On the Quest for Hammer of War

There are certain games that come along on certain platforms at certain times that define a purity of gaming experience. They are perfect traps for the mind. They are so powerful that even after you stop playing, when you close your eyes you see the game, playing out on the back of your eyelids:Tetris on Gameboy, Goldeneye on Nintendo 64, Street Fighter II Arcade cabinets, Bejeweled on smartphones. I'm sure you can think of one or two more.

Warhammer Quest for iOS on ipad is one of those games.

It's helpful that Warhammer Quest itself is considered one of the best, if not the best dungeon bash game of all time. Now out of print, after an astoundingly short print run of 3 years (1995-1988) if you wanted to get the tabletop version, you'd need deep pockets and a passion for ebay. But even so, that version is inferior to the digital version brought to us by Rodeo Games.

Why is the best dungeon bash board game of all time out of print? Money. Games Workshop is interested in selling goods that have a long tail, and although the tail was quite long on Warhammer Quest, with extra classes, treasure and dungeon expansions, and more, it wasn't long enough. Games Workshop is interested in publishing miniatures and miniature accessories. Books and cardboard are costly for them, and have a lower rate of return. The game, although popular, was never very financially successful. Only one person needed to buy the game. Only one expansion was needed for each group. There may come a day for a reprint, but it won't be soon.


We are talking today about he iOS version. Luckily, it's also available on Steam, so if you're reading this, you do have an opportunity to explore the game. But the iOS version is superior. 

As fun as dungeon bash games can be, they are a little fiddly. Warhammer Quest contains over 200 pieces, almost 100 different cards, and somewhere north of 200 pages of rulebook (although only 20 or so contains the game rules, the "role-play" book is the majority of that page count). Manipulating the actual game is quite time consuming. iOS removes that difficulty.

But that's just addressing what digitizing a game does. You get many of those features on Steam. Steam brings the game to a much wider audience (instead of just those subset of people with ipads). However, the portability of the ipad, along with the display is the perfect size to both show detail and play the game at. Open the game on the computer and it's in a small window. Blow it up full-screen and it becomes fuzzy. You're either too close or too far out. The display, size, and portability of the ipad version is sublime. As well as the fact that you rotate the ipad vertically to access the inventory. Which is just one of those mind-blowing innovations that we take for granted living in the future.

How do you check your inventory? You open the bag and look inside.

But what about the game itself? Why is it so good?

A design analysis of Warhammer Quest

Warhammer Quest is a dungeon bash game. You take a party of heroes and they descend into a dungeon, usually made of tiles and fight monsters and recover treasure. As they recover treasure, they become more powerful and level up. You may be somewhat familiar with the concept.

Dungeon bash is a specific board game niche. It's a relatively large niche title; Rodeo games has sold over 250,000 copies of the digital version (at leastsales may be above 500,000), along with however many actual print sales their were, so as niche as something can be that has a quarter of a million sales. But it isn't on the scale of a mainstream title, like Dominion, Dungeons and Dragons, or Settlers of Catan with tens of millions of sales.

A dungeon bash game is different than an adventure game in that it focuses on tile-based movement, line of sight, and tactical combat; this includes games such as the Dungeons & Dragons adventure games and Descent (and Descent 2). This is in opposition to adventure games like Arkham Horror or Talisman which are adventure games, due to a lack of tactical manuvering.

Both the digital and real world version of Warhammer Quest offered expansions in the form of new quests, new monsters, new treasures and new heroes. Warhammer Quest also contained a "role-play" book containing rules for moving among an overland, buying goods from merchants and more.

The digital version is a direct implementation of the complete game. Your party travels from town to town, completing random quests to earn money and gear along with storyline quests. In the quests, they move through each tile to the arrows, when then places a new tile in the dungeon, fighting monsters as they go. Each town has a specific market, and many of the optional characters are available. The rules inside the game, though opaque, are an honest translation of the spirit of the board game rules*.

*There are some minor changes, for example, ballistic skill counts up to six. In the tabletop game, it counted down, and any roll equal or higher to your ballistic skill would hit an opponent. The odds are still identical, though the numbers are reversed. Hence, "honest".

So, that's all pretty straight-forward. What is it that makes Warhammer Quest great?

The rule of 6

The basic system in Warhammer Quest is that you roll a d6. E.g. to attack someone you compare your character's weapon skill versus your opponent's weapon skill on a matrix, and if your number is equal to or higher to the target you hit. A 1 is always a failure an a 6 is always a success.

This is the cool part: Each turn a "Winds of Magic" roll is made. In addition to determining the amount of power your wizard has, any time a 1 is rolled (indicating the casters have no magic power available) an event card is drawn. 70%+ of the time, this is an encounter with monsters. This roll is made every turn, even while in combat! Not only do 2-12 new enemies appear, however any spell-casters you have are granted no resources to do anything about them.

For a board game involving risk and reward, this is a fantastic system. There are monsters, like orcs, that just attack. There are also monsters like Vampires, Shamans, or Spiders that can cast spells or have attacks that immobilize members of your party. There is enough randomness in this system to allow the no guarantees of outcomes. A slight run of bad luck can spell doom for even the most prepared party.

What this means, is that even in safe situations, small choices matter. Every turn spent in combat increases the chances of having enemies dumped on you, some of whom must be killed immediately. With your warriors pinned to the monsters they are fighting and your wizards who always have 0 power when new monsters appear, it constantly creates tense situations.

Every choice matters. Will you push ahead to uncover that next tile now, or take a turn and heal. Where are you positioning your party members? If someone drops, is there anyone with healing items next to them to revive them?

The plus side of course, is that even in a terrible situation, there's always a 1 in 6 chance of survival. Even if the attack is super-powerful or you're surrounded by spiders who are webbing you, there's that 1 in 6 chance your Marauder breaks free and kills enough of them to prevent them from locking down the party. So it isn't over until it's actually over.

Although it is over frequently enough. 

Resource Depletion

Of course the characters have resources to deal with these surprise situations of course. All resources deplete during the exploration of the dungeon and do not replenish until the dungeon is exited.

Wizards may have to deal with the flow of the winds of magic, but each has a personal pool of power that they can draw from to cast spells. Most often this is used to target those dangerous enemies during a turn an encounter is drawn. As they increase in levels, this pool also increases.

The other limited resource is inventory. Potions, bandages, scrolls, and rations can all help the players heal. High-level characters may gain regenerate rings or use powerful magic to heal themselves, but these are of no use if the character is dying.

When a character is dropped, they spend one turn dying. Unless healed, at the start of the following turn, the character is dead. On casual and regular modes, this simply means he/she receives no experience for exploring the dungeon and is removed from play. In hardcore mode, this means the character and his equipment are gone forever.

This means that another character has to be able to reach them (adjacent) and have a healing item available. Then they must use that item and the use of the item must be successful. Usually they are.

But for that 1 in 6. . .

Spell are always successful at healing, assuming it wasn't your spell-caster that was dropped, assuming it wasn't an ambush round and they had enough reserve to cast it, and assuming they don't need to do something more critical with their power.  Skills that heal do not have the same guarantee of success, and in fact sometimes even do damage.


So, of course, you just load up on cool items, right?

If only it were so simple.

Warhammer Quest has an unique inventory system. Instead of a paper doll system, each character has four common slots, four uncommon slots, and four rare slots as well as 24 slots split among all characters in the stash (which can only be accessed out of combat). In addition to items you might use, the stash must have room to contain "junk" artifacts for sale found during an adventure, as well as any replacements for healing or replacement items you wish to carry.

Of course you are constrained. You can't wear two helmets. If you have an uncommon helmet, and you put on a legendary helmet, the uncommon one is transferred to your inventory.

The whole system is filled with significant choice. You may notice that I'm not wielding a rare bow, instead opting for an uncommon one with my Marauder. It provides a strength bonus, increases his melee damage, which since he has 9 melee attacks (and only 1 ranged) is a good choice. The bow isn't available in a town or from an item quest, only as a random reward from a "rescue" quest for a fletcher or blacksmith. I also had to ditch my rare shield, needing the bonuses to armor, attacks, and chance to hit instead.

Those healing and replenishment items you want? They are expensive. It costs progressively more and more to level your characters (200->500->1,000->2,000->5,000->10,000->15,000). A common healing item costs 10. An uncommon one costs 100+. A common power store item for wizards costs 300, a rare one costs 1,000. Money is tight, often it's a choice between leveling a character or buying new equipment.

You are never outfitted as well as you wish you would be.

The Dungeon Tension

The fun of Dungeon Bash games, and in fact Old School Dungeons and Dragons (Original and Basic/Expert) comes from the tension in survival. The dungeon is dangerous, at any given moment it could violently kill you, but if you're lucky and skillful you can get away, having put one over on it.

This survival tension (and the importance of the hard-core nature of these games) means that the choices made during play matter and create for a pulse-pounding situation. After spending 6 hours and thousands of gold to outfit and level your grey wizard to 5, having him fall to the ground and be uncertain any of your teammates can reach him can put your heart in your throat.

You don't want to lose that time. Your time is important, you only have a limited amount of it before you die. It's kind of a rush.

The reason Warhammer Quest is such a good game is that it really skillfully consistently creates this tension. The original game did also, but the digital game sustains that feeling, speeding up the actual play of the game to focus on the fun parts, and is overall an excellent experience.

But for the full game, I don't recommend the hardcore play mode. . .

Find out why tomorrow in part 2 of our Warhammer Quest Analysis

Hack & Slash 


  1. I bought this on your recommendation. Really enjoying it so far. I like that there is an option for real character death.

  2. I played it on iOS when it first dropped, and have since purchased it for Android. I haven't played it a bunch recently so I don't know if they've added it or not, but I miss the random events travelling from the dungeon to either the village/town/city. This is one of my favourite aspects of the board game, it was always wonderfully brutal and usually resulted in the party losing most of that precious gold we'd acquired whilst barely surviving the dungeon crawl.

    1. I've lost thousands of gold to those events, so I assure you they are in the game.

  3. Thanks for this Courtney. And I say that with only a little sarcasm...
    I too picked this up after reading your review. I'd been on the fence. Just what I needed - another time sink. :-)


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