Friday 24 November 2017

Review - Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire

Published by Games Workshop
For 2 players (up to 4 by purchasing additional components), aged 12 to adult

Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire

I was a Games Workshop kid.

I fell in love with the company's particular brand of grim-dark humour at an early age, and spent most of my time assembling and painting miniatures, theory-crafting armies for battles I never fought, and playing board games like HeroQuest, Warhammer Quest, and Talisman.

But there was a short period when Magic: The Gathering became a bit of a thing. I was still at school at the time, and quickly coming to the realisation that trying to sneak 3,000-points worth of metal goblins into the library wasn't working out. I was in search of some other way to pass the time between the point I'd finished my Dairylea sandwich and the point when the school bell signaled another humiliating afternoon of double P.E.

Magic was the perfect time-waster.

So, every weekend I would head to the local game store and spend my pocket money on booster packs. I would excitedly open the boosters, sift through the contents, and then try to figure out how to incorporate my one new card into my deck.

I mainly played white and blue, by the way. Well... predominantly white. I threw in a bit of blue so I could always run the Prodigal Sorcerer (we called him Tim). My main opponent was my main man Dale, who's turned up in a couple of my YouTube videos. He tended to run a black deck, so I spent a lot of lunchtimes getting eaten by vampires.

Go figure.

Anyway, Magic ended up going the same way as my entire board game collection. It had been tucked away in a shoebox for a while, so when I went to university I sold it (the card collection, not the shoebox) along with everything else. I didn't get very much for it, and I'm pretty sure I ended up parting with a few pretty valuable rare cards. But, you know... it was a simpler time, when I played games without worrying about silly things like resale value and rarity. I mean, I didn't even have the Internet, so how was I supposed to know?

Whatever. Long story short, all the cards went, and the next few years slipped by in a bit of a blur while I had a thoroughly miserable time at university. When I eventually got back into games, I didn't get back into Magic. I didn't really get back into anything blind packaged at all, except I collected those Lord of the Rings miniatures from the now defunct Sabertooth Games for a while.

That was expensive.

But those heady days playing Magic still lingered in my memory, and I always thought about getting back into a card game that had a deck construction element. You see, I spend more time thinking about games, writing about games, talking about games, and researching games than I do actually playing them... and I spend a lot of time playing them. It always seemed like a good idea to get a game that would enable me to channel all that "between game" energy, and a card game with deck construction seemed like a good idea.

I should also mention I have a bit of a weird relationship with cards in general. There's something very pleasing to me about handling cards. The "flip, flip, flip" of dealing cards to the table, the slick action of drawing a card from the deck, and even the simple act of holding cards in hand appeals to me in a way that I can't really put into words for fear of sounding a little bit... not quite right. So we'll say no more about it, thank you very much...

The big problem was finding a card game that appealed enough for me to go to the effort of creating decks. For a while I toyed with picking up Fantasy Flight Games' Lord of the Rings Living Card Game, but I already feel like I'm so late to that party, trying to find a way of getting involved without feeling constantly behind the curve turned me off the whole idea. Besides, there was something about creating a deck to fight an AI that didn't feel satisfying to me, despite my general appreciation for solo and co-operative gaming experiences.

For a long time Mage Knight and Tash-Kalar have been the go-to games for getting my "hands-on-cards" fix (I thought we weren't going to say anything more about that?), but neither of those games involve deck creation.

The truth is, what I was looking for (what I'm always looking for) was a game that made me feel now like I did then. When I was a kid, board games and fantasy worlds were an escape. They helped me in ways that transcended wasting a bit of time or having a laugh with my limited selection of mates. Playing a game was something special. As an adult, I enjoy many, many different types of games, but only rarely do I find games that really key into that sense of childlike escapism.

The game that finally filled that niche (and just to clarify, I don't fill my niche with cards, my relationship with them may be weird, but it's not that weird), came from a rather surprising source: Games Workshop, a company hardly known for it's card-driven games.

The box art from Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire.

But then, almost everything about Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire is surprising. It's a miniatures game with a dice-driven combat engine, and that sure sounds like a Games Workshop game; but it's smothered with a thick veneer of card game, the miniatures are colour-coded push-fit models that go together without glue, the game plays in under 30 minutes, and it's built from the ground up with organized tournaments in mind.

Oh, and it's pretty inexpensive too. Your're initial buy in is £40 retail (significantly less online), for the base game box, which gives you the cards and miniatures for two complete warbands, additional cards for experimenting with deck creation, and all of the boards and tokens for two players to jump right in. If you want more cards and warbands (and you will want more cards and warbands), they're available as expansions.

To put it bluntly, this is Games Workshop at it's most approachable. They've crafted a game that feels familiar to anybody whose dipped a toe in Fantasy Flight Games' murky waters, and they've packaged it in such a way as to break down all those barriers to entry that so many people hold up as a shield against the Evil Empire.

This isn't a game that requires a significant initial investment. This isn't a game that requires you to build armies of very expensive toy soldiers. This isn't a game that demands you paint the miniatures. Hell, it doesn't even demand you buy glue to put the miniatures together.

So... If it's not any of those things, then what is it?

Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire (hereafter referred to as Shadespire because life's too short) is an arena-based miniatures combat card game. That's nothing new in itself, Dungeon Command did it (very well, actually, but incorporating a deterministic combat system that meant the time-investment to get the most out of the game was too excessive for me) and Magic: Arena of the Planeswalkers did it. In fact, there's nothing really groundbreaking in Shadespire's hybrid design, but that doesn't make the final product any less earth-shattering.

At this point, I've written quite a lot of words without actually getting anywhere. If I'm honest, I'm dancing around the point, because this is a difficult game to review. It's difficult to open the densely packed and closely-knitted elements to start unravelling the whole. There's no way to clearly tackle decoding what makes the game what it is. You see, this is a fighting game, but it's not. It's a miniatures game, but it's not. It's a card game, but it's not. It's a thematic, skirmish game, but's it's not. It's an Age of Sigmar game, but it's not.

This is a game of disparate elements, brought together so cleverly, so cohesively, it's almost impossible to separate them back out. It's a house of cards made from a game of cards (with wee little plastic dudes living inside). If you take out even one element, the whole thing comes crashing down.

Okay, I'll backtrack...

Shadespire is an arena-style fighting game in Games Workshop's popular (yes, it is) Age of Sigmar setting. Two warbands (or up to four warbands if you have extra boards, tokens, and miniatures) enter an arena setting in the titular city, a world of perpetual undeath, under the sway of the terrifying lord of the dead, Nagash. In the base game it's a bloodreaver warband (big dudes with big axes) versus a stormcast eternal warband (even bigger dudes with even bigger hammers); but there are already two expansions introducing orruks (massive dudes with massive axes) and skeletons (little fellas with a lot to prove).

A warband of bloodthirsty bloodreavers, ready for the fight.

The warbands are all there for different reasons - honour, redemption, or just a bloody good scrap - but once they've made contact with the enemy, it all amounts to the same thing. They're there to kill the other guys.

Only... they're not.

Like I said, this is a fighting game, but it's not. You can play the whole game without killing a single enemy fighter and still win. In fact, in many cases, getting stuck into a fight is a good way to suffer an ignoble defeat. It all depends how you've built your deck.

And let's not make any mistake about it: Deck construction is a massive part of this game. You need to know what you're doing to create an efficient, powerful deck that works with your warband. The base set includes two preconstructed decks to get you started, but after a few games, you're probably going to start itching to make your own power deck.

I'll get to that in a minute; first, I need to briefly explain how the game works.

Put simply, the game comprises three rounds. In each round, each warband gets four activations. An activation is moving a fighter, fighting with a fighter, charging with a fighter (which is a move and then an attack), going on guard with a fighter, drawing a power card from your deck, discarding one of your objective cards and drawing a new on, or passing.

Players alternate taking an activation, and between activations they have the opportunity to play ploy cards or upgrade cards from their hand of power cards. Ploy cards are one-shot effects that allow players to manipulate the flow of the game (some are even reactions that you use during someone's activation) and upgrades are permanent powers that attach to a specific fighter and remain accessible for the rest of the game.

The complications arise through the limitations imposed on certain actions. Fighters are only allowed to use a move action once per round, for example. That means fighters that move are rooted to the spot: They can't even charge. Similarly, fighters that charge aren't allowed to activate at all for the rest of the round: They can't move, fight, or even protect themselves by going on guard. These limitations, combined with the fact you only have 12 activations in the whole game means every decision you make is agonizing. One wrong move could put a fighter out of position for a full third of the game; a failed charge could leave a fighter exposed to multiple attacks.

Of course, this is where good deck construction plays its part. Power cards help to circumvent the natural flow of play, gleaning small advantages, like an extra move here, an extra attack there, or even pushing an enemy fighter once space so they're no longer in a position to fight you.

A selection of Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire power cards for the bloodreaver warband.

Unfortunately, while ploy cards are free to play, upgrade cards that stay in play cost glory to activate, and that means killing an enemy fighter (for one glory) or completing an objective card. Before the game you build a deck of 12 objectives, and you draw up to three for each round so you have something to work towards. Objectives vary significantly, ranging from killing an enemy to holding an objective on the board. And yes, it's possible to build a deck that doesn't have any objectives for killing enemies.

And that's the game in a nutshell, really. Players take alternating turns to activate fighters, fighting and moving around the board to achieve objectives and score glory, then using the glory to buy upgrades to make the fighters better at fighting and moving around the board to achieve objectives and score glory, while using ploy cards to take advantage of various opportunities as they arise to make the fighters better at fighting and moving around the board to achieve objectives and score glory.

It all sounds so simple.

It looks simple too.

And then you play your first round, and you realise there's nothing simple about this at all.

You're first experience with the game will probably be something like this:

It sure looks like a fighting game, so you'll charge one of your fighter's into an opponent. Maybe you kill the target; maybe you don't. It doesn't really matter. Either way, you're fighter is now exposed and in danger for the rest of the first round. That fighter probably won't survive.

So, on your next activation you try to be a bit smarter. If you only move, you're allowed to use that same fighter later in the round to attack. And a fighter is allowed to make multiple attacks, because attacks aren't limited actions.


You've got this sussed out already. You activate a fighter and move adjacent to an enemy fighter.

The problem is... well, the problems are...

1. You've just been inefficient. Rather than squeezing a move and an attack out of a single activation, you've just used an activation to move, and will need to spend a second activation to attack. You only get 12 activations for the whole game.

2. Before you get to attack, your opponent has an activation. He uses it to attack the fighter that just moved, and suddenly things get awkward.

Being on the receiving end of an attack is almost always a bad thing. The game's neat combat system is crafted in such a way that the advantage is with the attacker, and the potential for one-shot kills pretty damned high. It uses custom dice, because... you know, everything uses custom dice... and it's probably a little bit too clever for its own good. By which I mean, it seems incredibly complicated on the surface, but it's actually a relatively clean and simple system.

Attack dice have a hammer symbol on two faces, and then one sword, one single support symbol, one double support symbol, and a critical hit. When you want a fighter to attack, you choose any of the fighter's possible attack actions that are within range (most require adjacency). The attack description tells you how many dice you roll, and what symbol you need (hammers or swords). The description also tells you how much damage you inflict if your attack is successful.

So far, so simple.

You roll your dice, and count up the number of hit symbols. The critical symbol counts too, and may trigger special effects.

The custom attack and defence dice from Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire.

After the attack, your opponent rolls defence dice for the target. They're different to the attack dice, because they have two shields in place of the hammer, and one dodge symbol in place of the sword. Now, in most cases, defence rolls are a single dice, meaning the target is almost always on the back foot. However, if the target rolls at least one critical, and the attacker doesn't roll any, the target fends off the attack as the fickle gods of fate show mercy.

But here's where it gets really clever: The attacking fighter counts any allies adjacent to the target as supporting, while the defender counts any allies adjacent to the attacker as supporting. The difference between the number of supporters has an impact on the combat resolution, as the player with the most supporters gets to count one or both of the support symbols on the dice as successes (depending on the number of supporters).

With all that mathematical jiggery-pokery sorted out, you compare successes. If the attacker has the most, the target takes the number of wounds specified by the attack's Damage statistic. This is often enough to straight up dead someone, but if the target is alive, you get to give them a little shove, moving them one space away from your fighter. You also get to drive them back in the case of a draw, as long as you rolled at least one success. If the defender has the most successes (or has more critical successes than you) the attack fails, and the target doesn't go anywhere.

It sounds complicated.

It looks complicated.

But it really isn't. By the end of the first round, you're probably going to have a pretty good idea of how it all works. Unfortunately, that will probably be right around the time you realise you shouldn't have just wandered your fighter up to stand next to the enemy.

You thought you were being smart. You thought you'd be able to get a couple of good swings on the enemy, rather than risking it all on a charge. But then the enemy activated, and they attacked you, and they pushed you back a space. Now you're fighters out of range, and isn't allowed to move again for the rest of the round.

Congratulations. You just wasted an action, possibly got your fighter injured, and ended up out of position anyway. Enjoy the counter-charge your opponent's about to make, and remember to send us all a postcard from that destination Ozzy Man keeps talking about.

A stalwart stormcast eternal faces down a bloodreaver warband in Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire.

It's about this time that you're going to start realising that this dumb-looking fighty game is a little bit more like chess than it has any right to be. Every decision you make is vital, and if you're thinking one step ahead that's not good enough, because someone else is two steps ahead and you've already lost.

So, what do you do? Do you charge to get the drop on your opponent, squeezing an extra action from your limited pool of activations and risking it all in the knowledge that if this goes wrong, you're in deep water? Do you dive into the action, walking your fighter into position and hoping he weathers the storm? Do you wonder why I, for no apparent reason, have included loads of water-related puns in this paragraph?

Or, do you flick through your hand of power cards?

Yeah, maybe you should have done that earlier, because look... Here's a card that lets you make a free attack after making a basic move action. Here's a card that lets you move an enemy fighter one space in a direction of your choice. Here's a card that lets you recover lost hit points.

And here's how you win.

Shadespire is a miniatures game; it's a game about careful positioning, thoughtful planning, and luck mitigation. But it's also a card game, and you could well have won or lost the game before your little fighters ever set foot in the arena.

Learning how to create a good deck is the only way to consistently perform. But here's the thing: This isn't a game about combo attacks. You aren't going to create an economic engine that generates additional activations or which exponentially increases the amount of glory you acquire in each round. Your card play is married with, and totally in sync with, what your fighters are doing on the battlefield.

Creating a deck (actually, two decks: a power deck and an objective deck), is a skill. It's a puzzle. A game in its own right. It's incredibly deep, incredibly rewarding, and surprisingly fun.

The rules are simple. You have to have a deck of at least 20 cards; all the cards have to be unique and playable by your faction; and no more than half your deck can be ploys.


Oh, yeah, but wait... Some cards are faction specific, and some of the upgrades are character specific.

But other than that, easy-peasy.

Oh, yeah, but wait... Before you can even start thinking about putting together a deck, you need to understand how your warband functions.

Bloody hell.

Right, hold on...

A selection of bloodreaver fighter cards from Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire.

A warband ranges in size from three to seven fighters. Each fighter has a movement value, a defence value, a number of wounds, and at least one attack; some have special abilities. Each fighter also has a way of becoming "inspired." An inspired fighter usually gets boosts to certain statistics, such as attack damage or defence, but some may get new abilities, or even extra attack options. Basically, you want all your fighter to be inspired, because that means they're stronger and more efficient, and at it's heart, this is a game about efficiency.

Studying your fighters gives you an insight into how you should use them. Are they glass cannons, or are they incredibly resilient? Do they rely on weight of numbers to gain supporting bonuses, or do they stand alone in defiance of the horde? You need to be able to answer these sorts of questions, and to keep the answers in mind as you start constructing your deck.

Character-specific upgrades are particularly interesting, because they are specifically created to enhance the battlefield role of that character. That makes them more powerful than generic cards, and means they are almost always useful. But if the character dies in battle, those cards in your hand die too, clogging up your hand until the end of the round when you get a chance to ditch them and redraw. It's a very clever balancing mechanism. Personally, I love taking lots of character-specific cards, because it's fun and fluffy; but it's a (poorly) calculated risk.

There are no easy decisions, and every card you choose keeps a dozen more out, because although there's no limit on your deck size, it really is a good idea to keep it as slim as possible to improve your chances of drawing the stuff you need when you need it.

A selection of ploy cards from Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire.

The thing is, the first time you try your hand at deck construction, you're going to make mistakes. You're going to overlook a lot of really useful cards, mainly because you have to have a really good appreciation for quite how muscular and compact the whole game is. As I've already mentioned, this is a game where pushing a fighter can take that fighter out of commission for the rest of the round, so a humble (and seemingly boring) push card that lets you move a fighter one space could be a game changer.

With only 12 activations per side in a whole game, you're forced to re-evaluate what's truly important. A card that gives you bonus damage when you charge may seem incredibly powerful, but how many times will you use it? At most, three times; and only then if you manage to get the card into play early in the first round. Conversely, there's a glass sword upgrade card that grants the recipient a special attack that hits on the hammer symbol and has the potential to cause four wounds (which is pretty much instant death for anyone on the receiving end). However, once you land a successful hit, the sword shatters and you can't use it again. At first, I discounted the card because it seemed a waste to have an upgrade card you could only use once. However, I've quickly come to understand that with such short games, and with so few actions available, the chance to land a brutal insta-kill hit at the right time is incredibly valuable.

The brevity of each conflict is probably why every card in your deck must be unique. It prevents you from spam tactics, and keeps the game feeling vibrant and fresh without falling into the power play ruts that many card games end in. It's great for me, because I've always disliked card games where you have multiple instances of the same card in hand. I understand such duplication from a gameplay perspective, but I've always preferred seeing fresh artwork and unique rules coming out of the deck with each draw.

Whilst creating your power deck, you're also creating an objective deck. You can't create one after the other; they're intrinsically linked. They're two halves of the same whole, just like your miniatures and your deck are two halves of the same whole.

A selection of objective cards from Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire.

The objective deck must contain exactly 12 cards. Each objective, when completed, awards glory points. These glory points are essential for buying upgrades, and also for determining the winner after three rounds. Some objectives are very easy, and award only one or two glory; other objectives are very hard, and award up to six glory (but are usually only available to score at the end of the third round when it's too late to buy upgrades). Here again, is a fiendishly clever conundrum to unravel. What mix of objectives do you take?

You obviously want to take things that key into how your warband plays, taking movement-based objectives for fast warbands, or murdering objectives for warbands that enjoy all the stabbing and wotnot. But you also need to balance getting enough glory to win against getting enough early glory to pay for upgrades. Pick lots of easy objectives, and you'll quickly score them and get upgrades in play, but you're limiting how much you can score overall. If you take lots of high-scoring objectives, you're never going to get your upgrades in play.

This sense of balance - of aspects being perfectly weighted and set against a counterweight of equal importance - is evident throughout the game. Consider the size of the warbands, for example. If a warband comprises of strong fighters, such as stormcast eternals, then it has fewer fighters in play. This means such warbands are generally outnumbered, and therefore cannot benefit from supporting allies when attacking or defending. Smaller warbands find it harder to meet objectives, and may end up with activations each round that they cannot use optimally, especially if a few fighters have died. But small warbands are easier to manage, and they give away less glory through kills.

The skeleton expansion is a fine example of a perfectly balanced system. There are seven fighters in total, so there's no shortage of bodies on the field; but with only four activations each round, some of those bodies are going to be nothing more than fancy window dressing. It's possible to get around this by using the skeleton leader's special ability, which for one action allows two other skeletons to move. That's all well and good until the leader dies, so you really want to keep him out of a fight. But of course, he's the best fighter of the bunch, so you need him to get stuck in sometimes. Luckily, he's one of the few fighters in the game with a ranged attack, giving him the ability to strike without facing retaliation.

Oh, and did I mention, skeletons are incredibly weak and squishy... er, brittle? One hit will cause most of them to crumble like crackerbread. The good news is, the leader can reanimate the fallen warriors, and the warriors that come back are now inspired. The yang to that yin is, of course, it costs an action to reanimate a warrior, so you really don't want to do it that often. Additionally, every kill grants your opponent a glory point. You don't really want to do that very often either.

And that's just what Shadespire is like: It's a constantly see-sawing equation that demands players fully understand the weaknesses of their warbands, and then use their warbands strengths effectively.

Anyway, at this point I'm sure you can see that I'm sold on this game. I've already got the two expansions, I've bought the official card sleeves (and I never buy card sleeves normally), and I've even picked up some extra dice. I'm going to buy each new expansion, and I may even buy a second base set for the boards and cards.

I'm a kid again.

But I'm not kidding myself.

Shadespire is amazing. It's one of the finest games I've played this year. But it's not without its faults.

At this point, I'm going to mention the box art.

Good Lord.

If there was ever an advertisement for not judging a book by its cover, this game would be it. (Read that sentence enough times, and it ceases to make any kind of sense at all.) All of the characters in the artwork are in weird, stilted poses, details on armour are weirdly flat, and the warped perspective on the main character's sword has me concerned a Hound of Tindalos is on the way.

And then there's Angharad, doing her bit for equality: Poor love made a huge leap forwards for diversity in Games Workshop by being only the second ever female stormcast eternal, and one of very, very few female heroes in the Age of Sigmar setting in general; and yet that leap still put her right at the back of the picture, barely visible behind a wall of hulking muscle men. Keep up the good work, Chick. You'll find yourself a handsome husband one day.

The stormcast eternals from Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire form ranks against the enemy.

The art on the cover is baffling, to say the least, because the artwork on the cards is universally excellent, with the various fighters brought to life in a range of artistic styles that makes every card a joy.

But art is art. I'm sure there are some people that like the box art.

I'm sure there are some people who like the artwork from Ascension: Chronicles of the Godslayer too. There's no accounting for taste.

So, I'll give Games Workshop a pass on that one; and say it's just not for me. What I won't give them a pass on is sloppiness in the rules book, and in the use of terminology across the cards. There's a general lack of focus to the writing, like the designers occasionally forget their own keywords. Cards that do very similar things have different wording, and sometimes terminology gets mixed up.

Pages from the Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire rules book.

Now, I won't say it's terrible - it's not a Myth-level disaster - but it just feels a little bit slapdash at times.

I'll cherry pick a few examples to illustrate.

The rules book makes a point of defining "Fighter" as being represented by a miniature and a fighter card. "A fighter can be friendly or enemy (and when a rule refers to "a fighter" without specifying friendly or enemy, it refers to both."

That seems straightforward enough. Now, let's take a look at combat actions: "An attack action with a Range characteristic of 1 can only be used against adjacent enemies. An attack action with a Range characteristic of 2 or more can be used against fighters who are within that number of hexes of the attacking fighter..."

Let's forget they've used the term "enemies" instead of "enemy fighters" which is the defined term per the rules. Let's focus instead on how this ruling, by the written word, says you're allowed to shoot your own teammates.

But don't panic. Later in the rules it clarifies you can't attack a friendly fighter. I'll let you dig out that single line of text from the 32 page rules book yourself.

Now, let's look at the term "activation." The rules state, "although most activations allow a fighter to make an action, activations and actions are different things. Players take activations while fighters make actions (which may or may not be part of an activation)."

That sounds okay, but then in almost the next paragraph the rules list "activations common to all fighters," and many cards in the game have timing triggers such as "at the end of a fighter's activation."

It's not exactly difficult to figure all that out and understand what the rules mean, but I'm sure they could have made it all a little less obtuse.

The cards are generally okay, but there are a few that are real headscratchers. For example, the card "Stumble" says, "Play after a friendly fighter's Attack action drives an enemy fighter back. They are driven back an additional hex in the same direction."

That card would be okay if the rules didn't already have a perfectly defined keyword "knockback X," which adds X additional spaces when you drive back a target. So... Why the hell doesn't the "Stumble" card say, "Play this after a friendly fighter's Attack action. The attack gains Knockback 1"?

You'll find plenty of other examples as you play. At best, you'll think, "Boy, that's ugly wording." At worst, you'll need to spend a bit of time working out exactly what the card means.

The other thing the rules book simply doesn't address with any deal of accuracy is timing, and for a card game, that's almost criminal. There are cards that trigger after an action, after a specific type of action, or after an activation, and that causes some confusion because the specific timing of those events isn't clearly defined. For example, if a player uses an activation to activate a fighter to make an attack, when does that fighter's activation end? Does it simultaneously end at the point the attack action ends, in which case reactions triggering off "after an attack" and "after an activation" would happen at the same time, or do activations act as a wrapper around actions, and therefore actions end before the activation ends? If you play a reaction after an action within an activation, is the reaction part of the activation?

These things are easy to address with a proper flow diagram in the rules; and they should have been from the start.

But I have to stress, there's nothing game-breaking here. It's not something that's harmed my enjoyment of the game, it's just something that I would like to see Games Workshop tightening up as they move forwards.

And I do want them to move forwards. I want this game to be successful. I want to buy the next four warbands they've announced (skaven, fyreslayers, more stormcasts, and Khorne blood warriors). I want every card for deck building, because...


As I'm writing this, I've got my orruk deck beside me on the desk. I've picked it up multiple times today. Shuffled it. Swapped out a card. Swapped it back. Pressed down on the top of the stack and then watched it slowly inflate as the air seeps back into the card sleeves.

I've got my "hands-on-cards" experience.

But better yet, I have a "hands-on-cards" experience that doesn't involve saving my pocket money, going down to the local games store, and shelling out a small fortune on cards I don't want or already have. Shadespire eschews the blind-packaged collectible format for a more straightforward expansion structure. Each new expansion includes a set of miniatures for a new warband, some cards specific for that warband, and some generic cards for use with any warband. Of course, some people are going to shout, "Shenanigans!"

(People still say "shenanigans," right?)

They're going to cry foul because to get access to all of the cards requires purchasing every warband; a tactic which seems particularly unfair when considering each warband pack contains a relic card from a set of six.

But I'm okay with that. Games Workshop have dodged a bullet by pricing the expansions incredibly fairly. They're £17.50 each, and considering you get 31 universal cards to play with, that doesn't seem too bad a price, even if you aren't interested in the warband. But as you get a new warband too, you get a chance to experiment with a new faction for a change of pace. Furthermore, Games Workshop is releasing free PDFs for each warband that allow you to use the miniatures in games of Age of Sigmar.

If even that doesn't impress you, you can sell the miniatures to someone who does play Age of Sigmar.

So, yeah, I'm okay with that.

Maybe it's just because I still remember sifting through pack after pack of Magic cards looking for a blue leviathan, and getting a sinking feeling when it didn't surface.

Dammit, I'm doing water puns again.

Look, if you're still with me at this point, I'll wrap this up as succinctly as possible: Shadespire is the card game I've been waiting for. I've spent hours playing it, and even more hours building decks and running test scenarios. I'm excited to see what each new expansion brings.

Genuinely excited.

Best of all, I can play games whenever I feel like it; and I never have to go out for double P.E. afterwards.

Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire is available from Games Workshop directly and all good hobby stores and online retailers.


  1. Fallen Angel... my fav of all MtG cards haha. Great write up! :)

    1. I'm just going to fly this five unblockable damage at you every turn. Have fun with that...

  2. Wow. I overlooked this because it looked a bit light and airy and to be honest I'm still a little wary of GW so I had this -- unfounded -- idea that the game would be shoddy in production and badly supported.

    Looks like I'm dead wrong, which is nice. This looks like it's tapping into the same sort of thing that Blood Bowl does and I love Blood Bowl, so maybe I will give it a try. The news that there's a Skaven warband on the way is tempting...

    1. It's quite deceptive. It looks pretty simple, but the deeper you go the deeper it gets. It really is well worth checking out.

  3. It really has a lot of depth. Says the person who got humiliated yesterday in his first match, as his band of Reavers got killed one after another and losing about 20 to 4.
    Though as a funny finishing sentence, the last objective I scored was: Khorne cares not. How true this was. Only his servants got slaughtered.
    But after this first match I really grasped how deeply tactical the game is. :)

    1. Yeah. The more time you spend with it (playing and deck-building) the more you realise quite how deep it is.

      Thanks for reading.

  4. Brilliant write-up, thank you!

  5. Have you ever played this game? It seems like it might have very similar mechanics, although you can't build your own deck. Very fun and the price was nothing, though that was 2002.

    1. I've never played that one, but I played the subsequent iteration of the rules set, a cutdown version using the Transformers Armada IP. I have actually reviewed that game on this blog.


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