What is Warmachine?
Warcasters (tough-as-nails battle wizards) control giant steampunk robots (warjacks). Besides toting stonking big swords and flinging fireballs and what not, casters can allocate magic (focus) that allows the robots to headbutt, stomp, and fling opponents, amongst other things. They are supported by solos (powerful non-caster heroes) and units of 6-10 troops which include undead cyborg pirates led by a dragon, gun magicians (think the Matrix/Equilibrium); knights with flamethrowers, knights that shoot lighting from their swords, and elves with beards and anime-style mecha. Plenty of cool man-toys, in other words.
Why is it popular?
Quite a lot of 40K players (especially competitive ones) have migrated to Warmachine. This is because the rules are a lot "tighter" than 40K, and relatively more balanced* (*more on this later.) (I'm not familiar with 40K beyond 5th ed, but pretty much anyone with an internet connection and enough money could come up with a "killer army" as 80% of 'tactics' came in the list building and deployment phase and in-game decisions are rather limited). In Warmachine, factions are more balanced, and victory comes more through remembering how the rules interact, managing your resources, and pulling off combos. As assassinating the enemy warcaster usually wins you the game, victory can be snatched from defeat with the right moves. It's a lot cheaper to start (a $50 battle box is indeed enough to play), far less minis are required overall, and they come with unit cards (with stats etc) which mean you are not forced to buy 'codexes.' Privateer Press tends to update all factions simultaneously anyway, which means you don't get the 40K-style codex "power creep" which invalidates certain factions.
The undead Cryx are useful for other games too - these Mechanikthralls are going to serve as Nazi abominations in Secrets of the Third Reich.A Brief Summary
The basic rules (~80 pages) are pretty clear and well laid out. The mechanics are pretty universal - roll 2d6 + stat to beat a target number. It gives a "bell curve" of results which are somewhat more predictable than a single d6. The game is designed to heavily involve melee, and weapon ranges reflect this. (I'm cool with a flintlock pistol shooting 10", but a heavy anti-mech sniper rifle shooting 14"? Puh-lease.)
Activation is IGOUGO (ugh), and a key gameplay aspect is the allocation of a warcaster's focus (magic) points. He can use them to buff units, boost nearby warjacks, or even cast fireballs and the like directly. Managing this resource is important to success. In addition each warcaster has a very powerful 'feat' which it can use only once, but if used right can swing a game.
Hordes (which I haven't played/owned) has an even more interesting mechanic. It's more risk-management than resource management - instead of focus you have fury - basically wild beasts replace robots, and the beasts can build up too much "fury" doing boosted attacks etc - so and the warlock has to remove fury from his beasts (or lose control of them). The more crazy stuff you do, the more you risk failure - a bit like the turnover mechanic in Bloodbowl. From what I can see, Hordes (developed later than Warmachine, with the benefit of hindsight) seems to have slightly better gameplay, but both games use the same core mechanics and are compatible with each other.
Page 5 "Play like you've got a pair"
The famous game design notes. It basically says "play aggressively, not rules-lawyer-y, and don't whinge if you lose." Sadly, the tongue-in-cheek way it is written comes off like the smack talk of a 12-year old.
I have quite a few Mercenary character models. I think I had intended to use them for generic skirmish like Song of Blades and Heroes.So Many Special Rules
You saw this coming. While models have a reasonable-but-slightly-on-the-large-side 7 stats - Speed, Strength, Melee Attack, Ranged Attack, Defence (how hard to hit), and Armour (how tough once hit) and Command (willpower, leadership, training). There are also 19 generic special rules, 4 immunities, and 14 weapon rules. These rules are so commonly used they are replaced with a symbol on the unit cards, which presumably one memorizes. That would be easy enough, if each model did not have extra special rules beyond this. I'm not about to go through every rulebook and expansion counting every special rule for every model in every faction, but it's safe to say there are hundreds. A warcaster might also have 5-6 spells, a "feat"(a one-shot gamechanging ability) as well as a few unique special abilities and magic weapons. I'd rate this as very much RPG/CCG territory.
Knowing your special rules, and your opponents' special rules, is vital to success in Warmachine and gives a distinct advantage to experienced players.
Terrain No More
Warmachine seems to struggle with terrain. This is both physically (paper 2D terrain is common as many warjack models are bulky, metal and top heavy) and game/rule-wise, as it doesn't handle terrain particularly well for a skirmish/battle scale game. Warmachine games seem to be designed to use even more sparse terrain than even 40K, and I suspect too much (or the wrong sort) of terrain can wildly unbalance certain units and factions. Infinity it ain't. Interestingly, the models themselves often act as the "terrain" - screening other units (especially your warcaster, which is like the 'king' in chess) is an important tactic. Warmachine is a game of very narrow margins, and blocking that attack on your warcaster by moving that heavy warjack 1" to the left might be the difference between victory and defeat.
*Balance through Unbalance
This sounds very zen, but basically every faction in Warmachine has such BS overpowered stuff it kinda balances out. You won't lose because your opponent had a better army, but because you forgot to trigger your Magic Nuke of Doom or didn't trigger it before your enemy froze your guys with his Universal Stasis Field. I call this balance through unbalance. The alleged "weaker" factions aren't 'weaker' per se - it's just trickier to use/combine their powers effectively. So there's not really weak factions, so much as beginner-unfriendly ones. When everything is 'broken' it's quite fair.
The CCG Connection
Warmachine's gameplay strongly reminds me of a CCG-feel, and indeed I think Privateer Press have indeed recently released their own CCG based on the franchise. The emphasis on resource management (focus = mana) is similar to a CCG. I think the victory conditions also increase the similarities. In Magic the Gathering, you use mana to power attacks by your creatures, who both shield your wizard and attack your opponents' wizard. In Warmachine, you use focus to power attacks by your robots, who both shield your warcaster and attack your opponents' warcaster. In Magic, when your wizard dies, you lose, regardless of your creatures/minions). In Warmachine, when your warcaster dies, you lose, regardless of your units/minions.
Even the way players usually lay out their armies is familiar. Players often "layer" their forces (warcaster shielded by other units) which reminds me of the layout of a Magic table - you know, your 'hand'/focus generating area (caster) and a 'battle ground' in the middle of the table where creatures (warjacks, units) clash. In both games, you attack and defend with units in the middle of the table, and only enemies who are not defended (or have some special ability) can get through to your wizard.
In a CCG, knowing when to play a card is important, and maneuver is non-existent. In Warmachine, even though you have maneuver, again knowing when to attack and activate special abilities with a unit is very important. Maneuver is important so far as it means positioning yourself to deliver your combo, but conventional sweeping flanking maneuvers etc seem relatively rare.
Basically, getting off your special move at the right moment is important. The ability to chain combinations of special attacks (and to recall both your own special moves, and anticipate your opponents) is also a key ability. Experience and knowledge matters.
In Magic, building a deck with synergy (cards that compliment each other) is very important. Unit synergy is likewise important in Warmachine and certain casters and combinations of units increase each others' effectiveness. Having the right models is important for setting up that wtfbbqpwn combo. In Magic, when building a deck, you need to balance your mana production against your potential mana use; in Warmachine, when building an army, you need to balance focus production against your potential focus use.
Magic has many tournament formats and it actively encourages tournaments, and so does Warmachine. Both games have 'cookie cutter' decks (army lists) and both have game modes to encourage creative list-building (for example, Warmachine allows bonus points for specialists if you use non-standard warcasters). Both also have 'beginner leagues'' where you can use the contents of a starter kit.
I need to get around to basing them, but I'm busy powering through the painting. Chunky, heroic details are sooo quick and easy paint compared to the realistic but tiny details on Infinity sculpts...
Not bad.... so much as different....
Warmachine tactics aren't so much tabletop tactics rather than CCG tactics. There is still depth in gameplay, but it's different depth. It's less about sweeping flanking maneuvers, and more tactics using tricky combo/special abilities.
"You thought you were about to kill me? poof - I'm invincible for a turn."
"I throw your minion out of the way, clearing a path for my Focus Fire feat, which I'm boosting with Lethal Damage for +2"
I think that sort of thing can be seen as a bit dubious by many traditional tabletop gamers, but it's part and parcel with CCGs. What sometimes looks like a big ruck in the middle can sometimes be the execution of a cunning, complex plan.
If you judge Warmachine as a tabletop game, it may frustrate with its deliberate gimmicky, power-gaming focus. However, if you view it as a CCG with miniatures, it's quite interesting. Whilst less 'conventional' it's depth, balance and buy-in price compares very favourably with 40K, if you want a game with readily-available opponents. It's a very different flavour of wargaming, for sure, requiring a different skill-set - and needs to be judged against a different standard.