Tabletop Review: ‘Warhammer AoS: Warcry’

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Warhammer AoS: WarcryA few weeks ago, I ran through the contents and gave an overview of Games Workshop’s Warhammer AoS: Warcry. I’ve now had the chance to read through the rules and play a few games, so here are my preliminary thoughts on the game.

Quite a few preliminary thoughts, as it turns out…

What Does the Warcry Core Set Give You?

First up, any review of a Games Workshop core set will barely scratch the surface. The core set is the gateway to the wider game. There will always be much more to discover (buy). Warcry is no exception. In the core set, you’ll find the rules, a game board, some (stunning) scenery, the miniatures for two warbands, and everything you need to bring those warbands to the table and play some games. You’ll also find campaign missions for all the forthcoming warbands and for the 8 existing Age of Sigmar factions that have been made compatible with Warcry. 

What It Doesn’t Give You

There are going to be another 6 bespoke warbands for this game (by the time you read this, 4 of these will be available either to buy or pre-order). Aside from the campaign rules (as mentioned above) and some fluff, you don’t get anything in here that you need for those warbands. All the cards you need to play each warband are found in the individual warband boxes. This is good because it means you don’t have to buy the core box if you have access to it thanks to friends, club, or FLGS.

These new warbands are going to massively inform how the game plays, bring with them new tactics and playstyles—or so the theory goes. I think it’s going to be impossible to tell how good a game Warcry is until a few months down the line with a fuller range of games under my belt, but early signs are promising.

An Agents of Sigmar game of Warcry

What Are We All Doing Here?

This importance of this question is personal. I’m not that interested in game lore, though I do like some world-building. If the mechanics are good, I’m worried about why our forces are fighting. That said, I do like to feel like the game has a wider context and I nearly always play good guys, so on some level backstory is clearly important to me! The arbitrary nature of early Age of Sigmar jarred me, but the setting is evolving into something more interesting. The new Warcry lore definitely helps build the wider AoS mythology.

In a nutshell, the warbands in Warcry are vying for the attention of a powerful chaos patron. In short, they’re all bad guys and they want to work for the uber-bad guy. They’re doing this in the Eightpoints, a great junction where all 8 of the mortal realms meet. This gives us a reason for the variation in the warbands in the game. Further lore is added to bring in other armies from the existing AoS game. This mainly centers on the acquisition of fame and fortune or, in the case of the setting’s poster-boys, the Stormcast Eternals, new weapons with which to smite chaos.

This starter set pitches the heavy Iron Golems—chaos weaponsmiths, against the lighter, pelt-clad Untamed Beasts.

How to Play Warcry

There are a number of “How to Play” videos out there, including my own playthrough, above, and the official one hosted by Becca Scott. The game is very quick to pick up, though it does have a couple of curiosities which I’ll come back to later.

It should probably be stated from the outset, whether you get what you want from Warcry is going to depend on what you’re looking for. It’s quick and easy to play, but it doesn’t have the granularity that other GW games have. Warcry doesn’t have a wealth of team building options and it has very few rules. It’s not a heavily tactical game, in a number-crunching sense; it’s not a game where you can spend hours honing your army list to perfection.

For that reason, I think it’s very good for people with busy lives—for us GeekParents. It’s easy for children (from around 9 upwards) to pick up, too, though the aesthetic and theme of the game might be unsuitable. The denizens of Warcry are dark and macabre.

Like all GW games, there are “three ways to play.” Open, Narrative, and Matched. I’ve not played any “Open” games, but a cursory glance at the rules suggests these are for games for 3 or more players. GWs interpretation of “Open” is effectively turn up and play with whatever you’ve got, but considering the small and defined model count of the game, Open for Warcry looks to mean more of a multiplayer experience.

Narrative and Matched play pretty much the same on the table, but the narrative version has the campaign rules wrapped around it. More of which, later.

Choosing Your Warband

Warcry warbands consist of up to 1000 points worth of troops and each of the provided warbands in the core box gives you roughly that to play with. These points bare no relation to Age of Sigmar points values. Warbands must be no more than 15 models and cannot be less than 3.

Warhammer AoS: Warcry
The Iron Golem Fighter Types. This card is the only place the fighter names are written down.

A Note on the Fighters

It’s worth noting that, straight out of the box, there is very little customization that can be built into your warband. Each fighter has a corresponding card that includes a photo of a fighter on it. In the core set, for both warbands, there is only 1 either/or choice. Once you’ve made that choice, that’s it. You can’t field the other alternative fighter without buying another set/resorting to eBay. (Obviously, you could by just saying “this figure is represented by this card” when you wanted to swap, but this is usually frowned upon in the GW community.)

Whilst you could, theoretically, buy extra kits and fiddle with your troop choices, at this stage, it’s hard to see why you would bother doing so. I’m sure there is a competitive advantage to be gained, but I’m seeing Warcry as a fun game where the “rule of cool” should trump “win at all costs.”

Never Play the Same Game Twice

That’s the claim of the designers. Before you start a full game of Warcry you need to set up the board, deploy troops, and find out what you need to do to win.

The first thing you do when sitting down to play is set out the board (whichever way up you like). You then draw a terrain card (from the terrain deck). This gives you a terrain layout for your game. Note: In one-off games, you only use the cards that have symmetrical layouts, and for matched play, there are set layouts to pick from a table.

It’s worthing pointing out that if you follow the GW guide for assembling your scenery, you won’t be able to construct the terrain on all of the terrain cards. This does seem like a gross oversight on GWs part. You don’t have to arrange the scenery exactly as suggested, but to increase flexibility, I wouldn’t stick down any ladders or stairways, nor would I stick the big statue head to the rickety lookout post. All these things balance well when you need them to. For more info check out this excellent video from Blackjack Legacy.

After terrain comes deployment and the first interesting mechanic in the game. Before drawing the deployment card, players have to split their warband into 3 forces or battle groups. The hammer, dagger, and shield. The deployment card then tells you where each of these battle groups will start the battle. Deployment groups don’t necessarily all start on the table turn one. Some deployment cards dictate that groups come in on turn 2 or 3.

This immediately gives some tactical choices, as you don’t want to commit all your best forces in one group, in case it arrives out of position or late in the game. You also can’t rely on a particular group being deployed first, as it depends on what it says on the card. If the card does dictate all units arrive in the same turn, they are deployed in a particular order: dagger, shield, hammer. Your decision here will impact how the game goes, but don’t sweat things too much as it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. So far, I can see no reason not to choose groups that are as balanced as possible

After deploying troops, it’s time to choose the victory condition—again, randomly from a deck of cards. Victory conditions are things like “kill the opponent’s leader” or “control the most objectives during the game.” There are also grab the treasure missions, too.

The final card is the “twist.” You could play the game without this card if you wanted, but it adds another opportunity for some variation in your games. The twist cards bring additional conditions that are in effect during the game, so in one case we had one that added +1 movement. In another, night was falling and ranged attacks were gradually reduced in effectiveness. Other cards see chaotic beasts (models included in the box) roaming about the tabletop, happy to eat fighters from either side. The twist cards can change the way your warband plays, adding another reason to be able to adapt tactically.

And We’re Good to Go!

So, that’s the board and game set up. It seems like quite a lot to take on before you get going, but, actually it’s very simple, and deployment is very much part of the game. The game starts from the moment you divide your troops into the three battle groups.

Let Battle Commence!

Like most GW games, Warcry games are broken into Battle Rounds (usually 3 or 4 in a game). In Warcry there are only three phases in a battle round, a marked decrease from GW’s more mainstream titles.

The Hero Phase

The hero phase contains a very interesting mechanic. Each turn opens with both players rolling 6 dice (D6s) called initiative dice. Then, much like the destiny dice mechanic from the Warhammer Quest games, you’re looking for dice multiples. Here, though, multiples are mostly positive.

You take each set of multiples and put them to one side. This might be a double, triple, or a quad or a combination of the three. You can use these during the combat phase to give additional, often powerful effects during your turn. It probably goes without saying that quad effects are more potent than double effects.

Why Are They Called Initiative Dice?

The singles left, after you’ve taken out any multiples, are used to determine your initiative. The person with the most singles wins initiative, which means you might be able to get the jump on your opponent in the next round. If both players have the same number of singles, they roll-off (highest on a D6) to see who can wrest the initiative.

Wild Dice

Each turn players are given one wild dice. This can be attributed to any number after the initiative roll has been resolved. Players can use it to convert a double into a triple, a triple into a quad, or they can make it another single and give themselves an extra die in the initiative battle.

It’s only AFTER the wild dice has been allocated that initiative is decided. At this point, if the result is now tied, players have to roll off to see who gets (choice of) first turn. This is a simple but effective way of adding some tactical choices into the initiative step. You often find yourself, say, wanting to give yourself an all-powerful quad, whilst also needing to keep the opportunity to go first. Decisions, decisions!

Note: You don’t have to use your wild die. You can keep it for a subsequent turn, where you can then use two at once. Though you can’t boost a double to a quad. Each die must be used separately.

Here’s how those Initiative dice work. From the Warcry rulebook.

Reserve Phase

After the hero phase comes the quick and easy reserve phase. If your deployment card said that new fighters arrive on turn two or three, this is the point they arrive.

Combat Phase

The meat of the game! And it’s pretty brutal.

Like Kill Team and Warhammer Underworlds, the game is alternate activation. I love this so much (though I prefer the extra options afforded by the activation mechanic in Frostgrave). Players alternately activate one fighter at a time. The action mechanic is simple. Fighters can take two actions, and those actions are Move, Attack, Disengage, and Wait. Fighters may take those actions in any order and can do the same action twice.

Everything you need (more or less) can be found on your fighter cards.

Warhammer AoS: Warcry
I was going to make my own anatomy of a card picture but GW has done it for me.

The key points of the cards are:

  1. Image. Enough said!
  2. Faction Runemark. Each of the factions has its own runemark. You can only field fighters of the same runemark in your warband.
  3. Movement (in inches). Movement in Warcry is very dynamic. You’re moving single models at a time, so it’s quick in itself and the terrain rules are very simple. It’s easy to shimmy up the side of buildings and jump across gaps. If you can complete a move within the limits of your move value, you can do it; there are no movement penalties. This way you can jump across huge gaps in the terrain. You can jump downwards without penalty to your movement, too, though you may damage your fighter if the drop is more than 3 inches. As fighters can take two move actions a turn, many fighters can traverse large sections of the board during a single activation. (The board is a comparatively small 22″ X 30″, so unless you’ve picked a very slow warband board, coverage isn’t a problem).
  4. Toughness. When fighting, the strength of a weapon is compared with a fighter’s toughness. This is broken down really simply. If you the strength of a weapon is greater than a fighter’s toughness, rolls of 3 or more will wound the fighter, if it’s the same, 4-6 will wound, and if a fighter’s toughness is greater than the weapon strength, you need a 5 or 6. In ALL cases rolls of 6 will trigger the critical wound score.
  5. Fighter Wounds. The higher the better! Once they’re gone, you’re dead.
  6. Points Value. How much this fighter costs to field. Warbands may not exceed 1000 points.
  7. First Weapon. All Fighters have at least one weapon.
  8. Weapon Reach. How far (in inches) you can reach with your weapon. Some weapons have a minimum range and don’t work on fighters closer than that minimum.
  9. Attacks characteristic. How many dice a fighter rolls when attacking with this weapon.
  10. The Strength of the attack (See 4).
  11. Damage. This is how much damage a weapon does if it hits. The number before the slash is standard damage, the number after the damage is for a critical hit. (Critical = hit roll of a 6: See point 4.) Damage is allocated using tokens.
  12. Second Weapon. “Some fighters have them, some fighters don’t, and there it is.” Eeyore, Untamed Beast.
  13. Runemarks. Another of the more innovative aspects of the Warcry mechanics. Some fighters have access to additional abilities, given by their runemarks.

The more astute amongst you will have already realized that Warcry has no shooting or combat phase. It’s all the same. Attacks are just attacks, some are ranged and some are not. The combat sequence is also truncated compared with most GW games. Usually, in GW games, you roll to hit, and with all those that were successful, roll to wound. Then your opponent usually gets to make a save, which often meant undoing a good chunk of your previous rolls.

There’s none of that here. Just one roll (though usually of multiple dice) and you only need to roll over a specific number to hit and score damage. If you do so, you wound your opponent. It’s fast and refreshing. Sure, the fighters have lots of wounds to counter the ease of doing damage, but the immediacy of this system is great. When you’re fighting it really feels brutal and there a) isn’t ever a war of attrition and b) is never that feeling of frustration when you finally hit something and your opponent makes all their saving throws. There’s even c) the very real thrill of rolling a couple of 6s and doing heaps of damage. Some of the crit swings are massive.

One omission from the cards is any names of the fighters. For those, you have to refer to the back of the abilities card. I assume this decision was made to keep the cards completely text and language-free, but in our initial games, it brought about a disconnect, as it’s hard to remember who is who without matching up the pictures on two cards.

One card, two fighters with the same stats. You have to add another card underneath the fighter card (with I, II and III on it.) You can keep track of damage either with the supplied counters or with a card sleeve dry wipe combination.

This is made more confusing because some of the individual fighters are very similar and some fighter cards represent multiple fighters. There are two options for “Iron Legionary” on the warband card that have only slight visual variations, and the forthcoming Cypher Lords are even more similar. You don’t get one fighter card for each of your models.

In these cases, you have to slip another card underneath that gives you model 1 and model 2 (and even up to 3-6 models) for that particular type of fighter. The benefit of any streamlining this might give in card numbers is lost by having a small card cluttered with damage tokens for two or more fighters. (Card sleeves and a dry wipe marker could be your friends here.)

The way the card is designed also hammers home the difficulty of customization in this game. Thus far, your fighters are your fighters and you pretty much have to use them as they come.

Warhammer AoS: Warcry
The Iron Golem Fighter abilities (this is the reverse side of the Fighter Types Card, above.

Fighter Abilities

The other thing you can do in the game is use your initiative dice (those doubles, triples, and quads) to pull off some audacious moves to really smack your opponent down. This gives you some tactical variations, but more, it brings with it a sense of cinema. These actions are powerful and dynamic like extra attacks, faster movement, leaping high, bulldozing your opponent, or the ever-powerful RAMPAGE!

There are 5 generic abilities (abilities available to all fighters of all warbands) of which Rampage is one. Rampage is a quad ability, so not always available, but it allows a fighter to take an extra move and attack. This can be huge if you want to take the fight to your opponent or bring in reinforcements.

Each warband also has 6 bespoke abilities that ally thematically with them. Not all fighters can use all 6 abilities, though. They’re restricted by runemark (No. 13 on the fighter card key above). Generally, fighters only have one runemark, so each fighter has one special ability they can use. There is a generic ability that all fighters of a particular warband can make use of.

Fighter abilities are only sparsely available. Chances are you’ll only be able to use one or two each combat phase. Choosing which to use and when to use it can mean the difference between victory and defeat. You can only use one ability per fighter activation. In the games I’ve played, Rampage seems to be the ability I’ve been after more often or not. In a game with tight action economy, what is effectively a free activation of a fighter is extremely powerful.

As well as moving and fighting in the combat phase, you can disengage (from combat) action or take “wait.” action. Waiting activates a fighter (which would allow you to use an ability), then pauses them to be activated later (which then allows them to use another ability). A well-timed wait can be extremely powerful.

Finishing the Combat Phase

Players take it in turns activating their fighters until they have none left. If one player runs out first, the other player can continue to activate their fighters until they too have none left. Once both players have finished, play returns to the hero phase with another initiative dice roll-off.

Games generally last 3 or 4 rounds, though some of the victory conditions state that play continues until a winner is found. However, in this case, there is normally an additional condition to speed things up. For example, in the “Kill the Leader” game we had, after the 3rd turn, any leader that was within 4″ of the edge of the board was considered slain. This greatly restricts the playing area, making a bloody denouement inevitable.

How Does Narrative Play Work?

In the run-up to the release of Warcry, there was lots of talk about the narrative side of the game. Whether you like it or not, is going to depend on what you want for a narrative system. What we’re given is pretty basic but it is flexible. If you want to take your warband on a campaign adventure, you don’t have to find 6 or 7 people who are prepared to regularly commit to the same.

In the book, you’ll find two campaign strands for each of Warcry’s chaos warbands and one for each of the AoS armies useable in the game. After you’ve chosen your campaign that is YOUR campaign, and whilst you play battles against other players’ warbands, it doesn’t matter what warband it is. From your perspective, each battle is a step down the road on YOUR warband’s journey and progress is independent of your opponent’s journey.

After a narrative battle, there is an after game phase where you see if your fighters survived (if they were taken out of action), find treasure, or gain “destiny points.” You can also gain glory points. These enable you to attract extra troops and “dominate” territory.

Some battles have specific boons for completion and must be completed before you can continue on your campaign trail. These so-called “confluence” set-pieces mark specific points in your warband’s quest to find favor at the Varanspire.

The campaign stuff included in the book is quite thin. There is a name generator and some warband archetypes and leader motivations to choose from, but that’s about it. Each campaign amounts to 12 battles, after which there isn’t much else to do except try the other campaign or repeat the same one again. Having said that, I’m sure lots more options will be coming down the line soon.

There is a curious restriction of surrounding the leader runemark. Only one fighter in a warband can have the leader runemark and only one card for each band has that runemark. That means only 1 character can ever be your leader. This seems at odds with narrative play.

Whilst the campaign content of the Warcry box isn’t massive, there is still enough in it to generate a narrative and history with your fighters. I’ve only played one campaign game and was gutted when one my characters didn’t make it. Sure, he’s just replaced by a new guy—there are minimal in-game consequences—but nevertheless, it felt personal.

There has been a fair amount of criticism of the campaign rules, but a for starting off point, they’re OK. There’s nothing to stop GW adding more ideas and scenarios further down the line, but to be honest, why would they? Above all, GW is a model company and one that wants to make money. Why go to the effort of writing complex campaign rules, when half of your audience isn’t going to be that interested?

Lots of people will be more than happy to play one-off competitive style games, and those who love narrative gaming largely want to make their own stuff up anyway. There are so many amazing narrative campaign groups out there for AoS who are going to love the space the Varanspire and the Eightpoints opens up for them. Why go to the trouble of inventing and playtesting something when you have a group of fervent fans who will likely trump whatever you build anyway?

Note: GW has just added, as I was finishing this review a neat warband builder: check it out here.

Why Play Warhammer AoS: Warcry?

If you want to play fast games with beautiful miniatures, but aren’t bothered about deckbuilding (as in Warhammer Underworlds), then Warcry is a pretty solid bet. As it stands, I don’t think it has the tactical depth of Frostgrave (which admittedly, I haven’t played many games of), but it is quicker and easier to pick up, especially as GW gives you everything you need in the box.

Looking at it from a GeekDad perspective, Warcry gives you a compact playing experience, in both time and space. The small board is easy to set up and pack away. Games are easily dealt with within an hour. Armies are small, which means painting them up is much quicker (or cheaper, if you’re wanting to save precious hobby time by using a painting service). The scenery is awesome, and thanks to the new contrast paints, pretty easy to paint up. You do have to find space to store your scenery, but it will go back in the box once built, and obviously, if you’re gaming at home, whatever your playing is likely to have some components that need storing.

Some of it’s perceived drawbacks, might actually be strengths when trying to fit the game in around busy lives. The comparatively small number of warband build options means less time spent tinkering with army lists. I’m sure there are optimal “load outs” but, frankly, you’re not going to lose much if you just build your warband following the “rule of cool” and start playing.

Similarly, the simple campaign system is quick to get up and running. It doesn’t matter if you can’t commit to regular games. Even if you only get down to your FLGS every three months, you can still continue your warband’s narrative. Systems that allow for sweeping backstories and complex between-game changes are great, if you have the time to do that. With Warcry, it takes 5 mins at the end of each game, and then you’re good until the next time you play.

Warcry is great for playing with kids. (I think; I haven’t actually done this yet.) You might want to check your children are OK with the games aesthetic and darker undertones, but whilst bits of the lore are grim, I don’t think there’s anything too grotesque for your average 12-13-year-old.

I think players of around 10 and upwards should be able to get a grip of the mechanics fairly easily. The pictorial cards have their drawbacks (some of the runemarks are very similar), but they also immediately tell you what you need to know. The simplified combat system is also great for first-time players or players with shorter attention spans. You swing at this game, likely you’ll cause some damage. The perception that something is always happening is key for the enjoyment of younger players. Warcry delivers that. Its dynamic movement system should also greatly appeal to younger players.

Large sprawling wargames will always be at the center of what Games Workshop has to offer, but they seem to be increasingly trying to pull in the casual, time-poor gamer. I’ll never have time to maintain a full Age of Sigmar army and devote whole days to playing it. I can easily create my little warband, paint it, and play a couple of games in an evening.

What Next?

There’s always huge excitement when new GW boxed games land. The company has ramping up expectations down to a fine art. Whether the interest in the game is sustained remains to be seen. I think it will keep a large core of regular players, much like Warhammer Underworlds. 

My main fear for the game is rate of expansion. Warcry’Warhammer 40K counterpart, Kill Team, expanded very quickly with numerous costly add-ons. Kill Team still has a following, but the way it has evolved makes it a poor choice for beginners. Warcry has allegedly grown out of the lessons learned from Kill Team, so I hope this means more controlled releases.

That’s not to say the game won’t get bigger. There are already going to be an additional 6 warbands coming on top of the core set. One set, the Cypher Lords, is already available. Three more can be preordered for release on August 10th. Where I think Warcry will win over Kill Team is that these miniatures are all new and comprise a whole playable team. Even the Kill Team starter set didn’t have complete teams. The game has a much larger selection of weapon and troop-type choices—choices impossible to realize with the acquisition of just one box.

That’s not to say Warcry won’t expand. Eagle-eyed players have already pointed out the existence of “Mount” and “Gargantuan” runemarks in the rulebook. GW definitely has plans to expand this game. If these releases remain self-contained, I think they’ll be easier to keep up with or to let them pass and carry on playing the basic game.

It’s early days yet for Warcry, but this starter set represents an exciting new journey in skirmish wargaming. It’s strong in theme and simple to play. I’m definitely going to following its evolution in the coming months in the hope that the game realizes it’s potential. If you’re looking to play some tactical games in the Age of Sigmar universe, but are short of time and/or space, Warcry might just be the game for you.

Don’t forget you can check out future video content for Warcry with the Agents of Sigmar.

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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.

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