yeah, these guys are knights”. Despite this the idea of the ghouls as deluded knights seems to have struck a chord with many people (and I’ll admit I’m one of them). Will they even incorporate any new models that actually reflect this background I wonder? There’s no real need to start reinventing them, the current models remain of a high standard, but something knightly would be fun to see. The recent release of the Grymwatch for Warhammer Underworlds was a fine chance to do this and sadly one that GW didn’t take. I do rather like Duke Crakmarrow and his crew but they could have done a lot more with them.
Anyway although the ghouls are technically alive and believe themselves to be civilised, sophisticated and heroic, aesthetically they still the naked cannibals that were inherited from WHFB. What about some miniatures to represent the armies of the city-states sworn to Nagash? These wouldn’t be ghoulish cannibals or shuffling zombies but ordinary people who live in houses, pay taxes, hold down jobs and fight for Nagash instead of a distant and uncaring Sigmar. Perhaps we could even see a mixture of elves and dwarves alongside the human citizenry. Would the living really work on behalf of the dead? It may seem counter-intuitive at first glance but most major religions, current and historical, would argue that they would.
All the thoughts of Tomb Kings which surrounded the Bonereapers in their early days turned my thoughts to another, less explored, aspect of the undead; mummies. Despite all the skeletons they had to call upon the Tomb Kings were at heart an army based around mummies. When we think of mummies we tend to think of Egypt and indeed the Tomb Kings were very much a a pseudo Egyptian culture – something which always felt a little lazy to me. That said they were a product of their time and despite looking down my nose at them at the time (something most skeletons can’t do but the Ossiarch Bonereapers can!) I still get the odd outbreak of nostalgia for these lost rulers of the desert. Imagine the kind of mummies that AoS might make available however. After a very shaky start they’ve been coming up with cultures far more original and interesting and many of the inhabitants of the Old World (outraged comments incoming in 3…2…1…). What might they do with a race of mummies. Let’s leave Egypt behind here, mummification was practiced all over the globe. Perhaps it’s a result of my own geographical location but I’ve always liked the sound of a race of ancient bog bodies reanimated by Nagash.
It’s worth acknowledging that all of these possibilities are rooted in what we already know of the undead faction as it exists currently and, at least to a degree, in things which have been imported from WHFB. This has been the model for everything released so far for Death, Destruction and Chaos since AoS first emerged (with the Warcry warbands as the key exception in the latter case). There really is very little for any of these three grand alliances which wouldn’t have fitted into the old world. The Gloomspite Gits are the same old Night Goblins we knew and loved, the Ironjaws are orc big ‘uns by any other name, the Nighthaunt could easily have emerged from the graveyards of Sylvania and the Chaos gods and their followers are much the same as they ever were. The same however cannot be said of the forces of order. The Sylvaneth admittedly could have lived happily amongst the wood elves of Athel Loren and the Cities of Sigmar are, of course, very much a grab bag of Old World survivors but that’s where the comparison ends. The Daughters of Khaine have their origins amongst the Dark Elves but they’ve evolved along their own path. The two dwarven races have fallen a long way from the tree indeed whilst the Stormcast Eternals and Idoneth Deepkin have almost no clear link to their progenitors in Warhammer, if it can even be safely said that they have them. Should we not expect the same treatment for the other three grand alliances? In this respect the Ossiarch Bonereapers really do represent the bleeding edge of AoS’s potential. Imagine a time traveller stepping back a decade and showing a fellow hobbyist one of these new Warhammer models. It wouldn’t be immediately obvious which faction they belonged to. Neither the Vampire Counts nor the Tomb Kings really fit, nor is there a known corner of the map from which they can have arisen. Thus for all we know the next step for the undead, or for the tribes of Chaos or Destruction for that matter, could well be a step into the unknown.