Thursday, March 24, 2016

Horus Heresy Betrayal at Calth: Game Impressions

'They are dead, they will not live; they are shades, they will not arise; to that end you have visited them with destruction and wiped out all remembrance of them .’

When Games Workshop released The Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth last year, there was a lot of excitement surrounding the set.  This was largely because it provided plastic versions of many miniatures that had previously only been available in resin from Forge World.  And this enthusiasm was warranted, since the set is significantly cheaper than buying the resin equivalents and most of the models are superior to the resin versions.  But, we talked about much of this before, discussing the the tactical marines and the terminators in previous blog posts.  Instead, today I wanted to talk about the actual game included in the set.  A longtime friend, and fellow Warhammer 40k player, recently purchased the game, and we played a few of the missions last weekend.  I wanted to let people know what I think of it based on those games.

Learning the rules online:

To prepare for the gaming session, I wanted to read through the rules beforehand so that little time was wasted messing around with mechanics.  Not having a copy of the game myself, I tried to find a copy of the rules on Games Workshop’s website, but was unable to find them.  It is a common trend in the boardgame industry to post a pdf copy of a game’s rules online (via the company's website or even Boardgame Geek), but this is something that Games Workshop has not implemented.  I was pleased to discover that GW partially remedied this by creating a video on their YouTube Channel, playing the first scenario.  While watching the video was very helpful to get a sense of the game, it did not clearly explain any of the game mechanics, as they simply played through a game.  This worked well for the majority of the game since it is fairly streamlined.  However, the wounding/casualty system is rather unique and the lack of a dedicated explanation left me a little at a loss of how it worked.  Watching the video was still very worthwhile, since all I had to do at my friend’s place was read through the wounding section of the rules and we were on our way.

Our first mission is underway, complete with Black Templar marines!

How combat works:

Before I get to talking about how the games works, I think it is worth explaining the wounding/casualty system, since it is very different from GW’s other games, in that it does not allow you to roll a save for every wound inflicted.  Let me explain.  When making any sort of attack, the unit you activate (all the models in a hex are considered a unit: up to 3 Space Marines, a Terminator and a single Space Marine, or a Dreadnought) adds up all of the attack dice for each weapon contained in the unit, and roll them all together at the same time, with no need to distinguish which dice are for individual weapons.  These dice, used for both attacking and defending are custom D6, which have 4 different unique faces: a Hit, a Critical Hit, a Shield, and a Blank.  You then tally up the number of Hits and Critical Hits; this is the total wounds that the opponent has to contend with.  The Critical Hits function the same as normal Hits, except that they allow you to trigger a single Critical Effect present on one of the used weapons (you have to choose which Critical Effect you want to use if you have multiple weapons with different Critical Effects in the same attack).  How the opponent determines who dies depends on the Armor Value and Stamina of the target.  In the case of a Space Marine, they have the Stamina of 2, meaning they need to take two wounds to be removed as a casualty, and the Armor Value of 2, meaning the maximum number of dice they can roll to reduce the wound pool is 2.  If 5 wounds are caused to a unit of 2 Space Marines, the target chooses which model will be the first target.  Then they roll dice equal to their armor value, in this case 2 for power armor.  Every roll of a Shield will reduce the number of wounds in the wound pool by 1.  Unfortunately for this Space Marine, however, regardless of what he rolls on the dice, he will die due to the high number of wounds in the wound pool.  This is because the best he can hope for is rolling 2 shields, which will reduce the wound pool by 2, but that still leaves 3 wounds remaining that could not be blocked by the Power Armor.  Of these 3 remaining wounds, 2 will be allocated to the target Marine and he will die, due to his Stamina being 2.  I want to emphasize that the maximum amount of wounds that Power Armor can ablate is 2, upon which, any remaining wounds just pass through onto the model until they equal the model’s stamina and they die.  In the previous example, if only 1 Shield was rolled, it would reduce the wound pool by 1, down to 4, but now that the Power Armor has absorbed what it can (represented by the two dice rolled), the remaining wounds are absorbed by the target, up to their stamina.  In this case, 2 of those 4 would go directly on the target Marine, killing them (since their Stamina is only 2).  However, this still leaves 2 wounds remaining, forcing the victim of the shooting to choose a new target.  If it is another Space Marine, they now get an opportunity to use their Power Armor to reduce the remaining wounds, by rolling 2 dice for their Power Armor.  If they roll at least one 1 Shield, they will survive, since it will negate 1 of the 2 remaining wounds, leaving only 1 left, which is not enough to kill the Marine, since his Stamina is 2.  Overall, it is an interesting system, but one that dramatically favors massing firepower to accumulate dice, since at a certain point, regardless of the defender’s rolls, all of their models will die.  The system is very different from those used in other GW’s games, which allow you to roll a discrete armor save for every wound caused, rather than only rolling a limited number of dice based on the armor itself.  As a point of reference, Terminator Armor is far superior to Power Armor, allowing you to roll 5 dice rather than 2 when wounds are inflicted on the terminator.

Other than the interesting wounding system, the rest of the game is quite straightforward, with each unit getting two Activation Points per turn, and players alternating back and forth activating a single unit at a time (they can only spend one of the Activation Points at a time, before switching to the other player, however).  Who gets the first activation each turn is determined by rolling the most Hit symbols on 3 dice.  A turn ends after all units have used all of their Activation Points, upon which a new turn starts and each unit replenishes its Activation Points.

A lightning claw terminator is ready to charge in and cut down some traitor marines!

Setting up the game:  

I was quite impressed with how easy it was to set up and begin playing a game of Betrayal at Calth.  The instruction manual has a series of six missions.  Each is clearly laid out, telling you exactly what units to use, how to set up the board, and the the mission objectives.  Each is only a page long, and starts with a little narrative description to set the stage for the game.  Setting up the board is incredibly fast, as it is only made out of a combination of 4 large glossy cardstock board sections.  These large tiles are possibly my favorite aspect of the game.  They are large and well printed, depicting underground vaults.  Each is colorful and varied, quickly getting you into the setting, without requiring you to build or assemble large quantities of terrain (I am sure that many of you know that playing any miniature game with nice terrain is far superior to a barren table).

As I mentioned, each scenario tells you what units are involved, and conveniently, the game comes with large tarot sized cards for every unit included in the game, each detailing their special rules and game statistics.  They are a really nice touch, since they prevent you from having to reference the rules manual constantly throughout games, since the rules are all displayed on the cards.  Each player also has a deck of event/command cards, that are specific to each Legion (Ultramarines and Word Bearers, in this case) and give you one time use abilities that help make each side feel a little more unique.

Each game is short and fast paced, encouraging you to continue playing:

After setting everything up, each game went really quickly and smoothly.  Rarely did we need to reference the rules, and when we did, most of the information we sought was printed on the back cover of the manual (primarily weapon statistics).  The first mission we played was the second (we wanted to try something different from what I had watched online), which involved a unit of Ultramarine Terminators and their Commander trying to activate some electronic relay, while a tactical squad of veteran Word Bearers tried to prevent them.  We knew the game was going to be bloody and visceral when the first salvo, aided with the dreaded might of a meltagun, obliterated a terminator, without allowing any sort of armor save.  While bolters by themselves are almost useless against tactical dreadnought armor, their weight in firepower combined with the meltagun’s critical effect to ignore the first target’s armor value is quite devastating.  Before we knew it, the game was over, with the Word Bearers pulling out the win, due in no small part to the incredible power of the meltagun (something that proved true over and over again throughout all of our games).  Without its ability to ignore the incredible 5 armor dice a suit of terminator armor provides, I question whether I would have been able to kill a single terminator, ha ha.  Possibly with the Heavy Bolter, which has an impressive 6 attack dice.  A heavy bolter being good?!  Heresy, I know.

The Contemptor was a walking god of death, like it should be.

After the dust settled, we had been playing less than 45 minutes.  So we did the only reasonable thing, and played the next mission!  It gave the Word Bearers a fearsome Contemptor dreadnought, while giving the Ultramarines a woefully outgunned tactical squad, that could possibly call in the aid of some terminators if they scattered to the far corners of the board to activate teleport arrays.  This game proved to be even bloodier and quicker yet, such was the awesome might of an Contemptor Dreadnought.  Its Kheres pattern assault cannon has an incredibly powerful critical effect that allows you to continue rerolling misses until every one of its 6 shots hits.  This is tempered by the fact that if you roll 4 Critical Hits while doing this, the gun explodes.  The dreadnought also has the ability to move a space and still fire the mighty cannon.  Suffice to say, I spent the game slowly advancing, mowing down any Ultramarines that were foolish enough to stand in my way.  The story might have been a little different if after a lucky first shot against the dreadnought’s weak automatic core, my friend did not remind me that I forgot to roll two defence dice for being obscured.  These extra dice allowed me to just avoid taking damage to the vulnerable part, which would have dramatically weakened the walker for the rest of the game.  This coupled with my uncanny ability to alway win the Initiative roll at the beginning of each turn, allowed me to always get the first attack, keeping him from easily getting his marines to call for aid by teleporting in terminators.

We decided to play one final game, this time going back to the first mission we had skipped.  This one pitted two 10 man tactical squads against one another as they tried to rush to get behind closing blast doors, to prevent themselves from being burnt to ash by a local sun.  This game was probably the closest of the ones we played,  with him getting revenge against the meltagun marine that wreaked havoc on his terminators almost immediately.  While we both were able to move a bunch of marines to safety, again a lucky initiative roll gave me the advantage, allowing me to fire a heavy bolter and two supporting bolters at his unit of three marines which included a rocket launcher.  Had the situation been reversed, that very rocket launcher would have likely annihilated my heavy bolter, allowing him to mop up the remaining Word Bearers.  But such was not the case, the and Word Bearers were again able to pull out the victory.  Death to the False Emperor!

The first five MKIV marines are assembled!  And yes, I have since drilled out the barrels!


All told, I was quite impressed with Betrayal at Calth.  The production values are quite good across the board, with thick glossy and colorful battlefield tiles, large clear unit cards, nice activation chits, and a well laid out instruction manual designed to mimic the graphic design of Forge World’s Horus Heresy books.  Of the missions we played, they were relatively varied, adding interesting narrative elements without getting bogged down with needless extra rules.  The unique wound/armor system allows for fast combat, that actually makes terminators and dreadnoughts seem powerful (something that has sadly not been the case in 40k for many years).  Would I recommend buying the game solely for the boardgame experience?  Possibly not, since there are only six missions, but let’s be honest, few people would purchase the box strictly for the game, when it comes with so many fantastic models.  But if you have had any inclination that you might want to play 30k, or just need some additional tactical marines, you really cannot go wrong with Betrayal at Calth.  Towards that end, I would strongly encourage anyone who got the game for the models to give it a try.  And even if you have not assembled all the models yet, most people already have some Space Marine kicking around that they can use (that is what we did!).  Furthermore, I imagine you could probably find the boardgame components and tiles on places like ebay for an inexpensive price, which could easily be used with Space Marines you already own, or simply to use the tiles for skirmish games like Zone Mortalis.  All I can say is that I am excited to play the last few missions, and that it encouraged me to start assembling the plastic MIV marines that I have!

- Eric Wier


  1. I love BaC! Played it two times with my sweety and we were both times happy ^.^

    Pretty cool especially if you want to play it with someone who has never played a tabletop game :)

    1. I am glad you enjoyed it too! I think you are right that it would be an excellent way to introduce people to this form of miniature based wargames. It maintains the feeling of GW's other games without the need to get too caught up in a lot of rules. And the models included are excellent and crafted to allow you to assemble them effectively without much modeling experience. Now I just hope for more!

  2. Me and a friend just chain played the first 4 missions in a row. The contemptor dreadnought rolls a massive 10 dice ! (6 for the assault cannon and 4 for the combi bolter) if one of those is a crit, you can keep re-rolling all the dice until you have nothing but hits. It's more than powerful.

  3. Just played the first scenario of BaC with a friend. Had a blast! Loved the quick and dirty gameplay. Going to snag the game as an early christmas gift to myself

    1. I am glad you liked it! I am sure you can get it for a good price, and would certainly recommend it. Furthermore, the tiles would also work quite well for games of the forthcoming Necromunda Underhive!