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Title: 'Horus Heresy' (FFG) Boardgame Review

ShroudFilm - April 25, 2010 06:09 PM (GMT)
I must admit to having been a big fan of the original Wargames Series 'Horus Heresy' game back in the early 90s, having received it as a birthday present before I even played 40k. Explains a lot, yes? :lol:

Well, I had the awesomely geeky task of demoing the new version by Fantasy Flight Games at this year's Salute show in London at the weekend, and I had exactly 60 minutes to unpack the display copy and learn how to play it before punters started streaming in and wanting a sit-down game! I thought I'd share my thoughts with you all, since some of you might not be particular fans of boardgames or might be put off by the hefty price tag (75 quid in the UK!)


The first thing that everyone has commented on when opening the box is the miniatures. Dear sweet holy Terra... there are hundreds of the things in all the colours of the rainbow. Well, all the colours of the Chaos gods. Plus grey.

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This is the main difference from the old GW version - gone are the cardboard tokens with symbols and numbers, and almost everything is now in 3D (with "Hero" characters being represented by stand-up card pieces featuring artwork from the HH series, rather than miniatures) and with each unit assigned a 'rank' between 1 and 4 which acts as their cost, combat value and damage total.

You have Imperial Army troops, tank divisions, Astartes companies, defense lasers, Titans... all mounted on notched bases which signify their rank in the game. The traitors also have spiky versions of their Imperial counterparts, as well as cultists, daemons and Thunderhawks. The board itself is also now famously enhanced from the original version with 3D terrain on the fortified/urban areas, although the layout of Terra is still exactly the same. To the side however, we also now have separate playable locations representing the Vengeful Spirit where Horus at least begins the game, and also a huge tactical map for the placement and execution of order cards from both sides. More on that in a bit.

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The premise of the game is, obviously, that Horus has finally reached Terra at the end of the Heresy, and plans to either kill the Emperor or overrun the defenses before Imperial reinforcements can arrive. As such, the game has a nominal time limit - the traitors must win before either player's Initiative counter reaches the end of the track which runs underneath the board, otherwise the Imperial player wins. At first, it seems like the Imperial player would therefore be advised to speed up the progression of the track as much as possible, right?

Nope. Because the game can also be won by either side holding all four of Terra's spaceports after the midway point of the track... so better make sure you know where your forces are before you start messing with cinematic schemes!

Much like Rogal Dorn playing out the battles on the hololithic simulation table at the end of 'The Lightning Tower', there are multiple scenarios presented in the game for the final invasion of Terra. The organisation and placement of units can even be tailored by experienced players, or simply played straight from the "historical" version presented in the basic version.

The game is played out using Order Cards, each of which has a cost in Initiative and moves your counter along the track. If you play from your hand, the cost tends to be much higher and the effects far less impressive compared to if you had played them onto the tactical map previously and then executed them after your opponent has the chance to react. The problem is that your opponent can thwart your plans by playing his own orders on top of yours, meaning that you must then waste more time digging through the pile and reordering the cards to find the specific order you wanted to play. Meanwhile, your elite forces are sat around twiddling their thumbs while the enemy consolidate their positions...

Special orders exist for attacking, building new units, moving forces back and forth from orbit and the planet's surface, and pretty much every other manoeuvre required during the game. The traitors regularly fling fresh bombardments at Terra, while the Imperial player can lead boarding actions against Horus' ships. Generally, when orders target an area on the map then that area becomes activated and may not be targeted again until the Initiative track reaches one of the mandatory 'Refresh' points - this prevents players from endlessly pounding one location while others are ignored, or from using the same orders over and over.

Once a new player gets the hang of issuing orders and economising on Initiative expenditure, a host of new combat options appear. Quick march all your forces through the region to assault a spaceport; carry out a bombing run with your airborne units; have a Primarch lead a counterstrike while the opponent's armies regroup etc.

In a move which may frighten some die-hard GW fans, combat and bombardments are also carried out using their own special decks of cards rather than dice. While at first bewildering, the combat system quickly becomes very tactical with the option to play high value cards in defense or save them to use their special texts on your own turn at the risk of taking damage in the meantime.

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Battles proceed through 'Iterations', where each turn the maximum number of cards playable increases accordingly. The defender in any combat can choose to either retreat his forces, or become the Passive or Active player on the first Iteration. Play then alternates through the Iterations as cards are played to create a damage total which must be resisted by the appropriate number of 'shields', and defenses like city walls and lava-filled crevasses can give the defender bonuses to this effect.

Heroes (including the Emperor, Horus, several Primarchs and the Fabricator General) give bonuses to units' ranks and also receive special cards which are added to their controller's hand in combat. Once their forces are wiped out, unaccompanied Heroes are easy targets for remaining enemy troops and would be well advised to retreat until they can rejoin their own armies.

Of course, treachery and rebellion are at the heart of the Horus Heresy, and the old mechanic of being able to turn loyalist troops against their fellows has been refined in the new version - by turning over cards in the Bombardment deck, the new allegiance of a unit can be revealed by the presence of an Aquila or Chaos star. This means that areas held by the Imperial player can suddenly find themselves also occupied by newly-converted traitor units which prompt sudden and reflexive 'coexistent' combats which do not require orders, and are frequently fast and bloody. While inertia is on the Imperial player's side in the form of the automatic win at the end of the Initiative track, it is always possible that a key area will suddenly fall to a traitor revolt among his own forces through some shrewd use of a special card by Horus!

Finally, there are a number of different Event cards which are played at appointed times on the Initiative track, drawn from a deck created specially for each scenario - these range from the fairly mundane like a rapid placement of order cards for free during your turn, up to apocalyptic bombardments resulting in tectonic activity or the opening of a Warp rift on Terra. While they are not often game-changing in themselves, they have the potential to completely disrupt a player's carefully laid plans and so drive home the importance of always having a back-up ready...


I have played or directed at least ten games now, and the results have been pretty much 50-50 as to whether the traitors or loyalists win the day - to me, that is evidence enough that the game is well-balanced! FFG have a pretty good record of producing games which seem one-sided and yet upon closer inspection become far more intricate, and Horus Heresy is no exception.

While it can seem (much like a game of Planetstrike in 40k) that in the opening sequence of treachery, bombardment and troop advances that the Chaos powers have an unfair advantage, the savvy Imperial player remembers that Terra is HIS house, and he can turn the process of invasion against his foes.

A lot of people playing for the first time have complained that the game is unnecessarily complicated at the beginning and becomes more simple as it progresses. I'm not sure I agree with that, but I would compare the overall complexity to something like 'Twilight Imperium' or maybe 'Battlestar Galactica' - once you get your head around the basics, you discover huge variation and tactical possibilities beyond the basic move-attack-move-build-attack-move style of the original GW version.


Something I would agree with is that there is limited playability in this game if you don't want to experiment beyond the basic "historical" setup. As a strictly 2-player game (and I challenge anyone to make a playable multiplayer house-rules variant out of it!) with such a hefty price tag you are going to have to invest time in trying out the same scenario over and over, otherwise you won't get your money's worth out of it.

It's definitely not one for casual play in the pub with a pint, and most ordinary GW fans would probably prefer to play two or three games of 40k in the same amount of time this will take to run right through! Having said that, if you have a regular pre-Heresy or Heresy-era opponent and you know you won't tire of seeing Terra burn, this game is a must-have.

malika - April 25, 2010 07:05 PM (GMT)
Sounds interesting! You think it would be possible to also end up playing this game on other locations? With this I mean that you could then use another board and maybe some other goodies and for example invade an Eldar Craftworld or re-enact the battle for Mars or stuff like that?

ShroudFilm - April 25, 2010 07:16 PM (GMT)
The mechanics would certainly be applicable to other conflicts... but the cards are all very specific to this board and the Heresy, stuff like 'Chaos Space Marines Only' and 'Inflict 3 Damage and Breach a Fortification in this Area'.

Writing a new deck of cards would be possible, and it's certainly possible that FFG might release expansions for this game as it stands.

malika - April 27, 2010 12:22 AM (GMT)
That would seriously be really awesome! I'd also hope to see this game offer more potential modelling chances! I've seen some people painting up the Space Marines that come with this game. Very cool!

eFTy - May 1, 2010 04:37 PM (GMT)
The game sounds awesome. I can't wait to play it with a friend. To further support Shroud's review, here's a fun session report I found on boardgamegeek: Assault on Holy Terra - Enemy at the gates

ShroudFilm - May 1, 2010 07:27 PM (GMT)
I played it again with Titus Pullo today... as Warmaster I totally failed to turn enough Imperial Troops to Chaos and then lost two spaceports just before the victory condition would have kicked off. Bah! :D

Lord Commander Lucius - May 6, 2010 12:21 PM (GMT)
I've just flicked through the online rules and have got confused on a point. When it talks about initiative and the cost of actions, where does it say how you calculate the number of initiative points you have? Or do each player have a set number each turn?

ShroudFilm - May 6, 2010 12:43 PM (GMT)
Each card you 'do' has a cost in Initiative. You carry out the order and move your counter along the track, the number of space indicated.

Alternatively, placing an order on the Tactical Map costs 1 Initiative, and carrying out an order from the top of a region's stack costs 1 Initiative.

malika - August 2, 2010 04:39 PM (GMT)
Could somebody post what exactly is included in the box. There are the cards, models, terrain and I guess the rulebook. Does the rulebook(s) in the box offer more than the PDF on the site? Is there more background and/or artwork in the boxed game?

ShroudFilm - August 2, 2010 06:55 PM (GMT)
The PDF is exactly what you get in the box.

There is a full list of components in the rulebook.

malika - August 2, 2010 07:09 PM (GMT)
Hmm, that's quite disappointing, I was kinda hoping for more new fluff and artwork...

ShroudFilm - August 2, 2010 07:25 PM (GMT)
FFG aren't allowed to produce any new fluff. They just make licensed boardgames...

There is some new artwork, throughout the game (like the cover!) but mostly it's just Collected Visions. The rulebook and scenario book are only A4 paperback semi-gloss. They're not like Codexes, i.e. anything worth collecting or treating as anything other than rules for a game.

I wouldn't worry yourself now anyway, if you haven't already bought it - it's well out of print. :rolleyes:

shorty - August 3, 2010 07:20 AM (GMT)
Hehe so good that they are working right now on a german out of stock in the english version but perhaps available in german soon...

ShroudFilm - August 3, 2010 10:16 AM (GMT)
Well obviously it will be reprinted - any game which sells out a non-limited print run is bound to get a second pressing. Multiple language versions are always good though!

Hydriatus - September 1, 2010 05:14 PM (GMT)
I managed to get my hands on a copy, and theres still a english copy in darksphere in London if anyone's interested...

After several games - its damn good fun. Though the experienced player really ought to play the Chaos side, since despite the numerical advnatage (you get to bring on new marines and titans almost freely, unlike the imperials who can only bring on Imperial Army, Tank Divisions and Titans relatively rarely, and can't bring back any space marines at all) the Imperial has the fortifications and can win through delaying tactics, whilst the Chaos player is racing against the clock to win.

The Primarch powers are nice, though some will definetively see more use than others (Sanguinus and Khan vs Dorn for example). The event cards can be a real hoot, and half the fun is screwing canon up. In one game, Dorn, Sanguinus and the Khan, with all the Space Marines available, teleported onto the Vengeful Spirit. The collected deamon hords delayes them whilst Horus made planetfall, joined Angron, blew up the walls of the Palace and fought the Empror for about three turns before the three loyal primarchs managed to teleport back to the planet. Loyalists still won >>

ShroudFilm - September 1, 2010 05:30 PM (GMT)
Haha, awesome! The first time I played, we didn't realise that Chaos can't recycle dead units... hence why we kept bringing down more and more Titan legions...!

Just in case anyone wants in, I am doing another VERY limited run of the boardgame at discount. UK only.

Hydriatus - September 1, 2010 07:04 PM (GMT)
From playing all I've learned is: Kill Khan first, then Sanguinus. Those two are the most powerful primarchs around. Fulgrim is good for sweeping across Imperial Army areas, whilst Angron, Mortarion, and Magnus make an awesome combo - what with Angron letting you see your combat cards and switch them, Mortarion weakening enemy troops, and Magnus calling down an orbital bombardment on the region he attacks :D

The Fabricator general never does much in our games, we tend to forget about him >< Then again, smae goes for Horus and the Emperor. Still, the wording on the rules is a bit silly. It wasn't clear at first if you get two hero combat cards per hero in combat or two for just having one in combat, and thats it. Similarily, the boarding action at first was used to drag Horus down to the planet and then mob him with units. This can't be done of course, but we found that out afterwards. Plus it was a hilarious image.

Chaos CAN recycle dead units - they go straight to the stockpile, ready for another port landing. Drop pods is limited to THawks and Marines though...

And gotta hate those defence lasers ><

ShroudFilm - September 2, 2010 01:09 AM (GMT)
No no no... once Chaos units die, they are dead. That's a fundamental part of the rules... see page 31 of the rulebook. Otherwise you'd just keep bringing endless streams of Titans down, and no one would ever play Cultists or Warbands! :lol:

I also found Fabricator General to be a bit underwhelming, until I realised that in combat he is the same as any other Primarch or even the Emperor, i.e. he is worth two more Hero cards. Once I figured that, I realised he is great for adding to a stack for combat, wherever the Traitors are massing.

Lord_Mortirion - September 2, 2010 03:48 AM (GMT)
does anybody remember the warmaster game printed in wd... the mini game where the emperor teleports abord horus ship. i miss that game, it was cool!!!

ShroudFilm - September 2, 2010 12:09 PM (GMT)
Yup yup, still got it. I played it last year, and it wasn't as much fun as I remember it being when I was at school... :rolleyes:

Hydriatus - September 2, 2010 02:38 PM (GMT)
Shroud: my apologies, you are absolutely correct.

...ARGH, then is it possible AT ALL for the Chaos player to win?!

ShroudFilm - September 2, 2010 03:20 PM (GMT)
Haha, it's REALLY not! :lol:

No, I've seen a roughly even number of Chaos vs Imperial victories. Roughly.

It requires an experienced Chaos player, and it's usually quite closely-fought. I once played a game where I was Imperial and pushed to the end of the Initiative track, but the final coexistent battle would have yielded the fourth spaceport if I'd lost it, and thereby lost me the game. Fulgrim was present with only one EC unit, and it literally came down to the final flip of a card - my only IA unit had remained loyal, and if my only Tank unit turned then I would be slaughtered. Luckily it remained loyal, the battle was drawn and the Initiative track ran out...! Phew.

Lord Commander Lucius - September 8, 2010 10:38 PM (GMT)
My first 3 games all saw me as the Chaos player and the first two were quite easy victories for me. Very little resistance to me taking Terra. The third was very close but a spirited Imperial counter-attack on the space ports with a coordinated attack on the Vengeful Spirt halted my invasion and lost me the battle.
I only tell these stories as examples of how it is very possible for a new player to win as the Chaos forces.

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