Eyes-On: Mordheim – City of the Damned

By Adam Smith on August 18th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

A warlock with a wooden leg was the highlight of my first day at Gamescom. I didn’t know a huge amount about Mordheim: City of the Damned before I sat down to watch a live demonstration of a typical mission, but half an hour later I was telling anyone who would listen that it deserved far more attention. It’s Warhammer Fantasy with a hint of XCOM, procedural maps and the kind of persistent injuries that require false limbs. If it shapes up even half as good as it looks, it might be one of the best Games Workshop digital adaptations to date.

Mordheim: City of the Damned was one of the most pleasant surprises of Gamescom, nestled as it was between a fistful of salt-encrusted fries from the Koelnmesse’s cavernous food hall and a torrential downpour that made a mockery of my packing for the trip, which was light in every way possible. Based on a Games Workshop tabletop construction that hasn’t been receiving official support/updates for several years now, Mordheim is a squad-level turn-based tactical combat game about scrappy little warbands taking on the forces of chaos in a shattered city, while beating the blazes out of one another.

The backstory is a pleasing blend of mad cults, oozing chaos and fancy parties. The latter are all in the past, with Mordheim having been smashed to bits by a comet, but traces of the old decadence survive among the rubble and ruin. The people of the Old World’s capital believed they had been chosen by the god Sigmar when a comet blazed in the sky above and they celebrated that divine recognition by having a booze-up, which was rudely interrupted by the arrival of the Wyrdstone comet.

Now, warbands made up of courageous and/or crazed bastards travel to Mordheim to gather precious Wyrdstone shards, which are scattered through the city. Conveniently, this provides the perfect backdrop for a multi-layered campaign of team management, exploration and combat. Handy how these things tend to work out, eh?

To begin a campaign, players create a warband. Initially, there will be a choice of four factions, although more will be added based on player feedback and Games Workshop’s willingness to allow implementation of their precious creations. One of the factions already has a completely new unit available for selection, which marks the first of several changes to the ruleset of the original game.

The biggest difference may well be the method of control. At first, watching a one-versus-one developer playthrough of a procedurally generated portion of Mordheim’s Noble Quarter, I wasn’t sure how ‘turns’ worked. Units are controlled in real-time, although in order of initiative, meaning that only one is ever active. But rather than dividing the randomised maps into hexy tiles, developers Rogue Factor have opted for continuous spaces that characters move through from a third-person view.

Limits to activity come in the form of movement and action points. A movement point is used up whenever a character climbs a piece of terrain or jumps down to another level, as well as running around the map. At the beginning of a turn, the game calculates range by projecting circles around the character – move beyond the limits of one circle and one movement point evaporates. This means the range of possible motion is clear and the tactical placement of units is vital, but also provides a sense of fluidity when setting up ambushes and exploring.

Maps contain traps and become increasingly dangerous as a warband travels toward the city’s centre, but the real enemy comes in the form of other warbands. These can be either human-controlled or AI, the latter during the campaign, which involves personnel management and is responsible for the warlock and his pegleg.

Each character is unique, drawn from a faction-specific pool of classes. For the newly revealed Cult of the Possessed, that pool includes hopeful necromantics, undead and enormous great demon-beasts. For the human mercenaries, there’s a more prosaic mix, although the special troop is a stinking great ogre wearing full-sized human shields as wrist-guards. The Sisters of Sigmar are the faction with a newly created unit, although nobody is sharing details at the moment.

The final faction are Skaven, which immediately increases Mordheim’s chances of being one of the RPS chosen. Chosen it might be but we promise not to lob a comet at it even if it does become unbearably self-important, throw itself a party and get boozed up on adults-only fizz before falling to sleep and drooling all over the newly upholstered Louis XV (a man, not a chair). At this early stage (pre-alpha), Mordheim has oodles of promise but best not to get too excited until I play it for myself.

That said, it is a bit like Warhammer XCOM with peglegs. Characters are hired, equipped and levelled up as they survive missions. Anyone ‘knocked down’ during a mission is out for the duration but their ultimate fate isn’t decided until the battle is won or lost. The roll of a die decides whether they live or die, and if they DO survive, a table of results provides them with a permanent injury. This can involve decreased stats due to broken bones or scarring, which is all well and good, but it’s the eye and limb loss that is of particular interest.

Yes, it’s horribly morbid, but the characters are chunky Warhammer characters with more than a hint of strange comedy around them. And if they do lose a leg, you can always pop a wooden one on. Nothing too complicated but it adds such character – the ultimate sign of a veteran warrior, dragging his false limb across a blood-stained battlefield. Or maybe the mark of a hapless fool, walking on wood because he walked into an ambush during his first day on the job. Such details as eyepatches and peglegs can be the making of a man.

Customisation is key to the design of warbands. Gear and colour schemes can be edited, and in an attempt to emulate my grotesque teenage attempts at modelling, armour sets can be mixed and matched. Fancy a captain with one lightly armoured arm on the right while his left hand protrudes from a monstrous casing of plate mail? It can be done. Character development also takes the form of skill selection, with various abilities unlocked and available for each class, including initiative-boosting support skills for the captain and crippling knee shots for archers.

For tactical variety, each unit has two weapon sets available and in the mission I saw, this allowed for a team of four to operate intelligently, despite their limited numbers, reacting to threats real and imagined rather than simply blundering across the map and hoping to bruteforce their way to victory thanks to superior stats. Because players can only see what their characters can see, ambushes and control of space will be important. Added to that, there’s a tension in every action – the chance of success is displayed and failure can lead to exposure, stasis or worse. Firearms seem likely to backfire and spells that fizzle might cause the caster to sizzle.

After I saw the game, I wanted to play the game and now I’m annoyed that I can’t until it arrives in either Early Access (official, capitalised, steamy) or early access (a playable alpha/beta) later this year. If I had a copy, it’s the game I’d be playing right now, which is high praise indeed considering that in the week following Gamescom I don’t usually want to play any games at all. Too many to write about and too many thoughts to gather.

The campaign may not be as deep as I hope – although procedural levels and persistent characters sound like the right building blocks – but Mordheim looks a lot like Warhammer XCOM, with a few tricks of its own concealed in the sleeve and the tattered trouser cuff. It’s appeal is strong and I hope to see more of it soon.

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49 Comments »

  1. screamingabdab says:

    This gives me just a little hope that if this is any good and somewhat successful we might finally get the computerised version of Necromunda we’ve been wanting forever……

  2. Brinx says:

    The idea that this will exist makes me incredibly happy. (Now please be good.)

  3. Sp4rkR4t says:

    I so want this to not be terrible but I’ve lost almost all faith in the companies Games Workshop have licensed their products to.

    • Palindrome says:

      They have licensed so many games that some of them have to be good, or at least playable. I have a shred of hope for 2; this one and whatever Creative Assembly are making (even if they have been ominously quiet about it for well over a year).

      • Loyal_Viggo says:

        After the massive, total, and beyond-redemption clusterfcuk that was Rome II I have no faith in anything that CA will do for all time.

        However, if you’re dying for a CA/Warhammer fix there is an outstanding total conversion for Medieval 2 called ‘Total Warhammer Rage of the Dark Gods’ which you can get from TW forums or similar. Version 1.51 I think is the latest with a new large patch in development for some time which will introduce Skaven and Wood Elves in addition to all the other WH races.

        Simply superb.

        • Palindrome says:

          If by superb you mean horribly broken then you are right :) Rome 2 isn’t actually all that bad now that it has been repeatedly patched.

        • Davie says:

          To be fair, RoDG is mostly horribly broken as well. Easily the best Total War mod and the best Warhammer game I’ve ever played, but the whole “Savegames inevitably corrupt 60-100 turns in” thing definitely hurts my enjoyment of it.

          • Palindrome says:

            Not to mention the teleporting stacks of doom. My first game was as Nordland (as I had a Nordland Empire army) and I was essentially dead within the first 10 turns. I don’t think it is actually possible to survive as Nordland.

          • Loyal_Viggo says:

            @ Davie – I’ve never had any of those problems with corrupted savegames, and in fact have played several games over 150+ turns. The occasional CTD from a scripted battle but otherwise it’s mustard.

            @ Palindrome – The scripted attacks are part of the fun, sure most of them are completely unreasonable but you can pull it back from the brink even playing as Nordland. The problems lie with the odd CTD’s from the Russian/English translation but otherwise its fine.

            Look out for the next version soon… I hope…

  4. RedViv says:

    Yes-yes want-want.

  5. LordVermintide says:

    SKAAAVEEEEEN!

    TAKE MY MONEY, HIDEOUS MAN-THING. QUICK-FAST!

  6. Chris Cunningham says:

    Cue multiple months of breathless MORDHEIM MORDHEIM MORDHEIM preview coverage from RPS, if precedent is anything to go by.

  7. Dog Pants says:

    I hope it’s good enough to avoid the Skaven criticism Space Hulk got.

  8. Drake Sigar says:

    “It’s Warhammer Fantasy with a hint of XCOM”

    Mmm.

    “Conveniently, this provides the perfect backdrop for a multi-layered campaign of team management, exploration and combat.”

    Don’t stop.

    “there will be a choice of four factions”

    You’re a stud.

    “The roll of a die decides whether they live or die, and if they DO survive, a table of results provides them with a permanent injury.”

    Just a little more…

    “Skaven”

    OH MY GAWWWWWD!

  9. Ace Rimmer says:

    O-ho-ho, this does sound intriguing. I rather liked the tabletop game back when it came out, hopefully this adaptation can live up to that. As I recall, Mordheim came out around the time GW tried to turn the Warhammer Fantasy setting away from the over-the-top fantasy silliness of their glory years towards more gloomy grimdark stuff, which doesn’t really suit WFB but worked a little better within the ruined city. And the game mechanics themselves worked fairly well, more importantly.

    Please be good.

    • scatterbrainless says:

      All of the smaller, off-shoot games from the main IP have been absolute classics, despite receiving very little support from GW, see: Inquisitor, Space Hulk, Blood Bowl and the inevitable and great Necromunda. My guess is that they realized that these games, with their focus on smaller, continuing parties/teams/characters do much less for buying huge stacks of miniatures than the large battle versions of the IP.

  10. Ace Rimmer says:

    it might be one of the best Games Workshop digital adaptations to date

    See: faint praise, damning with

    • Palindrome says:

      Chaos Gate deserves praise and Dark Omen/Shadow of the Horned Rat well also pretty decent. These may well be well over a decade old but still.

      • mattevansc3 says:

        It was something about the 90′s but I don’t recall a bad game, even Rites of War was enjoyable seeing as it was a Panzer Tactics clone.

      • Ace Rimmer says:

        Never played Chaos Gate (or much of 40k at all, a few games of Space Hulk and Necromunda aside) but yeah, I’d say Shadow of the Horned Rat is about the high point so far, despite its limitations.

        • Palindrome says:

          Chaos gate is easy enough to find in the darkened corners of the internet and a basic install works with Windows 7 and 8 but not vista.

          Excellent turned based manshootery although it does get a little bit samey after a while and Terminator Assault Cannon are ridiculously over powered.

        • Thurgret says:

          Shadow of the Horned Rat had some frustrating random number generator based sections. A result of adapting tabletop quite so directly, I guess. Dark Omen felt better in that regard, but I can’t get it to install on any modern machine.

      • scatterbrainless says:

        No mention of the two, utterly awesome Dawn of War games? I guess they don’t get a seat on the hate train. Good, that train only goes miserable places.

  11. Nenjin says:

    I have been waiting for this game to get made, ever since the first Cyanide Bloodbowl game.

    Please don’t crush my dreams.

  12. unitled says:

    Definitely my second favorite GW game, dripping with wonderful flavour. Sad to see the Witch Hunters aren’t in (yet) as they were one of the most characterful in the original game. Still, can’t wait to get my hands on a Possessed, proper monsters on the table top!

  13. Rizlar says:

    It’s appeal is strong indeed. Ungh.

    When it was first announced I was very dubious, but this sounds like the makings of magic. Especially having just finished Divinity: Original Sin, if they get the combat anywhere near as right with this I will be ecstatic.

    • Reapy says:

      Was just going to say, I really, really like the combat in Divinity. The way they make movement free from the grid is excellent and is pretty fun, which sounds like a style they are going to use here.

      I just got done taking a look at the warmachine tactics beta and, kinda icky after coming out of divnity. I don’t think that game is lost, but it’s got a loooong way to go still.

      Hopefully this guy can pick up the torch, looking for xcom table top wargame experience on the pc, really hard category to find.

      • Dave Tosser says:

        You could always come back into the loving arms of Shadow Watch, Silent Storm and Temple of Elemental Evil.

        [TO DO LIST: PLUG SHADOW WATCH, SILENT STORM AND TEMPLE OF ELEMENTAL EVIL ON THE INTERNET TODAY- DONE]

  14. Arglebargle says:

    Sounds interesting: Most of the wonderful grim Warhammer background and ambience, and (hopefull) little of the fiddly, murky mechanics. I will cross my fingers and whisper a luck cantrip….

  15. Keymonk says:

    I don’t understand what you mean with it being real-time. It didn’t sound real-time in your description, and you can only control one at a time? How does that work? I may have misunderstood, but I’d love to understand how it works so I know if I should be excited!

    • cpt_freakout says:

      It wasn’t very clear to me either, but I think we’ll find out soon anyway :D

    • Dave Tosser says:

      Adapting turn-based systems into real-time combat is silly, but it’s possible given that GW have always been hesitant to make games too authentic to the tabletop experience in fear that it’ll destroy their tabletop profits. This is still silly, and perhaps even sillier.

  16. SMGreer says:

    Just to clarify, can I play as giant murderous fantasy rats? If so, then yes, very much want.

  17. MkMax says:

    sounds awesome but i hope they dont lean on multiplayer, single player is what make these games special for me

  18. herschel says:

    Please don’t let it suck. Please don’t let it suck. Please don’t let it suck. Please don’t let it suck. Please don’t let it suck. Please don’t let it suck. Please don’t let it suck. Please don’t let it suck. Please don’t let it suck. Please don’t let it suck.

    And make a decent 40k game already, you.

  19. Chiron says:

    Sounds like this is the Warhammer game we’ve been waiting for all these years…

    Now how long until we get a slightly shinier Dark Omen, and a Necromunda version of this? And wasn’t Slitherine doing an Epic game?

    Note to self: Forget the overpriced models, you have a PC.

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