Today we are going to talk about some of the basics of another 32mm heroic scale skirmish miniature wargame, Malifaux. Produced by Wyrd Games, the game was born in 2009 and has steadily been gaining popularity since. It’s in the same space as Warmachine and Hordes, but uses very different mechanics and playstyles. The game takes place on an Earth-like world in the victorian era, complete with magic, machines, goblins and a healthy dose of frontier cowboys. Players run a master and a crew or gang in an attempt to secure the world’s magic resources, Soulstones. The denizens of the world are rather eclectic, drawing inspiration from real world history to make up their back stories, and the game world’s narrative has advanced as its own alternate history. New versions of crew masters, new story and plot as well as new factions have all been introduced. The game also parallels a tabletop RPG called Through the Breach, lending it a rich, deep and ever evolving story.
Malifaux itself is both a city-state and a world in a parallel dimension. The discovery of the parallel world first occurred in 1787 after the start of the decline of magic and magicians in our world caused them to search for a new source of magic. On the other side of a thin veil lay Malifaux, and a breach was created to break into this newly discovered world.
The magic users of our world decided to attempt to open a breach to this new world, and in the process destroyed everything around the ritual site. In the aftermath the breach was born and a new equilibrium was found between the two worlds. The world of Malifaux itself was much like our own, but uninhabited. This became the new frontier, and boom towns sprang up surrounding Malifaux as interested parties searched for soulstones and traded in magic. As exploration continued, new discoveries were made. This included the Neverborn, creatures of pure nightmare akin to demons, the magic of resurrection, and soulstone powered machines like golems. There was a period of time when the breach destabilized and collapsed, only to reopen spontaneously several years later. Now, along with the main breach, several smaller unstable breaches have begun opening as well.
There is a heavy emphasis on the feel of a railway era world, with steam engines and outlaws everywhere. Many bandits and lawmen don dusters, cowboy hats, revolvers and boots iconic of the time period. Combined with the presence of what would be most appropriately compared to demons, monsters, and magicians the game world has a very unique atmosphere. It’s very Weird West shootout feel that it works well with the skirmish setting.
Recently, Wyrd has released the Malifaux 2E line. This is an update to the game not only in rules and story advancement, but a huge step forward in the miniatures they produce. One of the most common materials miniatures are made out of is white metal, and Malifaux was no exception to this. Plastics, however, are normally easier on players to carry around, paint and modify. The 2E line carries a series of new miniatures and crew boxes comprised of high quality plastics. The kits themselves are highly detailed, and come in multiple pieces. The game is set to 32mm heroic scale, which is slightly larger than most other tabletop miniature games. This means the game pieces are a little bit bigger, and can carry more detail. It is perfect for a game where the average force size is relatively small.
The game itself is played on a 3 foot by 3 foot square surface area. Terrain can vary largely depending on what the scenario is you are playing or what you and your opponent have agreed upon. Crews and upgrades are purchased or hired out using a currency of Soul Stones, the very same stones from the fluff and lore. This is your point value for determining game size. Average game sizes are between 25 and 40 Soul Stones in size, and depending on your faction will fall in between 5 and 10 miniatures in a full crew. Any unspent Soul Stones are added to the master’s pool of soulstones, up to a maximum of 8 and can be used as a way to boost certain actions throughout the game. Crew masters have a value on their stats that will tell you how large their initial starting pool is, and unlike the crew members you hire out with your Soul Stones, masters are free – but we’ll cover soulstones further in a little bit. You can win a game by completely eliminating your opponent’s forces or by completing the mission objective in the scenario. Even if your crew leader dies, you can still win the game.
Character stats are broken down into six categories and are used to determine the various actions your characters can take on their turn.
Wk/Cg – Walk/Charge: This is the distance in inches a model can move as a standard action or charge action
Ht – Height: Normal humanoid sized models have a height of 2, where larger and smaller models will have varying numbers. This will determine what openings a model and move through, as well as how easy they are to hit.
Wp – Will Power: This is the guts of the model, or how strong willed they are.
Ca – Casting: This is the magic stat, used for casting spells or using certain special abilities.
Df – Defence: This is how hard it is to hit the model and will be used frequently.
Wd – Wounds: This is the health value for the model and will determine how much damage it can take before it is removed from play.
There is an additional stat, Combat, which is assigned to weapons and spells. This stat is used when determining damage dealt to a target.
Model activations happen in alternating fashion, each player takes a turn activating and completing all actions with a single model until all models have had one activation that turn for both players. This allows for much more tactical gameplay, and makes turns much more dynamic as players can react in real time to what each other are doing rather than having to wait several minutes for their turn to come around. Each model during an activation has a number of actions they can take. A standard minion or non-character has two action points per turn and one zero point or free action. Standard action points are used to purchase certain actions for your models. Walking your allotted distance costs an action point, as does making an attack or casting a spell or ability. Some actions will cost two actions points such as higher damage spells or abilities or completing a charge (move and attack). Players also have the option of taking a focus action, which costs one action point but when making a check using cards they are allowed to turn over two cards and choose the highest. Think of it sort of like aiming your shot to have a better chance at hitting. This creates engaging gameplay and keeps players involved throughout the game. Most tabletop miniature wargames tend to allow one player to make all actions with all of their models or units during their turn, while their opponent waits for their turn. By allowing for alternating activation of models, this helps to create the feel of a swirling gang skirmish, as well as keeping players involved in the game at all times.
One of the most intriguing things about the game, and normally the first thing people notice, is that the game is completely diceless. In keeping with the Weird West theme, instead of dice each player has a deck of fifty four cards, a basic poker deck with the two joker cards included in the sequence of play. The suits are altered, however, to fit the game world and form the basis of the core factions in the game. Clubs become Tomes, Spades become Crows, Diamonds become Masks and Hearts become Rams. At the most basic level the system uses model stats added to a card taken or flipped from the deck to determine results. In the event of a duel, such as one character trying to hit another, the total value is compared against your opponent’s core stat. So for example, to hit your opponent, as the attacker you would take your combat value and add it to the card you flipped. Your opponent would then flip a card and add it to their defensive value and the results determine the outcome of the duel.
Not only do you use the cards to determine if you hit, but you also use them to determine damage. Spells and weapons have damage bands, broken down into weak, moderate and severe. This is normally represented in the stat cards as 1/2/4. When an attack hits, you flip a card to determine the severity of the damage dealt. Face cards with a value of 1-5 are weak damage, 6-10 is moderate or middle damage and 11-13 is severe. Once damage has been flipped, and the band determined, that amount of damage is applied to the target model. Some spells or abilities have what is called a trigger, or a special occurrence that can happen. This is signified by a suit type next to the ability, and if you flip a card with that suit, you gain the trigger ability as well. This can range anywhere between extra damage to special effects like rooting a model in place or pushback.
In addition to the suits, there is a black and a red joker. The black joker is a bad omen, and has a face value of zero. Think of this as a natural or critical failure. The red joker is a good omen and has a face value of fourteen or as a natural success. If the black joker is flipped for damage, you deal no damage and if flipped in a duel it cannot be replaced in any manner and must stay as the card drawn for that ability. If that wasn’t bad enough, the black joker has no suit and cannot be used for trigger abilities, making it truly the lowest card in the deck. The red joker is the ultimate success. Not only does it bear a face value of fourteen, but if flipped for damage it will automatically cause severe damage. In addition, when flipped for damage it will allow you to flip an additional card which is added to the damage. As icing on the cake, the red joker can be assigned any suit you wish when played, meaning that unlike its friend the black joker, you can use a red joker for triggers and special abilities. It is the ultimate draw in the game of Malifaux and is comparable to a critical hit. The only downside is that if you are ever in a situation where you flip multiple cards and you flip both a red joker and a black joker, the black joker overrides your red joker and you fail, miserably.
The system also encourages what is referred to in the rules as “cheating”. Players start their turn with a control hand, a draw of six cards, like a modified poker hand. The players maximum hand size can be changed depending on the models they are using in crew. Some masters grant larger hand sizes, while others allow you to draw more and choose which six to keep. When you flip cards from your deck to take actions, you may choose to cheat your flip by replacing the card with one from your hand. You can do this to ensure the hit, or because a specific suit may be necessary to trigger an ability. You can also cheat to defensively, preventing your opponents actions from successfully completing. This can be done to to keep your pieces alive or just shut down your opponent. In both cases though, once your hand is depleted that is all you get until the next turn, so you will have to decide carefully when it is advantageous to cheat or not.
It is an interesting mechanic because as the game progresses and hands and cards are burned or discarded, the actual probability of the game fluctuates. This adds additional tactical decision making to the game and allows you to have some further control over the odds, at least a little bit. At the end of the turn, all players shuffle their remaining hands and discarded cards back into the deck in preparation for the next turn.
Beyond the players being able to cheat fate and control randomization slightly, the crew masters have a limited ability to do so as well. This is where those soul stones come in to play. Soul Stones are fragments of pure magical power in the game world, and can be used to that effect in gameplay. Masters can spend a Soul Stone to flip an additional card on an action and add the value together. This is particularly handy when trying to clear out some beefier minions or when you are trying to get a specific suit to show up for a trigger effect. In most cases, the resulting value of your flip will be too high for anything other than your opponents master to contend with. Additionally, masters can spend a Soul Stone for an action point and make a healing flip. This allows them to heal between 1 and 3 wounds. As with damage, this is broken down into weak/moderate/severe or 1/2/3. 1-5 is 1 Wound, 6-10 is 2 Wounds, 11-13 is 3 Wound, a flip of the Red Joker heals any damage taken and a flip of the Black Joker heals nothing. This can also be done in reaction to damage taken due to losing a duel, allowing your master a certain extra layer of survivability.
Getting started is fairly easy as well, and fairly low cost. You will need a crew, and Wyrd sells crew boxes that are ready to play and a complete gang in the box itself. These are 25 soulstone crews and contain a crew master, models for the gang in the flavor of the faction as well as all stat cards necessary to play and as a selection of upgrade cards. These can be purchased from Wyrd for between $40 and $50 USD or you can try your favorite local retailer or online store for varying prices. The rules themselves can be purchased for $40 USD for the standard size book, or $15 for the miniature soft cover version of the rules book. Both contain the same information, but the larger book will have more artwork and background story for you. There are no faction books to purchase, but you can buy a complete deck of cards for your faction which include all current models and upgrades for your chosen faction and can be bought for under $10 USD. You will need something to act as counters for soulstones and in game effects, a tape measure for movement and ability measurement. You will also need a fate deck which can be purchased for under $10 USD or you can use a normal deck of cards with the jokers included as long as you have the suit conversion sheet handy. You will also want a dry erase marker to mark damage on cards during the game. As miniature wargames go, the price point to enter the game is very low, and the upgrade system allows you to use the same models in varying ways so a simple crew box will allow you multiple ways to play for a long time.
This is the most basic of overviews for the game itself, there are a lot of nuances to the gameplay. In a lot of ways it feels like chess, easy to learn the basics, but a lifetime to learn all there is to know. It has a medium learning curve and will take a little bit to get right, but the rules are very well written and relatively easy to understand. The skirmish aspect of it is quite engaging and the low model count makes games relatively quick. I’ve heard people refer to it as the spiritual successor to the old warband game Mordheim, and in a lot of ways it does feel like that only much more evolved. It is a very rewarding game if you are looking for small scale tactical combat, and it doesn’t have nearly the same amount of downtime as other games. It feels very fast paced and that’s a good thing, and the diceless aspect of it is surprisingly enjoyable. I feel it is well worth the time to seek out demo games at your local gaming store or club, and it is certainly a game we’ll be discussing further in the future.