Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire
Publisher: Games Workshop
Release Date: October 2, 2017
Price: $60.00
Game Designer(s): GW Staff
Format: Board Game
Number of Players: 2 or more
Playing Time: 30 minutes
UPC #: 5-011921-088737
Age Rating: 12 and up
ICv2 Rating: 4 Stars out of 5

Games Workshop continues to expand the story of Warhammer, not only through the miniatures game, but also through stand-alone board games set in the same world.  The next chapter in the story will be the Warhammer Underworlds series, offering skirmish-scale conflicts between small teams of hardened warriors.  These games are much smaller than the epic battles of Warhammer, but do they still offer as big of an experience?

Summary:  Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire is the first game in what appears to be a new series.  It is set in a mysterious city where the souls of all who die within are trapped forever, ensnared by a terrible curse and the shards of magical mirrors that once made the city great.  As the leader of a team of such warriors, the players must battle their rivals for victory in bloody but endless battles, hoping to uncover a way to break the curse and finally be free of the city of Shadespire.

The game itself could serve as a very effective "gateway game" into the world of Warhammer.  The core rules are simple enough to explain on one sheet of paper.  The eight "push-fit" models go together fairly easily (though some fit together more easily than others), yet they still look impressive when put together.  Taking an idea from CCGs, players construct their own deck of cards, including tactics and gear to help them fight, but also the objectives they must pursue for victory.  This allows players to tailor every aspect of their strategy before the game even begins.  Battle is fought on the hex-grid mapboard using miniatures, with combat resolved using dice.  Game play is fast-paced, with little downtime as players can only use one figure per turn and there are opportunities to act during an opponent’s turn.  With battles strictly limited to three rounds of four turns each, games are over quickly.

OriginalityShadespire is not the first battle game to combine elements of CCGs and board games, or even the first with miniatures.  But that doesn’t mean that there are no innovations here.  The core mechanic has players alternating single actions, keeping the game pace quick and players involved all the time.  Characters can take multiple actions in a round if they act cautiously, or go all in with a charge attack that leaves them unable to act for the rest of the round, forcing players to decide between single powerful actions or multiple weaker ones.  And perhaps the most interesting idea is the Glory Points:  these are earned by completing the objective cards in your deck, and you need them not only to win but also to pay for the powerful upgrade cards.  Interestingly, though, went spent they are not lost, meaning that a player can benefit from their Glory twice:  once to buy upgrades and again for scoring at the end of the game.

Presentation:  In a word:  beautiful.  Like most GW products, Shadespire is lavishly illustrated both inside and out.  Every component is richly decorated and oozes theme.  The box cover is bright and striking, with easy-to-read text and dynamic artwork.  The box back has a photo of the game components and hints about the gameplay within.  The miniatures inside are high-quality Citadel miniatures.  Both inside and outside the box, everything looks great.

Quality:  Games Workshop’s return to board gaming has been going on for a few years now, and it’s been interesting watching the quality improve steadily over that time.  The packaging has been upgraded: now an excellent, thick-walled affair with plenty of room inside for all of the components—including the assembled miniatures.  The components were individually shrink-wrapped, protecting even the rulebook and game board from damage while being shuffled about during shipping.  The cards are good, if a hair on the thin side.  The game tiles and tokens are excellent.  The dice are top notch.  The miniatures are, well, Citadel miniatures, with all the indications of quality that has come to represent, and come with a very well-designed full-color instruction sheet.  The game rules are well-written and clear.  Players are ushered in quickly thanks to the "Quick-Start Sheet" that teaches the game by walking players through a full turn of play, presenting every rule in action.  The 32-page rulebook is almost unnecessary for your first few games:  much of it is “fluff” or rules for customizing your deck or playing.

Marketability:  GW games are always on the pricey end of the spectrum, but this is balanced by superlative component quality and generally solid gameplay.  Both of those factors are in play for Shadespire.  The figures included in the set are exclusive, but with only a handful of models it’s unlikely to draw in a lot of collectors.  On the other hand, it’s the core set for a new series that has at least four expansions planned, so if Warhammer Underworlds takes off, it could be a key title.

Overall:  I appreciate "asymmetrical" games, where each player has their own advantages and disadvantages to balance if they’re going to succeed, and that element plays very nicely in Shadespire.  I also enjoy the fact that players can select their own objectives through the deck construction element of the game, and that those objectives are not required to center on "kill the other guy."  As a result, Shadespire gives me a feeling of control in ways that games often do not.  Unfortunately, with only the core set I couldn’t play games with more than two players, and I’m very interested to see how that changes the dynamic, as well as how gameplay will shift when new factions are introduced to the game.

Add to that the short playing time (short enough to play a series in an afternoon), top notch components, and an all-around fun experience, and I can easily give Shadespire 4 out of 5.

-- William Niebling