‘Horus Heresy’ (FFG) Boardgame Review

A great review of the Horus Heresy boardgame by Shroudfilm, of The Great Crusade notoriety:

The first thing that everyone has commented on when opening the box is the miniatures. Dear sweet holy Terra… there are hundreds of the things in all the colours of the rainbow. Well, all the colours of the Chaos gods. Plus grey.

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This is the main difference from the old GW version – gone are the cardboard tokens with symbols and numbers, and almost everything is now in 3D (with “Hero” characters being represented by stand-up card pieces featuring artwork from the HH series, rather than miniatures) and with each unit assigned a ‘rank’ between 1 and 4 which acts as their cost, combat value and damage total.

You have Imperial Army troops, tank divisions, Astartes companies, defense lasers, Titans… all mounted on notched bases which signify their rank in the game. The traitors also have spiky versions of their Imperial counterparts, as well as cultists, daemons and Thunderhawks. The board itself is also now famously enhanced from the original version with 3D terrain on the fortified/urban areas, although the layout of Terra is still exactly the same. To the side however, we also now have separate playable locations representing the Vengeful Spirit where Horus at least begins the game, and also a huge tactical map for the placement and execution of order cards from both sides. More on that in a bit.

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The premise of the game is, obviously, that Horus has finally reached Terra at the end of the Heresy, and plans to either kill the Emperor or overrun the defenses before Imperial reinforcements can arrive. As such, the game has a nominal time limit – the traitors must win before either player’s Initiative counter reaches the end of the track which runs underneath the board, otherwise the Imperial player wins. At first, it seems like the Imperial player would therefore be advised to speed up the progression of the track as much as possible, right?

Nope. Because the game can also be won by either side holding all four of Terra’s spaceports after the midway point of the track… so better make sure you know where your forces are before you start messing with cinematic schemes!

Much like Rogal Dorn playing out the battles on the hololithic simulation table at the end of ‘The Lightning Tower’, there are multiple scenarios presented in the game for the final invasion of Terra. The organisation and placement of units can even be tailored by experienced players, or simply played straight from the “historical” version presented in the basic version.

The game is played out using Order Cards, each of which has a cost in Initiative and moves your counter along the track. If you play from your hand, the cost tends to be much higher and the effects far less impressive compared to if you had played them onto the tactical map previously and then executed them after your opponent has the chance to react. The problem is that your opponent can thwart your plans by playing his own orders on top of yours, meaning that you must then waste more time digging through the pile and reordering the cards to find the specific order you wanted to play. Meanwhile, your elite forces are sat around twiddling their thumbs while the enemy consolidate their positions…

Special orders exist for attacking, building new units, moving forces back and forth from orbit and the planet’s surface, and pretty much every other manoeuvre required during the game. The traitors regularly fling fresh bombardments at Terra, while the Imperial player can lead boarding actions against Horus’ ships. Generally, when orders target an area on the map then that area becomes activated and may not be targeted again until the Initiative track reaches one of the mandatory ‘Refresh’ points – this prevents players from endlessly pounding one location while others are ignored, or from using the same orders over and over.

Once a new player gets the hang of issuing orders and economising on Initiative expenditure, a host of new combat options appear. Quick march all your forces through the region to assault a spaceport; carry out a bombing run with your airborne units; have a Primarch lead a counterstrike while the opponent’s armies regroup etc.

In a move which may frighten some die-hard GW fans, combat and bombardments are also carried out using their own special decks of cards rather than dice. While at first bewildering, the combat system quickly becomes very tactical with the option to play high value cards in defense or save them to use their special texts on your own turn at the risk of taking damage in the meantime.

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Battles proceed through ‘Iterations’, where each turn the maximum number of cards playable increases accordingly. The defender in any combat can choose to either retreat his forces, or become the Passive or Active player on the first Iteration. Play then alternates through the Iterations as cards are played to create a damage total which must be resisted by the appropriate number of ‘shields’, and defenses like city walls and lava-filled crevasses can give the defender bonuses to this effect.

Heroes (including the Emperor, Horus, several Primarchs and the Fabricator General) give bonuses to units’ ranks and also receive special cards which are added to their controller’s hand in combat. Once their forces are wiped out, unaccompanied Heroes are easy targets for remaining enemy troops and would be well advised to retreat until they can rejoin their own armies.

Of course, treachery and rebellion are at the heart of the Horus Heresy, and the old mechanic of being able to turn loyalist troops against their fellows has been refined in the new version – by turning over cards in the Bombardment deck, the new allegiance of a unit can be revealed by the presence of an Aquila or Chaos star. This means that areas held by the Imperial player can suddenly find themselves also occupied by newly-converted traitor units which prompt sudden and reflexive ‘coexistent’ combats which do not require orders, and are frequently fast and bloody. While inertia is on the Imperial player’s side in the form of the automatic win at the end of the Initiative track, it is always possible that a key area will suddenly fall to a traitor revolt among his own forces through some shrewd use of a special card by Horus!

Finally, there are a number of different Event cards which are played at appointed times on the Initiative track, drawn from a deck created specially for each scenario – these range from the fairly mundane like a rapid placement of order cards for free during your turn, up to apocalyptic bombardments resulting in tectonic activity or the opening of a Warp rift on Terra. While they are not often game-changing in themselves, they have the potential to completely disrupt a player’s carefully laid plans and so drive home the importance of always having a back-up ready…

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I have played or directed at least ten games now, and the results have been pretty much 50-50 as to whether the traitors or loyalists win the day – to me, that is evidence enough that the game is well-balanced! FFG have a pretty good record of producing games which seem one-sided and yet upon closer inspection become far more intricate, and Horus Heresy is no exception.

While it can seem (much like a game of Planetstrike in 40k) that in the opening sequence of treachery, bombardment and troop advances that the Chaos powers have an unfair advantage, the savvy Imperial player remembers that Terra is HIS house, and he can turn the process of invasion against his foes.

A lot of people playing for the first time have complained that the game is unnecessarily complicated at the beginning and becomes more simple as it progresses. I’m not sure I agree with that, but I would compare the overall complexity to something like ‘Twilight Imperium’ or maybe ‘Battlestar Galactica’ – once you get your head around the basics, you discover huge variation and tactical possibilities beyond the basic move-attack-move-build-attack-move style of the original GW version.

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Something I would agree with is that there is limited playability in this game if you don’t want to experiment beyond the basic “historical” setup. As a strictly 2-player game (and I challenge anyone to make a playable multiplayer house-rules variant out of it!) with such a hefty price tag you are going to have to invest time in trying out the same scenario over and over, otherwise you won’t get your money’s worth out of it.

It’s definitely not one for casual play in the pub with a pint, and most ordinary GW fans would probably prefer to play two or three games of 40k in the same amount of time this will take to run right through! Having said that, if you have a regular pre-Heresy or Heresy-era opponent and you know you won’t tire of seeing Terra burn, this game is a must-have.

Whitehorn

Aint nothing but a horn

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