Review: Shadow War: Armageddon

There are few things that hold a Warhammer 40K player in such a vice-like grip of nostalgia like Necromunda does. Set in the lowest level of the titular hive city – a tower-like super metropolis – it pitted player-run gangs against each other in possibly endless campaigns to get rich. Life goes on in the underhive and as the big shots ascend to fame and fortune (and higher levels of the hive), new upstarts take their place. Necromunda has been discontinued for a long time, though fans continued playing and improving the system – no official rule or miniature support be damned – with YakTribe being a notable community of fans. And then, in the spring of 2017, Games Workshop released Shadow War: Armageddon (SWA).

Unit-state markers play a great role in SWA.

Armageddon is a pleasantly named industrial hive world – and, as of recent and horrible fluff additions, the dislocated and renamed ork homeworld of Ullanor – that is most well known for three wars fought there. The first was an invasion by Chaos forces, lead by Daemon primarch Angron himself. The other two were done by orks, making them much more fun (and the subject of at least one Panzer General-like game). This gave us Ghazkhul Mag Uruk Thraka (may or may not named after a certain Iron lady), the most famous ork warlord, and Commissar Yarrick, the oldest, baddest Imperial Guard commissar. Apparently, it’s now giving us small, Necromunda-like battles in cramped spaces of the underhive.

If I wanted to end the article right there, I could say that SWA is Necromunda, but with tabletop armies and a more truncated campaign mode. However, that kind of reductionist work is not why the Queen’s Shilling warms my pocket. So, to go into more detail, SWA, unlike Necromunda, uses miniatures from the main tabletop game (and thus serve as an entry game to the bigger world of 40K). The main book came out with kill team lists for Imperial Guard Veterans (uses one box of Cadians and potentially some special weapon blisters), Space Marine Scouts (up to two boxes) and Orks (up to two boxes of Boys). Later on, free lists were released for basically every other 40K army. Unfortunately, Forgeworld doesn’t seem to notice the game, so no specific rules for Kriegers or Elysians.

Inquisitorial acolytes only have one ugly mini, so I got creative.

Most kill teams number up to 10; orks can and should go above that, and several will probably never reach the limit. Your team has a leader (usually a sergeant equivalent), some regular troopers, recruits (that can take up to half of the team and don’t gain any skills before surviving three battles) and two specialists that carry the heavier weaponry (Imperial Guard gets three). The soldiers only bring in their armor and a knife – everything else must be bought from army lists; the equipment is sorted in categories, and classes have different access to them. The kill team can also have a special rule or two (like Chaos marks), different access to skill trees for the classes (Guards, Marines and Orks also give you the option to play a certain regiment, chapter or tribe, which also changes what skills can be gained). In a campaign, a team has the option to spent a certain amount of points on either reinforcements or buying gear, as well as the option to spend a promethium cache – the campaign resource – to double that amount; however, the excess can’t be stored. The points can also be spent to hire a special operative, like a Chaos Terminator or a Commissar, for one battle.

The battle rules have been taken almost verbatim from Necromunda, which brings us back to the days of 2nd edition 40K. One player moves his entire army before the other one gets to do the same. A player turn is separated into movement, shooting, melee and recovery phases. You must declare charges in the movement phase, and running or charging simply doubles the move stat rather than rolling randomly. You can also hide or go on overwatch. Meanwhile, once shooting starts, you get range modifiers for guns, armor modifiers for saves, rolls on injury chart, ammo checks and other assorted goodness. Melee is a somewhat involved opposed roll, and only the winner makes attacks.

To mitigate the danger of getting shot/maximize hilarity of soldiers falling off ledges, you must have much denser terrain than you can see in the picture.

Warriors hit by ranged fire are automatically pinned and can even go down if they’re wounded, possibly making their nearby comrades run away. And once your team takes 25% casualties in models, you start rolling bottle tests! And with the game not having any turn limits, bottle tests kill – at least I have the annoying habit of losing games because my team ran away.

So the matches are fast and fluid, with every shot that hits (even without wounding) being important. However, the campaign game, which is half if not more reason why Necromunda refuses to die, had been both streamlined and truncated to a great degree. Gone are the experience points, territories, sending our your troopers to work – that wouldn’t exactly work narratively with operators operating operationally. The central idea – of collecting promethium to burn your way into incompetent/treasonous governor Von Straub’s weapon caches – isn’t much better, especially once Tyranids come into play.

As I mentioned before, after a match you have to choose between recruitment or purchases, which is an easy choice if nobody died. And a boring one, too, since you’ll quickly start outfitting everyone with better sights and such. Since the market isn’t a thing anymore and you don’t have roll to see if the item you’re searching for available, the purchases are guaranteed. As for recruitment, well, rules-as-written some teams can’t even recruit their specialists during the campaign, because they cost more than the allowed point limit.

Grey Knights are an acute sufferers of said syndrome.

At least the skill increases are still there. Unfortunately, they are really quite boring, as you just choose one soldier out of your survivors and then roll for his skills. This eliminates the problem of runaway superteams that existed in Gorkamorka, Necromunda and Mordheim (and to some extent still exists in Blood Bowl), but it also tears away some of the personality that develops with star soldiers who “earn” their experience on the field. And if I am mistaken, the results of wounds aren’t that scary anymore, either. In fact, rolling a “What doesn’t kill you” result is actually the only way to level up more than one trooper per game. On the other hand, at least you can now choose between, say, increasing Weapon and Ballistic skill, which lets you mold both individual troopers and the entire team towards a certain play style.

However, Initiative is the dump stat of the game, especially if you don’t have the cramped, multilevel terrain that is recommended for both SWA and Necromunda. The stat helps you not fall down from ledges when you get shot, try and recover from pinning early, and breaks ties in melees. All very situational uses, and the ledge part can be mitigated by having giving clip harnesses – an easy thing to do when most non-offensive upgrades cost dimes. This ties into some other issues in the game, such as some Chaos marks being better than other (it’s Nurgle, it’s always Nurgle), especially when they’re free. I already mentioned some teams’ inability to buy specialists during the campaign. And I’ve read that people consider Imperial Guard team weak in term of overcosted weapons on fragile dudes that aren’t as numerous as they should be.

Chaos Space Marine teams have cultists for recruits, who remain weak even with three games under their belts.

Of course, it’s easy to understand where some of the issues come from. Rule writing has never been GW’s forte – and if the reaction to some of the issues with the 8th edition is of any indication, it still isn’t. The campaign was truncated both for streamlining and narrative purposes. One might even talk of balance! Meanwhile, the choice to use existing miniatures for an existing if old ruleset is a great “no risk, maximum reward” situation, as you don’t have to start any new miniature lines or do in-depth rule development. Unlike the previously released Kill Team, SWA has no real unofficial peer (unless you count Inquisimunda), so it has a niche to fill.

All in all, Shadow War: Armageddon is a great, even if not groundbreaking, release. Going back to Necromunda rules brings a lot more thinking to the table. Cover is suddenly important even to power armored or high toughness models, as simply getting hit can take you out for a turn. Low numbers and bottle tests make for a great game that can be played in an hour so. It’s a pity that we lost some of the flavor, but at least we finally have a use for those Space Marine Scouts!