Due to my, by now usual, tardiness, I'm going to split this post into two. A while back, I did a special look at the alliance, where I mainly looked at the individual factions. The look at the horde is going to be a little different, focusing mainly at the horde as a concept. Why?
Because the concept of the horde is warcraft's biggest problem.
That statement may come as a bit of a surprise, considering I've already outed myself as a fan of the horde. And it's true, I like the horde. However, the problem with the concept doesn't lie with the existence of the horde. It lies with the horde being one of the two playable factions.
Progression of the horde
Over the course of the warcraft RTS trilogy, the horde went through a story arc, though certainly not one that was planned out from the beginning. In the beginning, the horde was simply an army of evil. Warcraft I actually treated the orcs very much like demons are treated in current lore, coming from a cold, dark realm of utter chaos. They were a swarm of locusts, descending upon the world due to the misuse of magic.
Warcraft II added more moral greyness. It revealed that it had been the warlocks that were responsible for many of the darker aspects of the horde, even controlling the first warchief. When Doomhammer killed the shadow council, the warlocks largely lost their hold on the horde. The horde was still evil, yes, but it became a mundane kind of evil, focused more on obtaining land and power then it did on being evil for the sake of being evil.
Lord of the Clans and Warcraft III then fulfilled the story arc. A young orcish warrior named Thrall had grown up amongst humans, isolated from his kin. In an effort to control him, Thrall had only heard idealized tales of his people, portraying them as noble warriors. When he finally escaped, he saw the orcs in the containment camps, reduced to husks of their former selves. He met the frostwolf clan, and learned of the shamanistic heritage of the orcs. He met the warsong clan, and saw the last remnants of the old horde as the noble warriors he envisioned them as. Thrall was blatantly ignorant of the true nature of the horde, but in the end, that ignorance was what allowed the horde to be redeemed. It could hold the horde to an idealized standard that no person with full knowledge of the actions of the orcs could ever hold it to. Unbeknownst to himself, Thrall was the one who made his idealized orcs a reality.
After freeing the camps of Lordaeron, the orcs retreated into the mountains of Lordaeron. Had it not been for a vision from Medivh telling Thrall to lead his people east, they'd probably have been hunted down by either the knights of the silver hand or the rising scourge, like what happened to the remnants of the blackrock clan. Instead, the orcs under Thrall and humans under Jaina were able to overcome their old hatred and unite against a common foe, and gain allies and a land to call their own. The story arc was completed during the battle against Lord-Admiral Proudmoore. We saw that, even when given the opportunity, the orcs would respect the new pact with humanity, and only harmed those who sought their destruction. The character arc was complete.
The problem: What was there to do with the horde after that?
Global Faction, local faction
Warcraft three had ended with there being six notable factions in the world: The alliance, the night elves, the illdari, the forsaken, the scourge and the horde. Each of these six had the potential to serve as a playable faction, as they had a variety of playable races, strong backstory and an appeal to fans. However, thanks to the nature of World of Warcraft, and limits in resources, not all of these factions could make it in.
Blizzard chose the horde and alliance for their playable factions. I can't be certain due to not knowing what happened in design meetings, but I'm guessing they just chose the two because of the history of the franchise. I have never seen any evidence or even heard any rumours of there ever having been plans for other or more factions.
That was where the mistake happened. Let's play game designer ourselves for a minute and make a list of basic requirements for the playable factions:
1) The factions should have some degree of conflict between them. Whether it is all-out war, a cold war or conflict through proxy nations, some degree of conflict is necessary. If there is no conflict, what's the point of isolating players into factions?
2) The factions should be roughly evenly matched. As established, the factions need to have some degree of conflict. However, if the factions aren't evenly matched, it would mean that any conflict would be quickly squashed by the superior side, which doesn't really make gameplay fun for the inferior side.
3) The factions should control roughly equal amounts of in-game territory. If not, players of one faction get screwed content-wise.
The horde and the alliance break all three of those rules.
Horde vs. Alliance, round one
That wasn't always the case though. The ending of warcraft III had the factions in a perfect spot. Each of the races in both the alliance and the horde had suffered a near-extinction, and had only just started rebuilding in Kalimdor. The horde had more established territory by this point, but there was unexplored territory in southern Kalimdor to compensate for that. Conflict is a bit harder, but still possible. For example, what if the alliance refugees had found out that Jaina was the one who gave the horde the information needed to invade Theramore? Some of the veterans of Mount Hyjal might have understood, but you can bet your ass that most of the alliance survivors would have called for her head.
Unfortunately, there was an RPG. Conflict was made nearly impossible by showing Thrall and Jaina having no real opposition as rulers of the horde and the alliance. Balance was also destroyed, by having Stormwind, Ironforge and Nighthaven (the night elf capital at that point in lore) all survive the third war relatively intact and joining Theramore. This also destroyed the balance of territory in a very major way, as the alliance now matched or even exceeded the horde's terrain in Kalimdor, and controlling even more in the eastern kingdoms, where the horde didn't have any presence at all. Let's pull out the old warcraft III world map and color it in a bit to demonstrate:
And that's being very generous. The Barrens probably shouldn't be listed as horde territory, as it was really under the control of the quilboar, the centaur and the harpies. The terrain of the alliance is also a bit on the conservative side. Aerie Peak, Stromgarde and Southshore also had a big chance of surviving the scourge, and it is likely that Stormwind retook the territory that was horde controlled in Warcraft I (so the Stormwind and Nethergarde territories would be connected).
Population-wise, let's also try to make a guess to the strength of the horde. The orcs that came with Thrall are all either from the frostwolf clan, the warsong clan, or freed from the internment camps. The frostwolf and warsong holdings are described in lord of the clans, with the former having a single village, and the latter staying in a bunch of inter-connected caves. Neither clan could possibly be more than a few hundred people (which fits with their portrayal in warcraft III). The internment camps are similarly small, containing a few hundred orcs each at best. The amount of internment camps didn't seem to be very high either, maybe one or two dozen. So let's be generous and say that Thrall's initial horde was eight thousand orcs, about the population of a large medieval town or a small medieval city. It couldn't really be any more, as they were able to fit the entire horde on a bunch of stolen ships from a small naval outpost.
On their way to Kalimdor, they met up with the jungle trolls. The jungle trolls had only a few small villages, no big towns at all, and were so low in number that they were losing a war against another small alliance naval outpost, even with the advantage of home terrain and voodoo. Then the murlocs attacked and imprisoned the jungle trolls, killing many of them. In the end, the isles sunk, the few surviving trolls joining the horde on their fleet. Let's again be generous and put the number of survivors at a thousand, which is a very large medieval village or a small medieval town. Any larger number couldn't fit on the boats.
On Kalimdor, they met the tauren, under the command of Cairne Bloodhoof. The tauren seemed to be even lower in numbers than the jungle trolls, just consisting of a single small caravan that couldn't even stand up to small bands of centaur marauders. 750 seems a good guess.
The horde was also joined by a single ogre clan, the stonemaul, who were brought in by Rexxar. Like the tauren and the jungle trolls, the stonemaul were a isolated bunch, occupying a single town. Let's once again be generous and put their numbers at 2000.
Factor in all the war losses the horde suffered, which included a large portion of the warsong clan (which lost in battle against the small naval base and was captured, and much later on was corrupted, with Jaina and Thrall killing a large portion of the clan to get to Grom) along with Samuro's entire village, and we can put down the final population at a solid 11000 people. Again, that's being very generous in all departments. 11000 people is a nice basis to start a new nation with, but it's not exactly a global super-power. It's not even a single large city. As a frame of reference, Venice had a population of 115000 people in the year 1500, and wasn't even the largest city in Europe, let alone the world.
Now, I don't expect WoW to really keep track of population numbers. Actually, I do, since, y'know, the RPG was planning to list them. But aside from that, this is just to give a general idea of relative sizes. The horde has the population of a mid-sized city. The alliance has the population of an empire. Obviously, those don't make for very balanced conflict, even with the physical advantages (greater strength for orc, tauren and ogre, regenerative abilities for the trolls) of the horde races.
We've covered point two and three. Let's cover point one now: conflict. From a storytelling perspective, the conflict between the alliance and horde was done. It already had the highest possible stakes and an interesting conclusion. From an in-universe perspective, conflict was still possible, but not in a way that would have fitted gameplay. None of the leaders of either the alliance or the horde on Kalimdor was going to provoke the other faction without it being utterly necessary. The horde has relatively crappy lands, but they have a lot of them, only have to support a very low population and they're used to living in such areas, so a big enough resource shortage to cause a war seems unlikely. Plus, the horde would be utterly annihilated during a real war, even without a resource shortage to weaken them.
So how about aggression from the alliance side? Well, some of the eastern members of the alliance probably still want the orcs dead. However, considering that she allowed her own father to die to preserve the peace, it's rather unlikely that Jaina would stay in the alliance if Stormwind or Ironforge were to attack the horde, and might even try to protect them. Without Jaina, the night elves don't really have any connection to the alliance either. So, an attack by the horde is going to be hilariously short-lived, while an attack by the alliance should make the alliance fall apart. That's not a good setting to have PvP with.
Also, before people say that you don't really need conflict outside a select few battlegrounds: Lemme stop ya right there, ya young whippersnappers. The original WoW was aimed much, much more at PvP outside the battlegrounds, to the point that it barely happened inside them. Tthere were no cross-realm battlegrounds, and the only way to enter the battleground was to actually walk (Warsong Gulch and Alterac Valley had no flight master near their entrances) to the in-game entrance and queue there, meaning that it usually took several hours to get enough people for a battleground. To still have some opportunities for PvP combat, PvE and PvP were much more tightly integrated. There were tons of quests that had you engage NPCs of the opposing faction, triggering a PvP flag. Hell, the questgivers were disturbingly casual about ordering someone to waltz right into supposedly allied territory and kill people. TBC and WotLK, despite there actually being a war between the alliance and the horde in the latter, turned down the random inter-faction conflict considerably.
Balancing it out
But blizzard decided to go with it anyway, taking various actions to ensure there was at least a degree of balance and conflict. Let's play spot the differences with the setting before and after world of warcraft and see if it made any sense.
First, the number of orcs was increased through what someone more professional than me has dubbed a “voodoo shark”. Basically, it's an explanation for a series of events that is so stupid that no explanation could possibly explain it. The voodoo shark in this case is the idea that other orcish clans sailed to Kalimdor to join Thrall's horde. The obvious questions:
-What clans? All the active clans of Azeroth and Outland are known, and none of them are unaccounted for. Blackrock got captured along with Doomhammer, Stormreaver and Twilight's hammer were destroyed at the tomb of Sargeras, the Black Tooth Grin retreated through the dark portal and became servants of Magtheridon, the Bleeding Hollow Clan survived the second war but was captured after fleeing from Draenor, the Dragonmaw was captured in Day of the Dragon, the Burning Blade destroyed itself, Warsong and Frostwolf already teamed up with Thrall, and Shadowmoon, Shattered Hand, Thunderlord, Laughing Skull and Bonechewer were still on outland when the dark portal was destroyed. While the shattered hand exists as an organization in the new horde, it has never been confirmed whether it is the actual clan or just an organization named after the clan. No other clans have been confirmed as joining the horde either, because any established clan joining the horde in an organized capacity would be a massive plot hole, and any new clan would need a very elaborate explanation as for where they'd been in the second war, which would require delving into more plot holes.
-Where have these orcs been? It's been about twenty years since the second war. How did these clans stay undetected for such a long period of time? If they're remnants of the old horde, their bloodlust should have made it impossible for them to just stay peacefully hidden. And if they aren't remnants of the old horde, what the hell are they doing on Azeroth?
-These orcs were able to come to Orgrimmar of their own free accord. That means that they weren't imprisoned. So why is everyone acting like the vast majority of the orcish race suffered the indignities of the internment camps when it was really only a tiny portion?
-If there are so many of these free orcs that they turn Orgrimmar from an average city into a global superpower, how was the second war ever over?
The answer to all of these is questions: “There is no answer, because it was a half-assed handwave.”
The number of tauren was increased in a similar manner, through the introduction of more tauren tribes. Unlike the example with the orcs, I wouldn't exactly call this a voodoo shark, since the existence of more tauren tribes is rather logical, and them joining the horde is certainly a possibility. That isn't to say that the introduction of these tribes was done well. Like the orcs, the only thing we ever heard of these tribes is that they just decided to join the horde. And like the orcs, that causes a giant yellow question mark to appear over my head, though this time for only one question:
-Why are the tauren tribes suddenly united under the bloodhoof? If they'd just joined the horde, I would have accepted it blindly (there's new enemies and the horde offers protection. Seems like a pretty sensible choice), but the extra addition of the tribes placing themselves under the leadership of Cairne Bloodhoof is what baffles me. Why would they ever do that? The bloodhoof tribe was portrayed as incredibly weak. I've heard it suggested that the other tribes joined the bloodhoof because the bloodhoof had retaken Mulgore (it's also on the wiki, though unsourced), but that doesn't make sense either. When Mulgore was mentioned before in warcraft III, the problem wasn't with retaking it, but with reaching it. In fact, the very reason that the tauren were trying to reach it was because there were no enemies. Plus, if retaking it was so significant, why didn't any other tribe ever do it? As I said, the bloodhoof were an incredibly weak tribe.
And like the orcs, the answer is: “There is no answer, because it was a half-assed handwave.” However, with the tauren it's even worse. With the orcs, we at least know something of the history of its members. For the tauren, that is not the case. Seriously, tell me anything about what happened to the tauren between the war of the ancients and when they were found by Thrall. Tell me something about the various tribes, like where they lived or how they interacted with one another.
Three, the horde started founding random strongholds outside their territory. Why do places like Bloodvenom Post, Grom'gol Base Camp, Hammerfall or Stonard exist? They're not sending valuable resources back home, they're not outposts against known threats and they're too far away from the horde homelands to protect them in case of a war. Seemingly, the only reason these exist is to piss off the alliance, contributing to the conflict that shouldn't exist anymore because we did an entire damn game where the crux was overcoming that conflict and the leader of the horde desperately wants to avoid that conflict. GAH!
Four, the conflict in Ashenvale. By the end of Warcraft III, the horde was led by one of the greatest supporters of inter-faction peace, Thrall. By the start of WoW, the night elves were hippies with giant cats. As you can imagine, it's kinda hard to have a conflict between the two. Blizzard's solution? Be as vague on the specifics as possible. Has the warsong clan invaded Ashenvale, with the sentinels nobly defending their sacred forests? Is the warsong clan simply keeping to the territories they kept from warcraft III, with the brutal sentinels trying to slaughter their former allies at Hyjal because a few trees are more important to them than orcish lives? Was it something in-between, with minor incidents caused by people working independently being answered by organized efforts on both sides? Even now, I still don't have an idea.
Five, dwarves become dicks. While the dwarves were never exactly morally superior to the other races, WoW makes it absolutely ridiculous. The dwarves invade the territory of the tauren twice, blowing holes in sacred mountains while slaughtering an entire tribe. The dwarves also decide that the alterac mountains are theirs, and use a misunderstanding with the frostwolves as an excuse to order the death of every orcish man, woman and child in the alterac mountains. Again, how can you have such major conflicts, but still be at peace?
Six, the alliance was severely weakened. I know, I keep talking a lot about both factions in my special look at the horde, but that is because a lot of problems with the alliance stem from it having to be balanced with the horde. The Night Elves and other human nations in particular were hit with the nerf stick. The elves lost almost all of their natural allies, and there were a few bits of dialogue that implied things had gotten so bad that they were fleeing to Stormwind in massive droves (So yes, I was wrong when I stated that it was never explained why there was suddenly a night elf district in Stormwind. I apologize for the error, though I still think it was a stupid decision on the writers' part. Night elves are supposed to be fierce warriors, dedicated to protecting the forests of Ashenvale. Them running to the other side of the planet is just wrong.). Theramore, previously the last great city of humanity, was reduced to a mid-sized town. Stromgarde was torn apart between games with nary an explanation. And we still don't know what the hell happened to Kul Tiras.
Okay, that last one isn't entirely true. Contrary to what most fans seem to remember, there is nothing in the game to indicate that the forces of Tiragarde are from Daelin's invasion force. More likely, and suggested with the year between Proudmoore's invasion and the arrival of the reserve fleet, is that the reserve fleet was left in Kul Tiras. Which means that the only thing we hear of Kul Tiras is them invading the orcish homeland. That seems like the kind of thing that would be important enough to warrant an occasional mention, doesn't it?
Seven, the alliance was given a ton of enemies that really should be gone (and admittedly a few that made sense). Again, this was another reason why the balance between the alliance and the horde neccesary for the plot couldn't exist. The alliance just had more control over their territory lorewise. The dark horde is probably the single most blatant example of this. Last time we saw the Black Tooth Grin Clan, they weren't even on the same planet any more, with Rend and Maim last seen as fel orcs in the service of Magtheridon, being killed by Illidan during his conquest of the Black Citadel. And yet now they've suddenly returned and are in control of former old horde holdings, with no explanation whatsoever. Seriously, what happened? Were the guys in outland just two people who coincidentally had the same name and similar positions of power? Plus, if these guys were still around and fighting both dwarves and Stormwind, were in control of blackrock mountain and had an army of dragons, I have to repeat my old question from both Day of the Dragon and this review: “If these guys are still around, raiding your kingdoms, how can the second war be considered over?”
The dark horde isn't the only example of this though. The denizens of felwood are another big one, as they were defeated by Illidan and the source of the corruption in the lands was destroyed. Yet by the time of WoW, felwood is still firmly in the hands of demons, and corruption continues to spread, even affecting Darkshore and Winterspring. You'd think that once the games made a specific point of the spreading corruption being stopped, it would actually have stopped spreading, wouldn't it?
Eight, the introduction of fake alliance-horde conflict. Now, I've made it obvious that a conflict between the alliance and the horde just couldn't work. The writers actually seemed to be somewhat aware of this (though not often enough), instead using fake horde-alliance conflicts a lot of the time. Instead of fighting the actual alliance, the horde would fight the scarlet crusade, remnants of Gilneas or the Kingdom of “we're-still-members-but-not-actually-working-with-the-Alliance” Dalaran. Or the fights with the alliance were caused by neutral parties, with the horde players only acting as mercenaries, like with the attacks on Northwatch or that one Theramore tower. Similarly, the alliance fought the dark horde and the grimtotem tauren quite a lot. This way, people who were only vaguely familiar with the lore would get the idea that the conflict was larger than it was.
Nine, neutral factions, neutral factions, neutral factions. The alliance was much more diverse and had a wider cultural spread by the time WoW rolled around. It had druids, mountain kings, rangers, paladins, priests of the Light, priestesses of the moon, wardens, two flavors of shaman, and several flavors of mage. Meanwhile, the horde only had blademasters and a lot of shaman flavors. That's not exactly going to amount to an equally varied gameplay experience. As a result, a lot of unique racial traits were suddenly represented through neutral factions, or were left out completely. Argent Dawn and the Brotherhood of Light became the main paladin and priest of the light players, Cenarion Circle distanced itself from the alliance-aligned other night elves, and about half of the other alliance-unique classes were left out completely. This gets them a lot of flack, but the only real alternatives doing the same thing as the RPG and just giving the alliance more, or adding a ton of people to the horde without any justification.
Which, bringing us to ten, they also did:
In The Frozen Throne, the forsaken were an interesting development, and one that opened a lot of possibilities. The forsaken were absolutely ruthless, doing anything to further their goals without being hindered by any morals. While not nearly as great in number as the scourge, or even the dreadlord insurgents (three dreadlords who kept control of an army of undead after Arthas broke away), they made up for that through the control of others, either through the magic of banshees and dark rangers, or through trickery.
And that's the entire problem with the relation between the forsaken and the horde. The entire gimmick of the forsaken was controlling others and having no morals to hinder them in that regard. This makes the entire excuse about Sylvanas seeking allies (and therefore joining the horde) moot. If Sylvanas needed more manpower on her side, she would brainwash or manipulate people into joining her. Her placing herself and her faction under the control of a foreign power is both completely out of character, because it is completely unnecessary.
Which is also a problem for the vast majority of forsaken quests, because the solution for them should be the same: Brainwash someone. The gnolls are worshipping the scourge and stealing corpses for them? Brainwash the leader and make them worship Sylvanas instead. The local humans are aggressive against the forsaken? Brainwash the leader, let him lead his subjects into a trap, and use the corpses to build abominations. Apothecaries need murloc parts for a new version of the plague? Brainwash the tribe leader, and have him send you a few murlocs to be quietly killed, and then train the rest as warriors for your army.
There are so many ways to use the forsaken in your story, but you simply can't use them as mere member in a playable faction because there is no way they're going to play nicely, and they have other ways of gaining “allies”. Because of this, the writers had to completely cut the brainwashing aspect from the forsaken, leaving them without their single most defining characteristic. Why even use the forsaken if you're just gonna cut their unique qualities?
Still, to give some credit, the writers did seem at least somewhat aware of the fact that the forsaken were in no way going to play nice with the rest of the horde. Hence, the forsaken conspiracy storyline, which I mentioned in my last post. The forsaken were basically doing everything that Thrall was against. They were aligning themselves with the burning legion, aiding the burning blade and the cult of the dark strand. They were corrupting nature and enslaving the elements, raising the elementals of Mystral Lake and brutally poisoning the druids of the Dor'danil Barrow Den. They brutally capture, experiment upon and kill the humans Thrall tried so hard to make peace with. They did everything the new horde shouldn't.
And that was admittedly a fairly interesting idea, with Sylvanas effectively using the horde's trust of her against them, creating a dark horde of her own (in fact, the comic had them connected to the actual dark horde). However, it was an idea that absolutely didn't belong in World of Warcraft. Why? Because the second Thrall discovered the forsaken were working with the burning legion, the dark horde or corrupting the elements, he would have kicked them out of the horde. Instead, despite all the tons upon tons of in-game evidence to their betrayal (seriously, did Thrall's massive network of spies just never walk into a forsaken town?), he must remain unaware of it for the sake of maintaining this stupid faction-vs-faction conflict that completely goes against the ending of the last game. Simply put, it was a status quo that couldn't possibly last long lorewise, but had to last forever to maintain gameplay.
As a final note, the forsaken really don't fit the horde thematically. The horde are former villains turned good, content to just try and make a new homeland for themselves and live in peace with the land. WoW even added an implied dark past to the tauren to fit with this (check the scrolls on the Elder Rise in Thunder Bluff). The forsaken are former good guys turned amoral, out for nothing but revenge. These are two philosophies that are not very compatible for anything beyond short-term cooperation. To say nothing for the completely incompatible aesthetics of the horde and the forsaken. Could you ever imagine the forsaken trying to live in the barrens? Or the orcs in Tirisfal Glades? They're too divergent to form a horde.