Dear Diary

I’ve decided to start recording all my games of Malifaux to note my successes, failures, and, most importantly, my learnings. A large part of the fun I get from games stems from learning and mastering their systems, so it makes sense to do what I can to improve that.

It’s a good time to start too because I’ve just ended my sabbatical with the Viktorias and am returning to my primary faction, Gremlins. I’ve been playing them since I got into Malifaux at Gen Con 2011 with Ophelia and picked up Som’er Teeth Jones a year later. I’ve used those two for five years now, mainly Ophelia in v1 and Somer (sans apostrophe now) in v2.

Miniature pool

Where I’m sitting at now is with a collection of about 50 miniatures to choose from. They’re mostly original metals with a scattering of plastics. I’ve got everything from v1, including 13 Bayou Gremlins, except for McTavish because I wasn’t a fan of the original model. Unpainted I have the new Zoraida box set and the Nightmare Whiskey Golem, and I’m making eyes at Brewmaster. I’m not a fan of Wong or Mah, but Zipp and Ulix interest me, especially after reading previews of the Iron Skeeters.

Gremlin pool
My gremlins, in all their green and pink glory. Greek mercenaries for DBMM to the left, Outcasts crew to the right.

I haven’t picked up any new models for a long time for a couple of reasons. First, I find the new models difficult to paint due to the incredibly fine level of detail. Secondly, I don’t like having a backlog of painting projects so have spent the last couple of years not buying anything. I’m getting to the end of my pile of minis so am looking forward to expanding my collection again soon!

Modus operandi

I consider myself a fairly competitive player, I can beat most of my opponents on a good day but am far from guaranteed a win! I have a few models that I rely a lot on (Burt, Gracie and Saddle as anyone would tell you). I only have a couple of regular crew types: Somer the Summoner, or Somer leading a crew of ram-intensive heavies. My only regular mercenary is a convict gunslinger for taking out hanged.

Gremlin rider
The Pork Rider! The most expensive of the riders, weighing in at 18SS. Capable of rendering down most opposition to a meaty pulp in a matter of seconds.

Goals

I’ve got a few goals for keeping a diary.

First off, I want to think more about the scheme pool and come up with a plan each game, and then look back and see how that plan worked out. I can be pretty sluggish when playing and most of the delay comes from me not coming up with a plan beforehand.

Secondly, I want to learn some more finesse with synergistic models I already use together. Malifaux can be a very fussy game and I often activate models in the wrong order, or get them in the way of each other, and by writing down what went wrong I can make sure I don’t repeat the same mistakes.

And lastly it’ll help cement the knowledge of the crews I face. I don’t play that often (maybe 2-3 games a month) so I often have forgotten what a particular model does before I face it again. The best games are the ones in which both players know all the models on the table so this will help me get up to speed faster.

First entry coming soon!

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Kingdom Death: Monster

Just roll over and let the lion eat you, it'll be easier in the long run.
Just roll over and let the lion eat you buddy, it’ll be easier in the long run.

I’ve now played Kingdom Death: Monster on two separate occasions: the first was a weekend-long 20 hour binge with my brother and a friend, the second a few months later with just me and a friend for about six hours. The verdict: it’s the game that I wished Arkham Horror was.

Kingdom what?

Brief recap: Kingdom Death began as a range of boutique horror miniatures. They are known for producing extremely high quality miniatures depicting the denizens of their unique dark fantasy world, melding traditional Western fantasy and anime sensibilities with a strong horror theme. The miniatures are often creepy and sometimes disturbing, contrasting sexually-charged imagery with mutant monsters, gory detail and perversions of reproduction. This culminated in their most notorious work, the Wet Nurse (not linked here, but Google it if you’re curious and not at work), which brought a lot of attention.

A game was always in the background and after three or so years of just selling miniatures, in late 2012, the Kickstarter for Kingdom Death: Monster was launched. The range had already built up a massive fanbase so the success was never in doubt, only the scale of it. A month later it ended with just over two million dollars pledged. With that amount raised the scope of the project increased hugely and it only just shipped in mid-late 2015.

So what is it?

Whatever else it is, this is a BIG game.

Nine kilograms of cards, miniatures, death, and misery.
Nine kilograms of cards, miniatures, death, and misery.

There are plenty of sites and reviews that will extol the virtues of the production, but suffice it to say that most everything is absolutely top notch. The one fault I would say is that the book is quite flimsy for such a large and often-referenced manual. I’d have loved to see a hardcover edition, especially with multiple ribbon bookmarks because you’ll be doing a lot of flicking back and forth.

The game itself is a multi-session co-operative game, much like Hero Quest and Warhammer Quest (one of its early inspirations). You meet up regularly, hopefully in the same group of four players, and play through a campaign over many sessions. I found it to be very close to a role-playing boardgame.

There are two main parts, plus one small minigame glueing them together. The first is the Showdown phase – you pit your four bravest (or most foolish) warriors against one of the terrible monsters that inhabit the world. The second is the Settlement phase – you take the materials that you gained during the showdown and use them to expand a fledgling settlement, build arms and armour, and do what you can to lead your people in this desolate land. The Hunt phase occurs between the two and depicts your survivors attempting to track down one of the beasts.

Monsters

The monsters that you fight during the Showdown phase are the stars of the show. Which is good, because you’ll be spending a lot of your time hunting the same monsters again and again! At first I thought this could get quite dull – staring at the same five miniatures (the monster and the four survivors) for hours on end and we grind our way up the resource ladder. However these monsters are the cleverest and most interesting card-driven foes I’ve faced.

Two dead survivors, coming right up.
Two dead survivors, coming right up.

Each monster has a deck of cards that controls its actions, and you randomly construct this deck from a set of specifications for each monster. Pick so many cards from deck A, so many from deck B, add this card in, shuffle up, and you’ve got yourself a monster. This means that each monster has its own themes while also still being able to surprise you. Generally lions will charge all over the place so you want to avoid standing in front of it, but one might be fond of knock-downs and mauls while another likes to play dead.

They can do stupid things sometimes – in one battle we were able to game the system and kite the monster for most of the battle, dealing damage with almost no risk of return damage. Though, perhaps we had just worked out how to hunt that monster effectively? I suppose one person’s clever tactic is another’s cheesy game-breaker!

When we started there seemed to be a lack of depth to the system – just roll some dice, hope for hits, and fingers crossed the monster missed in your turn. However while it is a simple system, we did pick up a lot of subtleties that we didn’t pick up on straight away. One of the most important realisations was that you can spend survival points to take actions at specific points during the monster’s turn as well as your turn. This led to a bit of a brain-explosion moment as we all realised how powerful that could be and got to working out some nasty combos.

Overall I was pretty happy with how the showdown phase played out. I was expecting a watered-down miniatures experience typical of miniatures boardgames, but it was a satisfying and dynamic game that presented us with interesting tactical puzzles to solve every turn. Plenty of difficult decisions during each game helped keep everyone on their toes.

One thing I’d have liked to seen though: whenever you injure the monster you flip a damage card at random. This means that when attacked from the front you have an equal chance of hitting the monster’s head, leg, belly, or any other body part. I’d have liked to have seen a system that tagged each damage card to a particular side of the monster, and you flipped until you found an appropriate one. This would add another layer to the system that you could learn and plan for, as well as making the story of each encounter be more coherent. Of course the trap mechanic would have to be re-worked for this to stay balanced.

Roleplaying

The settlement phase and the hunt phase both provide more of what I see as the role-playing part of Kingdom Death: Monster. I know it’s not really role-playing, but because the outcomes of your choices are so unpredictable we all found it best to think “Well, what would the characters do?”. This is quite anathema to us grognards so we had to consider it as roleplaying to make sense of it.

The Hunt
The art that saturates the rulebook instills a great deal of theme – not all of it savoury.

These parts of the game are where you are most exposed to the flavour and themes of the world. Random events occur constantly and often you are presented with a choice – pick a character to handle a situation, or pick between two equally horrible scenarios – and then you find out what happens. Often this involves the dreaded phrase “roll a d10”, something which very quickly came to replace Arkham Horror’s “you are devoured” as our group’s stock phrase to instil terror into the other players.

This part of the game can seem very harsh. Because you’re making so many rolls, and any 1 or a 2 is generally awful, you’re often only a short string of bad rolls away from a doomed settlement. Our first game quickly hit a downward spiral when we lost our only three women to childbirth, so the five remaining men led a short, doomed existence. All that because we rolled a one followed by two threes. So to get the most out of it you have to abandon any hope of steering your way through this dismal world, just roll with the punches and hope you roll the odd ten every now and again. And don’t get attached to your characters.

Themes

No talk of Kingdom Death: Monster would be complete without talking about its universe. It is a strange world. When you start playing you are controlling four characters who have just woken up on a plateau of white stone faces, eyes crusted with black ink and dressed in loincloths. They can’t communicate, have no idea how they got there, and their lanterns are the only light in the world. Instantly they are attacked by a huge white lion against which they must defend themselves. Like I said, pretty strange.

It is a very dark world. Bad things happen. Not just regular bad things as you’d expect in most games – people dying, getting badly injured, that sort of thing. In the games we played we had people lose legs, go insane (this happened regularly, and was usually a good thing), die during childbirth, one character had his genitals destroyed by a monster.

As I mentioned earlier it is also a highly sexually-charged world. Most of this comes from the horror theme and the ever-present juxtaposition of the beautiful with the repulsive. This I find unsettling (no doubt its purpose) and often disturbing. One specific page, which you’ll be referencing a lot, depicts a naked man kneeling in a pile of viscera and several dismembered body parts that instantly reminded me of the awful Dead Island Riptide statue debacle.

This would be fine if the motivation behind it was purely to infuse the same sense of unease in the players that the characters are facing. However it’s pretty obvious from a lot of the art in the rulebook, the player miniatures, and the range of pinups sold alongside the game, that the designers have made the decision to crank up the sex appeal for the male gaze. Not really much to be said here, it’s the same stuff we’re used to: male foes are generally fully-armoured (only one has a bare face), the females are lucky to be wearing anything more than a few straps. Same goes once the players start wearing armour, the female versions often follow the usual designs.

Bone Witch. Come on, these jokes write themselves.
Exhibit A, Bone Witch render. Come on, “bone witch”? These jokes write themselves.

This is such a disappointment because the game starts out so well – you have two male and two female survivors that are treated identically to each other and are, as far as miniatures go, quite restrained and tasteful. It’s only once you’re immersed into it that it shows its true colours.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Overall I’m happy with the time I’ve spent with Kingdom Death: Monster. I fear we shan’t see a game of its scope in a long while so it’s nice to be a part of it. And if the game itself wasn’t big enough the expansions are now shipping – all of which take up about three times the space as the original. This really is a labour of love and despite any reservations I have about it I’m glad that such a thing exists and has been made to a superb level of quality.

Overall I enjoy the game but I feel that despite many improvements to the typical co-operative formula it does fall victim to the usual problems of games without some kind of human intelligence behind part of it. The monsters can get into strange degenerate behaviours, the hunt phase can be nonsensical, repetitive and nasty, and sometimes you just wish there was a way you could have more influence over an important die roll.

So it is a flawed masterpiece? In my mind, yes. The showdown phase is crunchy, difficult, and rewards planning. The settlement and hunt phases that join it together are flimsy, random and give you no foresight into the impact of your decisions, so you can’t make meaningful choices. The problem stems from the fact that these two systems feed back into each other so strongly – if your key warrior picks the wrong answer to a story event or rolls poorly she might end up maimed or killed, even though she’s an unstoppable whirlwind of death in the showdown phase.

Having said that, if you can bear the frustrating randomness of a game that hates you, and can stomach the tone, odds are you’ll like it. Plus the minis are beautiful!

Hunt Phase

Guild Ball

So I swore I was going to stick to only playing two games seriously: DBMM and Malifaux. What I didn’t account for was most of the local competitive Warmachine players jumping on board the Guild Ball train and it taking over my Wednesday night gaming club. Months ago I heard a lot about it from podcasts and it had intrigued me, however I figured I’d give it a miss due to the lack of a local scene. So much for that plan.

Rules

A character from the Brewer's Guild.
A character from the Brewer’s Guild.

While umpiring the Malifaux tournament at ValleyCon 2016 I got a demo game from the local pusher and long-time friend of mine, Mike Thorn. From what I had heard it was a slick system that was fast and easy to follow, yet allowed a lot of per-character variation. This is totally accurate! The combat is great and allows each character and team to have a lot of individual flavour, not to mention possible synergies once you get further into it. Like most sports games (and by “most sports games”, I mean Blood Bowl) it has to balance bash vs. skill. From my three games so far it seems to balance this out fairly well: skilled teams have to race off to an early lead as they find their options reduced the longer the game goes. One thing it has over Blood Bowl is that it feels much easier to actually play the sport – kicking the ball around is pretty simple when you’re not threatened and you can set up some great plays.

However there are a few bits that aren’t quite as smooth as I’d hoped: different kinds of plays are triggered completely differently (character plays by spending influence or specific combat results, heroic by spending momentum, legendary are free but only once per game), penalties and bonuses for kicks, combat and character plays are all slightly different, that sort of thing. Little sharp edges on an otherwise super-smooth system that I’m sure also bug the designers and, fingers crossed, will be ironed out in an eventual second edition.

Choosing a team

Now to the tricky bit: picking which one of the eight teams I’m going to get. With sports-based miniatures games I prefer to play the teams that focus on the game itself rather than just the bashing aspect of it. I just find it more interesting. So that narrowed it down a bit: one of the Fishermen, Alchemists, or Masons.

What, um, what happened to your leg?
What, um, what happened to your leg?

The next step was looking at the minis. Miniatures are my favourite part of miniatures games – the clue is in the title! So this was a lot of time poring over the website and checking out other peoples’ painted miniatures. Alchemists were struck off the list due to the odd pose for Vitriol.

The last step is a new one in my selection process: representation. It’s not something I really gave a lot of thought to until recently, but now it’s quite important to me that the miniatures I buy and paint (and the companies I support) not wallow in the grand tradition of geek marketing efforts everywhere and pander exclusively to the straight white male. I want to see a greater diversity of genders and races in my miniatures, just like I would love to see the same change in who they appeal to and might get into the hobby.

A rare sight.
A rare sight.

This really showed me how much Malifaux is ahead of the pack on this front: Guild Ball is a real boys’ club with a few token women. Only one team, the Masons, has a female captain and more than two female players in total. Most of the female players have their appearance be a key part of their character, and a lot of them have in-game abilities to go along with it (“Seduced”, “Charmed (Male)”, etc). As for non-European characters, the Fisherman are the only ones to have any: their second captain, is styled on Arab pirate, and the art for Greyscales show him with dark skin (though the studio paint job is a lot paler)

This left Fishermen and Masons tied – the Fisherman won out when I saw that the Masons range has some scale issues, and there were already five Masons players in the local group and just one Fishermen player.

Fiction

I’ll preface this section by saying that I really don’t like miniatures game fiction. I view reading it as homework. Guild Ball did nothing to dissuade me from this attitude: opening up the rulebook and you get hit over the head with dense prose, pages and pages of text in a tiny font. Then a map! Which means a painstaking description of the world and all the cities and races, oh my.

The good bit is that it’s surprisingly well-written and easy to read. The last major story simply takes us through a game and it flows really nicely – everything that happens (except the first trick shot) you could see happening on the tabletop.

What I don’t like is the tone. It’s just so serious! This is something that Blood Bowl did wonderfully – its goofiness and art took the sting out of the brutality of the game. Guild Ball takes the opposite approach: it is Tarantino to Blood Bowl’s Wile E Coyote. Some of the fiction is downright nasty: we are told in grisly detail how in one match Brisket is stalked by a player on the opposite team intent on murder, how she panics and is eventually tacked, stabbed multiple times and is left to bleed out. One of the union leaders is captured by another guild and we hear in detail how he is tortured and mentally and physically broken. The term “bitch” is thrown around a lot and I got the sense the author would have preferred to use stronger terms if they knew they could get away with it.

Blood for the blood god!
Blood for the blood god!

Also the more brutal stories don’t quite match up to the actual game they’re meant to be describing. Some of the games seem to take place in this strange foggy battlefield in which the players stumble on to one another and then engage in one-on-one fights with lethal weapons. It reads more like a world war one comic than a five-on-five football match. What makes this weird is that the game itself manages to capture a fluid brawl like no other game I’ve played – people charging in, throwing a few punches, tackling the ball and pushing off again to make a pass – and most of the stories ignore this and pretend it’s just Warhammer.

Getting started

One of the things that Steamforged Games does superbly however is getting you into the game. All the rules, cards, and even print-out cardboard standees are all available free on their website. I have no idea why other games companies don’t do this! I suppose giving out your rules for free seems a little counter to most business practices, but getting into a miniatures games is a serious commitment and being able to try it out without spending a couple of hundred dollars will certainly increase the reach of Guild Ball. And no-one’s going to be happy playing with paper minis, everyone who’s keen will be splashing out on the real things.

So right now I’ve got my cardboard Fishermen’s Guild team and a few games under my belt. I seem to be losing by less each time which is certainly movement in the right direction. I’m not ordering any figures yet as I want to make sure they’re the team for me (so far so good) and also don’t want any more minis while I still have unpainted figures for Malifaux, Infinity and Blood Bowl left. 17 to go!

Painting metal with non-metallic paints

I spent a lot of time hemming and hawing over how to paint the bronze and iron for my Macedonians. Like a lot of people I learnt to paint 28mm scale miniatures from the ‘Eavy Metal articles in White Dwarf, which always promote metallic paints. It’s certainly the easiest to get started with, but as I got into smaller skirmish games like Malifaux and Infinity that allowed more time per miniature I tried my hand at using non-metallic paints to paint metallics. I was really surprised by how easy it was as well as the striking effect that it can give when done right.

I first used NMM techniques on historical models with my SAGA Normans and they looked pretty cool! They were an easy intro though: chainmail is just focussed dry-brushing with greys and whites, and after that it was just conical helmets and shield rims:

Normans 1
Predictably, he’s called Norman.
Normans 2
This guy’s called Archie.

At first I never even contemplated doing NMM on such a big scale as a whole DBMM army – something like 200-300 bronze helmets and 100 large bronze shields. I did some test paints and talked about it with my brother, and figured I might as well give it a go. My test with metallic paints just didn’t pop compared to the non-metallics—perhaps that’s something I’ve got to work on if the NMM drives me round the bend!

So here’s how I painted my shields:NMM shields 1Base coat of VMC Medium Fleshtone.

 

NMM shields 2Wash with Citadel Reikland Fleshshade.

 

NMM shields 3Glaze of Medium Fleshtone over the top right of the shield.

 

NMM shields 4Repeat the wash of Reikland Fleshshade.

 

NMM shields 5Repeat the Medium Fleshtone glaze, over a slightly smaller area this time.

 

NMM shields 6Shade with Reikland Fleshshade only over the bottom right.

 

NMM shields 7Highlight with 4 parts Medium Fleshtone, 1 part VMC Dark Sand.

 

NMM shields 8 Highlight with 3 parts Medium Fleshtone, 1 part Dark Sand.

 

NMM shields 9Highlight with 2 parts Medium Fleshtone, 1 part Dark Sand.

 

NMM shields 10Highlight with half Medium Fleshtone, half Dark Sand.

 

NMM shields 11Highlight with 2 parts Ivory, 1 part Medium Fleshtone, 1 part Dark Sand.

 

NMM shields 12Final step: highlight with Ivory. This is just a small, thin highlight but it is the most important! It has to be small but very bold as that’s what’s going to make the whole thing pop.

I’m happy with the speed of it too: while taking photos of these four I was also painting another 14 and got them all done in half of an evening. It does look like a lot of steps, and it is, but each step gets progressively smaller and smaller so by the time you’re half-way through you’re already ripping through them.

I paint helmets in exactly the same way. I find them a bit easier because you’ve got more details to work with. The more details, the easier it is to make NMM work, because you get more shading and highlights to play around with, and it’s the sharp distinction between those two that makes the effect work.

I quickly blu-tacked the shields onto my mostly completed first batch of pezhetairoi and here’s what they look like:

NMM shields pike block

Afterwards I overpaint the helmets and shields that I’m the least happy with with blue (for helmets) and the taxis colour for the shields. This one’s colour is salmon pink so expect them to look a lot more rosy once I’m done with them!

Tunicked

Next stage of the pezhetairoi is complete: tunics done.

Tunics

I settled on the colours after reading a Wargames Illustrated that I picked up while on holiday – happened to see an issue all about Alexander the Great so figured it was worth a buy. In one of the articles the author references Rubin Post’s Ancient Warfare vol VI, saying that Ptolemaic soldiers wore 40% red, 18% white, 12% yellow, 12% blue and the remainder in purple, green, grey, and maroon. Seemed like a good place to start even though I’m going for Macedonians rather than Ptolemaic.

All paints are Vallejo Model Color unless stated.

RedRed

This makes up 40% of the tunics, so 13 of the 32 soldiers in the taxis.

Unfortunately I ended up with a ridiculously complicated recipe, but it’s a lot faster than it looks! It’s based off Meg Maple’s red technique.

Khador Red Base (P3)
Watered-down Skorne Red Shade (P3)
Shade in two steps down to ½ Skorne Red ½ Black Red
Khador Red Base layer again
Highlight twice up with Ember Orange (P3)
Wash with thinned Red Ink (P3) – pull away from the deep recesses
Shade with thinned ⅓ Red Ink ⅔ Black Red
Shade with thinned ¼ Red Ink ¾ Thamar Black (P3)

WhiteWhite

18%, so 6 of every 32.

Ivory
Shade down in half steps with Dark Sand, Green Ochre and Beige Brown
½ Dark Sand ½ Ivory
Ivory

YellowYellow

12%, so 4 of 32.

Flat Yellow
Highlight up with Ivory
Shade with Yellow Snow (Secret Weapon Wash)

BlueBlue

12%, 4 tunics.

Lothern Blue (Citadel)
Up with Ivory
Shade with Asurmen Blue (Citadel)

MaroonMaroon

One or two tunics this colour.

Sanguine Base (P3)
Highlight up to Skorne Red (P3)
Final highlight about ½ Khador Red Base (P3) ½ Skorne Red

PurplePurple

One or two tunics.

Beaten Purple (P3)
Highlight up with Basic Skintone

GreenGreen

One tunic this colour.

Olive Green
Highlight with Flat Flesh
Shade with Thraka Green (Citadel)

GreyGrey

One this colour.

Mechanicus Standard Grey (Citadel)
Highlight with Dheneb Stone (Citadel)

And I did lie, they’re not quite done! I’ll go over them in one last pass and paint some extra details. I’m not sure exactly what yet, but some will have white trim around the base of the tunic and the sleeves.

But that’s for later, next up is the linen armour. I’m aiming to get them to a really bright white as I’ve always found that a striking part of a Hellenistic army.

State of Macedonia

Here’s where the Macedonians are at:

Macedonians red

I decided to start a whole taxis of pezhetairoi at once, at least until I’ve painted all their tunics. I did this to guarantee that I get a sensible distribution of colour—if I do it two elements at a time I might end up with “the blue guys” and “the yellow guys” inadvertently.

Once I’ve finished their tunics, which involves painting white, yellow, blue, and a smattering of other colours, then I’ll break it back down to two elements at a time for all the fiddly bits.

You can see the shields in the background too. After some experimentation I went for NMM which isn’t as crazy at it sounds! I did something similar for my Norman SAGA warband and it doesn’t take too long and while it’s not the greatest NMM effect I still like it. 🙂

Relic Knights

relic-knights
In the shiny sparkliness of the far future, there are only rainbows.

At Call to Arms earlier this year I bumped into an old friend, Shane, whom I’d heard had gotten into Relic Knights. Relic Knights is a game I’d been following for about four years now – it had some very interesting ideas and innovations so I asked if we could tee up a game later on.

princess-malya_1
Princess Malya, the flagship character and one of the first models in the Relic Knights range

Relic Knights is a tabletop miniatures game by Soda Pop Minatures, first published by Cool Mini or Not but now by Ninja Division. Like Kingdom Death and Malifaux, it started out as a small range of boutique miniatures that became quite successful and then led on to a game release. Relic Knight’s came in the form of a Kickstarter, launched in August 2012 and promising to be shipped by the following May. The standard script followed: nearly a million raised, delay followed delay, finally shipped in July 2015 more then two years after the promised date. I got carried away during the Kickstarter and was in for a couple of hundred, however after looking at my pile of unpainted minis I withdrew my pledge before the end, but I did pick up the rule book later on just to read through it.

the game

So, the game. Shane came up to the club with two cadres: the fast but delicate Cersei Speed Circuit – a racing team fighting the good fight – and the doughty Black Diamond – a hardened band of mercenaries. Being the gentleman that he is I got first pick, and chose the Speed Circuit. They seemed to be the more interesting of the two to play. We set up, flipped for our objectives (like Malifaux, it exclusively uses cards) and deployed.

The starter box for Black Diamond.
The starter box for Black Diamond. I think they’re the bad guys…

It is at this point you realise that the designers of Relic Knights really have deconstructed the traditional miniatures game and thought about every single assumption that the genre makes, and changed it to suit their universe. So when you come to deploy, you can deploy anywhere on the board! I’m so used to having a deployment zone that it’s really hard even to think about the tactical ramifications about putting my models anywhere on the board. There are some restrictions of course: you take turns placing models, and each has to be at least 8″ away from enemy models and objectives. We found that they ended up in small clumps, usually defending your objectives.

winning

The game is is a race to reach a certain amount of victory points. Each player has a randomly generated primary and secondary objective (worth 5 VPs and 3 VPs), a set objective per faction (worth 2 VPs) and gains 1 VP each time they destroy an enemy character or unit. So as you can see, it’s heavily skewed towards objectives with the destruction of the foe a minor concern. We played to 8.

Relic Knights is played at a breakneck pace. Each player’s moves are very short as you act with a single model or small unit. You and your opponent rapidly ping-pong back and forth, and most importantly you never have the traditional end of turn pause. Because there is no turn! The whole game is just alternating activations until someone wins. This is achieved by requiring each player to set up a queue of models to activate, so you can’t just use the same model over and over again like in Infinity. This is just as brain-bending as you’d imagine, as you have to plan beforehand and are telegraphing your plans to your opponent. Of course, they’re doing the same, so mind-games aplenty.

combat

A stat card for Calico Kate, Relic Knight for the Star Nebula Corsairs.
A stat card for Calico Kate, Relic Knight for the Star Nebula Corsairs.

Likewise, combat is also quite different to most other systems. For one thing, every ranged attack has infinite range. All areas of effect are the same size. Easy! Every ability is handled by playing a combination of cards from your hand to pay for it. If you can pay for it, the attack hits. Next each player draws more cards based on their offensive and defensive abilities, and the acting player can pay to boost the attack while the defender can pay to boost armour, redirect or dodge the attack. It’s a very clean system and has its hooks into the other parts of the game: spend your hand now to dodge an attack, and then you won’t have enough cards to pay for your next model’s attack. The punchiness felt pretty right, the smaller models couldn’t stand in the way of the hard-hitting characters, but they could slug it out with each other for a while.

On a whole the game felt very fluid and fast-paced. The tactical repercussions of having to plan your activation order ahead of time I was just getting to grips with by the end of the game, and I could see a ton of depth there waiting to be discovered. The designers have done an amazing job of capturing the essence of the source material, something that you very rarely see in miniatures games. For that alone I have to salute them!

Fiddlyiness

There were a few things I didn’t like though. It seemed very fiddly to me. There were a lot of things to remember, especially the innate shared abilities that almost every model has. The way you interact with the objectives was hidden away in the scenario section of the rules and we didn’t find that till near the end of our game. Effects that you add in the game require you to use a generic numbered token and then write down what that number corresponds to – very odd! All things that I imagine repeated plays would get you knowledgeable on, but it felt very much like a first edition set of rules that is begging for a second.

The miniatures

Where this game falls down for me is the range of miniatures. Which is such a lost opportunity, because the range started off so well and had a huge potential.

Rin Farrah by REIQ, a pin-up artist.
Rin Farrah by Reiq.

The first thing that strikes most people when they look at the game or miniatures is that they have turned up the perv factor to 11. Almost every female character design begins and ends with emphasising the ludicrously proportioned breasts. The miniatures are then generally posed in submissive or compromising poses – knees together, feet facing each other, arching through the small of their back, or on all-fours in the classic “sexily riding on a motorbike” pose. That coupled with the variable quality of the sculpts leaves me with the sad impression of the fevered scrawlings of a horny teenage boy.

In short, not exactly the kind of minis I want on my painting desk or display cabinet. Let’s face it, miniature wargaming already has to fight an uphill battle to not being seen as grown men and women still playing with children’s toys, and this will do nothing to disabuse people of the notion. Soda Pop cling desperately to the tenet that this is a man’s (boy’s?) hobby and seem hell-bent on proving the point by going out of their way to make their products as puerile as possible – Tentacle Bento, anyone? The worst example I came across is the artwork introducing the Noh faction, a race of demons, which attempts to get titillation out of showing a group of hyper-masculine alien warriors surrounding a bloodied and bruised woman prisoner. The saddest thing is that this is so normal in our hobby that it takes a game like Relic Knights, which takes it to another level, to bring attention to it.

As to the quality of the miniatures, I was unimpressed with the Kickstarter miniatures. They are done in a type of resin/plastic that didn’t appear to hold details very well. Even the flagship models like Malya and One Shot were quite poor. Shane told me that they’re looking at recasting everything in resin which is good news – I picked up some of their early Noh in 2011 and they were amazingly detailed.

There are also scale issues, something that won’t be solved by going to resin unless they can upscale some moulds. Some miniatures tower over others, and one miniature’s head might be the same size as another’s whole torso.

conclusion

Hiring pinups artists to advertise your game says it all really.
Hiring pinup artists to advertise your game says it all really.

So those are my thoughts on Relic Knights. Rules-wise, fantastic. It has some amazing ideas and is a very interesting direction for miniature games to go in. The concept I’d give a 10/10, the execution about a 6 – too many rough edges on the rules that keep it from truly flowing as it feels like it wants to. I’ll put this into the same basket as the second edition of Infinity – good ideas, but needs another edition to smooth everything out.

Theme-wise, it has huge issues for me. Which is such a shame, I could see me getting into this game otherwise. The hypersexualisation of the women in the game makes me uncomfortable and is unhealthy for both the hobby and society in general. Only one of the factions, Shattered Sword, is “restrained” enough in character design for me to think about getting them, but their play style and miniatures don’t excite me.

So I think I’ll be sitting this one out.