Friday 27 April 2012

Review - Warmaster

Here's something I don't do very often - review a game that I've only played once. But considering how much fun I had with this game, I really wanted to talk about it. Besides: My blog, my rules. That's just the way it is.

Published by Games Workshop
Designed by Jervis Johnson
For 2 players who are old enough to use a craft knife unsupervised and young enough to read really tiny print

Wouldn't it be cool if we could time travel? We could fire up the flux capacitor and take a little trip back to 1993. Why would we want to do that? Because then we could watch a very young me excitedly flicking to the cardboard centrefold of White Dwarf magazine 161 and being thoroughly disappointed by the advertised free game.

Back then, I was a devoted Games Workshop fan. I bought every game they made, I subscribed to the magazine, I had three armies (undead, orcs, and stunties, naturally). I had it bad, but my parents encouraged me because it was creative and it encouraged me to interact with other people rather than playing on my computer all day. So, I was incredibly excited to see what the free Warmaster game would be like. What I found was an abstract map of a space ship, lots of little cardboard counters that needed to be cut out, and densely written rules including a combat system that seemed very much like maths homework.

Don't get me wrong, I wasn't expecting a 3,000-point army to drop out of the centre pages of that magazine, but what I found didn't look like something made by Games Workshop. It looked like something made by (whisper it) Avalon Hill. It looked like a war game.

But I pressed on, hacked out the counters with a pair of scissors (making a grand mess of them), and tried to get my head around the rules. It wasn't happening. I didn't get it, it didn't sound fun. I liked the theme, but the mechanics... Yuk. Not for me. The game sat in the cupboard for a while, and then it transferred to the bin. I forgot all about it.

Right, back into the time machine everyone... We're heading to April 2012, to the exact point where I was clicking around ebay and noticed somebody selling a copy of White Dwarf 161 with the free game still intact for 99p.

I remembered the game, I remembered my disappointment. But a lot had changed since 1993, not least my hair cut. I'm not scared of war games any more, and I quite like a lot of stuff Avalon Hill made. I felt like I owed this game a second chance. What did I have to lose for 99p?

The magazine arrived a few days later. Ah, White Dwarf... It was nice to see a copy from when it used to at least pretend to be something more than a catalogue for the next set of miniatures to be released. But this magazine was not for keeping in pristine condition. Armed with my craft knife, I hacked the centre pages out, and separated out the board and the game counters. I made a much nicer job of it than I did the first time, and my heart swelled with the sense of accomplishment that comes with a job well done. I even managed to find a couple of tiny dice that came from one of those chocolate Cluedo games - they are just right for dropping into a grip-seal bag with all the tokens so you can take this game out on the road.

Warmaster game components
All the game components in a single ziplock bag - take that FFG!

With the game all made up, there was only one thing left to do - find a suitable victim to try it out on. More on that later, first let's take a quick look at what this game is actually all about.

It's called Warmaster because the action all takes place on the spaceship of the same name. This ship belongs to the treacherous space marine, Horus, who was tainted by chaos and led an invasion of Earth. Horus' little campaign is known as the Horus Heresy, and it is a big part of the Warhammer 40k background fluff. I won't give too much away for those of you who might not know the story, but the climax of the story involves the Emperor teleporting onto Horus' ship with a few good men in order to teach the rascal a lesson, and that's exactly the scenario that this game represents.

One player will play the Chaos-corrupted traitors, led by Horus, while the other player will take control of the Emperor and his very small strike force.

At the beginning of the game, the Chaos player will take a counter for Horus, and counters representing crewmen, traps, and horrors. I have no idea what the traps and horrors actually represent - they are just generic traps and generic spooky things that can be found onboard the ship. All these tokens are placed facedown on the board (one counter per space).

Warmaster board
The board... Yep, this is a war game.

The Chaos player can pick where he places the tokens, but as it doesn't really matter anyway, you might as well just randomise it.

While this is being done, the Emperor player will be organising his meagre forces into stacks of three counters. He gets control of the Emperor, a bunch of other named characters from the campaign such as Sanguinus, and some tactical and devastator marine squads. Some of the named characters have special abilities, like being able to ignore the affects of horror or trap tokens, and most of the named characters also allow you to reroll a combat dice (unless your opponent has a named character in the same battle, in which case no-one gets a reroll, unless one of the named characters is Horus or the Emperor in which case they do get a reroll, unless both Horus and the Emperor are in the same fight in which case no-one gets a reroll... phew).

Once the stacks have been organised, they are teleported onto the ship one stack at a time. You roll a D66 (two six-sided dice, with the first dice representing 10s and the second dice representing units), and you look on a chart. Low results could result in your stack being obliterated before it even arrives on the board, while high results could allow you to choose which location to teleport into. Mid-range numbers are directly linked to a specific space on the board, and if you roll one of those numbers then that is the place you are teleported to. This really sucks if you roll 15, as that is the number for the engine and results in everybody dying instantly. More on that later.

Once teleporting is out of the way, the game proper starts. I'm not going to go through all the rules in detail, but the basic idea is the Emperor player moves around the ship, revealing tokens and searching for Horus. Traps and horrors will slowly whittle down the Emperor's forces, and each turn the Chaos player will get to teleport a random number of additional units onto the ship (in the same way as detailed above). This means the Emperor player is against the clock. The more time he takes, the more enemies he must face, and the fewer units he will have. If Horus can stay hidden for long enough, or get enough of his units safely teleported onto the ship, then the good guys are going to have a hard time of it.

When enemy counters meet, they have a good old scrap. To do this, you add up all your attack values, and all your opponent's defence values, and then divide the attack by the defence to give the odds of success. Then you roll on a table to see what happens. The combat results range from the attacker being wiped out or routed, the defender being wiped out or routed, or both sides fighting to a bloody stalemate (in which case both sides lose a counter and a second combat round is played immediately).

If the Emperor player doesn't think he is going to find Horus, or doesn't think he can win in a fair fight, then he has some other tactics up his sleeve. For example, he can sacrifice a unit to blow up the engine room, and in each turn thereafter the ship starts to burn up as it crashes into Earth's atmosphere (starting with the bridge at the top of the ship, and then working down in number sequence). In a similar way, he can also sacrifice a unit to blow up each of the two weapon stores, which causes a chain reaction of random explosions in adjacent locations (causing those to be destroyed on a roll of 1 or 2, rolling for each location separately). The Emperor player can even seize control of the ship's shield generator, allowing his lasers on the planet's surface to destroy a random location each turn.

All these different options help to reduce the size of the ship and force Horus into the open. However, they also come with a greater risk of accidentally killing your own players. The game ends as soon as Horus or the Emperor dies, so the game is really about pushing your luck and hoping things go your way.

I guess that will be the biggest fault you can level against this game: It really is very random. For a lot of the game, the Emperor player will be moving onto face down tokens. He will have no way of knowing what they are, and if they turn out to be a trap or a horror token, he just has to accept the (random) consequences. You teleport randomly, you destroy locations randomly, some of the units even have randomly generated attack and defence statistics.

There is a small amount of strategy in terms of how you stack your units together and where and how you move to try to seal off Horus' escape paths (or get him out of danger if you are the Chaos player), but most of the time your fate will be decided by dice.

All that randomness might put a lot of people off, but there are three things in the game's favour:

1/ It was free (or 99p, in my case).
2/ It's short (even with set up, a game isn't going to take more than half an hour).
3/ It's hilarious.

I cannot stress enough how much fun this game is.

I have only played this game once, but that one play was so much fun that it made me want to write this review. In that one game, I played Horus, while one of my long-suffering friends played the Emperor.

I can't remember every single detail, but it went a little something like this:

Things started off badly for him. All his units teleported successfully, but they immediately started to uncover traps and horrors which took a heavy toll. But fate is a fickle mistress, and soon I was the one that seemed to be getting all the rough luck. In my first reinforcement phase I only mustered one unit which teleported directly into the engine and died. Damn it.

By the second turn, Horus had been revealed near the bottom of the ship. My opponent knew I would try to get Horus as far away from trouble as possible, so he blew up the engine room. This started to cause the ship to burn up, and began eating away at all the locations I had intended to move to in order to keep Horus out of danger until reinforcements arrived. Damn it.

My opponent also blew up one of the weapon stores in the hope of pinning me down. He didn't succeed, but it meant about a third of the ship was on fire by the time I had my second reinforcement phase. I mustered three units. The first one teleported straight into the mangled remains of the engine room and died instantly. The second unit went straight into the damned engine. The third (weakest) unit, randomly arrived where it could be of no help at all. Damn it.

As the game progressed, the Emperor's forces continued to be whittled down (not least because my opponent insisted on sacrificing them to blow up named locations). But I didn't have many units myself: In my third reinforcement phase I got one demon on the board and the other unit went straight in that f$%*ing engine. Damn it.

Ultimately, it got down to the situation where Horus was pinned between the top half of the ship which was being destroyed thanks to the engine room being blown up, and the sections of the board that were on fire from the weapons store being blown up. I realised I had to be bold and fight the Emperor, but my opponent had other ideas. He knew that if he blew up the second weapons store, it would most likely seal me in the top half of the board with no escape, and therefore he would win as the bit of the board I was in would burn up before the bit of the board he was in. Perfectly valid tactic.

Perfectly valid big chicken wimpy pants tactic. Damn it.

The only problem was, he only had one chance to blow up the weapons room, and he had to do it while the Emperor was next door. That meant there was a chance the Emperor would die and I would win. Time to roll those dice...

Maybe I should leave this story on an exciting cliffhanger...

Screw it - he blew himself up, and I won.

Luck was against me most of the game, I could barely get any of my units into play, and yet I won. I don't feel I won through any kind of skill, but I won. And it was an absolute blast.

I honestly can't say this is a great game. I can't even say it is going to be a game I play often. But I will play it, and if it continues to provide as much fun as that first game, then I would say that it was worth every single one of those 99 pennies.

See if you can track down a copy yourself (or ask someone who has the print-and-play files to let you have them). The game won't change your life, but as a light war game filler (can't say there are many of those around) I think it's a nice addition to any collection.

I guess I have to start hunting for a copy of the original Horus Heresy to add to The Vault now...

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