Oy, talking about this is going to be tough unless we’re on the same page. So let’s begin this review with a lexicon. I can do that because, well, I make up the rules.
Warhammer 40,000 (AKA Warhammer 40k) – A famous miniatures game that costs a lot. You roll lots of dice and lots of grim bastards die. Some are less than human. Others are even less than less than human.
Warhammer 40,000 Kill Team – Instead of paying $400 for an army you pay $400 for four much smaller armies and pretend like you saved money. The battlefield is a fraction of the size and you roll less dice. Since it’s a shorter game you have just enough time at the end of the night to peruse the new releases and start working on that fifth army.
Blood Bowl – A board game about football that a bunch of old men used to play in the basement of my local Games Workshop store. It’s long and cruel and fits right into the Warhammer line.
Blitz Bowl – Blood Bowl but shorter. And better. And you can play it outside of the basement because it’s mainstream and at Barnes & Noble.
Warhammer Underworlds – The best tabletop game of 2017. A fast paced squad versus squad light yet competitive game with deckbuilding and unending tension. Brilliance.
Warhammer 40,000: Fireteam – A brand new board game. The game whose review you are reading.
Right, so now we’re ready.
Fireteam was designed for me. That’s how I feel half of the time when I’m playing. The other half I’m chewing on the inside of my cheek and trying not to be overcome with annoyance. This is because the game is so close to being truly marvelous. So close.
It plays like a cocktail of Kill Team, Blitz Bowl, and Warhammer Underworlds. It hews most closely to Kill Team, featuring two squads competing in a head to head skirmish.
However, this is a board game. You don’t measure movement with a ruler or bend down and squint trying to figure out if your Assault Intercessor can see that creaky Necron Warrior in the corner. Everything is two dimensional except for the miniatures.
The miniatures are gorgeous in terms of those manufactured for a board game. They’re push-fit, although you need a tool to remove them from the sprue, and feature some great poses. Of course everything is run-of-the-mill if you have a Warhammer army or two on your shelf, but then I don’t think this game is for you, 40k gamer.
Fireteam is for the person who loves the Warhammer world. Maybe they played various Games Workshop games in the past or shirked away from the hobby due to drifting interests or newfound commitments. Maybe now they’re old but they don’t want to hide in the basement and play Blood Bowl.
Or it’s for the person who has little idea what Warhammer is and wants to get a taste. Calling this an intended gateway drug would be wholly accurate.
The ruleset is derived from the latest iteration of Kill Team. You alternate activating individual models with your opponent, each figure possessing a certain number of action points to move, shoot, or claim objectives. Each type of unit has their own datacard with their weapons, special abilities, and attack profiles. It’s really dirt simple for this type of game.
But simple doesn’t equal brainless. This game feels tight like Underworlds. You have only three rounds to efficiently order your soldiers to control various points on the board and slaughter your foes. Combat is streamlined and you are limited in your overall tactical maneuvering due to the confined nature of the board, but there is just enough space to form a simple strategic plan and watch it all fall apart.
The primary element injecting nuance and requiring deeper cognitive study is the structure of the scenario. Fireteam comes with 12 – yes 12 – scenarios. What’s more surprising than that number is the variety on display. Some will have you fighting to control specific positions. Some will have you gathering up objective tokens and hauling them across the map. Others will have you interacting with terrain to trigger effects. All of this causes you to shift your priorities and adds mental weight to the activation system.
Most significant is the various forms of deployment. Rarely does each fireteam simply begin on opposite board edges in a single cluster. Usually you will have multiple areas you can place models in to start the game, allowing for an initial position of a possible flank or deep strike. Some setups have forces even intermingled resulting in sheer chaos.
What’s so fantastic about this thoughtful integration is that each of the missions will place different weight upon the value of various units. For example, the Necrons in this box are slow as hell, their wobbly endo legs unable to keep up. They also suffer from limited functionality in their programming which restricts them from performing the same action twice in an activation. This means you can only move two spaces every activation. So a Necron warrior, under typical circumstances, will only cover six spaces of movement over the entire 30 minute game.
The Intercessors are much more swift, able to move twice and farther each time. This makes them more adept at hoofing it to the middle of the board and claiming objective points early, or shifting during play and forming up on an opponent’s exposed flank.
This doesn’t matter at all with some scenarios. If the Necrons can deploy intermingled in the mid-section of the board their numbers will prove much more valuable than the ability to strike fast. In other missions they will be handicapped severely.
But that’s where their three little scarab swarms come in. There are missions where you may utilize them primarily as harassers, attempting to get behind your foe and distract them from the frontal assault. But in the others when you must cover great distances they are vital to cutting off Marines before they can get to objectives.
What I’m saying is that your play and strategic acuity will evolve over time. This isn’t simply a game to throw on the shelf and play with your child.
Besides the missions, the second best element is the oddly named target of opportunity mechanism. This is a deck of cards that contain objectives. They’re very similar to that wonderful element found in Warhammer Underworlds. Players are dealt three objectives and these provide additional vectors for point scoring beyond the mission parameters. They include options such as ending a turn with all of your units in cover, or pushing you to take out a specific model the enemy designates as high priority. The variety here is pretty solid.
One more mechanism to laud are ploys. These are faction specific powers you can trigger for the round chosen from three options. Perhaps you really want to light up Sergeant Gideon so you select the Necron warrior at his six and allow it to attack twice. Spicey.
Look, these are simple things in isolation. The objectives alone aren’t better than that found in Underworlds or Blitz Bowl. The ploys, likewise, aren’t as satisfying or wild as the plethora of options in Underworlds either. Finally, the scenarios and mix of units aren’t as sexy as a fully fleshed out Kill Team.
But damn, this blends weaker strains of all of those elements to form a neat little board game that’s simply fun. What’s surprising is that the combination of these three qualities – scenarios, targets of opportunity, and ploys – provides a surprisingly rich experience for a 30 minute shootout that requires no list building and little setup time. They elevate the simple firefight dynamics that consist of dancing around range limits and positioning for light cover, providing for a relatively flavorful bite sized clash.
We’re not done though. Remember how I said it was almost truly marvelous. What drags it down is the activation system. Going back and forth and using action points is dandy, but instead of simply ending a player’s participation when all of their units are activated we have this weird alternative that is outright clunky.
In an enforcement of equity, we’re each given eight activations. You must activate each unit once before you can select any model a second time. So this means you will activate all five Space Marine Assault Intercessors first, and then you can hit one of them again. And again. And again if you want. Meanwhile the Necron player has so many Terminators standing they will likely never select a unit twice.
That asymmetry is actually interesting. It works and it forces tough decisions, particularly because models activated a second time only receive one action point instead of the typical two. The balance feels right, which gives credence to the mechanism.
But it’s a mess in play. After moving a model you have to place an activation token next to them. But you need to be careful because you will also have wound tokens stacked up, and maybe even a token if the character is the target of a ploy. This results in a cluttered and visually unattractive gamestate. It makes the small board feel smaller. It also results in a surprising amount of administration for a game that is otherwise lithe and fierce.
The second aspect of this system is equally odious. Those eight activations must be recorded on a track. So if you go first we position a token on your faction’s side and put it on the 1st action space. Then after you activate a unit it’s my go, so we flip the token over and then I take my turn. Now back to you, so we flip the token back to your side and move it to the second activation. This occurs until we’ve each gone eight times.
This isn’t horrific and it doesn’t spoil the outing, but it’s a bit of a bruise on the game. It’s the type of mechanism a designer like James Hewitt, the mind behind Blitz Bowl and many other games, would never have included. I can see why these elements are ingrained into the system, but it undercuts some of the excellence and keeps this from attaining a similar classic status as those of its influences.
I’m not ready to leap into a drop pod. This game does something that one could argue is magical, it presents a design that captures the spirit of Kill Team in a streamlined and approachable board game. It’s not a board game set in the 40k universe, it’s a proper system wholly derived from its bigger siblings. Doing away with the necessity for each player to buy a rulebook (or two), customize their miniatures, craft a list, and gather up a pile of tactics cards is a great boon that successfully extricates the most basic features of Kill Team from its lifestyle game anchor.
I’ve enjoyed each of my excursions into Fireteam and I’m eager to see how this game develops. It is indeed launching with some initial support from Games Workshop. There are datacards with the necessary rules for Ork, T’au, Aeldari Craftworlds, and Astra Militarum included in the box. There is also a two page campaign system – which looks somewhat clever – provided to add some extended life to play. Perhaps I eventually come around on the token juggling, but even if I don’t, there’s enough quality here to keep me attentive.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.