Wednesday, September 23, 2020

REVIEW: Warhammer Underworlds - Arena Mortis


The newest expansion for Warhammer Underworlds is hitting the streets soon, bringing with it a whole new way to play the game plus a bunch of awesome stuff that's usable in all games of Underworlds! So what lurks within the Arena Mortis?

My first surprise with this set was its packaging. For some reason I was expecting it to be a boxed set, but I guess when there are no models it makes more sense for it to be this way. It comes packaged in a clam pack that's as large as an Underworld's board folded in half, the largest thing in the set, with the cards in a little pop out on the back.

This is actually pretty similar to the Beastgrave Gift Pack from around Christmas time. You get 1 new game board, the rules booklet for Arena Mortis, a token sheet, the initiative cards, 20 new universal gambits, 20 new universal upgrades, and the biggest surprise for me, some updated cards for the Sepulchral Guard!

The board is a nice addition and goes a long way to justifying the cost of this set. It's optimized for Arena Mortis play, but can be used in any game of Underworlds, giving you even more options when picking your board. I think new boards usually sold for about $20 on their own, so that's about half the cost of the set right there. It's also double sided as usual.

The token set comes with a number of tokens that are used only in Arena Mortis, such as the remaining wound tokens and the objective markers unique to this game. You also get 6 Raise counters, which are used by everyone in Arena Mortis, and used by the Sepulchral Guard in regular games of Underworlds.

Really quick, before I move onto the other cards and the rules of the game itself, I want to talk about the most exciting part of this set to me, the new Sepulchral Guard cards! It's only two new cards that replace the old versions, a new version of the Warden, and a new version of the Restless Dead gambit. Besides some cleaned up language to more closely match how rules are phrased on current cards, the big addition are Raise counters. Now when you bring back members of the Sepulchral Guard with either the Warden's ability, or the Restless Dead gambit they also get a Raise counter. This does nothing on it's own, but there are a number of new universal gambits and upgrades in this set that play off of a model having a Raise counter on them. I'll go into more detail on those in a moment. I feel like this is huge though! It breathes some new life into a warband that lots of people felt was left behind after the inclusion of the ghosts and flesh-eaters, and most importantly, it shows that GW is willing to revisit old warbands and update their cards! I'm sure this was more a happy coincidence. They developed the Raise mechanic for Arena Mortis then thought, hey this is a great fit for the Sepulchral Guard! Either way, it's a promising sign for other warbands that are not as competitive anymore.

Before we dive into the rest of the universal cards I want to take a look at the ones that interact with Raise since they're quite unique. First off, they are the ones that interact with the new mechanic for the Sepulchral Guard, so I of course think they're really cool. Secondly, they're universal, but outside of the Arena Mortis they ONLY work for the Sepulchral Guard. That also poses an interesting issue whenever season 5 comes out and the Beastgrave cards are retired. Are these ones retired too? If so, then the new mechanic for the Sepulchral Guard does nothing without them. I'm hoping they will be an exclusion for these ones so the Skeletons can have a bit more fun.

For the gambits there are 5 of them. Invigorating Return seems really good since it will let you reposition the fighter right away since they have to start on a starting space. Cold Fury and Strength from Death are both good for temporarily boosting your fighter's effectiveness in combat. They also have a reaction mechanic, meaning they're played right away when a fighter is brought back. Revel in Death seems fun, and is a nice way to get Glory from a ploy, but there's always a chance it could fail as well. Bitter Memories is really cool since it potentially lets you do an out of sequence attack with a fighter with a Raise token. The wording on it is odd though since it says it's a reaction but doesn't say what you're reacting too. I have to imagine it's meant to be the same as the other reaction Raise cards and is played after a fighter comes back, which makes this a bit more situational. Basically, an enemy fighter will have to be in range of a starting hex. I think this card will have to get an errata to clear up the wording on it.

There are 4 upgrades that interact with the Raise tokens. Three of them are played as a reaction. It says to place the upgrade on the fighter when they are taken out of action for free, no glory points needed. Ambusher is similar to Invigorating Return, but gives you even more freedom in where the fighter goes after coming back. Gravesiren lets you push an enemy fighter, which potentially could be used in conjunction with Ambusher or Invigorating Return to really close the gap with an enemy. Hungry for Vengeance makes you more accurate, while Invigor Mortis is the only one of these upgrades that you need to spend a glory point to play. It lets you deal 1 damage to every adjacent enemy fighter when you bring them back and place a raise counter on them. Since you can place multiple raise counters on the same model, if it keeps dying and coming back, this is a repeated effect, though it will all depend on whether there are any enemies near your starting hexes. I like pretty much all of these and definitely plan to give them a spin in a Sepulchral Guard deck to see how they actually fare.

As for other upgrades and gambits from the set that caught my eye there were quite a few. Grand Offering seems awesome, and if you don't need the glory for an upgrade then it's a perfect free glory point. Divine Reward is a greta way to get an upgrade on a model for free. Since I play the Godsworn Hunt I'm always on the hunt for cards like this. Distracting Wealth is interesting since it lets you decide whether or not you want to play it till after you know if the attack succeeded or not. It costs 2 glory points, but if you really need that +1 damage to take out a tricky enemy it could be worth it, plus there's no risk in it. A Risky Prospect could potentially get you 3 glory if you roll well, or completely kill your model. It's a gamble but could be fun. Making Ends Meet is the perfect companion to a lot of these cards that you have to spend a glory point to use since you can just flip that glory point to being unspent again. Last Gasp also seems fun and is a nice way to chip off 1 damage, especially for warbands that can bring back models anyway.

The upgrade cards have a lot of attack action upgrades, which I have never really been behind. I know some people like them, but I feel like I'd rather buff the attack action on my fighter's card instead of just giving them another one unless it gives me something extra or adds range that I need. Desperate Swing stood out to me amongst these since it's combo, and also has the possibility of making it a 4 fury attack. Frenzied Assault is only a 1 damage, 1 fury attack, but if it succeeds then you just keep doing it until you fail. Unlikely to work most of the time, but when it does it should be fun. The last attack action upgrade I picked was the Weirding Staff. It can only be given to wizards, but is a range 2, 2 damage, 2 fury attack, and if you decide to spend 2 glory when doing it you can add the wizard's wizard level to the damage, which can be really good for some of the better wizards out there. Tight Defense is a nice way to get a Guard token on a model where needed, and Spiteful Lunge is similar to Last Gasp, but let's you just straight up take an enemy fighter out of action. It's super unreliable, but could be good on a lower tier fighter you don't care about. Throw this on Grawl, run him up against someone like Mollog, die and hope for that crit. One of my favorite ones is Vision of Glory. It's a reaction after an activation and lets you spend a glory to remove a move or charge token from that fighter, so you can charge or move again. Like the Tomes and Aspects of the Ur-Grub, this deck has its own little collection of upgrades in the form of the Mortis Relics. There are 3 of them in here. The Gauntlet of Command is my favorite. It lets you spend a glory point to push a friendly fighter. The Gauntlet of Dominance is similar in that you spend a glory point to push an enemy fighter. The Crown of the Dead lets you spend a glory point to draw 2 power cards and then discard one. All three of them have a rule where if you have 2 or more of these upgrades on the same fighter they get +1 wound, +1 damage to range 1 or 2 attacks, and the ability to re-roll one attack dice respectively. Most of the cards in this set revolve around dealing damage or generating glory in some way since those are the main objectives in Arena Mortis. I can see upgrade heavy warbands passing on a lot of these since they require glory points to operate, but it's a cool mechanic and gives you something else to use glory points on.

The actual new game itself of Arena Mortis is all contained in a neat little 8 page rulebook. Since it's mostly just an expansion of the core game it doesn't need to cover any of the core mechanics on how stuff works, just the new additions. This does mean you need the core game to play it of course. Arena Mortis is a multiplayer game, with anywhere from 3 to 6 players. At its simplest it can be described as a gladiatorial combat game. Each player picks one fighter to use. It can be any fighter from the entire game except for the Brimstone Horrors. This means you can take a mighty fighter like Mollog or even a lowly fighter like Grawl. The game balances this discrepancy out.

The decks are also different. There are no objective cards in this, just gambits and upgrades. You have to have a minimum of at least 10 of each type, with the gambit cards needing to match or outnumber the upgrades. You have access to all of the cards across Shadespire, Nightvault, and Beastgrave, with only 3 cards total being forsaken across the whole set. The length of the game is dependent upon how many players there are, such as 9 rounds for 3 players, or 6 rounds for 6 players. The order that players go in is determined by the Initiative deck. You randomly give each player a card from the deck and it will say if they're going first, second, third, etc. You keep this secret until it would be your turn to go. You re-deal this deck at the start of each round. When the game starts your fighter automatically gets some upgrades depending on how many wounds they have. 1-2 wound fighters start the game with 3 upgrades, while 6 wound fighters start with 0. There are some other interesting rules in here as well, such as the rule of one. There can only be one of any single card in play at any time. So if you have Great Strength on a fighter, and then one of your opponents plays that same upgrade on their fighter, you have to discard yours.

The objective of the game is just to kill as many enemy models as possible. If a fighter dies they are brought back at the start of their next turn with a Raise counter on them. In your turn you reveal your initiative card, draw an upgrade from your upgrade deck and apply it to your fighter (they don't cost glory in this game), then you have the opportunity to play a gambit card, then you do your activation as normal; move, charge, attack, etc; and lastly you have the opportunity to play another gambit card. You start the game with 3 gambit cards in your hand and draw a new one in each end phase after every player has gone. Your upgrade deck and gambit deck are kept separate. There are a few other special rules with how reactions work, taking out the player with the most glory, and dying in your own activation, but that's about it. The player with the most glory at the end of the game wins. With no objective cards the only way to get glory is through killing enemy models, and any gambit or ploys that grant you some, though if an upgrade gives you glory you have to discard it afterward. You can use any board you like from the game. There are also the Mortis Lenses, essentially special objectives that grant glory and also have special rules like +1 damage to attacks made by the model holding it. You randomly pick one of these to put in the center of the board at the start of the game.

Considering the current Covid situation I'm not able to test this out right now, but it seems like a fun side game to Underworlds. I'd imagine it'll go a lot faster than a normal game of Underworlds, so it would be good for a side game at an event or a game night. I'm not the best at building decks, so the biggest hurdle for me is deconstructing my existing decks to build one geared towards this. I'd definitely like to try it sometime though.

I think most people will be buying this set for the cards and the board, which is fine. They're honestly the main attraction, but Arena Mortis itself seems like a lot of fun and is a nice addition to Underworlds. I'm super excited about the update to the Sepulchral Guard and was not expecting that at all in this set. This also completes all the cards for Beastgrave until season 4 comes out in December according to the road map for Underowrlds they released a while ago. If you play Underworlds you'll definitely want to pick this up for the cards and the board, but I would give the game a try as well. Now, off to go build a Sepulchral Guard deck...

Until next time,

Tyler M.

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