Because every week someone on the sixth edition Facebook group wants to know, and it’s fast becoming the new “what is Middlehammer?” (everything produced on Tom Kirby’s watch, 1992-2015) or “where can I get the old Citadel Colour paints?” (Cote d’Arms) or “which is the right Dwarf book?” (the first one and on this hill I will get really quite puffed out and have to be carried back down by a team of sherpas and their friendly St. Bernard).
This post is sourced from community consensus (the group has run a couple of polls over the last few years, with different methodologies but yielding more or less the same result). I’ve given my personal rationale for why the armies end up where they did, and in a couple of cases I have taken a stand against the consensus because it tended to be shaped by “well you never saw them on the top tables at the best tournaments” and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that’s not where the majority of Warhammer is, was or ever has been played.
While I’m chuntering: most of this is not as important as people think it is. A mediocre general like what I am can play a very good army like Vampire Counts and still achieve a middling overall win:draw:loss count, or another very good army like Wood Elves that doesn’t suit their playstyle and run it into the ground. Likewise, some people are very very good at playing Orcs and Goblins because they have the mindset to enjoy and thrive on greenskin nonsense. You will do better, and have more fun, with a “bad” army that suits your playstyle than a “good” army you don’t enjoy or understand.
Skaven. Lots of little rules hacks add up to a horrible army to face and the worst part is you don’t have to try to beard out with them, it just kind of… happens. “Oh, I’ll bring a couple of wizards just to bung some spells around” – whoops, you’ve got two casts of the best magic missile in the game, with better odds of Irresistible Force on the dice you have available, and you can zap it into combat. Stuff like that.
Wood Elves. Best at frustrating scampery keep-away Warhammer, throwing out high volume or quantity of attacks when they do choose to engage. No other army gets to guarantee favourable terrain (although no other army needs it guaranteed at the list building stage either). Wood Elves are just plain weird.
Lizardmen can be played like the Wood Elves but shorter ranged, and have the rank and flank muscle to play proper Warhammer if they feel like it too. Also, Slann are bloody amazing wizard lords, the cherry on top of an already tasty pie. They’re probably bottom of the top as they certainly have their drawbacks, but they’ve never been bad, not once, not ever.
Vampire Counts. Almost nothing runs away, autobreaking when you’re outnumbered is the pits, and they often end up with more troops on the board at the end than when they started. Powerful Lord choices and a solid core of supporting heroes. Very few bad units (only the Black Coach and some of the Bloodline Thralls are really weak).
Chaos. This one’s controversial but: no other army gets two books’ worth of stuff or such a wide and deep set of customisation options, the Beastman Ambush or heavily Khorne/Tzeentch marked armies totally skew deployment and magic, and their unique selection structure means stuff that would be Special or even Rare in any other book ends up a Core unit for them. Hordes or Beasts by themselves probably belong in the tier below but the books are written to be souped, and together they go over the line.
THESE ARE FINE
Empire: they have exactly one busted special rule (Detachments) and one game-distorting why-did-nobody-say-no-to-Alessio unit (Steam Tank) and other than that they’re benchmark – lots of options, lots of which work. They suffer slightly from a lot of their options being White Dwarf add-ons but the base book is still decent.
Bretonnians. Granted, their magic’s a bit crap but you don’t play Bretonnians to dominate the magic phase anyway, other than that they seem all around solid and I’m informed you can be absolutely visored and still get a decent game out of them. I have less experience with or against them than anything except Chaos Dwarfs but I see no reason to argue the toss here.
Ogre Kingdoms attract a certain kind of “pick big unit and shove it forwards!” playstyle but I think small units of Ogres working in tandem and played with a bit of foresight can bully a lot of opposition off the board. Ludonarrative dissonance aside, they can weaponise psychology well, they’re fast, their magic is odd but not bad and very spammable, which throws off opponents used to scrolling the big spell every turn.
Tomb Kings are the reasonable, balanced version of Warhammer Undead: thoroughly mediocre troops but when they get a whole extra turn out of each magic phase they don’t need to be good. They’d be top tier if they weren’t so dependent on characters to get anything done.
BUT FOR ONE FATAL DRAWBACK…
High Elves. All their interesting stuff is 0-1 and in crowded slots. The Honours system has some fun options but you have to build around Pure of Heart being a thing and most of them aren’t THAT good. And god damn it, the general is randomly determined. While you can work around all that, you HAVE to work around that and so a lot of the lists turn out safe and samey: Spearmen, Spearmen, Swordmasters, Silver Helms, two Bolt Throwers, two Eagles, bucket of Mages to go. There aren’t that many genuinely bad units (even Phoenix Guard would be fine if they weren’t in the same slot as Bolt Throwers and Eagles, which are cheaper and add more tactical options) – it’s the army wide rules that hold this one back.
Dark Elves. This time the army wide rules are fine but a lot of the individual units are janky. Everything is a bit too fragile, or a bit too dependent on the rubbish Cauldron of Blood (which tethers some of the best units and stops them making decisive plays), or a bit too stil-has-flavour-psychology-but-lost-the-good-stats… they just don’t have a reliable Special unit to do the hammer and anvil heavy lifting, which leaves them relying on heroes and monsters to a very un-sixth-like degree. The magic is good, the monster mash is fun, the core units aren’t bad once they’re errata’d down to a reasonable points cost, but there’s no oomph there.
Orcs and Goblins. They have everything they need to be a viable, competent army except for ALL THE LOLRANDOM. Animosity! Scatter events! Lousy leadership! Stupidity! Frenzy! Random “what the hell will your Giant decide to do this turn?” table. Leaving aside my personal dislike for these “game plays itself, you’re along for the ride” rules, they absolutely hold the army back as no other force is so vulnerable to “dice say no today.”
Chaos Dwarfs. I don’t think I’ve actually played into these in sixth edition. From looking at the army and trying to write a list for myself (back when I had some third party figures I was mucking about with), I feel they have all the right bits but nothing quite fits together; the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Monsters are a bit too expensive, infantry are a bit too slow or raddled with greenskin problems, Bull Centaurs are not quite proper heavy cavalry – ultimately it’s two armies bolted together with some cool flying things and big guns on top to hide the join.
Dwarfs. They’re just very, very tactically limited: no proper magic, no cavalry, no monsters, everything’s slow apart from the one unit that everyone regrets not taking. What they do they do well, and they play for the draw like nobody else in Warhammer, but big wins always seem a struggle for Dwarf players and there are some scenarios it’s just not worth playing with them (Breakthrough, for instance, is just sadistic as without some lucky pursuit rolls they’re never going to pull it off). I’m told that the False Dwarf Book elevates them somewhat and I believe that, but nobody will ever convince me that book is anything but a schedule slip.
Dogs of War. 57 varieties and all of them distinctly average. You’d think being able to field more Heroes than anyone else via Regiments of Renown would be a dealmaker but they’re more like expensive Champions as you can’t send them out alone or customise their kit for a particular role. By the end of the edition, with Truthsayers and Dark Emissaries and Giants and Ogres available to bulk them out a bit, they amount to something more impressive; the problem is pretty much any other army also has access to those bits and a proper book’s worth of moving parts as well.