Sunday, June 22, 2014

Mordheim: City of the Damned

I've had an idea for a blog post that's been rolling around in my head for the last few hours, but after watching tonight's Portugal v. USA game, I'm really not up for it. It's funny...if your team ties the score in the last 30 seconds, you end up feeling elated that you didn't lose, but if the other team equalizes, you feel devastated that you didn't win.

Ah, it means that Game 3 (versus Germany) matters. Make 'em work for it. Personally, I'd like to dream that this is our "payback year;" after all, Brazil won the World Cup on U.S. soil in 1994 (back when I didn't know there was such a thing as a "world cup").

[ugh...just thinking about that last goal really, really irritates me. Five minutes of stoppage time? And the guy scores at 4:36? Just...aaaaaRRGHH!]

Um, so thing I keep coming across in this blog is the fact that I write less than I actually mean to write. Which has (believe or not) been an issue even since the early days (pre-children) when I was writing scores of posts every month. I think of things to post, fail to post them, and then reference the very things I failed to post, thinking that everyone knows what the hell I'm talking about. Call it a pitfall of the diarrhetic mind.

Case in point: I've written extensively about the Mordheim game before, right? No...wrong. Not here, anyway. I did write a review of the (now out-of-print) GW skirmish game on Board Game Geek back in June of 2006 (about three years before the advent of this blog). Because, I'm feeling a little lethargic (i.e. lazy) at the moment, and because I want to get up earlier tomorrow, I'm going to copy and paste the thing thoughts on it remain largely the same, strange enough. It also helps set up the aforementioned, soon-to-be-baked (I hope) topic on which I've been meditating.

*ahem* Here it is:

MORDHEIM: CITY OF THE DAMNED longer available for sale.
Real Fantasy Wargaming

Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax (creators of the Dungeons & Dragons game) came from a wargaming background. Their creation of the RPG was an attempt to recreate stories like The Lord of the Rings into a workable game (killing monsters gets you treasure, getting treasure gives you (experience) points, gaining points rewards you with more effectiveness, allowing you to kill bigger monsters, etc). Very simplistic and very open in scope.

Mordheim takes these concepts to the next level of game play. First off, it is focused setting-wise. All the action takes place in the ruined city of Mordheim, a surface level dungeon filled with both treasure (precious “wyrdstone”) and opponents (mutated denizens and competing treasure hunters). You play a “warband:” a group of like-minded fellows looking for brawls and booty. These are represented both abstractly (on a roster that keeps track of each band members abilities) and with customizable miniatures that represent your warband on the game board.

The “board” is a number of small 3-D structures representing ruined buildings that can be configured in whatever fashion the players choose…it changes with every game, giving you a constantly evolving game board. You can also create your own models for use in the game to update your play area.

Gameplay is streamlined and tactical. Players alternate turns during each battle and actions are resolved by rolling dice. Careful positioning, movement, and use of special abilities/equipment (different types of warband have different gear and bennies) is more important than random chance. Cautious use of terrain, cover, and ranged weapons can be effective, but fortune often favors the bold, and hand-to-hand combat is resolved both quickly and decisively.

Once a battle is concluded, players check to see what treasure their warband found, and update their warband roster with new abilities gained from the experience of the battle. They can also buy new and additional equipment or hire new members for their warband.

The game is quick enough that you can play 2 to 3 battles in an evening.

A Word About Miniatures

A lot of wargaming hobbies require the purchase of scores of miniatures to field a decent playable army, often at exorbitant (imported) prices. Mordheim can be played with pretty much any fantasy miniatures of the 20mm range and as each type of warband has a maximum number of pieces allowed (usually 12-15) your cost is very small, especially if you only play with one favorite warband. I decided I wanted to kit out a dwarven warband (modeled after the dwarves of The Hobbit) and simply bought a box of dwarf footmen from the Warhammer Fantasy Battle line…no blister packs, no ordering, and highly customizable. You can spend your extra money on the beer and pretzels you’ll be consuming on game night.

The original game (no longer sold) came with pieces for two warbands; one human, one skaven (rat humanoids). Sadly, the boxed set is no longer printed as the quality and number of minis alone was worth the price of the game.

Is It Fun?

Absolutely. There’s no angsty role-playing involved in this game. Just simply laying the smack-down on your opponent. Gains you what treasure should: the money to purchase better arms and armor. Becoming a veteran of many battles makes your warband member a hardened killing machine.

The game is easily played as a one-off single session, no attachments battle. Different missions provide different goals/scenarios for victory, and a changing variety of opponents and terrain means the re-play factor of the game is high.

Using the campaign rules lends continuity to the game and gives a player a sense of accomplishment outside of simply “Did I win or lose the battle?” Sure you may have lost one night, but your warband gained something from the experience (money, training), and the next game night it will be your turn for revenge.

There are even supplemental scenarios for multiple warbands and semi-cooperative play (there’s one in which part of the mission involves slaying a dragon).

Comparison With Other Games

Many have compared it to Necromunda (another game by the same company) and have complained that it is not as detailed, that it doesn’t allow “cover fire” for example. However, this game is set in an earlier renaissance period, and the weapons and tactics for using a bow and black powder musket are not the same as those by, say, the U.S. military in CQC or house-to-house battle.

The movement and combat is similar in many ways to other Games Workshop miniatures games (like Warhammer 40K), but each member of the warband is an individual, unencumbered by squad cohesion rules…basically allowed to roam throughout the battlefield on their own recognizance. Again the game emphasizes, tactics; playing a couple times with the same warband will give you an idea on when to huddle for protection, when to take cover, and when to charge. Also members of a warband are much more customizable ability-wise and equipment-wise than your average wargame platoon.

The learning curve on Mordheim is pretty slight for folks with previous Games Workshop wargame experience. For those that haven’t played GW games (or that only know Blood Bowl), the curve is moderate. You can learn the rules in an evening, but it takes a lot of time to master.

Should I Get This Game?

If you’ve read this far, I’d strongly suggest getting this game. If you like the fighting/challenge aspect of certain fantasy role-playing games without the “role-playing,” then this game is for you. If you like the gritty, dark ages setting of the Warhammer universe you’ll probably like this game. If anything about “fantasy skirmish action” rings your bell, you should get this game.

If you really enjoy painting and customizing individual miniatures (individual stars or heroes) to the point where you give certain pieces names, or personalities, or “talk” to them…in other words, if you are a freak like me, then this is definitely the game for you. Your minis in this game are not faceless, nameless troops…heck, they’re not even the linemen (and “lineorks”) of Blood Bowl. A warband has personality…much like a pirate crew. They can be themed creations, or simple reflections of their owner (you). However, you won’t need to purchase 50+ miniatures to get a “themed” army like some games.

Softcover; killer interior art.
Oh, and yes the game is out of print now, but it is available for free as a download (see the link below). You can’t beat that price for this type of entertainment. Download a copy, kit-bash some structures from cardboard and whatnot, and break out those old Ral Partha miniatures!

[***EDIT: as of 2014, Games Workshop's "Specialist Games" site is dead; however, you can still find PDFs of the Mordheim rulebook with a quick internet search. Note that not all of these are the original, official rules released with the game***]

Limited Setting (last note)

Of course, the one disadvantage of a focused game like Mordheim is the limited setting…it all takes place in one ruined city. However there is another excellent setting available for download on the internet: Lustria: Cities of Gold. Lustria (in the Warhammer universe) is the name of the South/Central American continent. Like pre-Hispanic America, it is filled with rain forests, ancient pyramids, and deadly creatures. Unlike the real world, the main inhabitants are savage lizard folk living in the jungle. If you want to explore the new world and bring back gold in a fantasy setting, check out the Lustria sites. And please-oh-please post some pictures of any step-pyramid set pieces you design!

[***EDIT: Lustria: Cities of Gold can also be found rather easily...there's even a quick link in yesterday's post***]


  1. i know of 2 other expansions, "empire in flames" and "relics of the crusades".

    mordheim would translate as murderhome, btw. :)

  2. "There’s no angsty role-playing involved in this game."

    "If you like the fighting/challenge aspect of certain fantasy role-playing games without the “role-playing,” then this game is for you."

    Ha! At last we see the roots of the ideology behind why you went on to create a "Fantasy Adventure Game" rather than a roleplaying game! ;-)

  3. @ Anthony:

    I was actually pretty surprised about this myself! Buried deep in the subconscious, I guess.

  4. Oh man, I wish this game held up in play-- but it has numerous problems. We started a campaign with 21 (!?) players back in the day and it dwindled to five within a month. Love the background and the books, but when you play this for a bit the combat just breaks down due to whiffing between strong opponents. They will be stuck in with nothing happening turn after turn after turn. If it had just used the 2nd Edition 40K rules like Necromunda did, this would have been abated easily, but they went the Warhammer route and it just didn't work. What's more, the campaign itself in contrast to Necromunda was pretty uninteresting--in Necro you are fighting for territory and continue to fight to protect it and gain more. In Mordheim, you are just... fighting. Most guys got their warband to a certain point in skills and then would not play other players for fear of getting wounded/killed. What's the point of that? Alternative is the "Legends" rules that powers Legends of the Old West, Legends of the High Seas and the Hobbit /LOTR miniature games (Also by GW).

    1. @ lm:

      Huh...I guess I never had the chance to play it enough to get to the point where it breaks down. I believe you...but that's kind of the way with all GW games that allow for "campaign style" play...elf teams are expensive to start in Blood Bowl, but after a few games they can become nigh unstoppable with all those "block-dodge-high AG" dudes prancing around in the backfield. It's why I always try to keep the inherent deadliness IN (the original 3rd edition injury tables)'s the only way to maintain balance. Sorry if that means your pet superhero died under my Mighty Blow.

    2. Now, I also have played a lot of Blood Bowl, and can tell you that the base 3rd edition injury tables can be horrifically abused and statistically it ended up that your players would be killed much more often than injured due to the bonuses. Try a human or goblin team with every single player with Dirty Player and Pro. Or a Skaven team with blitzers with claw, Pro and mighty blow (which I think gives the max bonus in the game to break armor and kill players+ rerolls on injury rolls). The key thing for gameplay is to get players off the pitch if you are that sort of team (Tackle, Mighty Blow takes care of those pesky elves with block and dodge since most with enough speed to count are AV 7). The new version of BB fixes a lot of those early abuses while still allowing teams plenty of opportunity to get players off the pitch.