Wednesday 6 May 2015

Review - Assassinorum: Execution Force

Assassinorum: Execution Force

Assassinorum: Execution Force
Published by Games Workshop
Designed by the office trolls
For 1 - 4 players, aged 12 to adult

Assassinorum: Execution Force Box
You know you guys are supposed to be stealthy, right?

I'm feeling a bit stupid.

A lot stupid, actually.

I quite often feel stupid, but today I'm really feeling stupid.

You see, I just paid £75* for a game that clearly isn't worth £75.

I knew it wasn't worth it, but I bought it anyway.


It's difficult being me, sometimes.

So, the game, of course, is Assassinorum: Execution Force, a game with a title that sounds like a Chuck Norris movie starring the Romans from Monty Python's Life of Brian.

It's a good-looking game.

It's all sexy and slinky, with a glossy black box and...


Sorry, lost my train of thought.

Yeah. It's a good-looking game. Games Workshop made it, so that's to be expected, but...

Ah, where do I begin?

Okay. I'll talk about the price and stuff, and then it'll all be out of my system and I can talk about the actual game.

Assassinorum: Execution Force Event
A grisly discovery... the £75 price tag.

So... £75.

I have seen people defending that price by picking out the plastic sprues of assassins and chaos warriors, and totting up how much Games Workshop would charge you for those things individually. The problem with that is those people are justifying the cost of an overpriced item by comparing it to other overpriced items from the same company.

But the price was never going to be any lower, because Games Workshop is a slave to its own business model.

That business model is selling plastic soldiers to wargamers.

When the company releases a board game that contains some of those plastic soldiers, it has to price the game in such a way that the game doesn't eat into existing revenue streams. If the game was seen as a cheap way to build an army, everyone would buy multiple copies, and Games Workshop would lose out in the long run. Who would pay £15 for a single assassin figure if they could pay £40 and get four of them, along with a load of other miniatures as well?

As it happens, Assassinorum works out as pretty decent value for anyone who plays Warhammer 40K, because it is a little bit cheaper than buying these miniatures separately (and the assassin's are exclusive, although it is expected that they will eventually go to retail in individual packs). But I don't play Warhammer 40K.

That's why I feel a bit stupid.

I have paid over the odds for a board game, because I had to pay for the right to use the pieces in another game I have no interest in playing. Effectively, I've paid a 40K tax.

But I paid anyway, because it's Games Workshop.

Games Workshop Games
Yes, I bought Dreadfleet.

I kinda love Games Workshop, because when I was a kid, I didn't have very many friends. I spent a lot of time on my own. I was bullied, really. Not physically (not much), but bullied through exclusion. I never got invited to places or parties. I never got picked to be on teams. That sort of thing.

But I didn't really care.

I had a few friends, and we had Games Workshop.

I painted, I played wargames, I lived in fantasy worlds.

Games Workshop made my childhood a magical place, and while the company has veered dramatically from the warm and friendly company I remember from my youth, it will always have a place in my heart.

My rational brain looks at Games Workshop, and its shonky business practices, and it "tuts" disapprovingly.

It doesn't matter. I've already paid my £75**. Better luck next time, Brain.

And yeah, I feel a bit stupid; but I still got a tingle when I peeled the shrink wrap off my new copy of Assassinorum.

For a moment, I was 14 again.

Assassinorum: Execution Force Miniatures
Some assembly required...

So, that's how I'm starting this review: The game is overpriced. Perhaps not as a collection of beautiful miniatures for someone to build and paint, but certainly for a board game. £75 is stupid, and there is no justifying it. If you are not interested in painting and modelling, it's probably best you don't put your money on the table; you're just going to feel short changed even if you like the game.

Assassinorum: Execution Force Instructions
Screw it, I'll use proxies.

Having said that, I almost feel like anything else I say in this review is going to be irrelevant. But I'm here now, so I'll press on...

Like I already said, Assassinorum is a good-looking game. It really does have an incredible amount of swagger. It has stunning artwork, great miniatures (that require assembly, with glue and everything), ridiculously thick game boards, and good quality cards. The game looks so good it's verging on cocky, slyly winking at established co-operative games as it puts its £75 boots up on the table and lights a cigarette.

Games Workshop are not in the habit of making abstract games, and Assassinorum doesn't break the mould. It is a game thick with theme, and gives players a very interesting premise to explore. Basically, a chaos sorcerer is trying to destroy a star system, so four assassins infiltrate the sorcerer's base to take him out before there's a great disturbance in the force.

Assassinorum: Execution Force Board
Must be a GW game, there are skulls everywhere.

Of course, this is all set in Games Workshop's grimdark future dystopia, so everything is suitably bleak. The good guys are as monstrous as the bad guys, with one that looks like Giger's alien and makes people sick just by being in close proximity, one that looks like Freddy Krueger's slightly less pleasant brother, and one with a gun that melts brains. Sure, these guys are trying to save millions of lives, but you also get the impression they just really like sticking pointy things into other people.

Being Games Workshop, everything is over the top. I mean, just look at the box cover. Those guys are supposed to be stealthy assassins: The ninja of the future. But there they are, standing in the open, waving gigantic guns around while the background explodes. One of them has a ponytail that is so long I can't help thinking of Edna from The Incredibles saying "No capes."


Once you get past the chewy theme, you get to the real crunch of the game: The rules. They are incredibly lean and compact, and one of the first things that I noticed was there are several similarities to this game's big brother, Space Hulk.

You have a small group of good guys, moving through very narrow tunnels, facing a large enemy force, and using a D6 + modifiers combat system. There is a fixed objective, and you have fixed assets to achieve that objective. Each assassin has a set number of actions, and set pieces of equipment. There is no chance to change a character's load-out, or find additional items. You live or die based on your use of what you bring to the mission. It's pretty neat, and swings the game away from a dungeon-crawl, looting type of experience and plonks it squarely in the field of the tactical miniatures game.

Assassinorum: Execution Force Boards
The game board really is attractive.

Furthermore, this game is every bit as lethal as Space Hulk. Assassins only have two hit points, and the chaos space marine enemies are strong enough to go toe-to-toe with them. A bad move could see an assassin getting taken down in a single turn, and getting into a prolonged firefight is a very bad idea. The fragility of the assassins makes stealth vital, and makes for a very tense experience that has that Space Hulk flavour.

Something else that adds to the tension is the strict, time-based nature of the mission. From the moment you start, the clock is ticking, as a cute little chaos familiar ambles around a "doom" track. If he gets to the sixteenth spot, it's game over. The time pressure really adds drama, and the whole game exudes a sense of excitement that is cinematic and engrossing.

Completing the mission in the time limit is no walk in the park either, because you have to find a teleporter room, and the teleporter controls, and although the main board is static, rooms are randomly drawn as you explore them.

This interesting exploration mechanism works by instructing players to draw numbered room tiles equal to the number printed on the part of the board they are exploring, and then forcing the players to place the room that has the lowest number. In the first part of the board you draw three rooms, in the second part of the board you draw two rooms, and in the third part of the board you draw one room.

Assassinorum: Execution Force Rooms
The room tiles.

This is pretty slick, and creates an interesting balance. In the early part of the board, you are more likely to find the target rooms, but are less likely to be able to place them, while as you explore deeper, you are drawing less cards, but if you  luck out and get the ones you need, you are more likely to be able to place them.

It's neat.

But what  I really like about the game, is that every assassin has two special abilities that have limited use. They have a minor ability that they can use three times, and they have a single-use game-changing ability. This introduces a level of resource management, expands the options that are available, and encourages the assassins to work together to maximise the benefits of their own particular skill sets to help each other out of tricky situations.

And that moment where you sacrifice one of your assassins by using a self-destruct mechanism to wipe out a horde of enemies is satisfying and thematic.

Assassinorum: Execution Force Characters
Good guys and bad guys, in eight flavours.

A significant difference between this game and Space Hulk is that this game allows players to be very proactive. In Space Hulk, the genestealers make a beeline for the marines, who will only survive if they form strong defensive positions, slowly edging through the tunnels as they lay down suppressing fire and react quickly to new threats. In Assassinorum, the enemies are patrolling the tunnels (following pre-set paths on the board), blissfully unaware of their looming demise. It is the players who instigate the battles, picking and choosing where and when to make a kill.

Only when things go wrong will the tables turn: Enemies go on alert and become aggressive, alarms sound, additional random events occur, and the assassin's are suddenly on the defensive. It's exciting. It really is. And the simple AI and streamlined rule set means there are no fiddly rules to get in the way of that excitement. The game allows you to become immersed in the fantastic, deeply cinematic world it creates.

Assassinorum: Execution Force Rules
Clear, streamlined rules with lots of pictures. Win.

Of course, the most exciting thing about this game is that it is co-operative, with up to four players controlling the assassins, playing against the game itself. Some people forget, but Games Workshop were doing co-op games long before it was the norm. They introduced solo rules for Advanced Heroquest, and Warhammer Quest was primarily intended for co-operative play. Seeing Games Workshop exploring this style of game gives me goose bumps, and I hope that it is a sign they are returning to the realms of board games and embracing this aspect of the hobby.

It is a naïve hope, I fear, because Assassinorum is a very safe move for the company. The game is lean to the point of emaciation, with a very limited selection of enemies, four playable characters with fixed load-outs, a semi-fixed board layout in which only certain rooms are placed at random, and only a single search and destroy scenario. That means the game is tight and slick, but it also means there are significantly fewer moving parts that you might expect. The game is very light, and doesn't drill as deep into the theme as it could. That makes it easier to playtest, less likely to break in weird situations, quick to learn, but ultimately a bit limited.

And that is definitely at odds with that £75 luxury price tag.

Assassinorum: Execution Force marine
I hate these guys.

So, do I recommend it? At that price point, it's hard to. Which is a shame, because I have found it to be a very enjoyable game. There is tension, genuine decisions, actual tactics... You know, good stuff. But your mission is always the same, and the bad guys you meet always behave in the same way. There is replayability, but once you have saved the day two or three times, I am not sure how often you are going to want to revisit this exceptionally rich world.

I think the game is good. It looks amazing. But this isn't the triumphant return of Games Workshop the board game brand. This is a decent gaming experience with an excellent theme, packaged with desirable miniatures as a safety net.

And in the end, it falls short of what it could be.

Not unlike Games Workshop itself, really.

* Actually, I paid £67.50, but never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
** £67.50. Keep up.


  1. I played this game against my mate using his copy and really enjoyed it. I can see myself playing this a lot and I think it is simple enough for my kids to play too. I've ordered a copy from ebay for £30 which has the 4 assassin miniatures missing but includes everything else. I'm going to make proxy assassins using other miniatures which should be fun.

    1. It is a good game. If Games Workshop had priced it more reasonably and spent a bit of time building in some more replayability through scenarios, I think it could have been really successful.

      Paying £30 without the assassins is a great way to get the game at a good price, especially for people who happen to have older versions of the four assassin figures in their Warhammer 40K collection.

  2. Thanks for the review. I've been wondering about getting this game. A friend has bought the Horus Heresy game and liked the components.

    1. Thanks for reading.

      I have a copy of Betrayal at Calth on route. Looking forward to getting some games in and hopefully reviewing it soon.

  3. Value is always a serious question with GW products. I suppose the most useful piece of information is missing: how much WOULD you value this game at, not being a miniatures wargamer?


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