Friday, July 8, 2016

Review: Warhammer Quest Silver Tower

Games Workshop have been doing some strange and wonderful things of late, and none stranger than their summary execution of the Warhammer game and its associated world. Coming as it did mere months before the release of the popular Total War: Warhammer, it seemed like a bit of an own goal. The follow up game, Age of Sigmar, has generated bewilderment, discussion, anguish and sometimes even fun. But the more things change, the more they stay the same, and I was surprised and delighted by the re-release/reboot of my all-time favourite GW game in Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower.

Now, your humble blogger has invested more hours into Warhammer Quest than any other GW title, whether in actual play time, mini-painting or poring over tea-stained manuals and well thumbed random encounter tables. So naturally, I was keen to see what the Age of Sigmar holds for the dungeon crawling classic. Thankfully, they decided not to call it Age of Sigmar Quest, despite their firm assurances that the old world is gone for good.

The Minis

This is what £95 worth of plastic looks like.
Andy Chambers wrote that if they’d included everything he'd wanted to in the original Warhammer Quest box, it would have cost over a £100. 20 years later, the price point for its successor is a shade under that, coming in at 95 quid. Of course, the pound isn't what it used to be these days, but not even their least charitable detractor could lay the blame for that on GW. So let's have a look at what you get for your money.

First and foremost, it's all about the minis. No doubt the Oldhammer and Middlehammer era minis had their charm, but when it comes to sheer detail and miniature quality, these are the good old days. The minis in this box are some of the best I’ve seen in a lifetime frittered away on peering at tiny things.

The Original monster lineup, from GW's "red & Goblin Green" phase
The original Warhammer Quest came with an assortment of plastic Orcs, Goblins, Skaven, Rats, Bats, Snotlings and Minotaurs. They came from that era of GW history when the Citadel miniature was undergoing a messy divorce from the poisonous lead of its forebears and making its first blundering steps into the media of plastic, resin and “white metal” (which for some reason they felt uncomfortable referring to as "pewter"). Thus while the box came with 6 Orc Warriors, it would be more accurate to say that it contained 6 identical Orc Warriors, as though the caverns of the old world were afflicted by a plague of clones.

Not so the new kid. While there are a few duplicates, the Citadel foundries have well and truly mastered the art of tiny plastic things, and the new box contains a wondrous variety. Gone are the tried and true fantasy trope mooks, the Orcs and Goblins of yore. Gone are the single-part sprues in their static poses. Instead we have a host of intricate multi-part kits with a variety of poses and accoutrements.

Mooks & Monsters

Puts me rather in the mind of that one Spidergremlin from Gremlins 2
Who are you calling a beast, man?
I think we can all agree that these guys are totally Kairic
Unlike its predecessor, the new game is set in a specific locale, the titular Silver Tower, an infinite labyrinth nevertheless firmly bounded within the confines of a mobile magical citadel. The inhabitants therefore have a unified theme that was somewhat lacking in the original, either being minions of the god Tzeentch – an avian deity noted for his patronage of magicians and intricate schemes - or interlopers trapped in or invading his domain. The new adversary line up features, among others:

The Tzaangors, a form of (even more) mutated beastmen, altered to be “more pleasing to Tzeentch”, Tzeentch apparently being pleased by the addition of beaks, feathers and tentacles.

These are the Kairic Acolytes, who are pretty ripped for a bunch of magical students. Sadly the box contains no information about what exactly makes them “Kairic”, and believe me I've looked.

This edition’s nuisance monster is the Grot Scuttling, a kind of spider/goblin hybrid, presumably because goblins and spiders by themselves are just too “Vanilla”.

In amongst all the new faces it’s nice to see something familiar, and no Tzeentchian encounter would be complete without those stalwart footsoldiers of the changer of ways, the Pink Horror. Not only are theses specimens particularly fabulous examples of horrokind, but they are accompanied by a long lost friend – the blue horrors. Back in the old days of Warhammer – and its cousin, Spacewarhammer - a Pink Horror, when killed, would split into two weaker, sulkier, bluer versions. Then one day Games Workshop decided that his was too much fun, and replaced the blue horrors with a simple debuff mechanic. Happily, the blues are back, and as if to make up for their shameful treatment, they now further subdivide into teeny-tiny micro horrors. This happy development is only slightly marred by the fact that they aren’t called yellow horrors, but one mustn’t grumble.

He was a shoe-in for the job, given his sterling work on Pan's Labyrinth
Mino-what now?
Not forgetting that classic Ninja wepaon, the axe-helmet.
Then there are the ”boss” monsters. The minotaur of old is replaced by the Ogroid Thaumaturge, presumably because calling it a minotaur would put it in the public domain. Nevertheless it’s a tantalising name, implying, perhaps that there are other kinds of thaumaturge out there, or hinting at some forthcoming half-human/half-ogre faction. On the other hand he makes a pretty good Oni or Ogre Mage for a D&D game, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Though he’s certainly the biggest monster in the box the Ogroid is not actually the toughest, at least going by their base stats. Surprisingly, that honour falls to the Skaven Deathrunner, the modern day answer to Deathmaster Snikch. Not normally noted for their toughness, this Skaven is a marked exception, with a Vigour (the new Wounds stat) of 13 – appropriate for the famously triskaidekaphiliac race - compared with 9 for the Ogroid. He also has a host of classic ninja tricks, hurling poisoned throwing stars, vanishing in puffs of smoke, and even calling upon an illusory twin.

And then there is the villain of the piece, the Gaunt Summoner. He’s the one who’s brought all the heroes together and is making them dance to his tune in return for pieces of a shattered amulet – a nod, perhaps to the central theme of the classic “Advanced Heroquest” game.

Playable Characters

Don't ask him about the hammers, we'll be here all day
Look how well protected she is!
The Darkoath Chieftain is this editions scantily-clad eye candy.
So Shiny
Not quite sure what's going on with that tentacle
And speaking of heroes let’s have a look at the new line up. Straight out of the box we have five brand new heroes and even – for the first time in the history of GW dungeon-crawling boardgames – a heroine! She’s even fully clothed and wearing functional armour. Not only do we have an actual woman in the lineup, but one of the heroes is also officially non-white. Sadly, this is a big deal, at least in my gaming circles.

Just as the original Warhammer Quest contained rules for an additional hero not actually included in the box itself (the Trollslayer) along with subtle hints that you should go out and buy a mini for him as soon as possible, Silver Tower has rules for a further four heroes (available from a GW store near you) and the full set of Tzeentchian beasties should you wish to give your heroes a bit more of a challenge.

And if you want more, you can unlock rules for additional characaters for 99c a pop (or an equivalent amount of Britcoins) in the Silver Tower app. In fact you can expand the roster by an additional 41 characters. Of course if you want the actual miniatures as well you're going to need to come up with an additional €700 or so, and god knows how much on top of that for paint and glue, but hey, you gotta pay to play. The expanded character list features familiar faces from all corners of the AoS milieu, with Stormcast Eternals and Bloodbound being heavily represented. Strangely absent are the minions of Slaanesh and Nurgle, the only reference to these missing members of the classic foursome being the Chaos Lord’s Mark of Chaos ability, which enables him to shift between various gifts from each of the patron gods from turn to turn. Also missing are any sort of vampires or non-chaos humans, Ogres or Chaos Dwarfs. Perhaps these omissions hint at future expansions, or perhaps GW hasn’t quite decided where these classic factions fit in the new order. But 47 heroes is certainly enough to be going along with, although I for one lament the app based approach – give me a book and a character sheet any day of the week.

The Dungeon

As before, the board is assembled from a random assortment of board sections representing corridors and rooms. Also as before, the dungeon is gradually unveiled by revealing a series exploration card as your characters move from room to room. What’s new is that instead of being somewhat generic squares and rectangles that could represent almost anywhere, we now have 14 completely unique board pieces, each double sided, each representing a completely different environment, from  a yawning precipice on the edge of a stellar void to the interior of some extra dimensional monsters digestive tract. In addition, The cards themselves each have unique challenges and random encounters, and some highly creative mini-games and even interactive narrative fragments. So while my old Warhammer Quest boards saw (and indeed still see) service in games of D&D, these beautiful pieces of card art can only represent the mad interior of the Silver Tower.

Mechanics

Mechanically the game has an interesting and fun approach, very different and far more dynamic than it’s predecessor. As each player takes their turn they roll four dice, and then spend these to perform actions. Each action has a cost, and the player must spend a die showing that cost or better to carry out that action. The more complex or powerful the action, the higher the die cost required to carry it out. Every character can use any of the three basic actions – movement, exploration and recuperation – but each also has several actions unique to that character. These give each character a different feeland playstyle. The Knight Questor, for example, is something of a tank, who can encourage monsters to target him preferentially, and is capable of taking more of a beating than the others, whereas the Mistweaver has a tendency to bruise like a peach but is nevertheless capable of dishing out large quantities of damage from afar.


Choices
"The rules are, there ain't no rules"
In addition there is a pool of “destiny dice” that all the heroes can access to perform extra actions, but how many will be available varies from turn to turn. Canny use of the destiny dice is key to surviving the tower. As the character is wounded they get less dice to spend each turn, creating a nice tension between whether or not to attack or hang back and recuperate. The destiny dice can also bring about unexpected events or summon the Gaunt Summoners mischievous familiars to torment the players.

The box contains two booklets. The first is a guide book - in the Age of Sigmar, there is nothing so crass and restrictive as "rules" - and while it's beautifully illustrated, it can be a little on the vague side. Deliberately so it seems, as the passage on the left explicitly calls out.

The second book contains a series of random encounter tables used to generate groups of adversaries, and random behaviour tables to determine what they do. The monsters behaviour will vary from turn to turn, forcing the heroes to adapt their tactics accordingly. There is also a series of numbered passages that represent unexpected events and interractive narrative fragments, reminsicent of a Fighting Fantasy/Choose your own adventure style of play. this latter feature effectively lets the game act as sort of "virtual GM", and works very well in play.

The Bad

Personally, I'm not a fan of the app based approach – I would much rather buy a pack of cards or something akin to the warrior packs of old than download them on an app, but maybe that’s just the old fogey in me. Still, there’s something about filling in a tea-stained character sheet, noting down all your treasures and encounters, friends and enemies, clues and scribbles that makes a mini “your guy” far more than downloading it from the Play Store. Nothing is less Warhammer than the Play Store. Except possibly the iStore.

Then there is the character roster. Being a huge and obsessive nerd, I made a spreadsheet for all the official characters, listing their stats and powers. You can see it here. Now as vast as that list is, it’s curiously lacking in a certain kind of diversity, namely, where are the ladies? Now as a father, I like to play games with my kids, and the first question my daughter asks when playing a new game is, “who are the girls? Who can I be?” And in this case there are but two in the entire roster, the Mistweaver, and the Sorceress. In fact, there are more non-human characters than there are females, and no human females at all! Both are ranged attack type characters, and both are Elves (Aelves if you insist), but there the similarities end. Now, while I do appreciate the way every character in this game is unique, the Sorceress  features a mechanic that essentially allows her to cut herself to gain additional magical ordinance. And while I’m not saying GW are out to glorify self-harm, I’m here to tell you that it’s not the kind of character I’m comfortable encouraging my daughter to take on. So she and I have homebrewed a few female characters for her to play, some canonical and some not, some of whom may even make an appearance on this blog.

A last, minor quibble is the lack of what might be called “apr├Ęs dungeon”. One of the most fun aspects of Warhammer Quest was that often the heroes troubles were just beginning when they left the dungeon, having then to journey through the howling wilds of the Old World and then make their way around the oftentimes even more dangerous cities, villages and towns thereof. What character progression there is is strangely ephemeral. All the treasures are one shot items, to be used and discarded, and the additional skills your character can gain can vanish into the ether as soon as the quest is finished, making them seem scarcely worth the effort. Partly of course this is is to do with the overall feel of AoS, which can suffer from what might be called an overdose of Epic. It’s hard to picture a Stormcast Eternal, for example, hunkering down for a mug of ale or shopping for rope.

Verdict

But overall, I love this game. The minis are great, components are lavishly illustrated, and the game has a variety of unique, dynamic and interesting mechanics  that make for a very fun experience. The overarching theme of a group of heroes with a specific quest gives the game some much-needed narrative focus lacking from its predecessor, and the vast array of characters available and the random nature of the quests make for a lot of replayability. If you made it this far, Thanks for reading, let me know your thoughts.

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