Some fast-paced Warhammer fun, Combat Arena is a great game to get people into the hobby - or to break out when a full Warhammer battle seems too taxing
Four men enter, one man leaves! Or rather, two men, one half-zombified plague guy, and one skeletal robot enter, but only one of them leaves. A big fight is happening, that’s the key thing to get across. That’s because Warhammer 40k Combat Arena: Clash of Champions is a duelling board game, where 2-4 characters from the Warhammer 40k universe butt heads and clash blades to determine who is the strongest of them all.
Combat Arena: Clash of Champions is the new, easy-to-play Warhammer 40k board game from Games Workshop. Well, sort of new. In fact, it’s a remake of the 2019 Combat Arena, which itself was a 40k reskin of 2016’s Age of Sigmar Gorechosen. But who’s keeping track? Whatever its origins, the game is a simplified arena-battler featuring a card combat system which prominently features dice-rolling, and feels at the very least Warhammer-adjacent.
Easy to learn and quick to play, Combat Arena: Clash of Champions seems best suited for someone with an interest in the world and aesthetic of Warhammer 40k, who’s perhaps yet to dive into full scale tactical battles. It could also serve as a gateway game, something simple, enjoyable, and easy to understand, that an established player can use to show an absolute newbie that pushing little plastic toys around and rolling dice can be a whole lot of fun. Oh yes it can. I think it’s fair to say that ‘Warhammer 40k, but it only takes 30 minutes to squeeze in a game’, is a mission statement many of us can get behind.
Before we get stuck into the nitty gritty of gameplay, it behooves us to talk briefly about what you get in the Clash of Champions box. Whereas the last Combat Arena had five models, here you’ve got four, so that’s – bzzt – a bit of a red mark against it right off the bat. Each one comes in the dyed blue plastic Games Workshop likes to use for this kind of thing, and all the minis are the easy-to-build push fit variety, though plastic glue and cutters will certainly make for a smoother ride and better final fit.
As far as I can tell, there are no unique minis in this edition of Combat Arena, but you do get a varied, motley crew, including a Primaris Bladeguard Lieutenant, and a helmetless Blood Angels Terminator fitted with thunder hammer and storm shield. Xenos and Chaos are represented as well, in the form of a Necron Royal Warden, and a Deathwatch model previously sold in a Space Marine Heroes collection under the name Gangrus. Good models all, and the cardboard components that come with the game are also well-made, though functional rather than decorative.
Back to the game itself, Combat Arena is an arena battler, where the victor is the last fighter standing. Pretty simple objectives – it’s kill or be killed. Gameplay-wise, your actions are determined by three things: your character sheet; a hand of five action cards each player draws every round; and an initiative tracker that determines whose turn it is, and how many turns you get to take per round.
Starting with the action cards, these are the main things driving the – well, the action. Each one has three different types of action printed on it: a move, an attack, and a special action – this third category often a defensive move like a dodge or parry, that can be used on another player’s turn. The cards are quite straightforward, though there are many different kinds of each action. With each card having multiple uses, too, there’s a nice bit of built-in decision making here. It’s up to you to work out, for instance, if it’s worth sacrificing a card with a neat attack action on it in order to block or reposition. There’s enough here to make you ponder a little, and attempt to plan ahead, but not so much that turns take more than 30 seconds.
You get five cards per round, and you may not be able to spend them all, so each character can also discard two cards for a cool unique ability, ranging from a knockback-inflicting hammer whirl as the Blood Angel, to a smelly poison cloud as the Deathguard.
When you’re ready to make an attack, your card determines how many dice you get to roll, but your character sheet decides what you need to roll to hit, how much damage you do, and your ‘kill zone’ i.e. where you need to be positioned to be most effective, or to reach a foe at all. Each fighter has a different ranged and melee attack (except Mr Hammer, who can only melee) and a different ‘kill zone’.
This kill zone system is a bit of a weakness for Combat Arena: Clash of Champions in my book. While it’s neat that each character wants to fight from a different distance, so you’re always incentivised to reposition, the hex-based grid doesn’t gel super neatly with the round bases of the models, and when facing is so important, it’s quite frustrating that two of the four models have weapons and torsos facing an entirely different direction to their feet. I think it’s super obvious that the miniatures weren’t originally designed for the game. I’m admittedly not a very spatially aware person to start with, but I found it hard at times to calculate kill zones, and was not aided by the very dark-coloured game board. This was mostly a minor nuisance, but it did pose a problem at times.
While I’m getting my whinging outta the way, I also think the game’s components are a little bit too fiddly. It’s easy to knock some of the tiny little tokens off your player sheet while reading it, and as the position of these is pretty vital – indicating your character’s health for instance – that can be frustrating. Perhaps I’m just a klutz.
The final major mechanic that needs touching upon is the initiative system and energy tracker. In Combat Arena: Clash of Champions you don’t have alternating turns. Instead, turns are randomized. Each round you shuffle initiative cards into a shared deck, and draw them to see who goes next. The number of initiative cards added depends on where each player lies on an energy tracker – so in one round of the game, one player might get to act four times, while another player relies on a meagre two actions.
This might sound frustrating, but it’s actually one of my favourite things about Combat Arena. It provides a tug-of-war, push-and-pull element to the game, and prevents any player from snowballing too far into the lead. See, strong moves lower your energy count, so while you might absolutely get to bring the pain for one turn, you do so at the cost of being on the back foot in a later round. Similarly, taking a breather from the action can be beneficial at times, in order to give you more flexibility in the long run.
The energy tracker also works as a nice catch-up mechanic. Wound cards, which you draw after suffering big hits, can have all sorts of hampering effects – some minor, some permanent, some instantly fatal – but they also increase your energy (perhaps it’s the adrenaline) setting you up for a stronger turn later down the line. In late-game rounds, you may be drawing multiple wound cards per turn, which can feel pretty rough as you’re dazed, bludgeoned, and weakened, but the blow is softened by the fact that: if you can hang on a bit longer, you’ll have a real opportunity to strike back.
I only played two-player matches of Combat Arena, and it’s likely a good deal more chaotic with more people involved. However, in two-player matches, I found the game to be fast-paced and fun, with plenty of randomisation that’ll have you groaning or cheering as your luck determines, as well as a nice bit of strategy sprinkled on top. Each character felt pretty balanced, and there was never a situation where one of us got absolutely walloped, and the other had barely a scratch on them.
My low player-count meant I never got to try one of the game’s interesting but minor features: fate of the defeated. This gives defeated players the option of playing environmental hazards of the arena, ranging from their own dead body serving as a ‘trip hazard’, to their character regaining consciousness and staggering forward for one last, desperate attack. I thought it was a nice touch, however – always worth mentioning when a game with elimination gives defeated players something fun to do.
Overall, this is a fairly light ‘strategy’ game, so don’t pick it up expecting anything too meaty. However, if you’re in the market for a fast-paced combat game that also gives you something to build and paint, I can definitely recommend. As on-ramps to the Warhammer hobby go, Combat Arena: Clash of Champions seems solid.