For the entirety of the 21st century and until its demise in 2012, THQ was the only publisher making games set in the Warhammer 40K universe. Since then, Games Workshop has been on a licensing spree for both its Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40K universes, with inconsistent success.
One of the better received games in the past few years was Rogue Factor’s “Mordheim: City of the Damned,” based on a tabletop game of the same name. Players build and upgrade a small warband from one of a number of factions in turn-based combat.
“Necromunda: Underhive Wars” (a recently re-released miniatures board game) builds on everything Rogue Factor learned from “Mordheim.” The titular hive planet of Necromunda is a entirely consumed by the Imperium of Man’s military industrial complex. The wealthy and powerful live above the pollution in tall spires, the common folk live in the grimy city.
Beneath their feet though, is the underhive, a network of tunnels and domes. There, gangs fight for territory in brutal combat with chainswords, bolters, and flamers.
One of the big improvements Rogue Factor is committed to is giving players an easier on-boarding experience. For all of its tactical prowess, “Mordheim” can be obtuse.
“Mordheim is sort of chess-by-mail, and matches can take a long time,” says community manager Astrid Rosemarin. “Matches can take a long time. There are some matches that have been two hours long. We want to make it snappier and more active. Mordheim can be challenging to play as a new player. We want to put a lot of emphasis on making it easier to dive in, without having to play 70 hours.”
Even in its pre-alpha state, “Necromunda” is a far easier game to understand. Part of that comes through user interface, but a big piece of the puzzle is the strategic view that pops up after every turn.
The loop makes sure that matches move at a brisk pace (a regular criticism “Mordheim” faced). The first step is to assemble your gang from a variety classes, including the melee-focused brawler, the deadeye sniper, the tank-like heavy fighter, and the crafty saboteur. Players can fully customize their gang members, as if they were tabletop miniatures.
At the start of the match, players pick a map-specific number of entry points. There’s no fog of war. You know where your opponent is going to be making their incursion.
Then, you’ll each pick one of your gang members every turn. You won’t know who your opponent is activating, but you can always see where your foes are on the map in the strategic view.
Movement is simultaneous and turns only end when players run out of action points, spent by moving in real-time or performing actions like sabotaging equipment, laying traps, or using zip lines. If you happen to stumble upon an inactive enemy gang member, you can attack until you’re out of AP.
If you happen upon your opponent’s active gang member, the two of you enter a turn-based mode. You’ll volley back and forth. During your phase, you can spend AP on one attack action, one tactical action (like a support ability or a zip line), and up to 15 points of movement, regardless of how much you have left in your pool. This is an elegant solution, but since “Necromunda” is in pre-alpha, the team is still experimenting and balancing. This could very likely change before next year’s release.
A big piece of the “Necromunda” magic is going to seem familiar to “XCOM” fans. Each of your gang members is fragile. Death is permanent and injury can impact how you finish the fight and if you’ll need to spend on body enhancements to get your team ready for the next mission.
Equipment is also fleeting, with permanent malfunctions and degradation forcing players to loot new gear. These aren’t Space Marines with the best armaments in the Imperium. These are street thugs who have to scrounge.
As gang members die, recruitment becomes an important part of life. Each new member comes with personality traits that can enhance or restrict. Some of these are gang-specific, like the Eschers’ cocky trait, which makes taking cover cost more AP.
“You can’t control them,” says community manager Astrid Rosemarin. “They are who they are.”
“Necromunda” will also feature an upgrade tree. As gang members level up, they’ll earn active and passive skills. Your designated gang leader will have access to a unique tier of heroic abilities that underlings can’t access.
Rogue Factor has a lot of work left before “Necromunda’s” release, but this first look shows immense promise. A Warhammer 40K without the iconic Space Marines game might be a hard sell for casual fans, but this also has the potential to hook “XCOM” fans biding their time for Firaxis to bring back the alien threat.