Judge Dredd is too iconic to stay away from gaming tables for long. So it was exciting enough to get a box with ol’ stony face glowering out from the box. But it was doubly so to see, above his helmet, the Wildlands logo that belongs on one of the best titles from 2018. That game’s mix of close-quarters skirmish combat should be a great fit for a Block War or some perp busting action on some of Mega-City One’s cramped plazas.
On lifting the lid, though, that’s not what I found. Yes, there was a board illustrated in fine cartoon style with futuristic scenery. Yes, there were some stunning ink-washed figures of Dredd and a team of judges. But why was Mean Machine Angel standing with them, instead of with his own villainous family as their own faction? And why were the teams arrayed against them from other 2000ad strips?
However iconic they were in their own right, I couldn’t square up with the idea of Slaine, Strontium Dog and Nikolai Dante all being in Mega-City One. It seems this was loosely inspired by a story from the comics, Helter Skelter. But it felt more like an excuse to roll with Wildland’s mechanic of picking up shards for points. That would have sat awkwardly with teams of perps or rogue Block Defence units or, better yet, the Dark Judges.
Well, having Slaine and his family square off against Dredd say awkwardly with me. But it didn't bother my opponent. And when the bullets started flying, it stopped bothering me all that much, too. Here was Wildland's pure, beating heart, stripped a little leaner with some less confusing cards but still very much the same.
Winning at Wildlands is a matter of patience and timing. I could score points by either collecting the "shards of reality" or gunning down the enemy. Since I didn't like the reality split of Judge Dredd: Helter Skelter and I wanted Slaine out of my pure vision of Mega-City, I decided to go all-in for the latter.
Everything in Judge Dredd: Helter Skelter is card-based. To take an action with a character you need a multi-use card with that character's icon and the action you want to take. You don't need a special action for movement though, so I began to hoard melee and ranged attack cards, using others to move around. When I start to press my aggression, though, my opponent makes full use of the interrupt mechanic. This lets them play card during my turn, like opportunity fire in a wargame.
These moments are where the game is at its best. The blow by blow card play rewards imaginative tactics and is unimaginably tense. And here, in this comic book setting, it reminds me of the blow by blow action of comic book panels. A bit like another game with cartoon art from the same publisher, The Lost Expedition, each card feels like an unfolding frame in a wider story.
My attacks blunted, Slaine ekes out a win with a more sensible combination of Judge-killing and crystal collecting. So I offer my congratulations and pack it up in the box. Yet while my head says this is, by a whisker, a smoother game than Wildlands and a better fit between rules and theme, my heart can’t agree. I mean, Slaine in Mega-City One, really? Back on the shelf it goes.
A couple of months later, the missing piece of the puzzle drops onto my doormat. It’s a little box with a plastic window into death, fire and fear: the Dark Judges have finally arrived. Now, I can set up the kind of game I wanted with Dredd and his team facing down the greatest foes they’ve ever met. It’s timely too, since, we’re all confined to the house thanks to 2T(fru)T, uh, coronavirus and this box also offers solo rules.
The Dark Judges are tough foes, as you’d expect. They have an armour ability which means they shrug off the first point of damage they take each turn. There are flavourful special abilities such as Mortis damaging other figures in his space and Fear increasing the move cost of those around him. In the multiplayer game, the balance for this is that they’re worth two points for each one you knock out.
This, though, is solo, which is a more punishing mistress. Winning here means getting six points, but you only get points from collecting crystals and killing one judge doubles your point total. On my first try, the random draw of placement is very kind, with three crystals closely grouped. In another lucky stroke, I have the right card mix to pick up crystals. So I decided to go for it, snaffle them up and then turn my attentions to taking down a Dark Judge.
Right away, Fear and Mortis begin to earn their fearsome reputation. On a Dark Judge turn, you draw two cards from their deck which dictate what actions the enemy figures take. It’s quite possible for all four of them to act twice, which is a lot of action output by the standard of this system. But if the card shows an impossible action - like a melee attack in an empty space - it’s ignored. As a result, that gruesome twosome begins to close in on Judge Giant and rip him apart, while Judge Death stands idly by, twiddling his bony thumbs.
Giant’s sacrifice has not been in vain, however. He managed to get a crystal fragment first. With Fear and Mortis tearing into my team, waiting to get a second seems ambitious, so I turn my guns on them. In a solo game, you defend by flipping cards off the solitaire deck to see if the defence icon matches my attack type. I’m laying down a hail of bullets and Fear can only seem to draw melee defences. Pretty soon we’re down to three on three and my one crystal gets doubled to two.
The game continues along this tightrope. With one less fearsome foe, it’s easier: some cards translate the actions of a missing Dark Judge to another but many don’t. And how effective those actions are depends on the board state. But I don’t much notice the chaos because those card flips are doing such a great job of making it feel like I’m playing against a real, if somewhat daft, opponent. The game feels alive, dynamic as the action and the balance shifts back and forth.
In the end, it doesn’t prove too much of a stretch. Judge Death continues to bumble about on the outskirts of the board, and his companions torch Dredd. But the remaining Judges have enough cards to grab another crystal and, in a fun twist, punch the lights out on Judge Fire. But I’m inspired enough to try again and, this time, I’m going all in. With the crossover rules and my original Wildlands set, the Dark Judges are going to take on The Adventuring Party in The Dark House. Maybe Judge Dredd: Helter Skelter has given me a taste for genre-blending after all.