Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress Review

Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress Review Hot

Michael Barnes     
 
5.0
4587   0
Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress

A Rogue Trader, a Ministorium Priest, an Aeldari Ranger, and a Kroot Tracker walk into a Blackstone Fortress...

Blackstone Fortress is the best Warhammer Quest game released to date, a thoughtful refinement of the mechanisms introduced in James Hewitt's masterful Silver Tower. It captures the hack and slash action, capricious twists of fortune, and strong narrative that can be expected from Games Workshop's brand of dungeon-crawling adventure. Needless to say, the production once again hits a new high with sprues of all-new models that will dazzle and inspire painters with their quality and detail. The box is packed with great things, including four booklets, beautifully illustrated tiles to build the Blackstone Fortress, custom dice, and lots of shadowy artwork to capture its singular atmosphere.

An expedition to explore the Blackstone Fortress, far out in the Western Reaches, is mounted via a sort of neutral base camp called Precipice. During each foray, the explorers may encounter a variety of challenges testing their skills and abilities or they may be engaged in combat against the Spindle Drones, Chaos Beastmen, Ur-Ghuls and other hostiles that lurk among the Brutalist, labyrinthine architecture of the Black Fortress. The goals of each expedition are the same- loot, look for clues which point toward the Strongholds deep within, and take a Maglev either to the next level or back to Precipice once the wounds start to add up and the risks become too great.

Between sojourns, the explorers may visit their unique ships to use the facilities there and to trade Archaeotech for resources ranging from Demiurg Blasting Charges to Jokaero Weapon Enhancements. Or they may pick up a contract to kill Traitor Guardsmen or a Ministorium-approved Death incantation. When the team has found gathered enough information about the Fortress, they may mount an attack on one of its Strongholds- if they can survive the encounters during the approach. Once the four strongholds of Chaos have fallen, the explorers may assault the Hidden Vault at the heart of the fortress for a secret prize of untold power.

In play, the game offers a sort of roguelike, procedurally generated structure in its Exploration mode. Each round, an Encounter card is flipped that depicts either a Challenge (a narrative story event that almost inevitably results in someone getting wounded, getting a Discovery card, or both) or a Combat. Every Combat is a Battle that plays out in classic Warhammer Quest fashion- with a slightly more skirmish-y feel with an emphasis on cover, ranged weapons, and positioning and no exploration or scenario goals other than survival, looting, and escape.

The dice-based activation system is very similar to Hewitt's original concept, with the addition of special polyhedral dice to resolve weapon attacks rather than X+ to hit numbers and a simple rules allowance for cover. The Destiny Dice, a pool of common activations anyone can use, returns. Initiative is based on a random deal to a timeline, with some means to adjust it post facto through Gambit rolls or "Covering Fire" actions taken by the Explorers. The Explorers can also call in one-shot assistance via their support ships docked nearby- a very cool narrative touch.

And they'll need the advantage because it's a stand-up fight, with covering terrain to work with as well as the occasional environmental twist or end-of-round event, as they make their way to the next Maglev. Ideally, they make their exit with plenty of treasure and Inspiration tokens, generally earned by killing lots of Hostiles. Once the players have managed to topdeck four Clues from the deck of Discovery cards by searching specific spaces on each map or through other means such as the Challenges, the choice is presented to go after one of those especially perilous Chaos strongholds instead of another standard expedition. Every stronghold attack requires four clues, so expect a touch of grinding in the expedition sequences.

The randomized structure is particularly effective in terms of playing the game as intended, in a campaign arrangement, and it allows for sessions of purposefully variable duration. A standard expedition is 8 Encounter cards (4 challenges and 4 Combats), but the game can be paused at any time between Encounters. It even includes "Stasis Chambers", printed baggies for everyone to store their characters, counters, and belongings. This is critical because, for example, a Stronghold attack involves getting to the actual Stronghold by playing through a number of Encounters before the big map is even set up. So it is possible to have to go through a gauntlet of deadly Combat encounters before you even set foot in the Deathmaze.

This is also something of a minor issue. The length of play is somewhat unpredictable. Some Combats wrap up in 15 minutes. Others take closer to an hour. And there are Encounters that do things like separate the party or even result in one Explorer singled out to fight in a mini Combat Encounter on their own. Playing the game solo, which is awesome and second only to Gloomhaven in this genre as a solitaire option, alleviates this matter. But when playing with a group this somewhat uncertain duration and possible downtime may abraid some sensibilities. Expect a single expedition or stronghold assault to last 2 to 3 hours. 

With five players who are agreeable with the above, the fifth takes on the role of the Hostiles for a 4 on 1 game which may please some who want more intelligent opposition. But the AI is excellent with D20 tables providing dynamic actions and surprising behaviors between the different types of Hostiles. The difficulty level is right on the money. Silver Tower could feel too easy, but Black Fortress remains tense and dramatic throughout the duration of a campaign without its random events and sudden Grievous Wounds feeling too punitive or un-mitigatable. There are plenty of opportunities for heroic swings, last stands, and bold manuevers - just as there are for unexpectedly finding an Explorer knocked out of action or a sudden bolstering of enemy forces. Some light Legacy elements, such as adding enemy types to the Expeditions and a Countdown mechanism that applies some time pressure to get on with it all, give the game a sense of continuous escalation.

Another element that some players may take issue with is that the sense of progress is not as strong as it is with similar designs in this space. In fact, there is really only "levelling" opportunity, and that is when an Explorer becomes Inspired. This happens from gathering three Inspiration points or by fulfilling a Secret Agenda such as holding a specific Discovery card. The Inspired bump is quite minor, and it resets once the group returns to Precipice. The only long-term sense of progress is in purchasing Resources - many of which are expendable. But shifting the focus away from character levelling is also what enables the game to avoid the shift in balance toward the players that often occurs in similar games. This ability for the game to maintain challenge over an extended campaign is also impacted by the accrual of difficult-to-remove Grievous Wounds and, of course, Explorer death. But fear not, if you don't like the campaign thing, it's totally playable with one-off sessions.

Like the excellent Rogue Trader released just a couple of months ago, I am especially pleased that Black Fortress makes the most of an opportunity to introduce new characters, creatures, and other story elements into the Warhammer gaming world that have been previously under-represented or never before seen. Games like this give longtime followers something fresh (check out the Spindle Drones and the Man of Iron in particular) while giving newcomers a unique entry point into the 40k world that many may find more compelling than the wargaming platform. But for those that live for the 2000 point 4'x6' battlefield, complete datasheets are included for all of the models. It's a pity that this courtesy wasn't extended to Kill Teamers like me. Regardless, this is yet another top notch release from a company that is on an unbelievable hot streak.

A review copy of this title was kindly provided by Games Workshop. ThereWillBe.Games does not accept payment, commission, or editorial advisement from any publisher or designer.

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Editor rating

(Updated: November 15, 2018)
Michael Barnes
Rating 
 
5.0

Summary

Game Name
Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress

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Editor-in-Chief

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of FortressAT.com and Nohighscores.com as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film. 

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Posted: 15 Nov 2018 14:33 by fightcitymayor #286218
fightcitymayor's Avatar
Mr. B. is laying it on pretty thick here!

best Warhammer Quest game released to date!
thoughtful refinement of the mechanisms!
masterful Silver Tower!
hack and slash action!
capricious twists!
strong narrative!
production once again hits a new high!
sprues of all-new models that will dazzle and inspire!
with their quality and detail!
packed with great things!
beautifully illustrated tiles!
lots of shadowy artwork to capture its singular atmosphere!

And that's just excerpts from the first paragraph!
!!!
Posted: 15 Nov 2018 14:37 by Michael Barnes #286219
Michael Barnes's Avatar
I’m really trying hard for the box quote there.

Also, I freakin’ love this game.
Posted: 15 Nov 2018 15:21 by barrowdown #286221
barrowdown's Avatar
If a 4 out of 5 is love, what's a 5 out of 5?
Posted: 15 Nov 2018 15:56 by Michael Barnes #286223
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Shoot, I meant that to be a 5...need to fix that.
Posted: 15 Nov 2018 16:18 by Sevej #286224
Sevej's Avatar
Hmm, while I get the enthusiasm, I'm hardly getting any clear picture of the game.

So it's going to be a very, very long campaign? Getting clues, then four Stronghold (need how many clue per Stronghold), and then the Hidden Vault?

"Every Combat is a mini-scenario that plays out in classic Warhammer Quest fashion- with a slightly more skirmish-y feel." What? What's that supposed to mean?
Posted: 15 Nov 2018 16:41 by Michael Barnes #286226
Michael Barnes's Avatar
The campaign is pretty long...a single expedition is 4 challenges and 4 combats- that’s about 2-3 hours. But you can go back to Precipice (town) earlier if you need to, and you can “pause” the campaign there.

The length may be an issue, as noted...I haven’t finished the “full” game, I’ve only gotten through three strongholds so there is one more and a hidden vault left...and it actually kind of doesn’t end. There is a sealed finale, but even that is not really an endpoint. Hence the Roguelike comment.

You get the clues primarily during the expedition. A few challenges and other effects let you fish the Discovery deck for them. You may get lucky and find four on the first expedition and the second run is a Stronghold. Or you may have to do another run to find them. Each Stronghold assault “costs” four clues. So yeah, you have to farm in between.

Combat feels more skirmish-y in that the dungeon part has no exploration or anything like that. The maps are set up as fixed battlefields, not as missions or scenarios. There are not really scenario goals or special features that come into play outside of the strongholds. It’s a straight fight, not so much a dungeon crawl feel. The emphasis on cover, positioning, and ranged weapons makes it feel closer to Betrayal at Calth in some ways. I suppose that is a pretty fine distinction, but I think it’s there.
Posted: 15 Nov 2018 19:33 by Sevej #286236
Sevej's Avatar
Thanks Michael!

I'll probably like it better with the emphasis on cover, etc. At least more thing to consider than just picking targets.

How do a combat connect with the next one? Is this the maglev thingy?
Posted: 16 Nov 2018 07:23 by stoic #286249
stoic's Avatar
This looks so cool and the miniatures sculpts are so dynamic, somehow capturing movement and action in a static pose, especially the rogue trader.

What is a good price?

As Christmas advances, I do remember in the past that both Silver Tower and Necromunda went as low as $99 shipped. What's a good price on this one?

Also, what's with the news on the upcoming Warhammer 40k: Speed Freeks, the Orc racing game?

GW is really knocking it out of the park on all of their latest releases.


consume-2.jpg
Posted: 16 Nov 2018 07:55 by Michael Barnes #286254
Michael Barnes's Avatar
I think $125-$135 will be about the going rate/ it’s $150 retail.

What I really like about the new models they are doing is that they are monopose but they capture a strong sense of charcacter...I don’t really care that I can’t turn some guy’s torso or cock their head to the side- these models have such a strong identity all that doesn’t matter.

The Traitor Guardsmen are just awesome.

Re: Speed Freeks- I really want it but I didn’t get comped on it so I gotta wait until after Christmas on it. I won’t be running an Ork 40k army so it is really down to if the Speed Freeks game is good. The models are so much fun though.

Re: Sevej’s question- think of the Maglevs like stairs in a Roguelike. The connectivity is in the exploration cards.
Posted: 16 Nov 2018 08:52 by Shellhead #286256
Shellhead's Avatar
How does a review copy work for a game like Blackstone Fortress? Did you have to assemble all the figures first, or did your copy come pre-assembled? I assume that you are playing an unpainted set, because that looks like a lot of figures to paint. From the pictures that I have seen, the new models look amazing, but I will probably still search out a stripped copy because I just don't have the time or the skill to do justice to painting the figures.
Posted: 16 Nov 2018 09:32 by Michael Barnes #286258
Michael Barnes's Avatar
GW just sends the retail box, in shrink and all. I haven’t painted anything on it yet. It’s all push-fit and the explorers are red, hostiles are gray so it’s more accommodating for board gamers.
Posted: 20 Nov 2018 13:27 by Shellhead #286566
Shellhead's Avatar
I almost pulled the trigger on a stripped set on eBay, for $20 plus shipping. But the description says just tokens and tiles, and I am pretty sure that I want the rulebook. When I bought stripped versions of Silver Tower and Hammerhal, I got _everything_ except for the box and the miniatures.
Posted: 26 Nov 2018 12:55 by Shellhead #286883
Shellhead's Avatar
I negotiated a stripped Blackstone Fortress on eBay, for $57.50 for shipping plus everything except the minis and the box. Got it on Saturday. Around the same time, Delobius of F:AT picked up a brand new set with everything in it, for retail price. He hasn't even had time to prime the figures yet, but at least they are assembled. We played a four-player game yesterday, and I brought my stripped copy over to verify that I got everything except the minis.

Delobius played the chick with the flamer. Nate played the bigass robot with the huge gun. Ben played the ranger, and I played the navigator, with a pimp cane and some kind of Third Eye mental attacks. We played one mission, and it took over four hours, though there was some learning curve during the first hour or so.

Blackstone plays like a refined version of Silver Tower, though the rules are not compatible. Based on the mission, you stock a short deck of encounters or challenges. You work your way through the stack, racking up clues and money to spend in between missions. Each character has a spaceship, and each ship has an ability that can be used once during each adventure, plus another ability that can be used in between missions. After a mission, three random items are put up for sale in each ship. You choose one ship to visit, and you can use that ship's special ability and buy items available on that ship. The items are often single-use in nature.

Encounters are big map layouts that are a bit of a puzzle to set up, with two or three random groups of enemies poised to attack. Initiative cards for each character and each enemy group are shuffled each round, then laid down in an initiative track that is followed in combat. You can potentially switch places with allies or enemies on the track. The enemies have better AI than in Silver Tower, with different columns for different tactical situations, plus a d20 roll to select a tactic within that column. Unlike Silver Tower, there is cover and overwatch, so combat offers more interesting choices, while still feeling similar to Silver Tower.

Challenges are similar to some of the whackier non-combat situations in Silver Tower, only not quite as interesting or fun, based on what I saw in one mission. One example: deal out four Discover (clues or money) cards face-up and put two tokens on each card. Starting with the current mission leader, each player must either remove a token or pick up a card. If there are any tokens still on a card, take that much damage when picking up a card. After one card has been picked up, discard the rest.

Overall, the combat encounters are more dangerous in Blackstone Fortress than in Silver Tower, but the challenges seem easier. You don't level up like in an rpg, but you can become temporarily inspired (like leveling up) for just the remainder of the current mission. The minis look nice, even unpainted. The tiles are appealing, though not as visually striking as Silver Tower or textured like in Space Hulk. If you were trying to decide between Silver Tower, Hammerhal, and Blackstone Fortress, I would recommend Blackstone Fortress.
Posted: 26 Nov 2018 14:18 by Southernman #286898
southernman's Avatar
Ha - sounds like Descent 2E with spacemen :-) :-P