Monday, 23 November 2015

Review - The Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth

Betrayal at Calth


The Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth
Published by Games Workshop Ltd
Designed by the secret cabal
For 2 players, aged... ahh... whatever. For anyone old enough to use superglue, I guess.


It's not easy being a boardgame blogger.

At least, not the way I do it.

You see, while I love reviewing old and out of production games, shining a light on those once-loved and long-forgotten boxes that everyone has tucked away in the back of the attic, I am also quite partial to something brand new and sparkly, especially when that brand new and sparkly thing happens to be from Games Workshop, a company I grew up loving, and a company that has one of the richest gaming universes to play in.

But here's the problem... I don't get paid for this. Surprisingly enough, nobody wants to give me money to write long, rambling posts about what kind of biscuits I eat while attempting to vanquish an evil dragon.


I don't even get donations.

Once - ONCE - I was promised a free copy of Furor Sanguinis, because a company used my review of Claustrophobia on their site. That was over a year ago now, and I'm still waiting... Guess I'm just going to have to buy it myself.

And that's what I always do. I buy it myself.

But in the case of a new game from Games Workshop, that often means digging deep into the coffers, and fending off the mice for the last few crumbs of cheese.

In my recent review of the really rather wonderful Assassinorum: Execution Force, I complained about the high price, and lamented paying a "40K tax," which is the price hike associated with any Games Workshop game to prevent people from buying multiple boxes to use as the basis for a tabletop army.

That was a £75 game.

And now, Games Workshop have released Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth.

It's a £95 game.

The price is justified, because the box contains a ton of plastic miniatures for use not only in this game, but also in the Horus Heresy tabletop war game. The price is justified because this is the first time ever that 30K (not 40K!) miniatures have been available in plastic. It is justified because this is the first time that Games Workshop have released a plastic Contemptor Dreadnaught. It is justified, because if you don't get these miniatures here, you have to get them from Forge World, who offer exquisite resin miniatures at eye-watering prices.

Yes. It's justified...

If you play Horus Heresy.

Is it justified if you want to play the game in this box?

Well, that's the rub. Because if you just want to play a fun little skirmish game, that £95 price tag is hard to swallow.

But this time around, I've boxed clever. I've managed to avoid the 40K tax, (or in this case, the 30K tax). This time, I bought a copy of the game on eBay without any of the miniatures. That means I got the rule book, the deck of cards, the cool custom dice, the tokens, and the map tiles.

I paid less than £4.

That is thoroughly depressing.

That really highlights how little people value the actual games that Games Workshop produces.

Anyway, that's besides the point.

The point is, I love miniatures. I love Games Workshop miniatures most of all. I hate using proxies for any game, least of all a beautiful Games Workshop game. But frankly, this close to Christmas, having already emptied my wallet into the recent Kickstarter for the exquisite Super Dungeon Explore, I couldn't drop the best part of £100 on this game.

But I really wanted it. I really wanted to review it for you guys.

And so here I am, with Space Hulk Blood Angel terminators standing in for Ultramarine Cataphractii terminators, Imperial foot soldiers and chaos cultists standing in for marines, and Drask from Assassinorum: Execution Force doing his best impression of a dreadnaught.

It's not ideal.

Far from it.

But it means I get to play the game, see if I like it, and review it now, rather than in six months.

Speaking of reviews, best crack on...

Betrayal at Calth dice
Of course Games Workshop put a skull on their custom dice.


Betrayal at Calth is a two-player skirmish board game, in which a small force of loyal Ultramarine space marines faces off against the chaotic Word Bearers space marines in a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the surface of a war-torn planet. These desperate skirmishes in the cramped darkness represent the opening moves in Horus's attempt to overthrow the Emperor, which is all incredibly exciting.

The background story is compelling, the artwork and presentation is exceptional, and those miniatures... well... I don't have them. But I've seen the pictures.

They're stunning.

But this is a Games Workshop game. We know the presentation is going to be beautiful. We know the miniatures are going to be amazing. We know the setting is thrilling.

But is the game any good?

Let's just get this out the way right now: Yes. The game is good.

It's better than good.

It's genuinely, bloody excellent.

And it's good because it's super streamlined and frighteningly efficient. The rules fit on just seven pages. You can learn to play in less time that it takes to assemble your first space marine miniature.

And it plays smoothly. Effortlessly.

It approaches the gaming table with the same muscular directness of Space Hulk, keeping the rules to a minimum so they do not get in the way of the game. In fact, in many respects, the game is reminiscent of Space Hulk. 

It is simple, efficient, brutal, and quick.

And it is fun.

Just like Space Hulk, the game comes with predefined scenarios. There are six scenarios in total, fought out across battlefields created using the four double-sided map tiles included in the box, and while they form a coherent narrative in sequence, you can play them in any order.

Each scenario lists the units and characters involved in the kerfuffle, any special rules, and the victory conditions; and each scenario is different, with different types of units and different objectives that all feel special and... you know... different.

Betrayal at Calth scenario
Scenario 1 - A tense run-and-gun race.


Gameplay is a breeze. At the start of a scenario, you position your miniatures in the designated deployment zone. Models in the same hex comprise a unit, but throughout the game it is possible for units to break apart and consolidate, so there is no rigid structure in that sense. The only rule when creating a unit is that the total "bulk" of models in the space cannot exceed three. Marines have a bulk of one, terminators have a bulk of two, and the dreadnought has a bulk of three.

Starting with the player with initiative, players take turns to select one unit to spend one tactical point to perform an action. Each unit gets two tactical points, and each point allows the unit to run two spaces, advance one space, shoot, make a close assault action, consolidate into another unit, or make a special action (if permitted by the scenario).

Shooting and assault actions are resolved using custom dice that make every combat quick and painless...

Well...

Not painless.

But you know what I mean.

You roll dice, and count up hits and critical hits. If you roll one or more critical hits, you get to activate the critical effect of one of the weapons used in the attack. Then the opponent rolls dice, looking to get shield results.

And that's basically it. Command cards, which are specific to each army, add a slight wrinkle by giving players one-off bonuses to employ under certain situations, but honestly, it's all so simple it's embarrassing.

Betrayal at Calth command cards
Ultramarine command cards, for bringing the pain.


This is a lesson in efficient design. This is a lesson in how to make something fast paced and engaging, without sacrificing tactical choices and strategy. This is a lesson in how to make a game.

You may have noticed I keep using the word "efficient." That's not just the result of a limited vocabulary.

I use the word "efficient" because it is the best way I can describe this game.

For example, most of the scenarios are timed. There are victory conditions that may cause the game to terminate early, but otherwise, they run for a specific number of turns. One of the first things I noticed was the absence of any kind of timer track or time tracking tokens. Turns out, that's because you don't need them.

Remember those command cards I mentioned? Well, you only get to draw one at the start of each turn, so at the start of the game, you randomise the cards and deal yourself a number of cards equal to the number of turns for the scenario. When the players have no more cards to draw, the time limit has expired.

Not impressed? How about this...

Being a tactical skirmish game, positioning is important. Any unit adjacent to an enemy is pinned. But the game doesn't include tokens that you place out on the board to indicate pinned units. It doesn't need them. When you are pinned, all that happens is you lose the ability to run (which allows you to move two spaces in a single action) and shoot. You can still advance one space, still assault, still consolidate...

All the frustration of being pinned in combat, all the sensation of being bogged down in a drawn out, close quarters scuffle, all the tactical nuance of perfect positional play... And not a single token for book-keeping.

That not doing it for you?

Then consider wounds. Tracking wounds in a game like this is always a pain. You usually end up stacking little skull or blood drop tokens on the board, and then they get knocked around, or you forget to move them with the model. It's a nuisance.

Fortunately, Betrayal at Calth doesn't have that issue, because it doesn't have wound tokens. Doesn't even have rules for wounds. Every model on the board has a stamina level, and in order to remove that model from the board you have to inflict enough hits to reduce the stamina level to zero. If you don't inflict enough hits in a single action, the target survives, and immediately regains all of its stamina.

The only exceptions are named heroes, who have double-sided cards that get flipped the first time they take sufficient damage to reduce their stamina to zero (effectively giving them two wounds), and the dreadnought, which gradually gets disassembled over the course of the game as arms and legs get damaged and removed from a small deck of location cards.

Betrayal at Calth dreadnought
You put the left leg on, you take the left leg off. On, off, on, off...


Still not impressed?

Then let's talk about suppression fire. In a game of run-and-gun action, where most of the time speed is of the essence as you attempt to reach an objective or escape the board, the concept of suppression fire is thrilling, creating a deeply engaging and cinematic experience.

Not every gun gives the option of suppressing fire, it is actually a critical effect available with bolters, combi-bolters, and bolt pistols, and its application is beautifully elegant.

And yes, efficient.

When you roll a critical hit with a bolter, in addition to taking damage, the target also loses a tactical point. That means the target gets one less action for the round. It's a perfect simulation of how suppression fire would bog down a unit and limit its options, makes even the humble bolter a powerful tool in your arsenal, and adds a layer of rich, thematic detail in a way that is absolutely effortless.

It's just so clean. I mean, as clean as it can be when there are bloody chunks of space marine littered all around the place.

But the game is not without its faults, and most of those faults seem to come from Games Workshop not fully embracing the mindset of a boardgamer. At heart, first and foremost, the company remains a producer of high quality miniatures, and that means sometimes the details get overlooked, and the aesthetics of the game take precedence over functionality, One of the worst examples of this is the line of sight rules.

For a unit to have clear line of sight, a unit must be able to draw a straight line from the centre of its space to the centre of the target space. If you can't draw a line centre to centre, but you can draw a line to anywhere in the target space, you can take an obscured shot, which makes the target harder to hit. But Games Workshop didn't include a straight edge in the box, even though there is acres of blank space on the punchboards where they could have printed one. And they didn't even print dots in the centre of the hexes on the map tiles.

Additionally, impassable terrain on the board is indicated with a red border around the space, but some of the tiles have artwork featuring red or green light. Red on red, or red on green, is never a good idea, and sometimes the areas of impassable terrain are not instantly identifiable.

Betrayal at Calth board
Red line? What red line?


Furthermore, there are significant barriers to entry for casual gamers. In fact, I would say that, despite how good this game is, and despite the easily accessible rules, casual gamers should approach with caution.

For a start, there is that hefty price tag. Okay, you can probably find the game online for closer to £85 than £95, but that is the kind of money boardgamers are used to handing over on Kickstarter for considerably larger boxes of stuff. For 38 (albeit stunning) miniatures, and a few boards and cards, I think many people are going to fail to see the value.

Then there is assembly. These miniatures are not simple push-together kits. They have tons of options and tiny bits, and they will need to be glued together. There are excellent instructions included in the box, but even so, expect to spend a while getting these models put together.

And then there is the colour of the miniatures... They are all grey.

All of them.

And there are no markings on the armour to differentiate a Word Bearer from an Ultramarine. Once all the models are assembled, there is no way to tell which models are which. Not unless you paint them, and that is something a lot of casual gamers are not going to be interested in doing.

Finally, my biggest concern, and something which I feel is a massive oversight that does seriously impact the accessibility of the game, and something I think Games Workshop needs to work on as they go forwards: Weapon loadouts.

This is the moment when Betrayal at Calth's efficiency becomes something of a double-edged power sword.

You see, the game adopts a what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG) format, which is going to be familiar to anyone who has played Space Hulk or a tabletop war game. A terminator armed with a heavy flamer has a model with a heavy flamer to represent it, a space marine with a bolter has a model with a bolter to represent it, and so on. It makes it easy to identify threats on the battlefield without constantly referencing cards or tokens. It keeps the action immediate, and absorbs you in the action.

But here's the problem... Unlike Space Hulk, the scenarios do not tell you explicitly what your troops are armed with. You are told which kinds of troops you are allowed to take into combat, but then it is your choice how to arm them.

Betrayal at Calth Ultramarines
Terminators, tactical marines, and heroes. Oh my!


For example, the terminator squad comprises one sergeant, and four terminators. As standard, the terminators get a combi-bolter and a power fist while the sergeant gets a combi-bolter with a power sword. However, any terminator has the option to swap out his weapons for twin lightning claws. Or, if he still wants a bolter, he has the option of a chainfist or a single lightning claw. Meanwhile, the sergeant also has the option of taking twin lightning claws.

That's great. Those options create excellent replayability. They create interesting choices before you even start rolling the dice.

But this is a WYSIWYG game, remember?

You build your miniatures before you start playing. You glue them together. And there aren't enough models in the box for all of the different weapon combinations.

Now, the obvious solution is to use proxies. You just say, "In this game, my guy with a heavy bolter is really a guy with a missile launcher." Sounds easy enough.

But...

All of the models are grey.

And all of the space marines look the same.

And there are no tokens or cards included in the box that make it possible to differentiate between models.

Imagine a game in which you have five grey terminators on the board, and each one is armed differently to how the model is armed. And in the same game, you have a squad of tactical marines, but your heavy bolter is a missile launcher, and your plasma gun is a flamer.

Now bear in mind that during the course of the game, units can consolidate into other units.

And let's not forget the enemy models look the same as yours.

And they're all grey.

I mentioned that, right?

Grey.

How long is it going to be before you can't remember which model is which?

Besides, we live in an age when gamers cried foul because the cover of Imperial Assault: Twin Shadows  had a picture of Boba Fett on the cover, but there was only a token for him rather than a miniature inside the box.

How are those gamers going to feel when they spend £95 for a game, and find they still have to proxy their models?

Now, I'm not saying Games Workshop should have provided all of the miniatures necessary for every weapon combination. After all, someone on BoardGameGeek worked out you would need in excess of 100 models to achieve that goal. But they could have included some little tokens to put on the models to make life easier. It isn't like doing that would cause them to lose sales, as the players who want the miniatures are still going to buy multiple boxes anyway, and the tokens would make the game even more accessible.

Failing that, they could have given players instructions for a specific loadout for each squad, just as they did in the scenarios for Space Hulk. If players knew they needed one terminator with a flamer, and one with twin lightning claws, and one with a chainfist (or whatever), they wouldn't be faced with a dilemma the moment they opened the box, and they wouldn't feel like they were being short changed. They could build the models as necessary for the scenarios, safe in the knowledge they are going to have a fun game.

As I already said, I am currently using proxies, so it is possible to get by. But I am using little tokens to mark what each model is carrying, and it is inconvenient.

Now, let's be honest, Games Workshop games are never going to be pick-up-and-play experiences. They are always going to appeal more to miniature gamers than anyone else. You are always going to have to build some models before you start playing.

But Space Hulk  proves that when Games Workshop thinks about it, they can do it right. They made snap fit models (mine still aren't glued!) in two different colours, and gave you all the miniatures and tokens you needed in the box for a complete and glorious gaming experience.

So they can do it.

They proved they can do it in spectacular fashion.

And I want them to do it gain.

Betrayal of Calth  is an excellent game, and I am in awe of its simple, engrossing gameplay. It marks a significant move in the right direction.

A move towards a world in which Games Workshop makes games.

What a glorious world that would be.

Betrayal at Calth board detail
Nope. Still can't see it...


And as for me?

Well, I love Betrayal at Calth. And I love those miniatures.

So, I guess I didn't avoid the 30K tax after all.

I'll be buying a full boxed set, complete with miniatures, in the new year... I guess that means I like the game enough to buy it twice.

For gamers looking for a really enjoyable skirmish game offering accessible gameplay, tense firefights, and meaningful decisions, all presented with the stunning artwork and miniatures that we expect Games Workshop to provide... Well, for them, purchasing the game once should be enough.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the great review! I picked this game up at a Black Friday buy one get one free sale and got Betrayal at Calth and Spacehulk. Bought Calth, Spacehulk was free. After reading your review I can't wait to get started building my set and get playing!

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    Replies
    1. That's a great deal. Space Hulk is one of the finest games ever made for two players (you can find my review of it on this site), and Calth is a really enjoyable skirmish-level miniatures game that is well worth owning.

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