OOP and already looking like a dead game?
It feels a little strange to be writing a review of Warhammer Quest: Cursed City because it is something like the PS5 of board games right now – it’s been released, folks preordered it, and it’s just kind of not really available anywhere now except through resellers and scalpers. There was an odd degree of hype over it, moreso than for the previous Warhammer Quest title Blackstone Fortress, perhaps in part due to the scarcity of some of that game’s expansions but also certainly because of the cool previews that showcased some unusually down-to-earth and kind of old school Citadel models. Well, here we are now a week after release and it’s kind of unclear if there are even going to be more copies. Nonetheless, the good folks at Warhammer Community were kind enough to remember us in shipping out review copies so here’s the due diligence regardless of availability.
The good news, if you can’t find a copy, is that Cursed City is such a wildly mixed bag that I don’t think you are really missing much unless you really want to paint the awesome Ulfenwatch and Deadwalkers, which are the first new traditional skeleton and zombie models Citadel has done in a long damn time. There also some outstanding bats and rats, and the whole Castlevania-ish horror vibe strikes right to the center of my gothic heart. And there ain’t a Stormcast to be seen - this is as close to Old World as GW has gotten since the End Times. Big ups to the old school fans here.
But I felt like something was amiss right away when I started to clip the sprues and assemble the models. I found the push fit figures to be unusually fragile, often breaking just from the force of the clippers and I’m using brand new Mr. Hobbys, ain’t no half-steppin’. I started to wonder if the plastic was softer to accommodate the intricate push fit configurations. I also found my interest in the models waning once I got past the skeletons and zombies- some of the heroes are cool as hell (Emelda Braskov is one of the best female warriors they’ve ever done and Jelson Darrock is the platonic idea of the Warhammer Witch Hunter) but some of the others I actively disliked right away. I really hate the Kharadron Overlord (described here in our forums as a “steampunk fire hydrant”) and some of the hostiles just look boring or bad. The Vargskyr is just a spectacularly ugly model and not in a good way. There’s no accounting for taste of course, but it’s rare for me to look at a Citadel model and just be like “nope, that sucks.” But that’s exactly what I did with a couple of these figures once I looked past the real knockout pieces.
As for the game, here’s the main problem. It’s built on the Blackstone Fortress chassis, which should be a great thing because that was the best iteration of the rebooted Warhammer Quest line. But it feels like the reskin and recalibration sort of stopped at a superficial level and the game was clearly not designed from the ground up to be what it is trying to be- and what it is trying to be is not really something I want. I find myself comparing the mindless hack and slash feel of the gameplay more to Zombicide than Blackstone Fortress, and that is not where I want to be with this game. Gone are the interesting matters of terrain and area attacks, and the more complex hostile actions. Instead, it’s mostly what you’d expect from a game where you are mostly cutting down zombies and skeletons that apparently can’t use ranged weapons.
Further, I found that I lost all interest in playing it after just a couple of missions into the campaign. I like that there are a variety of different mission types, there’s some cool legacy and progression elements, and I like that you can play one-off games easier than you could with Blackstone Fortress. But I don’t like that all of the tactical detail and variety of Blackstone Fortress has been replaced by enemies that have no ranged attacks and tend to just walk toward their (second) doom. The results are that the game tends to fall into a sloggy, usually too easy tempo of slaughtering hostiles at range or with extreme melee prejudice before they can even act. Sure, they can hit hard if they get close and have a chance, especially if it’s night time and they are in their Empowered mode. But play smart and roll decently and they won’t get there.
I found the pace boring to be honest, and I never felt the frisson of challenge or discovery. But I will concede that as a cromulent, workmanlike uncredited dungeoncrawl design it at least works and to less demanding audiences there’s probably more value here than I am finding. To be sure, Cursed City isn’t the mess that was Hammerhal and if we’re being honest some of the criticisms of difficulty, balance, and repetition could be lobbied at the otherwise venerated Silver Tower. Or the original Warhammer Quest for that matter.
There are nice touches that are good enough to qualify as differentiators. I love that the Deadwalkers pop up out of an actual gravestone miniature. The day/night cycle is wholly appropriate for the setting and it adds a neat timing element. There’s plenty of great lore and fun random events. I especially like the concept of the “Deliverance” missions that force you to keep moving to stay in front of a tide of skeletal death- it reminds me of one of the most fun missions in Deathwatch: Overkill. The great dice value-based activation system that goes all the way back to Silver Tower is still fun and the core mechanisms are still solid.
But you know what, solid isn’t enough at this point for me – not even with a Warhammer game. I’m looking at this game and comparing it to its peers and simply put there is virtually no reason in the world I would put this game on my table over Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion exceptfor the Warhammer setting. With that game, I know that two hours will be spent with interesting, compelling situations and an emergent narrative incentivized by progression. With Cursed City, two hours are going to be spent slugging it out through endless hordes and when playing solo, maybe barely even using the abilities of one or two of the characters. I feel like it plays more like the Warhammer Quest timewaster app than a proper dungeon crawl board game, and when a session is going to be 90, 120 minutes I don’t want that feeling.
It’s a beautiful box with striking black, red, and white illustrations and the components are just the kind of high gloss, big-budget props we expect from GW. It’s loaded with the good stuff we want, but I’m let down by the rote, boring, and redundant gameplay and the iffy miniatures that had me searching online to see if others were complaining about their fragility and weird softness. I hope that if GW expands Cursed City, they’ll a) print more copies so interested parties can get a hold of it and b) listen to the criticism that is out there about this design and work to improve the balance, hostile actions, tempo, and challenge level.
But what I’d rather see is an all-new dungeon crawler design that feels more modern, competitive, and interesting than Warhammer Quest does in its current state. After Blackstone Fortress, which may be the crowning jewel of GW’s 2016-2020 renaissance, there’s no reason this game should not have been better designed, better developed, and better playtested. It almost feels like the production brief was “Blackstone Fortress but Age of Sigmar”, and it was left at that without fully considering the ramifications or implied expectations of the superposition.
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