“In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” That’s the mantra of the Warhammer 40,000 franchise, though if you’ve been browsing Steam recently you’d be forgiven for wanting it amended to “In our present-day world, there are only Warhammer video games.”
Since the start of 2015, this fairly esoteric series of tabletop miniatures games has spawned fifteen video game adaptations. It's very difficult for any single title to stand out among that glut.
Tindalos Studio, an indie developer headquartered in Paris, has succeeded in creating a standout. Its game Battlefleet Gothic: Armada is based on a relatively obscure spinoff of the tabletop Warhammer franchise, a spinoff built around pitched naval battles in space--space battles involving ships that look like interstellar Gothic cathedrals.
How did the studio do it? Game director Romain Clavier paints a picture of a team unified by their shared love for the original game. “Most of us are hardcore fans of the tabletop game Battlefield Gothic, and our studio is filled with miniatures. We wanted to make a good and innovative tactical game and not just a ‘meh’ 40k game that relies on the license name.”
But the real key to the success of Battlefleet Gothic: Armada is that the developers grasped exactly how video games can allow fans to go even deeper into the aspects of a tabletop game that they most cherish.
Rethinking miniatures for the digital realm
The game does an excellent job of balancing the tactile sensation of a board game with the conveniences and momentum of a digital, real-time play experience. Battlefleet Gothic: Armada manages to capture the sensation of playing with physical, intricately detailed miniatures on a giant table and the atmosphere and character of the Warhammer universe, while still delivering intense moment-to-moment action.
As the monolithic Imperium of Man, you command gorgeously rendered battleships that look like they were pulled straight out of the collection of a master miniatures painter. But there's only so much detail a great master miniature painter can cram into a physical representation of a spacecraft that's supposedly five miles long--no matter how tiny your paintbrush is.
In Battlefleet Gothic: Armada, ships are rendered in obsessive detail on Unreal Engine 4. Players can zoom way down and geek out on the fine details of these splendid, ridiculous space cathedrals. They can scrutinize all of their nuances without lifting them off a physical game table and having to mark where they were.
It's great that video game version of a tabletop games allow you to reposition your vehicles without having to muck about with a tape measure. But the key to capturing the appeal of tabletop miniatures game is folding in so much loving detail that the objects feel just as totemic as something you spent a dozen hours handcrafting.
The developers also knew exactly when to abandon the real-time strategy for more immediate action--namely, when bombs fly and stuff starts exploding.
“We tried to stay as faithful as possible to the original material without making too many concessions for a real time adaptation,” says Clavier.
Players of Battlefleet Gothic: Armada get to watch in real time while massive torpedos or spears of brilliant energy lance into these magnificent warships, or disperse in a rippling corona of spent plasma against their shields.
Making lore come to life (on a budget)
“We also put a lot of effort in the campaign and the narrative aspect of the game," says Clavier. "I think we should never underestimate how much people love the 40K lore as well as the visual aspect of the universe.”
Wrangling a universe of canon and merchandise, choosing what to incorporate and what to ignore, is a daunting task with any adaptation, and Warhammer 40,000 has a particularly vast and convoluted history to contend with.
At the core of the tabletop game (both the main game, Warhammer 40,000 proper, and Battlefleet itself, the space navy offshoot) are hundreds of pages in rule books and “codices” of lore and history describing a vast and complicated setting. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Alongside the game materials, there are thousands of pages of expanded lore in the form of novels, comics, and the narratives of other games set in the Warhammer universe.
So how do you choose what to include, and what to discard?
Tindalos does an admirable job of weaving some of the most dramatic events and incendiary personalities of the Warhammer 40,000 universe into their game, while largely ignoring the clunkier elements. The narrative elements of Battlefleet Gothic: Armada do not take the form of lengthy fully-rendered space opera melodrama. They take the form of sprightly motion-comic style cutscenes that introduce new factions or concepts.
When the Orks first appear in the campaign, there’s an especially memorable scene of tiny greenskins being stuffed into and fired out of the cannons of their starships. The mixture of menace and humor should delight wargamer grognards.
Sequences like this, alongside references both subtle and overt to to Horus Heresy and other major turning points in Warhammer lore, help immerse the game soundly in the franchise’s rich lore.
The lesson here, not only for other studios set to tackle a Warhammer adaptation but for anyone translating a popular license to our digital medium, is that care, passion, and attention to detail are the baseline for success. Deciding which elements to pull back on and which to zoom in on are also key. The best adaptations are the ones that realize that embracing the advantages of the video game medium can bring fans even closer to what they love about the source material.