Necromunda Underhive review

If Games Workshop’s release of the highly anticipated Necromunda Underhive was performed by any other company, one would be hard-pressed not to label it as anything other than a disgrace to the legacy of a beloved property. Once you look beyond the exceptional models and top-notch production values, Underhive is clearly a soulless cash-grab designed with such disrespect for its audience that it borders on open hostility. Whatever positive elements the game has (and it does have them) are grossly overshadowed by the overt and unashamed spectre of a marketing department intent on withholding as much enjoyment from the player base as possible until they pay for the privilege. However, this is not unusual for Games Workshop.

This is the nastiest way GW has acted since… well, their equally cynical rerelease of Blood Bowl, I guess.

It can’t be too hard to release a game like Necromunda in a respectful and respectable manner. After all, they did it in 1995.

Those buildings were as exciting as they looked, as long as you stuck to using plastic minis.

The ’95 Release (sweet nostalgia)

Necromunda was an ambitious industrial-punk skirmish game of gang warfare deep in the bowels of a megacity, providing a peek into a tiny sliver of the 40K universe which had rarely been explored before. The core box contained 24 models, equally split between two gangs (Goliath and Orlock), some templates, a few dice, a couple of measuring sticks, some assorted tokens, a heap of snazzy 3D terrain, a couple of quick-reference sheets, and two books (one for the core rules, and another for designing gangs, games, and campaigns).

Despite it now seeming a bit dated, this was a fantastic box set, and the terrain alone made the game vibrant and exciting. Everything you needed to play was included, whether you wanted a one-off game or an epic campaign. And even though only two gangs were included, details were given for all six of the main gangs of the setting, allowing a ton of variety. This one box gave you a complete Necromunda experience, with the only essential extra pieces being maybe the minis of your preferred gang.

A year later, GW released the Outlanders expansion, which added a slew of new rules options without making the original books redundant, along with a bunch of new and exciting gangs, and even more of that wonderful 3D terrain. It expanded and complemented the original box set, and though it was considered an essential part of the collection for any serious Necromunda player (much like the Deathzone box for Blood Bowl), there was no way you could say that the core box was truly lacking for variety; the new box just made everything bigger and better.

So if you loved Necromunda back in the day and expect the new release of Underhive to be anywhere near as complete, generous, or consumer-friendly as you remember, prepare for disappointment.

The dark, darky darkness of the 41st Millennidark.

The ’17 Release (the good stuff)

Naturally, it wouldn’t be a GW game if we didn’t look first and foremost at the minis, and these are as exciting as you’d expect. The introductory gangs are Goliath and Escher, and I think we can all agree that’s an excellent decision overall; they’re probably the two most visually striking Houses and offer radically different aesthetics. They’re a far cry from the simple poses of the original edition and are filled with glorious detail. Whatever you may say about Games Workshop, their modelling team continues to impress and their sprues contain a generous array of limbs, weapons, and add-ons to go into to the ol’ bitz box. There might only be ten models per team compared to the original twelve, but the quality (and size!) of the models makes up for it (even the bases have a funky urban-warfare detailing).

One obvious change is that the multi-layered terrain which was so iconic to Necromunda is gone and has been replaced by nine tiles, each formatted into 2×2″ grids representing the corridors and tunnels of the Underhive, along with a few doors, bulkheads, loot chests and assorted places to gain cover. The boards themselves are a solid product, with attractive and evocative artwork, and each is double-sided, offering a great amount of variety for your setup.

This is a vast departure from the style of play offered in the original game and it isn’t entirely a bad thing; it’s just different, and we can still play the 3D variant if we wish (more on that later). However, these boards aren’t essential. You could easily play a game without them, setting up actual walls and terrain and the like instead, and that is a big problem. After all, if we don’t need to use them, why pay for them in the first place?

Surprisingly generous, eh?

It wouldn’t be a box set without some templates, rulers and dice, and Underhive delivers in spades. Two complete sets of dice are included, which is a treat, especially considering how many different dice are needed. Blast templates are included, as ever, as is a nifty little opaque measuring tool. But best of all is a 90 degree Arc of Fire template to show you what your models can see! I’ve never been a fan of Arc of Fire rules, but at least they’ve decided to make it a bit easier on us for once.

There are tokens galore, of course. Pinned tokens, Flesh Wound tokens, Out Of Ammo tokens, etc. And then we get cards.

Cards are the new things. Some of them are simple templates for your gang members, which is really handy. The others are Tactics cards, which I have a lot to say about… but first we need to discuss the rulebook.

Because here’s where it all gets nasty.

The Rulebook (and Gang War)

The rulebook that comes with your ~$150 box set of Underhive will give you all of the rules you’ll need to play standard set-piece battles between the two gangs supplied with it. However, if you want to play with rules for multiple levels, or create your gangs from scratch, or include campaign rules including experience, injuries, and turf – you know, all that stuff you loved in the original release? – then I’m afraid you’re out of luck.

I come separately because up yours!

You’ll need to fork over another $50 for that book. It’s right on the shelf next to the box set at your hobby store and it’s called Gang War.

If that sounds like a kick in the soft bits, just wait until you find out that it still only contains rules for Goliath and Escher gangs. You’ll need to shell out more money for books about the other gangs as they trickle them out down the line (I think the next one includes House Orlock and rules for mercenary Hired Guns).

This is the most egregious display of wallet-gouging I’ve seen a gaming company indulge in for years, cementing Games Worshop’s position as the Electronic Arts of analog gaming. Not only did they remove one of the essential rulebooks from the box and make you pay for it separately, but they also ensured that once you did pay for it you still had an incomplete set of rules.

In true GW fashion, the books are pretty to read and completely impractical as a gaming reference, with rules scattered throughout the documents seemingly at random (try finding a complete set of actions a model can perform when activated). The more they stagger the release of their rulebooks, the worse the whole matter is going to become.

Earlier in the year I reviewed Shadow War Armageddon which had a similar problem; the core book only supplied rules for three basic Kill Teams. However, GW quickly fixed this problem in two ways; firstly, they supplied all the other rosters for free on their website; and secondly they rereleased the book with ALL the Kill Teams added. I was incredibly impressed, and it shows that the team can do good work when it wants to.

It’s only appropriate to mention Shaddawore because it’s another game based on classic Necromunda, and though it had some faults it did offer some important improvements. Inexplicably, Underhive manages the bizarre task of sidestepping all of SWA’s problems without managing to learn from anything that it actually did right.

The Straight Dope

Though it might be somewhat based on classic Necromunda and it’s 2nd ed 40K design, Underhive is its own beast and is taking a lot of cues from the latest edition. Your own personal taste will have a big say in whether you like them or not, I’m guessing.

Let’s face it; the new models look really cool.

Let’s assume you’ve played classic Necro:

  • Turn order is entirely different, with both players alternately activating their respective models until everyone has acted, whereupon both sides make tests for bottling, recovery, etc. It’s different, but it’s cool.
  • “Activating” a model allows it to make two actions, which leads to a whole list of things it can and can’t do. A Move action can be performed twice, but a Shoot action can’t, and a Charge takes up both action options. There are a whole stack of these and they are littered throughout the books with little concern for accessibility.
  • Charging means you add a D3 to your base movement and hope you get in base contact with the enemy. At least the “no moving within 8” rule is gone…
  • Profiles now have stats for Cool(Cl), Willpower (Wil) and Intelligence (Int). It hardly seems necessary and Initiative and Leadership could have covered them, but that’s what they wanted to do. Cool is used quite a bit for panicking and the like, but the other two don’t get a lot of play.
  • Speaking of stats, they now go with the modern X+ style where you just try to roll equal to or above your stat rather than comparing them and checking a chart. There are a couple of exceptions, such as Strength and Toughness, which go with a more familiar method.
  • Gangers don’t tend to get Skills, and act more like Henchmen from Mordheim.
  • Upgrading heroes costs varying XP depending on the choice of upgrade. Random Skills from a Primary list are fairly cheap, but more XP may be spent to choose the Skill, or to select a different chart, and so on. Very nice.
  • No Overwatch rules, which surprises me as everyone else seems to bloody love them.
  • Models can only see, fight, and shoot in a 90 degree arc. I’ve always disliked arcs of fire, especially when no tools are given to help with it, but thankfully the box set includes two incredibly useful templates to help you with it (as shown to the right). About flippin’ time! Choosing actually where to measure this 90 degrees from is hand-waved off in the rules as a player responsibility.
  • Cover: we’ve still got two types of cover, but at least they’ve made a valiant effort at making a very clear distinction between the two types. However, seeing as this distinction relies purely on comparing it to the target’s base, everything gets muddy again once the Gang War rules are introduced.
  • Hiding/Hidden is much more different. In order to hide you need to become Prone whilst in cover. It seems to work really well and offers a great balance between benefit and penalty.
  • No pre-measuring shooting, which is ridiculous because alternating turns and the gridded playmats make this whole pre-measuring thing a non-issue anyway. Besides, it creates arguments and that isn’t fun. Didn’t we learn anything from Shadow War Armageddon?
  • Movement penalties for shooting (whether it was you or the opponent) are gone. I guess we did learn something from Shadow War Armageddon after all…
  • A natural 6 isn’t always a success if the required roll is a 7 or more, which may require extra rolls and rarely-used rules. Bad form; KISS.
  • A funny little rule about stray shots is intuitive and pretty hilarious.
  • Funky dice #1: Scatter dice are back. They do what scatter dice do. Once again, this is a missed opportunity to play with d8s which naturally land like arrows, but c’est la vie.
  • Funky dice #2: Injury dice. These are new, but welcome. Instead of rolling against a d6 chart when Injured, you roll an Injury die, which pretty much does the same thing but in a different way. Injuries are slightly different to what they used to be, too: 1/6 chance of being taken Out Of Action, 1/3 chance of a Serious Injury (like the old “Down” condition,) and 1/2 chance of getting a Flesh Wound (which these days knocks your Toughness down by -1 each). I really quite like this a lot.
  • Funky dice #3: Firepower dice. This die has two purposes, which is neat in itself. The first is to act as a Sustained Fire die, telling you how many shots you can pull off. One of its sides also has an ammo symbol on it, meaning that the die acts as the Ammo die. Every time (EVERY time) you roll to shoot with a weapon you need to roll the Firepower die as well and if it comes up with the Ammo symbol you need to make an ammo roll against your weapon’s stat and if that fails you’re out of ammo until you spend an action reloading whereupon you get to try to succeed on another ammo roll and it all makes a lot of sense but it’s all very long and explaining it takes a while and creates really long sentences and are you having fun yet?
  • Tactics Cards. These deserve their own little slice of Hell. Pity, because they could have been so good…

Tactics Cards: Downright Evil

Unforgivable.

Tactics cards are new to the game and are not inherently a bad thing. Very simply, every mission allows you to select a certain number of Tactics cards from those available to you (your deck) and you can use them during the game for little benefits. For instance, the Last Gasp card lets one of your dudes make an attack as they are taken Out of Action (they can even pull a pin on a grenade and give a horrible surprise to the three enemies that gave them a head-kicking, which is glorious).

There are two types of Tactics cards; Gang Tactics (which can be used by any Gang) and “named” Tactics which are specific to the gangs that can use them (such as Goliath Tactics). The box comes with enough cards so that the Escher player will have four Escher cards and ten Gang cards, whilst the Goliath player will have their own set of four Goliath cards and their own set of identical Gang cards. The players each select what Tactics they want from their deck and discard the rest.

So far this is all fine.

But there are more Tactics cards available, and the way these are sold is going to annoy the hell out of you.

Right next to that $50 Gang War book are two little $25 packs of Tactics cards, one for Escher and the other for Goliath. Each of them has 8 cards of the marketed type, but additionally each have twelve unique Gang Tactics cards that anybody can use. So if you want your Escher crew to use the Ricochet card, that’s absolutely fine… you’ll just have to fork out for the Goliath set to be able to use it.

By the rules, the deck of cards available for you to use is anything that you’ve managed to collect (including limited edition cards available only at major events, or as promotions when preordering stock) so theoretically you can simply outmaneuver some poor schmuck at a tournament simply by outspending them.

Once more, this is a blatant attack on your paycheck. These cards should all be released together or not at all, and preferably in a big supplement akin to Outlanders. As it stands, that $150 “complete” box set requires a $50 Gang War book and an extra $50 worth of cards in order to have a full experience for only two warbands. If we want to add a third gang, Orlocks, to the mix, we’ll have to shell out $75 for Gang War 2 and another set of cards before we even look at touching a damn model (my local GW store has gang boxes showing a rrp of $70). This is a far cry from the way we used to be treated by these specialist skirmish games.

Even if we don’t want to play Orlocks, you’ll still want to grab that deck because they’re bound to sneak in some kinda overpowered Gang Tactics card just to make sure you’ll fall behind if you don’t. That’s not bitter and jaded; that’s just the voice of experience.

Is There Any Hope?

Sprue-tiful

If you care about Necromunda, you should be furious about the way that this edition is being released. It isn’t that the game itself is awful; the game is alright, and sometimes possibly good. But it will be impossible to know if it’s actually good until we can see if the gangs have any balance between them, and we won’t be able to tell that until we wait twelve months and fork out for all the over-priced products that are going to be drip-fed to us by our miserly game-pushers at Games Workshop.

And I just can’t justify the damn expense. Because a good GW skirmish game is more than just the fancy models and funky terrain; it’s about the emotional attachment that is created between the players of a campaign and the gangs, teams, and warbands they grow to love. In order to have that attachment we need a perfect mix of variety and boundaries.

Variety so that our warbands have a personality, identity and complexity that makes them unique and important.

Boundaries so that they can conflict, complement and coexist alongside their rivals without becoming redundant or ridiculous.

Like the Blood Bowl rerelease before it, Necromunda Underhive doesn’t fail because of the models; the models are fantastic. Nor does it fail because of the game; the game is fine. It could be better, but it’s fine. It fails because it doesn’t make us excited about its potential. The original hooked us because it gave us options and we were so dazzled by them that it was hard to make a choice because we wanted them all. But make a choice we would, because we couldn’t help but want to choose our gang; just like picking a favourite Ninja Turtle or Spice Girl. With just a few extra options they gave the few bits of plastic and cardboard in the box so much more potential than their material worth actually measured. A few extra pages of rules allowed a third or fourth player to enter the fray with something different and they were able to feel special from day one.

The template for success was right in front of them. They could tweak it, adapt it, modify it, sure; after all, the choice to remove terrain was a bold move, and the tiles show that the game can move in a different direction and still be good. But denying us over two thirds of the variety we had in the original box set was a poor decision, and one motivated by either incompetence or avarice.

Sure, it will sell for a while. But it won’t last. After all, how many people are still playing Blood Bowl?

If you make it too hard, expensive, or frustrating to play your game, we just won’t play it. You reap what you sow.

 

A HUUUUGE thanks to the crew at Gatekeeper Games (right) who allowed me to play with their store copy of the game (and the views expressed in this article are certainly not necessarily shared by the good folk at the store). They have a full unboxing video showing all the lovely goodies inside the box for your viewing pleasure, and a full selection of Necromunda Underhive merchandise available in stock. If you’re looking for a friendly space and community to play with in Melbourne, Gatekeeper Games is one of the best. Check them out!

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2 Comments
  1. Barks
    December 4, 2017 | Reply
    • December 5, 2017 | Reply

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