Warhammer Underworlds Beastgrave Review22 Oct 2019 0
Warhammer Underworlds Beastgrave Review
Released 21 Sep 2019
Warhammer Underworlds is top shelf. I can say this with certainty as this skirmish system has been thrashing about and lopping off heads since mid-2017. It's withstood thousands of plays across competitive events as well as casual gaming shops, and of course a few dozen upon my own weathered table. This thing is "legit" as they like to say.
Beastgrave is the latest core set for this board and miniatures game hybrid. It marks a fantastic new chapter in the product's life-cycle and iterates on this innovative design. But first let's pull back and freshen up on Warhammer Underworlds.
This is a skirmish game where players trade out their massive blocks of Warhammer Orruks and Stormcast for modest warbands of four or five miniatures. With this narrowing of focus is a general philosophy of accessibility. Every miniature is push-fit and easily assembled. Playing a match takes roughly 30 minutes. There's no need for storing large amounts of terrain or even a ruler as the action takes place upon a hex board with 2D elements.
This is fast and brutal arena-style combat as it’s meant to be.
While you may quickly dismiss this as a stripping down of Games Workshop's larger fantasy title to appeal to the lowest common denominator, this is not the case. The simplicity of approach belies the tremendous depth swirling beneath the surface - this game has legs. That depth arises primarily through card play. While participants alternate in a tight activation system across three rounds, much of the drama and tension arises through constructed decks teeming with nuance.
Ploy card are exercised between activations to perform underhanded maneuvers such as pushing fighters around, springing traps, and boosting upcoming dice rolls. Objective cards are even more interesting as they provide your varied goals for the session, offering a myriad of vectors for gaining glory and securing victory. Finally, upgrades allow you to utilize that earned glory to enhance your various warriors by providing new attack lines or permanent stat increases. There is direct synergy and a strong core gameplay loop that is infectious.
These decks of cards are assembled by participants prior to play. This is the strongest hobbyist element of this game as it frontloads alone time concocting wicked machinations to hatch upon your opponents. There's a unique relationship between you and your deck that breeds investment, a complicated entanglement like that of Dr. Frakenstein and his monster.
This deckbuilding element also anchors the strong asymmetric aspect of play. Each warband contains faction specific cards which you will utilize alongside a healthy pool of neutral options. There's a strong strategic aspect to constructing your objectives and then plucking action cards to accomplish that pursuit. The end result is a collision of forces between you and your opponent that plays out in wild and unpredictable fashion.
Beastgrave is simultaneously more of the same as well as a breath of fresh air. In the past we've seen Stormcast dominating the core box releases and stymieing variety for a newcomer. This is no longer the case as we have ferocious Chaos Beastmen opposing the Wood Elfish Kurnoth Hunters. These two factions are fitting in the wake of the Necroquake as the fight has spilled forth into the mountain Beastgrave. As the narrative for this system is mostly pushed to the back-seat, the upshot is that we have some swanky new boards and a wonderful focus on feral fighting forces.
All of this is compatible with your previous Warhammer Underworlds releases. The rules have been given some slight nudges such as allowing objectives to be flipped to lethal hexes and boosting defensive builds by enhancing guard. The feel and tone of the design has not changed in the slightest and that underlying sense of tension and drama is in full effect.
Drama is really the lifeblood of this design and what makes it tick. There's a dual sense of tight control with little margin for error, as well as an airy chaotic looseness that begets maximum aggression. This is accomplished due to the very strict allotment of only four actions over three rounds. When you realize that you will only move each fighter two or three times per game the weight of your decisions really drive into your skull. Yet this is still an experience governed by dice and swingy reversals which provide memorable outcomes and plenty of theatrics.
That combination of layered strategy and drama presented in a 30 minute package really sets this design apart. It manages to feel more casual than something like X-Wing and yet deeper than lighter fare such as the recently released Unmatched. It has an attractive outer shell as well as complex innards to drive the onslaught.
Many competing releases that operate in this space seek to offer a streamlined and concise experience which typically comes at the cost of personality. Osprey’s Wildlands seeks a similar role, offering a miniatures/board game hybrid with a brief time commitment, but it achieves this result by filing off every inch of quirky flesh and unique wrinkle. It’s bland but at least it’s short, right? Underworlds is short but it’s anything but bland.
You also can't discount that this bite-sized chunk of Warhammer allows you to experience one of the most vivid fantasy settings on the market. Just like Warcry and Kill Team, this is a system that allows players to collect and field many different factions with distinct playstyles. While I can't afford to assemble a sizable army of Skaven and Dwarves and Warriors of Chaos, I very well can afford to field clustered warbands of each.
That quality of sampling the greater setting melds with the multi-faceted aspects of the design to offer a release that feels just as much a proper miniatures game as a board game. It's very comfortable in its hybrid state and manages to avoid any sense of clunkiness or instability. With Beastgrave's fantastic offering, now is as great a time as ever to wade into the dark pool of small unit carnage.