Friday, 17 March 2017

Warhammer Quest: Shadows Over Hammerhal

Published by Games Workshop
For 2-5 players, aged 12 to adult

Shadows Over Hammerhal


Once upon a time (and I only mention that because all good stories start that way) there was a world of arcane lore and monsters. It was a harsh, cruel world where only the strong survived, and war was without end.

No. I don't mean high school.

This was a tough world. A violent world. Yet it was also a world of humour, where amidst the horror of war you could find something laugh-out-loud hilarious.

And it was also a world of beauty. It was a world where you could battle through the shit and the pain, and in the heart of darkness find a small glimmer of something so wonderful it made everything worth fighting for.

No. I really don't mean high school.

This was not our world, and yet in some ways, it was not so very different. This world was the Old World. The world of Warhammer Fantasy Battle.

It was the place I retreated to when reality became too dark; the place I spent most of my time.

It was home.

And then it blew up.

In fairness, it blew up long after I stopped visiting. Regulars to my blog have often heard me lament about how I sold every board game and every single Games Workshop miniature I owned before I went to university. Years after that, I rekindled a passing interest in Warhammer, and picked up a hardback copy of the sixth edition rules. I even bought a few Bretonnian models (yeah, that was the best choice!). But I never really got back into playing it. I don't know why, really. It just didn't inspire me like it used to.

And then, like I said, it blew up.

Games Workshop did something I never expected. They tore down what they had built, and they started to build again. They advanced the storyline, and in doing so created something more epic. Something mythical.

As a fan of mythology... particularly Greek mythology... I was immediately interested in the new Mortal Realms setting. I didn't hate it on instinct like many people did. I found it fascinating; but also... lacking. It was very new, and very shiny. The Old World was a gnarled, aging, filth-coated creature that had evolved over the years. It was like a rotten corpse clawing its way through the dirt. By contrast, Age of Sigmar was a blinding bolt of light from the heavens. It was so blinding, it was impossible to see exactly what it was.

When you did catch a glimpse, all you saw were contradictions.

There were familiar races with unfamiliar names, and new races with strangely familiar designs. There was a new world forged from the Old World, bearing the marks of the nine winds of magic, but drowning in chaos. There were humans that were like gods, and gods that seemed all too mortal.

And as much as I liked the setting, it never felt quite right. It never felt like home.

The main issue was I simply couldn't see the human element. Among the godlike warriors and demented fiends that killed for the sake of killing, I couldn't find the purpose of it all. Were there human cities? What happened if Sigmar lost? What was at stake?

I found it impossible to care about all the endless fighting, because I had no idea what anybody was fighting for.

That's something that Warhamme Quest: Shadows Over Hammerhal seeks to rectify.

...

Wow.

That was a long preamble, right?

Bet you thought we'd never get here. I was beginning to think we'd never get here (I'm already on my second cup of coffee and I've run out of biscuits). But here we are: The review for Shadows Over Hammerhal, the "sequel" to 2016's absolutely incredible Silver Tower.

And so the story begins.

The boxes for Shadows Over Hammerhal and Silver Tower.


Silver Tower was an instant classic in my book. It looked beautiful, it had fresh game mechanisms, it improved on the original Warhammer Quest in most ways, and it offered a satisfying and in-depth co-operative experience for up to four players. All it lacked was a more comprehensive campaign system, and the option to play the game with one person taking on the role of an evil overlord to run the dungeon and control the monsters.

Most people expected Hammerhal to flesh out the few areas of the game that were lacking. I think most of us were expecting a standalone expansion with a gamemaster mode, new tiles, new heroes, and a new adventure in a new setting.

I don't think any of us were expecting Games Workshop to jettison the co-operative mode, the very thing that had made Silver Tower such a joy. None of us were expecting it, because removing the co-operative mode is a fundamental change. It's reaching right into the centre of the game and ripping out its beating heart, and then using a gamemaster like a life support system to keep the whole thing going.

And yeah, I was disappointed. I was disappointed because I'd got used to being a good guy (or as good as you can be playing a psychotic slaughterpriest). I didn't want to have to leave my group of heroic allies and take up arms against them. But that's what Hammerhal was forcing me to do. As the owner of the game, I was the one destined to be the gamemaster.

Naturally, I thought the Games Workshop designers had lost their collective minds. It's very easy to think that when someone... anyone... makes a call you don't agree with. But over time, I started to think about it more, and I realised that Hammerhal was exactly the product it needed to be for the Warhammer Quest product line to remain viable, sustainable, and relevant. In order to take a step forwards, it had to take a step back.

The result is more than a standalone game. More than an expansion.

It's a companion.

It's Silver Tower's other half.

The fantastically illustrated and written guide book for Shadows Over Hammerhal.


The original Warhammer Quest was generous to the point of farce. It was a solid co-operative game, a fun competitive game, and a light roleplaying game, all in one box. You could play it on your own, with a group of friends, or against a group of friends. You could play with the models in the box, or with any Games Workshop models you owned. You could play the adventures included, or make your own.

It wasn't a game. It was a world. It was the Old World. Home.

And now Games Workshop is recreating that kind of experience in the only way possible in today's market, with today's production costs. They split up that experience into different boxes, just like they split the Old World into the different Mortal Realms.

And much like the Mortal Realms, contradictions abound.

Shadows Over Hammerhal is a beautiful production. For your money you get four heroes (plus a cool companion character), 26 adversaries, a thick rules book packed with lore and painting guides, an adventure book that includes campaign rules, skill and treasure cards, sundry cards for other in-game situations, a boatload of cardboard dungeon tiles, and a surprisingly small amount of tokens for tracking wounds and gold.

An arrangement of treasure cards from Shadows Over Hammerhal.


The miniatures are stunning, the board art is detailed and evocative, the rules book is crammed with line sketches and stories. It looks like a passion project. It looks like something that someone cares about more than anything. And yet...

I dunno. It still manages to look cheap in places.

For a start, every single model in the box is repurposed from existing Age of Sigmar stock, which makes sense from a production standpoint, yet feels like a cost-cutting exercise.

Perhaps even worse, the game doesn't have colour-coded dice like in Silver Tower... or even enough dice for each player to have a set of four. That may seem insignificant, but the dice in Silver Tower served a purpose. They were a way for each player to know his or her colour. If you forgot what colour token represented you on the renown tracker (a kind of experience wheel), your dice would remind you. If all the heroes had to roll a dice for an event, you could chuck them all together without risk of confusion. And you didn't have to constantly pass dice around the table.

For Games Workshop to turn their backs on the idea of colour-coded dice and chuck 12 generic black dice in the Hammerhal box doesn't so much feel like a cost-cutting exercise as it does an admission that they expect everyone to already have a copy of Silver Tower. Indeed, I am using all the dice, renown counters, and even the renown wheel from Silver Tower in my games of Shadows Over Hammerhal, not least because the renown tokens in Hammerhal seem to have been chosen without the slightest care for anybody who's red-green colourblind.

A tray containing all of the game tokens for Shadows Over Hammerhal and Silver Tower.


But the contradictions don't end there...

The game is called Shadows Over Hammerhal, but the whole game takes place in the sewers and tunnels underneath the city.

It's supposed to function as a standalone product, yet it has insufficient dice, and a limited selection of just four adversary types.

It functions as an expansion, but it lacks the co-operative mode, all the cards have different backs making it difficult to mix the two sets together, and while the adversaries are compatible in both games there are no clear rules for how to incorporate them. It's all designed to work together, but there's a lack of finesse. If you own both boxed sets it feels like you have a tool box to play with; it's just a tool box full of hammers.

Even the four heroes in the game are a contradictory bunch. It's the classic combo of a knight, a dwarf, an elf, and a spellcaster; but the knight is a healer, the elf is a brawler, the dwarf is a marksman, and the spellcaster is an adept swordmaster.

The four heroes from Shadows Over Hammerhal: Cogsmith, fleetmaster, lord-castellant, and loremaster.


Overall, the game is a nod to the past, and draws heavily on elements from Advanced HeroQuest, including the need to draw a map as you explore the dungeons, spending time in the city between adventures, and searching for traps and secret doors. Yet at the same time, the game gives us a small glimpse into the future with a gripping storyline that hints at the return of the chaos god Slaanesh. In fact, while the whole game is quite compact, taking place in just a single multi-level dungeon in a single district of a single city, the storyline is potentially epic, with ramifications that could shape the Mortal Realms for everyone,

And what a story!

Of all the things packed into the Hammerhal box, the beautifully produced 72-page rules book is really the most exciting. Besides the rules, it has a fantastic painting guide, some truly wonderful artwork, and a 30-page novella that describes the city of Hammerhal, sets the scene for the adventure, and introduces the four heroes.

An example of the wonderful illustrations from the Shadows Over Hammerhal guide book.


I'm not going to go into great detail, because it's a fun story that you need to read yourself; but in a nutshell, Hammerhal is a massive city that stretches through a realm gate and therefore has districts existing in two distinct realms. One part of the city is in a realm of fire and chaos, and the rest is in a lush living forest. Beneath the city are endless catacombs, and it's there that our four heroes come to blows with the forces of chaos in an attempt to uncover a conspiracy.

What I really like about the story is the amount of information it provides about this world. For example, Hammerhal is one of Sigmar's great cities, but as it expands and its borders reach farther into the chaos wastelands around it, the older districts get left behind. They fall into disrepair, and become no less desolate than the realms Sigmar attempts to conquer. It's a bleak revelation of the true cost of an endless war.

We also learn more about stormcast eternals. For so long they have been seen as implacable, emotionless demigods, but they are actually real people. They have to deal with the anguish of knowing that the dream of Sigmar's sparkling cities is, in truth, a nightmare of daily misery; and they battle with the knowledge that they are unable to provide mortals with the better lives they spend their own lives (over and over again) fighting for.

The story also has a lot of fun teasing the fans. Twice, characters try to figure out what Stormcast's really are. One character questions whether the mighty demigods eat and have vital organs; while another character wants to peel off a Stormcast's skin to find out what makes him tick. In both cases, no answers are forthcoming. It's an artful troll that makes it clear Games Workshop knows we have these questions, but they're revealing things in their own time, in their own way.

Is it the right way? I don't know.

What I do know is Shadows Over Hammerhal is a wonderful game. But more than that, it's a wonderful setting. It's a wonderful resource. It's probably the most comprehensive resource that currently exists for learning the plight of the common humans in a world ruled by demigods and drenched in magic. This is our first glimpse at the dirty street-level drudgery of day-to-day existence in a world where any moment could bring horrors beyond imagination.

That makes this game important.

Three putrid blightkings from Shadows Over Hammerhal, ready for a fight.


But at this point, I fear I've written an incredible amount of words, without really talking about how the game plays. That's not really intentional, but it's indicative of the kind of game this is. It's so much more than the sum of its rather simple mechanisms. It's an experience. It's a deeply thematic, rich, and rewarding adventure in a world that starts to come to life before your eyes. It's one of those games where, when you've finished, you don't talk about how well you played, or what bit of the dice rolling system you enjoyed. You talk about the stories.

And now, a gamemaster is an integral element of those stories.

To be honest, if you ignore the gamemaster element, this really is very similar to Silver Tower. There are a few minor tweaks to the rules, but basically, if you hated Silver Tower, I'm not convinced Hammerhal is going to change your mind.

The central mechanism of the game is a cool dice system, whereby each hero rolls four dice, and then allocates those dice to actions such as moving, healing, exploring, searching, and special moves. As the heroes take wounds, they get to roll less dice, until eventually the number of wounds exceeds the number of dice and they are knocked out. Knocked out heroes revive as soon as there are no monsters around, but from then on they have a permanent injury that reduces the number of action dice they roll each turn. Each time they get knocked out, they get an additional permanent injury and lose an additional action dice.

It's a very clever, very thematic way to represent how damage escalates over time, affecting a hero's combat prowess. Of course, the down side is that, if the heroes start to take a battering, the game starts to grind. Rather than performing four or five actions per turn, heroes are only performing two or three, then just one. Once the adventurers are in trouble, they don't often go out in a blaze of glory. They tend to just bleed out in the dark rather depressingly.

But when the heroes are fresh-faced, bright-eyed, and (in some cases) bushy-tailed, the game moves along at an exciting clip. The heroes move from room to room, using actions to open portals. Every time they do, the gamemaster refers to a map in the adventure book, and then sets up the new room with any monsters lurking within. Heroes always have the option to stop exploring to heal or search, but the longer they tarry, the more risk there is of the gamemaster launching an ambush that spawns randomly generated monsters or events to cause havoc.

The lord-castellant and the cogsmith fight off a group of kairic acolytes.


Once monsters are on the board, the proverbial tends to hit the proverbial. For each type of monster, the gamemaster rolls a dice and refers to a behaviour chart. The chart details how the monsters fight that turn, and may even unlock powerful abilities, such as spells and stronger attacks. However, if the gamemaster doesn't like the behaviour roll, he or she has the option to ignore it, and make a basic move and attack action with each monster. It's an interesting way of giving the gamemaster the chance to activate special abilities, and it prevents the gamemaster from picking on the weakest hero all the time, or constantly firing off devastating spells. Of course, as each monster has a behaviour chart, it also ensures they are compatible with Silver Tower's co-operative play.

Hooray for that.

Killing monsters is the main way of gaining renown. Once a hero has 10 renown, he or she (but let's face it, mainly "he," because this is Games Workshop) gains a new skill. Heroes are allowed to have as many skills as their current level, which starts at one and goes up to four, and over time it's possible to discard and replace skills to tailor characters to a specific play style.

An arrangement of skill cards for Shadows Over Hammerhal.


I absolutely love this upgrade system. It doesn't rely on boring stat boosts, and it doesn't lock you into keeping a specific skill after you select it. You really do get a sense that your character is evolving and improving; and linking experience to skills means that over time the game becomes more interesting by unlocking more actions on each turn, or encouraging you to approach monsters and situations in new ways.

So, the heroes explore, they reveal some new chambers, they bash some heads together, they gain some renown, and then they get a chance to search for secrets.

Searching is a new mechanism introduced especially for Hammerhal (because it just doesn't work in a co-operative game). This was something I know a lot of people were excited about, but for me the option of searching for traps and secret doors has always felt unnecessary and time consuming in other games, and it's not much different here. In almost every location, the heroes have a chance to search, and searching almost always generates a minimum of one gold piece. Usually, searching also reveals some useful information, some treasure, or even a secret door to a new location (where there might be more gold and treasure). The only downside is it takes time, and that means there is an increased risk of an ambush.

But of course, heroes are always going to search. If they are always going to search, it often feels like the secrets and hidden traps are a bit irrelevant. Traps usually get found before it matters, and the heroes are never, ever going to miss a secret door or hidden stairwell. When searching becomes the stock response to revealing each room, it doesn't feel like an exciting or interesting choice anymore. It just feels like going through the motions.

Unfortunately, I don't really see much of a way around that. If the heroes know there are secrets to find, they are going to burn actions looking for those secrets. I guess you could introduce degrees of success, whereby it's possible for heroes to successfully search the room without revealing all of its secrets, but that feels like it would be a bit unfair, especially if it meant the heroes never found a secret door and they didn't get to see a big chunk of the dungeon.

Oh yeah, notice how I said "the" dungeon there? I mentioned it briefly before, but it's worth repeating. All the adventures in the Hammerhal box form a single narrative campaign, and that whole campaign takes place in a single dungeon.

It's a fascinating concept (and again, something that comes from Advanced HeroQuest), because as you explore the dungeon you find stairwells. Some lead down to a deeper level, some lead up to a level you have previously explored, and some lead all the way to the surface where you get to visit the city of Hammerhal, do a bit of shopping, or go for a well-earned drink.

This structure means the adventure is only over when it's truly over. Moving to a deeper dungeon level doesn't heal your wounds or reset your experience. It just advances the story. And you can retrace your steps at will, which is why it's a very good idea to draw a map. If you decide to visit the city, you get a minor breather, but the game doesn't end there.

Visiting the city is the new campaign element introduced for this game. It's pretty basic, but more than enough to make for a satisfying, story-driven adventure. When you visit the city, the gamemaster generates a random event, and then each hero gets to visit one location. These locations provide opportunities to buy items, learn new skills, or get special bonuses that last for a finite time. Furthermore, things you do during your adventures have the potential to affect what's happening in the city in small ways.

And that's just neat.

And it's all very familiar. Once again, its very reminiscent of Advanced HeroQuest.


The incredibly detailed cogsmith miniature from Shadows Over Hammerhal.


For all its little oddities, Hammerhal is, at heart, a very traditional style of game... almost old fashioned really... and the flow and structure of the game is quite at odds with the rather modern action dice mechanism.

It works though.

It's such a blast from the past, it feels totally fresh and exciting. There really isn't anything like this game on the market right now. It's very much its own thing.

And I love it dearly for that.

Of course, it's not without its faults.

Obviously, its biggest fault is that it focuses exclusively on competitive play with a gamemaster. I understand Games Workshop making that decision: it makes the game appeal to the group that couldn't get behind Silver Tower, and it makes the Warhammer Quest product line easier to expand with new missions, content in White Dwarf magazine, and even with fan-created custom scenarios.

Still... I'm going to grumble about it, because there's really no reason not to include co-operative play. Don't get me wrong, I realise Hammerhals's narrative campaign requires a gamemaster to keep track of the secrets. Honestly, I am actually having a huge amount of fun being the gamemaster. Better yet, my regular game group prefers playing when I am the gamemaster as they like the additional sense of story and adventure. But even so, Games Workshop could have... and should have... at least included a little deck of dungeon location cards so we had the chance to create randomly-generated dungeons to explore.

Guess I just have to cross my fingers and hope for some expansions in the not-too-distant future.

A kairic acolyte charging into battle with a vulcharc.


I have a few other minor complaints too. I think Games Workshop missed a trick by not including a Plague Lord enemy. It would have fitted the story perfectly, provided an additional mid-level boss to challenge the heroes, and would have been a nice bonus as there is a hero card for that character in the Silver Tower Hero Card pack. It also would have been nice to see a branchwych hero. She fits the theme of Hammerhal, and at the moment she's the only hero who doesn't have a physical card you can buy.

I would also say, there's quite a lot of legwork involved getting the game to the table. Besides punching tokens and assembling miniatures (and maybe even painting them one day), I had to scan a hero roster sheet, some map tables, and all of the monster behaviour charts so I didn't have to flick through the adventure book during the game.

Games Workshop really, really... I mean really... needs to release a pack of monster cards. It would make life so much easier.

An example of the adversaries from Shadows Over Hammerhal.


But anyway, I think that's almost enough from me. Maybe I should sum up?

I'm not good at summing up. It involves being succinct.

But if I was going to sum up, I suspect my summation would be something contradictory. It seems only right...

Once upon a time, the Old World blew up. And Warhammer Quest blew up with it.

Now a new realm of adventure has appeared. The most exciting realm I've ever had the pleasure to explore.

And sure, I'm disappointed that Shadows Over Hammerhal doesn't have a co-operative mode, and I hope Games Workshop hasn't permanently turned away from that aspect of the game; but sitting here with my box of miniatures, my lavish rules book, my beautiful room tiles, additional rules for a host of new exotic enemies, and countless ideas for new adventures and stories buzzing around my head, I honestly find it hard to imagine how I could be any happier.

And never, not ever, has Age of Sigmar's Mortal Realms felt more like home.

9 comments:

  1. The name is apparently a deliberate reference to the old WFRP adventure Shadows Over Bogenhafen; as I recall, a lot of that adventure was spent underneath the city too, so it sort of fits that the new game does too.

    Like you, I quite like the new Warhammer setting, and I want to know more about it, but the Age of Sigmar line of products doesn't tell you much about what the world itsef is like. I'm glad that we're starting to get those sorts of details, and I have my fingers crossed that we'll get a proper rpg somewhere down the line. Until then, I'm looking forward to getting this.

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    1. Yeah, it was confirmed in White Dwarf magazine that the name is directly inspired by Shadows Over Bogenhafen, because Jervis Johnson loves that particular adventure.

      If you want to know more about the Mortal Realms, this really is a great place to start.

      Thanks for reading.

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    2. Yes, that's where I read it too; I must admit, when I read that bit by Jervis, I went from "that looks good" to "I'm probably buying this" in an instant!

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  2. Oh, what's the replay value like? I know the game comes with a set campaign, so once you've finished that, what then? Are there decision points, so a second play through can be different, or will the only novelty come through bringing in different heroes and monsters?

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    1. It depends on your idea of replay value, I guess. There is only one campaign, comprising eight levels of dungeon and regular city visits. You'll probably do one or two levels per session (assuming the heroes never die). During that time, there are choices in which direction you go, there are some dead ends, and branching paths. It's possible to miss entire levels or chunks of certain levels. So, you might not see everything on your first go through (although subsequent visits to the dungeon will be less exciting as you will remember where some of the traps and secrets are).

      There are some decisions for the heroes to make, so they might want to try alternative choices to see what happens; and there are some puzzles that the gamemaster could easily adjust the answers to.

      Each level of the dungeon has a unique ambush table and unexpected event table, so that mixes things up on subsequent plays. Also, you can add exotic monsters (or anything from Silver Tower), and play with different heroes. Again, the storyline is going to be the same, and you are going to know where most of the secrets are, but it will be a different experience.

      I think the same players could go through the dungeon twice before feeling like they want to see something new.

      Of course, for a gamemaster there is more replayabiltiy if you have multiple game groups.

      I also strongly believe that part of the move to a gamemaster system was so that Games Workshop could easily expand the game with content in White Dwarf magazine. I wouldn't be surprised to see new quests on a regular basis.

      It's worth noting that a lot of the rules, plus the monsters and heroes, are backwards compatible with Silver Tower, so if you have that game, this game opens up some great new co-operative options.

      Finally (and this is something I never factor into the "value" of a game, but mention for completeness), I think we will see a lot of fan content for this one; and it's very easy to make your own missions.

      So, I think there is plenty here to make the investment worthwhile.

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    2. One other thing I forgot to say - if you leave a level of the dungeon, when you return, you effectively explore it again (placing tiles as you open doors). If you forget the way, or you didn't think to make a map, you can get a bit lost.

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  3. A wonderful and at the same time touching review as always! To read somebody your reviews is an exiting activity on its own :)

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    1. Thanks so much for saying so. I hope the review was helpful to you.

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