Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Horus Heresy

Han received Horus Heresy on the same day that we had scheduled an evening session, so we decided to give this new Fantasy Flight big box game a go. Han had read the rules before, but I hadn't, so I quickly downloaded it and read it hurriedly while Han prepared the components and set up the game.

The Game

The backstory is set in the Warhammer 40K universe. A general, Horus, has just decided to rebel against the Emperor, and is attacking Earth, where the Emperor's palace is located. The rebels win by killing the Emperor, or controlling all four of the space ports on Earth (they start the game controlling two). The Emperor wins by killing Horus, or controlling all space ports. The Emperor also wins if he can hold out long enough. When the timer runs out, the Emperor's supporters and reinforcements arrive, and they are numerous enough to kick the rebels' behinds.

The game starts with almost all the Emperor's units already on the board. Some of the rebel units are on the board, but most are still off board, in orbit waiting to land on Earth. As part of game setup, the rebels can attempt to convert some of the Emperor's units to their side. The rebels can also fire some cannons from space trying to destroy some of the Emperor's units. These allow for some variation in the game start situation. There are a number of different scenarios, each with a slightly different setup (although all are about the same battle), and, more importantly, with a different event deck.

The flow of the game is controlled by Order cards and a timer track. Each player starts with a preset hand of Order cards. You need Order cards to deploy units, to move units, and to attack. Order cards cost action points to play, and when you spend action points, you move your counter on the timer track. The timer track works like those in Red November and Thebes - the player who is behind takes the next turn. You may take a few consecutive turns as long as your marker has not passed your opponent's.

The timer track determines many things, e.g. when already activated troops can act again (move or attack), when you can draw more Order cards, when events occur. Of course, most importantly, it also counts down toward game end (i.e. Emperor victory).

Han comtemplating his Combat cards. In this (blurry) photo you can see the main board, the time track at the bottom, the spaceship near the top right (where Horus is located initially), and half the strategic map on the right (red).

A close-up of part of the main board and the time track. Some spaces are 3D - these are thin plastic pieces which protrude through holes in the game board. They do look good, but I prefer not to have them. You need to spend time setting them up. The units fit, but just barely, and they can't stand straight.

Grey units are mostly Emperor units, except some which turned traitor at the start of the game, and these have black bases. Coloured units (red, green, purple and blue) are rebel units.

Order cards. Skulls on the left mean action point costs if you play the card directly. If you play the card onto the strategic map, it costs 1 action point to seed it, and 1 action point to activate it.

There is a mini-map (called the strategic map) on the board. Order cards can be seeded facedown onto this strategic map as opposed to being played directly on troops on the main map. Seeding an Order card here costs 1 action point, activating it also costs 1 action point. Order cards cost 1 to 3 action points. Usually it doesn't make sense to seed a cost-1 Order card on the strategic map. For cost-3 cards, you save 1 action point if you do play it on the strategic map. There are other considerations too. Some Order cards become more powerful if played on the strategic map. Sometimes you want to use your Order card to cover one of your opponent's.

The strategic map is divided into 6 regions. Both Emperor and rebel player can play Order cards onto the map. The game starts with the rebel player having 4 Order cards already placed here.

Battles are resolved via card play. Both sides draw a fresh hand of Combat cards and Hero cards at the start of a battle, the latter if there are Heroes involved. Both players draw cards depending on the type and number of units in battle. Battles usually last for at most 8 rounds. One side attacks (by playing cards) each round, i.e. you'd have at most 4 attacks. In the first round of combat, only one card can be played. In the second round, two cards, and so on. So the intensity escalates. The Combat and Hero cards have attack values, defense values, and also special power texts. A lot of uniqueness of troop types come from the special power texts, e.g. you need to have a particular troop type in the battle to benefit from the special power.

Combat cards. The number on the top left is the attack value, the number of red icons on the left is the defense or shield value. The main body describes the requirement (usually refers needing a particular unit involved in the battle) and the special effect.

There are many units on the board. However, how frequently you get to use each unit is very strictly controlled. Whenever a unit moves or attacks, it's area is (normally) marked with an Activated marker, which means that whole area cannot be activated again until the next Refresh Phase on the timer track. There are only 4 or 5 such Refresh Phases I think. If a unit is routed (e.g. lost a battle), it is marked with the Routed marker, which has to be turned to the Activated side, and then the marker has to be removed, before the unit can act again. So the number of actions a unit can take throughout the game is very limited. You need to try to make use of as many units as you can, and you cannot expect any superstar unit to be running around doing all the hard work. There are some special Order cards which can allow some already Activated units to act, but these are limited.

The Play

Han played the Emperor, and I played Horus. I was moderately lucky with the initial conversion rolls, and managed to convince quite a number of tank battalions to join me. This helped me in controlling a 3rd space port. However I also lost one of the space ports that I controlled at the start of the game. I couldn't reinforce it quickly enough. It was right next to the palace and it was surrounded by enemies. I had tried to land reinforcements, but because that area had 3 cannons pointed at it, any landing needed to first survive heavy cannon fire. I had one very expensive battalion completely wiped out while still descending from space. That was painful.

Some purple units, and two Heroes at the back. The rebel forces in four colours each have a corresponding Hero. Distribution of unit types is the same for all four colours.

I was rather undecided on whether to go for the 4 space ports victory or the kill Emperor victory. By mid game I thought 4 space ports was going to be too difficult. I had already lost one space port which would be hard to recapture. The other Emperor controlled space port was quite far away. So I decided to go for the kill. I landed as many troops as I could using the two space ports that I controlled, which, unfortunately, were further from the palace. Some of the Emperor's troops which had captured my initial space port were a bit out of position. I also used a lone unit to block their movement. It would cost them an Activation to just defeat that lone unit. Han used his Emperor's bodyguard units, and also another battalion at the other end of the palace, to greet my army approaching the palace.

My red rebel forces held on to this space port. I managed to reinforce it enough to deter Han from attacking.

Enemy at the gates. Red and blue armies attacking the palace. I had one lone infantry unit (grey with black base) on the far left stalling some of Han's armies. The hero on the right is the Emperor himself. The trapezoid leaning against the palace wall means the wall has been breached.

We fought some big battles at the palace. I managed to breach the walls, reducing the defense capabilities. However the Emperor's units were too tough to break. In one of my card plays I managed to force two of his marine units (which are very powerful units) to retreat and become Routed (i.e. it would take a long time for him to be able to use them again). But still, that was not enough. The Emperor's troops were still strong and healthy. In the last third of the game, Han tried to push the time track markers forward as much as possible, to end to game as quickly as he could. I think even if he hadn't bothered with that, he would win.

The uprising was beaten down. The rebels never really posed a serious threat to the Emperor.

The Thoughts

In hindsight, I didn't plan out my moves very well and didn't really fully utilise my troops, my heroes and my Order cards. There were two Heroes whom I never deployed because I forgot I could deploy them with any unit. I was waiting for some Order card for deploying Heroes which did not exist. For a learning game, I guess this is normal. The rebels should be able to put up a better fight after the rules and nuances are better understood.

My initial impression right after the game was rather so-so, because it was tough to learn the game so hurriedly, and it was late in the evening too. However, now that I have thought about the game more and digested the rules and game structure a bit more, it's not too bad. The parts do click and the game works on the whole. However overall I feel rather restricted - by the Order cards that I get, by the frequency of Refresh Phases on the time track, by whether I draw suitable Combat and Hero cards when a battle starts. I guess you can argue that once you get familiar with the cards, you'll know that to improve your winning odds in a battle, you should have Heroes, and you should have variety in troop types.

Compared with other Fantasy Flight big box games, I like Middle-Earth Quest more than Starcraft more than Horus Heresy. Since Horus Heresy is about one specific battle, the replayability is probably not as high as the other games, which are more open. How many times can you reenact the same siege? My gut feeling is there is not a lot of space for you to explore different strategies, despite the fact that the scenario setups allow for some randomness.

A lot of flavour and story come from the Combat, Hero and Event cards. The units are very good looking. These are both pluses.

Randomness can be a problem sometimes, maybe more so for the rebel player. Battles themselves actually turn out pretty balanced. If you attack with overwhelming forces, you normally win. If the forces are equal, the battle can swing either way. So the battle resolution system (diceless) works. Sometimes you get some surprises and some interesting stories. Where randomness can have a big impact is the cannon fire. Maybe I'm complaining about this because I had a whole landing party completely wiped out by cannon fire. Yes I could have prevented that by taking out the enemy cannons first, but time was not on my side. I didn't really have the luxury of ensuring risk-less landings. I guess I just had to take my chances, and since there were so many landings I needed to make throughout the game anyway, the odds would even out.

Horus Heresy is not a fast-and-furious game. It is a game of careful planning, where you need to try to maximise the utilisation of your resources. Actions and turns are limited so there is limited manuevering that you can do, and you must plan it carefully and not be wasteful.


wankongyew said...

You know, when I first got into boardgames, I thought that it would be games like this that appeal to me the most. But as I get more experience with different games, I find that I'm going in the other direction, towards euro games.

Like Han, I like the themes of fighting and weapons and monsters and heroes and all that stuff. But when I actually sit down to play many of these things, they just feel so clumsy, time-consuming and take so much effort to play. It's also obvious how many corners they need to cut to make them feasible boardgames. I keep thinking: all this would be much easier if it were on a PC.

While the selection of PC strategy games has been declining of late (I'd kill for a turn-based strategic Warhammer 40k on the PC for example), there are at least approximately similar alternatives. The Warhammer 40k RTS games aren't perfect and aren't turn-based, but, hey, they've got great graphics, large numbers of units and are very convenient to play.

On the other hand, there is no equivalent of clever euro games like Agricola and Puerto Rico on the PC, which makes them very unique playing experiences to me. Their rulesets feel pared down to the minimum and finely crafted while the American games feel bloated because they're trying to simulate combat in a semi-realistic manner and combat is something that people intuitively understand to be very complex with lots of variables.

So I find myself in the odd situation of being attracted to these games, even entertaining the thought of building a Warhammer 40k army one day, even though I'm convinced that I wouldn't actually enjoy playing the game much. It's just the thought of owning the models and the game that's appealing. Weird.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

My interest in boardgames started with games like Axis & Allies, Samurai Swords, i.e. pretty Ameritrash. Now I'm more a Eurogamer partly because I feel there is more variety in both theme and mechanics in Eurogames. Making movies, building cities, racing, selling cars, civ-building, farming. As opposed to just doing battle. Not that I dislike Ameritrash games, just that I can't imagine myself playing only Ameritrash games, which I find to be a smaller subset of games compared to Eurogames.

But one thing about some Ameritrash games that rub me the wrong way is the effort-fun ratio. Usually there are more rules, which make the game more thematic and immersive, but sometimes I feel the overhead is not worthwhile. In Eurogames this is less of a problem because (a) you can probably skim the rules and already decide not to play it, or (b) even if you've spent the time playing a game you end up not liking, that's maybe only 1 hour wasted, still time for another game. :-)

Han said...


Just kidding :), to each his own, i guess.

And that's exactly, my thoughts on Euro. I will play them or appreciate their cleverness and elegance, but i will hardly buy them because they are all so forgettable.

Despite the difference in taste and preference, one good thing about this hobby is that they are not mutually exclusive. Someday, you want to blow up things, someday, you want to do some farming, or building trains or leading vast armies for conquest or glory ....

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Ha ha... no lah, I do worship at the temple of Ameritrash, just that I sacrifice fatter lambs at the temple of Euro. But indeed a lot of Eurogames turn me off from even wanting to try them in the first place. Those yet-another-Eurogames. You remember Diamonds Club? This was one of the games that made me feel I had played it 10 times before via 10 different other Eurogames.

Games World said...

This version of Horus Heresy sounds a lot more balanced than the original game on the same theme by Games Workshop about 16? years ago.
In that game, the only way for the Imperials to win was for the Emperor to teleport onto Horus' barge and defeat him in hand to hand combat. The Rebel forces were simply too powerful. For this reason I only played it twice.
Doom of the Elder, on the other hand, made around the same time, I've played many, many times.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Yes, Han told me there was an earlier version of Horus Heresy, and the map was exactly the same. In our game (only 1 game played), I was so busy absorbing the rules I almost completely forgot about Horus and his spaceship. I never sent him or any of the troops on the spaceship down to Earth.

In the current version of Horus Heresy, I think the rebels still have more troops, but the imperial forces are strong too. The rebels are under time pressure to achieve the victory conditions. The emperor only has to last until the end of the time track. He can try to go for one of the two normal victory conditions if the opportunity presents itself, but my gut feel is the Emperor's best chance is to play defensively and conservatively.