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.
If you liked this review or my work in general, consider contributing to my Patreon. I'm offering review copy giveways each month if my patronage exceeds $20! http://www.Patreon/MichaelBarnes