Board Game Review: Horus Heresy by Fantasy Flight Games

Good lord, this is a beast. The first thing you'll notice about Horus Heresy is the size. It's massive, the last coffin-box that Fantasy Flight Games produced before they decided that it was probably a bit easier to use a smaller but taller effort along the lines of Descent 2.0. Based on the original Games Workshop property, FFG has waved its magic wand over a really rather old-fashioned game and produced what can only be described as a monster. An absolutely huge affair, the amount of work that has gone into Horus Heresy is only matched by its price – if you’re looking to pick up a copy here in the UK, you’re looking at paying at least £70 which is a fair old outlay for a two player game. The question is – of course – is it worth it?

Well, let’s begin with the game itself. It tells the story of the event that the entire Warhammer 40K Universe is based on – the betrayal of The Emperor by his former ally Horus that split the whole thing in two. It’s the classic tale of Good Versus Evil, except this time it’s set in the distant future and has a handful of Space Marines and hordes of demons thrown in for good measure. Players choose a side and begin the battle for Terra – and what a battle it will be…

Opening the box and setting the game up is an amazing experience. I’ve always been one for games with tons of bits and I wasn’t disappointed with Horus Heresy. There is so much stuff in there: over a hundred plastic minis, a huge board with pop out bits that are then filled with 3D fortifications, piles of cards, masses of tokens and two books – one with a selection of scenarios and, of course, the traditional hugely detailed Fantasy Flight rulebook. Set-up takes a while, especially the initial placing of the minis on their various bases, but after a few games it becomes second nature. The scenarios book tells you where to place all the bits for early plays, but more advanced players will be drawn to trickier efforts, putting what they want where they want in an all-out battle.

While gameplay is initially daunting, after a few plays you get into the swing of things and you shouldn’t have too much of a problem. The board is split into two sections – one small version of the map which is strictly used for placing order cards. This in turn affects the larger map that contains all the minis. Orders can be played straight from the hand, but are more expensive than placing them on the board first – you also get an advantage for playing them from the board, but run the risk of your opponent blocking or burying them.

The whole game is driven by an excellent mechanic – the Initiative Track. Running the entire length of the bottom of the board, it is this which governs who takes their actions. Everything in Horus Heresy costs. Moving units around the board? Shift along the track. Placing orders on the Strategic Map? Shift along the track. Playing an order from your hand? Shift along the track even further. Depending on where your side’s token is on the track will have an effect on how you play – whoever is closest to the left of the board takes their turn, so if there’s quite a gap between you and your opponent, you really get the chance to be aggressive or plan in detail – perhaps even both. Every time initiative changes, areas that contain units from both sides will battle – as this happens a lot, there’s very little downtime. You’ll find yourself constantly thinking about what you’re doing and what you need to do, adapting to actions taken by the other player. Add to that the fact that events are also triggered as players move down the track and you note that Horus Heresy never lets up. It is a pretty intense experience.

Now, enjoyable though it is, I must admit that Horus Heresy has got its faults. The first game I ever played of it was pretty disastrous. Despite reading through the rulebook numerous times and thinking we knew what we were doing, my and my opponent forgot loads of stuff. Early battles were messed up, order cards were utterly buggered and we pretty much ignored the strategic map elements. There is so much to remember in this game that many players will see it more as hard work than something fun to play – it’s definitely a game that needs a heavy investment of time as well as money to get the most out of it. It’s got to be said that the rulebook is not the clearest one that’s ever been written – the countless pages of rules clarification on the game's Board Game Geek entry are filled with people bemoaning the lack of clarity. There is a lot of confusion, but this is a game that gives the players a huge amount of options – it requires a few plays to really get a grip on how it functions and everything that is open to you. Another gripe concerns the 3D elements of the board, which though pretty are a bit limiting. It’s only a minor thing, but trying to fit more than a few minis in them sees them spilling out over the sides which could lead to more confusion over where they’re actually supposed to be. Not a massive issue, admittedly, but still something of a design flaw.

So, is it worth it? My slightly non-committal answer is… it depends on what you’re like as a gamer. Horus Heresy is certainly a good game, but it’s far from an easy beast to tame. Fantasy Flight has created something that looks beautiful with a huge amount of depth but the sometimes vague rules are an issue. As time has passed and more clarifications have come out, I am hopeful that the negative opinions will die down, but only time will tell. Of course, the biggest thing is the price tag – many will baulk at paying out such a sum of money for a two-player game. If it had been released at around the £50 mark I can imagine there would be little or no outcry at all, but £70+ is a lot to hand over. This is something of shame because it’s a solid game – not an amazing game, but certainly solid. Well... once you get past the rulebook, anyway.


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