Review: Horus Heresy (FFG)
Posted by Denny Koch on July 9, 2012
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Published in: 2010
Designers: Jeff Tidball, John Goodenough
Game Type: Board Game / Miniatures / Card-driven
Topic: The Horus Heresy / Battle for Terra
Era: 31st century (back story of the Warhammer 40k universe)
Contents: Game Board, 3D plastic terrain (3 factories, 6 fortresses, 1 Imperial Palace), Playing Pieces (12 Space Marines, 24 Imperial Army, 12 Imperial Tank Divisions, 3 Adeptus Custodes, 3 Adeptus Arbites, 3 Adeptus Mechanicus, 3 Imperial Titans, 16 Chaos Space Marines, 4 Chaos Titans, 8 Chaos Thunderhawks, 8 Chaos Cultists, 8 Chaos Warbands, 8 Demon Hordes), 60 Imperial Bases, Combat Iteration Tokens, 6 Defense Lasers, 2 Reference Sheets, 32 Bombardment Cards, 30 Event Cards, 40 Imperial Order Cards, 64 Traitor Bases, 40 Traitor Order Cards, 32 Imperial Combat Cards, 32 Traitor Combat Cards, 8 Imperial Hero Combat Cards, 10 Special Tokens, 8 Traitor Hero Combat Cards, 10 Hero Markers and Bases, 10 Hero Damage Markers, 28 Legion Designators, 2 Initiative Markers, 36 Damage Tokens, 57 Activation Markers, 5 Fortification Markers, 12 Breach Markers, Rulebook (44 pages), Scenario Book (20 pages)
Number of Players: 2
Our Rating (1-10):
Graphic Presentation: 6
Replay Value: 7
Overall Rating: 8
|PRO||Very thematic, interesting and astonishingly deep combat system, innovative initiative system|
|CONTRA||Map too small, ugly miniatures, crowded 3D plastic terrain, there could be more variety in combat cards, very expensive|
Introduction: What is the “Horus Heresy”?
Warhammer 40k takes place in a dystopic science-fantasy universe in the early 41st century. In this universe, “There Is Only War” (the 40k catchphrase). The Imperium of Man, ruled by an autocratic God-Emperor, is at constant war with various alien (“xenos”) races and the forces of Chaos which consist of corrupted former Imperial troops and Chaos demons, ruled by the four Gods of Chaos Khorne, Nurgle, Slaneesh, and Tzeench.
The “Horus Heresy” was the key event and is the back story of the Warhammer 40k universe. It took place 10,000 years before the events portrayed in the Warhammer 40k system. In this time, mankind was still united and on the Great Crusade with the ultimate goal of conquering and “illuminating” the entire galaxy. With a vast Imperial Army and 20 Legions of genetically enhanced trans-human warrior-monks called Adeptus Astartes (better known as Space Marines), the Empire of Mankind sought to subjugate and unite all inhabited words, purging them of their own “heathen” beliefs, and converting them to the Imperial Truth. Worlds which failed or refused to comply were eradicated, including their often human inhabitants.
The Emperor of Mankind created 20 immortal superhuman beings as his “sons”, called the “Primarchs“. Each Primarch commanded a Space Marines Legion which was enhanced with their genetic material, so each legion had the characteristics, qualities, philosophy, and nature of their respective Primarch.In the 31st century, in the midst of the Great Crusade, the Emperor suddenly declared that he intended to return to Terra. He left the Crusade in the hands of the Primarchs and promoted Primarch Horus of the Lunar Wolves Legion to the new position of “Warmaster”, thus raising him above the other Primarchs. This led to envy from some of his brothers, who thought that they deserved the position of Warmaster. Others supported Horus and took his side.
Sensing this momentary weakness, the Gods of Chaos, who dwelled in an alternate dimension called “the Warp” (which is also used by the Imperium as a means of fast inter-stellar travel) intervened and managed to corrupt Horus by convincing him that the Emperor had abandoned them… and that he had to be removed. They also managed to corrupt some of his brothers and their Legions. In the end, Horus lured all Primarchs and Legions that didn’t follow his new path, into a trap . He even purged all soldiers and officers, who showed reluctance to renounce the Emperor, from his own traitorous Legions . In an unprecedented attack with mass-destruct weapons – banned virus-bombs -, he killed all loyalists within his own Legions and lured the other Imperial Legions into an ambush. Simultaneously, some of his traitor Legions went after loyal Legions’ homeworlds, to eradicate them and their bases. Space Marines never before fought other Space Marines, so the loyalist Legions were completely taken by surprise and suffered fatal losses.Over the time, the Chaos Gods completely corrupted Horus and the other Primarchs and their Legions who fell under their spell. Primarchs and Astartes began to change physically and mentally, slowly transforming into the infamous Chaos Space Marine Legions.
Eventually, Horus and his allies moved their vast fleets towards Terra and the Imperial Palace, where Horus wanted to confront and challenge the Emperor himself. This Battle for Holy Terra, which was the hallmark of the Horus Heresy, and the siege of the Imperial Palace are portrayed in the strategic board game “Horus Heresy” by Fantasy Flight Games.
I love the rich lore of the detailed Warhammer 40k universe and the Horus Heresy book series belongs to my favorite Science Fiction novels. The dystopic universe is very complex and deep, and the story is dark, cruel, and full of surprising twists and turns.
My favorite faction is the Chaos Space Marines, I’m currently building and painting a WH40k army of Emperor’s Children, led by Primarch Fulgrim and corrupted by Chaos God(dess) Slaanesh. This Chaos Space Marine Legion played a key role during the Horus Heresy. Naturally, I was very happy when I got Horus Heresy board game on Christmas – especially since the Emperor’s Children are a playable faction in this game.In addition, the game was published by Fantasy Flight Games, a company which is famous for their high overall production quality and great artworks. We own lots of FFG games, and all of them are graphically very appealing and always very thematic and true to their topics, be it the Lovecraft universe, or Middle Earth, or Game of Thrones.
Horus Heresy was one of the last “big box” games published by FFG, so the gamebox is really massive and heavy with a high heft factor (and an accordingly high price)… and looks very promising with dramatic box artwork.
But does the game deliver what it promises? And can it be played by players who have no clue about the Warhammer 40k universe? Read this review and find out!
Don’t miss this cool official introductory video by Fantasy Flight Games:
Graphic Presentation and Component Quality
The gamebox contains a strong cardboard map with holes where you have to slot in the 3D plastic terrain pieces. Also, the plastic miniatures have to be put on their respective bases (black for Chaos, grey for Imperial troops). Space Marine legions from both sides are also marked with a Legion icon.Fortunately, you have to put the miniatures and Legion markers on their bases only once; during the game, only few Imperial playing pieces (army and tanks) can switch sides; Space Marines and other units will never switch sides and thus will always remain on their bases. So after playing, you simply put them back into the box without separating the bases again.
The Game Board
The Map shows a part of Terra in an abstracted scale level. The Imperial Palace, several fortifications and factories are represented by 3D plastic terrain features. Other key features, such as the four space ports, lava-filled crevasses, and area borders, are printed on the map. The strong cardboard map is sealed, so if you spill something on the board, you can wipe it away easily.
The game utilizes a system of highly restricted area movement with the option of placing troops via the play of order cards. In the 31st century, Terra is a dry, completely industrialized and terraformed planet without any water or natural resources left, so the areas consist of arid land and crevasses.
In addition, there are various game tracks on the map, as well as Horus’ abstracted flagship, the Battle Barge “Spirit of Vengeance” which is a playable area as well. Finally, there is a strategic map which shows all areas of the map board. Here, players can give strategic orders which will then be resolved in the actual gaming space of the board.In terms of quality and artwork, the game board is nicely done, BUT it is much too small! One of our major critics of this game is the almost ridiculously crowded map which could have been easily avoided by providing a larger game board which simply fits to the size of the miniature bases.
Cards, Markers, and Counters
The counters are functional and their symbols can be easily recognized. They function as markers for various activities (initiative, activation, routing, damage, combat iterations) and do a good job.
The Primarchs are made of cardboard with transparent bases, their artwork is very cool and dramatic but (as usually with FFG games) it was taken from other existing games or artworks, here from the out-of-print Horus Heresy Collectible Card Game, source books and art books. This isn’t bad, though, because it gives the entire WH40k line a consistent look, just as FFG did with the Call of Cthulhu and Lord of the Rings games where you find the same artworks in various products over and over again. As long as the artworks are good (and they usually are in FFG games!), this is fine with me. The various cards are somewhat sparsely illustrated, though. Many don’t have any illustrations at all, only text. Regarding the tons of artworks available for Warhammer 40k, there could have been more images on the cards to help the players to immerse themselves in the theme.The quality of the cards is good. They come in two sizes and their surface is sealed, so that they don’t tear off too easily and they are somewhat protected against greasy and sweaty fingers.
Chaos cards are red and marked with the 8-fold Chaos star, Imperial cards are grey and marked with the Imperial eagle, so both sides can easily be distinguished. Players share a common bombardment deck, consisting of small cards without illustrations, which also serve as a means of random determination whenever the game calls for it.
This is a Warhammer 40k game, based on one of the largest tabletop systems by Games Workshop who sell detailed and beautiful (and quite expensive) miniatures. They guard their franchise Argus-eyed, so you can expect a similar miniature quality in a licensed WH40k board game. Can you?
Yes, you can expect it, especially regarding the retail price of Horus Heresy which is about 99,95$. You can expect it, but you will be disappointed! Yes, that’s true – actually, Horus Heresy contains some of the ugliest miniatures we ever found in a FFG game!
Usually, FFG miniatures are ranging from “good” to “ok” – not overwhelming, always in bland, often strange colors, and never as detailed as a miniature from Games Workshop. The miniatures in Marvel Heroes were quite nice (and pre-painted). The miniatures in War of the Ring were doing a good job (and looked much better when painted because the initial colors were ugly). The miniatures of Battle of Westeros were disappointing because they were very weak-kneed and tended to deformation. The tin (!) miniatures in Battle for Middle Earth were quite good. But the miniatures of the biggest Warhammer 40k board game are… outright ugly!
While it was a good choice to use printed card board standups of the Primarchs which used the WH40k good artwork, it was a really bad idea to add tiny colored plastic miniatures as playing pieces. The colors are poorly chosen; all Imperial troops (regardless of affiliation) are plain grey. The Chaos units are divided into four (revolting) color groups (apparently according to their Chaos God affiliation), so Nurgle troops are slimy green, Slaneeshi troops are purple, Khorne troops are red, and Tzeench troops are blue. Since the miniatures are quite tiny and not very rich in detail, this looks somewhat ridiculous on the map.
Warhammer 40k tabletop players love to paint their miniatures. So why not paint these playing pieces? That’s simple… the figures are really, really ugly and offer too few details to allow for a nice paint job.
Chaos cultists and chaos warbands are almost indistinguishable and can easily be confused (I did when I attached them to their bases for the first time). The demon hordes look like starved Ents from Lord of the Rings. The Space Marines are clumsy somethings with small heads, Chaos Space Marines look like Space Marines with a little cactus on their shoulders, Thunderhawks are propped on crooked sticks, Imperial soldiers are some anorexic little figures on too large bases, and tanks look much worse than the tanks of Axis & Allies. When we unboxed the game, we were outright shocked by the miniature design because we certainly had a high expectation from a Warhammer game!
There is absolutely no reason why these miniatures belong to the ugliest miniatures ever published in a FFG game, while belonging to such a strong tabletop franchise – except our theory that FFG was forced by Games Workshop to downgrade their miniatures in order to not to compete with the original Warhammer 40k miniatures. This was the only reason we could think of because we KNOW that FFG is absolutely capable of doing quite good miniatures and when they don’t, there must be another reason.
The glossy, full-color rulebook consists of 44 richly illustrated pages. They also contain an index and a rules summary for quick reference (but it would have been nice if the one page of quick reference would have been included as a separate reference sheet for both players). The rulebook is also available online (PDF, 29 MB) on the official FFG support page
The rules are written in a detailed, comprehensive fashion with many examples and explanations. Nevertheless, they could be slightly too complex for a casual gamer looking for a relaxed family board game to spend the evening with. In addition, Horus Heresy isn’t a short or quick game but can last for hours without much happening on the game board. Because of the initiative system and the necessity of giving orders in order to move units, this isn’t a game of maneuver (as in Battle of Westeros or War of the Rings or like the tabletop game) but has a much slower pace and larger scale.
As experienced wargamers, we didn’t have any problems with the rules, on the contrary – they are much clearer than in many other “light” wargames we encountered so far, and we didn’t even discover one significant “black hole” or show-stopper – everything we wanted to know was explained somewhere in the rulebook. There is an official FAQ (PDF, 228 kB) available, which also makes some points clearer, but all-in-all, this rulebook is quite good. In other FFG games, we often encountered major questions which couldn’t be resolved by consulting the rulebook, so our games came to a cold stop until we got an answer in a forum. In Horus Heresy, we were able to play the game with just the rule book in hand, as it should be.
Some minor points could be somewhat clearer, though, and led to initial discussions during our first games. These mainly result from a somewhat sloppy and synonymous use of certain terms, which sometimes mean the same things and sometimes mean different things (we are too spoiled by ASL here!). We also got some minor rules wrong during our first game (especially regarding Thunderhawks) but discovered our errors on our own and were able to get them right in our second game. All other questions could be solved by using common sense.
At first, the rules seem to be somewhat overwhelming because they contain many possible options and events, but in the end, your gameplay is strongly restricted by the initiative system and available orders, so there is a very limited number of actions you can take during a given turn – and this helps to get a grip of the game really fast. You can soon concentrate on your strategies instead of the rules.
The rulebook even includes a chapter named “Frequently Overlooked Rules” which is also very helpful!
The game is scenario-based, but the scenarios don’t differ in what is portrayed (it is always the attack on Terra and the siege of the Imperial Palace), but in how it is portrayed. The first scenario serves as an introductory scenario and presents a fixed “historial” set-up where each unit starts in a given area. The other scenarios add more freedom, optional rules, free setup, variety in event cards and much more strategy to the game.
The scenario book is richly illustrated with the classic Horus Heresy artwork – on the cover you can find the most famous illustration of the final confrontation between Horus and the Emperor in front of the Imperial Throne. Besides the six scenarios, it contains a story section which tells the story of the Battle for Terra in quite dramatic fiction (nevertheless, I strongly recommend reading the Horus Heresy novels, published by the Black Library, if you really want to learn about this crucial event in human history).
Gameplay and Playability
In this game, one player plays the Imperial Forces, ruled by the Emperor. The other player plays the Chaos Forces and armies, led by Warmaster Horus.
The setup takes some time because you have to slot the 3D terrain into the game board holes, you have to sort cards and counters, and line up your miniatures. The scenario contains setup instructions; since setup in the (introductory) scenario 1 is fixed, it takes a lot less time than in the other scenarios where you take turns in freely distributing your troops to the key areas.
During setup, you soon realize the cause of our second major complaint (besides the ugly miniatures): the size of the game board. In theory, using 3D terrain and it is certainly a nice homage to the Warhammer tabletop world, but in practice, these plastic terrain pieces are much too small for the troops they contain! Actually more a bug than a feature…!
The miniatures are propped on quite large bases which indicate the unit’s strength or rank with sharp points. 4 points are the strongest, 1 point are the weakest units. You can easily imagine how these pointed bases worsen an already crowded situation. Add some Defense Lasers (which you have to put on the small borders between the palace’s areas, where they fall down from the slightest vibrations), a Primarch standup with a huge plastic base, an activation marker – and you can begin stacking Space Marines on top of each other. Very unsatisfying and killing any atmosphere!
Besides the crowded space, the overall playability of the game system is quite good. The game keeps track of who’s next and what’s up, so you don’t have to do any book keeping.
Downtime is very limited for both players because of the initiative system where a single player conducts very few actions in a row, and the combat system, which strongly involves both players.
The game is card driven: orders, events, combat, bombardment – everything is resolved by the play of cards. There is no die; even random determination is conducted by drawing bombardment cards which also contain random Imperium / Chaos icons.
Players also don’t get reinforcements or new units each turn; units lost are lost forever (with a few exceptions for the Imperial player). Each unit from your pool must be brought onto the map by playing certain order cards. Chaos units must even be landed on Terra by bringing them down with drop pods or other means of transport, only some demons have the ability to “spawn” during certain special effects and under very restricted circumstances. And if you use a valuable order action to reinforce your army, you have to keep in mind that you won’t move any other troops this round, and that you won’t conduct any attacks this round. This is a harsh game of resource management and decisions.
Both players have 5 Heroes which are Primarchs or other important figures. These can participate in a battle if they are in the target or origin area of an attack and add their special abilities to the combat. In addition, some Heroes have abilities that allow them to join or manipulate the battle even if they don’t start in the origin areas, for example Primarch Jaghatai Khan of the White Scars Legion.
The Empire’s Heroes are the Emperor himself (who can discard Combat Cards), Primarch Sanguinius of the Blood Angels Legion (who adds to the damage in a combat), Primarch Rogal Dorn of the Imperial Fists Legion (who enhances the rank of his Space Marines when attacking or defending within a fortification), Primarch Jaghatai Khan of the White Scars Legion (who can move and engage as a form of reinforcement in a battle up to 3 areas away after the Imperial attack order is declared and the target area identified, thus adding a surprise force and combat power to the battle), and Fabricator General of the Mechanicum who greatly improves fortifications.
The Chaos Heroes are: Warmaster Horus of the Lunar Wolves Legion (they renamed themselves into “Sons of Horus” during the Horus Heresy and later became the “Black Legion”), his special ability is identical to the Emperor’s ability, Magnus the Red, Primarch of the Thousand Sons Legion (he can bombard an area at the start of combat if he is the attacker), Mortarion, Primarch of the Death Guard Legion (he can reduce the combat ranks of opposing units), Angron of the World Eater’s Legion (who can look at the top 4 combat cards and arrange them on top or bottom of the deck in any order), and Primarch Fulgrim of the Emperor’s Children (who can try to corrupt each Imperial army and tank unit in the opposing force at the start of the combat).
The game uses a rather interesting initiative system which isn’t strictly alternating between players, but depends on the boldness of your actions. Each turn, you have to give an order if you want to fight, move your troops or do anything else. An order costs a certain number of initiative points; the bolder the action (for example a strong surprise attack), the more initiative points it costs.
Players share a common Initiative Track; the player whose marker is behind the opponent’s marker has initiative and can conduct his turn, i.e. play an order or do one of the other allowed actions. He then has to push forward his initiative marker as many sections as his action costs. As long as you are behind your opponent, it’s still your turn and you can conduct another order. If you land in the same space as your opponent’s marker, you get one final turn, but this will usually push your marker beyond the one of your opponent and so initiative shifts to the other player.
You have to plan carefully: if you play risky and extensive orders, for example attacks or large troop movements, these will cost some initiative points and push you forwards – and in the worst case, you will give your opponent some turns for free. You have another option, though: you can play a costly order strategically instead of directly from your hand. This means, you don’t play it immediately but play it (hidden side face up) on the strategic map first where you can resolve it in a later round at the cost of 1 initiative point, regardless of the actual point cost, and usually with an additional stragetical advantage. This requires planning in advance, and it can happen that your opponent plays a strategic order on the same region, thus burying your order under his – rendering it useless until you remove his order by various means.
Rushing forward the initiative track contains another caveat – the game ends with an Imperial victory if one marker reaches the end of the track. So the Imperial player is interested in pressing ahead, but if he rushes by playing expensive orders, the Chaos player will get turn after turn after turn, until he overtakes his marker again.
You also have to watch out – most orders cause your units or areas to become “activated” after they received an order – this means, they cannot get another order until one of the (rare) Refresh Phases when all activation markers are removed from the board. So, moving your troops into a combat position will activate them and you cannot attack with the same units for a long time! This is quite unusual and you have to get accustomed to this concept if you don’t want to waste your valuable orders and troops. Often, a move or attack order which is played strategically from the strategic map has the additional b0nus that the troops are not activated, so it is best to combine large troops movements and attacks with placing orders on the strategic map instead of playing them at a high cost directly from the hand.Some spaces on the Initiative Track trigger certain Special Phases when the first marker reaches this position. There are Event Phases where an Event Card is drawn from a pre-built Event deck. The deck tells the “story” and usually offers some unexpected surprises for one side. In a Draw Order Phase, players can re-arrange and refill their card hands without paying the usual initiative points for drawing a card. In the Refresh Phase, players remove all Activation markers (freeing their units to receive orders again) and turning Routed markers to the Activation side.
The Initiative Track is the heart of the game mechanics and a very tricky and interesting system. It offers much room for strategy, tactics, surprises, and opportunities to dig a hole for your opponent. We were really surprised of the deep impact this Initiative Track has on the gameplay, and like the concept very much!
So, what is the overall goal of the game? There are different victory conditions for both sides. Historically, it is about who kills whom – Horus vs. the Emperor. Since it is not that easy to break into the palace which is guarded by the Emperor’s elite body guards, the Adeptes Custodes, and fortified by the defensive Space Marines Legion of the Imperial Fists under Primarch Rogal Dorn, instead of storming into the Throne Room and kill the Emperor, there is an alternative victory condition.
Victory 1: Death of the Emperor or Death of Horus.
If the Emperor is eliminated, the Traitor player wins immediately. If Horus is eliminated, the Imperial player wins immediately. It is perfectly possible to play an active part with the Horus and Emperor characters and send them right to the front and into battle – both have the same special ability: “Immediately after drawing combat cards at the start of battle, you may discard any number of combat cards from your hand to draw the same number of replacements”. This is a very valuable ability which usually gives a great advantage in a battle, so not using the Emperor or Horus and hiding them in the Palace and the Vengeful Spirit is sort of a safe way to play but is costly because you’ll lose their power in important battles. Thus, if you don’t want to just avoid losing the game, but intend to win it actively you’ll have to make the decision whether to bring your main character into battle or not.
But risking these characters by placing them at the front where they could become the target of a surprise action or attack, can lead to an immediate defeat, so you have to plan your strategy quite carefully here.
Victory 2: Spaceport Victory
Once one of the initiative markers has passed the “Spaceport Victory Possible” space on the Initiative Track, a player wins immediately if he controls all four spaceports. If the Imperial player controls all four spaceports, no more Chaos reinforcements can be brought to Holy Terra. If the traitors control all four spaceports, they overwhelm the planet with their demonic forces.
Victory 3: Imperial Hold-out Victory
As mentioned before, the Imperial player wins as soon as an Initiative Marker reaches the final space of the Initiative Track. This symbolizes that additional Imperial forces from the other Legions, which were originally delayed by Chaos attacks on their fleets and homeworlds, finally have reached Terra and now outnumber the traitor forces.
Achieving a spaceport victory is not as easy as it seems; this game doesn’t offer much opportunity for maneuver, the space ports are far apart and even farer away from the Imperial Palace, and binding troops to occupy or threaten spaceports weakens the forces who attack or protect the Palace. This requires strong planning in advance and clever play of orders.
Sequence of Play
As described before, the play order is determined by the Initiative Track and your own actions. Your orders determine how long your turn will be.During setup, players not only set up their miniatures and draw their starting hand of order cards, but they also follow other pre-game instructions. Before the game starts, the traitor player conducts orbital bombardment on areas of his choice and can try to corrupt some Imperial army and tank troops. If he manages to corrupt them, their base color changes from grey to black and they are now under his control. This only works with weak human troops, though – special forces, Titans, Astartes are immune to corruption attempts.
Before the game starts, the traitor player can also place some of his “Port Landing” and “Drop Pod” cards on the strategic maps at no cost. These cards are his only means to bring Chaos reinforcements down to the surface of Terra. Port Landings allow a certain amount of troops to be shipped to a friendly spaceport, Drop Pods send a certain amount of troops into any area, even if enemy occupied, or even an empty Palace region.
After setup, the Traitor player has initiative and conducts his first turn.
1. Action Step
The current player can conduct ONE of the following actions:
- Place an order from the hand facedown on the strategic map. This costs one Initiative point. Warning: You cannot place an order and then play it immediately in the following action – you can only execute this order the next time initiative has changed back to you!
- Execute an order from the strategic map which was placed there in a previous turn (before the last initiative change). This costs 1 point, regardless of Initiative cost printed on the order card
- Execute an order from your hand. Each order card has a printed order cost of 0-3 Initiative points.
- Bury an order: Move the top card of a stack on the strategic map to the bottom of the stack, perfect for spoiling your opponent’s plans. This costs 1 point
- Draw an order card from your reserve or order deck, 1 Initiative point. Some order cards can be “recycled” and put on a reserve deck after use where you can draw them again in a later turn, some are discarded after use.
2. Advance Initiative Marker Step
After conducting and finishing your chosen action, the player advances his initiative marker the number of points his action costs. If he played an expensive order from his hand (for example 3 points), the marker is advanced 3 spaces. This usually offers his opponent a great opportunity to conduct several actions of his own in a row.
3. Change of Initiative Step (if necessary)
If the current player’s initiative marker passed an opponent’s marker, initiative changes to the other player. Before he can make his action, any coexisting battles are fought. These are fought in all areas where troops of both sides are in the same space. This usually happens when some Imperial troops are corrupted why others remain loyal or when a battle lasts so long that both players run out of combat cards or iterations and no side wants to retreat.A coexisting battle differs slightly from a “regular” battle during an attack order because the traitor player is always considered to be the “defender” (thus having the advantage of determining who will be the active player during the first round of combat). A coexisting battle is fought over 8 rounds or “iterations” or until both players run out of cards or troops. There is no retreat – they are always fought to the death.
After the mandatory coexisting battles are fought, stacking limits are enforced – this is the only time during the sequence! If you can see that initiative won’t change for another turn, you can voluntarily overstack an area in order to build a large attack force or to get another tactical advantage, but watch out if initiative changes – overstacked troops are then lost. Since both players have some surprises up their sleeves, initiative could change when you don’t expect it, so overstacking in order to gain a combat advantage is a risky but sometimes worthwhile gambit.
4. Special Phases Step
Sometimes, a player’s marker passes a Special Phase icon. This Special Phase is resolved only the first time a marker reaches it or passes through it.
There are three types of Special Phases:
- Event Phase: The current player draws an Event card from the Event deck. The contents of the Event deck differ from scenario to scenario and are only partially randomized as well as separated into three Acts. The events usually have great impact on the current situation and can even screw your plans if you played too bold and without a failsafe plan. These events can, for example, move an Initiative Marker, remove an Activation Marker from an area (thus releasing a locked force which can now be ordered again), place or relocate units, negate fortifications or other effects, or even alter the victory conditions for a limited amount of time.
- Draw Orders Phase: In this phase, each player is allowed to discard any or all orders from his hand, then to refill his hand up to six cards from his reserve deck or order deck (this usually costs 1 Initiative Point if chosen as an action)
- Refresh Phase: Both players remove all Activation Markers from the map. All units are eligible to receive orders again! There are only few Refresh Phases during a game, so if you are planning to move and attack with a large force, keep an eye on the Initiative Track! Sometimes, units are routed as a combat result; these Routed Markers are turned to their Activation side, still blocking this particular unit from receiving any orders until the next Refresh Phase or certain actions which might remove such a marker.
Then, the player whose Initiative Marker is on or behind the opponent’s marker, conducts his next action, beginning with Step 1.
Armies are not moved freely over the map each turn. Instead, if you want to move an army, you have to spend an action and give them an order by playing a movement order card from your hand or the strategic map.
This restricts movement very strongly because you can only take 1 action per round and at one point or the other you will desperately want to play actions on several areas at once! So if you have an order which allows movement, keep in mind that the army you just moved will most certainly be activated afterwards and not be eligible for a follow-up attack until the next Refresh Phase sometime in the far future!
In addition, there are lots of areas on the map, but you can only move 1-2 areas at a time (Chaos Thunderhawk transports excluded), so don’t expect to make much speed. And you certainly are not able to rush to the rescue of your forces on the other side of your map, so you have to plan all movement carefully in advance. You also have to be careful not to be lured into a stalemate situation by an opponent who is binding your forces by making a great fuss about a certain position (for example a spaceport) which later proves to be a diversion – you won’t have time to bring these forces back into the game and into the true hot spots.
Movement in the desired direction by combat retreat is another viable option because it costs no movement points or orders, but is also tricky and can even lead to elimination if not conducted carefully or against an opponent who cuts off or channels all retreat paths.
The limited number of available action makes each movement order, and especially each combined Move/Attack order very valuable, so you have to plan carefully whether you play it from your hand as a surprise (and at a higher initiative cost) or from the strategic map, where the opponent can at least guess what is planned.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game is the combat system which we find quite innovative and thrilling.
Outside of the mandatory co-existing battles, combat can only be initiated by giving a combat order (ie. playing a combat card from the hand or the strategic map). Attacks are made from adjacent areas. It depends on the type of combat card whether you can declare units in one or more “origin areas” as attackers.
Combat follows a battle sequence. First, the attacker and defender are identified (usually, the attacker is the player who played the attack order). The defender profits from bonuses if he is inside a fortification or the palace, the attacker can use additional effects to negate the fortification effects, for example by adding Thunderhawks to the attacking forces.
Combat is completely resolved with the play of Combat Cards, there is no dice rolling. The random element is limited to the Combat Cards you draw, but you can reduce the effects of this random element by using a clever mix of units in your force, by utilizing your Primarchs’ special abilities, and other special effects.
At the beginning of the combat phase, the target area is identified. There can only be one target area per combat, a player cannot attack different target areas with one attack order.
After the target area is defined, the attacker must designate which of his units will engage (except in a coexisting battle where all units in the area must participate). Not all units in the origin areas are obliged to participate in the battle; the attacker can leave some voluntarily out of the battle. All defending units MUST participate. The attacker also declares whether Heroes participate in the battle.
Bringing Heroes to a combat has advantages – players can use their special abilities and draw additional Hero Combat Cards, but they also risk losing their valuable Heroes. Primarchs are thought to be immortal, but actually, they can be killed (and some of them were in the course of the Horus Heresy!). It takes a lot of damage to remove a Hero, and some can even be healed by special effects, but if a Hero dies, this has great impact on his troops and morale – and your card hand.
Then, both players draw Combat Cards by adding up the combat ratings of their engaged units, and dividing this sum by 2 (rounding up). They are then entitled to draw 2 additional Hero Combat Cards if one or more Heroes are present in the battle. More heroes don’t provide more cards, though. Terrain (for example fortifications) and Hero Special abilities can alter the number of cards drawn.
A combat takes a certain number of iterations (rounds), which is indicated on the combat order card used by the attacker. The defender chooses which player will be the active player in iteration 1; the roles will then switch in each iteration. The active player plays his combat cards first, the inactive player has the chance to “respond” to his cards or counter their special effects. Only the active player can assign damage in an interation, the passive player can only resist the damage.
Now the tricky part begins! The active player chooses a number of Combat Cards from his hands up to the current iteration number. This means, the higher the iteration, the longer the battle lasts, the more Combat Cards can be played simultaneously (and added together for more effect). Combat cards contain various aspects, they deal a Regular Damage (as portrayed by damage points on top of the card), they can provide a number of shields which can be used to resist regular damage or counter a special combat effect (but not both!), they can provide a special combat effect. You don’t draw new combat cards during a battle; you only have the cards you drew at the beginning of the battle at your disposal for all iterations to come!
The tricky decision is when to play which card since both players have a limited amount of Combat Cards on their hand. The cards which deal the most regular damage or have the best combat effects usually also offer the most shields for defensive actions. You can play a card only once, either in your attack, or as the passive player to counter an attack. Do you use this 3-shields-card against a strong first blow or do you spare the 3 attack or special effect for later iterations, when your opponent runs low on cards? Do you play your strongest cards in the beginning, hoping to drain the most shields of your opponent’s hand early in the game so that he doesn’t have strong damage cards for later counter attacks? Do you play a card with a cool special effect or do you use its shields to resists damage?
The combat system requires brutal decision-making, a poker-face, and nerves of steel.
First, the active player declares whether (and which) Special Effect on his chosen combat card(s) he will carry out. Only one Special Effect can be carried out each combat round, except when an effect is marked with a “Free Effect” symbol – in addition to one Special Effect, the player can carry out as many Free Effects as he wishes or is able to.
Special Effects usually require certain conditions to be met in order to be played, for example a certain unit type which must be present in the battle, or the player must be the attacker or defender in a given battle.
Some Special Effects have a Counter Cost listed on the card, so the passive player has the opportunity to counter the effect by playing as many shield symbols from his hand as required in order to cancel the effect. Watch out – the Special Effects are carried out before the Regular Damage is assigned, so countering a Special Effect is usually quiet expensive and often costs you the most valuable cards on your hands, especially early in the battle. Sometimes, it’s better to suffer the consequences of the effect than to give away valuable cards i.e. options that could be used in later iterations or for resisting damage in the regular attack.
After the Special Effect is carried out or countered, the active player declares which of the Free Effects he will resolve. Again, the requirements must be met and the passive player has the chance to counter these effects if they have a counter cost listed on the cards.
When all effects are resolved, the active player totals the Regular Damage. Damage is calculated by adding the attack value of ALL combat cards he played, including the combat cards with the special effects he carried out.
The passive player then has the chance to resist Regular Damage. In order to resist the damage, he has to play combat cards from his hands which contain shields. Each shield played reduces the Regular Damage by one, but the passive player is not allowed to play more cards than the current iteration number! So, if it is iteration 2, he can only counter with two cards – and so he has to choose cards with a large number of shield icons and these usually contain also the strongest attack damage and Special Effects. Again, a very tough choice – do I use a card to lower the damage or do I use a card to counter a Special Effect, or do I save the card to play it against my opponent in my next iteration, hoping that I can survive that long to use it?
You have to keep in mind that each iteration raises the card limit for combat cards, but with each iteration, your troops take damage and your hand becomes more and more depleted. A very nerve-stretching combat system which requires much planning in advance and decision-making and… sacrifices.
One minor complaint, though: the combat cards could offer more diversity. There are some effects which are side-specific (for example the spawning of Chaos demons), but most of the effects are similar for both sides, they only differ in their title and description. In addition, many effects are not unique in your own deck, so you will draw the same effects various times, which is a missed chance of giving the game more flavor and variety. The combat effects are quite good and often devastating, but if you play a nasty effect, hoping to faze and demoralize your opponent with it, and in the next iteration he plays the same effect, this is quite sobering. More side-specific, unique combat effects would have been a great improvement and a great chance of including more chrome and Warhammer specifics to this game!
The passive player may also choose not to counter a special effect or resist special damage but to fully take the damage. This can be the case if he has an especially devastating effect in his hand he wants to play in a later round – but nothing is worse than sacrificing units by suffering full damage, then playing your worst effect against your opponent in the next round – and he simply counters it by throwing all his combat cards defensively against you, knowing that this was your last ace upon your sleeve. During combat, you have to be on your guard and calculate carefully, and this can be surprisingly complex!
Damage is assigned by the active player and not the units’ owner. That means, if he inflicts 5 points of damage, he can freely distribute them among his opponent’s units. Each unit has a rank which corresponds to the points of damage it can suffer. Titans or Adeptus Custodes, f0r example, are killed with 4 points of damage, a Space Marine with 3 points. There are damage markers available, so you could choose to inflict 1 point of damage to 5 different units or kill unit and distribute the remaining points freely among other units. If there are no units left, damage can be assigned to a participating Hero. Heroes have more Hit Points and their health is recorded on a Hero track with portrait markers.
After the iteration is finished, the iteration marker is advanced and the active player becomes the passive player and vice versa. Now the new active player has the chance to retreat (except in the first round or in a coexisting battle) or to play combat cards.
A retreat ends a battle. Retreat is regulated by special rules and attackers are advised to keep possible retreat routes in mind while blocking the opponent’s retreat routes or forcing him to take an unfavorable route. Retreated units are marked with a “Routed” Marker which is printed on the backside of the Activation Marker. Units which retreated cannot receive orders in the next Refresh Phase because they would then become activated, so it takes two Refresh phases to get them into play again – very costly and an often critical delay. Units can also be forced into Routing during combat, which is also regulated by special rules. In the beginning, it is somewhat difficult to grasp the difference between routing and retreating.
Combat ends when the maximum number of iterations is reached, or when neither player has any combat cards left, or when one side has no units left (regardless of whether they have been eliminated, retrated, routed, or otherwise removed from battle). If the attacker won the battle and there are no enemy units left in the target hex, he can now advance into the target area, otherwise all units simply remain in their origin and target areas.
The combat system shows its value after a short while, and soon you realize how deep it really is. We really like the combat system and the tense decision-making it requires. This is certainly one of the best aspects of the game, besides the initiative system.
Horus Heresy is scenario-based, but the scenarios all deal with the same scenario and there are no new victory conditions or goals besides killing Horus or the Emperor, reaching the end of the initiative track, or capturing all four spaceports.
The first, static scenario is only meant as an introductory scenario, and it doesn’t offer much variety, so if you played it several times, you have seen it all.
More replay value is offered by the other scenarios because they use a dynamic setup which allows for much strategy and change. Since setup alternates, players take turns in setting up on spaceports. Deciding which troops, which Heroes go where, is a crucial decision and is important for your overall strategy. Scenarios then differ in including special rules, and in the Event deck composition.
It takes a long time to find out a good strategy (Spaceports or Emperor/Horus or both?) and to internalize the slow pace of the game and the lack of maneuver and movement, and to integrate these insights into your strategy. You will certainly spend much time in figuring out how to win this game and how to distribute your forces and Heroes in an optimal way.
Horus Heresy unites various mechanics which are quite unusual in their combination.
First, the level is quite abstract, with a combination of area movement and a strategic map, armies and single Heroes. This slightly reminds me of War of the Ring where one figure symbolizes a large force, but is led by a single Hero, too. But in contrast to War of the Ring, the game uses a very strict order and impulse system, so maneuvering is much more restricted than in the aforementioned game. You have to move your troops very focused and targeted with a plan in mind, and if you stray from your path or get distracted, these forces may be out of the game because of the harsh resource management required to manage your troops and the merciless Activation system.
The Initiative system isn’t the common “IGO-UGO” system but strongly depends on your own actions – YOU decide how many turns your opponent will get after your actions are done. This, in combination with the option of giving an order from your hand (usually giving your opponent more turns afterwards) or playing it from the strategic map, is making for an uncommon turn system that keeps the gameplay interesting for both players.
The overall idea of commanding a force with an order card isn’t new or very uncommon, you can experience it (in a much lighter version) e.g. in Memoir’44 or in Battles of Westeros.
The use of 3D terrain is more uncommon, but unfortunately, the fortifications and palace plastic models are for aesthetic purposes only. Sure, there are the usual terrain rules (similar to those in War of the Ring) where fortifications or crevasses have an impact on movement or combat, but if they were drawn on the game board instead of using (much too small) plastic models, there would have been no difference – other than giving a much better game experience without the 3D terrain. There are no LOS rules or any practical applications of the 3D terrain, it’s simply there “for show” and to emphasize that it is a Warhammer game. It would have been a really nice idea… if the terrain wasn’t too small for the large unit bases – so it becomes more of an annoyance instead of an enjoyable sight if you have to put 3 units, a laser, an Activation Marker, and a Hero into one small plastic space of the palace.
Horus Heresy certainly isn’t a consim, but it is quite good in simulating various aspects of the Warhammer 40k universe. Many aspects are abstracted and very generalized, but some aspects are simulated nicely.
The different unit types could have been more individualized. In the game, Space Marines are stronger than regular Imperial army troops, and they have Combat Card effects which apply only to them. In addition, most Primarchs can only apply their special abilities if they are accompanied by Space Marines of their own Legion. Nevertheless, there could have been more special rules, especially regarding the (quite popular) Space Marines. Since each Marines Legion (Chaos as well as Imperial) has unique philosophies and methods, these could have been included into the game. Now, all Space Marines Legions are interchangeable, they only differ in color and Legion marker on the base, they are just game pieces but could have been so much more. Effects are exclusively integrated into the Combat Cards where you can find one card for the Khorne Berzerkers or one for the Nurgle Death Guard, but it would have been nice if each Legion’s characteristics would also have been simulated outside the combat.
Transport between the Vengeful Spirit and Holy Terra is simulated by the use of Drop Pods or Spaceport Landings, Chaos units can use Thunderhawks for fast transport (but Imperial troops don’t have Thunderhawks at their disposal which is quite unrealistic but to exclude them was probably chosen a means of gameplay balance), and all in all, the different units (Imperial tanks and infantry, Titans, Space Marines, demons, cultists) could do with some more individualization outside combat.
Other aspects, like the Primarchs, are quite authentic – the Emperor took Rogal Dorn with him when he left the Great Crusade and returned to Terra. Dorn became his Master Builder and turned the Imperial Palace into a fortress, so Dorn’s special ability gives a good reflection of his position. The same is true for Magnus the Red, who was the greatest Psyker among all Primarchs, a strong telepath and telecinetic who could destroy armies, buildings, and equipment with his mind blast – his bombardment ability isn’t orbital bombardment from a ship but from his mind. Mortarion, who commands the rotten and infected putrid Death Guard, lowers the opponent’s defense values by infecting them with Nurgle Rot.
Other Primarchs’ abilities are more generic, for example Angron’s ability to look at the top cards of the combat deck – in “reality”, he is a psychopathic, mindless berserker, commanding the brutal and genocidal World Eaters, so this ability is somewhat strange for him and I can’t see what is simulated by this.
All in all, Horus Heresy isn’t a simulation but a quite abstract game with an atmospheric Warhammer 40k flavor and some really innovative ideas. Some Warhammer stuff is portrayed in a really good and authentic fashion, some potential was wasted because they could have included much more Warhammer 40k lore into the combat and unit types and characteristics.
So if you are looking for a good Warhammer 40k simulation, you should play the original tabletop game 🙂
Not recommended. Despite the fact that Horus Heresy is a highly strategical game with much planning in advance and a chess-like approach, it also strongly depends on cards. And games with cards almost never make good solitaire games because it spoils the surprise effect and secret strategies and plans if you know all cards on the table.
Also, going into combat, knowing how many shields the opponent has on his hand, which effects, what damage, strips the game of the poker-aspects and of the chances of luring the opponent into wasting his good cards in poor defense actions.
Can be compared to…
As mentioned before, the game has a few aspects in common with War of the Ring and Battle of Westeros, for example the order cards, the miniatures symbolizing entire armies, led by single Heroes. Other aspects are very different, for example the initiative track or diceless combat system.
The card-based combat system slightly reminds me of combat in many LCGs, for example Warhammer Fantasy or Game of Thrones, where you have to make similar hard decisions – countering an effect, using a card defensively or sparing it for your attack next round?
Denny Koch’s résumé
Horus Heresy is a double-edged sword. It does many things right, has some very great ideas and innovative mechanics, and is a very atmospheric game – on the other hand, there are some problematic aspects which could easily have been avoided, and this is what bugs me the most.
It could have been a great Warhammer 40k game, but it stands in its own way and became just a good game with some annoying aspects.
First of all, the artworks are great, the game provides a authentic Warhammer 40k atmosphere, the overall production quality is high – the boards, the cards, the Primarchs -, and the game is highly thematic. Then, on the other hand, there are these ugly miniatures which ruin the overall impression in a single blow. I still don’t know why FFG included the ugliest miniatures in company history in a game about a topic created by a company specialized in miniature design. I will never know.
The second complaint is the size of the game board. The miniatures have large, spiked bases, the Primarchs are huge cardboard standups… and these figures are simply too large for the plastic terrain where they are supposed to be placed. The 3D plastic terrain is a nice idea as a homage to Warhammer 40k, but it isn’t very enjoyable to stuff 3 Space Marines units, 1 Defense Laser, 1 Primarch and a marker into the palace area, or the Emperor and his Adeptus Custodes into the small Throne Room. It isn’t just annoying because the miniatures tend to fall from their positions and kick down other miniatures, it also looks ridiculous – and Space Marines don’t like to be called “ridiculous”, you don’t tell them that into their faces!
The combat system is very interesting, very thrilling, and requires much decision-making, sacrifice, and tactics. Many Special Effects are good, but there is too few variety in the combat cards. At least I would expect that the combat cards of both sides differ more, but they share a solid pool of the same combat effects (under a different name). I guess this is for balance purposes, but it’s somewhat disappointing. Sure, there are some side-specific effects for certain unit types such as Adeptes Custodes or cultists or demons, but most of the combat cards are generic and identical for both sides. A wasted opportunity to include more chrome and Warhammer 40k flavor into the game – especially since the different unit types don’t differ much outside combat except in strength and movement allowance. They have to get the chance to shine and show their individual strengths and benefits in combat, but these special, unique cards are rare and even if I got the one rare card for Slaneeshi units, I would have to have Emperor’s Children or Slaneesh cultists in my current combat force to use them, so most of them are wasted anyway.
The initiative system adds a very interesting and strategical twist to the game and is something we greatly enjoy. Not to know when your next turn will be, or knowing that a bold frontal attack will give your opponent three free turns afterwards adds an interesting layer to the gameplay. You have to keep an eye on the track and plan carefully when to make which action. Special Phases like the Refresh Phase are highly important and must be taken into account when planning your strategy.
Horus Heresy is a game of tight resource management. There is always too much to do on all fronts, and you have to decide constantly where to lay your focus and where to neglect your troops, you cannot take care of them all. You have to be very focused and foresightful; this isn’t a game for spontaneous maneuvering and spontaneous objective-switching. You have to make a solid plan and then figure out how to achieve it. Planning “on the fly” and as you go won’t work here and will be punished soon especially if playing against an opponent who knows what he does.
Winning the game isn’t easy and the game is quite balanced, despite the fact that the Imperial player feels somewhat threatened at game start, when the Chaos player gets the chance to do some pre-game orbital bombardments and corruption attempts. The Chaos has more mobility because of the Thunderhawks transports while the Imperium has the advantage of starting in a strong defensive position. The Heroes of both sides vary in their usefulness, some are much more useful than others, but in the end, you have to figure out which Hero best supports your strategy.
All in all, Horus Heresy is a good strategy game with very interesting concepts and aspects. It is strategically and tactically challenging for both sides and it takes a while until you learn how to use your forces and resources at their full potential. You will have to refine and change your strategies constantly, but the game offers enough variety to try out a completely different approach in your next game (provided you play one of the later scenarios with free setup).
What if I don’t know anything about Warhammer 40k?
Now the big question: Will you enjoy the game even if you don’t know how to spell Warhammer 40k or know who the Emperor of Mankind (“beloved by all“) is?
The answer: Probably not so much like a Warhammer 40k fan. The game truly shines when you know who those guys with their weird Latin names and even weirder, eccentric costumes are. Much WH40k lore is included in the game, the entire storyline – the attack on Holy Terra – doesn’t make much sense if you don’t know who these strange people are that are obviously trying to conquer the planet.
The game itself still remains a good and challenging strategy game, but it significantly increases the fun if you are a dedicated fan of the Chaos faction (as I am with my Emperor’s Children) or a loyalist (as Andreas is with his army of Space Wolves). During combat, you can utter demonic noises or dark chants when playing certain Chaos Combat Cards, and spread Nurgle Rot with Mortarion when attacking the Palace. You can call out the catchphrase “For the Emperor!”, followed by a mumbled “beloved by all!” when your Space Marines try to repell the forces of Chaos.
If you have no idea of the WH40k universe, much of the game will be lost on you. On the contrary, I guess, the entire game will appear somewhat strange to you if you don’t know who is who and why.
If you are a Warhammer 40k fan and know at least the basics of this complex universe, you will certainly recognize and appreciate how many things are incorporated into the game. Sure, you won’t find all Legions and factions who took part in the attack on Terra, and many details had to be abstracted for gameplay purposes, but it still is highly thematic with a solid, demanding strategy game below its Warhammer 40k surface.
So who should buy this game?
This is not a game for everyone, to be sure – if you like fast and wide maneuvering with quick change of plans and spontaneous planning “on the fly”, you won’t be happy about the static and focused gameplay that requires planning in advance and discipline. And you will be crushed by any opponent with a good plan in mind.
If you love to paint miniatures and did this in War of the Ring and Battles of Westeros before, you also should avoid Horus Heresy – the miniatures are simply too ugly to be improved by painting.
The game also isn’t an easy Euro game or party game for a funny afternoon, it’s a quite serious and demanding strategy game which can take several hours to complete.
But if you like Warhammer 40k AND challenging, tough strategy board games with restricted resources, and if you can ignore the optical annoyances like a crowded game board and ugly miniatures, this is certainly the game for you!
My special tip: While playing the game, you should listen to the phantastic Dawn of War II soundtrack by Doyle W. Donehoo, certainly the most “Warhammer 40kish” music you ever heard!
And finally, a nice Ultramarines quote you can certainly use when playing the game:
“Victory needs no explanation, defeat allows none!”
Or, with the words of Chaos:
“Let us play
Hide and Slay!”