Thursday, 6 October 2016

Review - Gorechosen

Published by Games Workshop
For 2-4 players, aged 12 to adult




"I'm a big fan."

I say that a lot.

I probably shouldn't.

I used to say, "I'm a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft." I've read a huge amount of the man's work, and I do occasionally get a bit sniffy about the way Fantasy Flight Games handles Cthulhu and the extended mythos.

But a while back (by which I mean a long time ago), I went to Florida to see Mickey Mouse. One day, I decided to wear my Miskatonic University tee, which (at the time) I thought was pretty funny. (Hint: It's not funny.) As I was walking around the park, I was suddenly beset by an elderly gentleman talking in a foreign language. He gabbled away for a few seconds, and then stopped, as if waiting for me to respond.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I speak English."

The gentleman looked perplexed for a moment, and then started gabbling again. This time he pointed at my chest while he spoke.

Still completely at a loss as to what he was on about, I said, "I'm really sorry. I only speak English."

Even as the words were coming out of my mouth, my brain was making some connections, and in the midst of the gentleman's gabbling I caught a familiar sound: "Fhtagn."

My heart sank, but it was too late.

"You shouldn't be wearing that tee-shirt," the gentleman said, in perfect English, and then he stormed away.

I have read a huge amount of H.P. Lovecraft's work, but until that moment, I had never heard someone fluently speaking Lovecraft's alien words. I had only ever heard the words inside my own head.

I felt more than a little bit like Bruce Campbell, with a firm grasp on the Necronomicon, and no grasp at all on the language.

And that's when I realised that I'm probably not a "big" fan at all.

I'm probably not a "big" fan of anything, really.

I say I'm a big Marvel fan. I've read a lot of comics and graphic novels, seen all the movies, and watched all the Netflix shows. But I couldn't tell you who illustrated "Extremis."

I say I'm a big Batman fan. But off the top of my head, I could only list the names of three Robins.

I say I'm a big fan of Game of Thrones. But I've never read the books.

And I say I'm a big fan of Games Workshop.

But I'm not sure that's really true.

I used to be a big fan of Games Workshop. I've mentioned before how the company was an important part of my childhood. But even back then, I never read the books, and I never had a Warhammer 40,000 army. I only played Warhammer Fantasy Battle and the board games. Then I went to university, and I turned my back on Games Workshop completely.

Years later, I tried to get back into Warhammer Fantasy Battle, but the magic was gone. Worse still, it felt like Games Workshop had turned its back on me. It wasn't the warm and welcoming company I used to know, and it didn't make any of the products that I used to like. Even when they released Space Hulk it didn't feel like a triumphant return. It didn't feel like they really wanted me back as a customer.

But recently, gradually, things have started to change.

There has been a noticeable shift in the way Games Workshop operates. The board games (really good board games!) are coming thick and fast, they have put out inexpensive starter sets for Age of Sigmar and Warhammer 40K, they are bundling their expensive models to lower the cost without damaging the perception of a "premium" product, they are releasing support for their games, including FAQs and additional free content.

And now, with Gorechosen (and Lost Patrol before it) they are making a concerted effort to produce something that appeals strongly to the boardgamers of the world.

I think they're doing a great job.

Especially with Gorechosen, I think they're doing a great job.



As a product, Gorechosen is wonderfully thought out, and represents one of the best ways for anyone new to Games Workshop to dip a toe in the water. At £35 (or closer to £28 with online discounts), the game doesn't come with the hefty punch to the wallet usually associated with Games Workshop; and with only four models in the box, it doesn't come with a heavy dose of the hobby that Games Workshop is famous for. With just four figures to build, and with Games Workshop's new colour-coded and numbered instructions, you can genuinely have this game assembled and ready to play in an hour.



But it's more than that.

Everything about this product feels... welcoming.

I mean, as welcoming as it can feel with all the fire, and blood, and skulls, and spikes, and hellish monsters.



The rules are compact, and well-illustrated (but with no examples of play; guess you can't have everything). The building instructions are incredibly well-done, and include small painting guides for the four characters. The box has one of the nicest vacuum molded inserts I've seen for a long time (which is something I thought I would never say about a Games Workshop product). And even though the game is set in the Age of Sigmar world, which may seem a bit daunting for anyone new, the game is suitably small in scale and easy to comprehend. You may not know what a Gorechosen is, but you can understand the concept of a fighting pit where four armoured warriors enter, and only one leaves.

Oh, and it's hilarious.

I mean, in a dark kind of way.

It may look like a grim, gritty, bloody game... and, well... it sort of is. But it's not taking itself too seriously.

Everything is gloriously over the top: The names of the fighters (Kore Hammerskull, Heldrax Goretouched), the weapons (the skullgouger, the goreaxe), and the fluff text in the rules book ("Each screaming head hacked from the spurting neck of an enemy is another skull to be laid at the feet of Khorne, another paving stone on their long road to damnation). This is a game that should come with a DragonForce soundtrack, or a skull-shaped dice tower.

Games Workshop are playing this one as much for the yucks-factor as they are for the yuck-factor.

But that's not going to be for everyone. The theme is dark. The characters are butchering each other, and the main aim of every battle is the total annihilation of your opponents. It's an ugly, twisted theme that encourages you to laugh at misfortune, and could well involve someone getting beaten to death with their own leg. Some people just aren't going to get on board with it.

But if you can get on board... if you can embrace this game for what it is (and I strongly suggest you don't literally embrace it, as everything is incredibly spiky and there is even a warning on the back of the box reading "essential pointed components")... this is an absolute joy.

As I've already mentioned, everything is impeccably presented, and it feels like Games Workshop really lavished some attention on it. The artwork is incredible, even down the backs of the cards and Khorne skull icon printed on the underside of the box lid. Around the sides of the box, and in the rules book, are stunning black and white sketches with splashes of red that create startling images of demonic warriors locked in battle, and the health bars on the character cards for tracking damage show an iron helm gradually disintegrating into a puddle of goo like something out of the old British television series, Knightmare. The board itself is double-sided, providing two hex-based arenas to tussle in. And yes, the board art is amazing too; although Games Workshop has unfortunately used red lines against a dark background to define important areas, which isn't ideal for us colourblind folk.



I feel I should mention some of the cardboard tokens are incredibly tiny, and I can see people trading them out for glass beads or something.  Also, a few tokens didn't come out of the punchboard cleanly; but that's a pretty minor complaint. Overall, this looks and feels like a quality product... like a quality board game. It's probably the most attractive package Games Workshop has put together since Space Hulk.

But what if bling ain't your thing? Is there a good game under all the blood and guts?

The short answer is "yes."

The slightly longer answer is...

Gorechosen is a game with heart. It's a still-beating heart ripped from a fighter's torso and displayed to the baying crowds of blood-hungry fiends. But it's a heart.

It's a little game that roars: a punchy little fighter that deserves some respect.

And yes, it's good.

The premise is simple, with pretty simple rules to match. Two to four players each take control of one of the titular warriors, and they enter an arena comprising a hex-grid in order to prove who is the best at being the worst.



The flow of the gameplay is relatively straightforward. First, each player gets dealt a hand of five action cards, then each player puts a number of initiative cards into a deck, which gets shuffled. The number of initiative cards a player puts in depends on his or her current wrath level, which goes up and down over the course of the game.

To start the ruckus, the first initiative card is flipped, indicating the player who gets to start. That player then plays one action card. After that, the next initiative card is flipped, and so on. Once all the initiative cards have been flipped, a new round begins, and the process starts over.

Put like that, this sounds like the worst game ever made. (I'm very proud of myself; it takes a lot of skill to make something sound that bad.)

But the Devil's in the details.

For a start, each action card is split into three sections. One section describes a move action; one section describes an attack action; one section describes a special action (divided into actions you take in your turn, or defensive actions you take when an opponent attacks you). And although each card actually represents three actions, you only get to pick one.



That's pretty interesting, and it opens up some exciting tactical options. You have to judge the value of each card for movement, attacking, and defensive purposes. You have to decide whether to unleash a powerful attack that leaves you without the defensive action on the same card, or whether to use an inferior action, but keep a powerful defensive card in hand for when you are taking a serious beating.

Attacking creates its own unique challenges. Facing is important, with each fighter having his own "kill zone" to consider (a pattern of hexes in his front arc that represents the reach and passage of his chosen weapon), and a unique combat ability that generates benefits when attacking under certain conditions. In order to play an attack action, you need an opponent in your "kill zone;" but even trying to move your fighter into position isn't easy. Some movement actions force you to end your movement facing directly away from the last hex you moved out of; some force you to end your movement facing directly at the last hex you moved out of (as if you backed away from your opponent); some allow you to face in any direction you please. Additionally, some movements specify you are not allowed to move adjacent to an enemy, representing your fighters circling each other as they look for a weakness before attacking.



Once you are in position, attacking involves playing an attack action, rolling the right number of dice, and trying to match the "to hit" value printed on your character card. Each successful hit does damage, and for each point of damage your opponent has to move a health marker down on his health bar (which starts at eight). When the health marker reaches the bottom of the health bar, the player puts an injury counter on the top empty slot of the health bar, resets the health marker to the first space on the track that doesn't have an injury counter on it, and then draws a critical injury card, applying the effects of all critical injuries at the end of the attack. This means that, over time, a fighter's health bar shrinks, and the frequency of drawing injury cards increases. If at any point there is no space left to add an injury token to the top of a health bar, that fighter is out of the game.

This is a really clever, effective way to reflect how the accumulation of small wounds saps a fighter's strength and stamina. At the start of the game you get to take quite a few knocks before drawing a critical injury. However, as the game progresses and your health bar starts to fill up with injury counters, the critical injuries come thick and fast. Combined with the fact certain critical injuries have a permanent impact on your "kill zone," "to hit" rolls, and special combat abilities, you end up with a surprisingly in-depth way of representing how getting seven shades of sh*t knocked out of you effects your abilities over time.

The system is more intricate than it has any right to be, considering it all plays out so effortlessly with just a few tokens for tracking each fighter's current status and a small deck of critical injury cards.



But a good system isn't necessarily the same as a good game. A really clever way of tracking health and adjusting combat prowess accordingly doesn't count for much if the game itself isn't fun.

Fortunately, Gorechosen is an absolute riot (in more ways than one).

Sometimes...

The designer has included several ways to play the game, and some are arguably better than others.

The first mode is a free-for-all for two to four players, with each player controlling one character. This mode is ideally suited to four players. With four fighters in the arena you never feel safe, you are constantly worried about attacks from behind or temporary alliances from other players, and clever positioning is vital. With just two players, the game feels like a bit of a slugfest, and luck of the draw is a more prominent factor for determining the winner. With four players, there is a natural balance, with everyone teaming up against the fighters that are doing well, or taking attacks of opportunity when they can; but with less players, there is nothing to stop one player dominating, and once things go bad for you, there doesn't always feel like there's much you can do about it.

Fortunately, the designer included a variant drafting rule to mitigate the role of luck in determining your actions for the round, and also including a variant single combat rule that presents an opportunity for one of the fighters to get an additional activation in each combat round. These variants do help the two-player game considerably, but cannot make up for the fact that with less fighters to worry about there is simply... less game. The fighters are the game, and with less of them around, there is less movement, less action, less laughter... Just less.

Other variants include two-on-two team play, and an all-versus-one "Kingslayer" mode. Each mode is interesting, but none of them have the true, visceral excitement of a good old-fashioned bundle, with four players trying to kick the snot out of each other.

Unfortunately, even that mode of play has a significant issue... player elimination.

It is possible to die in the first turn of the game. There are pits in the arena, and if someone gives you a good hard shove at the right time, you fall in and you die. You get to roll a dice, and discard action cards (if you have any) in an attempt to prevent this cruel and unusual fate, but if luck is against you, that's it for you. Game over.

Once you are dead, you still get to do something each turn, as there is a "fate of the slain" rule that allows you to screw with the other players; but that's just for giggles, as once you are dead you are no longer in a position to win. You are just in a position for a bit of petty revenge against whoever took you out.

Games are normally short, but they do have the potential to stretch to an hour if players struggle to make their "to hit" rolls, or everyone starts to play cautiously; and that's a considerable amount of time to sit around waiting for the next game, if you get taken out of commission early.

An early bath doesn't happen often, and I've never seen anyone knocked out of the game in the first turn yet; but I think if it ever does happen, it could really sour a player's experience, and possibly prevent that player from wanting to try again.

Or then again, maybe everyone will find it hilarious, and it will be that story you talk about years from now.



Besides the different modes of play, there isn't a lot of variation from game to game, especially when playing four-player games. You always have the same four fighters, and there isn't a significant difference between the two arena maps. However, as they did with Silver Tower, Games Workshop have included rules with Gorechosen for an additional four characters. If you have the miniatures, or can acquire them, all you need to do is scan the rules and print them off to instantly expand the game and extend the replayability considerably.

The characters in the rules book are the slaughterpriest that Games Workshop gave away for free on the cover of White Dwarf magazine in September 2016, an exalted deathbringer, a bloodstoker, and a bloodsecrator. The last two characters are currently only available in the Age of Sigmar starter set, but it's my hope that Games Workshop makes a hero pack to expand Gorechosen soon.

Furthermore, the September 2016 White Dwarf issue includes rules for two named Khorne heroes: Skarr Bloodwrath and Valkia the Bloody. Don't they just sound like a barrel of laughs?

These named characters are incredibly powerful, so they are best-suited for the "Kingslayer" variant.

All told, there are 10 playable characters for Gorechosen, and two arena maps to fight in, offering a decent amount of replayability for what is effectively a light, filler game. And the game is begging (for mercy) for additional support. It would be the simplest thing in the world for Games Workshop to publish even more characters in White Dwarf magazine, or to print a few hex overlays representing new types of traps or arena designs. I can imagine the Khorne acolytes forcing a stormcast eternal into the fighting pit, facing ever greater challenges for the amusement of capering demons. Hell, I  might even try to come up with something myself.

By keeping the arena relatively simple, and by using a communal action deck, the game focuses on the tactical challenge, where the actions in your hands and your positioning are the most important things; but it also makes the game all about the fighters, and what makes each one unique. It becomes a plug-and-play experience, where simply changing out a character changes the dynamic of the game and makes it almost endlessly customisable.

Are you going to get fed up with it?

If you played it every day, sure.

The game isn't meant to be the meat and potatoes of your gaming evening. It's a quick blast of action; an adrenaline shot to the heart. It's a bit of silly, gory, old-fashioned fun. A chance to smash your friend's face in with a meat cleaver while you laugh about it... er... wow... sorry, went to a dark place for a minute.



Anyway...

If you want a little break from all those goody-goody co-operative games... if you want to pack away Pandemic and turn against your friends with righteous fury... Gorechosen could well be the game for you. It's fast, fun, beautiful (in a skull-heavy, arterial blood-spraying kind of way), and one of the best ways for anyone new to Games Workshop to find out a bit more about the strange world of the Age of Sigmar.

Yeah. I think it's safe to say...

I'm a big fan.


At the time of writing, you can find Gorechosen at all good Games Workshop stockists.

6 comments:

  1. Silver Tower is Tzeentch. Gorechosen is Khorne. I wonder if we're going to get Nurgle and Slaanesh board games? I'd love to see a Nurgle-themed reverse-Pandemic in which the goal is to infect the world.

    I'm with you on GW; this sort of feels like the more wild and inventive Workshop of old, and it's great to see.

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    1. Gorechosen reminded me a bit of Arena of Blood, a game GW published in White Dwarf magazine many moons ago. Obviously, Gorechoson is a lot better, but it was interesting for them to put out a game that had that little hint of the past sewn into the fabric of it.

      Thanks for reading.

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  2. In days gone by this would have been an immediate purchase but my 7 year old son now buries his nose into all my gaming purchases and I already have had his Mother raise a few eyebrows at me for chatting about 'Deathwatch' and 'Overkill'. Chants of blood for the blood god just may end in divorce. Pity i realy want it.

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    1. I can relate. My daughter turns 6 in December, and she is fascinated with my games collection. Gorechosen is pretty extreme, and when my daughter was asking about it she definitely got the PG overview.

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  3. That guy who was speaking Lovecraftian gibberish at you sounds like a bastard. He memorized something and you didn't, but that doesn't mean you're any less worthy of wearing what you want.

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    1. Ha. You're probably right. But it certainly helped me to define the line between liking something... even loving something... and being a "fan."

      Thanks for reading.

      Delete

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