Help! My latest book as escaped into the wild and I need your help – that’s right, you! – to wrangle it back into the pen. Head on over here and give it a read. Because that will help get it back from the wild, I guess? I dunno, the metaphor’s breaking down fast.
It is the fourth day of the rapist’s trial. He sits flanked by three lawyers in gray suits. He wears black. A hundred men and women file dutifully into the room. They sit on an old oak bench.
The defense lawyer stands. He faces the people in the jury box and he clears his throat.
“Alright, everyone here who has ever been raped. Raise your hand.”
“Everyone here who’s ever been stalked. Raise your hand.”
“Everyone who’s ever been the victim of sexual abuse.”
“Who’s ever been harassed at work by a member of the opposite sex.”
“Who’s been pressured into giving consent because they were afraid of what would happen if they said no.”
The lawyer nods at the judge and the judge speaks. “You may go.”
Fifty women lower their hands and leave the room, while fifty men sit back down.
The man in the black suit smiles. The woman sitting beside the prosecutor prepares to face a jury of her peers.
There is a voice, dimly from the darkness.
There is a light, faintly from without.
There is a man, sallow and creeping, who comes without will. He is but an object as he comes, withered toes catching sharp black tomb-rock. Blood spilling lazy from his cuts; it spills and does not pump, it slips torpid from his veins. His eyes roll over dim, and will not see but the light to which the voice is calling him.
His is to rest, to sleep, to dream no dream, to feel no pain.
But he comes, from rest and from sleep, to the world that around him is as a dream. And all the world is pain.
He is the child of Earth, expelled by force from this stone womb and into the arms of the man unthinking who has summoned him forth. What man – what god? – possessed of such a power, to draw from rest towards an image of pain. And how can one claim such a right who will not know the taste of final sleep? The child preconfigures himself in the lives of others, and in their death he draws his way.
His hands and his feet are torn and weeping red, his eyes would weep if they but could. He is drawn, and his mouth is drawn by force in a false grin. He smiles, rushing towards the world. His decayed muscles tear beneath the skin, bursting as they are pulled by the manipulation of this great puppeteer. Would he could but stop, if he could but lie upon the stone.
They are waiting for him and for them he must be brought forth. He must be presented. He is the magician’s rabbit, existing so long in calm velvet darkness only to be produced at a whim into the hands of the terrible crowd.
His skin the winding sheet. Death is nothing but a birth in horrible reverse, birth doubled upon itself and folded back to its first point. He is coming undone, all the strands of his life tangling around his ankles as he rushes towards the light, rushes towards the voice.
* * *
When the crowds are gone and his smile allowed to fall, when the masses have taken in their fill of him, when the master has vanished over the hill, when the violet band of night has spilled back across the horizon.
His wife holds him in the gloom of their clay abode, and her small rough hands will not stop touching him. She touches his skin, his face, his lips. Unbelieving hands, driven to seek ceaseless affirmation, constant awareness. She speaks, voice soft and low and constant.
She speaks to him questions, questions of things to which he can make no good answer, to which he can commit no true word. Knowledge is to him no blessing, and life to him no gift. It is a weight, the lodestone round his throat which should pull him again towards the earth but cannot for the string by which he has been suspended.
He holds his hand before him as the gloom crosses the sky. His skin is tightening, color and shape returning slowly. His whole body prickles as blood pushes into newly twined veins. From his lips a cold black slime, from every orifice flushing the rot of expelled death. Waste spilling from him as animated regrowth pushes out the history of his person.
Her hands are hot and inquisitive on him, searching. He thinks she would push her fingers into his chest if she could, reach into that cavity to squeeze his heart and feel it beating in her palm. She touches his face, turns him towards her. She looks into his eyes, and seems to him alien other, a new being entire. All the world is bright and harsh and screaming. All the world seems set against him. She looks into his eyes and she asks the question.
Would that he could answer.
Would that he could weep.
* * *
Life does not stop. It does not cease once it has been set so roughly into motion. His skin is like a husk on him, hardened by the weathering of ages. But it does not crack nor fall away. It holds him tight as prison bars, close as a burial. One by one they go to the grave, and to their final grace.
Days allay the day. His son’s sons are set, here to rest upon their stones in silent array. And he to watch, remaining, a guardian of names which slip further from tongue and memory with every passing.
Set adrift to wander the world and time. Before his eyes pass the lives of children, pass the fall of empires, pass the infinities of life’s cycle. And he, the example, the master’s prop, he remains.
The sun is going down fat and red as the angry eye of god in the western sky, and Lazarus returns to the cave in the hills. He returns to the slab of rock, and there he lies. He crosses his arms across his chest and he waits in darkness. He stares up at the ceiling, the igneous sky, and he waits.
He rests upon the stone, and he waits for a release denied which now may never come.
I think anybody who’s been gaming since they were a kid knows the yearning sensation. We remember what it’s like to rip open those little foil CCG packs,to spend a whole day trying out different ways to sort our towering stacks of cards. We remember snipping the little plastic bits from their frames and carefully painting and assembling the biggest armies we could afford. We remember pouring over all the books and supplements we could get our hands on, staring at the ceiling on long summer nights dreaming up stories and adventures.
Gradually, however, that all starts to fade away. We get older, and we get both wiser and more cynical. Collectible card games are a trap, a money pit designed to suck up your allowance and leave you with nothing but piles of useless commons. Miniatures games are all flash and no substance, half-baked rules that amount to little more than an excuse to trot out your painstakingly crafted units. All the lore books and settings are painfully childish and embarrassing. We leave these things behind, and we move on. Tight games with clean elegant systems and smooth designs that come in nice tidy affordable boxes. This is it, we think, this is where it’s at. But we still feel the yearning for what we left behind. For the embers of true childhood magic smoldering beneath the ash.
That’s what it was like for me, anyway. I loved collectible card games and I loved miniatures games, but I had to give them up. For all the love and passion, I couldn’t keep pretending that I didn’t see their rotten side. So I gave them up.
Of course I never stopped wanting to go back. I dabbled here and there. Every once in a while I’d bust out the paints for some murky board games plastics or dig out my cards to build a couple decks, just for old time’s sake. I fell hard for FFG’s LCG model, and that scratched the card game itch pretty thoroughly, but it had its dark side too, dumping expansion after expansion into the widening pool.
Then I started to hear things. Games Workshop, who I’d once loved so dearly and come to loath so completely, were turning things around. They were putting out games. Real games, not just systems designed to sell books and models. I poked around a bit, but I knew better than to pay any serious attention. I’d been burned too many times and wasn’t particularly interested in going back for another round. I was done with that forever.
Then came Shadespire.
Here was a game that was affordable, self-contained and tightly designed. But it still had that splash of magic, a dash of CCG, a sprinkle of miniatures and a dollop of that deep GW world-building. From the outside, it looked perfect. And so it was that I found myself buying the game and first two expansions, diving in with the reckless abandon of an addict tossing his 10 year chip out the window and dashing into a trendy new bar.
And I have no regrets.
Shadespire is magnificent. The game itself is a beautiful little gem of a thing that measures up to the most sophisticated of modern designs. And, as for the so-called chrome, it’s perfect. The game has just enough to capture that childhood magic without overwhelming the system.
Let’s talk about the game-play first. That’s what’s really important after all, and that’s where Games Workshop has let me down before. Not this time. This time they hit it out of the park. It’s not a showy design. There aren’t any mechanics here that you can’t find elsewhere, no flashy components like Runewars order dials or nifty innovations like Earth Reborn’s action tiles. Those games have flash, and they make bold choices that don’t entirely pay off. Innovators often suffer, and come off clumsy, because they’re trying something that’s never been done before. Warhammer Underworlds – to give the system its full name – is not an innovator. What it does accomplish, however, is to perfectly synthesize the innovations of other games into a beautifully balanced little package.
The design of this game is almost breathtakingly sleek, and a lot of it comes down to this: the game is split into three rounds, and in each round, both players trade off activations until everybody’s taken four. An activation, generally, means nothing more than moving and/or attacking with one figure. For those of you keeping track, that adds up to twelve tiny actions apiece. And that’s the entire game.
This is the part where you, if you’re anything like me, feel a pang of doubt. No way. Twelve actions? Lets say you’ve got a war-band of five figures. You’ll hardly be using them! Just one or two moves apiece! Surely that can’t be enough. I must be mistaken; this is like that SUSD Diskwars fiasco, right? Nope. Twelve actions.
You know what, though? You can stop fretting, because it’s perfect. The pacing of the game is incredible, absolutely taut and absolutely enthralling. Each move is critically important, but the system is so finely tuned that you never get that harried feeling of not having enough space to work with or the analysis paralysis mental crunch of feeling like one mistake will ruin the entire thing. It’s tight, playing in a very svelte 30+ minutes, but it still gives room for experimentation and tactical variety and a feeling of development. It’s the kind of game that makes you immediately want to play again as soon as you’re done, just to check out all the other paths you could have taken. And it’s so short that you actually can!
A lot of this comes from the cards. Each player has two decks, objectives and powers. Objectives give you tasks to complete for glory points. Powers give you ploys (action/reaction cards) and upgrades, which are played on your fighters and require you to exhaust one of the glory points you’ve earned. It meshes together incredibly well. Decks are small (32 cards between the two of them) but have enough room to build some very interesting teams. The interplay is smooth and comfortable: use ploys to help you score objectives, use glory from objectives to buy upgrades. It just feels good, not like some FFG designs where they toss in handfuls of decks that all end up feeling like bolted on modules. The last trick is the special dice, which feel a bit X-Wing, and build in a support/positioning element.
The game is amazingly easy to teach. The rules could probably fit on two pages, and they’re intuitive as hell. Everything makes sense in motion. It’s not necessarily a simple game though, there are so many elements at play – the abilities of the fighters, the positioning of the boards and objectives, the decks of cards – that there’s an astonishingly deep well of potential here. It fits in that perfect space of being easy to teach with lots of room for mastery. Shadespire is a joy to play, which is all you can really ask for from a game.
It offers more, however, than just a great game. The card pool is tight and the decks are small, but there’s tons of room for creative and experimental deck construction. It’s the kind of game where it feels equally comfortable to agonize over the perfect deck or to simply slap together a few cards on the fly and start playing. Then there’s the modeling. These are truly lovely figures with tons of character in fun and dynamic poses. They come in distinctively colored plastic different for each faction and push fit together, allowing you to play a perfectly good looking game with minimal skill or investment of time. But they look truly glorious when painted. This was a big selling point for me. The days of me painting an entire army’s worth of detailed figures are long gone. But four or five per faction? That’s perfect. Just enough of a taste of each of Warhammer’s fantastic and exotic races before the tedium of repetition sets in.
Of course we need to talk about expansions. There are already two out, and (I believe) four more on the way. Each expansion, priced quite reasonably enough for my tastes, offers a full war-band, and all their unique cards, and a pile of generic cards which can be used by any faction. Some have cried foul at this, having been burned by X-Wing asking them to buy multiple copies of ships they don’t want just to get a couple cards, but I don’t see it as an issue. The expansion content is generous, and repeated purchase unnecessary given that each card in your deck needs to be unique. A full set of Shadespire with all the expansions is probably going to put you back about 200 bucks, which isn’t chump change by any means. That said, you get a lot of game for that, and certainly don’t need to get all of it, unless you suffer from the completionist urge as I do. It offers more, I would say, than most LCGs or Minis games offer at a compatible price.
So there it is. A masterfully designed game with a very attractive retail model that offers a wealth of modeling and deck construction opportunities without being bogged down by them. It plays fast and it’s easy to pick up. It’s got all the weight of GW’s lore and art, but never gets swamped in it.
Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire is, to put it simply, everything you could ask for.
There’s one major downside, however, in that it’s caused me to relapse. Maybe I should check out the new edition of 40k, and oh, Necromunda looks good. Why not see about a little Age of Sigmar? After all, I can use my beautifully painted war-bands there too!