Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

Uh oh…

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