Saturday 8 April 2017

Review - Gangs of Commorragh

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

Gangs of Commorragh

Sometimes it's tough being a Games Workshop supporter. I've never known a company move so quickly. They move so damned fast this isn't even the introduction I had planned when I started putting my notes together for the high-octane, high-speed, high-flying, high... er... scoring Gangs of Commorragh.

The original introduction is already out of date.

In fact, this revised introduction is also out of date. More on that in a moment.

But the speed at which the company moves isn't the problem. It's a symptom. One of many symptoms that make my life as someone who reviews these games a bit more difficult.

The problem is they are always chasing maximum profits, so they don't have time to nurture and support any of the games they release.

Let's get this out of the way up front: I don't hate, and never have hated, Games Workshop. I used to pity them a bit, because they really seemed to be floundering around, completely blind to how to interact with their fans. And I didn't buy their stuff for a long while, because they didn't make the stuff I wanted to buy.

But when they showed a commitment to change, I got behind them 100 percent. I supported them up to the hilt...

And reading those last two sentences back, that all sounds a little bit more sexual than I intended.

But when Games Workshop started to change, I went along for the ride. I'm still going along for the ride. And on the whole they are doing some really good work. From their latest crop of board games there have been far more hits than misses.

Frankly, I don't know how they're doing it, because sometimes they give the impression their board meetings must consist of a large group of overenthusiastic, highly-caffeinated monkeys throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks.

They've accelerated up through the gears to such breakneck pace, they don't even notice when they hit a speed bump. Something didn't work? Doesn't matter. It's already dust in the afterburners. Something did work? Great. It paid it's way and now we're onto the next thing.

You want examples?

In 2015, Games Workshop released Assassinorum: Execution Force. Against all odds, a really, really good game. It went out of production about a month back.

Also in 2015, Games Workshop released Betrayal at Calth, and in the process created one of the finest hex-based squad-level combat games on the market. A year later, rather than expanding on that wonderful game system, they released Burning of Prospero, a completely different squad-level combat game that... well... isn't as good.

In 2015, Games Workshop released Lost Patrol. It was, in all honesty, a bit on the shit side; but they churned out additional rules for it in White Dwarf magazine, and just a few months ago it looked like they'd finally found a way to make the game fun. Right about the time they discontinued it.

In May 2016, Games Workshop released Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower, arguably the best dungeon crawler on the market. In February 2017, less than a year later, they launched the sequel, Shadow over Hammerhal, and completely removed the co-operative mode that made Silver Tower such a joy.

And then there's Gangs of Commorragh. A tabletop miniatures game that pits small groups of Dark Eldar against each other in turf wars, with small skirmishes hinged together by a campaign system that allows your gang to gain experience and buy new equipment. If it all sounds a little bit like Necromunda, a classic from Games Workshop's old line of specialist games, that's because it kinda is. The major differences are that Commorragh...

Hold on a second.

Let me mention this now, and then we can move on.

Gangs of Commorragh is a horrible name. For a start, Commorragh sounds like someone clearing their throat, or maybe Boy George spraining his ankle halfway through the chorus for Karma Chameleon. More importantly, it's a bugger to spell. I literally have to check the box cover each time I type the word.

The box for the skirmish game of gang warfare Gangs of Commorragh

So, the major difference between Gangs (see what I did there?) and Necromunda is that Gangs is a small-box game (retailing for just £35) with a much narrower focus. Rather than lots of different gangs fighting it out in the maze of the underhive, using a vast selection of weapons and skills, you get Dark Eldar reavers (chaps on jet bikes) and Dark Eldar hellions (chaps on hover boards) swooping around the tallest spires of a Dark Eldar city.

The force options are smaller, the skills and upgrades are fewer, the gameplay is smooth and straightforward, and the campaign system is simple. The whole thing feels like a streamlined version of it's old granddaddy, which I guess is somewhat fitting for a game about high-speed aerial combat.

The thought of a small-box, fast-paced Necromunda-inspired miniatures game is the kind of thing guaranteed to get my motor running, so I preordered a copy as soon as possible.

But this is the point where we seamlessly(ish) dovetail back into the main thrust of my introduction. I was still assembling my copy of Gangs when Games Workshop announced a game called Shadow War: Armageddon, a big box game with epic new scenery involving small groups of fighters brawling in the maze of the underhive.

Yeah. Within weeks of releasing a streamlined version of Necromunda, they effectively rereleased Necromunda. In fact, Armageddon largely uses the old Necromunda rules, with the largest change being replacing gangs with more proficient and combat-savvy kill teams.

My original introduction (not my original, original; the second original) basically ended by saying that by the time you read this review, you'll be able to buy a copy of Armageddon, which probably makes everything I say next a bit redundant. However, if you haven't been keeping up with current affairs, you may not realise that by the time you read this review, you probably won't be able to buy Armageddon because Games Workshop made it in stupidly limited quantities and have no plans for a second print run. You'll be able to get the rules book and all the components separately at some point, but that's it.

But I'll reserve further comment on Armageddon for another day (naturally I got a copy, and I only had to break seven kneecaps to do it). Right now, the important thing is I need a new ending for my introduction for this review.

How about...

If you couldn't get a copy of Armageddon, a copy of Gangs of Commorragh isn't a bad consolation prize.

That's not a bad way to start the review, I suppose; but to be fair, a game of Gangs doesn't really feel like a game of Necromunda. The setting feels similar, the campaign structure is certainly very similar, but the actual meat and potatoes of the combat system is entirely its own beast. In fact, I don't think I've ever played anything like it.

Gangs of Commorragh quick start rules

The basic premise involves two gangs coming to blows in short dog fights high above a Dark Eldar city; and the game includes six cardboard spires to represent towers, six reaver jet bikes and 10 hellion hover boards. And it's got to be said, that's exceptional value for the price of the box. I don't tend to look at the value of a game in terms of what miniatures or cardboard bits you get, but it's hard to look at the amount of Warhammer 40,000 flying vehicles crammed into this game without seeing it as a good deal on the price of plastic alone.

There's certainly more than enough in the box for occasional games, and even for running short campaigns. Only if you get really into it will you think it might be worth picking up a second box for more gang members.

The set-up for an introductory game suggests using a group of reavers against a group of hellions, and using such asymmetric forces creates a nice balance that gives each team something different to think about. Reavers lack maneuverability; they have smaller turning arcs and only limited special manoeuvres to help them get out of a jam; but they can travel greater distances and have better shooting capabilities and armour. Hellions are nippy little bastards with plenty of tricks up their sleeves, but they are also incredibly exposed on their hover boards, and they don't have much long-range firepower to call on.

A reaver gang races into battle in Gangs of Commorragh

Personally (and it may just be because I'm rubbish at playing with the reavers) I think the hellions get the best end of the deal. They are a little fragile, but they have two incredibly powerful manoeuvres. One lets them grab a nearby enemy, pulling the enemy closer and altering his or her facing. The second ability allows them to grab a tower with a grapple, swinging around the spire in a moment of cinematic wonder that would make most other tabletop games jealous.

The reason these manoeuvres are so powerful is because of the way movement works. Simply put: Everything is always moving. Units on the table usually have to move a minimum distance, and they normally only get to make a turn action before or after moving.

A hellion moves into position in Gangs of Commorragh

That's a very exciting prospect. You are constantly at risk of crashing or moving into a bad position, so movement is always at the forefront of your mind. Which is, of course, exactly where it should be.

But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself? Let's slam on the airbrakes, and reverse up a bit.

A straight-up dogfight in Gangs involves two gangs that you build before playing. There are pre-defined teams if you want to jump straight in, or you can build your team using points, like you would in a game like Warhammer 40,000.

To get started, you set up the battlefield, which doesn't take long because it's just a big empty space with six spires in it. Both forces then make an ambush roll. The loser gets positioned in the centre of the board, and then the winner enters play via a randomly generated table-edge. The gang that got ambushed may get a chance to reposition (depending on their ambush roll), but otherwise it's time to rev up the engines and have at it.

Gangs of Commorragh hellion close-up

The fight involves a series of rounds, which are further divided into four phases. Each phase adopts an "I-go-you-go" approach, with a dice off to determine the starting player, so everything stays suitably fluid.

The first two phases are the most interesting (and clumsiest). Players take turns allocating units with the role of hunter. If a unit is within the rear arc of an enemy that's in its front arc, that unit has the chance to become a hunter. The target becomes a quarry.

Being a hunter means you focus on your prey and gain a massive bonus when attacking, but you aren't allowed to attack anyone else.

Being a quarry means you are in desperate need of a paddle for the creek you're in.

Of course, quarries may also be hunters, creating chains of models that snake around the board.

After allocating all the hunters and quarries, they get to move. The quarry at the start of a chain must move first, and that "pulls" the chain along, with each quarry and hunter moving in turn, dragging units in their slipstream in a way that feels visceral and exciting and very, very real.

Being a quarry is a genuinely gut-wrenching experience, especially if you are a reaver. You desperately look for a way out of the situation, trying to pull off elaborate manoeuvres or hiding behind spires; but your hunter is always on your smoke trail. It's thrilling in a way that few miniatures games can be.

It's thrilling because if you don't escape... if you don't execute that desperate manoeuvre... the hunter on your tail is going to bring the hurt.

And yet... there's something about the whole situation that strikes me as being a little bit overblown for all it achieves. I feel a bit like I appreciate what the rule is trying to do, but I don't necessarily feel like it needs to do it.

The process involves allocating cardboard markers to the hunters and quarries so you remember who is hunting who; and that's all a bit fiddly, especially once you start adding tokens to your units for other status effects. Then, when a quarry moves, the hunter has to move next, and so on through any chain that might exist; and it feels like the whole process isn't really achieving anything more than if you were to have free reign over where and when you moved your units. After all, once you are behind an enemy unit, you are going to chase that unit down, benefiting from any attack bonuses for a rear attack, until it's dead. You shouldn't need to fiddle around with extra tokens and special rules for being a hunter.

A reaver hunts a hellion among the spires in Gangs of Commorragh

I guess, it feels like the rules are railroading your choices, robbing the game of some of the dynamism and fluidity that is actually its main selling point.

In fact, I'm actually tempted to play the game without the hunter and quarry rules, just to see how different it all feels.

Anyway, after the hunters and quarries have moved, all the units that weren't designated as a hunter or a quarry get to move.

Finally, in the last phase of the round, all the killing starts. Using the "I-go-you-go" system, with a dice off to decide who starts, you and your opponent take it in turns attacking with every unit in a position to do so. Most vehicles have front-mounted weapons that you can only attack within your front arc, but riders also have weapons that are less powerful yet provide a 360-degree field of fire.

This is the point where you find out if your manoeuvres paid off. Are you positioned well enough to survive the onslaught of enemy attacks while dishing out enough damage yourself?

Gangs of Commorragh rules book

Combat is incredibly simple. First you roll to hit, which means rolling 2D6 and trying to equal the agility of the target vehicle. At this stage, targets that haven't already attacked have a chance to jink, which means they get to add the pilot value of the pilot to the agility of the vehicle to improve the chances of dodging.

If the hit lands, you roll again to kill the target. This involves rolling 2D6 and trying to match the kill value of the weapon you are using. If you succeed, the target is immediately removed from play. If you fail, the target takes one wound, which makes it easier to hit and kill in future attacks.

It's a pretty exciting system. While there is always the chance a unit gets taken out of action with its first hit, the odds are that in the opening rounds units will shake off most attacks, However, as the game progresses and units get more beaten up, it becomes increasingly difficult to dodge, and every hit is potentially devastating.

After all the attacks are complete, a new round starts with the allocation of hunters and quarries.

The basic framework of how a fight works is incredibly simple. What really elevates gameplay (and yes, all these puns are intended) is the way in which each side uses manoeuvres in an attempt to gain the upper hand. All crafts have a series of basic manoeuvres, including barrel rolls for changing direction and sideslips for avoiding collisions without changing facing. Reavers get additional killy powers, like dropping caltrops of cutting off enemy heads with their bladevanes. Hellions, as I previously mentioned, seem to have the best options, including the ability to brake to prevent moving at all, and making a hook turn around nearby spires.

It's all very slick.

It's fast.

It's exactly what you would expect from a game about aerial combat.

And it's also quite limited. After a single game, you're going to have seen everything both types of unit have to offer. In that regard, the game really doesn't stand up well for single plays. You need to use the campaign system to give the fights meaning and relevancy.

Indeed, playing a campaign does add layers to any kind of fight. First you randomly generate the type of fight, and then you generate a sub-plot for each gang, and that does have the potential to shake up the way a fight pans out. For example, knowing your gang has "low fuel" and may automatically retreat at the end of each round forces you onto the offensive right from the start, while "engine trouble" may randomly remove your best fighter from combat before you even set up the battlefield.

Of course, playing a campaign also opens up numerous options for changing your team. After each fight you have to roll to see if injured models are killed or temporarily incapacitated, you get money that you can spend on better equipment, and you get to give your gang members experience so that they eventually upgrade to a better class of bad person.

Oh yes... It's worth clarifying. Your gang is full of bad people. This is a game about running drugs, organizing assassinations, and trying to kill off rival gangs that are encroaching on your territory. It's not family-friendly fare, and it does bother me a bit.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for playing the bad guys. I play the dungeonmaster role in Shadows over Hammerhal. I am usually the demons in Claustrophobia. I used to have massive armies of orcs and undead.

But this is a bit different.

Orcs and undead are over the top, cartoon-style villains. Cackling maniacally over steepled fingers is theatre.

Organising a gang of drug-running thugs...

I dunno. It's not really for me.

Gangs of Commorragh hellion gang

But that's far from the only issue I have with the game.

I want to stress, I think this is a good game. I think it does a wonderful job of creating the chaotic, fluid nature of a dogfight. It's exciting and tense, and it has some unique mechanisms that really get the heart racing.

But it's small. Really small.

The combat is great, but there are only a few weapon options, and you are limited to reavers and hellions. There's really only so much you can achieve with two basic unit types. Once you start mixing hellions and reavers together in your gangs, you even lose the asymmetry that makes a basic game so much fun. Even if you add the rules for Harlequins published in White Dwarf magazine, there isn't a lot of variety on offer.

The campaign system is solid. It leans heavily on Necromunda and is a really good, stripped-back version of that system. The problem is, the actual game you get to play between managing your gang doesn't provide enough meat to make the campaign a worthwhile proposition.

By focusing on such a specific setting the game manages to be incredibly thematic yet also so lightweight it almost floats away; and that makes it difficult to justify investing time and effort in building a gang. I genuinely don't see many people playing campaigns because the "in-game" payoff isn't worth the bookkeeping.

Yet, the rule set is far too clever to disregard.

I don't want anyone reading this to think I hate the game. I don't. I think it does what it sets out to do incredibly well.

I just wish it did a bit more.

Of course, there are other minor problems. For example, if you want to play WYSIWYG ("what you see is what you get") you may need more models than what you get in the box. I got around the problem by marking the bases of units with stickers and not giving a damn about what weapons are on the miniatures, but some people are going to want to model their gangs exactly, and that is sure to require more models.

There's also only six terrain pieces in the box. It's enough to have an interesting battle, but if you really want to challenge your piloting skills, you need to make or buy some extra stuff.

But... Yeah...

Gangs of Commorragh quick reference guides

This is a good game.

It's not a great game.

But it's a good game.

It has wonderful miniatures, interesting rules, a solid campaign system, good background information in the printed material...

For £35, I think it's a worthwhile purchase.

But I'm not sure how many people agree with me. The game may be selling well to people who need more hellions and reavers for Warhammer 40,000, but on sites like BoardGameGeek it isn't getting much love at all.

I suppose that's rather fitting... A game about aerial dogfights and subterfuge, flying under the radar.

You can get your copy of Gangs of Commorragh from Games Workshop stockists.


  1. I have a Dark Eldar army for 40k and already have a lot of reavers and hellions. I therefore managed to pick up a copy on eBay sans models for £3. For that money it is a great little game, but i also agree that at even at full price you get a great deal on the models. The rules have more in common with xwing than any other GW game. I'm going to struggle to get it to the gaming table due to competing games but the few times I've played I've enjoyed it, although i really noticed the imbalance between helions and reavers. Adding harlequins from white dwarf was a little odd, I'm hoping for scourges to be added to increase the unit diversity.

  2. Thanks for reading.

    On BoardGameGeek someone suggested the big difference between X-Wing and Gangs was how difficult it is to kill units in X-Wing. My personal opinion on the subject (clipped here for space) was...

    "I think if you zoom out and squint, the games look quite similar, but I don't think they really are (from my limited knowledge of X-Wing).

    I feel like Gangs is probably a lot more forgiving, and a bit more fluid and dynamic as a result (but also probably a bit less strategic and slightly more random). You don't have pre-planned movements for a start, so when you activate a unit you get a chance to adapt to what is happening. Furthermore, you don't move units in a set order unless they are in a hunter/quarry chain (initiative is rolled for in each phase, so you always have the chance of getting the upper hand), and while vehicles have restricted firing arcs, every unit has a secondary weapon for attacking in any direction so you can at least do something if you mess up your movement.

    Movement is also a bit more loosey-goosey. You only have one template (for determining your turning arc), and you choose to turn before or after moving. Once you are moving, you have to move a minimum distance, but after that you can stop whenever you want. Every unit also gets a lot of manoeuvering options, allowing them to travel farther, stop suddenly, or make extra turns.

    I'm not sure if X-Wing gives you a lot of options for messing with your opponent in the movement phase, but that's a big part of gangs. Some units can fly over opponents and try to cut their head off as a secondary attack option, other units can grab an enemy and drag them out of position as they fly by. You can drop caltrops, do a u-turn, swing around a tower on a grapple. Movement feels like the strongest and most relevant part of the system. Attacking is just something you do as a kind of test of how well your movement phase went!

    Combat is also quite different. No custom dice, and no opposed dice rolling. You roll to hit, then you roll to kill. A target has a chance to jink (dodge), but otherwise just has to face the consequences of being out of position. If a unit survives an attack, it gets a damage token, and you can just keep stacking damage.

    The hunter and quarry mechanism is something unique to Gangs. Like I said in my review, I'm not 100 percent sold on it as an idea, but I've never played anything like it.

    X-Wing is obviously much more customisable, if you get into the system. You get a lot more options for crew and upgrades, and there are tons more units. Gangs really is very focused in its design, with just two unit types and a limited selection of weapons and crew upgrades.

    Overall, I think the games do a similar thing, but the methods feel very different. I'm not convinced you would need both, though (although I would have to play X-Wing to know for sure, so don't take my word for it). For me, Gangs is the better option. It has a theme I like more, it has a good campaign in the box, I don't need to invest more money in it, and it doesn't have pre-planned movements and dials which are mechanisms that I really don't enjoy. But for people who want something they can really sink their teeth into and play for a long time, I would guess X-Wing is the better option.

    From what I know of X-Wing, I actually think Dreadfleet looks like a closer system. That game has more templates for movement, damage is determined via drawing damage cards that cause permanent and varied effects to the ships, and each ship has special skills derived from the captain and crew."


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