When Geek & Sundry first got our hands on Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire at a preview earlier this year, my colleague Nathan Pullan said, “it has all the hallmarks of a game of the year contender.” Since then, other reviewers have also chimed in, describing it with terms such as, “Game of the Year” and “Top 10 of all time.” Despite expectations being set quite high, having now played it, I have to agree. Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire is a highly tactical arena combat game built from the ground up to stand-up to high-level competitive play. It’s also a roaring good time if you just want to roll dice and bash your friends into a pulp beneath the City of Mirrors.
It accomplishes this in a few ways. To start, the game is fast and streamlined. The whole game takes places across 12 alternating activations. Played casually, these activations are where you’ll smash skulls and claim objectives, charging here and there as brave knights or vicious berserkers. There’s some card play, but even the packaging of your decks is designed to get you going quickly. David Sanders, one of Shadespire’s designers, told me, “We wanted to make Warhammer Underworlds as accessible as possible.” Building and customizing your ability and objective decks are a key part of the game’s high-level strategy, but prebuilt decks for the Stormcast Eternals and Bloodbound Reavers are ready for you to just rip them open and start playing.
This philosophy carried into the miniature design. Games Workshop’s other games are known for their gorgeously detailed minis, though assembling a full army is a bit of an undertaking. Shadespire, along with last year’s Gorechosen, are “designed for people new to the hobby,” David said. I’ve found myself learning to assemble and paint miniatures this year and asked David for some words aimed at those intimidated by the hobby side of the game:
“…the rewards of the hobby are potentially limitless! You’ve nothing to lose by picking up one of our products that introduces that side of the hobby and just having a go. The feeling when you look at your painted miniatures on the battlefield is completely different to when they’re bare plastic.”
Again Shadespire makes this easy. Once you snip them out of their sprues, the push-fit minis assemble in minutes (glue is optional). They’re also great to learn to paint on as they have Citadel’s classic high level of detail while being newbie friendly in terms of poses.
However, awesome minis alone aren’t going to earn a game accolades, no matter how good they look. Fortunately (or unfortunately) it’s hard to stop playing Shadespire long enough to paint them. Like many of the best games, your options and goals are simple. The victor is the player with the most Glory Points at the end of the game, even if their Warband has been annihilated. These are scored by taking out your enemy and also through an Objective Deck. Each faction in Shadespire has a set of unique faction-specific objective cards that can be combined with generic objectives to form your scoring deck. Once you’ve played a few games with the pre-built decks you can tweak and customize your objectives to suit your style.
This is where high-level strategy is going to live. Garreth’s Khorne-worshipping reavers throw themselves into battle not caring if they live (in fact, they get stronger and can score points when they — or their enemies — die), though their high model count and fast movement also allow them to quickly grab objectives and score on them. The Stormcast Eternals are gifted with stoic defense and pointed direct attacks, allowing them to reliably damage and kill enemies and hold objectives while weathering the storm of counter-attacks. How you build your deck will drive how you play, and I foresee a lot furrowed brows in my future as I debate the merits of 1 or 2 different cards.
This also carries into the Powers Deck. Powers are character Upgrades and instant event style Ploys that can change the tide of battle. Again, each faction has their own set of unique ones they can combine with generic cards. The scant 12 Activations don’t give you a lot of opportunities to move, especially if your faction has more than 4 fighters like the upcoming Sepulchral Guard (with a model count of 7). This is where packing your deck with repositions and bonus activations can separate a Champion from a Chump. The focus on high-level play was baked into the design process from day one. Speaking again with David he said that “We wanted to make sure that those releases, such as the Sepulchral Guard, fit seamlessly into the game, expanding it without unbalancing it. Needless to say, this took a lot of playtesting, and it had a longer development time than most of our boxed games.”
This all works together seamlessly to reward casual first-timers and veterans alike. As a miniature gamer, I can appreciate the opportunity to fine tune my deck, strategy, and even board layout outside the game (as well as paint the figures). As a board gamer, I can enjoy the quick assembly and comfortable hex-based tactical movement. Like the City of Shadespire straddling the realms of light and shadow, the game itself can appeal to both sides of this tabletop hobby. If you’re a miniature gamer looking for tactical strategy in a small package, this game is for you. If you’re a board gamer looking to dip your toes in a plastic molded hobby, this game is for you too. Now, let’s roll some dice.
We’ll also be playing Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire on Game The Game, hosted by Becca Scott! Join her this Wednesday, October 25, starting at 4PM PT on Twitch and Alpha and see the game in action for yourself.
Images: Rafael Cordero, Teri Litorco, Games Workshop
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