Publisher: Games Workshop
Release Date: September, 2018
Game Designer(s): Games Workshop
Format: Board Game
Number of Players: 1 to 4
Playing Time: 30 minutes
Product #: SMA-60
Age Rating: 8 and up
ICv2 Rating: 3 Stars out of 5
Over the last few decades, Games Workshop has built one of the most recognizable intellectual properties in tabletop gaming. It’s Warhammer 40,000 Universe, with iconic Space Marines, "grimdark" mood, and conflict-oriented philosophy, has attracted a legion of fans around the world. Even though the IP is older than most of its players, it has resisted the "greying" of the miniatures hobby. A key component to their success, I believe, is the company’s periodic efforts to attract new, younger players to the hobby. Their most recent: the Space Marine Adventures: Labyrinth of the Necrons board game.
Summary: Though completely independent of any other Warhammer 40,000 Universe game, the intent of Space Marine Adventures: Labyrinth of the Necrons (from now on, I will call it "SMA:LotN") seems to be presenting the lore and flavor of the IP in an easy-to-learn format, hopefully luring young boardgamers into the hobby. The game itself is fully-cooperative, with each player controlling one (or more) space marines from the best-known Chapters. The marines fight their way through a Necron structure, locating control panels to gain access to deeper levels, before ultimately taking on a powerful Necron Overlord. If they can defeat the Overlord, the players win. If all four marines are knocked out, they lose.
The game eschews a traditional turn order, instead using a deck of "activation cards" to randomize play order every round. On a marine’s turn, they have a number of "actions," each of which can be used to either move 1 space, attack 1 Necron, or access a control panel, and each marine has unique special abilities to enhance their actions or their attacks. Fighting is super simple: Roll a die, and if you get a number equal to or higher than the target’s "resilience," the target is removed from play. The Necrons, for their part, are highly abstracted: They don’t take actions, instead spreading amoeba-like across the board based on the draw of "labyrinth cards." Should a Necron token land on a marine, the marine is wounded, or if already wounded, removed from play.
Originality: The card-based turn order system makes the action tense and unpredictable, while the simple combat system keeps things moving quickly. The marine abilities and "special cards" (representing equipment and tactics) give players meaningful choices and makes each character feel different in play. The most unusual mechanic is the abstract way the Necrons expand and attack. It works well enough, but I wonder if it might be too counter-intuitive for players with little gaming experience: It seems odd that Necrons don’t move or shoot back, but instead new ones simply teleport onto the board, hoping to accidentally encounter a marine.
Presentation: SMA:LotN is packaged in a very sturdy box, the cover depicting five heroic-looking marines making what looks like their last stand against a horde of robotic foes, with the recommended ages, playing time, and number of players clearly indicated right on the front of the box. The back has a beautiful illustration of the components, but only a very brief explanation of the game. Everything is illustrated with the high-quality artwork GW is known for and plenty of pictures of nicely painted miniatures. The cards have good CCG-quality artwork as well, and the five space marine miniatures are very attractive, with dynamic action poses. Everything communicates the feel of the setting.
Quality: Since it is GW, it’s worth commenting on the models: The five included are really quite nice. They are designed to assemble without glue, or even tools to remove them from the sprues (though extreme care should be taken when removing them this way, as some of the pegs are a bit fragile, and should they break glue will be needed to complete assembly). Since the heart of the Warhammer 40,000 hobby is the models, it makes sense to showcase the sculpting. The other components are also high quality, with heavy cardstock boards and tokens, sturdy cards, and a lavishly-illustrated 14-page rulebook with an assembly guide for the models.
Marketability: Normally, I would say that anything set in the Warhammer 40,000 Universe would have a built-in fan base. But the nature of SMA:LotN is such that it targets potential fans rather than existing ones. While that may open it up to an even wider audience, it also means that the game has to stand entirely on its own, with only limited support from its bigger cousin. The game does offer an entry-level introduction to the universe, and may be better viewed as a gateway to the Games Workshop hobby.
Overall: When I learned that Games Workshop was offering an introductory Warhammer 40,000 game I was intrigued. How would they handle the serious nature of the IP in a way that was accessible for younger audiences? Surprisingly well, it turns out: Choosing Necrons as the foes avoids some of the, shall we say, "ickier" elements of the setting, while the cooperative nature of the game captures the heroic battle at its core. Would the game system offer a true entry-level experience? Well, this I think was somewhat less successful. I worry that the abstract nature of the game and a game style that offers a surprising level of depth and meaningful tactical decisions hits a mark slightly higher than the eight-year-old audience it was aiming for.
Of course, the critical question comes down to "is it fun to play?" I believe it is. Maybe not a true "gateway game," but it is a fast-playing and exciting board game that features interesting decisions and a good blend of strategy and luck, suitable for younger players. It is a solid introduction to the themes of Warhammer 40,000, and it’s not a shabby game in its own right. And that’s why I’m giving this game 3 out of 5.
Warhammer 40,000 Space Marine Adventures: Labyrinth of the Necrons is available exclusively at Barnes & Noble in the U.S. (see "Games Workshop Offers Three Intro Games").
-- William Niebling