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Play Matt: Judge Dredd Helter Skelter and The Dark Judges Review

MT Updated June 01, 2020
 
4.0
 
0.0 (0)
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Play Matt: Judge Dredd Helter Skelter Review

Game Information

Publisher
There Will Be Games

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. 


Editor reviews

1 reviews

Rating 
 
4.0
Judge Dredd: Helter Skelter
A tight slice of tactical comic-book action with great components and fun gameplay, but the genre-blending theme may leave some fans cold.
MT
Matt Thrower
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.

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southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #310847 01 Jun 2020 14:54
This turned into a bit of a luke warm fizzer for both my mainly euro group (who don't mind killing each other) and my AT group, neither group particularly like the severe hand management (luck) mechanic that would often just leave your units sitting around smiling while getting beaten up. I'm sure there's a large number of fans of this game but not me, I regret buying it.
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #310849 01 Jun 2020 15:04
I think a game using something akin to the IMPERIAL ASSAULT mechanics would work great if ported into the DREDD universe as seem in the most recent movie. You could throw in a hidden traitor too to represent corrupt judges.
n815e's Avatar
n815e replied the topic: #310851 01 Jun 2020 15:19
I think I saw someone using Judges in Core Space.

I have a huge collection of Dredd minis that I’ve been painting over the last few years.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #310864 02 Jun 2020 00:37
As an avid childhood devourer of 2000AD this sounds right up my street. Give me Slaine, give me Nemesis the Warlock and the ABC Warriors, hell, (pleeeease) give me D.R. and Quinch! It does sound cooler with the expansion though, but is that a solo only affair or can it played with a full contingent?
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #310866 02 Jun 2020 03:48

southernman wrote: This turned into a bit of a luke warm fizzer for both my mainly euro group (who don't mind killing each other) and my AT group, neither group particularly like the severe hand management (luck) mechanic that would often just leave your units sitting around smiling while getting beaten up.


I think Wildlands is a bit of a marmite game. It's one of those crossover titles that has the risk of leaving both fan groups cold, instead of enthusing both, for the reasons you mention. But I'm right in the bottom of the valley it creates: I love it.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #310867 02 Jun 2020 03:49

Andi Lennon wrote: As an avid childhood devourer of 2000AD this sounds right up my street. Give me Slaine, give me Nemesis the Warlock and the ABC Warriors, hell, (pleeeease) give me D.R. and Quinch! It does sound cooler with the expansion though, but is that a solo only affair or can it played with a full contingent?


The Dark Judges can also be run as a team in the multiplayer game. They just also come with a deck of "AI" cards for solo play.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #310870 02 Jun 2020 07:38
Oh man, you might have forced my hand to further crowd my shelf.
southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #310879 02 Jun 2020 13:42

Andi Lennon wrote: As an avid childhood devourer of 2000AD this sounds right up my street. Give me Slaine, give me Nemesis the Warlock and the ABC Warriors, hell, (pleeeease) give me D.R. and Quinch! It does sound cooler with the expansion though, but is that a solo only affair or can it played with a full contingent?


I was too, I currently have dozens of various 2000AD graphic novels on my shelves, but if the game mechanic isn't your flavour then it doesn't matter how much lovely theme you throw at it ... as is repeatedly mentioned on this site when a game using a popular IP turns out to be a dud (for those fans of the IP) :laugh:
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #310900 02 Jun 2020 20:44
Very true, but the gameplay sounds pretty appealing for a lighter romp actually. And a licensed IP isn't the guaranteed indicator of shit it once was. The Big Trouble in Little China game is surprisingly fantastic, my pleasant surprise of the year so far. I've heard good things about Ravensburger's take on Jaws too.
southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #310911 03 Jun 2020 14:07

Andi Lennon wrote: Very true, but the gameplay sounds pretty appealing for a lighter romp actually. And a licensed IP isn't the guaranteed indicator of shit it once was. The Big Trouble in Little China game is surprisingly fantastic, my pleasant surprise of the year so far. I've heard good things about Ravensburger's take on Jaws too.


Well I'll have to disagree with you on both counts - as mentioned neither of my euro or AT group was terribly enamoured with the mechanic in the Dredd game, and while the theme was good in BTiLC there is a quite a large feeling (including on this site) that the all game mechanics were not put together that well (the main reason I on-sold it only after a few plays and similar comments by my group). But boardgames are just as subjective as art and music ;)
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #310916 03 Jun 2020 19:26
My group and my partner in particular really enjoyed the dice placement mechanics in BTiLC. She isn't a particularly avid gamer so getting a lightweight romp like this in rotation was a winner for us. Plus as a package the whole thing was super tilted towards fans of the film (which we are). I guess low expectations breed pleasant results. Plus it has a Kurt Russell mini. I've recently ordered the expansion. Dredd might occupy a similar low barrier entry to pull down at short notice when the whim strikes.
southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #310926 04 Jun 2020 14:35
Yes the dice placement is fun but most everything else is out of sync - you have cool quests to do in phase 1 but the Threat tracks moves so fast and the enemies swarm in large numbers quickly that it's usually just a race to get one Hero quest done, with maybe a couple of side quests, before the phase ends, then phase 2 is nerfed for the AI with the minions not being about to cross levels and as long as you got a Hero weapon then it should be a walkover.
It's great with theme for fans but it's really an averagely put together game for other gamers. I probably would have persevered in getting some house rules created to make it more enjoyable, we played around with a couple for the Threat track, but I have tons of great games so it was best it went to someone who wanted it (especially since it is hard to find here).