Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Storm of Magic Review

The release of Storm of Magic has been something of a strange thing. In the past when an expansion to Warhammer was released, most of us would have jumped at it and then made our own assessments once we got our hands on it. However, this time it has been different. The expansion has come at a time when most of the community (locally, at least) is bitter and angry at Games Workshop for their heavy-handed attempts to curb the influence of overseas internet sellers, and when the rather botched release of Finecast and the associated price rises have been viewed with scepticism at best. Basically, GW have not made many friends recently.

In addition to this, parts of the community are still making up their minds about Warhammer 8th edition, and whether they like the game or not. To say this has been a drawn-out process is an understatement (the edition could be a quarter of the way through its life-cycle already; how time flies!).

Into this environment of uncertainty comes Storm of Magic, the first “core expansion” (as opposed to an army book) in many years. Its arrival is advertised as introducing more powerful magic and ludicrous monsters, and greater elements of uncertainty to a game that many players are already unsure about for those very reasons. The GW website cries,

“Storm of Magic is everything we've been waiting for - the opportunity to field wizards galore and tear open the world with magical energy, to summon huge (massive, towering, gigantic) monsters that will make your opponents quiver in fear at the sight of them.”

Unfortunately, they may have missed their mark. It would seem most players have in fact not been waiting for these things. It was nearly 2 months since Storm of Magic had been released, and I still had not seen a copy outside of a store yet. In fact, nobody I knew had bought it. Eventually an executive decision was made and the club bought a copy out of its (rather limited, rarely used) coffers. At least then we could make a decision for ourselves. Having read through it, I thought I would share what I have found.

What is it?
Storm of Chaos is not a boxed supplement – it’s just a book. But it’s a very strange book. The back cover wraps around to keep the book closed, and continues all the way until about 1.5 inches from the spine – so it’s almost all of the front cover as well. When you fold out the cover, inside is a plastic spinner that points to any of the Lores of Magic. The 8 Colleges are represented in the main ring, with the race-specific Lores each occurring one or more times within those 8 bands. This wheel is used to determine with Lores of Magic are “ascendant” on any given turn. 
A strange book with a wrap-around cover. Makes it hard to read on the train, but that's not what it's for.
I don’t really like basing part of my game on something like a spin-wheel. It makes me feel like I’m playing a kids’ board game. The book tells you to make sure when you flick it, that it does at least a few full circuits before stopping (so no lame, carefully judged half-taps to get what you want). Even so, I’m not a big fan. You could use a D8 instead of the spinner, but you will still need to refer to it as the adjacent values are relevant due to adjustments in either direction made by the players. GW have steered away from dice other than D6s in recent years, so I guess the use of the spinner is a continuation of that.

What’s in it?

There is a basic Storm of Magic scenario, as well as a couple of twisted variants supplied later in the book. Think of the variants as the equivalent to the stranger scenarios you get in the hardcover rulebook, but not the smaller, compressed volume. They are even more oddball than the “basic” Storm of Magic scenario, which will be more than different enough for most players. One of the variants involves a mad, independent wizard who rides a teleporting Fulcrum around the table, zapping both players. No, I am not kidding…
Anyway, let’s run through the rules that apply to Storm of Magic games. Bear in mind that they have presented the various rules separately so that players can pick and choose if they want to include specific rules in a game without others, however most of this book is focused around Fulcrums and most of the rules work accordingly.

Monsters and Magic
This is a fundamental change as part of the scenario. Both players get an additional 25% of their army points to spend on a combination of Mythic Artefacts, Bound Monsters and Sorcerous Pacts. So in fact your army ends up being 125% of the agreed value. This sounds silly, but it keeps the maths simple. It also means you could take a normal army and slap the Monsters and Magic section on the end if you were crazy enough to run a tournament with a single Storm of Magic game in there somewhere. Good luck to you if you do…

Magical Flux

Wheel of Fortuuuuuune!!
This is where you use the spinner in the book to determine the ascendant Lores for each turn. Spells from the basic college Lore you spin up gain +5 to casting attempts for the turn. Lesser “race-specific” Lores gain less of a bonus (+4 or +3), but then they occur more than once on the wheel. Controlling a Fulcrum allows you to turn the wheel either way by up to D3 after the spin, so you do get some control over the result.

Wild Magic
In Storm of Magic games, you roll 4D6 power dice instead of 2D6. Your opponent gets the highest 2 rolls. In accordance with the increase in dice, the power and dispel pool limits have increased from 12 to 24.

Arcane Fulcrums
Storm of Magic revolves around Arcane Fulcrums. These are effectively pillars atop which a wizard of any type can perch. You’ve probably seen the plastic models that GW produce to represent these, but really you could use any building, tower, or marker upon which you can balance a model. In the basic Storm of Magic scenario there are 4 Fulcrums, one in each table quarter, with each player starting in control of the ones in their half.
A wizard on a Fulcrum gains a rather preposterous amount of protection from it. It grants a 3+ ward save, Immune to Psychology, Stubborn, and immunity to the Multiple Wounds rule. In addition, he can’t be Stomped, and counts as being in a building for all purposes. You assault a Fulcrum as you would a normal building, however only 1 model can attack in the combat. This means the only serious threat to the wizard will be a Monster with a colossal number of attacks, or a character who interferes with ward saves.
Occupation of Fulcrums grants the owning player a large number of benefits. The most obvious of these is enabling you to cast Cataclysm Spells. So long as you control at least one Fulcrum, you gain access to Presence-level spells on all your wizards. Controlling the same number of Fulcrums as your opponent grants access to Equilibrium spells, and if you manage to control more than your opponent, you can cast Dominance spells. Additionally, control of Fulcrums affects the Mythic Artefacts you may have selected, and allows you to modify the roll for Magical Flux by D3.
Oh, and controlling the most Fulcrums at the end of the game will win you the game. Otherwise it goes to Victory Points.

Before the main Cataclysm Spells, there is a trio of petty spells that all wizards know in a game of Storm of Magic. Unlike Cataclysm Spells, you don’t need control of a Fulcrum in order to cast one.

The first spell is a mental duel that can push an enemy wizard out of a Fulcrum and put you in there instead. This is one of the easiest ways to clear a mage off a Fulcrum, given the protection an occupant has once he gets there. The second spell allows the caster to teleport from one Fulcrum to another. The final spell allows the caster to tamper with the opponent’s control over a Bound Monster – it takes a test not unlike a Monster Reaction test.

Cataclysm Spells
Cataclysm Spells are additions to the existing Lores of Magic. Almost invariably, the power of these spells puts them above the existing selection, effectively extending each Lore past the top of its current arsenal. Every Lore in the game has its own bonus spells, and a wizard automatically knows all the Cataclysm spells he is eligible for. There are 3 spells (one each of Presence, Equilibrium and Dominance level) for the common colleges in the rulebook, however the race-specific lores often have only 2 (these often stack with the wizard having chosen a basic Lore such as Life, in which case he is actually gaining access to 5 spells anyway). The Daemon and Warrior of Chaos Lores have been combined for this purpose, although sometimes the effects of the spell vary depending upon the caster. Apparently there are 64 new spells in the book (GW counted them, saving me the trouble).

Much has been made on the rumour mill about the spells in Storm of Magic, however once I had a look at them myself, I was largely underwhelmed. Not that I am disappointed, as such – I think it’s good that they haven’t loaded the book with “game over” spells – but as a whole they are nowhere near as powerful as I was led to believe.

There are also some other things you might want to know. Cataclysm Spells can’t be cast using Irresistible Force. A double 6 will still miscast, but the spell does not automatically succeed regardless of casting value, and it can still be dispelled. On the flip side, you can’t use items or abilities that automatically dispel either. If you want to stop the spells, you need to hoard your dispel dice. However as a whole, this will surely please players who have a deep and abiding hatred of powerful spells being cast irresistibly.

First up, all mages gain knowledge of a spell that can summon a small unit or character (without magic items, except in the case of a summoned special character). The unit is 75/150/300 points, depending upon your control of Fulcrums, but it’s from any army book. Does this seem a little bit odd to you? That’s probably because it is. The mage is grabbing a unit from somewhere in the Warhammer world and sucking it into his battle, under his command. It’s a strange spell, but everyone gets it.

The most powerful spells have some rather impressive casting values. The highest I saw was The Great Leveller – a Slann spell that kills the caster and then slaughters enemy units and characters until they have no more of each than the casting player. As ridiculous as this spell sounds, it requires a 35+ to cast. That, coupled with the loss of the casting Slann, makes is something less than the devastating game-winner some players might declare it.

Almost every Lore gains a magical vortex spell, and none of the Cataclysm Spells waste their time with low-level, small template versions. They generally cost 25+ to cast, and vary from feeble (a Strength 3 hit to all models touched) through to ferocious (Strength test or die, rerolling successes). However, the nastier spells tend to have a smaller range, moving only 2x the roll on an artillery dice, or even no multiplier at all.

There are a number of spells that summon terrain out of thin air (Assault of Stone makes a reappearance after a decade in the wilderness, although it has gotten lost and turned up in the Lore of Light). In fact, when you count the effects of some of the Mythic Artefacts available, terrain is treated rather irreverently in Storm of Magic. Hills and forests appear out of nowhere and get shoved around willy-nilly, often to the detriment of the units that don’t get out of the way (it’s not actually as rampant as I am making it sound, but the ability to move terrain used to be limited to Wood Elves, and they are now the least of the offenders).

There are a couple of spells in there that look to be serious game-winners, if cast at the right time. There is a Light spell that grants you an extra Shooting or Combat phase, which could prove decisive. There is a Shadow spell that drops the Movement, Weapon Skill, Ballistic Skill, Initiative and Leadership of all enemies to 1 whilst in play, which is utterly crippling. And there is a High Magic spell that creates a new Fulcrum out of nothing (given the importance of these, this could win the game).However, as a whole the spells are powerful, but by no means iron-clad game-winners.

Ancestor Runes
Dwarfs can plant Runesmiths and Runelords on top of Fulcrums in the place of wizards, and can make use of things called Ancestor Runes. Like the Anvil of Doom, there are 3 runes to choose from, however these ones are actually powered by the dice in the power pool. The mechanics are a bit different from casting spells – up to 6 dice can be used by a particular Runesmith to power a attempts at a specific rune, with each dice that rolls a 4+ successful, and each that rolls a 6 an irresistable/miscast. Dispellers do the same thing, nominating how many dice to try to roll 4+ to dispel each rune.

Unfortunately, compared to the spells available to wizards, I find the Ancestor Runes underwhelming. One of them does 2D6 Strength 4 hits to a target (but the same Runesmith can’t even target the same unit twice in a turn, so no concentration of firepower); one of them grants a unit re-rolled failed hits (both in combat and shooting) and allows them to fight in an extra rank; the last one heals D3+1 wounds on a unit and makes it Unbreakable for a turn.

Even if you got several runes off in a turn (unlikely unless you roll 6s, in which case your Runesmith may be in a spot of bother), these effects are not of the same scale as the Cataclysm Spells. Dwarf players may find Storm of Magic entertaining anyway, thanks to the Mythic Artefacts and Bound Monsters, but the Ancestor Runes won’t be what gets them excited.

Mythic Artefacts
An army can only contain 1 Mythic Artefact, or 2 in the case of a grand army (this is not where you just declare your army to be awesome – it’s armies over 3000pts). These are extremely expensive, very powerful and often quite ludicrous items that characters can carry in addition to their normal magic item allowance (although they can’t double up on an item type – for instance you can still only carry 1 magic weapon).

You may have heard of the Dodecahedron of Continental Drift (I know I had, although not in so many words). It allows you to swap 2 sections of a modular table (such as a Realm of Battle board), facing them in any direction. This is funny, and would turn a battle on its head. Having said that, it only works on a modular table, you can’t place table sections in a way that looks silly (like hill edges in the middle of the board), the item is a bound spell which can be dispelled, and it costs 250 points!

In short, yes there are definitely items that you would consider, and some that could potentially cause no end of mischief to your opponent. However, many of them are bound items, a lot of downsides, and they are all expensive.

Sorcerous Terrain
There are a lot of pages in the book dedicated to outrageous versions of Wizard’s Towers, Arcane Ruins and the like. If you are like me, you will rarely (if ever) use these sorts of terrain in normal games. However, I suppose it’s more likely you would go all-out in a Storm of Magic game, where you’re less likely to be taking the game super-seriously (should you ever be taking it that seriously?).

When you can have a Wizard’s Tower that is, in fact, a “Portal of Screaming Death” (yes, there is such a thing. And no, it’s not a good idea to go inside), it’s always going to be more tempting than normal. Right?

Bound Monsters

There are probably around 50 entries in the Bound Monsters section of the Storm of Magic book. Given they take a page each, monsters comprise a fair chunk of the book. Judging by this, encouraging players to field large numbers of fabulous beasties in their armies was obviously a large part of GW’s focus. This is supported by the fact that Storm of Magic was accompanied by the release of a raft of new monster miniatures, some of which could not be fielded by any army at all outside of Storm of Magic.
The return of the Death Chicken. I'm not a fan, but I know some people are...
As you would expect, the monsters you purchase for your army come out of the Monsters and Magic allowance. You can only get 2 of each monster (4 in a grand army), although I noticed Giants were an exception to this limit. And let’s face it, with about 50 different types of beastie to choose from, do you really need to spam the same monster repeatedly?

The monsters include pretty much every Monster and Monstrous Beast you can think of from any of the existing army books (Manticores, Great Eagles, Razorgor, Wyverns, Stegadons, Cygors, etc). Monsters are fielded alone, whereas the Monstrous Beasts tend to be bought in small packs of up to 5. In addition, there are a number of the more fearsome conventional mounts included, such as Cold Ones. Harpies are also in there, and I can see a lot of people opting for something so cheap.

The largest of the options in the list are the Emperor Dragon and Chaos Dragon, which both sport a healthy number of 9s across their profiles, and weigh in at a hefty number of points. The Emperor Dragon can also be a wizard of a Lore appropriate to its colour, which is cute. The other heavy hitters in the list are the Exalted Greater Daemons, which boast enhanced stats over their normal Great Daemon kindred, although of course it comes at a price. The other big inclusions are the Bonegrinder Giant and the Mammoth, which have clearly been included to accommodate models available from Warhammer Forge (along with some smaller things like Plague Toads).
The Warhammer Forge War Mammoth is an unquestionably impressive model.
I noticed some of the monsters in this section are cheaper than their equivalents in the army books they were drawn from (for instance, a Griffon is 150 points instead of the 200 paid by High Elves and the Empire). This may reflect their reduced potency without a rider, or it may reflect an acknowledgement that they are overpriced in the 6th and 7th edition army books. However, most of the monsters have been given options, such as the ability to buy a Bite or Tail attacks or special rules such as Armour Piercing, Scaly Skin saves, Breath Weapons, Flaming Attacks or even Killing Blow. The options vary from monster to monster, and I didn’t notice anything truly over the top. Many of the options are worth considering, and it promises a lot of variety in the monsters players field.

There are also a number of characters included in the Bound Monsters section, most of which offer you the chance to further bolster your magic stocks. The Truthsayer and Dark Emissary from the Dark Shadows campaign many years ago make a reappearance, as do a Fimir and a Zoat (who have both been gone a whole lot longer). These characters come with their own gear pre-selected, which generally includes some form protection (this is important, as you can’t join units with selections from the Bound Monsters, and vice versa).

The biggest gripe I can see people having with this part of the book is there is no attempt to enforce the character of the background on a player’s army. So a Wyvern might be aiding Dwarfs, or far more outrageously, a High Elf might invite a monstrous Exalted Keeper of Secrets to come and fight alongside him. These things have been deliberately left open to the players, however it will displease some people. If the players agreed, they could make a point of keeping their selections to things that are more or less plausible for their army (a lot of generic sorts of monsters could feasibly be trapped and enslaved by any race). And for those players who don’t care to restrict themselves like this, the clash of background material clearly doesn’t bother them anyway.

Sorcerous Pacts
In a similar vein to Bound Monsters, the Sorcerous Pacts section allows you to field elements in your army that do not normally belong. Once again, the selections come from the Monsters and Magic allowance. However, the selection rules are quite different.

First up, there are only a few choices here. The player can choose to make a pact with one of the following: Daemons, Vampire Counts or Tomb Kings. The theory is that these are the dark, magical powers that one might summon, but it feels a little odd. In a way the Daemons make sense, since they really need to be summoned into the material realm anyway, but Vampires and Tomb Kings don’t really work the same way, for all their habit of reinforcing their armies with the dead people buried beneath them.

Instead of making Pacts with individual elements from the armies above, you effectively select a small allied force from the relevant army book. There are restrictions on the number of selections (eg 1 Greater Daemon), but the normal limitations on percentages don’t hold. Forces summoned under a Pact use the Allies rules, and whilst they start as Trusted Allies, the relationship can deteriorate over the turns until the summoned troops vanish entirely. They won’t remain useful forever.

In the same way as the Bound Monsters, the option for Forces of Order to summon forth Daemons to do their bidding will potentially rile some players. However, there are other situations that make sense, such as mortal Chaos worshippers conjuring up Bloodletters or Dark Elves being accompanied by a Keeper of Secrets. This sort of flexibility will be welcomed by some, and there is no pleasing everyone.

All in all…
Storm of Magic clearly does not take itself as seriously as some players might like. Options have been left deliberately flexible, accommodating all sorts of ridiculous alliances and encouraging experimentation. The book includes some enormously powerful spells and items, however many of them are situational, and all of the most apocalyptic tricks have to be forced past your opponent’s magical defences.

The “basic” scenario in the book is a serious departure from the basic Pitched Battles found in the rulebook, but it’s not necessarily unbalanced in its own right. It offers something different, and gives the game a focus of its own. In truth, the book really is well suited to very large games, where the big spells will feel at home, and the Fulcrums provide an obvious objective for both sides.

As a player who took up Warhammer in 4th edition, there is a definite element of nostalgia involved in what Storm of Magic is trying to do. The reappearance of old spells like Dance of Despair, Assault of Stone, Deadlock and Bridge of Shadows is pleasing, even if they don’t necessarily behave as they used to. Likewise, the ability to spend 25% of your points on Bound Monsters is an echo of the old days, and these rules will doubtless enable a lot of players to fish out models they may have thought had outlived their usefulness.

It is unlikely we will ever see Storm of Magic used in a tournament environment, but there is no question that I will be giving it a go at some point with friends. That’s clearly what it’s for, and so long as the players are on the same page, I think it will work.

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