Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Review - Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game

Designed by Brady Sadler and Adam Sadler
Published by Fantasy Flight Games
For 1-4 players, aged 14 to adult

Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game


Well, that escalated quickly.

I am, of course, talking about the split of Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) and Games Workshop (GW). You must have heard about it. It's the most news-worthy thing to have happened in the gaming world since that last Kickstarter campaign that everybody backed, which delivered slightly late and with slightly lower quality components than expected.

For the last few years, FFG has been using GW's intellectual property to pump out living card games (Conquest), strategy games (Forbidden Stars), adventure games (Talisman, Relic), and more. But recently, it has become increasingly apparent that the relationship couldn't last. FFG has been moving more into miniatures-based games, and GW has returned to producing board games for the first time since the '90s.

GW was getting more and more chocolate in FFG's peanut butter, and FFG was getting its peanut butter all over GW's chocolate...

(Man, I'm hungry...)

It was only a matter of time until things broke down, no matter how delicious consumers thought the resulting products were. When it was time to renew the licencing agreement, the two companies went their separate ways. And I wasn't surprised in the slightest. This is the world of business, after all; and in this case, it no longer made sense for either company to continue.

Of course, there has been much debate over who's fault it was - over who "screwed the consumers" - but I'm more inclined to believe it was just a mutual agreement. The kind of agreement businesses make every day in order to stay relevant and affluent. But it doesn't really matter anyway. All that matters is that a very long list of FFG games have gone immediately out of print, and all GW-branded FFG games leave distribution channels forever in February next year.

There are no more reprints, and no more expansions.

And really, that leaves Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game up sh*t creek a little bit.

Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game box, showing fantastic artwork of heroes delving into a goblin-infested dungeon.


To be honest, I'm not really a fan of what FFG has been doing with the GW licence. The only game I completely invested in was the incredible Space Hulk: Death Angel card game. However, I would be lying if I said I wasn't interested in the Warhammer Quest card game when it launched, so I was rather pleased when a good friend bought it for me.

So (to quote a famous space-faring feline) what is it?

Well, as the rather subtle name suggests, it's a co-operative card game for one to four players... about adventure... in the Warhammer universe (the "Old World" - you know, the world that existed until GW blew it up to make way for the new Age of Sigmar setting).

What that rather subtle name doesn't suggest is that this is, in theory, one of the best dungeon-crawling games ever made.

It has a lot going for it. GW's licence, incredible fantasy artwork, and a modular, card-based design that lends itself perfectly to creating the length and breadth of the "Old World."

And its that modular design which is the true strength of the game.

If you think about any dungeon crawler, one of the biggest concerns is replayability: What you get in the box, and how long it's going to last until it starts to get stale. How many dungeons can you explore before you have seen every chamber? How many monsters can you fight until you know all their tricks? How many treasures can you find before you are turning up the same +1 magic sword of super-zapping again.

This is a particular concern for games that feature miniatures, because those miniatures are expensive. Even the most generous games only offer so many. Look at another popular FFG title: Descent: 2nd Edition. That game comes with 39 plastic miniatures, but only nine unique types of enemies. GW's superb Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower comes with 51 miniatures, but also only has nine types of enemies (10 if you include the familiars that pop up to cause trouble).

No matter how great a dungeon-crawling game is, there is no getting around the fact that a main element of the genre is exploration. The whole essence of these games is that sense of going into somewhere dark and mysterious, and uncovering secrets. You're playing adventurers, and you need adventure. You need to explore the world, delve deeper, and push yourself to overcome greater challenges. Nobody is going to write ballads about Tim, that guy who went into the cave in his back garden every day and punched the local goblin in the face.

Tim's not a hero; he's a bloody bully.

Sooner or later, you need to reach beyond what the game gives you. That's where expansions come in; and that's where the design of Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game excels. It doesn't need to spew out big-box expansions stuffed with cardboard map tiles, and new plastic miniatures. It just needs a few cards to create a whole new world of adventure.

When you first open the box for Warhammer Quest, there is a surprising amount of air in there (clearly lots of space for all those planned expansions); but all that space belies the actual content you get.

Interior shot of Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game, showing homemade insert and organisers.


For a start there are 15 different types of monsters, and as there are basic and elite versions for each, you effectively get 30 types of monster. On top of that, you get five different boss monsters. I can't think of any other dungeon-crawler that comes close to offering that kind of enemy variety straight out of the box.

Furthermore, even though the game is scenario-based, and only includes a single five-scenario campaign in the box (plus one "open play" scenario that gives you the chance to play one-off adventures), the dungeons are generated semi-randomly from a combination of specific quest locations and "open" dungeon cards that could appear in any dungeon. And unlike in many other adventure games, every location is unique, with its own set of rules. If you ever played the original Warhammer Quest and thought it would be nice if all those pretty corridor tiles actually had some rules associated with them, this little card game addresses that concern.

The combinations of monsters and locations means it is very unlikely for two games to play out exactly the same, even if you are playing the same scenario. Put simply: there is a lot of adventure packed into the box.

A selection of dungeon location cards from Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game, arranged attractively in a fan.


And yet...

And yet...

Somehow, it still doesn't feel like enough.

Perhaps it is because the game is so obviously designed with expansions in mind.

Perhaps it is because there are only five scenarios, and no matter how much variety there is in locations and monsters, it eventually starts to feel samey when your main objectives are always fixed.

Perhaps it is because the five scenarios link in a single story, so the game starts to fill a bit like a "choose your own adventure" book, where no matter what happens along the way, the destination is always the same.

Or perhaps it's just because, unlike many other adventure games, Warhammer Quest feels more like a puzzle than an unravelling saga. Once you have a handle on how to "solve" the various challenges, there just isn't enough story to make each time through the dungeon feel relevant.

Whatever the reason, Warhammer Quest feels like a game that should be giving more than what you get: a game that demands the FFG model of churning out expansions at an alarming rate.

And that, of course, given what we now know about the relationship between FFG and GW, is an issue.

But if I'm being honest, that was never going to be a problem for me personally. I don't think I would expand the game even if I could. I realise that I am in the minority, and I realise I am putting myself at risk of being burned at the stake by saying it, but I just didn't really enjoy my time in the "Old World" with this game.

I think I got off on the wrong foot with the game because of the truly horrible rules books. You get a quick-start "Learn to Play" book and a "Rules Reference," and the intention is that you read the first book, set up an example game, and play through the basic rules. By the end of that, you are supposed to be ready to play, but you have the reference book for clarifying any rules questions that crop up on the way.

But it just doesn't work.

The two rules books from Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game, showing cover illustrations.


For a start, while the rules are quite dense, once you know the sequence of play it's all pretty straightforward. In this case, separating the rules into two books was over-egging the pudding. One well-organised book would have been enough, but instead you get two that seem to work as hard as possible to confuse even the most basic concepts by splitting them up, scattering them around all over the place, and jumbling up the terminology.

The "Learn to Play" guide makes it harder to figure out the rules as it creates an additional layer of learning, before you actually learn the rules. For example, it gives you specific instructions for setting up an encounter, but those instructions are completely different to how you actually set up an encounter in the game. I played through the tutorial, and then went to start my first proper game, and realised I had no idea how to spawn the starting monsters, which meant my first game started with me flicking through the "Rules Reference" to learn all the vital information I hadn't been told.

There are also massive gaps in the rules, and hardly any examples to help clarify what you are supposed to do.

For what is, at heart, a fairly simple game, just learning how to play was a chore. I have since played Legends of Andor (another game FFG no longer has the rights to publish), and that adopts a similar approach to learning the rules, but does it so, so, so much better.

Now I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "But he said that in theory this was possibly the best dungeon-crawling game ever made." Yeah, I did.

"In theory."

The game is actually pretty damned slick.

The rules books were a pain, but I realised that one full turn in a proper game was all it took to know exactly how to play, And everything really does work very smoothly. The heart of the game is an action selection system reminiscent of Space Hulk: Death Angel. Each hero entering the dungeon has four actions: Attack, Explore, Aid, and Rest. On your turn, you get to select one action, and perform all the instructions on that action card, including rolling a number of dice to generate "successes" in that activity. For example, if you Explore, you roll a certain number of dice, and put a progress token on your current location for each "success" you roll. The twist is that you are not allowed to do that action again until you refresh all your cards, and the only way to do that is to play the one action card you have that has a refresh symbol on it.

Dwarf hero from Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game, with action cards.


It's a very clever system, that forces you to think outside the box. You may be swamped with enemies, but you can't just hack your way out of a tight corner, because you simply aren't allowed to use your attack action multiple turns in a row. Instead, you have to figure out how you can temporarily stun a few monsters, hurt a few more, force more to retreat into the darkness, pass some off onto other heroes to deal with, or simply buff yourself up to withstand their onslaught.

It's clever, and deep, and... I dunno... stale?

It just didn't click with me, which is weird, because I am a huge fan of Space Hulk: Death Angel.

I think, though, the difference is to do with pace. In the Space Hulk card game, marines have one wound, and genestealers have one wound. When you attack, you get the chance to mow down a horde. When you are attacked, there is real heart-in-the-mouth tension because one bad roll and your marine is gone. By contrast, in Warhammer Quest, heroes can soak incredible amounts of damage, and even beating up a measly goblin could take several turns as you slowly chip away at his life one wound at a time. It just feels exhausting and drawn-out.

Custom dice from Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game.


And it's not just attacking that feels like it goes on forever. Exploring is equally tiresome. To progress through the dungeon, you need to put a certain number of progress tokens on your current location, which you do by performing the Explore action. Once you have explored enough, you get to move to the next location in your dungeon deck. Simple. Effective. Clever.

And yet, for me...

Look, okay. I'm going to tell you this little story. Last year, I built an extension on my house. It was messy, and involved knocking out some interior walls, so I moved my entire family into my mum and dad's house for what felt like forever.

While I was there, I had to endure quite a lot of terrible television that my parents like; and they love Downton Abbey.

I don't.

To me, Downton Abbey is akin to being slowly suffocated by a warm cup of cocoa. It's just awful.

I pointed this out to my mum who said, "Well everyone else likes it, so you're wrong."

Naturally, having learned how to argue this sort of thing from the Internet, I called my mum a Nazi.

But anyway, I know that Warhammer Quest is immensely popular. I know that I am in the minority here. And it comes down to this: Either I'm wrong, or you're all Nazis.

I can't change the way I feel though. This game just left me a bit cold.

Maybe it was the repetition.

You have your four actions, and every turn you pick one. You either fight, explore your location, help another hero in some way, or rest to recover some of your hit points. Monsters come and go, and when they attack they follow a specific procedural sequence of actions printed on their card. Eventually you move to a new location. You do the same thing there, until you reach the end of level boss.

You take tokens off, you put tokens on. You tally your accounts.

And it's clever... don't get me wrong, it's really clever... but it doesn't feel like adventuring. I mean, you can find treasure when you explore, you can earn powerful weapons, between missions you get the chance to level up your action cards so they do more powerful things, and as the campaign progresses you face tougher monsters. All the trappings of adventure are there, but I just didn't feel it.

I have said before, I don't really review games; I review how games make me feel. In this case, I just didn't really feel anything.

The rules are good, the art is excellent, the component quality is good, the setting is the wonderful Warhammer world I love so much. Everything is there except the spark I need to not only appreciate the design, but also love the game.

So maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm wrong.

A selection of enemies - skaven, greenskins - from Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game.


But it doesn't really matter anyway, does it?

In truth, this review is late. I've been meaning to write it for months, and now it doesn't feel particularly relevant any more. The base game is all there is, and all there ever will be (unless you count two hard-to-find character expansions that don't add any new monsters, treasures, or scenarios). Recent events have overshadowed the actual quality of the game, and now it isn't a matter of answering the question, "Is this game good?"

It's more a question of, "Is this game good enough?"

Is it good enough to buy now, probably at an inflated price, because you aren't going to be able to buy it later?

Is it good enough to buy now, knowing you are never going to get any new scenarios to play through?

It is good enough to buy, when in all likelihood, FFG is already working on reskinning the rules with their boiled chicken and white rice Terrinoth setting?

And those are questions I can't really answer. Unless "It depends" counts. And I suppose that makes this review a very long waste of time.

But maybe I can chuck some figures around, and you might get some idea of how you might value the game. I mean, how many evenings of entertainment do you expect from a game before you consider it value for money? Assuming you like the game mechanisms and actually want to play it, of course.

This game comes with five scenarios, and each one is going to take you two or three hours (unless you are in one of those groups that claims to be able to play Arkham Horror in two hours, in which case your mileage will vary significantly). So five scenarios is five games. Unless you lose. Say you lose each scenario once. That's now 10 games.

Now consider the semi-random distribution of monsters and dungeon locations. That probably means you can squeeze another play out of each scenario.

Now consider hero distribution. If you are playing with only two heroes (solo, or with a partner), you've got several iterations of the four heroes to play around with. Even if you always play with four players and four heroes, you may find that each player in your group would like to play through the scenarios several times, taking a different hero each time, so let's say that gives you four times as many playthroughs.

And then there is the "free play" mode that works like a condensed campaign that you play in a single sitting. That's got to be good for a couple of games.

All told, if you look at what you are getting for your money (and I mean a sane retail price, not a stupidly inflated price on eBay), I think it's a sound deal. But... you won't be able to help yourself... you're still going to feel short changed. You're going to see all the areas where the game was going to expand. You're going to see all the potential.

No matter how often you play the game, and how much you enjoy it, you are always going to feel like this was just a taste of things to come. There will always be that nagging thought in the back of your mind: where was the road going to go?

What could have happened?

This game was a big hit for FFG. Countless adventurers took up their lanterns, and ventured into the depths of the darkest dungeons, expecting to find endless catacombs of terror to explore for years to come. But those lanterns burned all too briefly. They spluttered out in the darkness. And those adventurers... They were lost in the never-ending night beneath the world, doomed to retrace their footsteps over and over again; and their tales of heroism and adventure were lost with them.


You can't get Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game in stores, and I wouldn't expect to find a cheap copy on eBay either. However, you can buy a nice copy of Downtown Abbey from Amazon.

15 comments:

  1. Yeah, I was surprised to see some people attributing so much drama to the FFG/GW split; to me -- like you -- it seemed inevitable and obvious and not in the least bit acrimonious, just a convenient time for the two companies to go their separate ways.

    I've only played the Warhammer Quest card game a couple of times. I admire how it captures the feel of the board game without playing anything like it, and it seems like quite a solid and elegant design -- even if it suffers from Crappy FFG Rulebook Syndrome -- but I haven't felt any urge to play it again since.

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    1. People are never going to miss an opportunity to wail about how evil Games Workshop is.

      Sounds like you might feel similar to me about this one: It's slick and glossy, and the mechanisms all work really well; but it just seems to lack something. I am interested to see how many similarities there are with the new Arkham Horror card game.

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    2. A friend is buying the new Arkham Horror based on my promise that I'll play it with him. I hope I don't regret that promise!

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    3. Do let me know how you get on with it. While I enjoy Arkham Horror, I still haven't found a game that truly captures that particular theme, so I am always hoping the next new game will be the one that finally nails it.

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    4. Well, I've played the new Arkham Horror a couple of times now and I'm keen to play again, so I suppose that means it's better than WHQ!

      It has some mechanics in common with WHQ but feels like an improvement and refinement, in a similar way to how WHQ feels like a refinement of the Lord of the Rings card game. There is a bit of randomness, but much more in the way of player choice. You still get a bit of that abstract feeling when the narrative says you're casting a spell but what you're in fact doing is collecting tokens, but it's not as jarring and overt as it is in the other two games.

      I also like how the two scenarios I've played felt very different; one was set in a haunted house and was all about escaping, and the other was about roaming around Arkham searching for hidden cultists. They almost felt like two different games using the same mechanics, and that makes me excited to play more.

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    5. Thanks for the update. I'm still not sure if I want to drop the money on the starter set for the new card game, as I'm getting a vibe that it's more of an "introduction" to a system and I'm really not the kind of person to chase monthly expansion content. I have too many games and not nearly enough time to handle that sort of thing.

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    6. I think there are five episodes in the core box, with more coming as expansions, so there is a definite feeling of that, yeah.

      I think it only supports two players out of the box too, but I may be wrong about that.

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  2. Personally I think the main problem of this game is the "rush or die" design approach of pretty much all the quests. I never felt like exploring something, I always felt like I had to solve this timed puzzle before attrition killed me. It's not so much an experience, it's more like an exercise... oh and it gets old very fast. I played that ting a couple of times by myself in normal story-mode with very mixed feelings, then finally broke it out one game night wanting to give the delve-quest a try. We ended up aborting the game after we hammered one of the bosses (the Abomination) for like 30+ minutes, slowing chipping down it's health and getting more bored by the minute.
    It also didn't help that, although I played the game before, we had to sift through these terrible rulebooks constantly. They are laid-out like a bloody scavenger hunt, it's ridiculous. All in all, it was such a bad experience that I got rid of the game afterwards.

    By the way, I think all the Arkham Games are utterly terrible and incredibly lazy designs with close to no connection to the actual source material of Lovecraft's writings. Granted, you could argue that the board games are based more on the extended Chaosium-fluff that also integrated Derleth's writings and whatnot but it always makes me cringe when I hear someone praise the supposed "Lovecraft"-theme of these things for there is none in my opinion. The mythos is not about some dudes running around throwing dynamite at tentacles or fist-fighting the big baddie in the end. The choice of box-cover artworks alone (well, except the Mansions of Madness cover) show that these games have nothing to do with what I like about the stories.
    I also suspect the new game will be another LotR min-maxing exercise where you actually have to know the entire story deck and counter-build yours to have a chance to achieve anything worthwhile. No, thank you.

    Okay, enough pointless ranting from me. I Actually only wanted to agree with your point of view here. The game left me cold too.

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    1. Hey, you rant away - it's not fair I'm the only one who gets to do it!

      Thanks for taking the time to read and engage, I like hearing other opinions. It sounds very much like we feel the same way about the pace of the game. Slowly chipping away at the health of an enemy just didn't seem right to me, especially since playing a lot of Silver Tower.

      I do like Arkham Horror, but agree that my motorbike-riding nun with a tommy gun has very little to do with the source material. I recently sold Mansions of Madness, and the only other Lovecraft-inspired game I have is Gloom (reviews for both are here on the blog). I have no interest in Eldritch Horror, Cthulhu Wars, that dice one, or any of the countless other games with the same theme.

      I will be keeping a close eye on the card game; but I doubt I'll hold my breath.

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  3. Well, it's your blog so the ranting privileges solely lie with you. I'm just piggybacking to vent some years old steam ;)

    The thing with Arkham Horror is, I could play a much better game in the amount of time it takes to set this thing up.
    It's not the worst game I ever played (although the Kingsport Expansion can probably claim that), but it definitely is one of the clunkiest ones. I even remember having some fun back in the day when the 2nd edition came out although I'd still rather give the 1st edition a try then ever having to sit through that thing again.
    I just can't get over all the pointless rules, the giant ugly board that takes up thrice the space it needed to, the borderline insulting use of the theme and the amount of time it actually takes to play it.

    For me, the only thing that came close to replicating the mythos theme in board game form was actually Mansion of Madness (1st Edition). That's what I initially thought anyway. That game quickly fell apart after I realized how unfinished that thing felt. I have this problem with most of what FFG does. Good ideas, severely lacking in execution. It's as if they never really test that stuff.
    The new edition is just a lazy cop-out IMO. Instead of fixing the problems of the game and designing something with proper flow, they just put half of the game into an app so they don't have to bother with thinking about clever mechanics. At least that's what it feels like to me. Meh.

    See, here I go again. Sorry.
    This article is about something else so back to topic, well, kind of. I only got one more thing that is mainly just an anecdote really.

    The same day we tried that delve-quest and decided to stop the game, we also played Assassinorum and boy what a contrast that was. We had to check the rules only once during the entire game and it was so engaging and so much more fun.
    I know it's a different theme and a different game, but it showcased perfectly how a game should be designed. That day I was finally convinced that GW was back on the right track and that was a big relief.
    That's also why I'm not overly concerned about the split between FFG and GW. Like you said, it was bound to happen sometime but with the sheer amount of quality GW is putting out lately I'm really hard pressed for tears of regret. The only thing I'm sad about is the early death of Forbidden Stars.

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    1. I think we would get on really well!

      I'm not really a fan of FFG. There games are a bit too busy and the payoff rarely seems worth it. One of the reasons I love GW games so much is they are incredibly streamlined. I haven't played Space Hulk for a long time, but I could take it off the shelf and start playing instantly without even checking the rule book.

      I just picked up my copy of Gorechosen a few hours ago, and I'm very excited to give that a whirl.

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  4. You're absolutely correct. The payoff is just not there to justify all the hassle with most of the FFG games, although they've gotten better over the last years in streamlining their stuff a bit better. Their rule books still suck though.

    Hell, I bet I could take out any GW game from my collection right now, even ye olde Space Crusade, and play it without any need to study rules several days in advance.

    I'm also really looking forward to Gorechosen. A neat little arena skirmish game is something I do not own in any shape or form right now. Definitely looks like a great filler and at the very least a good opportunity to to turn up some serious Metal music while smashing faces with maces for Khorne! ;)

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  5. Gorechosen is hilarious. The names alone crack me up, and it is so gloriously over-the-top. It really reminds me of the GW I grew up with. The GW that gave us Goblin Doom Divers and Fanatics, fast red trucks, and Blood Bowl.

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  6. Hey can I join the not-really-FFG-fans club too? I completely agree about their
    games feeling half-baked regarding the rules, and sometimes just incomplete overall, which they try to compensate with their high quality components. In fact, I'd say they're more interested in making incomplete games (with plenty of room for expansions) than in making them as good as they can (at least for the base game).

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    1. You're more than welcome. Maybe I'll get some badges done up?

      I think the fault in the FFG model becomes apparent when something like Warhammer Quest happens. The number of people upset that the game is never going to get an expansion makes me feel like they really needed those expansions for the game to feel complete. Expansions for a game you love are great (I can't wait to see what comes out for Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower), but it should never feel like the expansions are necessary.

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