Thursday, 22 April 2010

Big Game Hunting - Horus Heresy, the initial review

On Monday night, I finally got Horus Heresy to the table. Here are my initial impressions based on that evening's gaming.

It took us a while to assemble the figures and hero stands, sort out the various cards in to their respective decks and identify the numerous tokens. Once that was done, I delved into the rulebook and discovered that we were recommended to try the first of the six scenarios to start with. This reflects the original Horus Heresy game more than the others. Being someone who remembers the old game fondly, this was fine by me! As I had assembled most of the Imperial forces I opted to play as humanity and try to turn back the Chaos traitors.

Other scenarios seems to deviate from the established story history of the Warhammer 40K universe and add more random set ups, but that's fine. It's great to see Fantasy Flight giving the game more value by adding these extra scenarios. And at £75.00 retail, extra value is essential.

The set up did reveal the first problem of the game. It is probably the only thing that I didn't like, so let's tackle it now. The plastic fortification areas of the board simply aren't big enough to hold the miniatures required!

Horus Heresy keeps the stacking limit concept from the original game. Back in 1993, this referred to the fact that the various forces of the Imperial and Chaos were represented by cardboard counters. These would be stacked one on top of another, with a limit of six units per faction per area on the board. Any more than that would cause the excess to be crushed and discarded at the end of the turn. In narrative terms this was supposed to represent the crushing attrition that comes from a battlefield swamped in infantry and war machines.

This stacking limit was increased to three inside fortified areas, making battles inside the factories, fortresses and the palace tighter and much more tense. This has been retained, and thus during set up I was instructed to place three Space Marine units and a hero plus a laser turret in the right most section of the palace (the Forbidden Fortress). The hero stands and laser turrets don't count towards the stacking limit, so that's fine. However here's the problem! They don't all fit in that tiny area of the plastic fortification! In the end I just about made them balance, but they would tumble out of that area periodically during our first few turns.

I had kept the cardboard sections that are punched out of the board to make room for the plastic parts, so in future games we may keep that off to one side and put excess miniatures there to show which section they should be in. If the Chaos forces had stormed that section we could have had three units each plus heroes in there! It would never work. So that was disappointing.

Having set up, my opponent got two extra phases before the game truly began. First the corruption phase, then the orbital bombardment phase. Both of these phases are resolved using the Bombardment Deck. Using the smaller Fantasy Flight cards, this deck resolves four different things in the game which is a nice streamlined touch.

For corruption, the Chaos player chooses an Imperial Army or Imperial Tank unit and turns over the top card. If there's an Imperial Eagle at the bottom of the card, then they stay loyal to the Emperor. If there's a Chaos Star instead then the unit turns traitor and becomes part of the Chaos forces. The Chaos player has spare bases for rank one and two units. The Imperial unit is removed from it's grey base and placed on a identical black base.

This is a nice touch, but it does also feel unnecessarily expensive. In the 1993 game, units where represented with cardboard tokens and the Imperial Army and Imperial Tank counters were double sided, representing loyal or traitor.

It is at this point I began to wonder if a hybrid between miniatures and counters would have been better for this new version of the game. I would have preferred to see plastic miniatures for the heroes (possibly in 35mm so they could be used in Warhammer 40K games too) and the larger units like the Titans and the Thunderhawk Gunships. Infantry would have been better represented with tokens, making them easier to fit in the board sections and hopefully making the price slightly lower. But never mind, this game has wonderful production values even if it is at points form over function.

I lost several units during the corruption phase. In this scenario, Chaos had 12 chances. Thankfully, I only had a few treacherous units in my army this time. This was followed by four orbital bombardments, again resolved using the Bombardment Deck. The Chaos player gets to choose whether it's a Precise or Reckless strike, then turn over the top card of the deck. Precise strikes do less damage but are more likely to hit. Reckless strikes can be devastating but rarely hit.

My opponent concentrated most of his corruption and bombardment on my forces at the spaceports. Victory in Horus Heresy comes in one of several ways. Chaos can win by killing the Emperor, though he's in the heavily fortified and defended palace location. The Imperial player can win by killing Warmaster Horus, though he's in the fortified inner sanctum of the Warmaster's barge which is difficult to reach.

The Imperial player can also win by waiting. The game features an initiative track, which I'll come to later. But if Chaos hasn't won by the time the game reaches the end of this track, the Emperor's forces automatically win as reinforcements arrive to turn the tide. Finally, both sides can win by holding all four spaceports but this victory condition only applies from about halfway through the game.

So by corrupting and shelling the two spaceports that were still loyal to me, my opponent gave himself a good chance at victory. It was a smart tactical decision. We were now ready to begin the game and constructed the event card deck as detailed in our scenario. We then shuffled our three faction card decks. Each player gets two combat decks, one for heroes and one for their units. There is also an order deck each. The order deck has a default starting hand for each player which must be separated from the deck. From that hand our scenario instructed the Chaos player is able to seed four of the Drop Pod or Port Landing order cards on the strategic map.

The strategic map is to the right of the playing map and features areas for each of the regions of the board. When the initiative track shows that it is a player's turn, that players starts with the action step. This allows a player to play an order directly or seed an order on the tactical map. Orders played directly usually have a higher initiative cost advancing the player's initiative marker and often changing the initiative to their opponent. However they do take effect immediately.

Orders placed on the strategic map cost just one point of initiative and can be executed later for just one further initiative. This can only be done after initiative has changed to your opponent and changed back to you. So really a balance must be struck. Some order cards grant bonuses if played from the strategic map and at one point in the game, this allowed me to rally my forces after a devastating assault on one of the spaceports.

Combat in this new Horus Heresy is card driven. You count up the value of the units in the combat (ranging from one to four) on your side and divide by two, rounding up. You then draw that many combat cards. You also get two additional hero combat cards per hero you have in that combat too (less if they are wounded). The defending player then chooses whether to start as the active or passive player and then combat ensues. There are multiple iterations of combat and the iteration number is the number of cards the active player can play to attack or counter-attack. So initially you play one card, but in later iterations you can create some interesting combos dealing damaged and having special effects too.

Damage is soaked by the passive player discarded combat cards with shield icons on them. Excess damage is assigned to the enemy units by the active player. Units take damage equal to their rank value. There are damage counters that clip onto the back of the units for partially damaged units. The combat iteration then advances and the active player becomes passive and vice versa.

It's a great combat system. Rather than relying on arbitrary dice rolls, it allows some tactics and combos giving even tiny forces a fighting chance. We both really liked this element of the game.

The orders take a while to get your head around, but I can already see that different players will find different styles and it certainly feels like it captures the feeling of commanding a varied army fighting on numerous fronts. Once an area has been engaged in an order, it is marked with a token and cannot be used again until one of the refresh phases is reached on the initiative track. This simple touch means you can't aim to win or lose just based on a couple of key areas. You have to spread your efforts among the map.

Our major battle was fought around the spaceport in the Vulcanus Region. My opponent had already weakened my forces with his orbital bombardments and had World Eaters Chaos Space Marines and their Primarch, Angron in an adjacent region.

He then landed additional Chaos Space Marines and a Thunderhawk Gunship in another area. I'd already moved forces to bolster the area following the bombardment, hoping that would act as a deterrent. Instead it meant I was simply unable to respond as he launched a crushing assault.

The Thunderhawk Gunship made a strafing run, destroying an already damaged Titan. This was another thing resolved with the versatile bombardment deck. One of his cards also enabled him to make another corruption check and another Imperial Tank unit turned traitor, though it was hard to blame them in the face of such overwhelming odds.

However, I wasn't completely out. I had a movement order on the strategic map that allowed me to move to an already activated area if played from in this way. Suddenly the importance of the strategic map became clear as I moved all of my heroes and units from that region to repel the Chaos rebellion. Whenever initiative changes from one player to the next, you fight coexistence battles wherever Imperial and Chaos forces occupy the same area. With my two heroes, I was able to drive the Chaos Space Marines out of the spaceport and slaughter Angron. But having committed most of my forces to reclaiming that area, I was potentially overextended had we carried on.

We only got about one third of the way through the game in our first go, but both of us were eager to give it a full game soon. Be warned though, this isn't a game for an evening, you really need a lazy Sunday for this or the chance to leave the game set up and play over several nights. You certainly will get value for money in terms of gameplay, even though I still think maybe less miniatures and more counters would have been a better and more economical approach.

It does create a tense wargame though and keeps enough of the elements I loved about Horus Heresy back in the 1993 to feel like a satisfactory update of that game. The use of original artwork throughout the rulebook and the scenario book have appealed to my sense of nostalgia too. The initiative track and the strategic map will force players to plan their tactics, rewarding planning but without sacrificing the chance to react when needed. I really like this aspect of it, as it creates a games that is both measured and considered as well as furious and immediate. Most wargames tend to be one or the other in my experience.

There are some inconsistencies when compared to the Warhammer 40,000 universe, but Fantasy Flight acknowledge this with a simple sidebar in the rulebook. It's a nice touch. IF you want a look at the rules, a pdf of the rulebook can be downloaded here.

It's by no means a simple game or a gateway game. And it really isn't a cheap game. But for Warhammer 40,000 fans and for gamers who remember when Games Workshop wasn't a child-friendly, money-grabbing shell of it's former self, this is as essential a purchase as the recent limited edition reissue of Space Hulk. Shiny.

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