Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Review - Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower

Published by Games Workshop
For 2-4 players, aged 14 years to adult


Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower



Some out of production games demand a reprint.

Some games deserve to be repackaged, updated, and made available to the masses so people do not have to pay obscene prices on eBay.

Some games are so timeless and superb that they should always be in print, and the world seems incomplete without them.

Guess what...?

Warhammer Quest isn't one of them.

Wait, wait. Hold on a minute.

I can't do this.

I've been struggling to write this review for a while (I even caught myself pacing earlier, like a novelist with writer's block in a movie: I swear I was one step away from a montage of scrumpled bits of paper piling up in a waste paper basket). I've been struggling for such a long time, I've resorted to plagiarising my own work, hence the very familiar-sounding intro I kicked off with, which was actually lifted word for word from my review of the original Warhammer Quest (what do you mean, you haven't read it?).

I'm struggling because board games are a bit more than a hobby for me. They are something that is pretty much a part of my character, and it's been that way for a long time. My love for games dates back to childhood, when I was an awkward, unpopular kid who just wanted to slay dragons, explore dungeons, and make it through the day without receiving a wedgie.

Back then, I used to spend hours on my own, building Games Workshop figures, painting them, assembling armies. I would lose myself in a world that was so much grander than this one. A world where the evils were more apparent, and easier to face.

Now, as an adult, board games don't feel as important - I don't rely on them like I used to - but they are still an indelible mark on my being: They remain an integral part of what I am and why I do things. And sometimes that makes reviewing games hard, because I don't just reel off a few rules, talk about the components, and then give a rating out of 10. 

There's nothing wrong with that style. It's just not my style. (I know, I actually think I have style. Crazy world.)

Board games are part of me, and so every review is a part of me too. I want people to truly understand at least a little bit of what makes me tick, because I think that might help them to understand if a game is going to make them tick too. I have joked before that someone could read one of my reviews and find out more about what kind of biscuits I like than the game, and it's sort of true. But I don't know how to do it any differently. I don't want to review the game as much as I want to review the way the game made me feel.

So these reviews really take it out of me sometimes. And I know that sounds pretentious, and I know this introduction is boring; but... but that's why this review for Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower has been so long in the making. Simply put, I couldn't extract the feelings from the review to the point where it didn't hurt to even think about writing it.

I'll try to explain...

The announcement of Silver Tower was, for me, one of the most significant and exciting things to happen in gaming since... well... since the announcement of Warhammer Quest, probably. I was excited to the point of farce, and my wife offered to buy the game for my birthday. My little girl knew how excited I was, and for days running up to my birthday, she kept going on about how she couldn't wait for me to open my present.

Unfortunately, the day before my birthday, there was a personal tragedy in my family. The hardest thing that I have ever had to go through, and not the kind of thing you would want to read about in a review for a board game. I was broken. I felt like the world was broken.

The day of my birthday, my daughter raced in with my copy of Silver Tower and demanded I open it while she sang "Happy Birthday."

She was so excited for me, and I felt like shit, because I wasn't excited. I actually felt stupid for having been so excited about some bits of plastic and cardboard in a box. I'm a grown man for God's sake; I shouldn't be getting excited about kid's toys. I'm supposed to get socks and a new power drill for my birthday.

A few days later, I still hadn't even taken the lid off my copy of Silver Tower, let alone started constructing the beautiful miniatures. My daughter noticed, and she sat on my lap and asked me, "Daddy, don't you like your birthday present? It's the game you really wanted, isn't it?"

I told her I had been too busy. But that was a lie. I was spending my time in a haze, drifting through the hours of the day without purpose, and hiding from the world. It's one of the problems with working from home: If you don't want to be seen, it's all too easy to let the world forget you. And it's all too easy to get stuck in a loop, thinking and rethinking and thinking again about things you can't change.

But my daughter's questions (read "pestering") eventually encouraged me to open Silver Tower. And there they were: vile demons, brave warriors, and... little fish things with legs. I started to build.

Instantly, I was transported. I was 12 years old again, sitting in my bedroom, assembling my goblin army and blotting out all the hurtful things that people had said and done to me. And I remembered how important that used to be. I remembered how Games Workshop was my bright light for so long.

There's a reason I have such fond memories of the company, after all.

So I worked on assembling the characters and monsters from Silver Tower, throwing myself into the activity to silence the thoughts that wouldn't get out of my head. I focussed on the mechanical process; and by the time I had put the miniatures together, I had put myself together too. Hobbies are like that.

My daughter was so excited to see the miniatures assembled, she actually cried.

I have been playing the game ever since, and I knew that eventually I would have to write the review; I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I didn't want to sit down and try to figure out how to untangle all of the feelings I had and have about the game. I didn't know how to say I love the game, yet feel a great sadness every time I play it. I didn't know how to separate the game from the events surrounding it.

I didn't know where to begin.

But I've been getting some personal messages on BoardGameGeek recently. Messages from people I don't even know. Brilliant people, but clearly slightly peculiar people, who want me to review this game.

So, screw it...

Some out of production games demand a reprint.

Some games deserve to be repackaged, updated, and made available to the masses so people do not have to pay obscene prices on eBay.

Some games are so timeless and superb that they should always be in print, and the world seems incomplete without them.

I truly believe that the original Warhammer Quest is not one of them. It is crazy fun, but it is also a crazy mess. It is awkward and ungainly, with kludgey rules, and rubbish monster AI, and it really just shows its age a bit. If you want a more in-depth analysis, you'll have to read my other review, because I am pleased to say Silver Tower is not just a new coat of paint on an old gaming system. This is something entirely new... and yet... something not altogether unfamiliar.


The beautifully illustrated box for Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower.


From the moment you look at the box art, anybody who has played the original is going to get a sense of deja vu. The composition of the artwork, the characters, the classic "Warhammer Quest" lettering... It's like somebody reached into the past, took the original, and then... twisted it. It's no surprise that the theme for the game involves fighting the followers of Tzeentch, Games Workshop's god of change and mutation. Tzeentch takes the mundane and makes it spectacular; he corrupts what you know, and makes it new again; he takes your dreams and memories, and fashions them into a new paradise.

It's a beautiful piece of thematic integration which I have to believe was a conscious decision; a sort of meta design that makes the theme part of the physical product in a way that I haven't seen since... well... since Games Workshop released Deathwatch: Overkill a couple of months ago.

For years, we have screamed for a reprint of Warhammer Quest. And somewhere in the void, Tzeentch heard us. Our dreams empowered the Changer of the Ways, and in our wish he found the spark to kindle a new fire. He offered up the Silver Tower, and he welcomed us all. The result is a game that feels fresh and new and vibrant, yet if you stare at it hard enough, and squint a bit, there are recognisable elements beneath the shimmering surface.

And what a shimmering surface it is: Beautiful miniatures for six heroic characters and a great selection of enemies (three bosses, acolytes, beastmen, demons, and even some cute chaos familiars), thick cardboard tiles with some of the most glorious artwork ever devised for a board game, and...

Hold on. I'm going to talk about those tiles a bit more, because they deserve it. They are superb. The artwork is bold and brilliant, and perfectly captures the true essence of Tzeentch: Swirling patterns, unusual angles, platforms overhanging a starlit void, and slavering mouths that gibber the secrets of the universe. Best of all, the squares of the movement grid do not perfectly align, meaning there is no such thing as orthogonal movement, or diagonal movement. There is simply movement into an adjacent square. It's such a subtle thing, but truly captures the chaotic nature of a tower where the normal rules do not apply; and it actually makes movement feel a bit more fluid and natural compared to moving around a regimented chessboard-style grid.


One of the illustrated board tiles from Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower, depicting a narrow tunnel in a chaos-infused domain.


Anyway, where was I?

Miniatures... tiles... thick tokens... nice cards in two sizes (which are not as flimsy as some people would have you believe)... and two beautifully put together books. 

The first book is the rules, which actually looks and reads more like a glossy magazine than anything else, with massive double-page pictures of the game in action and box-outs everywhere. The rules are written relatively well (with a few quite major omissions), and it has a very user-friendly approach to your first game, stepping you through the process step-by-step so you can start playing your first game while you are reading. However, the layout does make it a bit tricky to find rules clarifications quickly.


A double-page spread from the Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower rules book.


The second book is the beating heart of the game: A glossy tome containing short paragraphs of flavour text paired with new rules and special events that happen throughout the course of the game. There are three times when you may need to reference this book:

1. At the start of the game, as the introduction to the quest.
2. As the result of revealing a special type of room while exploring the tower.
3. As the result of an unexpected event.

In the case of 1. and 2., the game specifies which paragraph you need to read (a bit like a "choose your own adventure game" book), but for 3. you roll two dice to get a number between 11 and 66, flip to the correct paragraph, and see what horrible thing happens next.

It's a simple game mechanism that has the potential to create wonderful stories, filled with daring adventure and startling revelations. I particularly like that all the text is in the past tense. It feels like you are reading from a book of history, recounting the ordeals of famous heroes who are remembered years after their demise. It also instills a wonderful sense of unease in the players: A sense that your fate is preordained, and you are simply following a path laid out by the Changer of the Ways.

It's just beautiful storytelling.

But I feel like I'm getting ahead of myself here, so lets take a step back: What, exactly, is Silver Tower all about?

Thematically, it offers a much richer experience than the original. Rather than the story of a group of tomb raiders delving into a dungeon to face a grab-bag of monsters that wouldn't really live together, Silver Tower recounts the tale of a group of heroes who all find themselves in a powerful chaos wizard's tower at the same time. No specific reasons are given: Each hero is a mystery. But all of these heroes are in the same boat, and must form an uneasy alliance in order to survive. Followers of chaos stride into battle alongside pious war priests, and surly dwarfs fight back-to-back with Stomcast Eternals, the godlike warriors of Sigmar.

Each hero has four health points, which also represent their ability to perform actions each turn. When your hero activates, you roll one dice for each health point remaining. The results of this roll dictate what you can then do on the turn. For example, every hero can discard a dice with a value of 1 or more to move, recover lost wounds, explore a new location (lay a new map tile on the board), or make a basic combat attack. Each character also has more powerful attack options, and special abilities, that trigger by discarding dice with a higher value.


A selection of dice from Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower in different colours.


The system is very intuitive, and what makes it particularly interesting is the way that every time your hero takes a wound, you lose a possible action. This is a great way to simulate how the accumulation of wounds effects your combat prowess, and reminds me very much of the fantastic Claustrophobia (which is absolutely a very good thing).


The six character sheets from Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower.


Most of the time, heroes are going to be hitting monsters over the head, but if they are next to an exit point on a tile they have the chance to explore. This involves discarding a dice to draw the top card from a pre-generated dungeon deck. The card specifies which tile to place, what monsters to spawn (which usually involves randomly generating a horde by rolling on a monster chart), and occasionally, which section of the adventure book to read from.


A selection of dungeon cards from Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower.


After all the heroes have finished moving, exploring, and making their point with a range of sharp implements, the monsters get to retaliate. Each monster type has a set of statistics and special rules, plus a table of commands that control them. For each type, roll a dice and consult the relevant entry in the table to see what they do.


The Stormcast Eternal fights off some denizens of the Silver Tower.


And that's pretty much it. There are powerful items to find, a nifty "destiny dice" mechanism that has the potential to gift you more actions on your turn but may also result in an unexpected event or the arrival of a pesky chaos familiar, and over the course of the game you collect renown which grants access to new skills; but overall, the game is pretty straightforward. And it's an absolute joy because of that simplicity. It's the most "pick up and play" dungeon crawl I have ever seen, and yet it doesn't skimp on decisions either. Positioning is important, choosing the right skills to play is important, exploring at the right time is important; and because many items are single use, and your health is directly tied to your potential actions, there is some resource management in there too.


The skill cards from Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower, arranged in a spiral.


It really doesn't sound like much when you lay out the mechanisms in a review like this; it's something you really have to experience: Pure, streamlined, fun.

But, as always, this isn't perfect. Games Workshop games are never perfect. It's almost a part of their charm... I mean, it would be if the issues weren't so teeth-grindingly frustrating.

The first major issue isn't really a fault with the design of Silver Tower; it's more an inherent fault with any type of dungeon crawl: The first few turns aren't very exciting. You line up your dudes, reveal the first room, spawn some monsters, and you're away... But your mighty heroes have no treasure to use, a handful of basic combat attacks, and one or two special powers that they may or may not be in a position to trigger. Your options are (purposefully) limited, and those first few turns often feel a little bit like "going through the motions." You bash in a few heads with brute force and copious dice-rolling, rather than through cleverly employing particular skillsets and tactics.

The situation changes rapidly - characters are going to start picking up treasure within a few turns, and learning new skills shortly after that - but those initial turns of a new campaign often feel like a bit of a slog.


A selection of powerful item cards from Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower.


And speaking of campaigns... well... there sort of isn't one.

The original Warhammer Quest featured a wonderful campaign system that allowed heroes to go to town, level up their stats, and spend ill-gotten money on new equipment. But Silver Tower doesn't. The entire game recounts a single adventure: The tale of heroes thrown together by the winds of change to overcome a series of obstacles inside a tower of evil. There is no popping down the shops for some Pringles and a bottle of White Lightning. Once you are inside the tower, you are there until your campaign ends... however it ends.

That's not to say there isn't some progression between the adventures provided in that wonderfully written adventure book. It is possible to play each quest to form a coherent narrative, and there are rules for using the same characters from quest to quest, which involves rolling to see if you get to keep treasure cards, and keeping a certain number of skills you have learned in the previous game based on how far through the campaign you are. It's not really a fully-fledged campaign system, but it's enough for me, and over time you get to hone your skillset (picking up new ones, discarding old ones) to create a character that plays to your preferences.

What I particularly like about the campaign system is that it focuses more on the narrative than the persistence of treasure and skills, or even the characters in the party. The full campaign is the story of a large number of people within the tower at the same point. Sometimes those characters meet, forming a heroic group for a single mission; in the next mission, certain characters may leave to follow their own goals, and new heroes arrive to take their place. There are no constraints, and you have the option to swap characters at will.

The result is the ability to weave a wonderful tapestry of heroic endeavours, with characters dropping in and out of each other's stories at will. It's an absolutely perfect way to reflect how the Silver Tower is an every-changing labyrinth of horrors, bent to the whims of a chaos sorcerer who may occasionally push heroes together for his own amusement.

The theme, the mechanisms, the art, the adventure book: It all works together to create a unique style of storytelling that draws inspiration from many other games and yet changes it, forming it into something new and wonderful.

A gift from the Changer of the Ways.


One of the powerful boss monsters from Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower.


But chaos gifts come with a cost. Sanity is currency, and too long in the presence of demons can send you over the edge. The rulebook for Silver Tower is the gateway to a land of ever-changing horrors, fragments of half-remembered knowledge, and some pretty vague writing.

I'm not going to go into all the details, but the rules for respite (a special sequence of events that occurs when there are no monsters on the board) are an absolute mess. There are about six interpretations of the rules as written, and while I am enjoying the game playing with the rules I as understand them, there is no guarantee I'm playing correctly. I know there is an FAQ on the way to clarify this issue (along with issues on subjects such as line of sight, various special abilities, and card events), but it is frustrating to have that nagging thought at the back of your mind every time the respite phase occurs that you may be doing it all wrong.

Furthermore, Games Workshop decided to publish all of the stats and tables for the monsters in the back of the rulebook. This is incredibly inconvenient,and I honestly don't see why they couldn't have included some stat cards in the box. Pretty sure it wouldn't have broken the bank.


One of the Pink Horrors from Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower.


But perhaps the game's greatest failing... a failing for me, I should add... is that it just isn't very good as a solo experience.

Don't get me wrong. The mechanisms all work well when you play the game alone: It is easy to control several heroes as the rules are straightforward and there isn't a lot of bookkeeping to worry about. The problem is that the game mechanisms demand that you constantly flick through the adventure book to read out passages of text that progress the story.

It just feels like a social storytelling experience.

Playing the game alone, I lacked someone to share my epic story with. I lacked a group to gasp at the horrors, cheer at the successes, and really experience this unfolding narrative.

Alone, without friends, finding the correct passages of text and reading them started to feel mechanical rather than fun. It started to feel too much like I could see the cogs whirring beneath that shimmering surface of the story. I could feel the way the Changer of the Ways was manipulating me.

It's difficult to explain, and I suspect a lot of people are going to comment about how they love it solo. So, if it works for you as a solo experience, great. I'm happy for you. I just wish it worked for me the same way.

But that's okay, because I don't need this game to be a solo experience; and thankfully, as a way to spend time with friends, it is a pleasure. It is simple, elegant, evocative, thematically rich, easy to learn, quick to play, fun, and beautiful.


The Stormcast Eternal from Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower, ready for battle.


Some out of production games demand a reprint.

Some games deserve to be repackaged, updated, and made available to the masses so people do not have to pay obscene prices on eBay.

Some games are so timeless and superb that they should always be in print, and the world seems incomplete without them.

I truly believe that the original Warhammer Quest is not one of them.

Fortunately, it seems that the designers of Silver Tower agree.

This is not Warhammer Quest

It shares some of that older game's DNA; it shares some of the ideas; but those building blocks of design have drifted for too long in the warp. They have experienced the touch of the Changer of the Ways. They have mutated and evolved.

They have become glorious.


Silver Tower is available from good Games Workshop stockists, and is well worth checking out.

15 comments:

  1. Like you I was excited about this -- I think I may have said so in the comments on another post -- and of course I had to buy the game on release day. then I spent hours putting the miniatures together. Probably too long, as a couple of them were more fiddly than they needed to be.

    And then... it's sat in its box, unplayed.

    I'm sure I'll get around to it at some point, but it hasn't happened yet. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because I have no one to play it with at the moment and like you I'm not convinced by the solo play possibilities.

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    1. That's a shame. The game really deserves to be played.

      You may have more luck with it solo than I did, but I am reluctant to recommend that as your first experience, because if you find it lacking you may give up on the game completely.

      As always, thanks for reading and sharing your comments.

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    2. My gaming group was going to give it a go but more people turned up than expected and it was too many to play WQ so we did something else. I think it was Dead of Winter. I'm sure another opportunity will arise soon!

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    3. I keep meaning to try Dead of Winter, but I can't bring myself to buy it because I think I hate the "roll a 1 and you're dead" rule (I know that's an oversimplification and there are ways to mitigate the luck, but I just think it's something I wouldn't enjoy).

      I also have to remind myself I have a lot of games on my shelf that I still haven't played. I don't need anymore just now.

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  2. A wonderful passionate and personal review as always, and even - and this is virtually unheard of in boardgame reviews - moving. I completely understand those feelings of nostalgia and excitement, even if GW does seem to force me to be cynical these days. And yet ... I'm busy painting up my copy as I can't bear to play it for the first time unpainted.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, I really appreciate it. Unfortunately, if I waited until I had painted everything before playing, this review may never have happened!

      Based on how they have been in recent years, being cynical about GW is natural (especially the prices you have to pay in your neck of the woods). However, I am seeing real change in the company, and I love a lot of what they are doing. They have even just put out a starter set for Age of Sigmar which is only £20, which is such an exciting move, and a real effort on their part to make an expensive hobby more accessible. My hope is that they will continue making inroads to become a company that people are proud to support.

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    2. Oh gosh yes. GW has surprised me a lot over the past couple of years, and they have all been good surprises. Whatever's changed over there, it's a good change.

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  3. Smashingly rich read and review. I resolutely enjoy your style as it is more authentic in how you avoid distilling emotion from writing.
    My favorite line written? "...and by the time I had put the miniatures together, I had put myself together too."
    Thank you for this.

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  4. Love your style man. Touching. Its weird how, when I'm interested in a game, I search for reviews and (I'd say) I only want to know about that game. But then you start talking about stuff thats not strictly the game, and yet you manage to grab me somehow, to the point that the game doesn't matter anymore. One of the very few reviewers that get away with that.

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    1. Thank you so much. I really do appreciate the kind words, and I'm glad you find my twisty-turny trains of thought worth reading. Have you decided to give Silver Tower a try?

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  5. Thank you for your written piece here, I enjoyed reading it, and, as already commented by another, I was touched by: "...by the time i had put the miniatures together, I had put myself together too", And also your description of getting a gift by your daughter but not really "being there" to get into it is very recognizable and real to me. I bought the game yesterday and am looking forward to introducing it to my rpg gaming group for some good & fun board game dungeon crawling, and also to my sons and wife. I am sure I - and we - will enjoy it a lot!

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    1. Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment. Silver Tower really is a wonderful game, and I hope you have a lot of fun with it.

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