Shadow War Armageddon review

IMG_20170420_144629Names seem to be getting longer and longer for gaming products, don’t they? Every second digital game seems to require a colon somewhere in the title, and board games are getting ever more ridiculous, with the prize currently going to a game I’m desperate to get my hands on: Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective – Jack the Ripper and West End Adventures. Long, innit?

So it’s no surprise that Games Workshop has gotten on board the stupid name train by calling their latest skirmish game Shadow War Armageddon, which is really hard to shorten without it still sounding pretty stupid. Personally I’ve been tossing up between lopping off each end and calling it “War Arma” (which you have to say with a really snooty accent), or going for the much simpler “Necrogeddon.”

Why Necrogeddon? Because Shaddy Geddy is a spiritual successor to the skirmish games of the ’90s, particularly inspired by Necromunda (and to a lesser extent GorkaMorka and Mordheim). In fact, some fans were actually hoping that this release was going to be a return to Hive Primus, the setting of Necromunda, and were a bit disappointed that it isn’t.

Though Shaddah Wore Etc might not have the tight setting of the Underhive, it does have the advantage that it is an opportunity to play with small squads from throughout the entire 40K line, and that’s finally your chance to grab a box set of models you like without having to commit to a whole damn army. Always wanted to try out a Tau Pathfinder crew, or a Harlequin band, or use up that squad of Ork Boys that you got with a boxed set and never used? Here’s your excuse.

But there’s a problem. I played a lot of these old skirmish games (particularly Mordheim) and there were some really annoying issues with the games in places. The rules were filled with contradictions, inconsistencies, and downright anti-social oversights that made playing the games a diplomatic squabble unless you had some clear house rules in effect. And that’s not fair to anyone putting over cold hard cash expecting a decent game in return.

Though one wants to give a company the benefit of the doubt, even the most supportive of Games Workshop fans harbour a cynicism about the company that borders on disgust. So I’m approaching Armageddon Outta Here with caution.

The Bits! IMG_20170420_161522First up, lets have a look at the box… Well, we would, but they’re pretty hard to find at the minute due to being all sold out. But we can have a look at the general equivalent. You get a set of Ork Boys, some Space Marine Scouts, and some more scouts with sniper rifles. These 21 models are the same as the plastic sprues in the box sets shown. You also get some cardboard counters (more on them later), a set of templates (in a spiffy red colour instead of the clear ones shown), the rulebook (more on that, too), a few dice (including a scatter die and an old-school artillery die), and terrain.

The terrain! What a load of funky terrain! Most of the box seems to be terrain, and this also is coming out separately for you terrain lovers out there. The detail on the terrain is glorious, with many intricate features to delight keen painters. And value? I grabbed Damien, my friendly Games Workshop sales rep, and we tallied the individual components for the box at just over $350. The Evening Wear Armageddonsome box set is a great discount at $220. And when you consider that the terrain alone retails at $209, you might start asking yourself some interesting budgetary questions.

Now if you love painting terrain and really want more of it, this box set is great value for money. But if you’re not interested in any more terrain, or just dislike painting it, you might want to throw your cash at simply buying the other components. For one thing, the rulebook is already being expanded (preordering this week, in fact), which includes rules for a dozen more kill-teams (which they did have available for free online) and you know you’d rather have that. You might already have enough terrain around and would rather spend the dough on something less yawn-inducing than yet more Orks and Blood Angels. Could you imagine if they went with Skitarii and Necrons instead? Or Grey Knights and Tau? From there, the only thing hard to get which isn’t in the box are those elusive Artillery dice.

But there is one important problem with the terrain, and it is that it operates on a different scale to the other terrains you can buy at your GW store. That’s just a lack of foresight. Also, this stuff operates on a five inch height scale, which is a really weird number when you consider the way the climbing rules work (four inch would be much more apt). It’s certainly better than the two-and-two-thirds scale that Mordheim used. For one thing, you can fit models under walkways without having to convert them if they’re holding anything over their head. It isn’t the end of the world, but it simply reminds me of similar scale problems in previous skirmish games from GeeDub.

Speaking of problems in previous games…

 

IMG_20170420_145141The Game: If you ever played original Necromunda (based on the 2nd ed 40k rules) a lot of this is going to be familiar. If not, expect a simplistic turn-based game which is still rather fun despite being a little dated in comparison to better skirmish games like Warmachine or Malifeux. Frankly, you should already know that game design isn’t GW’s strong point, but we’ll play their stuff anyway. They can fart in a box and it’ll still sell.

Before this came out I went through my old Necromunda books and reminded myself of all the problems the game had. I fully expected that GW would simply copy-paste most of those rules without bothering to fix the glaring problems that caused many a heated argument or house rule, but they actually seem to have fixed a few problems. Not all of them, but a few. I actually made a list of issues as I went back through the old rules and it turned out to be much longer than expected, so lets have a look at them.

  • That stupid rule about not being able to run within 8 inches of an enemy has been ditched, thank goodness! This rule was baggage from the larger wargame and never made sense within the context of a strategic small force. Good riddance!
  • Pre-measuring is allowed! I do enjoy the tension that comes from blind declarations, but this method simply makes the game friendlier and cleaner. Bravo!
  • Models now have a 360 degree field of vision, but Overwatch is still a 90 degree arc. The big problem with this kind of fire arc is that there are no templates or base markings to make this easy to use in play; you’re left with guesstimation. You can’t even go with the trick of using square bases because the 90 degrees is measured in this weirdly generous way from the back of the model’s base, which just makes things harder to work with. This whole issue either requires a template or (preferably) a better rule. Expect house rules on this.
  • The same problem with cover you had in the old Necro rules, specifically that there are two types (a -1 and a -2 version). The rules about this are easily prone to disagreement in practice; at the very least more than one pictorial example would have been nice and a full page with a bunch of examples would be really appreciated. Better would be to overhaul the idea entirely (Mordheim only had one type of cover) and make sure the ruling for it worked hand in hand with the Hiding rules (creating a common standard). I was really disappointed that this wasn’t fixed.
  • Funky dice required. One advantage Mordheim had was that it didn’t require special dice, and I was hoping that this game would have learnt from that. But you have to admit that there is something cool about special dice (such as Blood Bowl embracing the idea by offering a d8 and a d16, or the adorable unique dice used in X-Wing or the latest Star Wars RPG). So go large or go home, it seems, but at least commit either way. Sadly, GW has taken the middle road. Sustained Fire dice are gone, replaced by a d3 roll (no misfires). Scatter dice are back on the block (no surprise for 40K fans) along with Artillery dice. One of each is included with the box, and scatter dice are easy enough to come by, but those Artillery buggers… Now I think there was a missed opportunity here for some creative dice design. Why not have combined artillery and scatter with a new d8? After all, a d8 basically lands like an arrow and the facing could give you more variety in ranges and effects. A missed opportunity.
  • Ammo checks are based on a 2d6 roll instead of a single d6. Target numbers are adjusted to suit. Different, but fine.
  • IMG_20170420_144650Too many tokens. For a company that insists on making the play environment as photo-friendly as possible (y’know, like insisting that models are carrying all their equipment) it seems really odd that they’ve designed the game so that you have to litter the scenery with game information tokens. Hiding, Running, Overwatch, and Broken all require tokens and it’s simply an inelegant artifact of the game design. The only need for the Running token is so that your opponent is aware that there is a shooting modifier on the next turn, which is downright ugly all around (just ditch the rule, GW). Certainly, using these tokens helps track the rules of the game in a convenient way, but there are much cleverer ways to do this. Oh, and promethium cache tokens are unexciting compared to offering glass beads or sculpted plastic boxes.
  • In-game bookkeeping. Having to keep track of minor fiddly things is a drain on both memory and team roster sheets, and the two big culprits in Necromunda and Necrogeddon are ammunition and Flesh Wounds. Tracking them is a pain in Armageddon, and coloured paper clips is the method I recommend, but I wish it was something we didn’t have to worry about. Also, Flesh Wounds are a boring system, to be honest, deducting points from WS and BS. Imagine instead if I could make you burn a Flesh Wound to reroll one of your successful die rolls. That would be much more fun.
  • Remember when we were talking about the climbing rules back in terrain? The ladders and walls are so high that you ARE going to end up with a house rule regarding whether a model can end their turn halfway up a surface. And whether they can hide there. And whether they can shoot from there. And if that incurs a penalty. And whether they can use heavy weapons requiring two hands. And if they can engage in close combat with another climbing model. And if you actually have to pose your model there with blu-tac. Myself, I advocate for simply saying “no”. It prevents having to make up a dozen specific rules to help make it work.

But although these old skirmish games from GW might not have been the best rules on the market, they were always fun, and what especially made them stand out were the campaign features surrounding the main games. Exploring areas, advancing squad members, managing resources, and dealing with injuries – these were the stuff that turned your losers into legends!

 

IMG_20170420_151941The Legend! The campaign aspect of ShaddaWaddaLubDub consists of firstly building your kill-team and secondly managing them after a fight.

The first bit is great.

You have so many options for kill-teams from all over the model range. Genestealer Cult? Sure! Necron Warriors? Here ya go! Astra Militarum? Cadians, Catachans, or other? GW has even started releasing new kill-teams, such as the Inquisition and Sisters of Battle. It’s a great lineup and if you can’t find at least a handful of factions you’re keen on playing then you simply don’t like 40k. Starting up your kill-team is a delight.

That second bit about post-battle management is much more disappointing.

Though the advancement system of experience in Necromunda was a bit bulky, it was improved in Mordheim and that was the benchmark I was hoping for. Characters who managed some amazing moments in play would be awarded later on for their cool deeds. You knew if a dude managed to slaughter three people and rob half of the objectives on the board they would be getting an advance or two later. Your whole warband managed to develop over a relatively short period of time into something that was uniquely yours. The extensive injury list added to the personality of your warband in unpredictable ways. Exploring Mordheim allowed you to uncover caches of mysterious items or dens of foul beasts, while gangs in the Underhive could seize control of factories and warehouses that gave your squad ongoing benefits.

In NecroHeim 2.0 all of these funky systems have been stripped back considerably or even abandoned in the interest of “streamlining” the game. While I applaud the approach of game simplicity, this was not the area to implement that ideology. If you wanted to streamline this game you should do so by focusing on the action, making dice rolling faster by minimising charts and calculations, reducing bookkeeping, that kind of thing. Spending a bit of time after the game is relaxing and fun – the kind of thing where I want to take some time chilling with my opponent without having to compete with her, celebrating and commiserating with each others’ post-game fortunes.

Break it down!

  • The classic d66 post-game injury charts are reduced to a much smaller one of a single d6. A 1 results in a 50% chance of death or capture. 2-3 makes a model miss a game and receive either hatred or frenzy. 4 and 5 are full recoveries, while 6 gives you an advance. It seems weird not to have a stupidity in the mix of psychology, and frenzy seems like it will come up a lot more often that the old games. Gone are all those interesting hand injuries, missing eyes, old battle wounds, and hideous scars that made for so much entertainment, I’m afraid.
  • You get to pick only one member of your squad to advance (in addition to any of those lucky injured fellas who rolled 6s). Boring.
  • Advancing your model is similar to the old method of rolling 2d6 on a chart and getting what you roll. Skills work very similarly to Necromunda with the simple change of rolling twice on your chosen chart and picking the result you want rather than just rolling one. I would have preferred to be able to choose the skill (aka Mordheim) but I can’t complain too much about this compromise. YRMV.
  • No exploration, no money, no locations. No real money either, really.
  • You do kinda get money, but it’s weird. Games are fought to obtain “promethium caches” which sort of act like victory point treasure chests – a winner will usually earn a d3 caches, the loser one cache, and they might have earned others during the game as special scenario rewards. Campaigns/leagues are meant to be played until someone wins by collecting 15 of them, whereupon I guess you’re meant to start another league. But you can also cash in your caches to gain extra elite dudes (like Deathwatch Marines, or Genestealers, or whatever.) Frankly it just doesn’t feel right.
  • More on the money front, you’ll get a hundred moneybux to spend on equipping your dudes, but you can’t really save it, resulting in kill-teams with expensive troops (eg. Grey Knights) utterly unable to replace their losses. It’s stupid and it seems like everyone is making house rules to fix it.

This part of the experience was arguably the best thing about all of GW’s old skirmish range, which is why it stands out so prominently as the most disappointing part of Shadow War Ehrmagehrd.

I don’t mind it too much as a set of short term League Rules, but I think there’s a strong market for releasing a Campaign Rules set of options filled with all the fun and creativity we saw back in the day.

Ah! Right now someone’s just about to say that if you want to use rules like that then just adapt them from the old games, or make them up yourself. And to that I say that I’m not paying $70 for a company’s rulebook in order to do all the work that they can’t be bothered with. Next you’ll be wanting to make me develop my own point costs for troops in the fantasy range…

 

IMG_20170420_145121Verdict: Shadow War Aargh offers the Games Workshop skirmish experience of the ’90s within the context of the greater 40K universe, and if you’re already a dedicated 40K player with a good variety of models you should certainly give it a crack – but I don’t know if you’ll get a lot out of the box of great merit unless you’re really keen on the terrain (in which case this is a fantastic investment).

If you’re a casual wargamer I wouldn’t recommend you buy the box set. It’s a pricy outlay for a game that wants a lot of painting and offers a dated gamestyle. But you might find it fun to buy a small box of minis if your mates are playing; it’s certainly less intimidating than buying a full 40K army. And the newly printed book includes all the factions not included in the boxed set printing, so keep that in mind.

I do recommend giving it a go, just because 40K is such an awesome setting and this game allows you to play its funky antiheroes in the tight skirmish style that I think is so fun.

It’s just that… GW stuff is so expensive. And that post-game stuff is so crap compared to the old stuff. And though the game fixed a couple of the old problems, so many more of them are still as annoying as ever, and there’s no way you could say it’s balanced… and… well…

… I like it… but it’s just not that great.

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