Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Musing about Malifaux: Campaign play and a shift in model design

Shifting Loyalties
Long time readers of this blog will know that we have been very impressed with the skirmish-based miniature game of Malifaux, primarily due to the simple yet evocative system of using cards to replace dice (expanding the possible outcomes). The Victorian horror/western theme is also pretty unique, allowing for an incredibly varied cast of characters.  The emphasis is on characters here, because all of the models are well-developed, with flavorful abilities and wargear (at odds with the increasingly streamlined 40k).  In the last few months, however, other projects and the lack of exciting model releases on Wyrd’s part (more on this later) have kept me from being too involved with Malifaux.  This looks like it might change for me, with their newest rules expansion, Shifting Loyalties.  For a little while now, I have been desiring to play a good skirmish-miniature game with role-playing elements, something akin to Necromunda or Gorkamorka.  The thought of learning (or relearning) a rules system can be a bit daunting at times, so I was pleased to discover that Shifting Loyalties layers some simple rules on top of the general Malifaux ruleset to support progressive campaign play.  Having now read through the rules in the new book, I figured that I would give you some of my impressions of it!

Bringing narrative back to miniature games
I have always loved progressive skirmish games; this love stemming primarily from the first miniature game that I learned the rules for properly, Gorkamorka (although I started with 2nd edition 40k, I admit I never learned the rules entirely)!  This spin-off of Necromunda pits rival gangs of orks against one another in crazy vehicular combat, ala Mad Max.  Developing your surviving ork boyz as they completed incredible feats of violence and sustained irreparable injury, was a real joy.  And even if there was never a larger narrative behind our games, smaller ones would develop due to improbable die rolls and daring actions.  Such memories made me especially excited about the prospect of playing campaign games in Malifaux.  All the character and flavor brimming in the rules for each model seemed ideal for accenting the role-playing elements possible with campaign play.  Excitingly, they have taken this a step further with Shifting Loyalties by introducing randomly generated (via a Flip from the Fate deck) Events that influence all the games played for a span of time (they suggest changing this on a weekly basis).  There are a total of 28 of these Events, many of which are quite varied, including the appearance of Guild Patrols, the discovery of forbidden texts, and the staging of gladiatorial pit fights.  It looks to be a nice system that adds a little variety to the games played throughout the campaign without tacking on a lot of cumbersome rules.  It also serves as a way to progress and develop narrative for a campaign, without substantial investment by participants in the campaign (although this is still possible and encouraged).  I am excited about it because, in the past, many of the skirmish games I have played boiled down to simply trying to slaughter the opponent, without any thought going towards the motivations behind the characters.  Any attempt to encourage storytelling is a welcome addition in my mind.

The Guild's Brutal Emissary

As I alluded to earlier, each campaign is separated into a number of weeks (suggested 4-12).  This weekly designation is important because it marks when you determine the new Event that affects every game played that week (mentioned above).  It is also the only time you can add new recruits to your Arsenal.  The Arsenal is essentially a roster of all the members in your warband, and it is from this list that you select models to play your weekly games with.  At the start of each game, you determine a soulstone limit and assemble your force as normal, except that it is only selected from those in your Arsenal.  As you play games, you are awarded Scrip for completing your objectives (or from effects of the weekly Events), and you use this to add new members to your roster at the start of the week.  They suggest that you start a campaign with 35 soulstones to create your initial Arsenal, selecting a single Faction.  You need to select at least one Henchman, who will become your Leader.  For balancing reasons, you do not start with a Master, and only have the chance of getting your Henchman’s Master a few weeks into the campaign.

Aftermath: how your crew evolves
If I am being completely honest, the main reason I love skirmish/campaign games is because of the ability to see your warriors develop over time.  Watching a crew member learn new skills, acquire grisly scars, or be crippled with major injuries is always exciting.  Thankfully, Shifted Loyalties adds a fairly robust, yet simple set of rules to govern this sort of thing for Malifaux.  All of this is grouped into the Aftermath step, with occurs after the winner of a particular game is determined.  The Aftermath is separated into a series of Phases.  The first allows you to draw a small hand of cards (the number depending on how well you did in the game) that can be used to Cheat Fate in the subsequent phases.  Then there is a Payday phase where you acquire Scrip based on how many victory points you obtained in the game.  This Scrip can be used to add more models to your Arsenal (only at the start of the week as I mentioned earlier), or to buy things in later phases in the Aftermath step.  The next phase is the Barter phase, and it is here that you can acquire all manner of interesting weapons and skills.  What you are able to purchase is determined by a Flip, with about 4 options available for each card value (suits are ignored).  If any of the options interest you, you can pay the designated scrip cost to add it to your arsenal.  Half of the results are equipment, with things such as a gatling gun, or a flak jacket, but also include more interesting things like a jetpack, or a set of relic weapons called Those Who Thirst.  All of this equipment is added to your arsenal and can be used by any of your crew in later games.  The other half of the results are skills.  These must be attached to specific models that participated in the game, and cannot change hands.  Many of these skills add modifiers or triggers to different types of attacks, but also do more interesting things like prevent damage flips against the character from being cheated.  

Resurrectionist Carrion Emissary 

The next two phase revolve around a new concept in the game called Bounties.  Bounties represent a lead or ongoing plot the crew is trying to accomplish over the course of the campaign, which, if completed, offers various rewards, including allowing your Master’s Avatar upgrade to be unlocked.  These bounties are fairly diverse, with one having you kill an enemy leader on two separate occasions, or a “Resurrectionist only” bounty that requires you to end a game with 5 or more Corpse Markers on two occasions.  All of the Bounties are designed such that they cannot be completed with just a single game, promoting the idea that they are longer term goals being pursued by the crew.  The final phase is the Determine Injuries phase, in which models that were killed or sacrificed in the game (Finished Off) determine what sort of permanent injuries they sustained by flipping on the Injury chart (when the model is killed in the game, they immediately resolve a flip, on anything higher than a 2 you are required to flip on the Injury chart during the Determine Injuries phase of the Aftermath step, as I just described).  There are all manner of possible injuries from Amputations (lower model’s Wd by 2) to Blood Hexes (need to discard a card to declare a Trigger).

Avatars finally make their return to Malifaux
Another major addition to the game in Shifting Loyalties is the long awaited inclusion of Avatars to the 2nd edition of Malifaux.  These are powerful upgrades specific for each Master that need to be manifested in various ways during games (discarding Soulstones, killing enemies, etc).  During the first edition of Malifaux, separate models were created for each of these Avatars, many of which were quite large and elaborate.  Wyrd decided against creating new plastic models for each of the Masters’ Avatars, due to the incredible amount of resources it would take to achieve this.  Wyrd realized that fans would likely be disappointed that large and impressive models were no longer available for their warbands, so they created a new unit that could fill this role.  Each faction now has an expensive 10 soulstone Emissary that embodies the spirit of each respective faction.  Each Emissary then has an upgrade that tailors it to each Master, imparting additional special abilities.  Although renders of the models have yet to be revealed, the illustrations of the Emissaries are evocative and characterful.  Normally, I would say that these illustrations are an encouraging sign that good models are on the way, however, I believe that Wyrd has increasingly been creating models that are dramatically out of proportion, not reflecting the generally good artwork.

Gremlin's Luck Emissary 

A decline in Wyrd’s model design?
When Wyrd transitioned into creating all their models in plastic, they also moved to strictly using digital sculpting.  And when looking at their range of plastic miniatures, it is hard not to be impressed.  Regardless of whether you like Wyrd’s style, they have always done a really impressive job of faithfully rendering their eccentric characters from illustration to plastic.  In many cases, they would improve upon the illustrations, adding definition where it was lacking or adjusting proportions slightly to make the characters look more natural.  Recently, however, I have been noticing a shift away from this with many of their newer models.  The major transgression is with incredibly long and disproportioned legs (Look at the Neverborn Tuco, to see what I am talking about).  And while I am first to admit that Malifaux embraces a somewhat unrealistic tendency to make all of their characters incredibly long of limb, in the past they were good about proportioning them to the rest of the model so that it looked natural.  In many cases, these anatomical issues are compounded by the fact that the models’ heads are often overly small (and while it might be possible to shorten legs with some careful green stuff work, a model’s head is a different story).  Thankfully, not all of Wyrd’s new models suffer from these issues, suggesting that some of their digital sculptors are more skilled than others (or at least more conscious of reasonable anatomy).  Hopefully this is resolved soon, before more long awaited releases are spoiled by subpar sculpts.

A man named Sue, and his awkward proportions

Tuco is certainly Ugly in his Malifaux rendition

With those lengthy legs, Angelica can likely reach the angels in Heaven

Shifting Loyalties gives old Malifaux players ample reason to keep playing
Reading through Shifting Loyalties has really peaked my interest and convinced me to start investing into the world of Malifaux again.  What excites me most about the campaign setting that Wyrd designed is how accessible it is to veterans and casual players alike. It is structured enough for casual players who don’t want to spend a huge amount of time world building and story crafting, but also open enough to allow veteran players to have the freedom to create elaborate stories.  This is supplemented by the fact that Wyrd promotes an excellent Vassal module, allowing people to play games against one another online, making it easier to consistantly play games in a campaign.  It has been a while since I strolled through the streets of Malifaux, but I am happy to be back!

-Eric Wier


  1. Another subject that's striking a chord with me. You Wier boys are on a roll! :)

    I've actually bought the original Necromunda books (including the Outlanders book), Inquisitior and Frostgrave. I'll be flicking through these building up gangs and environments to play with them. Hopefully I can convince more from my club joining me. Do you guys primarily play within the family or are you part of a group?

    1. The point being I'm also moving back to narrative skirmish gaming.

    2. Good to hear you are getting back into narrative gaming too! It is a nice way to focus on your individual models, rather then trying to assemble a huge 40k army optimized for competitive play (something I do not think I will ever ultimately do, for better or worse).

      My brothers and I primarily play miniature games with a small group of friends we have accumulated over the years, most going back to our time in high school. All being at different at different places now due to our respective careers makes it harder to get together on a regular basis, but we try. That is part of the reason I am excited about vassal, since it is an easy way to play games online, not relying on traveling or waiting for a suitable weekend.

  2. I love narrative skirmish gaming, but Malifaux has always smacked too close to Hell Dorado (which I played and wrote for their expansion rulebook, and eventually tired of), which on the surface promised a depth of character but delivered no real payoff for consecutive gameplay. From this article, Malifaux sounds much more of what I've been looking for (aside from the Inquisimunda variants), so I may give it a shot at some point. Thanks for the insight.

    1. Malifaux is sort of interesting in that they created all these diverse characters, but since most are named, it can feel a little odd trying to expand their stories, since hundreds of other people are playing with the same characters. So despite all the depth and interesting abilities, it can be difficult to really take advantage of it in a narrative setting. These campaign rules give you more freedom to focus on other characters, leaving out the powerful masters and focusing more on unnamed ones, whom you can develop.

      I think what I always liked more then anything else about Malifaux has been its ruleset; the fate deck allows for many more interesting situations compared to a d6. And these campaign rules allow you to explore some of the other characters in the game, and I find that exciting. Honestly, I would love to play Inquisitor using the Malifaux ruleset. I should consider trying to do that actually...

    2. Hell Dorado suffered from the the same limitations with named characters. There were plenty of rank and file units, but it just didn't feel right expanding the leaders and specialty character's stories through a narrative, even on a casual level.

      Cipher Studios (who took the game over from Asmodee) was very tight with the backgrounds of their named characters, and it eventually limited what they were able to do with any form of a campaign system. At least Malifaux has a system place to make it more viable.

      Inquisitor using the Malifaux structure sounds like a good idea.

    3. I do not think Wyrd really limits what you can do with your characters in a narrative setting, per say, but it still makes for somewhat of an awkward situation. And I think the new campaign setting will help to some extent at least.

      Although it would be a lot of work, trying to develop a rule set for Inquisitor would be pretty neat. It would give you a lot of room to develop interesting characters and abilities. It might be difficult to balance though...

  3. I really like your assessment of Malifaux and I had recently got ahold of the 2ed of the game and a few minis.
    I love the concept of the game and the background is new and rich. I like the minis, odd proportions aside.
    However, it is a factor that the game is pretty much set character wise. I like the idea of Inquistor being played with Malifaux ruleset. I think you guys might look back at this thread as year zero of the game of Inquisifaux...

    1. Yeah, Malifaux is certainly a great setting! Even if many of their characters are sort of fixed story wise.

      I think I would like to try to test the Inquisifaux idea, by trying to reenact the confrontation between Anton Soljic and Lucanus Molnar we did for the Iron Sleet Invitational (