All the dakka, none of the plastic.
As much as I like Devil Pig's Heroes of Normandie and Shadows over Normandie lines (brought to the US by iEllo), there is always a somewhat tentative relationship with these highly cinematic, tactical scale wargame designs. Because of some rather shaky rules writing, enough icons to fill a book of rebuses, and a ton of detail compressed into multiple micro-systems, it's one of those designs where you wind up nose-deep in the rulebook for most of the game and when it ends you face a number of lingering questions - including "did we really play that right?" And then there are the mountains of recruitment options, support tiles, terrain overlays, expansion content, scenarios, and other content to contend with once you have what you think is a decent grasp on how to play. Regardless, I enjoyed both games quite a lot and the announcement that the French company had been granted the Warhammer 40k license to do a new title, Heroes of Black Reach, was one I met with celebration.
And lo, Heroes of Black Reach is another Yann and Clem game through and through. The rulebook still sucks, arranged in nightmare logic and it always seems to leave one with more questions than answers. Most of the game is more or less a reskin with some evolution from the more fantasy-inflected Shadows to accommodate the Psykers and powers of the 40k setting. And the good news is that it really works, with the World War II era tactics and concepts porting over a few millennia into the future without missing a beat.
Interestingly, it sort of sets the dial back in the 40k world to the conflict between the Ultramarines chapter of the Space Marines and the Orks at Black Reach, which was the subject of the fifth edition 40k starter set over a decade ago. And the units depicted here are from that era as well- so no Primaris or anything more recent. And, quite interestingly, the game may satisfy those who feel that 8th edition 40k has gotten too accessible or casual- because it is really a considerably more complex game than the current edition of the popular miniatures rules.
There is a small-ish campaign that you can play through with some pre-set terrain maps and forces, but like most of Devil Pig's scenarios, it's not really all that great. In fact, it feels like a step down from the campaign in Shadows. The "roll your own" scenarios tend to produce the more interesting games, with players setting up based on a couple of parameters and the nifty tile-based army building mechanisms that have been with the design from the beginning. Each unit tile indicates which counters it gets by default and they have one or more upgrade slots that you can spend points to fill with things like ammo, heavy weapons, or other wargear. And then you can stick on matching support tiles- things like Razorbacks, Dreadnaughts, Killa Kans, and other fun things. A 300 point match up across four terrain tiles is worth about an hour's play time- it would be roughly equivalent to a 750-1000 point 40k game.
Once you've managed to sort out the rules and get it set up, the gameplay is great. Activations are handled through a very Heroscape-like mechanism, with each player getting a number of activation counters per the number of stars on their recruitment tiles. These are placed in secret and go off in order with the possibility for some bluffing. Units can move OR shoot when activated, unless they have a "Fire on the Move" icon. Every unit is color-coded by its type, and all units get a +X bonus against each type. The shooting roll is just a D6, add modifiers, hits if you roll over the target's armor. But that's not the half of it, because with some weapons you can also choose to shoot to suppress. And there are terrain matters to consider, including firing over intervening terrain or into cover. Then there are the action cards that each side has to play with, which can cause all kinds of crazy things to happen.
But if you can't bolter down a group of Sluggas before they can run up on you, there is also assault combat, which requires a contested roll. If you are shooting at a heavy vehicle- like, say, a Land Raider or a Deff Dread- only certain units can even affect them. Those that can will inflict specific damage such as disabling mobility or weapons until they are destroyed and leave a flaming wreck that you can use for cover. There are also flamers, grenades, Camo Cloaks, ambushing Scouts, indirect fire, vehicle facing, and transport to consider. And we haven't even gotten into air support or the Psyker powers yet. It's all a bit of a mess, but erring on the side of MORE seems to pay off well with these games.
So the point is here that there is a TON of content to dig into here, and there is quite a lot of detail. We aren't at ASL levels here, but interested parties should be advised that this is not a light skirmish game- it's several steps over Memoir '44 and closer to Combat Commander in terms of complexity. With that said, I would strongly advise that anyone that wants to check this game out do so with the understanding that the learning curve is sharp and it would behoove you to have at least one other person around that is equally interested in getting stuck in with the system. It is very rewarding and exciting once it comes together, with some really fun and detailed over-the-top wargame action. Oddly, I would recommend it to fans of Earth Reborn as much or possibly more than I would to Warhammer players. The Heroes System games have some shared DNA with Boelinger's bizarro magnum opus.
In my most recent game, I set up a friend with a Space Marine Tactical squad with a Plasma gun option and a Predator. I took a mob of Boyz, a Warbuggy, and a Deff Dread. And it totally felt like a full-on 40k game but with maybe a little more detail than that system really affords. The Predator rolled out, laying down suppressing fire on my Boyz and pretty much just erasing the Warbuggy out of the starting gate. It whiffed on damaging the Deff Dread, which assaulted the tank. Basically, it ran up and started punching it. Plasma was toasting the wall of Orks left and right before succumbing to a Slugga assault, so the Astartes Sergeant made a hail mary to reach the objective I set up- but was stopped in his tracks by the Ork Boss who gave him what-for with his Power Klaw. The Marines managed to take the objective by pushing hard against the Green Tide by taking advantage of some great cards and squeezed out a win on the last turn.
Like the previous games, the focus is on vivid, hero-scaled action as demonstrated above. I was concerned that the game, hewing so close to the previous designs, wouldn't feel like 40k. In fact, I believe that you could actually play Normandie armies in Black Reach if you really wanted to see how the US Army would fare against a Goff Ork mob. But it does feel like 40k in a satisfying way, and I'm hoping this iteration expands into other factions. I'd love to see an Tau or Necron army take to the field here. I'm not sure it is a valid substitute for the miniatures game, but as a more traditional chit-based Warhammer game it is really quite successful despite reservations about accessibility and the quality of the rules presentation.
Thank you to iEllo for supplying a review copy of this game and for supporting quality games writing. ThereWillBe.Games does not accept any payment or editorial direction from publishers or designers.
Have you seen my Patreon? It's here - http://www.patreon.com/michaelbarnes. Pitch in a buck and I'll enter you to win a review copy every month!