Games Workshop returns to mainstream retail to make another play for your souls.
Games Workshop is back at Barnes & Noble (and some hobby retailers, at least in the US) with some new entry-level games designed to process you into their never-ending churn of polystyrene pulchritude. I’ve traditionally been quite fond of some of these entry-level titles, which tend to exceed the loss-leader expectations you might understandably have. Indeed, many of these titles are built on the work that the great, uncredited James Hewitt did during his stint during GW’s grand renaissance period that kicked off with the outstanding Betrayal at Calth and lasted for a few solid years before he left the company. What Mr. Hewitt brought to GW was a much stronger board game design sensibility that quite frankly the company hadn’t seen since the days of Hand and Halliwell. It’s fortunate that somebody over there listened and saw what made Hewitt’s work great.
The first of the new lot is a so-called “Ultimate Edition” of Blitz Bowl, which is to my mind the best sports game I’ve ever played. Quite frankly and without apology, this game buries old man Blood Bowl in the paydirt. It’s slick, smooth, extremely fun to play, and it is absolutely loaded with all of the stuff you want from the elderly game but with all of its excessive bullshit trimmed away. I often joke how GW doesn’t support one of its best board games ever, but here we are with a third box set in release so *shrug*.
But here’s the problem. This is hardly an ultimate edition at all, it’s really more of a revision and almost a relaunch, in a sense. Despite taking away the team balls (which my son in particular loved) and benching the madness of the Get On With It rule’s multiball mosh, it’s equipped with tweaks that I appreciate - especially some changes to the math that make passing much more viable (Wood Elves out here saying “thank you”) and other game functions. You can kick downed players now, like Nuffle intended, but you can also be called out for it. I like that it comes packed with roster cards, even if they are a tease considering all you get in the box is another god damned human team (come on, GW) and a Skaven team which most Blitz Bowlers likely already have.
I’m grateful that the new roster cards put all of the stats in one place instead of on cards, I love that. And oh look, on those roster cards…Big Guys. That aren’t in the box at all. That you have to buy separately. You do want to have a treeman throw a halfling across the line for a touchdown don’t you? Right this way, GW has a miniature for you.
This is one place where I think this box is an incomplete. It should have featured two teams that had the Big Guys. I get it, that would require tooling a push fit sprue for them. But there’s nobody playing this game or that will play this game that doesn’t want them, and further, will want to buy more. Since this box introduces them, they shouldn’t have been an additional purchase. I’d pay an extra $10 for two Big Guys in here, no doubt.
Folks this game is one of my top 20 or so games of all time and I don’t even like football. It’s one of the best 30-45 minute 2 player games money can buy and this set is a great way to check it out. Hell, it’s fun enough with just the stupid humans and Skaven. The minor grousing above is really coming from the perspective of someone who’s played this game for years. I really hope that GW puts out some Barnes & Noble packaged half-teams like they did for Season 2, because I’m going to buy them all. This game is a masterpiece and reservations aside, it’s the best it’s ever been.
The second game of this lot is Combat Arena: Contest of Champions and I have very mixed feelings on it. This is the third time GW has gone back to Hewitt’s original and stupendously gruesome and glorious Gorechosen and it’s remained mostly intact which is a good thing. This time around, the combatants are two Astartes (see complaints about the human team above), a Plague Marine, and a Necron Overlord. Pretty cool, huh?
Well, not exactly. I was kind of down for the last edition of Combat Arena because I generally like it when GW drags out obscure stuff for one-off models. So they did some oddball Imperial characters, and that was kind of cool. But with this one, moving it to mainline, marquee fighters made me realize more than ever that this game has lost its mooring without Khorne. The original game was about Khorne dudes butchering each other in a gladiatorial contest to impress everyone’s favorite blood and skulls enthusiast. Now, it’s about space marines shooting xenos and occasionally each other and it feels as if the core concept has been lost.
Don’t get me wrong- this is still a brilliant game and it’s the rare skirmish game that seats three or four without contrivances like team play (although it’s there if you want it). It’s still shockingly fun and narrative. The card mechanics are still really solid, and the dice rolling is terrific. But the Khorne-centeed design brief really kind of informed the whole thing.
So I dunno, it’s a great game but it really just makes me miss the completely painted Gorechosen set with all the extra characters I sold for an exciting amount of money back in the game’s wilderness years. It’s $50, it’s super satisfying, and it has more lore than rules in its pamphlet and that’s fine by me. It should be noted too that you should be able to seamlessly mix the fighters from this game with those in the previous Combat arena – and likely with the Gorechosen minis too, even though they are from Age of Sigmar.
And finally, since Age of Sigmar has come up in the conversation, we come to Warhammer Quest: Lost Relics. I was quite interested in this one because when I got the memo that a review copy was on the way- thanks to Warhammer Community, as always- I thought “oh shit, they are doing a light version of Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower”. But then I also thought “well, maybe it’s gonna be like Space Marine Adventures” and I was still pretty OK with that since I liked both of those titles a lot. But then this thing just completely crashed, crumpled, and burned on my table.
First off, Stormcast only heroes. For the love of Sigmar please stop (see complaints about the human team above). I never really had it in for this faction, but I do not understand why GW insists on completely ignoring other Order factions when they do a board game like this for Age of Sigmar. I mean god damn it, who doesn’t want to know what happens when a Deepkin, a Syvaneth, and a Fyreslayer walk into a dungeon? Thing is, they did this with Silver Tower so why not here. But then, in retrospect, that did make the Oscars-with-a-sword models look especially boring. At least now they’ve allowed women into their ranks.
The game just isn’t there, which is strange because the strong DNA of Hewitt’s original design is definitely carrying this thing. It has the excellent dice activation and even takes it a step further with this potentially compelling chaining mechanism whereby you use sequential dice across characters to take multiple turns before the AI-operated baddies get their go. I thought this would lead to interesting strategic decisions, but that along with the weirdly restrictive constraints of the pared down rules set and format made this game feel unusually dull, lifeless, and without drama.
There are 15 (fifteen) scenarios in this thing and you didn’t even have to unlock a stretch goal to get them. But despite introducing a host of Age of Sigmar villains represented here in pog form and not miniatures, even their variety of actions and reactions can’t seem to make this game interesting. Part of the problem is that it’s the kind of dungeoncrawl where spaces have a stack limit and the boards are sort of fixed and there’s not really any sense of exploratoin. Oddly, it’s almost like each of the boards is a punchboard from Silver Tower with the rooms just pushed together so that they form HeroQuest-like connected spaces but with no doors. The stack limits do all of the heavy lifting in terms of tactical positioning, chokepoints, blocking access and the like.
Worse, the game lacks Warhammer Quest’s freewheeling capriciousness. There’s no die rolls to attack, it’s an deterministic thing where the only variable is if you roll high enough to activate a slightly more powerful attack. It all just feels dry and overly puzzle-y without any drama or narrative. I have to be honest, I didn’t play through all 15 scenarios and got completely bored with this game after the first 3 (including two run-throughs of the first two). I packed it up and never wanted to see it again.
Granted, this game isn’t quite the disaster that Stormvault was and it’s probably a better design overall than the Lost Patrol-derived Crypt Hunters was back in 2019. But it sits in a weird position where it’s not really a great introduction to other Warhammer Quest games. It’s far, far cry from the seminal Silver Tower or the excellent but much more complex Blackstone Fortress and it doesn’t have the atmosphere and eye-popping models of Cursed City. It feels like a throwaway design hearkening back to GW’s lesser boxed game outings.
So that’s a big disappointment on my end to wrap this all up, with the bright light being that a kid getting this as a holiday gift from a grandparent that saw it at B&N could wind up with far, far worse. It may actually be a good intro to the general concept of dungeoncrawl board games, if not to the colorful and sometimes delightfully wild Age of Sigmar setting. But with that said, there are simply better options in this space on the market that aren’t GW branded.