British tabletop publisher Games Workshop has been on an absolute tear, dropping massive new releases on a monthly basis throughout the second half of 2018. Its latest offering is called Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress, a hybrid of a traditional board game and a tactical wargame. Inside the $150 boxed set are dozens of fantastic, exclusive miniatures as well as a cooperative campaign that traces its roots all the way back to 1989.
That’s the fateful year when Milton Bradley first published HeroQuest, a joint collaboration between that company and Games Workshop. Designed by the legendary Stephen Baker (Space Crusade, BattleMasters, Heroscape expansions), it was a light role-playing game tied to an addictive tactical miniatures game. Even those who have never played it will likely remember the commercials, which blanketed children’s programming for a time in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
After Milton Bradley published a few expansions for HeroQuest, Games Workshop took back the rights to create Advanced HeroQuest. That game was the inspiration for Warhammer Quest, which firmly ensconced the franchise within the company’s proprietary high-fantasy universe. But, by and large, the concept has always been the same: a small group of adventurers on a journey through deadly dungeons, gaining new abilities and treasures along the way.
Blackstone Fortress ports the concept into the popular grimdark world of Warhammer 40,000. It also updates Warhammer Quest gameplay with state-of-the-art mechanics and top-shelf miniature designs.
At its core, Blackstone Fortress is about the dozens of enemies inside the box. Those include traditional baddies, like Chaos Space Marines, as well as entirely new units, such as undead Imperial Guardsmen. Each type is driven by an easy-to-read sideboard card, with a grid of potential actions on one side and attacks on the other. Once spawned onto the table, it’s up to the roll of the dice to see how they behave. Combat is fluid, and moves surprisingly quickly thanks to a handful of custom dice.
On the heroic side of the table is a rogues’ gallery of adventurers hailing from obscure corners of the larger 40K universe. They include a starship navigator and a priest, as well as a swashbuckling nobleman and a pair of diminutive “ratlings” that work together as a single playable unit. Each of the nine explorers has their own unique abilities, with upgrades coming in the form of new equipment that can be purchased with loot between games.
Aside from the miniatures, which are a cinch to assemble, what elevates Blackstone Fortress is the campaign itself.
In order to unlock the secret heart of the stronghold, players must first churn through a series of random encounters. These encounters include narrative minigames as well as rounds of full-blown combat, and each one has the potential to be deadly. Characters always feel at risk, and permadeath is turned on by default.
Once players have churned through enough random encounters — around two to four hours of gameplay, in my estimation — they can turn in loot to reveal the location of a stronghold within the Fortress. While most of the game is randomly generated, each of these strongholds are painstakingly designed, right down to the spawn location for specific units and special win conditions for each map. In this way, the team at Games Workshop is borrowing heavily from the tradition of full-fledged tabletop RPGs, but also modern titles such as Dark Souls: The Board Game and Kingdom Death: Monster.
There’s also a nod to the legacy system, the popular genre invented by game designer Rob Daviau where players actively change the game from session to session. There’s no tearing up cards or marking up the game board, but Blackstone Fortress features a “Legacy Deck” that is randomly generated at the beginning of every campaign. It adds new adversaries to the game over time, as well as serving as a doomsday clock for added urgency. Like Risk: Legacy, Blackstone Fortress even features a single sealed envelope that’s to be opened only once players reach the Fortress’ inner sanctum.
Another modern touch is that Blackstone Fortress is playable as a solo game. I frankly can’t recommend it that way, however, since the cognitive load is extremely high. Ideally, I’d suggest playing with a full group of five, where one player alone controls the game’s enemies and each other player has a hero of their own on the board.
That being said, so far I’ve only simulated the first six hours of gameplay on my own here at home. I have absolutely no idea yet if Blackstone Fortress is appropriately balanced or broken in any way. If last year’s Necromunda: Underhive is any indication, you can expect a hefty set of errata in the coming months. Since the game includes permadeath, expect to spend at least a little time judiciously retconning your actions if things go terribly wrong.
What I can say is that the manuals are written exceptionally well. The language in Blackstone Fortress is clear and concise, if a bit dry, but given Games Workshop’s roots in wargaming that’s par for the course. The game’s multiple modes of play are divided up into separate documents in a way that spreads knowledge between players at the table instead of hiding it from them, a feat not easily accomplished in the tabletop space. Additionally, the game’s lore is packaged into its own distinct volume so that it can be handed off to different players to enjoy during their downtime between turns.
One place where Blackstone Fortress underwhelms, however, is in the terrain department. It simply doesn’t come with much. The modular tile system is functional, but the art itself is vague at best. I’m not sure the tiles really represent the environment well. After the extras included with other new games released by Games Workshop this year, I expected something a bit more elaborate. Collectors should be on the lookout for aftermarket resin or 3D-printed replacements as soon as possible.
Adding to the value of the set is the fact that all of the miniatures bundled with the game come with rules for use in the eighth edition of the full-fledged tabletop wargame. There’s also a beta version of a new ruleset that makes those same minis usable in Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team, a small-unit skirmish game released earlier this year.
For Games Workshop, whose products are often derided as being a bit overpriced, there’s a tremendous amount of content on offer here. That makes Blackstone Fortress a highly recommended entry point into the larger world of Warhammer 40,000.