I’ve been playing Warhammer Underworlds since it first arrived and it’s no exaggeration to say it’s had a profound effect on my life. Most of my spare time is devoted to playing the game and running the YouTube channel and community, Agents of Sigmar. It’s my go-to game and the best Games Workshop game I’ve ever played.
Warhammer Underworlds: Online has been in early access on steam since the beginning of the year and has just been officially launched. You can pick it up on Steam, where at the time of writing it is currently on sale at the discounted price of $23.99.
The review below is long and even then, I’ve missed out some of the game’s more subtle interactions.
For those short on time – here’s my potted plug!
Warhammer Underworlds is an excellent tactical miniatures game. It has an almost perfect balance between its deck building and tactical boardgame components. Being good at one doesn’t render the other aspect irrelevant. It’s a game that rewards repeated plays as you come to understand more and more of its complexities.
The digital version is an extremely faithful reproduction of the first season of Warhammer Underworlds, which offers a nostalgia kick for existing fans of the game and a simple introduction for newcomers. The design team behind WU:O game are committed to improving up and updating the game regularly. This is not a launch and forget release. It has the quality and flexibility to offer players continual challenges for years to come.
If you like tactical arena combat then you should definitely check it out.
Read on for a more in-depth look at how the game plays.
For this review, I’m going to assume you’re not particularly familiar with the physical game. If you are, you have probably been following the development of the game for months, and already know whether you want to get involved.
If you want a full breakdown of how the physical game works check out my review, here.
Warhammer Underworlds was first released in 2017, and we are now in its third (2019-2020) season. It was billed as the “Ultimate Competitive Miniatures Game,” and combined Games Workshop’s, trademark, expertly sculpted miniatures with a deck-building element. The game was GW’s answer to X-Wing. Warhammer Underworlds is not a collectible card game; each box gives you a pre-defined set of cards and you can only include 1 of each card in a deck.
There are two aspects to the game. The boardgame plays in about 45 mins and pits two small warbands of fighters against one another in hex-based arena combat. There’s also a deck-building component, which is carried out prior to the game.
Two decks are built, one of “Objective” cards and one of “Power Cards.” You gain glory (victory points) from completing your objectives. Your power cards are the tools you use to power up your fighters on the tabletop to help you meet the objectives in your objective deck.
Mechanically, WU:O is a direct port of season 1, Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire. The digital rules of engagement are exactly the same as those in the physical game. By the end of season 1, there were 8 warbands to play with. At the time of writing, WU:O has 6. The deckbuilding rules are still the same, but the digital card release schedule is different from the physical card release.
For the physical game, each new warband box included a predefined set of cards. Some of these were “universals” which could be utilized by any warband, and some were “faction specific” and could only be used by the warband in the box. This meant if you wanted all the universal cards you needed to buy all the boxes, even if you had no intention of playing with the models inside them.
SteelSky has stated that ALL the universal cards from season one will be available to anybody buying the base game. (They’re not all available yet but are being released in waves). This means that if you buy the base set, and you use the warbands included (currently 6), you won’t need to buy anything else.
Buying the game brings you ALL the current universal cards and access to future universals, which will be compatible with any of the warbands you own AND it gets you 6 warbands with ALL their faction cards. You have a great game, with diverse strategies and possibilities, straight out of the digital box.
Additional warbands will be available via DLC (currently set to be at $6.99 a warband). This will buy you, at a minimum, all the faction cards for a warband, plus, of course, digital representations of the models that make up those warbands. Cal, communications manager for SteelSky Productions also said on our live stream that these DLCs will contain other cool stuff, but exactly what this will entail he was unable to divulge.
At the very least, each faction comes with its own selection of unlockable content. New skins for your fighters and fighter portraits; all those little rewards that digital gamers love.
Well, in the Warhammer Underworlds forums, this actually gets talked about a lot, so it’s not really an elephant in the room, but it’s worth mentioning here. This game is not and will never be a replica of the game state of the tabletop version (Cal confirmed this on our stream). Firstly, it’s running 2 1/2 years behind. It has a lot of catching up to do.
During its three (physical) seasons, Warhammer Underworlds has evolved. The rules are now a little slicker, and objectives and mechanics have become slightly more interesting (for example season 2 introduced magic). This has put off some people who are fans of the physical game. They want to replicate the current playing experience and “meta,” so they can practice for real-world games and improve their tournament performance.
For casual players or new arrivals, does this matter? I would say not. From the outset, Shadespire was a fine game and it still is. It is perhaps a little slower than the current incarnation. Beastgrave (Season 3) would probably make an even more engaging digital experience, but this game will evolve, too. The Shadespire experience is still engrossing and entertaining.
I can see why having a replicated game state is appealing, but the fact that there are now two game states to consider, to me, means double the fun.
That’s a lot of words devoted to the history of the game. How does this version play?
I guess one of the biggest benefits of this game is that it’s quick. Being digital, there is literally no set up time. You click the button to start the game and you’re in. You can play against the computer in which case matches start immediately, or you can find an opponent online, which takes a little longer, whilst a match is found. The bots are fun, but the real reason to play is to pit your wits against a human opponent.
You can play either casual or ranked play at the moment. Ranked play pits you against other people on the same rung of the ladder as you, as you all vie to get to the top. You can also play using an agreed code with friends, no matter where they live. With the current global pandemic, this is a great way of playing with your friends. There is no way to currently talk in-game, but there are plenty of other ways to do this, should you want to.
The front menus enable you to choose which warband you want to play and within those, you can go into the deckbuilding area. You can save multiple decks for any and all of the warbands. Each warband comes with a starting deck, but you will almost certainly want to change this to get the best out of your fighters.
The game comes with a tutorial that describes the nuts and bolts of deckbuilding and there are many facets to it. Discovering these and working out advantageous card interactions is part of the joy of the game. You have to make two decks in the game. The Objective Deck and the Power Deck. They both have specific functions. Both decks can be made up of universal cards, and cards that are specific for your chosen warband only.
In Warhammer Underworlds, your decks are how you win games. The currency of the game is “Glory.” Whoever has the most glory at the end of the game, wins. There are two ways to obtain glory. First up, is killing your opponent’s fighters. This is a combat game, after all, and so, chances are you’ll be trying to mash your opponent’s fighters’ faces. There are other ways to play, but this is the most direct route to victory.
The problem is, some warbands only have 3 fighters. If you rely only on killing, you won’t score very much glory and you won’t win many games. That’s where your objective deck comes in. Everybody’s objective deck is 12 cards. There are whole variety of different objective cards, that have some sort of required goal to be completed. These score in the region of 1-3 glory with some outliers that score more. The more glory you can score from a card, generally, the harder it is to do so.
How you build your objective deck gives you your plan for how you are going to play your games. There are three main types of deck. 1. Aggro decks: These score additional glory when hitting and killing stuff. 2. Objective-based decks: The play arena has 5 objective markers on it (these are placed by players at the start of the game and GW really should have called them something different as “objective” can have two meanings in this game!). Objective decks score glory by controlling these objectives at different points in the game. 3. Defensive Decks: Score glory for not dying.
Your objective deck dictates how you are going to play your game. Your power deck is what helps you play that way. It’s made up of 2 types of card, ploys and upgrades. Ploys are immediate (usually one-time) boosts, and generally more powerful than upgrades. Upgrades stick around. They’re assigned to specific fighters and can’t be moved.
You can usually make use of the benefits of an upgrade more than once but they also cost glory. When you win glory (through killing or fulfilling an objective card), it comes as “unspent” you can then spend it to add an upgrade to a fighter, at which point it becomes spent. NOTE: You don’t lose this glory. It still counts to your score at the end, you just can’t buy more than one upgrade with it. A power deck cannot have more ploys than upgrades (because ploys are more powerful) and must have at least 20 cards.
Once you have built and saved your deck, you’re ready to play.
There is a good tutorial available on how to play the game. Its minutiae will make this review even longer than it already is. Do check out my Shadespire review as it gives a good explanation of the game mechanics.
Warhammer Underworlds: Online is turn-based. After the initial set up, in which you choose your half of the playing arena, place where the games objective tiles will go, and draw your cards, the game is ready to start.
Games are broken down into three turns. Each turn is broken into four activations per player (i.e. 8 in total). Between each activation, there is a power step where you can play your power cards. Between turns, there is an End Phase, where you can score cards from your objective deck, add upgrades to your fighters, and draw new cards. At the end of the 3rd end phase, whoever has the most glory is the winner.
During one of your activations, you will normally activate a single fighter. In which case you can move, attack, or move and attack (charge) that fighter. Charging is powerful, but that will mean that fighter won’t be able to be activated again that turn. There are a few additional activation options, such as drawing a new card.
Combat is carried out using dice, and as a general rule, the more dice you’re slinging, the more chance you’ll have to be successful. The game uses two types of custom dice; attack and defense dice. Some symbols appear more than others on these dice. What constitutes a successful roll is different for different types of fighter, so even fighters who are rolling the same number of dice, may have different odds of success. Adjacent fighters can also support each other both offensively and defensively, so fighter positioning is another important consideration when planning your attacks.
Warhammer Underworlds is very much about stacking the odds in your favor, whilst also trying to fulfill the goals on your objective cards.
Warhammer Underworlds has many interacting moving parts that give rise to a wealth of tactical options. No two games are alike. The different warbands offer a host of different choices of playstyle, and how you pair them with your decks gives them a style that will be unique to you.
Games are long enough to engender a sense of investment, but never so long they feel like a grind. They are genuinely exciting too, with games regularly coming down to a single dice roll or a card draw. Never forget that this game is never over until the very last end phase. It’s easy to lose heart when you’re behind, but just because somebody is in the lead, doesn’t mean they can’t be pegged back. Never underestimate the thrill of a good comeback!
One great thing about the online version is that you’ll never forget to play a card or add in a modifier again. Part of the game’s tactical complexity comes from various buffs and abilities you play on your fighters with your power deck. In the heat of battle, it can be very easy to forget them or misinterpret a rule. There is none of that problem here, as the computer does it all for you. This greatly speeds up game time and removes human error from the game.
There is a slight flipside to this, sometimes it can be hard to see what your opponent is planning. Upgrades they have played on their fighters, or special abilities they have aren’t as obvious as when your opponent is sitting opposite you. Dice rolls also happen pretty quickly; if your opponent has played some buffs you’ve forgotten about, you can get a nasty surprise when they unexpectedly take out one of your fighters.
One of the great things about the physical game is that it’s quick to play. You need a board each, your decks and your warband. The models are even cast in different color plastic, so you don’t have to paint them if you don’t want to. Because of this, compared to many GW games it looks a bit spartan.
SteelSky has gone all out with the look and feel of the online version, making it a sumptuous visual feast. The 3D renders of the fighters are great and you can unlock all manner of paint jobs to make them look even better. The play environments are very atmospheric. Shadespire takes place in a forgotten subterranean city, and the play area very much channels this feeling, with ruined masonry and huge vaulted ceilings. The game absolutely nails the decaying city of the dead feel.
One of the biggest question marks over the game is the fact that it’s only available for PCs via the Steam platform. There are lots of console and mobile users out there who are disgruntled by this. Possibly with good reason. The comparatively short playtime of the game potentially makes it an excellent game for a commute (when people start having them again) but for now that is not to be.
Whilst Steel Sky would love to support the game on as many platforms as possible, the reality is they are a small outfit and don’t have enough people to support multi-platform releases, which could well lead to an exponential growth in issues and problems that need fixing. Other platform releases have not been ruled out, but they won’t be seen for the foreseeable future, whilst the team makes sure the PC iteration is as good and robust as it can be.
This review has got slightly out of hand now, which is probably a sign of how much I love the game. I could talk about it for hours (and regularly do!). If you’ve read this far, you are definitely interested, and I would highly recommend that you pick up the game, particularly whilst its own sale.
With a base game that’s set to expand, offering a wealth of strategies to try, a design team committed to making the best incarnation of the game they can, and a thriving friendly community looking for games and wanting to welcome new members, I doubt there is a better game to pick up right now.
Disclosure: I was given a review code in order to play this game.
This post was last modified on April 26, 2020 9:00 pm
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