Warhammer: Invasion Review

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warhammer invasionWarhammer: Invasion is the latest living card game from Fantasy Flight Games.  After many years out of the CCG game, I decided to come back to it.  The lure of Warhammer, great art, and a really fast playing 2 player game were too much to avoid.

It’s probably important to sketch my past history with this type of game.  My previous experience had been a lot of CCGs.  This was many years ago, in high school.  I played tons of Magic and Rage along with some Jyhad or whatever the Vampire game was.  I also tried a number of the lesser games like Doom Trooper, Spellfire, etc.  Eventually, I dropped out of games completely for a long time and only got back into them about 4 or 5 years ago.  Now I play super complex wargames, plenty of Ameritrash and a few Euros to boot.  It was with some trepidation that I got back into the CCG genre, but FFG’s LCG concept finally pulled me back in.

And I am glad I got back in.  Warhammer: Invasion is an extremely solid game.  It looks absolutely fantastic.  It’s a slugfest, plays quickly and is highly approachable.  It is stripped down, strongly relying on the cards for flavor on top of a very simple, almost-but-not-quite simplistic exterior.  Best of all, Warhammer: Invasion seems to have been made with a very particular eye towards the importance of strategy and tactics during play between players, not before the game while deck building.  The 3 zone concept provides an extremely solid tradeoff and decision making framework that creates major tension.  The game also has a number of flaws, mostly centered on its temerity in completely following through with its core concept: a fast playing, totally dynamic, barn burner CCG experience.


The Fundamentals

Warhammer: Invasion is actually quite a light and quick playing game.  The designers really stripped Warhammer: Invasion down to its bare bones and let the cards introduce any complexity.  A player has three zones, each with 8 health, boost-able by playing face down cards as developments.  When two if a player’s zones are destroyed the game ends.  Eight health is actually quite low, so a couple of strong turns will easily burn one of the other player’s zones.  Non-learning games I played took between 30 minutes and an hour but with a variable time frame.

Because it is so light, the game is very easy to teach.  My girlfriend had never played a CCG in her life or even imagined playing a card game with a format like this.  She picked up the game in a single play.  Part of this simplicity is that the game is quite straightforward.  Critically it does not require visualization of a variety of spatial and status relationships between the cards, a major plus that removes a difficult layer of abstraction from the game.  Thinking back to my heyday of CCGs, games began to get quite crazy with cards’ different statuses and “places” they could spatially be in.  Warhammer: Invasion features two statuses, amount of damage and corrupt vs. non-corrupt, and one spatial relationship, the zone each unit inhabits.

In addition, a number of other simplifications have been made to the model that I think speed play quite a bit—there are, for example, no “matchups” when units attack.  All units simply attack and defend together and have damage assigned to them from a pool without having to worry about which unit is fighting which, if a unit is blocked, etc.  Nor are units in any way restricted the turn they come into play, or exhausted when they attack.  All units also have the equivalent of “trample” from Magic the Gathering, passing any damage above a unit’s health onto the player’s zone, vastly reducing the meatshield element of the game.  Overall, less is more in Warhammer: Invasion.

This brings me to my first major potentially negative point about the game.  I found there is a higher than desirable variance in game length.  I say higher than desirable because this game works when it runs no longer than, say, 45 minutes.  Quick games of Warhammer: Invasion are absolutely cracking and huge fun, with high tension.  But my experience is that some games run long.  If both players get enough units, support and resources and especially if they have units with toughness or healing capabilities, the game can run long, up to an hour or longer.  You can draw a ton of cards and resources if you have a big quest and kingdom.  This leads to constantly feeding fodder quickly into your zones.  This negatively combines with units often having much less attacking power than defending units have health.  The game loses a lot of steam when games run longer.


Gameplay, Flexibility and Zones

When you get down to it, gameplaywise, most of the decisions in Warhammer: Invasion are really about which units and support to buy from your hand and then which zone to invest those units in.  Unit buying choices are of course very familiar to CCG fans.  But unit and support cards (most of what you will be playing), when played, serve a different purpose depending on the zone they are placed in.  Barring special abilities, units cannot be moved once played to a particular zone so this choice is particularly important.  Units in the battlefield can attack the opponent, units in the kingdom increase the resources you gather to pay for new cards every turn, and units in the quest zone increase your card draw rate.

In practice, this means early decisions of where to invest with your units are very important.  A rush strategy will see players putting all their early units in the battlefield, where they can use their strength points to attack immediately.  Of course, those units could have been put in the kingdom or quest zone in order to get more card draws or increase resources for better units later.  Meanwhile, your opponent may have been doing just that, placing his units in the kingdom or quest zone, so next turn he may buy stronger units.  Boiling the game down, the invest (kingdom) vs. consume (battlefield) vs. increase opportunities (quest) tension drives the game.  What’s really so nice about this is that it breaks the game from the confining shackles of deck building and card draw.  Units are useful in all zones so the decision-making in Warhammer: Invasion is tactical and strategic within the game.  Contextually, what is happening on the board matters and even specialized player decks will be flexible enough to react to the opponent.  There is a lot of game to play once the players sit down to play, not just in the deck building beforehand.  In contrast to other CCGs, where decks are built around a single premise for the deck, Warhammer: Invasion allows you to play the game and react to your opponent, not simply try to trigger whatever gameplan you built the deck around as soon as possible.  This is, by far, the strongest element of the game.

This does have a downside, however.  The flexibility is thematically gamey and a drawback from the perspective of the Warhammer universe: why should my Orc Squig Herders be of any help building my kingdom?  In this respect, it makes units more generic.  Why would that Bloodthirster help me draw 5 more cards in the quest zone when he does 5 damage in the Battlefield to the opponent?  On the other hand, the designers addressed this excessive unit flexibility/generality by making many of the units’ special actions only usable in certain zones.  So if a bunch of engineers have some nice special action which helps to build support units, it is almost always only usable if those engineers get played to the kingdom zone, which is thematically appropriate.  This means that the majority of the time, you will be playing units to their thematically appropriate zone.  But in a pinch you may need that power elsewhere.  You have that option.  So while my sorcerer has special card effects in the quest zone, his fundamental utility still exists if placed elsewhere.  I’d have to say overall I am very fond of the balance struck between flexibility and card flavor.  The designers really handled it well, at least in the core set.  It seems obvious to me that they were very aware of this tension.  Quite honestly, if I see any pitfall for the game, it will be the trap of making units far too specialized in the expansions, because super strange card powers are just cool (e.g. why we play Cosmic Encounter).  This will make card usage depend on card draw rather than tactical and strategic considerations, really diluting the strength of the core game.

Controlling your hand size with your units in the quest zone is a nice touch.  Drawing one card or a certain number per turn could be very, very tight in Warhammer: Invasion.  While this may be a common trait of newer CCGs, I quite enjoyed being able to control the rate I got new opportunities.   Most cards are relatively cheap, so getting more cards can be very critical to winning.

As a final game-play note, I must say one of the things that pleases me the most about Warhammer: Invasion is a major reduction/virtual lack of counter-counter-counter type card-play.  I love this as it was something that did nothing for me in other CCGs.  This is a bit of a fine distinction.  There are plenty of direct damage causing “your unit dies!” cards and a lot of cards destroying your opponent’s things.  As I will discuss in the combat sections, cards and units are very expendable and will die.  But there is very little (none, I think) outright canceling of the other players cards and effects.  So the most frustrating part of the “take that” card-play is really removed.  One can almost always expect to be able to play their cards and units without being cancelled.  Yes, those units may be destroyed shortly, but there are no counter-spells in Warhammer: Invasion and in practice very few series of action/reaction card play phases that end in nothing but a couple cards sent to the discard.  This leads to a dynamic game.


On Combat and Permanence

When it comes to combat, the strength of Warhammer: Invasion is its bloodiness.  In particular, all units in Warhammer: Invasion are really expendable.  Far moreso than any other CCG I’ve played.  Even the largest units can be easily destroyed by playing a card or being automatically eliminated by some effect.  This goes for other types of units and cards as well.  Supports and developments are easily destroyed, at least by some races.  Units also have no restriction whatsoever between attacking the opponent and defending in the same turn.  Nothing lasts forever in the world of Warhammer: Invasion, which fits thematically as well.

As a result, I have found matches of Warhammer: Invasion to be far, far less cagey than matches of any other CCG I’ve played, a strong plus.  That means lots of attacking, units dying, and no really invincible units being built up.  You can expect to attack almost every single turn in Warhammer: Invasion.  The damage system plays into this.  Damage is persistent.  As a result, even powerful units can be ground down over the course of a couple turns as damage piles up.  No tipping point combat, like Magic the Gathering, where there’s no point in attacking unless you can do X damage.  Even a Bloodthirster, by far the most powerful unit card, has only 8 health and can be chipped down by a nice swarm of small units over a couple turns.

On the other hand, I think this could have been taken even farther.  Much farther, in fact, a point that I must criticize Warhammer: Invasion with regards to.  I would massively prefer that Warhammer: Invasion feature no healing or damage reduction cards.  Thematically it would make sense (Warhammer is a rough world).  I think it would help the game as well.  This is a quick playing game with rather savage combat and a great deal of unit death.  The fact that there are a small number of cards and abilities (it looks like the High Elves are built around this) which heal and cancel damage annoys me.  More than annoying me, I think it really hurts the quality of games these cards feature prominently in.  Something like the Dwarves, who have units that heal capital (zone) damage every turn or toughness, which cancels damage.  This can extend games and I can see this problem getting bigger with expansions.  In fact, the games that I’ve had that have dragged on, my least favorite, have been because of these healing/canceling powers.  Based on the card mix, I feel like the rest of the design was really reaching to a no cancel/no heal damage conclusion but then drew back just before they went the whole way.  This also goes back to my discussion of the game’s admirable lack of counter-spell cards: effects in this game generally last and are rarely cancelled.  When they do not, it is to the game’s detriment.  The game is definitely at its worst when it is static.  Healing and canceling damage turns the game more static than it needs to be.

The final issue with respect to combat is that there is still a little less than there should be.  There is more than many other CCGs, but less than I would like.  Many units are, especially in the opening turns, let through to do damage to the capital without a fight even if you have a defender around.  Losing a unit that is in the Kingdom or Quest zone is a double loss, since you lose the unit and you also lose the resources or cards it would have generated.  The best answer is often simply to let your opponent bang away on your capital, frequently completely sacrificing one of your zones, without a fight.  There is no punishment for having one of your zones destroyed (two is a loss), so games I played often featured an early zone sacrifice.   I would like to see more unit on unit defender/attack combat.  There is an absolutely huge amount of attacking, but far less contested battle.  There is still a great deal, since zones have very little health, which I appreciate, but the game could be incentivized to create fewer uncontested attacks and be stronger for it.


Core Set and Races

Obviously the place to start is with the components.  They are lovely.  The cards are fantastic, the art is really a cut above most games because of the Games Workshop factor.  There is just such a huge corpus of Warhammer fluff and art already in existence.  As for the setting, I love Warhammer, but that’s personal.  With such great art and some nice card design, it’s hard not to love Warhammer: Invasion if you like the universe at all.  Even if you don’t, you’d be hard pressed to see this kind of $$$ spent on card art in any other game.

Enough of the box fondling.  The real issue that everyone tends to want to know about the LCG format is if the fixed decks work.  Particularly, if they are fun if one were to buy just the core set and never buy anything else.  Happily, I’d have to strongly say that they are.  This is what I’ve done, playing for two with just my one copy of the core set.  I am no CCG shark, so take this with a grain of salt, but in our games we had wins with every race, yes, including chaos.  They are all obviously tailored to meet most of any base deck’s needs with a nice range of strengths of units and some needed vanilla-ish cards.  One element that helps all this balance, that I really applaud and is clever, is the neutral cards.  You can put and use neutral cards in any deck, regardless of race.  They cover most of the fundamental bases and are very flexible.  As a result, there is no need to waste a lot of card space replicating all the vanilla needs that any deck has in every race’s deck, leading to far cooler, more unique cards in the race specific decks.

There is, of course, still some criticism to be had at the decks composition in the core set, however.  Some races don’t have enough of certain things.  For example, anti-support cards.  Playing the Dwarves (strong support cards), Chaos has an incredibly hard time because it has no anti-support cards unless it got the *single* anti-support card in the neutral deck.  By contrast the Orc deck burns support and developments down left and right.  The game really needed to include 3 neutral anti-support cards at the very least.  Another example is the Empire, who have extremely low power units with no major heavy hitters whatsoever.  This is partly because of their theme (zone shifting and flexible weak units) but seems a bit excessive.  The Empire has a difficult time doing damage with their core set.

That criticism aside, the decks are really quite different from each other and have very recognizable strengths.  You face very different problems with each of the decks.  The races are still relatively well balanced, though I’ve admittedly played less than 10 times so I will leave veteran balance discussions to others.  Of particular note, however, is the absolutely ingenious way that Warhammer: Invasion deals with single race vs. multiple race decks.  Essentially each card has 2 costs.  The first cost is normal and paid for all cards.  The 2nd cost is only paid if you don’t have enough of that card’s race units in play.  In practice, this means that the 2nd cost is almost never paid for single race decks, making single race deck units very cheap.  The 2nd cost, however, can be quite substantial for multiple race decks.  It’s an absolutely genius way to give deck builders incentives to make multiple race decks (to cover up a race’s nasty flaws) but potentially also make those decks much more expensive to play cards from than a single, focused race deck.  I potentially see a great future ahead for deck-building in this game because of this truly groundbreaking mechanism


Worth Buying for A Brutal Slugfest

In all, Warhammer: Invasion is an excellent release.  It scratches that slugfest itch extremely well and rewards aggressive moves and constant fighting.  Personally, this is exactly what I was looking for from the game.  In fact, most of the weaknesses of the game stem from the areas where it deviates from that strength such as when the game becomes long or there are fewer bloody unit combats.  It’s sleek and really impeccably designed.  It’s also easy to play and teach.  I rate it highly and suggest it (or am suggested it by her) frequently to play with the girlfriend when we have some time.

But for all the praise I’ve given it in this review I don’t want anyone to expect miracles.  I rate this game well (I put ~8.5 on BGG) because it does what I want it to quite gracefully, not because it is a four hour game packed into a short one.  And that’s the appeal, to me.  This is, ideally, a 30-45 minute game.  As a result, the decision making does center primarily around a few key decisions you will make repeatedly, particularly the zone placement decision and the invest-consume-new opportunities framework.  It is by no means a genius design, save for a couple of very clever wrinkles like the 2 costs concept.  It is instead a very efficient and purposeful design: kick ass and take names in a very short time-frame with cool cards and powers.

Finally, for what it’s worth, I will certainly be buying the next 3-4 expansions.  It remains to be seen if the designers and developers keep to everything that was good in the core game in the expansions, which are often prone to bloat.  As such a tight design, Warhammer: Invasion would suffer greatly if CCG bloat crept in.

Gary Sax Steve is a frequent contributor to Fortress: Ameritrah

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Steve is an academic in Arizona and Texas that spends his off-time playing board games and hiking. He cut his teeth on wargames and ameritrash before later also developing an odd love of worker placement and heavier economic games. You can also find him on instagram at steve_boardgamesfeed.

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