Games Workshop's new board games are taking Warhammer mainstream.
Last year, Games Workshop put out three board game titles that were rather oddly exclusive to Barnes and Noble stores. One was a neat, kid-friendly dungeon crawler called Space Marine Adventures. Another was a Lord of the Rings-based title that wasn’t met with much enthusiasm. And the third was James Hewitt’s ruthlessly streamlined Blitz Bowl - the best and most accessible version of Blood Bowl released to date. This year, GW has three more exclusives heading to the bookseller.
When I reviewed the sublimely brutal War Cry a few weeks ago, I commented that as a reviewer I almost wish that Games Workshop would put out a lemon just balance out the effusive praise their top games have been earning lately. Well folks, here it is. A genuine GW clunker. But hold on to your dice because there is something of a qualifier, and it’s not a total bust.
Storm Vault is an Age of Sigmar version of that Lord of the Rings adventure game from last year, which was super light and very much geared at sort of “entry level” game players. It’s a co-op adventure, with the players representing assorted Stormcast Eternals from various chapters. The goal is to take three Gateway Shards to the Whispering Keep in order to open the titular Storm Vault in Shyish, where treasures await that may help Sigmar’s mightiest turn the tide against the forces of Chaos in the Mortal Realms.
In play, each hero will roll a quest die and expend that many quest points to move around an abstract, node-based map representing the Mortal Realms and key regions within. Each of the 40 (!) locations has a Quest Card that a player can pick up, but oddly they aren’t really quests – they are special action cards. The Gateway Shards are hidden among the Quest Cards, which means that game length can be a somewhat uncertain factor- especially with lower player counts.
Opposition is automated, with a Chaos card draw placing Chaos Champions on the board and potentially causing other effects such as moving them around. They’ll stop to fight a Stormcast, which means a throw of the combat dice with results ranging from the Stormcast being sent back to Azyr for reforging, the defeat of the Chaos Champion, or nothing at all. Some of the heroes have an advantage against certain types of Chaos Champions.
So it’s really all about finding the Gateway Shards and moving them to the Storm Vault. Which means a lot of moving around, drawing action cards that may or may not be helpful, and occasionally dicing off against a Chaos Champion. From a design perspective, there isn’t really any aspect of it that captures the Age of Sigmar setting, lore, or atmosphere- it’s really just a bunch of place names and art applied to a very generic, all-purpose design.
Now, this is an important point because remember, this is a reskinned version of that Lord of the Rings game from last year and it is intended as a kind of “gateway” product. But here’s the rub. The lore, locations, and characters of LOTR are immediately accessible, notable, and recognizable to the casual player who might pick up this kind of game. The Age of Sigmar world is not. Unless you have at least an associate’s degree in Warhammer Studies, your level of engagement with the scant narrative provided is going to be limited to how much the names and pictures on the locations and cards grab you. I played this game with my kids and their interest level was basically zero because none of it meant anything to them. Playing with adults, I was met with furrowed brows and at least one “I have no idea what any of this is”. Not because of the dead simple gameplay, but because of the subject matter. If you don’t know why a Nurgle Champion is different from a Tzeentch champion, then they are just abstract tokens on a board filled with unfamiliar place names.
Regardless, I think it’s important to approach this design, which to be quite honest I think is absolutely not compelling or rewarding at all, with the understanding that it simply isn’t made for me. Or likely you, if you are reading this review. It’s made for the kid who catches a glimpse of it while at the book shop and it interests her. Or it’s for the group of friends looking for something to do on a Friday night and a fantasy adventure board game sounds like a good group purchase. Maybe it’s for the person that likes the look of the miniatures included or that wants to check out a Warhammer title for the first time. But it simply is not made for seasoned game players for whom any number of superior options are available.
The silver lining is that the Stormcast models are excellent. They are the same blue plastic push-fit characters that were in the Vanguard and Sequitor Warhammer Underworlds warbands. I was pleased to get a hold of these models as I regretted my decision to do my previous sets in the Hammers of Sigmar blue and gold scheme and wanted to try something different with them. So there is at least a hobby value in this game if it doesn’t work out for you and your group.
Now, before Games Workshop’s press relations desk puts me in the bad books, let’s move to grimdarker pastures. Combat Arena is a 40k reskin of 2017’s Gorechosen, another James Hewitt-led design like Blitz Bowl, and it is every bit as great as Gorechosen was. I hailed that Khorne-beholden game of brutal arena combat as one of the best games of its year. Smart mechanisms, savage action, and a firm grasp on that ephemeral “GW” style of design that mixes the dead effin’ serious with a smirking sense of capricious humour. Changes to the Gorechosen rules are minimal, aside from some subtle tweaks and obvious differences between the fighters the only new rules are a few variant options including a really fun five fighter version.
Games are fun and fast. Each player takes a fighter from the five in the box, which include some awesome, not-the-usual-Astartes “deep lore” choices like a Crusader and a Combat Servitor. An initiative deck is formed and when your card comes up, you play one of the action cards in your hand. These have a choice of three possibilities – a move, attack, or special action. Moves tend to be fairly limited as the hex-based board is small, but tactical maneuvering is a must, especially because facing matters. Each model has a “kill zone” that determines a to-hit number and how many wounds are given for each hit. Some actions require you to move an Energy marker, which impacts how many initiative cards you get to put in that deck for the next round.
So it becomes a game of getting into a good position, taking a few shots if you have a decent ranged attack, getting charged by another opponent, and then kicking them into an arc reactor. And if you get KO’d, you are functionally eliminated but you’re not out of the game. Indeed, there is a D6 table that you roll on when your initiative card comes up that may allow you to regain consciousness for a little revenge or to effect retribution via an environmental hazard. This was great in Gorechosen, and it remains great here.
It's such a neat design that plays easy but has subtle elements that give it depth. The cardplay choice can be really tough, as can deciding whether or not to use a card for a parry or dodge at the expense of losing a powerful 3-dice attack. You’ve also got to consider your character’s special ability, which requires you to discard two cards to activate. Is it worth it? On top of that, you must play to your character’s strengths in melee or ranged, and always be aware of killzones and how movement is going to affect your next turn. There are details abound- critical injuries, wounds that reduce your fighting abilities, and a small but not inconsequential energy management element. It’s a small game, but a mighty one.
Here's the thing. I find myself at odds with myself over the setting. When I first played Gorechosen, I kept thinking “man, I want a 40k version of this”. And now that it’s here and even though I do like the setting better, I still find myself feeling as if the all-Khorne gladiatorial bloodbath concept is somehow more appropriate. Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love the models and characters here and the game is absolutely best-in-class, top notch all the way – but even the whole retribution mechanism feels more like a Khorne thing than an AdMech one, for example. Regardless, I’m very pleased to see this excellent design back on the market and available for a new audience. Interestingly, the storyline seems to lead interested parties more toward the excellent Blackstone Fortress than mainline 40k despite the pack-in flyers.
Warhammer Underworlds: Dreadfane
I find it somewhat ironic that a new Underworlds set is accompanying Combat Arena to the B&N shelves because it felt as if Gorechosen was more or less shuffled to the side when Warhammer Underworlds was announced. And although Underworlds is a masterpiece in its own right, it is also not a replacement for the simple bash-em-up action of its predecessor. Underworlds is a skirmish game with a deck construction element, and as such it is deeper and considerably more complex. It is promoted as a competitive game with organized play – not so much a 30 minute casual free-for-all. It’s also become something of a sprawl, with a few seasons’ worth of warbands available representing all corners of the Mortal Realms. I really like this aspect because it feels almost like a sampler platter of Age of Sigmar’s diverse armies. But at this stage, it could be daunting for a newcomer to get stuck in so Dreadfane is slightly skewed to a prospective player rather than an established one.
This is immediately apparent in the faction selection in the box. Last year’s Nightvault was a Stormcast versus Nightvault thing, and so is Dreadfane. As an existing player and collector, I was somewhat disappointed by the repetition (the models are the Easy-to-Build Sequitors and Banshees) but it’s probably smart business to go with the “mascot” faction and a visually striking one currently prominent in the Age of Sigmar storylines. The faction cards are all new and exclusive to this set, and everything is backwards compatible with the existing Underworlds line. There are no Universal cards in the set, however.
Overall, this is exactly the same great game I’ve reviewed twice and my comments stand. This is a stunning, sometimes tactically complex game that is both a great hex-based miniatures skirmish and a great CCG-style card game. It has a killer pace (only three rounds) and it offers a dynamic objective system that is part of the deck construction. And Dreadfane is a great entry point – the factions are fairly easy to play in terms of the abilities and cards provided for them with none of the dodgier or more complicated cards included.
There are a couple of minor alterations to make it more approachable. There’s only one board, so the concept of each player bringing a board and arranging them to a strategic advantage isn’t possible. Objective spots are printed on the board, not on tokens, so contested locations can’t be changed and are likely more balanced. This helps reduce the setup time as well as the possibility for a strategic blunder before the game even begins. It also circumvents the frustration of drawing an objective card that requires you to hold a control point that has been placed somewhere that you can’t possibly get in three rounds.
There is, however, one element that will appeal to veterans that is completely new to this set. There is a deck of environmental hazard cards that add quite a bit of color and drama. I really like this addition as it brings a touch more narrative and atmosphere to the game as well as some unexpected surprises. I’m not sure they are a great idea for the hardcore competitive players, but for casual players like they are really fun and I’ll likely not play without them moving forward.There are a few other subtle changes here and there that collectively make this almost a version 2.5 of the game, with the upcoming Beastgrave representing its effective third edition. I’m a bit more excited about that than I am about Dreadfane, but as with Storm Vault, consider that this is intended more for the entry level player than the veteran. Be that as it may, as an Underworlds completist, I wouldn’t be without it.