Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress

Games Workshop’s ‘Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortres’ was released last weekend and I sat down at my local gaming group to play it last night with the ultimate review group, a mix of veterans and newbies (both wargaming and boardgaming, you will see why that’s important later). To top it off, right next to us was another group also playing Blackstone Fortress so we got to compare notes.

“Oh man, all these free skulls. I just went to the skull store yesterday!”

So what is Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress? Here’s what the publisher has to say:

In Warhammer Quest Blackstone Fortress, you and your friends take on the role of a group of disparate explorers delving into the labyrinthine halls of a vast and ancient space station. Only by working together and balancing your strength and skills can you hope to survive. With each expedition, you will discover powerful archeotech and learn more of the Blackstone Fortress’ closely guarded secrets, including, perhaps, the location of its greatest treasure. The game can be played solo, or with up to 4 friends, with the fifth player controlling the hostiles. At the end of each expedition, the players return to the nearby port city of Precipice to rest, recuperate, and trade their loot for resources that will aid in their next adventure.

Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress is a dungeon crawler, like its namesake Warhammer Quest, Games Workshops 1995 dungeon crawling offering. It is the first foray of the brand into the Warhammer 40k universe.

The OG aight.

A few years ago Games Workshop released a solid offering for Warhammer Quest with an Age of Sigmar skin, Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower where you played one of various fantasy adventurers struggling against the dark minions of Tzeentch to unlock the secrets of The Silver Tower. It came with a rules update to bring it into line with Games Workshops current style of rules.

Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress brings these elements into the 41st millennium. There is a lot to discuss in regards to this change of setting as it has fundamentally changed the way the game plays and influenced a number of changes in design and flow.

Components, components components…

In Blackstone Fortress players take command of a bunch of explorers who have broken into a Blackstone Fortress, one of a bunch of giant alien constructs of unknown origin in the 40k galaxy, regarded as a superweapon or cure all for those who may end up wielding. You must delve through the labyrinthine structure seeking tech and clues to its mysterious secrets, seeking glory and power for the Imperium of mankind. But BEWARE… A structure so vast comes not only with secrets, but interlopers keen on bending the secrets to their own will.

“I bought my torch backpack.” “Oh yeah, well I ate a tonne of carrots and also some kind of creature that can see in the dark.”

The game consists of a series of Expeditions made up of a mix of randomized challenges and combats to find Clues, Riches and Equipment. When a group has completed enough expeditions to find four clues they can trade those clues for the information to a Stronghold, a pre-designed epic combat that will reveal a great secret of the fortress and begin a series of legacies that will affect the game as you move ahead. If you assault enough Strongholds you will gain the final mission to the Vault where you will find the greatest secret of all.

This structure is a break from the previous editions of Warhammer Quest where you would roll up a specific mission and include the cards for that mission in a mix of generic cards to create a random dungeon whose length and difficulty were hard to predict. Blackstone Fortress has essentially added another level akin to the daily grind quests of an MMO. I was not particularly impressed by this addition to the gameplay as it came with the realisation that this is not a pick up and play kind of game.

Ah sweet, so the double sided boards are all numbered… oh… darn.

It also means that depending on the draw of cards or the roll of some tables it could take a while to get to the storytelling mission elements that come in the Stronghold portion of the game. That’s an issue in any game where the story is an important element… and in Blackstone Fortress it is.

Janus Draik, Rogue Trader

Not only is there the story of the Fortress itself, but there is also the story of the Characters you play as well. Each has their own motivation for venturing into the fortress itself. If you manage to complete your own agenda your character will be inspired for the rest of the Expedition or even later Expeditions. There is a light RPG element to this game, which casual players will most likely never get to see.

Throughout an expedition players draw events in a series of rounds. This is a common element of a dungeon crawler. Blackstone again veers away from the expected rhythm of open a door explore a room by breaking events down into challenges and combats. Challenges take place mostly with dice rolling or other simpler mechanics. Combats are a game all in themselves. Instead of opening rooms one by one,  you lay down a whole map of various grouped hexagonal board pieces. This map will contain spawns of a number of randomised villains from the encounters deck.

At first it suddenly feels like an epic battle, like something from a 60’s war film like Where Eagle’s Dare or the Dirty Dozen. As we played through this combat it became apparent to me the amount of tedium this could involve. Blackstone Fortress has 44 miniatures. 9 models to represent the 8 characters that can be played and 35 villains. You could say that’s a lot, but these villains are broken down into only six types and one Boss monster (who does look freakin’ cool). It means that to unlock the secret of the Vault you might have to play five combats across four potential expeditions to defeat four strongholds to get access to the Vault. That’s 80 possible frays. These are not kill the goblins in the corner fights. Many involve multiple monsters across a number of rooms, and they may be reinforced by stronger comrades mid-battle.

Espern Locarne, Navigator

And when I say battle, I mean battle. There’s line of sight rules and terrain interactions. Combats are mini-wargame. They are fun, but the real fun in a wargame is the open sandbox a large battlefield provides. The sandbox gives you agency in how you manoeuvre and react. Add in the hexes of the Blackstone Fortress board and soon your combats will break down into a study of efficiency in task implementation. That’s tolerable when you’re dispatching four goblins in a three by three square room over the space of a few minutes… not so much in a 25 to 30 minute wargame.

There are two ways to play the monsters in Blackstone; have a dungeon master or use the games AI system. We played with the AI, the other group next to us had a DM. We found the AI to be clunky and complex. It had a series of charts that you rolled a d20 and consulted. On the chart there were columns for each outcome on the dice and rows for the current status of the monster. You roll a d20 and follow your finger across until you find the right row, generally based on the proximity of a character or the threat to the monster. We could tell just from hearing the other groups gameplay that having a DM is infinitely better… however that comes with the issue all DM based games have, “Who wants to be the DM?”

Amallyn Shadowguide, Asuryani Ranger

The combat system comes with other bugbears. While the combat behaviours of the various monsters have a number of universal rules listed in the book, each creature has its own table… on its own card. There are a lot of tables to consult. I can understand the motivation for this, it creates a unique behaviour matrix for each creature type. It adds an element of flavour to the game. One creature like the Ur-Ghul may run away from a distant character disturbing its activities but react aggressively to a character getting up close and personal. An alien construct Spindel Drone will manoeuvre around a corner to strike more brutally in a following turn. It’s a very clever system to add flair to what is normally hack and slash, with an elegance more akin to the AI of a top first person shooter on PC. However, it’s clunky when you first play and annoying as you gain competence in the rules, prolonging game play on the larger combat maps.

There’s not much to say about the challenges in the event deck. They break up the monotony of the combat events but mostly boil down to dice rolls, deduction games or simple physical challenges with time limits and varying consequences for failure. If your events deck is poorly shuffled then it’s possible to do all the challenges before the combats, making the game a bit dull.

Taddeus the Purifier, Ministorum Priest

Games Workshop have embraced special dice again in this game. Attacking in combat requires the use of a d6, d8 and a d12 with special pips to indicate a hit and a critical, with a blank indicating failure. It gives the game a classy feel. Fantasy Flight games have done this for years to make their games stand out (also to sell dice packs). The three different types are used to show the rate of efficiency of a weapon (at various ranges), defense rolls or other sundry rolls in the game. The d6 provides a 33% chance of hitting and a 16.5% chance of a critical. The D8 a 50% and 25% respectively and the D12 66% and 33%. Again this is a clever way to add a little variety to the game, and some special elements to the contents. Similar results could also have been achieved with a normal d6 or d8 and a target roll mechanic. In practice the special dice leave people looking around for dice a lot and consulting tables as most characters use varying combinations at one point or another.

When a combat starts you populate the board with various hexagonal tiles to create the space within which the combat takes place. That’s not a bad idea. However, the combat maps are on a card the size of a standard playing card and the tiles are almost a universal mix of greys and shadows and purple and green effects. The small map combined with hard to identify board sections makes building the combat maps hard and time consuming. This adds length to an already lengthy game. The Stronghold missions are much better as their maps are larger and within one of the five booklets so they can be more easily built. That brings us to the books, of which three are used for the rules playing the game and two are for other things.

Pious Vorne, Missionary Zealot

The rules are spread across three rulebooks and there are no indices to help you pinpoint which one you are looking for. This to me is probably the worst aspect of Blackstone. It’s frankly unforgivable to have difficult to use rulebooks in this day and age. If you’re a quick study you’ll be fine. If you’re happy to let someone else do it, you will also be fine. But if you’re all interested in learning the game you will find that difficult as flipping through the book to find a rule is not easy. It’s another problem that I understand how it came about. At first glance it makes sense to have a book of core rules for the meta-mechanics of running the events selection and flow of the expeditions and another book for the combat rules, but these rules sometimes intrude on each other and it creates a scenario of more components floating around your gaming space. It could have been solved by simply having one rulebook broken into three sections.

UR-025, Imperial Robot

You could be forgiven for thinking at this point that I’m just on a “bash Games Workshop rant”. You might ask if the game has any redeeming features? That’s a good question and there are, I’ll get to them. I want to discuss something about Games Workshop games that I have noticed recently. They always seem to get reviewed in a vacuum, as if Games Workshop is an independent hobby to general wargaming. I’m sure they would like us to think that. It serves their purposes well for all of us to treat them like some other thing, instead of what they are. The reality is GW produce wargames and board games and in recent years they have produced some great ones, and some not great ones. In their defence I don’t think they have ever released something truly ‘bad’.

Blackstone is a great example of this. It is not bad. It is also not great. In this reviewers opinion I would say it’s mediocre and I’m going to explain why. I read a lot of advance reviews and watched a lot of play through videos of this game and there were no comparisons to similar games except for GW’s other Warhammer Quest titles which are both easier fun than this. At the risk of sparking conspiracies I find that unusual. It’s pretty common to see games compared to the best and brightest titles and that simply has not been the case with Blackstone Fortress.

Dahyak Grekh, Kroot Tracker

If you put aside the beautiful models and oodles of components in the box, it’s not a well designed game. It confuses complexity for nuance and gimmick for gameplay. Take for instance the rulebooks; one rulebook with three distinct sections would have been simple and easy to use. Going with 3 separate pamphlets created extra management, but hey there sure is a lot in the box. Or you could look at the hexagonal tiled boards. Hrmm beautiful artwork, but now the line of sight rules for the mini-wargame combats are clunky. Sure they work, but they are not “glance and know straight away”, which is what a board game needs. The combat card maps are tiny, but again look at the pile of components. There is six of the special pip dice where there could have been 3d8.

Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress has all of the elements of an RPG game, but the expeditions turn the concept of questing into grinding. Something that bad DM’s do to ruin good RPG’s.

Ratling Twins, Rein and Raus

It has the elements of a good dungeon crawler, which is ruined by turning combat into wargaming light and having a range of monsters models that are also intended for their wargaming range. It has a depth of content and play time that is hurt by the monotonous nature of the low variance in the monsters. It has elements of a legacy game, but they are not titanic game changers and do not forever alter the game, which is the key appeal of legacy games. And if you compare it to any of the masters of the various genres it is trying to be all at the same time, it’s just not as good as any of them.

It feels as though GW looked at all of the successes of the boardgaming industry and tried to incorporate them all into this one game, and the result is depth with tedium. This is really disappointing… because despite all of this, the game has a lot going for it.

Carved from the bones of an ancient beast… the plastosaur.

Lets just point out the obvious, it’s got amazing models. I mean they are simply great. Not one of them is boring. A few of them are concepts introduced to the game for the very first time. There’s  a 13,000 year old robot from the time before The Emperor of Mankind seeking the secrets of the Fortress to again see his kind rise up. There is a cynical jaded Rogue Trader trying to gain an advantage in the dog eat dog Imperium or you can play my personal favourite, the Ratling Twins, the 40k version of hobbits with sniper rifles and grappling hooks. That’s just a few of the player characters.

There are traitor guard and chaos marines, with new concepts like negavolt cultists, madmen pledged to chaos with their bodies wired up to shoot electricity. There are Ur-Ghul, previously only seen in the retinues of Drukhari Archons. We also see what is believed to be a new faction in the game, Spindel Drones, slight and delicate AI constructs of unknown origin.

Arrrghhh, much consternation.

The models are relatively easy to snap-fit together but are still delicate and will require a bit of painting skill to realise their full potential. GW has made this easier though, as there are painting tutorials up on their websites for all the models in this set. The aftermarket support is great for this game. They have promised future expansions very soon.

Couple these miniatures with the stunning artwork on the cards and components and this game is really beautiful. It sets its tone well. The paper stock is a little cheap though, so sleeve your cards people! Also expect your boards to warp after you first punch them. They will settle back down eventually.

The game comes with rules to use all the models within existing armies of the 40k universe. How cool is that!

The box comes with a lot for the $220 AUD RRP.

Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress has a great storyline and intriguing sub-plots for the characters you play. The sealed envelope with the secrets from the Vault has me intrigued, and despite all the issues I find with the game, I’m glad I refrained from cheating and opening it. I really want to play to the end and find out what it’s all about. The storyline is also important to the greater 40k universe and the outcomes of the events within Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress will ripple across 40k lore for years to come.

I chose this pic so I could look deep. Deep like this pond… oh I’m ruining it aren’t ?

That last point makes me feel sad. If this game had been better I wouldn’t have that feeling. As it stands now it’s going to be hard to find anyone amongst my gaming buddies who have the time or the love of 40k lore to want to play the game as much as it potentially requires.

It’s very hard to quantify a rating for Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress. It is such a different beast. There are better dungeon crawlers like Conan, Descent or Shadows of Brimstone. There are better Dungeon Grinders like Zombicide: Black Plague, Conan or Arcadia Quest. There are better story driven RPG light games like Betrayal at House on Haunted Hill, Gloomhaven or Conan. It has legacy content like Pandemic: Legacy and Risk: Legacy, but its pretty light on. Just about a squillion board games now come with great miniatures.

It’s hard to choose who to root for, Both groups look pretty plucky!

It’s a huge game, with not much variety. I don’t mean that in a computational sense. There are millions of combinations for the expeditions. They just won’t vary all that much. It’s a beautiful game with stunning artwork and models, but to get the most out of the game aesthetics you’ll need to paint them. It has a lot of clever design elements, but there are too many of them and that makes the game clunky and time consuming.

My recommendation with this game? If you love Warhammer 40k, like miniatures, have a group of like minded friends who want to play the game to its conclusion, free time, patience to learn, wargaming experience and the cash to buy it… you will love this game. This is not a pick up and play game, if that’s what you’re into… this is not the game for you.

That’s a lot of caveats. If you’re missing any one of those elements, I guess… buy Conan.

By Crom, I was compared to other games. This will not do!

 

 

 

 

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