Saturday, September 4, 2010

Board Game Review - Horus Heresy

Here's a short list of some things I like:

Pralines and Cream Ice Cream
Scotch Whiskey
Video Games
Backpacking in the Mountains

If you offer me any one of those things, I will like you more. Many of these things would even go well together, like ice cream and video games. Some of them would not go well together, like scotch and woodworking. And some go great with anything (strippers make nearly anything more entertaining).

But if you put all those things together, you will not have something amazing. You will have something weird and potentially felonious. I will, of course, be delighted to attempt having all those things at once. But in the end, it would be overwhelming, and I would probably end up passed out in a bowl of pralines and cream with my fingers stuck in a table saw and lipstick stains on my pants.

To relate this to board games (specifically to Horus Heresy, which is what I am reviewing, and not strippers, though I certainly wish I could review strippers and get free strippers in the mail), there are times when you can combine a whole pile of great game ideas and wind up with something that is way too much. Horus Heresy practically embodies this concept.

For starters, this is a wargame based on the 40K universe, where some bad guy from outer space comes to Earth to kill the emperor, who may or may not be something of a penis. Violent hijinks ensue, with a delightfully brutal body count. This is an enormous point in favor of Horus Heresy, and for many people, is enough to buy the game without knowing anything else about it.

Then you've got plastic. This is Fantasy Flight, so when I say there's plastic, I don't mean a couple dice. There are more than a hundred tiny plastic soldiers, from titans and space marines to demons and tanks, and lots more besides. They come in green and purple and gray and blue and red, all colorful and destructive, like a hurricane at a gay pride parade. This much plastic makes the game prettier, and that means it's more fun to play.

Even the game board is tricked out. It's got holes in it so you can insert plastic fortresses and a huge plastic palace from underneath, and it's ginormous, with all this art that makes the future look extraordinarily depressing (which is kind of an ongoing theme in Warhammer stuff). There are eight different decks of cards, coming in two sizes, and they're all beautifully designed.

Beyond the components, there's a hell of a game here. There are all these different regions, including four spaceports, half a dozen forts and factories, and even the palace is broken up into different, three-dimensional areas. You'll put whole bunches of plastic guys on the board, plugged into plastic stands that tell you if they're damaged and how hard they fight, and then you'll move around and hit each other with heavy things that cause massive internal bleeding (and possibly death).

Doing stuff requires you to have order cards, which could mean you're stuck without a move, except that you have extraordinary control over which order cards you have in your hand. If you really need to be able to attack the emperor in his palace, just make sure you get the card you need, which isn't hard to do, if you're patient. The orders are useful and smart and add a ton of strategy to Horus Heresy.

Then you've got the initiative track, which rewards players for careful planning and penalizes them for being overly aggressive - though there are, of course, plenty of good reasons to just jump in and get dirty sometimes. Sure, you may give your opponent four turns in a row, but after you destroy his main force and beat the crap out of his heroes in a surprise move you've had planned for half an hour, it's worth it. This initiative track is pure brilliance, and really helps to make Horus Heresy incredibly deep.

Let's not forget the innovative combat system. I've heard complaints about the way cards are used to handle bloodshed, but it's really quite cool, and dice would never have worked as well. You can save your troops from the worst of the beatings, but if you do, you may not have the cards you need to retaliate, so you might just sacrifice a pile of your soldiers for the option to punt your opponent into orbit later in the fight. It's intuitive and smart and really fun.

Oh, and then there's the various movement and combat rules that go beyond the cards, like Thunderhawks that can pick up friendly hitchhikers and drop them off on their way to a rumble. There are dozens of little details that can be used to really add punch to your fights, and provide an incredible array of options at nearly every juncture.

But that's not all! There are also orbital lasers, and boarding parties, and multiple winning conditions. There are advanced scenarios, event cards, activation markers and a whole lot more! In fact, all this stuff adds to all the other stuff that goes with the enormous box of yet other stuff to make a game that, after giving you wave after wave of incredibly awesome stuff, completely overwhelms you and makes you nostalgic for when you were a kid and could just make explosion sounds while you reenacted the disturbing violence that spawned in your imagination, without having to refer to a rulebook every time you want your hero to board a plane.

Horus Heresy is indubitably a very good game. It's deep and strategic and tactical and full of complex decisions with far-reaching implications. It's also a painfully disjointed Vegas bachelor party, complete with hookers, frozen desserts and power tools. There isn't one single thing in the game that I don't like, unless you count the fact that after a three-page FAQ was released to cover the pile of questions posed by players, the fans still had to go back and make another FAQ to cover all the questions that the first FAQ didn't answer. I don't even mind the 44-page rulebook, because all that great stuff had to fit in here somewhere.

But while I can't pick one thing I didn't like, I can tell you that when you combine all those awesome single things in one place, you wind up wondering why you thought it was a good idea to take a gallon of ice cream on a six-mile hike through the Rockies. It has all these great pieces, but collapses under its own weight. If you like wargames and 40K, you'll have a lot of fun playing Horus Heresy, but even if you're an obsessive compulsive who reads the rules four times before his first game, you're going to miss something or forget something or do something stupid halfway through the game, because there are just too many different things going on.

The overdose is obvious beyond the rules, too. The stacking limit for a fortified area is three guys from each side, which means you could have six of these big clunky bases all competing for space in one spot. And to really spice it up, heroes (which are cardboard art mounted on big plastic stands) don't count toward that limit. Neither do orbital lasers, which are also little plastic sculptures. And none of this would be a huge problem were it not for the fact that the detailed plastic bunkers are all dimensional and textured, and use up most of the real estate for slanted walls and power stations, so that when you actually try to put all those guys in one place, you have to lay down the heroes and stack your units on the flat side of the standups, and even then you'll be balancing them so carefully that you'll wonder if you've taken a quick break to play a couple turns of Jenga.

I should repeat one more time that every time I've played Horus Heresy, I had fun, and I would play it again, and I don't plan to trade it off any time soon. But it could have been so much better if it had just been streamlined a little. I know lots of the bits are in there for the purists, but if Fantasy Flight has just exercised a little restraint, Horus Heresy would have blown my mind with a blast of awesome. As it is, I'm just hungover and wondering why there's a naked girl in the linen closet, sawdust in the bathtub, and an Xbox controller dropped into a half-empty tub of ice cream. But I know I had a good time.


2 players with a lot of time on their hands

Incredible components
Fantastic depth and nearly limitless options
Challenging and smart
Brilliant initiative system rewards planning without overly penalizing bold risk-taking
Quick-playing combat system layers on the genius
Order cards that let you plan your turns and don't remove flexibility

Near-criminal lack of restraint

So you're probably thinking something like, 'that sounds fun, and I'm up for it, but $100 is way outside my budget!' Well, not to worry - Dogstar Games has an amazing deal on Horus Heresy.


Wiz-War said...

@Ninthdoc :D

While the designer of Horus Heresy didn't show much restraint in what he threw into the game, it seems Mr. Drake has shown a bit of restraint in his review.

After trying to play this game at the FFG Event Center, I have to say any fun I might have had got buried under rules. Not a bad thing for some, but for people like me who like a bit more intuitive simplicity in their rules, it failed for me. The production values just couldn't save it for me. I really wanted to like this game.

Matt Drake said...

I am rarely told that I have shown restraint.

I did have fun with this game, but the rules are more bloated than a floating corpse.