The beakies are back and better than ever.
The big 2022 Warhammer release is upon us, and it is an absolutely massive box set that introduces Games Workshop’s atavistic Horus Heresy rules set and models to the masses. And yes, this thing is loaded with Astartes in their magnificent Mark IV Corvus armor that takes me back to buying the RTB01 Imperial Space Marines box back in 1987. This box set, subtitled Age of Darkness and set in the “30k” phase of the Warhammer setting as popularized by the actually quite excellent series of novels by Dan Abnett and other writers, is something of an Old School Renaissance for the game.
As with Dungeons & Dragons, which has had its own “OSR” movement, Horus Heresy is a somewhat atavistic antidote to complaints that more recent editions of the game have been made too streamlined, too simplified, and have introduced a whole range of complaints and grievances. The rules are based mostly on 7th edition, which was the one before the 40k designers really put the hammer down on making the game more streamlined and accessible. 7th was also something of an endpoint for the game’s original design template, and many long-time players missed the greater detail and grittier feel of earlier versions. So Horus Heresy gave players not only a way to get back to the classic rules, but also a way to play in a different era- a time after Horus slew the Emperor and a massive civil war betwixt the Loyalist legions and Traitor legions broke out, a time when the Primarchs walked the battlefield and the Xenos threat wasn’t as great as the creeping taint of Chaos.
But Horus Heresy was never a mainline GW product- the closest it got was the very excellent Horus Heresy: Betrayal At Calth board game back in 2015, which was at the time the only release with plastic Heresy-era Astartes. Instead, the game was mostly a Forge World concern, which meant limited availability, resin models (shudder), and even more expensive than usual books and models. Now, with Age of Darkness, they are making a play to offer Horus Heresy to the masses- now in plastic, mind- and as an introductory set, it almost obliterates this goal. But there are some hefty qualifiers and caveats in terms of cost and rules weight to consider if you are looking to get stuck in.
First impression, this thing is just packed. When I opened the preview copy, kindly provided by Warhammer Community, I was stunned. Not just at the insane stack of sprues of shoulder pads, but also at what all is provided in the box. In addition to enough Astartes to field two forces (40!), there’s also a stunning Spartan tank, a predecessor to the iconic Land Raider. A wonderfully archaic-looking Contemptor Dreadnought, which was also in the Calth box, lumbers on to the battlefield with a few cool weapon choices. Two Praetors lead the way. The Marines are, without exaggeration, the best that GW has ever put out. They are absolutely magnificent. They hearken back to those original RTB01 Beakies of my youth not only in their design, but also in their execution. These are simpler models with less annoying detail and more character. They are smaller than Primaris. They have a classic, sturdy look and aren’t in wild tip-over prone poses. Likewise, the Spartan and Dreadnought have a gnarlier, industrial style that makes them feel ancient and architectural- hallmarks of the Games Workshop visual design idiom.
Beyond the models, I was also surprised and delighted to find the old school blast templates. I love blast templates much more than measuring “within 3’” or whatever. And scatter dice! I love those too. I even love the stupid whippy stick rulers, and I love that they included them to create the impression that this box set is ALL YOU NEED to play. 20 marines and 1 Praetor each. You take the Dreadnought, I’ll take the tank.
But let’s be honest. By now, I think most folks reading this review will be savvy enough to understand that any Games Workshop box set is a sexy come-on to seduce you into buying more. And that is absolutely the case here. And that starts with the rules, which kind of aren’t completely in this box. The rulebook it comes with is a massive, beautiful tome stuffed with Heresy era lore – page after page of details about each Legion, historical timelines, a survey of Space Marine armor marks, and of course model display photos that are damn right better than yours. And even though there are 100 pages of rules, you still need either (or both) of the accompanying $80 Liber Astartes and Liber Hereticus books, which are sort of analogous to the Codices of other Warhammer games but include every legion of either side. Because those books are where the real meat of the game lies – army lists, statlines, wargear, and the other data you really need to play. The box set stuffs some statlines at the end of the model assembly guide so yeah, you can get going at least. But be prepared to spend
Aside from that, a lot of those beautiful models in the books are still resin, still Forge World only, and still expensive. I’m sure there’s more plastic to come but brace yourself for sticker shock if you want a Fulgrim model to lead your Emperor’s Children or a Termite Assault Drill to load up some Iron Hands brothers. Honestly, if you’re looking to get into this game buying more than one of these boxes and selling what you don’t need multiples of may be the way to go. Cost aside – and remember this is a $300 retail box – there is definitely value here and penny-pinching aside the game exudes the quality of a “premium” experience.
As for the game, I’m not sure it’s going to rope in 8th and 9thedition players who may very well be content to use these models in 40k games. It’s a tougher and chunkier set of rules with lots more “crunch”. For example, vehicles have quite a lot more detail including facing, hull points, and variable damage effects. I love this, and I didn’t realize how much I missed this, but it does add quite a lot of rules weight. Morale is a bigger factor – units are more prone to actually run off the table rather than get Alpha Striked off of it. Reactive actions (such as withdrawl, return, fire, or advance) are a thing, these creating more of an I go, you go, I kind of have a little go, then you continue to go tempo. But they also impart a more strategic back and forth sense that feels, quite frankly, more like a wargame featuring heavily armored superhuman grunts with the occasional wizard than 9thedition does. It goes back to that gnarlier, grittier tone, but there again you’ve got to buy into more complex stats and processes to get to it.
But, paradoxically, there is a sort of condensed nature to the game. It’s almost all Space Marines so there’s not subsets of rules for Tyranids, Eldar, Tau, etc. and likewise there is a much stronger sense of coherency between armies. Of course each Legion has its own suite of special rules, but nothing is wildly different and it all feels more codified, so there’s not 15 different special abilities that are all basically “reroll 1 die”. It’s mostly standardized keywords, so you lose the colorful faction-specific nomenclature for the benefit of clarity.
I’ve not played Horus Heresy before this box, having only looked over the rules and of course playing its predecessors so I can’t speak to the changes that were made for this 2ndedition of the rules but I am impressed with them in terms of capturing the feel of old school Warhammer. I’m also totally down with the look and feel of the models, having tired somewhat of the GW house style and welcoming those Beakies back. But this is a decidedly “retro” product that may not be what players deep into 9th edition 40k may be looking for or willing to invest time and money into. I find it reinvigorating and compelling to get back to the old style, but by the same token I celebrated the changes in post-7thedition because I felt that they very much modernized the game and eliminated a lot of clutter.
Stepping back from the shock and awe of this beautiful set and my burning desire to paint up these models in Night Lords heraldry, I’m not sure how far I’ll go with the game myself. Right now, it’s sitting next to me and I can practically feel its tendrils slipping into my pockets looking for money and that scares me. But for those who are willing (and able) to give in, this is an extraordinary Warhammer set that could serve as the foundation for many years of hobbying and gaming in the Heresy era.