The biggest surprise about Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower is how brilliant it is. Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise. The last Games Workshop standalone game I played was the lithe Betrayal At Calth, a fantastic run and gun scenario/skirmish game. And yet, as the beauty of this Silver Tower makes itself known, the main thing I feel is surprise. This is a game that has merged modern dungeoncrawl mechanics with (and I hate simplifying it like this, but you might understand what I mean) a very British old-school eccentricity. The Silver Tower is electrifying, a shining lightning rod for all those feelings that make us want to play games. Read on.
WARHAMMER QUEST: SILVER TOWER
How can a game feel so clean, and so modern, while also feeling like the fantasy games we all played as children? It's not an easy thing to do. The market is saturated with fantasy dungeoncrawls these days, and I have many of them on my own shelves. I've played them all, done it all. I'm a fan of the genre, and I feel like I can speak with some authority on what works and what doesn't.
To me, as a sesssion-to-session dungeoncrawl adventure, Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower is pretty much the perfect game.
Now, that's a bold statement. But it maybe goes some way to explaining why my coverage of this game has stretched over three weeks now. I think this is a significant game release – not only because of what I think it represents within the board gaming hobby (a definitive return to genuine, fully developed board gaming by Games Workshop), not only because of how beautiful this game is (any fan of the fantasy genre will find the design inside this box totally exhilarating), but also because of how excellent this release is. This is my game of the year so far, by a fair distance, and is a better game than the original Warhammer Quest, a game I adore. In fact, I'm comfortable saying, in these early stages, that this is likely to end up my favourite dungeoncrawl game of all time.
So why? Why is it so good?
The Silver Tower is alive. That's the best way to put it. This dungeon is a twisting, turning, constantly changing deathtrap, full of surprises. Into this place comes your heroes, each controlled by a player (or all controlled by you, alone), and the Tower plays against you. As you explore, moments pile upon moments, telling stories upon stories. And each adventure folds into the next, as you try to collect everything you need for a final battle with the big bad guy of the game – The Gaunt Summoner.
So yes – a campaign. But a replayable one, because things will unfold differently every time. Silver Tower is a game about chaos, and so chaos is an important element of the game's design – but there is never a second when you don't feel like your character has complete agency. There is luck, randomness, but at the heart of this game is the power of choice – which way to go, which skill to use, which enemy to attack, which die to spend, whether to ------- the ------ --------.
The game is beautifully simple to play. You will learn how to play it in ten minutes, guaranteed. The main mechanic of the game is tied to each character's dice pool. The player rolls four dice for their character, places the dice on the character card, and then chooses how to assign those dice. Every character has basic actions they can take, such as moving and exploring, and these need only a result of 1+ on an action die. So, basically, you spend any of your dice to do those basic things. But the special actions, unique to each character, demand higher rolls to activate them. So the allocation of dice is important.
Besides each player's personal dice pool, there is also a group pool of dice called the Destiny Dice. These are rolled at the start of a round, and unique rolls are saved and can be used by any character. Any duplicate dice in this Destiny roll can cause unexpected events to occur. We'll talk about the unexpected stuff in a minute.
Exploration unfolds through a deck of cards. You enter a new room, draw a card, lay out the floor tile printed on the card and read the accompanying text. Understand this – your map tiles don't represent the same thing all the time. One map tile can have different names, different encounters, different enemies. All of this rolls out through the cards and the encounter tables, and the adventure book.
Okay. The Adventure Book. This is a book full of story extracts, in numbered paragraphs, just like a Fighting Fantasy game. At points in the game, you will be instructed to read these out, telling the unfolding story of the Silver Tower. I won't go into any details about any of this stuff – not any of it – because a lot of the magic of this game is in this Exploration Deck and how it works with the Adventure Book. But you need to know that it's an absolute thrill to move through this dungeon, telling a developing story, groaning and gasping at what you're about to deal with.
And that's Silver Tower.
No. This is Silver Tower.
With the room spinning and whirring under you as Blue Horrors leap and dance towards your blade, you – I'm spending this 4 to use my Broadsword – arc your broadsword towards them and – Damn it! Rolled a 2 – bite into nothing but air.
You are Mistweaver Saih, and you are unknowable. The cultist advances, crawling over the piles of books, kicking up dust. You remain calm, as your – I'm using this 5 on my – Glimmermist fills the room, obscuring your movements, and the movements of your allies, behind your shimmering magic. The cultist bounds – It's coming for the dwarf! - past you, and swings its blades towards the Runemaster, and – It rolls a 5! Glimmermist! - misses, losing its aim in the impossible, beautiful haze.
This game is so immersive. The dice pool system, similar to the one seen in the brilliant Claustrophobia, makes every character feel very distinct. The actions combine to tell little moments of story within every players turn, feeding into the larger story of the room encounter, which in turn feeds into the larger story of the quest, and again into the story of the full campaign. Video gamers will understand how a game like Halo, for example, weaves its magic through perfectly paced moments of action – encounters that explode with their own little points of dynamism. Silver Tower is like this – a collection of muscular minutes that can tilt into triumph or disaster at any time.
It's brilliant that I can't even explain some of the best things in the game, because they're best experienced as surprises. Silver Tower is like a grab-bag of beautiful moments from the history of this genre of gaming. There are encounters with mysterious strangers, leaps of faith, bloody battles, magical missiles flying everywhere – it's fantastic, and it excites that place inside you that is always a 9 year old. It's streamlined. This isn't the Warhammer Quest of old, with its giant books that made the game a beautiful sandbox of fantasy adventure gaming, and that's maybe a little bit of a shame. But it is 2016, and this is a more thrilling game, with the adventure aspects tightened up and polished to a perfect shine.
Stuff I haven't mentioned? Wonderful enemies, with so many special abilities of their own. The Renown mechanic, allowing your characters to level up and gain new skills – not just by killing enemies, but by doing character-specific stuff (the Warpriest is rewarded for healing, the Doomseeker is rewarded for taking a battering, the Darkoath Chieftain is rewarded for slaughter). Those unexpected events, and all those tables, spitting out stuff like little chaos familiars that buff the enemies. You can try to catch those little familiars, by the way. You can catch them and use them for a sweet little buff, or fail to catch them and get punished.
But more than all of this, Silver Tower speaks to me as a genuine work of fantasy. Where the original Warhammer Quest, and so many dungeoncrawl games since, are full of standard fantasy tropes (Barbarian! Wizard! Elf! Goblins!) Silver Tower is genuinely odd. It's a psychedelic slaughter-carnival full of bizarre enemies, and heroes that shouldn't be working together. It's light on rules, but very high on detail. Enemies are never just – ZOMBIE: HIT 1 STRENGTH 1 – they're living, reacting things with abilities that can cause complete chaos. The setting of the game itself – a weird, shifting silver tower commanded by a powerful Chaos sorceror – is a rich one. You feel that setting with every step. Everything has character. It's a game with real heart.
Best way to sum it up on a PC gamer's website? My favourite Elder Scrolls game is Morrowind. It's the strangest one, the most outlandish one, and the one with the setting that allowed the game's designers to really push the fantasy genre in different directions. Silver Tower is a breath of fresh air for the same reasons. You're exploring a gorgeous world of weird, where you'll find constant delight in how the heroes, the villains, and even the rooms themselves behave.
This is unmissable.