Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Review - Necromunda: Underhive

Published by Games Workshop
For 2 or more players, aged 12 to adult


Necromunda: Underhive cover art


Games Workshop is having a bit of an identity crisis.

Have you noticed?

I've noticed.

And I mean "identity crisis" in the best way possible.

The company is in the midst of a serious transition, and that transition is vitally important.

You see, many moons ago, Games Workshop lived up to its name. It made games. It made the very best kind of games, because they weren't like games at all.

They were doorways.

A product like Warhammer Quest was a whole world in a box. You could step inside and explore distant lands, using a rules set so streamlined and compact it hardly ever intruded on the fantasy. You could immerse yourself in epic lore, and become truly heroic. And between adventures, there were models to assemble and paint, new adventures to create, and new stories to fashion. These were games that didn't end when you put the lid on the box. They lived on; they grew; they bled into your day-to-day existence.

They were a sword against the boredom of school classes; a shield against hurtful names in the playground. They were an enchantment: A cure for loneliness, a creative outlet, and a source of constant joy.

They were the foundation on which I built the man I am today.

But over the years, Games Workshop evolved... Or maybe, devolved. It lost sight of what gaming meant, and focused far too much on being a workshop. Eventually, the executives went on record as saying they were primarily a miniatures manufacturer.

That's a horribly reductive way to look at a company that worked so hard, and for so long, to create worlds so magical they could literally transform the people who visited them.

Fortunately, in recent years, the pendulum has swung.

And it's still swunging.

And only Games Workshop knows how much farther it has to go until it's swunged all the way.

In the meantime, we just have to hang on for the ride.

Because the games are back; and they're back in a big way. Games Workshop has lit a fire (and I don't mean the one that guy lit when he burned all his Fantasy Battle miniatures in a protest against Age of Sigmar).

I look at my shelf now, and I see the Games Workshop brand on some of my favourite games. Warhammer Quest is back, bringing with it such bitter-sweet nostalgia it's hard to think of it as merely a game. Betrayal at Calth arrived without fanfare, and quietly swept away the opposition. Blood Bowl returned to reclaim a trophy some pretenders had been keeping warm, and Space Hulk is still hard to top when it comes to two-player miniatures games. Then there's Gorechosen, a game so good that Shadespire's ability to make it seem diminished is testament only to how good the latter game is.

And, of course, Necromunda.

Or, to be more precise, Necromunda: Underhive.

Necromunda: Underhive box, showcasing the fantastic cover illustration.


For those of you who don't know (and I'm sure you must all know), Necromunda was a brilliant little skirmish game involving small gangs fighting turf wars in a futuristic wasteland. You would start off with a small band of hopefuls, and then over the course of several games, gain money and experience to become a terrible (or in my case, terrible) fighting force.

I loved Necromunda back in the day. It's post-apocalyptic vibe, cool gang designs, deep campaign play, and immersive rules made it an instant favourite. And only needing a few models meant I could finally play a game where I fielded a fully-painted army.

So, the long-awaited return of Necromunda was a big deal for me. I'm sure it was for many people, from those like me who enjoyed it the first time around to those newer or younger gamers who had only heard the stories.

And Games Workshop must have known the appeal of the product; not just for miniatures gamers, but for board gamers in general. It must have known, because it clearly made considerable efforts to make the game more accessible than some of its other products. And yet...

Like I said, the company is having an identity crisis.

On one hand Games Workshop wants to be a miniatures hobby company, catering to fans of complicated, insanely detailed (often insanely priced) miniatures, while ensuring a healthy bottom line for investors. On the other hand, it now wants to be a games company that puts out high quality, fun games with mass appeal while interacting with the community to support a healthy, happy fan base. It wants to be more diverse and progressive, while at the same time it wants to be the big old boys club it once was.

It's possible to be both; but Games Workshop is still figuring out exactly how. It's making the effort, but sometimes the results are... confused. Almost schizophrenic.

We've seen it to a certain degree with Blood Bowl, but the effects are far more pronounced with Necromunda. The original game was a tabletop skirmish game played across a 3D landscape, with detailed rules for falling off ledges, climbing ladders, and leaping chasms. The new game is still very much that game, but... well... you wouldn't think it just from looking at the contents of the base game.

One of the biggest barriers to entry for a tabletop game is a playing surface. A starter set may give you a paper mat for a bit of colour and flavour, maybe even a few punchboard scenic items such as a pond, but for a tabletop game to really shine you need lots of scenery. You need to create your miniature world on the tabletop; and that's no small task. Underhive neatly sidesteps that whole situation by presenting itself as a tabletop game played across beautifully illustrated map tiles. You still measure distances, you still jump chasms, and you still hide behind walls; but now all the scenery is on the tiles (except for a few plastic objective markers, barricades, and doors), so there's nothing in the way of getting your game to the table quickly...

Well, almost nothing. More on that in a minute.

As an added bonus, the map tiles all have grids on them. That means they're instant new terrain for Space Hulk or whatever sci-fi dungeon-crawling adventure you might be playing at the moment. I'll be using them for the Doctor Who: Exterminate! game; but then, I'm going to be using everything I own for that game.

Two Escher gangers sneak through the underhive in Necromunda: Underhive.


By presenting Underhive as a starter set with map tiles, Games Workshop has instantly made the game more appealing to a wider crowd. If you don't have a cupboard full of terrain, it doesn't matter. You don't need it. This game is, quite literally, levelling the playing field. But more than that, cutting the scenery off at the ground floor means Game Workshop has been able to cut the rules off at the ground floor too. All the extra twiddles and diddles that elevate gameplay through the use of elevated terrain have been surgically removed and packaged into the Gang War expansion book, so for now, you don't have to worry about them.

A smaller rules set is less intimidating, and much easier to digest, especially when it's divided into quick start rules and advanced rules, which is exactly what Games Workshop has done here. The rules book may be 104 pages long, but a good chunk of that is background information to help players immerse themselves in the wonderfully gritty underbelly of the underhive. The actual basic rules are just 10 pages, and that includes sidebars, large illustrations, and copious diagrams.

At the end of the basic rules, there's a small scenario to get you started. Empty your Necromunda box and you'll find the map for that scenario printed in the bottom. It's a tactic Games Workshop employed with the new Warhammer 40,000 starter sets, and it works wonderfully. When a company makes the game packaging part of the experience, you know it's a company thinking outside the box...

(I'm sorry, I couldn't resist that one.)

Once you're up to speed with the basics, you can look at the advanced rules section, which adds a few more concepts, such as running out of ammunition, interacting with terrain features, rolling for injuries using the nifty custom injury dice, using weapons with blast markers, and making nerve tests when under fire.

These aren't the old Necromunda rules either; these are new, streamlined - yes, modern - rules. The old game derived its  rules set from the second edition of Warhammer 40,000; this new game derives its rules set from the super clean and efficient eighth edition of Warhammer 40,000. It makes perfect sense, and the result is an action-packed and almost breathless game with minimal bookkeeping and almost no dicing off charts.

Take a look at shooting, for example (you're going to be doing a lot of it). If you want to shoot someone, you look at your character's ballistic skill. You then need to roll equal to or greater than that number to hit (subject to a few modifiers for things like distance and cover). If you succeed, the target is automatically pinned as he or she ducks for cover. You then roll to wound, by comparing the strength of your gun to the target's toughness. If the strength is half or less of the toughness you wound on a 6+, if the strength is less you wound on a 5+,  if the strength equals the toughness you wound on a 4+, if the strength is greater you wound on a 3+, and if the strength is double, you wound on a 2+.

It's that simple.

A Goliath lays down suppressing fire in Necromunda: Underhive.


After the first time you resolve a shooting action, you won't need to reference the rules again. It'll be lodged in your brain...

That's an unfortunate turn of phrase. Let's move on...

Once you've mastered the advanced rules, it's time to tackle the super advanced rules. Up until this point, you've probably been using pre-generated characters (the game ships with enough character cards for two 10-person gangs); but now you can look at rules for making your own gangs. There are some basic rules for buying gangers and arming them accordingly, and some simple rules for linking together the included scenarios to create a basic campaign. But (and this is important), these aren't the full Necromunda campaign rules.

And yeah... that's an odd choice.

Necromunda had three elements that made it special: Detailed rules for simulating the finer details of small-scale combat, a heavy focus on fighting vertically and the perils associated with death-defying high-rise conflicts, and a robust campaign system that let you transform a ragtag band of lowlife scum into a slightly better ragtag band of lowlife scum.

But of those three elements only the rules have made the transition to this new edition, and even they've been rebuilt from the ground up. If you want the "full" experience, you need to buy that Gang War expansion I mentioned before.

Personally, I think that was a good call. By cutting out all the campaign rules and 3D terrain rules, Games Workshop has managed to offer something fun and accessible, with simple "pick up and play" rules, and the basic framework for stringing scenarios together to create a bit of a narrative. And they've managed to do that while keeping the price down. The lower buy-in makes the base game more appealing, and may encourage people who are normally turned off by Games Workshop's prices to try out this amazing system.

And it really is an amazing system.

What I love most about the rules is that they're so streamlined and yet still cleverly recreate the finer details of a small-scale skirmish. For example, this is a game that allows you to lob a grenade over a barricade to drive enemy fighters into the open. You can hit the dirt and crawl into cover to avoid a hail of gunfire, shoot blindly over the top of a barricade you're hiding behind, poison a knife, shank someone in the back, set a booby trap, accidentally pick off one of your own team with a stray shot, hack the terminal on a locked door, run out of ammo, leap a barricade, or assassinate an injured enemy. Games Workshop even threw in a little bit of card play in the form of tactics cards that give you one-off benefits, such as gaining remote access of a door, or fashioning some stylish new armour from the detritus scattered around the battlefield.

And it's all so bloody simple. It's a masterpiece of efficient games design.

Roll the dice and take your chances in Necromunda: Underhive.


Games Workshop has crafted a tabletop game played on a board, a detailed simulation with streamlined rules, and a detailed world with enough fluff in the rules book to make it comprehensible to outsiders.

Most importantly, Games Workshop has created a game that tries to deliver on its promise. And I think it does. Mostly. It's a rich and rewarding combat simulation with a tight rules set and stunning production quality.

And yet...

I've said it before, I'll say it again.

Games Workshop is having an identity crisis, and Necromunda is... honestly... a bit of an odd duck.

Let's talk miniatures for a minute.

After going to what appears to be considerable lengths to make the game as accessible as possible, Games Workshop then went and packaged it with some of the most obnoxious miniatures they've ever produced. The sprues have separate hair and face pieces, so you can create models with ever-so-slightly different heads for not a lot of reason. And one of the Goliaths has a separate cigar which is about 2mm long. Who thought that was a good idea?

I've been dealing with miniatures games for a long, long time, so I'm all right, Jack. But for newcomers, it's going to be a baptism of fire.

I wouldn't mind so much, but there are only five body types for each gang, so despite all the wacky little details, the miniatures still don't have as much customisation as they could have.

Top tip: If you're going to make a fully customisable kit, focus on more weapons and posing options, not more hairstyles.

(Oh, and as an aside, it's worth noting that while the Gang War supplement has rules for juves (juvenile fighters) you don't get any juve miniatures. I never really thought about it way back when, but I have to say, there's something a little bit unsavoury about young children fighting and dying in gang wars, so I don't expect to be seeing (and would be happy not to be seeing) any juve miniatures in the future.)

What makes matters worse is Games Workshop has simultaneously taken a back-step in terms of the quality of the assembly instructions. Games like Shadows Over Hammerhal have beautiful colour-coded diagrams that define the assembly sequence and even tell you where to put the glue. For Necromunda, you get small, monochrome diagrams that don't even tell you what size base each miniature is supposed to go on.

Speaking of bases:

(Good segue.)

Underhive introduces some lovely custom bases with molded terrain. That feels like another step towards making the hobby aspect more accessible, and it's one I applaud. But considering facing is important in this game, would it have killed them to mold the bases with some kind of "front face" indicator to facilitate smoother gameplay? A little plaque to paint your ganger name on would have been nice.

Another thing Games Workshop have done to make life a little bit easier is including two "army lists" comprising 10 pre-generated gangers. Anybody who read my reviews of Betrayal at Calth and Burning of Prospero will know that I had some choice words about the fact the included kits gave you loads of weapon options but no guidance for what choices made for a fun, balanced game. Here, Games Workshop has spelled it out nicely. The assembly guide shows you how to make the 20 named gangers, and there are character cards in the box listing all the relevant statistics and equipment. Of course, because this is Games Workshop and you can't have everything, the character cards don't have pictures of the miniatures on them, so it's not always obvious which miniature relates to which card during play.

A selection of character cards from Necromunda: Underhive.


The two gangs are the Goliaths and the Eschers. The Goliaths are big, burly dudes and the Eschers are an all-female group of glam rockers with big heels, big guns, and even bigger hair. The inclusion of these two gangs is, in itself, a perfect example of the tightrope Games Workshop is walking right now. The company has long been thought of as a bit of a boys' club, and they don't have much in the way of diversity in their product lines; but this is something they have said they want to address, and including an all-female gang in a starter set is a massive step forwards.

But it's a massive step forwards in high heels.

An Escher ganger strides into battle in Necromunda: Underhive.


For me, the inclusion of the female gangers says more about Games Workshop's intent than the slightly questionable attire they wear. Necromunda has always worn it's inspirations on its sleeve, and a lot of the aesthetic is lifted from those schlocky, old-school, post-apocalyptic B-movies, where women with serious hair kick some serious ass. You know, stuff like Dune Warriors and The Sisterhood. Games Workshop has simply attempted to preserve those original qualities; and while I wouldn't hold this up as an example of the most progressive gaming world, I appreciate the women are there, taking on the men, and not playing by the rules.

Speaking of the rules:

(Best... segue... evar...)

The rules may be brilliant, they may look slick in their beautifully overproduced book, and they may present the game in manageable chunks for ease of learning; but for every instance of excellence, there's something equally perplexing. One moment, you feel like this game must have been a labour of love for everyone involved. The next moment, you feel like it was slapped together by a not-quite-infinite number of monkeys.

Example:

The rules specifically state you cannot measure for distance before shooting, but you are allowed to check for line of sight. The rules then suggest using the range ruler to check line of sight.

Example:

In the learning scenario, they give you a list of pre-generated characters to use, some of which have weapons that only appear in the advanced rules section.

Example:

The character cards list the stat lines for weapons the characters have... unless those weapons are grenades, in which case they don't bother.

Example:

There are only two leadership skills in the base game, and they still managed to get the name of one wrong on the character cards.

It gets even worse once you dig into the Gang War supplement. It contains scenarios that seem to assume you won't be using the map tiles from the base game. It contains costs for weapons and items that contradict the costs in the main rules book. It completely omits the definition of the special rule "fear."

And it goes on. Nothing major. Some things you won't even spot.

But little things that add up.

Little things that add up could actually be the advertising slogan for this game, because that's exactly the retail method Games Workshop has gone for.

You buy the base game, then you need to buy Gang War to access the advanced rules. Want more gangers? That requires another purchase of a gang box; but if you want all the weapon options you'll need to buy an extra weapon frame from Forge World too. Want some tactics cards? They're extra. Custom dice? Extra. An Orlock gang? Extra. Rules for using the Orlock gang... Yeah. They're extra too.

The first scenario from Necromunda: Underhive.


Don't get me wrong. If I'm starting a new faction, I expect to pay, and things like custom dice are luxuries, not essentials. But Games Workshop is purposefully cross-pollinating products to make them "essentials" for everybody. Every pack of faction-specific tactics cards also includes neutral cards that any faction can use. The supplement for the new Orlocks gang also includes the rules for hired guns. And even though I paid for a supplement containing Goliath rules, it doesn't include all their weapon options; so at some point in the future, I'm going to have to buy another supplement for those.

I was on board with the idea of separating out the campaign rules from the base game; but when Games Workshop releases a new set of map tiles for £25, and then puts the rules for using those map tiles in a separate £17.50 supplement, it's hard not to feel a little bit like the reason I thought the first supplement was a good idea wasn't necessarily the same reason why Game Workshop thought it was a good idea.

In fact, the rapidly amassing pile of Necromunda products, and the promise of having to constantly shell out for little pieces of the rules has somewhat drained my enthusiasm for the whole idea. It's not just the cost; it's the sheer volume of it all. It feels like the game is steamrolling away from me. It's making me realise what a huge investment it is in time, money, and effort just to play this game right. To play it the way it deserves.

And I do want to play it right. I do want full campaigns, with gang progression, and hangers-on, and bounty hunters, and hired guns, and custom scenarios, and turf wars. I want to promote my lowly gangers into brutish champions. I want to experience everything the underhive has to offer.

I realise I don't have to buy it all (and I wouldn't be foolish enough to try), but I'm already feeling like I'm making concessions. I won't buy the hired guns miniatures because I don't want to buy the Orlock supplement. I can't buy the new map tiles for the same reason. I don't have access to a chunk of tactics cards because I won't buy card decks for gangs I don't intend to play with. I know there's going to be another supplement for weapons for my gang, and another one for pets, and another one for different settings, and another one, and another one...

(Insert sigh here.)

Games Workshop crafted a stunning miniatures skirmish game. It's a game I've been waiting for - a game I was excited to add to my collection - but it's a game in pieces, and I'm starting to question whether I really have the desire or patience to put it back together. I'm starting to wonder if it's even worth the effort. You can stick together a broken Ming vase, but the cracks are the fine line between priceless and worthless.

So, I see all the shiny new things on the horizon, and I want them all. They all look so good.

And yet...

The first player marker from Necromunda: Underhive.


And yet I look at my Underhive base game, all snug and complete in its box with my Gang War supplement. I look at a game that offers glorious, in-depth yet fast-paced skirmishes over tiles or 3D terrain. I look at a game that offers pure blasts of instant adrenaline-fuelled action and asks for so little in return.

And I wonder.

And I wonder because Games Workshop has made me wonder.

Do I really want more? Do I need it? Would I even use it? In my busy life, do I really have time to run a full campaign?

I'm delighted Necromunda is back; I'm delighted it's going to be supported for years to come; and I'm delighted with the rules.

I'm delighted to own a copy.

But do I already own enough?

If I don't buy any more products, did Games Workshop make the right call with their retail model, or did they create a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Am I in love with Necromunda, or am I in love with the idea of Necromunda?

Now I'm the one having an identity crisis.


Necromunda: Underhive is available direct from Games Workshop, and from all good game stockists.

2 comments:

  1. Hey, write something or I unsuscribe Your YouTube channel. .. ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry about the lack of content on the blog - new stuff is incoming, I promise. I'm doing a full written review of Dr Who: Exterminate, and have lots more planned. It's just been difficult to make the time to compose something and I don't want the quality to drop by pushing it out before it's ready. My ultimate goal is to publish two pieces per month on the blog; please bear with me while I get the gears in motion!

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