Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Malifaux - Feelings After a Month

Well, it's been a month or a little more of playing Malifaux, and there's one thing I can confirm - Bad Things Happen holds true. This post was requested by a reader, and it's pretty long. Enjoy, though.

When you flip the inside cover of Malifaux, the first thing you come across is a lush, full-page picture of a voodoo doll with several pins embedded in it, hovering over the phrase "Bad Things Happen." Nothing could be truer in this interesting game from Georgia-based Wyrd Miniatures.

What makes the game unique from other skirmish-sized miniature-based wargame is the use of ordinary playing cards as your replacement for dice. Well, ordinary if you use ordinary cards (which you can), far from ordinary if you use the Malifaux-specific ones (which are covered in some truly eerie and setting-oriented images).

Malifaux is definitely a game of "shock and awe," with even the most mundane of troopers doing a variety of unique and characterful things, and with powerful abilities so widespread across units that the game swings often throughout. Unlike a game such as Warhammer 40,000 or others, where an uneven match can quickly be identified and a painful series of turns subsequently endured, Malifaux will leave you breathless with victory one turn, and breathlessly dead the next. I'm still trying to figure out how I can go from "clearly I've won" to "fuck I'm dead" over the course of a turn or two, but rest assured that's exactly what can happen to you in Malifaux.

To give a quick primer to the basic ways this game works, here's the VERY simplified short and sweet:

Players pull 6 cards off the top of their deck to create a "Control Hand," and they have a series of Soulstones that their masters can use. Masters are the HQ units of Malifaux, and while not as critical to win or lose as in a game like Warmachine, they are definitely the king and queen badasses of the setting.

Now, players take turns activating the miniatures in their Crew, and activation order matters a GREAT DEAL in Malifaux. This is not a game where table-wide movement is as critical as model tactics. So, in 40k, you'll have units across the board doing different things for a lot of armies. In Malifaux, there's almost never a reason your crew should be spread very far apart. Staying together (but not TOO close together) is almost always a good idea. As a result, when things start getting sticky, THINGS GET STICKY ... and the timing of your activations, card usages, ability usages, etc., becomes the real tactical side of Malifaux.

When a player activates a miniature, say one of their masters, against an opposing miniature, you engage in an opposed duel, and here's how it works.

Master A with combat skill of 5 attacks Target B with defense skill of 4. Master A flips the top card off her deck, and Target B does the same. Let's say Master A flips a "1" (Ace), and Target B flips a 13 (King). Well, the Master has certainly not hit the target, b/c her combat of 5+ card flip of 1 = a 6, and the target's defense of 4+ card flip of 13 = a 17. The Master is the "loser" in this engagement, and so must make a choice - will he accept the result of the duel (and miss), or will he "Cheat Fate." Cheating Fate coupled w/ a basic ability to count cards (i.e., I've already flipped 4 Aces this turn, so there aren't anymore aces in my deck) is the key to making Malifaux more than just another random probability game.

There are two ways to Cheat Fate, one that any model can do, and one that only Masters can really do. First, the "loser" of a duel cheats fate first, so the winner can "retort" and trump someone's cheat, so you have to think of this.

The type of cheating that any model can do is what the master in our current example does first - looks at their Control Hand ( remember, the 6 cards drawn to start the round) and if they wish, replaces the card flipped with a card from their control hand. So, suppose the player has a Queen (12) in his hand. He could cheat that into play, replacing his flipped "1" and generating a total of 17. In Malifaux, a tie goes to the attacker, so this would achieve a hit. Now comes into play the SECOND kind of cheating, that only a master can do.

The amount by which you beat someone in a duel directly affects the odds of how much damage you do. All types of damaging attacks and spells have three different "damage ranges," shown in a format such as 1/2/3. The higher the card flipped for DAMAGE, the higher the damage done. In the case of Malifaux, the amount by which you beat someone in a duel determines what cards you flip to do damage.

So, let's continue.

On a tie (17 to 17 in this case), a model hits his target, but must draw THREE CARDS, and MUST use the lowest card, and may not cheat the result. So, the player may decide to couple his cheated Queen with the second kind of cheating, that only a master can do. This is the utilization of Soulstones. Each master starts the game w/ a certain # of soulstones, and you can choose to buy them instead of models in a game also. To use a soulstone to cheat, you burn one of your master's soulstones away, and flip an additional card off the top of the deck and ADD it to your current cardd (in this case, a cheated Queen). Suppose the player does this, and draws a King off the top of his pile (13). This would put his total to 30, vs. the defender's 17. Since the target is not a master in this case, the target - at best - could cheat a Joker on top of his King, raising his total 1 to an 18. The Master would still win by 12, which in Malifaux is a really serious hit. By serious I mean, the player flips 2 cards, may choose which one to use, and may cheat the result also.

Sound like a lot? It is, and I'm going to stop on game mechanics there for the most part - suffice to say that Malifaux involves a lot of really critical and advance thinking, and there's a TON of tactical depth. Everything matters, from when you cheat, to when you activate units. Do you activate your Master early, and try to burn a target of opportunity? OR do you save your Master's activation until your opponent uses up all of his Control Cards this turn, so that your Master can go to town on him unopposed? Do you use YOUR Control Cards on your lesser models, to cheat up their totals and ensure they get their attacks and abilities off? OR do you save your Control Cards for your nastier models to really put on the hurt? Do you use your "kill shot" ability that forces your opponent to discard 2 cards early, or do you hope he wastes all his control cards early and use it later to literally kill off one of his guys?

In Malifaux, every model has multiple wounds, but wounds go away more quickly. There are no armor saves, only modifiers. If you have better armor, or if you're in cover, your opponent will have to flip extra cards and take the lowest with no cheating when trying to hit or damage you, for example.

The other thing about Malifaux that you do, that further adds to the notion of thinking ahead that is so prevalent in this game, is list tailoring. It's actually designed into it. You don't build your Crew until you know your Strategy, your opponent's Faction, the entire table has terrain on it, and you know the deployment level. You actually SHOULD list tailor, as a result. If you're playing against the Arcanists (magic users), you actually are supposed to bring the anti-magic user crew. If you don't, you're not avoiding an unfair advantage, instead you're actually handicapping yourself.

The factions are unique, and extremely different in how they play ... they're also extremely characterful. Here's a brief overview ...

The Guild - The Guild is the Imperium of Malifaux. They're organized, disciplined, ruthless, and their job is to keep the peace and regulate the trade of Soulstone, Malifaux's nominal black gold. And black it is. Soulstone is named b/c it regains its magical properties when someone dies near it ...

The Guild comes off as very Inquisition-like, with different Masters tailored best to different tasks and themes. Lady Justice is a blind samurai, utilizing a giant katana and supported by the Death Marshals, who walk around with Colt Peacemakers and pine boxes to stuff their foes into. As a whole, Lady Justice's crew is adept at eliminating the undead, and they're capable of slaying things in such a way that they do not generate Corpse Counters, a critical component of making new Zombies. Lady Justice herself is an absolutely brutal close combat specialist, and loves nothing more than smashing someone's face in with her sword. Really not a subtle gal.

Perdita Ortega is a gunslinger right out of the Wild West, and she makes Annie Oakley look tame by comparison. She's incredibly accurate with her pistols, and is one of the rare models that can use ranged weapons in combat. In addition to having one of the highest defenses in the game, you need to seriously think twice about going after her. Depending on her owner's choice, she cn activate an ability called "Faster 'N You," which basically means if you try to hit her and miss, she shoots you in the face for it during your own turn. Perdita brought her family with her to Malifaux, and they are both colorful and heavily evocative of the old Spaghetti Westerns. I love this crew's color. They're also super nasty, with a unique ability to activate all at once due to the fact that they are a family. Consider that in Malifaux, every other race generally has to activate in alternation, "you go I go" by model. The Ortega Alpha Strike, then, makes them play very differently than others, b/c as they wish, they can activate altogether, or in groups, instead of just one model at a time (though they can do that too if they want). The Ortegas are excellent in general, but specialize in ganking the Neverborn, Malifaux's native residents (who really, really don't like people).

There's also an anti-magic crew for the guild, that I haven't played with enough to really have a feel for, suffice to say that they have pistol-and-magic-weapon wielding mini dudes who like to explode all over you when you kill them. That's always pretty cool.

The Resurrectionists are the consummate necromantic troublemakers, but Malifaux gives them a more real tune. Instead of TRYING TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD, they use zombies to pull off bank heists and dead hookers to be well ... you can figure it out. They operate by digging up corpses, or generating corpses off killed opponents (and their own dead), and then animating them. The ones I've played so far are Seamus (the Mad Hatter) and McMourning.

McMourning is the Malifaux chief of the morgue, and Dr. Frankenstein in all respects. He's followed loyally around by an oversized monstrous zombie chihuahua that through a peculiar quirk retained its diminutive yippy bark, an assistant named Sebastian who is as EIGOR as it gets (complete w/ hump), and a cadre of Nurses who stay in his employ b/c he loans them the skin of recently deceased pretty young people (it puts the lotion on the ... ugh). His expertise is raising ... well ... basically a bunch of Frankensteins. Slow, extremely dangerous and durable monstrous abominations.

Seamus carries a giant flintlock pistol, wears a super big top hat, and is accompanied by a crew of dead hookers and their chief dead hooker mistress. Yup. That's basically that.

There's also Nicodem, but I don't know him well ... he basically makes tons of tiny wussy zombies that he can make take hits for him ... he's the opposite of McMourning, who makes giant abominations.

There's also zombie ninjas. I just think that's kinda cool.

The Arcanists are the third faction, magic users who make big magical constructs. I haven't played them yet, though I've played against them. This faction is easily the most unforgiving, and has some pretty typical steampunky memes. Rasputina is a frosty bitch, Ramos makes mechanical shit and electrical shit, and I forget the other dude's name. I could be mixing these up.

The Neverborn are one of the more interesting races, and are the natives of Malifaux, presumably. They are led by Ilith, a super evil demon bitch with big tits and a bigger sword who can basically bend Malifaux to her will, and is incredibly difficult to hit. Her crew is a bunch of demons, that grow into bigger demons when they kill people, and that splash nearby enemies with black, acidic blood every time they get hurt. Basically, if they all get close in to you, you're in trouble. Pandora (complete w/ her ... um ... box) is accompanied by Woes that she can shunt damage off to, an evil little red riding hood named Candy, an evil baby with a meat cleaver named Baby Kade, oh and Baby Kade himself is accompanied often by an evil teddy bear named ... Teddy. There's also an old hag who uses voodoo dolls and punishes you for your bad manners if you try to hurt a poor old lady. No, really, that's one of her game mechanics. Seriously.

Finally, there are the Outcasts, which are mercenaries. They can work for many other factions at a price, they're typically outnumbered, but rarely outgunned. They have the most comical faction in Som'erteeth Jones, a Goblin boss basically (called Gremlins in Malifaux), with pigs that fly, gremlins that get eaten by pigs, pigs that get eaten by gremlins (an ability called: BACONNNNN!), giant pigs that hurl their riders at people, explosive redneck gremlins, etc. They also have the most Samurai Crew, the Viktorias. Imagine samurai chick with pistol backed up by dual wielding samurai chick twin backed up by a bunch of incredibly dangerous and hard to kill (literally, that's a special rule) Ronin. There's also a creepy necromancer who can't be killed, has no soul, and can kill you with a touch.

Anyway, so those are the factions.

Malifaux is terrain intensive, everything you do super matters, bad things happen, and the factions are cool, deep, characterful and highly different ... so nothing really plays the same. The game is complex to learn, and movement isn't really a key mechanic tactically. You HAVE to think ahead, you HAVE to use the millions of little combos and clever approaches, and you HAVE to be sharp. I recommend it.

I'm not sure I recommend going crazy into it yet ... nothing prevents you proxying your 40k or whatever models and giving it a go off buying the $35 rulebook. Remember this cool fact - the rulebook comes w/ every faction's stats and units. So, $35 and you've got all you need to play if you're already a miniature wargamer with terrain and minis galore.

- Mike


  1. I saw the rulebook at the FLGS, the art alone made me want to pick it up. Very cool.

    Nice review, now I have to buy it -_-

  2. Malifaux is fun. Hey Mike, any shot you know anyone that might want a full on Lilith Crew. It includes:

    3 Terror Tots
    2 Young Nephlims
    2 Mature Nephlims
    Cherub Totem

    I picked them up but can't get the play style down right. Most are assembled but all is still bare metal. I'm looking for $50 for the lot or an equal amount of Resurrectionist stuff (I already have Nicodem and Crew, but any of the others would be fine).

    Thanks man and great article.

  3. I just might, Jay. Will let you know.

  4. Nice article, Malifaux is awesome. Who knew Westen Victorian steampunk horror would make such a colorful setting lol

  5. I have you say... I picked up this game the other day.. and I bought pretty much every model that I thought would be good with my list for $80. I bought the rules and fate deck for $35 and $7 respectively... The price point on this game is very good.

  6. Good article. I glossed over the rules you posted, because I basically already know them, but otherwise I liked what you had to say.

    I see your just as big a fan of the mash up of genres this game sports as I am, which is also pleasing. Indeed, I found myself laughing aloud while reading this post.

    @HuronBH> Don't give up on Lilith just yet. I run a variation of the crew you've posted, and I love it. As for getting the play style down right, all I have to say is, "Zerg rush". But I respect that that works for some people (namely myself) and not others.