It was unbalanced, entirely focused on characters and monsters (as the description "Hero Hammer" might suggest) and had many elements of 3rd Edition simplified to make it more approachable for younger audiences. But I still kinda liked it. Let me explain why.
Compared to the lack of background material for 3rd edition, 4th and 5th had a huge influx of content in the form of army books. Each book began the modern concept of describing, fully and completely one race or faction of the Warhammer world. Both in background and rules, the foundations of the races were laid down, units described and hobby ideas given. I still have quite a few of them on hand to read when bored as the imagery they present are, to me at least, the definition of the Warhammer races. The artwork was great throughout and really brought the world alive for my 10 year old brain (and little development of the grey cells has occurred since), even though it was mostly black and white the intricate pencil works and contrasting, smooth inks just kicked something primal in my head.
Later editions of the army books are more or less rehashes of this format, maybe they move sections about but the general shape of it is there. With one notable and rather tragic omission. In all of the Armybooks, barring the first High Elf and Undead books, there was a dedicated hobby and army building section. The reader was presented with a one thousand point army list, made of only models from the book, few magic items and the majority of the units made from the plastic regiment boxed sets. Following this was a brief discussion on what the units were for, roughly what they did, how to expand the force and what to do with older models as you bought more. This presented a much needed shove in the right direction for new players of the game, basically saying " I know this book may seem confusing, but here, use these guys and the rules for them in this book and you will have fun."
I cannot, for the life of me work out why this section was removed for later editions.
I cannot, for the life of me work out why this section was removed for later editions.
This was a period when White Dwarf magazine was at its best, in my humble opinion. Featuring scenarios, battle reports, painting and modelling tutorials and new rules to support its existing games. Naturally interspersed with adverts for new and old products that for some reason didn't feel quite as obvious as they do today. This might be down to adult cynicism on my part though.
A Gathering of Might battle report and surrounding fuss was a tour de force of these principles. For those that do not know, A Gathering of Might was the biggest battle report featured in White Dwarf to date. Using all of the Orc, Goblin, Chaos Dwarf, Empire and Wood Elf armies in GW's cabinets to fight as big a battle as they could. No one bothered to count the points for it but they guessed at about 25000 on the table.
Additional rules were provided for command and control, as with 4 players per side communication needed to be limited to simulate the Generals on field difficulties and prevent too close a co-operation. Mobile phones have of course yet to be invented in the Warhammer world.
Robin Dewes had written a short story as a pre-amble for the battle, mentioning two previous battles that had lead to this titanic conflict. Both of these tussles with greenskins had actually been White Dwarf battle reports, creating a sense of story and emphasis that this wasn't a random fight in the park. The battle was fought, fun was had and the Empire was dealt a heavy defeat. A few months later, follow up scenarios that describe the Empire's subsequent actions were printed. The two linked games were simple, if the Empire won the first battle they would be able to fight united in the second. If they didn't win, their reinforcements would be delayed or not turn up at all. So very simple but so very satisfying.
There also seemed to be a concerted effort to show an army building progression for newer players, to show them, in baby steps, how to grow their army and of course spend more money in their local GW. The 4th edition boxed game contained a staggering 104 plastic miniatures as well as card cut outs as stand ins for larger models that you could buy at a later date, or not. Split between 40 High Elves and 64 Goblins, it gave a great base for their respective armies. This was demonstrated in a White Dwarf battle report that used the boxed game as a base for both armies and included a few more additional units as well. These miniatures were then used to fight an Ambush scenario. To me, this is salesmanship at its finest. Showing that with just a few more miniatures you could recreate this spectacle and move on to have your own fun as well, yet didn't feel far out of reach as everyone already had the core of each army...
Man-O-War was also still a fully supported game so the ability to add that extra level to your game was also there, ever tempting by GW's cunning sales team.
Much of the 3rd edition and earlier miniatures were around still, if they were not in the shops then they were available via mail order. Yet there were still a steady stream of releases, not always for the army of the moment but others too, including my favourite, High Elves and the 5th edition Army book. I will be honest with you, before 5th High Elves had it rough, 3rd gave them a motley bunch of poor (in my opinion) casts and 4th brought in a raft of chunky marauder metals and a glut of plastic spearmen and archers. For 5th, they were given some of the finest metal models they have ever had (again, in opinion), Gary Morley's mounted characters were fantastic, having such fine details and regal bearing they were often drooled over by a much younger me. Later on, the White Lions were released which again I found to be particularly fine.
5th did usher in some of the worst multi part plastic kits GW produced though to be fair, from comical Zombies to hunch backed Chaos Warriors. The again plastic models are the devil, so I ignore them anyway...
I do wish they hadn't painted so much stuff red though... If they had simply kept the aesthetic of 3rd it would have been perfect.
The bad and the really bad
For all of its completeness, 4th/5th had some serious downsides. The huge amount of magic items available made characters highly customizable and to all intents and purposes almost unstoppable. While most characters could be made pretty damned heroic, they never really stood much of a chance against a fully formed unit but some builds were definite stand outs. One particularly horrible aberration was a Chaos Lord of Khorne (ws9 with 10 attacks thanks to frenzy) wielding the blade of darting steel (all attacks hit automatically) just having drunk a potion of strength (+3 Strength) with the Helm of Many Eyes (always strike first). If the player was a total cunt, he would mount it on something flying as well so you couldn't get away from him. So yeah, that's 10 strength 8 hits that always go first and there is fuck all you can do about it. Units, monsters, even other characters, couldn't really do anything other than be removed from the table. Not really much fun.
And sadly that was not the only cookie cutter beat stick. So 5th turned in to a character fuelled arms race giving it one of the worst reputations with players as so few people actually had fun playing it.
Which is a great shame really as it is so very easy to fix, yet for some reason GW never tried.
It also lacked quite a few of the complexities of 3rd and so suffered to a degree from a tactical angle. The moral system seemed particularly odd and it wasn't uncommon to see entire armies turn and run at the first loud bang.
Army selection had only a few, broad outlines. Only 50% of your army could be spent on Characters, 25% on monsters, 25% on warmachines, 25% on allies and at least 25% had to be spent on units. It really doesn't take a genius to see where the emphasis lies looking at those numbers.
Now what happens if you reduce characters to maximum 25% and put the minimum of units to 50%. All of a sudden the power builds are not possible, the points are simply not available. Units now must be the majority of the army, meaning that they have to do more than be artillery guards to justify their points. All of a sudden things start looking more like an army. Not really that difficult, is it?
Yet, GW didn't do this, they just released an entirely new version of the game designed to use more models and subsequently sell more boxes. A bit rubbish really and a way to put the final nails in the coffin for what could have been a golden age.