It’s not too big a claim to say that Warhammer Underworlds has changed my life. I’ve played it consistently on a weekly basis since season 1 came out in 2017. I’ve written about it extensively, and am now one half of a YouTube channel, Agents of Sigmar, that is mostly devoted to the game. Every time a new season of Warhammer Underworlds is released, my corner of the world goes a little bit game-happy, and that’s why I’m thrilled by the arrival of season 4. Yes. Warhammer Underworlds: Direchasm is here.
What Is Warhammer Underworlds: Direchasm?
Warhammer Underworlds is Games Workshop’s “Ultimate Competitive Game.” It’s their answer to X-Wing and Magic: The Gathering. Prior to 2020, it had an increasingly popular competitive scene, with a World Championship event even being touted. Then, of course, the virus came. COVID has stopped pretty much all physical events, though fans of the game have found various ways to play over the internet via (mostly unofficial) digital versions or using webcams. There’s the official Warhammer Underworlds: Online too.
Whilst Warhammer Underworlds is billed as a competitive game, its low model count and comparatively quick playing time make it an excellent game for casual players too. I think it’s the best game Games Workshop has designed.
Games Workshop is, of course, most famous for its sweeping miniatures battles in Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. Warhammer Underworlds is a game on a much smaller scale. It only has between 3 and 9 miniatures per side, with most resting around the 4 or 5 model count mark. This makes it the perfect game for people who are short on time. Whilst there’s no obligation to paint your miniatures, for those of us who like to throw a bit of paint around but don’t have much time to do so, Warhammer Underworlds gives us a fighting chance to play a game with a fully painted “army.”
A Broad Underworlds Overview
Warhammer Underworlds is a huge amount of fun with a wealth of options and ways to play. It has an engaged global fanbase of extremely helpful people.
Games of Warhammer Underworlds take place over 3 rounds of 4 “activations” for each player and last around 30-45 mins. The game is predominantly a two-player game but larger variants exist.
Each player uses a warband in the game. At the time of writing, there are 28 to choose from, although the older ones are now out of production. The warbands and the fighters in them are static. Unlike many GW games, there is no list building. The basic models and stats are the same for each warband of the same type. The stats are given on “Fighter Cards.”
The game features hex-based arena combat and uses bespoke dice. At the start of a game, each player places a board to produce the playing area. It’s a small game—one that can easily fit on a coffee table.
Players compete to score “glory.” The player with the most glory at the end of round three wins. The simplest way to score glory is to kill your opponent’s fighters.
Players construct 2 decks before the game: a power-deck and an objective deck. A power-deck consists of “gambits,” ploys, and one-time effects that turn the battle your way, and “upgrades,” cards that permanently boost your fighters. Objective decks are 12 cards that give the goals your warband is hoping to achieve during the battle. Each objective card has a glory value on it. Complete the objective, score the glory.
Glory has two functions in the game. It acts as victory points, but you can also “spend” glory to equip your upgrade cards from your hand. Spent glory still counts towards your victory total, but you can (generally) only spend each glory once to purchase an upgrade.
The game supports three main archetypes: Aggressive, Hold Objective, and Control. Aggressive has cards that give glory for attacking and taking enemy fighters out of action. Hold Objective warbands gain glory for holding certain “objective” hexes throughout the game. Control gains glory by holding your enemy at bay—probably the hardest style to explain and do well with. Many people often play a “flex” style, which may begin using one archetype before “flexing” to another. (Most use Control or Hold Objective to gain glory in the early game, then tool up your fighters into killing machines to reap that aggro glory in the latter stages.)
The game has an ever-shifting “meta.” As new cards are released, new combos are discovered and, in turn, new counters to those combos are contrived. The game state continually evolves.
The videos below give an overview of how to play Warhammer Underworlds. They’re from season 3, but the game hasn’t substantively changed since they were made.
What Are Warhammer Underworlds Seasons?
As mentioned at the start of the review, Direchasm is season 4 of Underworlds. What does this mean? Well, if you’re completely brand new to the game, not a lot. The good news is that the game has evolved for the better, with each iteration being an improvement on the previous one. The designers have learned a lot about what makes their game successful during its comparatively short lifetime.
The game runs with 2 seasons active at any one time. You can still buy season 3 stuff (Beastgrave), but season 2 (Nightvault) will be phased out and season 1 (Shadespire) is long gone. Generally speaking, the later season’s warbands are more interesting and stronger than the older ones, so this phasing out isn’t too big a deal.
Seasons are released with a core box that contains two warbands and all the cards you need to play those warbands, as well as all the boards, tokens, and dice you need to play the game. If you’re entirely new to the game, you need to pick up the Direchasm box. It’s hard to play the game without boards.
There then follows 6 more warbands to close out the season. This year, for the first time, these are to be released in monthly intervals. Whether this is down to COVID rescheduling or is going to be the way forward for the game is currently not clear. In each warband box, you get the models you need to play and another set of 60 cards.
Each warband (including those in the core box) has 32 “faction specific” cards associated with it. These allow you to play the bands straight out of the box. The rest of the cards in the boxes are the “Universal Cards,” and these can be used with any warband and are what comprise the deckbuilding element of the game. Deckbuilding is a key component of the game, is a lot of fun, and also a vital skill to learn if you want to assure success on the battlefield.
The deckbuilding hasn’t massively changed since my previous Underworlds articles, so do check those out if you’re looking for more depth, but, broadly speaking, you create two decks for the game, your objective deck and your power deck. They can comprise of both faction-specific cards and universal cards.
In theory, cards can come from any of the four seasons of the game, but in practice, most people play with the competitive standard, which allows you to draw cards from the two most recent seasons. Any faction-specific cards from older seasons are still valid, but the universal cards from seasons 1 and 2 have now been phased out. On the face of it, this built-in obsolescence may seem unfair, but the more recent card design makes for much better, fairer games, and on balance, rotation is good for the game.
It’s also worth being aware that, for competitive games, there are some cards that have been restricted and forsaken (banned). This is because they were too powerful or due to quirky rules interactions that somehow break the game.
If you are playing casually, you can generally play with whatever cards you have from whichever boxes you own, but if you are deviating from the championship standard, it’s worth letting your opponent know as soon as possible.
Changing of the Cards
A small but significant change to the way the core box works for Direchasm comes from the cards included in the box. Since Beastgrave was released all-new warbands are given enough faction-specific cards to make legal decks. You don’t have to include any universal cards in order to play a game. It won’t be the most efficient deck, but it will work.
In all previous iterations of the game, all of the universal cards in the core set box were duplicated, so that each player could include a copy of a particular card, simultaneously, if they so wished. This is no longer the case. Each universal card included in the core set only appears once. Moreover, in previous seasons, most of the universal cards were repeated across seasons. There’s a core set of cards that I have 6 copies of because they were duplicated in each season and repeated across 3 seasons.
Most of these cards were very inefficient in game terms, so in serious play, never saw the light of day, but a few of them are the mainstays of many a deck. Core set favorite “Great Strength” is the most included card in competitive decks.
Owners of the Beastgrave core set will still have access to these cards, but with rotation in place, this time next year, as things stand, they’ll be gone. This is a good thing as the rubbish ones were a waste of paper, and the auto-includes (the ones everybody takes in their decks) are too powerful, now that the designers have toned things down a little. This is a small change, and one probably lost on newcomers, but it ties back to the designers being on top of how their game is played and being keen to ensure it provides as varied an experience as possible. The game is boring when everybody plays the same cards.
The All-New Vanguard Tournaments
These are my favorite new addition to Warhammer Underworlds. They arrived at the same time as Direchasm, but actually aren’t really anything to do with the new box. What they offer is a place for new players to learn the game and meet other new players and battle on a level playing field.
The problem with the standard Championship format, for those who are new to the game, is that many of the legal cards come from the previous season. i.e. This year, if you’re just buying into Direchasm, standard tournaments will allow players to draw from Beastgrave and Direchasm. The nature of the way Warhammer Underworlds is packaged, with the better cards being distributed throughout its boxes, a considerable buy-in is needed, if you want to compete at the same level as long term players.
The new Vanguard format only allows cards and warbands to be used from the current season of Underworlds. Meaning it’s much easier for new players to place themselves on an equal footing with people who have been in the game from the beginning. At the moment, this means a Vanguard tournament could only use cards and warbands from the core box. This won’t make for the most exciting tournaments right now, but as in-the-flesh competitions are almost impossible in most parts of the world, this probably isn’t a big deal. By the time the world returns to normal, there should be a decent selection of cards and warbands to make for an interesting and varied beginners scene.
The Vanguard format also offers a great way for players from earlier seasons to re-enter the game. It’s common to see on the various gaming groups that people don’t wish to invest in an entire season at once, as this is prohibitively expensive. If the Vanguard format takes off, it should be possible to find tournaments, even if you have a comparatively small selection of cards from the available Warhammer Underworlds pool. Vanguard tournaments give you more reason to start up your collection again and a more immediate way to start playing games.
What’s in the Direchasm Box?
The two warbands included both have four models in them. Something of a departure from previous editions. From a beginner’s perspective, this is probably easier as both players are trying to contend with the same number of models. Also, game turns have 4 activations, and model counts of 4 mean less complex decision making; you don’t have to worry about who not to use.
The two warbands included here are the stoic Lumineth (GW’s new version of High Elves)—Myari’s Purifiers and the Dread Pageant, hedonist followers of Slaanesh. As ever, the models are entirely excellent.
NOTE: It has been noted by many players that the new Lumineth models are quite brittle on the sprue, often arriving broken. This, obviously, is far from ideal, especially as this is a beginner’s game, for which glue is not usually required. If you do need to stick some pieces back together, polystyrene cement is best, but super glue will work if that’s all you have. I did see an excellent tip that mentioned it’s easier to stick the staff (the piece that seems to end up broken) back together before you cut its pieces off the sprue. It lines up better that way.
We were fortunate enough to have our models painted by Milkeh Paints, a commission painter based in the UK. Do check out the rest of his wonderful work on Instagram.
Small Changes to the Rules
The box also comes with the 4th edition of the rulebook, which once again has been streamlined for ease of understanding. There have a couple of small but significant rules tweaks, which if you’ve never played the game before, won’t matter to you because they are now the current rules, and you don’t need to worry about what has gone before.
If you’re a returning player, take note of the new rules for supports in attack roles. Supporting fighters on either side used to cancel each other out. Now all supporting fighters count to your dice rolls. As attackers tend to roll more dice than defenders, this is a slight boost for aggressive play.
Another change to incentivize some aggressive action—after all, this is a game of combat—is that killing a 6 wound fighter now nets two glory, whereas it used to be 1.
In whatever game you’re playing, a new season usually brings with it, new mechanics—something to set the season apart from the others. In Nightvault it was magic, in the Beastgrave we had the placing of lethal hex counters. In Direchasm the new additions are fairly small. Indeed, they don’t exist in the main rulebook at all.
The game comes with a primacy card and a primacy token. The card describes when you can use the primacy token in games and how the primacy token is won.
You can gain the primacy token by carrying out a number of (mostly violent) actions in the game. If you are in possession of it at the end of a round, you gain a single glory boost. Note: This glory counts as spent (which means you can’t use it to purchase upgrades for your fighters in the game).
This is a little confusing in the abstract, but you can only put the primacy token into play when you have cards in either your objective or power-deck that refer to it. If neither player does so, the primacy mechanic is not invoked. If either or both do, then the primacy token is put into play, and players can fight for control of it. Once the token is in-play, either player can gain control of it, regardless of whether they have primacy cards in their deck.
At the moment this applies to a small number of cards that are found in the Direchasm box. They mostly refer to “hunger” tokens. There’s one Objective card that earns you glory when one of your fighters has 2 or more hunger tokens. The rest are power cards that give your fighters hunger tokens or allow them to do certain things if they have hunger tokens.
The hunger mechanic is currently underpowered and a little nebulous at the moment. This seems to be the way Warhammer Underworlds does things. With regular card releases, these new interactions/card mechanics build across a season as a whole. Whether it blossoms into a satisfactory component of the game remains to be seen. The similar Hunter/Quarry mechanic introduced in Beastgrave remained only partially successful even after the full season’s cards were released. Direchasm is continuing to evolve the Hunter/Quarry interactions; nothing remains static for very long in the Warhammer Underworlds arena.
Should You Invest in Warhammer Underworlds: Direchasm?
Warhammer Underworlds is a great game with a strong fan base filled with pleasant people. It’s a great community to be part of. The designers have worked hard to keep the game balanced and entertaining. If you’re looking for a low model count game that is fun to play and tactically challenging, you could do a whole lot worse than take a look at Direchasm.
But don’t just take my word for it. Check out the wisdom of my Agents of Sigmar partner, Pete, below.
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.