Cardboard Children – Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth

Hello youse.

Most of you who read these pages will be aware that the Games Workshop board game Space Hulk is one of my favourite games of all time. In fact, it was re-buying Space Hulk that brought me back into board gaming in a big way. So I’ve always had a soft spot for Games Workshop’s line – in particular, I’m always impressed by how lovingly the stories behind the games are told. Games Workshop’s “fluff” is second-to-none, and they’ve always tried to make sure that every die you roll has a backstory of some real weight. And when it comes to backstory, there’s nothing quite like The Horus Heresy, the tale of how the events of Warhammer 40K came to pass.

And now there’s a brand new board game about one of the key battles in the time of The Horus Heresy. I’ll be covering it in two parts – today, those first impressions.

THE HORUS HERESY: BETRAYAL AT CALTH

The forces of Chaos, acting through the Warmaster Horus, are making their move on the Emperor of Mankind. On the planet Calth, the Word Bearers – once loyal to the Emperor, now twisted by resentment and evil – chase down their former brothers, the Ultramarines. This two player game sets out scenarios that tell the story of this dark betrayal on Calth.

First things first – this ain’t no game for rookies. It’s an expensive (but great value), tactically sophisticated board game that will demand a good few hours of preparation before you can play. The miniatures included in the game – all those beautiful old-school Space Marines and Terminators and such – come on the traditional Games Workshop sprues, and you’re going to have to cut, snip and glue every one together using the elegant new construction instructions.

For some of you, that’s maybe already a dealbreaker. But listen – don’t dismiss the process of assembling your miniatures until you’ve given it a try. I find it a really calming experience, a bit of a chill-out, as I play some music and carefully assemble each little guy. And the game comes with a lot of options in the building process too – you can choose, to an extent, which weapons to glue onto your miniatures. Assembling on your own means you can pose the miniatures how you wish too. A raised arm here, a lean there, a head turned this way or that. It’s an enjoyable process, I think, and never really feels like work.

The miniatures are, of course, beautiful. It’s worth noting that the Marines included in the game hail from the time of the Horus Heresy, at the very point of betrayal, so many of the good guys and the bad guys look almost identical. Painting will definitely be something you’ll want to do down the line, to separate those squads out – but I’m delighted with how the miniatures look straight out of that box. These are pure Space Marines, like I remember from my youth, and the opportunity for customisation is huge.

Everything else? Beautiful custom dice, printed with hits, shields and critical hit symbols. The board is built from three double-sided hex maps that are beautifully illustrated and printed on thick card. The cards – some detailing your units’ stats for reference, and command cards for the Word Bearers and the Ultramarines – are oversized and sturdy. High quality production is a hallmark of Games Workshop’s stuff, and this set doesn’t disappoint.

CLEAN AND SIMPLE

First impressions, you say? Well, here’s one. When you buy a big ol’ game from, say, a Fantasy Flight or something, you can expect a massive amount of stuff in the box. Counters, tokens, a million things to track another million things. Just so much stuff. But in this box, apart from the miniatures, there isn’t really that much. There are dice, some cards, and a couple of token types. There’s not a great deal of bulk or mess.

Here’s what I’ve always loved about Games Workshop stuff – there’s a real cleanness about the design. There’s never a great deal of mechanical clutter. Space Hulk is the prime example – it does so much with so few rules. But Blood Bowl is up there too – once you get the rules down, you’re on solid ground. You can, optionally, incorporate other rules and wrinkles into both these games, but they are built on good, simple foundations.

Betrayal at Calth is easily understood on the first read of the rulebook. Every unit has two tactical points. Players alternate taking turns, spending tactical points to take actions (Move, Run, Consolidate, Shoot, Assault), attacks are resolved, and then tactical points are replenished. Attacks use dice pools, modified by the number of models included in a unit, and can be further modified by Line of Sight and Cover.

But often you’ll find that clean rulesets open the door for a real measure of tactical depth, and I’m glad to say that’s the case with this game. Often just the decision to Run – which spends both of a unit’s tactical points in one go – can send a game spinning in a new direction. Movement is hex-by-hex, with a Run being the only way to advance more than one space outside combat, and so movement becomes entirely critical. Pinning your opponent, locking up areas of the board – it’s instantly interesting, and that’s just movement. (We’re not even talking about the fact that a Run spends all of a unit’s tactical points, and so it’s a major decision.)

Of course, over and above these simple rules there are options. Many options. Each player’s deck of command cards activate special abilities. The evil Word Bearers can lay down Chaos hexes on the board that force the good guys to re-roll. The heavily trained Ultramarines can kick out some advanced tactics unavailable to their opponents. The game is so tight that each of these cards brings a major swing to the game. It legitimately excites.

You might be wondering who the big guy is. He’s a baddie. He’s inside a giant Dreadnought. And he’s a frickin’ nightmare. When you attack him, you draw special damage cards that tell you which part of his body you’ve damaged. You have to dismantle this guy bit by bit. You can take out the legs, the weapons, the-

OH! The weapons! Yeah, I was talking about options. There are optional loadouts too, and different weapons bring different critical hit effects. The Meltagun just burns right through armour. The Combi-Bolter shakes its target so much that the target loses a tactical point.

See? So much stuff going on, with so little clutter.

But how does it play?

NEXT WEEK – SESSION REPORT

Yep, next week I’ll be doing a session report on Betrayal at Calth. I’ve never done one of these before, so wish me luck! Why am I doing it? Well, remember what I said about Games Workshop putting so much effort into the story behind their games? The very first scenario in this game, called The Wrath of Veridia, absolutely blew me away. It’s up there with Suicide Mission from Space Hulk. In fact, it’s probably better. And this is just THE FIRST SCENARIO, with the bare minimum of the included miniatures. I want to cover it in detail, and next week I will.

For the time being, though, let me say this – I’m only still unpacking everything in this game, but so far I’m really excited. This might be something pretty special, I think. This is old-school Games Workshop, at its best.

41 Comments

  1. EhexT says:

    I can already see GW expanding this with some Daemons and Unburdened for the Word Bearers and Heroes and human Auxiliaries for the Ultramarines (who are surprisingly cool in the 31st millennium despite being Ultra-boring-Marines in the 41st)

  2. Zekiel says:

    Looks interesting. I’m a bit sad to see that the miniatures for each side look exactly the same though (even if the Word Bearers aren’t visibly Chaos-tainted there’s no need for Marines from 2 chapters to look the same).

    • Bull0 says:

      It makes sense from a lore perspective for them to look broadly the same but a few little bits would be nice (perhaps a gladius or two for the ultramarines and some books/scrolls for the word bearers). I’m assuming they didn’t go that way with it because Forge World (GW’s boutique arm) do very nice heresy-era upgrade kits that they’re hoping newcomers will buy. link to forgeworld.co.uk

      • merzbau says:

        GW are definitely hoping this will drive sales of Forge World stuff; there’s also general agreement that this is the thin end of the wedge for making 30K/Horus Heresy a permanent line supported with plastic kits to replace Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit on store shelves.

        I’ve been a bit cynical about this whole thing- honestly, it always pays to be cynical with GW- but on reflection they’ve done a surprisingly good thing by making both sides’ miniatures “generic.” Their own advertising materials show the entire contents of the box set potentially painted up in both sides’ color schemes, there’s [i]far[/i] more stuff in the box than you could possibly use (I’m kind of hoping there are spare shoulder pads so I can reuse some of those glorious bumpy Mark IV pads on the small 40k Chaos army I’ve been putting together), and while I’m as sick of Space Marines as anyone, it’s cool that there’s finally a potential starter box for a game that you don’t necessarily have to split with a friend or hock half of on eBay.

        And there is some neat stuff to distinguish the Word Bearers- I’ve had a look at the transfer sheets that come with this, and in addition to the usual legion iconography there’s a ludicrous amount of teeny-tiny runes you’d normally be expected to paint on freehand.

  3. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    As someone that plays the tabletop I’d like to pass on possibly the best bit of advice I was given for building all* GW miniatures: put the heads on last. It seems obvious/simple, but you can make a good looking model look dumb if the head’s not right; and you can make a goofy looking model look good with a clever bit of head placement. Just for anyone picking this up that doesn’t already collect GW stuff.

    *Actually, this doesn’t apply to orks because their massive chins can get in the way, but that’s not a problem for this box.

    Oh, and I absolutely agree about the zen-ness of building and painting models, I do it to music too. Ahem.

  4. Jorum says:

    I’m glad you wrote about this, because it passed me by.
    Despite getting GW and other newsletters I didn’t read them properly and just assumed it was a new WH40K edition box set and not interested in those anymore.
    The fact that is an actual stand alone game though.

    So question is buy this now in case goes like Space Hulk and is twice the price in six months. Or wait in case goes like Dreadfleet and is half the price in six months.

    • mrpage says:

      This won’t go like Dreadfleet – even if the game were awful this would still sell massively for the plastic old-style marines in the box. These guys have previously only been available in resin from Forgeworld for insane prices, so there will be a stampede.

    • Bull0 says:

      It’s likely to be a little bit hard to get hold of in a few weeks, but there’s rumoured to be a second printing in January. It’s not serious limited edition like Space Hulk. It’s exactly what GW fans have been asking for, really – we’re generally sick to death of all their limited edition bollocks.

  5. BananaMan3000 says:

    One of the great things abut this box is the minis are almost all multipart and not clip together/monopose, meaning they can be converted or mixed with other kits easily. I have a feeling 95% of the sales of the game will be people wanting to start a Horus Heresy army or use the minis for 40k rather than to play the board game though. Even compared to equivalent 40k kits (tactical marines, terminators etc) the box is a steal, let alone Forge World HH models.

    I think it might be hard to get hold of for a while though, the demand is going to be truly massive with many people wanting to buy multiples I think.

  6. Bull0 says:

    It’s a real treat to see Rab cover this! I have two copies ordered because it’s such a great deal for the models alone, and the Ultramarines / Word Bearers animosity is one of the more exciting ones in the Horus Heresy story for me so it’s completely up my street (I already have small Ultramarine and Word Bearer armies). Can’t wait to read next week!

    • Wowbagger says:

      You think £95 a boxset is a good deal? GW saw you coming.

      • Bull0 says:

        It’s a huge markdown – these mark IV armour marines are normally twenty quid for five, without weapons. I’m sure you spend a lot on something I’m not interested in too.

        • Wowbagger says:

          I am interested that’s the problem. 40K boxed sets haven’t made it to this sort of price yet right? I did pay £70 for space hulk though…

          • Bull0 says:

            You’re right, they’ve been creeping up over the last year or two but that’s largely been because they’ve been doing multi-part models in the boxes rather than the traditional starter box single-pose stuff, so as someone who loves modelling it’s miles better.

          • Wowbagger says:

            Oh and I’m sorry if that original comment came across badly, I was just a bit annoyed at the price.

          • KikiJiki says:

            40k isn’t quite there yet, but Horus Heresy is Forge World’s subset of rules/expansion for the 40k ruleset.

            The tactical marines can be found on the FW site here. Bear in mind that they’re resin rather than plastic sculpts so are higher detail and more expensive to produce/moulds wear out faster. As said before, this is just for the bodies, no weapons.

            The GW box is 95 pounds for about 170 pounds worth of Forge World equivalent product. It’s not as high quality sculpts but it’s a great gateway into the Heresy game which is really taking off in popularity.

          • Bull0 says:

            No dramas! My response was fairly short and sharp too. Hadn’t had my coffee.

            @Kikijiki explains the context for my over-the-top excitement very well. This shit is hella expensive.

          • rabbit says:

            the prices really do just seem terrifying. i played warhammer fantasy as a child but haven’t really looked back since the 90s… a couple of times i reaaaaaaally considered getting back into it but was put off by a few things … maybe someone could address the below if possible? am more than happy to be proven wrong =)

            – the prices are fucking astronomical. even ignoring the impact on my wallet i was put off on principle.
            – i heard that the community was dwindling due to GW’s … treating their customers like shit. continually changing the rules, invalidating armies or parts of them, etc.
            – necromunda’s done! necromunda looked SO GOOD and they canned it! does anything else (GW or otherwise) exist like that these days? comparable in quality?
            – and … painting. how hard is it to get into painting to actually do it well? are there good online guides or do you really need to be … pretty damn good with a brush to get anything that doesn’t look crude?

          • JustOneWay says:

            I can maybe help some.

            Astronomical prices: True Dat.
            But there are alternatives. This sites founder Kieron Gillen has a blog dedicated to cheaper alternatives. Check out link to hipsterhammer.tumblr.com.
            Games workshop figures are amazing by comparison with much of the competition though so what you might end up with may be less shiny. Some other manufacturers out there are doing pretty amazing stuff though. Check out the Dwarves made by Scibor. Most of their resin beats almost everything GW have on the Dwarf front.

            Community shrinkage
            The release of the latest iteration of fantasy has its controversies. It incited much rage amongst the hardcore and attracted a lot of new blood in too. Too early to say how it will all pan out really. From what I gather the net result is well into the positive.
            On the cynical shit front, GW have made some moves that may telegraph a new direction. Free rules online, a lot of talk about accessibility, that sort of thing. But there has not been any major shift in management or anything so I expect any progress on that front to be tentative at best.

            Necromunda may be the just the sort of thing that will return if the news here is to be believed:
            link to beastsofwar.com

            Painting is something that can be improved massively by just learning a couple of simple techniques. Do not dismiss it until you have tried shade washes and drybrushing for highlights. Watching a tutorial or having someone take you through those basics can make such a difference and might make you feel much better about your abilities.

          • rabbit says:

            Sorry for the belated reply – thanks so much for your response! I’ll be going thru it & maybe doing a lil convincing a pal to get stuck in with me =)

            Take care,
            f

  7. Bull0 says:

    Oh! I also wanted to say, if painting the models sounds daunting you might consider simply buying coloured spray primer and spraying the ultramarine models blue and the word bearers red. Army Painter do huge tins of coloured spray paint for about eight quid a go.

  8. plsgodontvisitheforums_ says:

    Are these two actual armies in the box, or will you be forever sad that you painted half of them blue/red when you take your armies into the real mean world of GW vets? Also, can you easily reconfigure the models if you haven’t painted them yet?

  9. aircool says:

    GW used to make so many great board games, it’s a shame they rarely make them now.

    • gunny1993 says:

      Seems like the calling cry of GW is “we used to make really good X, we don;t really do that anymore”

      • pepperfez says:

        “…but maybe we’ll start again if you GIVEUSYERMONEY”

    • thekelvingreen says:

      Well, today’s big news is that they’re restarting the old Specialist Games division, and this is the first product from it. So we may be seeing the likes of Blood Bowl and Necromunda again before long.

  10. Valkyr says:

    Was Horus’ Heresy during the 31st millenium and W40k during the 41st? I don’t know anything about the lore and I’m getting confused. Have society and technology not drastically changed across the span of 10,000 years?

    • wraithgr says:

      Everyone’s been too busy trying to kill everybody else (plus the grimdark setting is supposed to be totalitarian and oppressive so any cultural change probably gets branded as heresy and gets stamped out)

      Speaking of fluff, the latest entries I read (stopped buying sourcebooks 2-3 years ago) have felt a bit like a 15 year old writing a background for his D&D character. That said, Legion and Fulgrim were very good books…

    • Necrourgist says:

      Wow, really? I don’t mean to sound elitist but i mean to sound elitist but what the heck boy? Common sense is your friend! 30k = 31st Millenium, 40k = 41st Millenium, even if you have no clue of the actual fluff, THAT much you should be able to deduce from the numerology and basic thinking. /smh

      • Valkyr says:

        Wow, chill man, I didn’t know that episode was part of a W30k, I didn’t even know such a thing existed

    • Oakreef says:

      Technological advancement is considered to be heresy. Literally. Machines are assembled by tech priests following holy scriptures (read: instruction manuals) and they have no idea how anything actually works. Attempting to dismantle and rework the God Emperor of Mankind’s divine machines will get you killed for heresy. If the guys in charge suspect large scale heresy on a planet they’ll bomb the entire planet and kill everyone on it. Progress is very actively prevented.

      • EhexT says:

        The “don’t understand how it actually works” isn’t entirely true anymore. While the average human citizen and low level Mechanicum don’t know how things work, the upper echelons certainly do.

        New stuff is invented all the time – every Forgeworld has it’s own variants of whatever they produce for example. But radically new technology isn’t actively pursued since there’s no reason to (an entirely new kind of gun/vehicle/computer wouldn’t help anyone because nobody has the factories to produce it, anything with AI in it is right out, because AI is a big no-no, anything to do with psychic power is dangerous as hell, etc.) The religious dogma on top of that doesn’t help progress any either of course.

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          Bluerps says:

          One thing I love is that in W40k, “AI” stands for Abominable Intelligence. Though some of the more advanced machines, like big tanks, for example, have a “machine spirit” which is pretty much an AI with some inbuilt limitations and lots of attached mysticism.

  11. VeNT666 says:

    What I want? M0ar photos! Looks brilliant, I’ve always regretted getting rid of my miniatures when I moved in with my partner. This may be the reason I need to get back into it.

  12. Wowbagger says:

    I like it and want it, but have you seen the price? It’s stupidly expensive so I can’t justify it.

    • A bag of rusty nails says:

      If you think this is pricey you’ve evidently not seen any of forgeworld’s range. This is a massive saving, if you were buying it in resin from forgeworld you’d be looking at about £400.

    • Immobile Piper says:

      Ah, that’s the thing with these GW boardgames. They come with minis that can be used for tabletop and are generally much cheaper than the real thing. All well and good for minis guys. Sucks for us boardgame types.

      My interest was piqued. I’ll definitely have to look into more reviews. I need to figure out just how much asymmetry there is. That and I won’t get it until I get my Space Hulk painted. That could take a while…

  13. gunny1993 says:

    Just started reading the Heresy books and am almost at the betrayal at calth so GW might be lucky to catch me in a fanboi mood so i’ll ignore the large price and buy this.

  14. oceanclub says:

    I’ve never bought direct from Games Workshop before; do they only have a US website?

    P.

    • Immobile Piper says:

      There’s a flag in the upper right corner with words “Delivering to”. Click for alternatives.