Oh man, we’re in the best release season going at the moment. In the last month we’ve had Frozen Synapse, Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol (review coming soon) and now Rodeo Games’ Warhammer Quest finally lands on iPad! It’s miniature tactical combat heaven and, with the upcoming XCOM and Space Hulk, this year feels like turn-based strategic heaven!
For the uninitiated, Warhammer Quest is a Games Workshop dungeon crawler from the mid-90s, stacked to the eerily dripping ceiling with looting, killing and belligerent heroing. The game is set in the GW Warhammer Fantasy universe and it taps into all the tomb diving fun from fantasy roleplaying, but in a quick pick-up-and-play format. At the simplest level, Warhammer Quest drops the heroes into a dungeon and then smiles indulgently as they proceed to murder everything dumb enough to get between them and the treasure at the end of it. Along the way they’ll sack rooms and loot magic shields, which are – somewhat mysteriously – being carried by giant rats. Like I say, it’s a dungeon crawler – you probably know what to expect.
The game’s dungeons are linked together through the campaign, where the heroes visit towns to rest, level up, sell loot, buy more weapons and find new excuses to burglarise goblin lairs. Each town has a story attached, where the player will have to make choices about the qualities of their heroes – do they return the silver lute to its rightful owner, or have off with it to the nearest pawn shop? We’re not talking the most conceptually challenging of character development here, but that’s not what Warhammer Quest is about. The heroes aren’t shining knights fighting dragons, they’re avaricious thugs looking to beat up goblins and roll them for their cash.
During the player’s turn, each of the heroes may move, attack, use items and cast spells. Once a hero has made an attack, they are locked in place till next turn – otherwise they can do what they want. It’s a restriction that forces your melee meat shields into often untenable situations, especially since there’s a chance they’ll be pinned and unable to retreat next turn. At times, you’ll find your wizard desperately weighing up depleting his mana pool to heal the idiot marauder in front of him, who – not one moment before – missed every attack on a giant spider and now stands webbed and immobile, like a silly stringed statue.
Each of the heroes has their own skill tree, which they can level up as they add notches to their axe shaft/bow/staff. Though the Elf archer and the two melee warriors are very much what you’d expect it’s the Grey Wizard whose mechanics are the most interesting. Thematically, the Warhammer universe’s wizards don’t have their own innate power, but draw from the Winds of Magic to cast their spells. This works out in-game by requiring the Wizard to roll and see how much magic he can draw on for that turn, which then impacts his options for that turn – healing spells are costly business after all. The clever twist with this randomly generated mana pool is that when the caster makes their Winds roll, instead of accessing magic they instead attract a new horde of monsters.
As an adult who makes money writing about boardgames, it might not surprise you to learn that I spent a fair amount of my youth, teenage years and university revision time playing with Games Workshop’s library of miniature games. It would be more than fair to say that an addiction to that plastic crack contributed to the love of turn based games I carry today, and brought me before you as a writer. All of which means that I fired up Warhammer Quest the first time with some apprehension, “What if I hate it? Will it be for the right reasons? What if I’m too effusive and can’t see the flaws?” Happily, I can report that Warhammer Quest is definitely on the good side, but it’s not without it’s flaws.
Rodeo Games’ have made some really nice choices in their implementation of the campaign mode, which achieves a great deal in the way of storytelling and continuity between quests, and does so in an intelligently understated way. There are simple touches, such as showing the map of the game’s region and the heroes paths as they walk across it, but the most commendable features are the town cut scenes and the mission generator. When you arrive in a new location, you’re treated to an animation strongly reminiscent of the Games of Thrones introduction, where the town grows from the pages of a leather bound book. Though the settlements are very similar from a mechanical perspective, the decision to display them in such a charming way lends more personality to the campaign than a text box ever could. Likewise, the mission generator – which creates a constant stream of quests peppering the map, filling it with vicious monsters to kill and rare loot to snatch, ensuring that there’s plenty of replay value outside of the main story quests.
That said, there are some issues with balance here, as the fun can feel somewhat bottom heavy. At early levels, every battle is a tough challenge and there’s a real danger of your heroes getting knocked down and out of the dungeon, but by the halfway point in the first campaign, you can just autopilot your way through many situations thanks to your levelled up skills and phat lewt. It’s important to note though, that this is a general complaint about nearly every dungeon crawler board game, especially when you port them to digital. A campaign has to be playable even if you’ve performed shockingly, otherwise it’s no fun and so dungeons are arranged to be playable for everyone. The issue is once a hero party start snowballing, the rules of the game can’t adjust without cheating – unlike a GM in an RPG who can suddenly ramp up the difficulty, the game’s rules don’t adapt enough and dungeons can become a bit of a walkover.
The dungeons themselves do deserve a special mention. Each are constructed from a series of lovingly illustrated rooms that remain unseen until entered and – although I’m not sure if they’re randomly generated from the tiles in the base game – I’ve definitely not romped through the same dungeon twice. The mechanic of revealing rooms is cute too, as stepping into an unexplored doorway always risks starting a new brawl that your injured heroes want to avoid – but staying still to heal risks an ambush.
The stars of the show are, of course, the heroes. Over the course of the campaign, you can’t help but grow attached to the tops of their heads, and – as they murder their way through endless hordes of critters – you may find yourself attributing them with their own personalities. For example, my party consists of Naith Shadow Strider, an Elf that consistently misses point blank targets, but can snipe a snotling 30 feet away – leading me to believe she’s either longsighted or suffers from terrible nerves. Then there is Gotrek Stonebrow, a Dwarf that – despite his gromril armour, masterwork shield and enchanted helmet – is the only member of my party to routinely get knocked out, presumably due to drunkenness and an inner ear infection. Last of all there is Kul the Marauder, who becomes enraged and attacks his own team mates, usually after his kills are stolen by Balthasil, the teleporting Grey Wizard git.
To aid your immersion, Rodeo Games have chosen to replace the grey plastic models of the physical board game with fully animated characters, which is thoroughly welcome. Though hard copy games have a pleasing tactility, the digital format has an unassailable versatility that can draw you deep in to the game’s world. Even small touches, like the character model changing when you equip new armour or weapons, are hugely effective.
Of course, this being an iOS release, there’s one other dreary spectre to discuss. The *boo-hiss* day one DLC and pay-to-win gubbins. I’ll be writing something about the subject in depth soon, so I’ll just round up the good and bad here. On the positive side, the game isn’t free-to-play and does have an upfront charge, which means that there’s a ton of content available and, although you can spend real world money on in-game gold, it is by no means essential and actually feels completely vestigial. I’m surprised it’s been included at all, to be honest. The less good news is that of the content available on release day, three heroes and the second leg of the campaign are locked behind paywalls. One the one hand it’s hard to begrudge wanting to charge more than basic AppStore rates, especially considering the production value of the game. On the other, the game noticeably suffers from being hacked into pieces. This is at its worst in the campaign, where you’ll find yourself only ever fighting goblins, orcs, trolls, spiders, rats and snotlings (plus the odd boss character), unless you purchase the Skaven campaign. In a game set in a fantasy world overflowing with wonderfully villainous races, locking the variety behind a paywall leaves a sour taste in the mouth – even if it is understandable.
Of course, if Rodeo plan to release further themed campaigns, I’m fairly certain I know at least one person who’ll be buying them.
Warhammer Quest is a genuine pleasure to play and one of the best adaptations we’ve seen so far. This should be an instant purchase for fans of Games Workshop products, turn based strategy, fantasy, goblin murder, loot grabbing, and iPad board games. Rodeo have set a bar for the upcoming adaptation of Space Hulk to match.