This feeling of inequality pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the game - we certainly found in our six or so play-throughs that the game's setup was heavily weighted in favour of the imperial player. For example, if either player reaches the end of the initiative track then an imperial victory is awarded as imperial reinforcements arrive. There are other victory conditions, of course, such as killing the opposition’s leader (Horus or The Emperor) or controlling all four of the space ports on the board. The imperial player has little motivation to aim for these, however, as both are relatively easy to defend against, meaning they can just run down the clock for an easy win.
This understandably puts the Chaos player at an immediate disadvantage. Intriguingly, though, this doesn't turn out to be a major issue. Once you’re aware of it you can deal with it, and this also prevents the game from coming to a stalemate, as the Chaos player has to get out there and try to win the game somehow. By casting the Chaos player as the underdog (they're assaulting the most heavily fortified location in the galaxy, after all), you force them to find a new approach or tactic and to take risks, which improves the game. Think penalty shootout and you’re not too far away - all the pressure is on the striker imperial player, as they're expected to win.
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The Horus Heresy board game wouldn’t be a Warhammer 40,000 title without spades and spaded of bloodshed of course, so it’s good to see that combat is one of the stronger points of the game. Battles are resolved via combat cards, with each player drawing a hand equal to the strength of the units they have in the battle - more powerful units result in a bigger hand and more options. The cards have both a strength rating, which is used to inflict damage, and a shield rating, which is used to deflect damage.
The real crux, though, is that each card also has a powerful special ability that is activated by a specific unit. These can only be used if the player has one such unit in the battle, which keeps battles fresh and the opponent guessing your next step. Battles also have variable lengths, depending on what cards were used to instigate them. In practice, however, we few of our battles lasted beyond the fourth turn, as it can often be most effective to just quickly lay down as many of your cards as possible.
One feature of the game we found a little underwhelming, however, was the collection of special characters that litter the battlefield. Each is represented by a tall cardboard token and comes with a special rule, but beyond that there's little to them. Wading into battle with The Emperor, Rogal Dorn and Sanguinius standing side by side should be an epic event, but in practice it’s little different to slamming a unit of Chaos cultists into an imperial tank formation.
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Movement is a weakness too, as it’s overly complex and all too easy to get wrong. More than once a plan was scuppered by the misplacement of a move order, which is frustrating. It’s not as if we’re board gaming novices struggling to understand a complicated game either; the system is just excessively obtuse.
Thankfully, movement doesn’t make up a large portion of the game, so it’s a relatively easy miscalculation to forgive. Of more concern to most will be the longevity of the game, as you’re essentially just replaying the same battle over and over again. On the plus side, the game does at least come with a scenario book (which also includes the story of the siege of Terra), and this goes some way to increasing the replayability on offer.
The final factor to take into account is price. At £60 the game is more expensive than most, and some people could balk at the fact that there is only limited replayability on offer for that price too. Being into Warhammer 40,000 has never been cheap, however, and the game and rule book do show a level of polish that goes some way to justifying the price tag. What we’re trying to say is that there's a good game here; you’ll just need to be a Warhammer 40,000 enthusiast to see it beyond both the price and the minor faults on show.