Since the release of Rogue Trader, the Warhammer 40,000 universe has spread across multiple games, rules iterations and media. From the original tabletop miniature games, to board games, video games, books and even ropey films. In Warhammer 40,000 Conquest The Card Game (to give it its full name) the grim dark future of the 41st millennium has been recreated in a customisable card game (and not for the first time I might add) but can a deck of cards truly capture the iconic characters and epic conflict of the setting?
In Warhammer 40,000 Conquest, you and another player are battling for control of the Traxis Sector. The aim of the game is to collect three planets that share the same symbol. I’m not going to go into too much detail here as there’s a really good video tutorial that explains everything perfectly but here’s the basic outline:
Five planets are laid out in front of you and each turn you can spend resources to deploy armies, upgrades and events to the five planets available. Then comes a strategy phase where you secretly select which planet your Warlord (more on them in a moment) and retinue of followers is going to land. Your Warlord causes battles to kick off but also helps which command struggles; miniature conflicts that reward the winner extra resources and cards. Then a battle kicks off at the first planet and every other planet where a Warlord is present. The winner at the first planet takes that card and is one step closer to winning the game.
Mechanically the game feels like high level take on a Warhammer 40,000 campaign; an abstracted conflict where a single battle that takes a few moments represents a full game of the Warhammer 40,000 miniatures game. Bizarrely this is the first thing that doesn’t quite gel with me, the conquest of an entire planet should involve whole legions of Space Marines and a few titans, not a handful of orks or a squad of howling banshees, but that’s the level of abstraction in the game and if you think of each battle as a single game of Warhammer 40,000 then the concept works.
One of the most interesting aspects of this game is the Warlord and their headquarters. Each deck will have a unique warlord card. It’s a powerful unit in its own right but also offers many effects that steer the strategy of your deck. Killing the opposing Warlord will win you the game giving you another route to victory. These Warlords swoop on and off planets, allowing you to choose where to use the Warlord to bolster troops in an important fight or win strategy conflicts for valuable resources. This constant movement of the warlord keeps the game very dynamic and where you deploy the warlord is a nice little bit of hidden information (because it’s not a Fantasy Flight Game unless you can squeeze a dial in).
For me the actual battles are one of the weakest elements of the game. They play out like a typical Magic the Gathering derivative conflict with cards having an attack and defence value and dealing out damage to each other. The basic mechanics feel a little stale as you tap, sorry exhaust, units to attack and deal out damage. Damage however is persistent and there are very few ways to heal units. Where it saves itself a little is that this combat is so deadly. Once all units are exhausted players have the option of retreating, if units don’t retreat the combat just keeps on going. It results in a very lethal combat where you stay and fight to the death or make a run for it. The important part is not necessarily the ‘what’ of the battles but the ‘where’ which results in is a clever game of area control, battles will concentrate on the first planet but playing troops on other planets and forcing those units to battle are all part of your tactical arsenal.
One of the beauties of the system is the built in time limit, the game can only ever last seven turns and that’s only really going to happen on extremely tight and evenly matched games. The majority of games typically last around four or five turns. This means you have a quick game on your hands and it also means that playing one troop on the wrong planet can scupper your chances. Coupled with the fact that this is a very straightforward game to learn and play, with probably the best Fantasy Flight rulebook ever, means it’s a very easy game to get to the table.
Shields are another beautiful little mechanic. You can discard cards from your hand with the shield icon to prevent damage. It offers a wonderful little trade off as you have to evaluate whether the card itself or the shield ability is more useful to you. There’s also the problem that you don’t want to be discarding too many of these early on, if you have an empty hand your opponent knows they can’t be blocked by a shield and can go in for the kill.
LCG series, a game system where the intention is for you to collect more and more cards and customise your deck to suit your favourite strategy. Conquest’s deck building, for the most part is fairly standard, allowing you the freedom to select any cards from your faction. The neat twist is the inclusion of the warlord and their retinue. When you select a warlord for your deck you then have to take their 8 card signature squad and by the looks so far, these cards are going to be completely unique to their warlord. If you desperately want to take a specific retinue card then your warlord is already chosen.
Then there are also the options of allies. Any deck can be bolstered with allies from a neighbouring faction but then only one faction and even then only those cards considered not loyal. It’s an interesting method to expand the options available in deck building but not giving you a completely free hand. Most of these ally options fit with the thematic history of the 41st millennium and match reasonably well the allies options from the miniature war game.
The problem is that the Warhammer 40,000 Conquest core set is merely a starter, due to the cards being spread over seven factions there are only enough cards to make one deck out of each faction and that includes using all available allies and neutral cards. This means that you can only have two decks built up at any one time and the only customisation available is which ally to take. It feels like you’re making a compromise, I don’t want an Ork deck with imperial guard or chaos allies, it feels so horribly un-orky.
Technically this means you have 14 different decks out of the box, but if you want to create your own unique deck you’re going to have to either buy a second core set or wait for the War Packs to start being released. As time progresses this isn’t going to be a big problem as the number of cards available will be ever increasing but it does make me concerned about the future of the game. With seven factions currently available and two more announced this means that in the future we can expect these war packs to be spread across nine different factions. If Fantasy Flight Games intend to contain cards for every single faction in every war pack then they’re going to be spread a bit thin.
At the time of its release it’s difficult to recommend purchasing Warhammer 40,000 Conquest. The game is rock solid, abstracting the combat of the dark millennium just enough and takes on board its theme of mighty warlords fighting over a system of planets. The game offers a brilliant balance of strategy and tactics; your deck construction will shape your strategy but as the game plays out you have to work tactically with the positioning of your Warlord.
I forgot to mention how well the theme is translated, a lot of familiar units and characters from the miniatures game are here and there’s plenty of scope to bring in even more. Each of the factions work exactly as you would expect from their respective armies; Tau are highly mobile and rely on equipment, Space Marines comprise of expensive but powerful units and Chaos messes with the game in disturbing ways (my favourite is a nurgle card that gets more powerful the more army cards in your opponent’s discard pile).
The problem is that at the moment there just isn’t enough variation. It just doesn’t have the same out of the box wow factor that games like Android Netrunner and Doomtown Reloaded have but I know this game is going to be a grower. Over time the selection of cards will improve. In a year or two this game will have the variety it needs and I think that at that time it’s going to be an amazing game.