Three shots to the mainstream.
Games Workshop is back with another round of board games (exclusive to Barnes and Noble in the Us) and like the previous rounds of these releases they are both great mainstream entry points into the world of Warhammer as well as fine lighter games suitable for families as well as fans. I’ve especially enjoyed these games, with the exception of the execrable Storm Vault, and one game in this series is among my top ten games of all time.
So let’s start there. Blitz Bowl, James Hewitt’s absolutely brilliant distillation of everything that makes Blood Bowl great into a smaller, more contained and thereby accessible game, returns for a Season 2 release. It is pretty much exactly the same game with a new double-sided pitch but this time the teams are humans and dwarves and there are some very light campaign rules, which is something that the original release needed in order to complete its case as a lighter alternative to Blood Bowl. I’m a bit disappointed that humans are one of the starter teams since it duplicates models from the first box, but so it goes and you can always paint them in different team livery. Still, I would have loved to have seen any of the Elf teams in here instead of the humans.
Blitz Bowl is my favorite sports game ever, it’s closer to the old Battleball game than anything else since that game’s release and that was previously one of my favorites in the genre. Having played Blitz Bowl quite a bit since its first release and a couple of times a week since I received the review copy of Season 2, I’m always stunned at how much fun this game, how thrilling it can be, and how much it does exactly what I want Blood Bowl to do but without the long playtimes and sometimes complicated rules situations. All the bone-crunching blocking, miracle pass touchdowning, and WTF ball fumbling are here, and the six man teams keep the action tight. The need to screen zones and set up blocking formations provides plenty of strategic heft, and frequent do-or-die die rolls keep the drama pitched. Some of the more fun rules like special balls are included to give it all more flavor and now the campaign play adds more with special coaching abilities you can earn.
But the coolest element and likely the one most controversial to Blood Bowl purists is Challenge Cards. This is a row of achievement-like goal cards that you can claim for completing specific gameplay tasks. These give you points, but you flip them over when you win one and it has an action card on the back. Touchdowns are worth 3 points, but these cards are worth 1 or 2 points so it isn’t just about running the ball to the endzone. The game ends when one player has ten points over the other, so the end result is that the game feels like whoever played the best is the winner, even if they didn’t get the most touchdowns. I love this. It especially helps teams that are better at running or blocking than scoring and it also gives a player having trouble getting the ball downfield a chance to even up and apply pressure.
This is a tremendous piece of revisionist design work. I hope that GW continues to support it, as they have with a couple of team releases. I love that the team cards for most of the teams available for Blood Bowl are included, so you can easily run out and pick up a Lizardman or Nurgle box and add them to the mix. This game is a modern masterpiece, and quite frankly it deserves a broader audience than its B&N exclusivity affords.
The second of these new releases is also something of a sequel. Space Marine Adventures: Labyrinth of the Necrons was a fun, Pandemic-y dungeoncrawl that put the players in the ceramiteboots of a Space Marine squad mowing down an endless stream of Necron tokens. It was very light and easy-to-play, and at my house it especially went down well with several of my son’s 9-11 year old friends. There’s a new Space Marine Adventures title this time out, Rise of the Orks, and it is a slightly more complex game but ultimately a better one, I think.
This is more of a tower defense kind of design, with a squad of Terminators from a couple of the more popular chapters (but not Dark Angels, to my chagrin) holding off an Ork assault on an Astartes base. They are coming for the shield generators with Boyz, Burna Boyz, Kommandos, Weirdboyz, Meks, Nobs, and even Painboyz streaming in from six different spawning points. They are fully automated and follow a very Ork-y movement logic (i.e. move to wot u can smash). The Terminators get a move and shoot action, with each offering a special ability or two that you’ll have to leverage to have even a chance at surviving the onslaught. There are also Supply tokens that that the Termies can pick up to gain some special ability cards.
It’s a tough game on the higher (and much more compelling) difficulty levels. The Terminators have to stop the Orks from smashing six generators, and this almost always means deciding when to just let one go in favor of protecting another. The hex-based map is tight but it always seems like you are just one or two hexes away from where you need to be, which forces some hard choices and dramatic die rolls when you are looking at either Storm Boltering down a Meganob or the Salamander getting KO’d. Losing HP doesn’t actually mean dying, however – you move a Grit marker down a three-space track, and if three marines bite it over the course of the game it’s an Ork victory if they haven’t already hit all of their targets. The Marines win this thing by outlasting the supply of Ork tokens.
I’m enjoying Rise of the Orks- it feels very mass-market, but still rich in Warhammer flavor. It’s absolutely family-friendly, and the co-op gameplay is engaging (and also totally solo-able). The only knock I have against this package is that I do not like how the difficulty levels restrict the types of Orks available. At the lowest levels (which means fewer Orks spawning per turn), the setup card proscribes only the most basic Ork types. At the higher levels, you get the more interesting Painboyz, Weirdboyz, Warbosses, and so forth added in but the higher spawn rate notably amps up the difficulty. I like the variety of enemy typesso we’ve just moved to using a mix of them in every game regardless of the spawn rate.
A note about the models – the Terminators are part of that Japanese Space Marine Heroes line, so they are more recent Terminator sculpts. They are great snap-fit pieces, and they do not have any kind of chapter-specific markings so you can easily make them Dark Angels Deathwing Terminators, as you should.
The last game in this line-up is quite a surprise because it is essentially an Age of Sigmar revision of Lost Patrol, a 20 year old GW title that saw a second edition back in 2016. Crypt-Hunters exchanges the Space Marine Scouts for StormcastCastigators and the Genestealers for Nighthaunt Chainrasps and moves the action from the jungle of a Death World to the dungeons beneath the city of Glymmsforge. The goal for the Stormcast is to explore the hex tile-based catacombs and find a winch which your golden boys and golden girls (along with their Gryph-Hound) will use to wheel up the Hyshian Illuminator on the last tile of the stack and turn it on, as one does in this kind of situation. The Nighthaunts are just trying to make more dead, endlessly streaming forth from the darkness to rasp some effin’ chains and make some dead Stormcast bodies.
It’s a simple Jake Thornton design that bears just a whiff of Space Hulk about it, especially in the way that the baddies spawn essentially “off screen” when dungeon tiles have exposed entry points or Soultraps, putting the pressure on the Stormcastto button up these positions or risk an influx of enemies. This worked well with Genestealers busting out of the undergrowthand massacring the scouts and it works well here with ghosts emerging from walls to slaughter the Stormcast. I do miss the Predator/Aliens vibe of the original, but I do not believe you will find a single person in the entire world who has played bothtitles that would argue that Lost Patrol is the better game.
You see, Lost Patrol wasn’t a “good” game by most standards. It was pretty much unwinnable as the Marines, and you kind of played more to laugh at how ludicrously hopeless it was and the fun was in seeing how long the Marines could last. Some tweaks to the rules in both the homebrew and White Dwarf varieties made it fairer, but Crypt Hunters makes the game officially feel more evenly matched. The Stormcast are much more durable (no more one HP scrubs here), their boss has a special ability, andyou get a hand of helpful action cards at the outset. They are also more adept at actually winning in combat so this all adds up to a superior gameplay experience, but it is still damn hard for them to win. There’s just too many of ‘em and they are coming out of the walls, the whole time.
Now, I want to be clear- this is a very streamlined, very stripped down design even with the new material. This is nowhere near as detailed or multifaceted as something like Claustrophobia or other dungeon-crawlers. I’m not sure the Nighthaunt side, like the Genestealer side, has any substantial strategic depth at all and in that position you are more or less always just converging on the Stormcast and swinging at them – it’s not hard to play this solo as there’s not a lot of decision-making on the spooky side of the table. It’s really more of a survival game than atactical game or a dungeon adventure so expectations should be calibrated accordingly. It plays quick (15-20 minutes) and invites repeat plays in a single sitting – there are a few achievements you can mark down for winning under certain conditions and a set of “Burdens” for each side, which are more handicaps than anything else, that you can use to season the game to taste. A campaign mode isn’t much more than a longer dungeon, but the nod to increasing replay value through varietyis appreciated across the board.
All three of these games are relatively inexpensive, very accessible, and they all look great with top quality push-fit Citadel miniatures in every box. What I like most of all about these games, across the entire series of releases, is that they capture the feeling of playing those “crossover” titles like HeroQuest in the late 1980s and early 1990s and they invite the mainstream game player into the rich Warhammer world. They are excellent games for kids, and we’ve already gifted Blitz Bowl to a couple of my son’s friends and to some family members that we thought would love the mix of fantasy and football. These are the kinds of exciting, engaging titles and most importantly self-contained and approachable designs that could turn any receptive kid (or adult for that matter) on to hobby gaming.
Special thanks to the folks at Warhammer Community for supporting ThereWillBe.Games once again with review copies of these titles. We do not accept and have never accepted any payment for our editorial or review content.