While at the Alliance Open House this year I had the opportunity to try out Games Workshop’s upcoming foray into small scale competitive miniatures combat, Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire. While it doesn’t sound like anything different from the house that created the grim dark, it’s going to be a fairly unique effort from GW to break into another market that they have only dipped their blood soaked toes in on occasion. A mix of dice driven combat with deck construction, hand management and tactical positioning playing a key in obtaining victory, it’s definitely got way more going under the hood than being a skirmish combat board game set in the Age of Sigmar universe.
My demo experience saw me facing off against Mike (The Headmaster) with him taking the role of the rightous Stormcast Eternals and myself taking control of the bloodcrazed Khorne Bloodbound. Both warbands have a card for each model that gives you their stats and even some flavor text to help give you an idea of what their about. That’s one interesting thing right off the bat, these aren’t just nameless characters, these warbands are made up of actual characters and each one has it’s own unique stats which means that unit activation is going to be a bit more thoughtful as not everyone is created equal.
This is a good time to point out that the models, as expected, are great and have a lot of character that helps differentiate them from one another which is important in a game where each of your models has certain abilities. As an example one of my Bloodbound actually had a ranged attack which, while weaker than striking in melee, gave me an option to strike at Mike’s tanky Stormcast from a safer distance.
Once we got familiar with our characters and how to read their stat cards we began to get into the meat of the game. You start off by randomly drawing 3 objective cards, which give you options for how you want to win the game. These can be simple ones such as holding certain spots on the map or more direct goals such as killing a certain amount of your opponent’s team, of course you can always forget about those and just try to wipe your foe’s warband if subtlety isn’t your thing. The option of ways to obtain victory points is a nice option that can create a sense of urgency
depending on the layout of the map and does keep the game from being just a simple matter of smashing your opponents team to death. After getting our objectives we get into one of the biggest changes to Warhammer formula that Shadespire offers, the combat cards.
Throughout the game you and your opponent will be drawing cards that will offer a variety of different abilities to either cripple your opponents efforts to attack you or buff up your own team to lay the hurt on them. These can range from character specific upgrades to neutral ones that you can use on anyone in your group. These can do things such as raising your chance to hit your opponent, make it more difficult for them to defend or even reposition your fighters to gang up on them, which has it’s own benefits.
A majority of the ones I saw and used where one time use but that could change as the game continues, we also didn’t get to see the full deck.These are crucial to the game and are what’s going to really differentiate games where you have mirror matches and also give players that element of chance to turn things around if things aren’t going well for them.
Shadespire works on an alternating activation system with four activations per player and two actions per activated character. The most simple of them being the move and attack, or charge basically, to more defensive options such as defending and bracing for attack. So let’s get into how the combat works.
Shadespire uses it’s own unique dice instead of the usual D6 system wargamers are familiar with. When you declare an attack you look at your characters attack stats which determines how many dice you are rolling and what faces you are looking for. The dice have a sword icon, an axe icon, a blank, and then two unique symbols that gain use when you are attacking a target with friendly units adjacent. Basically representing your warband ganging up and wailing on the unfortunate individual caught on the receiving end. This is where your cards can come into play, certain units require certain faces.
For example my Bloodbound with swords will gain successful hits when I roll the sword icon, but by using one of the aforementioned cards from my hand I can increase my chances and have both axes and swords be counted as successes which I can then bolster further by planning ahead and making sure my attacker has backup with him. It definitely makes declaring an attack a more thoughtful experience than rushing in and hoping for the best, which of course you still want to do when dice are involved but having ways to mitigate my chances creates a fun later to the combat.
Of course your opponent doesn’t have to just sit there and deal with the damage, they roll to see if they can avoid the onslaught. This even has a unique wrinkle to it as the defense dice faces aren’t useful across different factions. The defense dice have your usual blanks but then have shield’s and roll icons which function similar to the shields and axes on the attack dice. The Stormcast want to roll shields to defend against the damage where as the Bloodbound want to evade with the rolls, creating more of a unique difference between how the faction plays…which brings me to the final mechanic the game uses.
As the battle goes on your warband will have the chance to become inspired. When certain events happen during the game you flip a character or characters stat cards and they get a buff that persists throughout the game. This could make them move faster, hit harder,
defend better or any number of things. Each warband continues to be unique with how it’s activated. Mike’s Stormcast became inspired when they successfully defend against an as attack, getting filled with righteous fury to strike down their foes. On the flip side the Bloodbound get inspired after three characters, regardless of which side their on, get killed to represent their blood crazed lifestyles. The inspiration mechanic is another one that helps keep the combat from being too much or the same as games go on, it could also be seen as a comeback mechanic in certain situations.
Well I think that about sums up the actual gameplay from the short time we got to spend with it. Overall I think this is going to be a good one for GW and with the proposed release schedule of multiple warbands from different factions as expansions. No MSRP was revealed so the actual price of the game is up in the air…my own theory is that it’s going to be slightly more than last year’s Gorechosen at maybe around 70 to 80 bucks with the different warband expansions running around 30 to 35.
Now this does bring me to the one major concern I have with the game. The expansions are a great idea which bring in different factions, the first two being the brutish Ironjawz Orks and the one I’m most excited about…the undead Sepulchral Guard. These will come with all the items you need to get them into the game and will actually come in fully colored plastic for those who don’t feel like painting them. The problem that was revealed during the presentation is that the expansions are going to come with neutral cards for your combat decks, which effectively means that as it stands to get extra copies of neutral faction cards you want for competitive purposes you have to buy the faction pack for models you might not be interested in.
My biggest hope is that they just release the neutral cards separately because if they aren’t doing that it’s going to create a divide and turn off a lot of people because GW stated that Shadespire is coming out with competitive play in mind complete with tournament rules right from the get go. I suppose you could sell the models to someone who plays that faction in Age of Sigmar since the models are going to function as heroes in the actual game but with how much GW seems to want people to get into Shadespire it seems like a bad move.
Overall though I personally am excited about Shadespire, the gameplay is fast and fun with a lot of mechanics to keep combat fast and interesting. Keep in mind this was a quick game that didn’t even get finished but I definitely could see a lot of potential for tactical combat. Also the game apparently can be scaled up to 3-4 players which means full blown battle royales or team games are a possibility. GW may have a winner on their hands here when it drops and seems like they have plans to support this all the way throughout unlike Blood Bowl and their other boxed games. Here’s hoping they don’t go with the current model for getting neutral cards though…