Miniatures Review: Warhammer: Island of Blood
A new member of The Wargamer team, Fritz Feddeck, shows us what makes fantasy miniature wargaming exciting using a certain Warhammer box set.
Getting started in fantasy miniature wargaming can be a daunting task when trying to consider which system to get started with, how to play the game, and where to go once you have the basics down. As a longtime miniature wargamer I’d like to offer some advice to help make that first step a bit easier for you by reviewing the Warhammer Fantasy Island of Blood box set by Games Workshop; as your first step into miniature wargaming.
First thing you notice in picking up the box, beyond the heft of the contents inside, is the epic artwork on the cover—a massive sprawling battle between Elves and fiendish looking rat-men (known as Skaven, but we will get to that in a bit…) complete with ranks of infantry, heroic commanders, and monstrous creatures with a hint of magic in play. This is the very scene that the game creates, putting you and a friend in command of a complete fantasy army.
First, a little back story regarding the game to set the stage as we “unbox” it…
Warhammer is a complete miniature based gaming system set in a medieval-like fantasy world populated by men, dwarves, elves, and other more sinister factions such as the Skaven rat-men and chaos powers. It is a time of total war, as the city-states of man under the guidance of the god-emperor Karl Franz struggle for survival. A world where magic is real, and both monsters and eldritch war machines are common sights on the battlefield. In this world players collect and build miniature armies drawing from a wide collection of units and abilities, as they fight for the survival or dominance of the Warhammer world.
As an entry point into the game, the Island of Blood recreates one of the many historical battles in the Warhammer universe; complete with two starter armies and everything needed to play that battle and the Warhammer game overall.
Desiring a source of magical power to fuel their warp-spawned machines and monstrosities, the Skaven have spent the past few months digging secret tunnels to gain access to the Island of Blood—an Elven outpost that contains the fabled magical Phoenix Stone.And now, with the tunnels complete, they are ready to begin their invasion and claim the Phoenix Stone…
Upon opening the contents you can be a bit overwhelmed if this is your first foray into fantasy miniature wargaming, as over seventy plastic miniatures greet you along with a quick start gaming guide, rulebook, die, templates, stands, and measuring sticks. So much plastic and where to start—this is a good thing!
At its foundation, tabletop miniature gaming is about suspending belief for the duration of the game through the use of miniatures and scenery. Done well, one can almost step back from the table, take in the scene of epic battles unfolding, and actually feel like they are there commanding their army;and since the miniatures are the main component in doing this, there needs to be both a good variety of models and top-notch molds.
Island of Blood delivers this with a variety of both Elven and Skaven units included in the box. Of course you get a number of rank and file infantry to command, but also included are commanders, wizards, war machines, and some monstrous creatures. There is a lot of variety in the box in terms of units, which offers lots of options as we move into the various missions and in recreating the famous Island of Blood scenario. While both armies are equal and balanced in terms of what they can do, both—as expected—play very differently against each other; requiring some experimentation regarding the tactics—on the tabletop—you are going to have to master to win victory.
The Skaven are all about cheap and expendable infantry, known as clan-rats, which are thrown against the enemy to tie them up so their war machines and monstrous creatures can then counter-attack and crush the enemy in one swift blow. The Island of Blood army reflects this theme in that it gives you two large blocks of clan-rats, a commander, engineer (wizard), two special weapons teams—one that lobs globes of poisoned gas (think cannon) and one that spews magical flame (think flame-thrower)—, along with two genetically engineered and magic enhanced abominations known as Rat-Ogres.
Opposite in play to the Skaven are the Elves—few in number, but matched by none in skill with the sword and bow. As an Elven commander you control two groups of elite infantry, a wizard, one unit of fast moving cavalry, and an Elven prince riding the fabled griffon Skyclaw!
So the first step is to, of course, build and paint your miniatures as they are supplied both unbuilt and unpainted.As a starter set they are designed to fit together without the use of glue, and can be done very quickly once you separate them from the plastic sprues. That said, I’d recommend a small dab of plastic glue here and there to prevent the weapons from falling off on some of the more dynamically posed infantry models.
Painting, while not required to play of course, is the next step—worth taking a moment to talk about from the perspective of starting out in the miniature wargaming hobby. Most, if not all, of the wargaming systems out there offer the miniatures in an unbuilt and unpainted state, as putting them together and painting them is a huge aspect of the hobby in itself.
Many players enjoy collecting, painting, and growing their armies unit by unit. This way you have complete control over what colors and poses. From the perspective of somebody doing this for the first time it can be overwhelming, and the Island of Blood set has taken this into consideration.
Included in the box is a detailed full color book outlining how to build and prepare your models, along with a step-by-step guide on how to paint the miniatures. All while further information and help can be found on the Games Workshop website specifically relating to the Island of Blood.
With a little patience, and a Saturday afternoon or two, painting up the set in “no time” is easy—well within the grasp of a newcomer to the hobby. Of course one can play the game unpainted, and I’m sure many of your first battles will be. Once you see the sight of the model built and ready to be thrown into battle the allure of rolling those die and deciding the fate of the Phoenix Stone is irresistible, which now leads us to the mechanics of the game itself.
Mechanically, the game is played through a game turn which consists of moving your army, casting spells, shooting missile weapons and war machines, and finishing up with brutal close combat assaults between any engaged models. This goes back and forth between each player until either one side is destroyed or the specific mission goals are met.
To do this the Island of Blood gives you two things—both a quick start guide to introduce you to the rules and a full rulebook with the complete rules from the Warhammer Fantasy system. Each phase of the game is broken down step-by-step, with explanations of what to do and how things are resolved through the result of the dice roll; which is the driving mechanics of the game.
Models move based on what type they are—both the Skaven clan-rats and Elven infantry move at the same pace, while the prince on the griffon and the Elven cavalry move three times as fast since they are mounted.
When models close the distance and touch base to base they are considered to be “in the assault” and die are used to determine who wins the round of combat. First, each side counts up the number of attacks each model can make, which is determined by their profile and how many are touching each other base-to-base. Most models can only make one attack.But some, such as a commander, can make more than one due to their better weapon skill.
After adding up the number of attacks you roll the die to see how many of them hit the other side, which is modified depending on the skill profile of the model attacking—a Skaven will hit on a 4+, while an Elf will hit on a 3+ due to a better weapon skill.
Next, based on the number of hits, you roll to see who is wounded and if the opposing armor blocks any of the wounds.Each wound that gets through removes a model as a casualty. After both side have struck, wounded, and taken their losses, the side that lost the most must then pass a leadership test to see if they stay and fight; or break and run.
Shooting missile weapons and using war machines works in a similar manner. First, you measure the distance to the unit you want to hit to check if it is in range based on the weapon that is firing. Then you roll to hit, resolve and wounds, and then remove casualties. In the case of a war machine or special weapon (like the Skaven cannon) you place a template over the opposing models which represents the effects of the weapon, and then roll a special set of die to see if it hits on target, falls short, scatters, or blows up due to a malfunction.
There are also the wizards. Spells are selected before the game. You roll a number of die based on their mastery level to try and cast spells, which can affect units by enhancing them or by blasting at them through magical means.
In Warhammer Fantasy and the Island of Blood it is through the rolling of die that the cinematic of the game plays out. Can my wizard pull off a mighty spell? Can my Skaven warlord defeat the Elven prince in “singles combat”? Can a lone group of Elves hold off two entire blocks of Skaven clan-rats? If the die are with you anything is possible.Yet, tactics and good planning will take you just as far. The die allow just enough randomness to encourage a player to take risks, which adds to the excitement of the game.
Of course there is a learning curve for the rules.But once you run through movement, shooting, magic, and the assault phase a few times it quickly becomes second nature and an Island of Blood game can easily be played in an hour-and-a-half.
So now that you have your models built and painted, you can work through the rules.What kind of playability does the Island of Blood offer from a tactical perspective?
The first mission is, of course, to go head-to-head with both armies to determine who controls the Phoenix stone. Many of your games will involve the interaction of the different units to try and gain an advantage over the other side, to crush them.
Once you have played through that, the next step is to download the Island of Blood Campaign from the Games Workshop website, which breaks down the armies into play through three custom missions: ranging from a wizard-to-wizard battle, running engagements, and then—of course—a final battle for the island.
After you have decided the fate of the Island of Blood one can then play the game missions in the Warhammer Rulebook. These involve such things as claiming a magical tower, holding a bridge crossing while you wait for reinforcements, commander-to-commander duels, and claiming certain key features on the battlefield. While these are not Island of Blood themed specific, they work with any of the other armies in the game—being the full rulebook.So they are easily adapted with the included models.
So, after you have played the dozens of battle missions a dozen times is there more?Yes! Included in the main rulebook are a number of magical items and artifacts carried by commanders and wizards of the army, with each one costing a number of points. While the Island of Blood leaves this out for simplicity, players can easily agree to each spend a defined number of points on these items for their wizards and commanders, thus offering even greater tactical options and scenarios.
It’s this flexibility, along with the models, and rich back story of the gaming universe which make the Island of Blood a fantastic value in getting started in the fantasy miniature hobby. The contents of the box alone could keep you busy for a few dozen games if you decide to stop there. If you decide to continue your gaming journey further, it’s easy to expand the two armies through purchasing additional miniatures in the line, or by starting one of the other armies in the gaming system. Be warned:the gaming system and action is addicting!
With that, and the Island of Blood, we come back full circle to the start of the review. In playing a miniature war game we want to spend a few hours immersed in a fantasy world of heroic warriors, villains, magic, and epic battles. We want to both watch the game from a cinematic perspective and command it at the same time, while trying our hand using a variety of tactical scenarios, all while deciding if the hobby is a good fit for our tastes—all of which the Island of Blood delivers in full.
Review written by: Fred Feddeck
About Fred Feddeck
Fred, "Fritz", is a wargamer with over twenty years of experience in rolling dice and pushing around toy soldiers. A veteran enthusiast of Warhammer 40,000, Warhammer Fantasy, and Battletech, he is also known to dabble in ancients and sci-fi based RPGs.