By Ken Allsop
Mordheim: City of the Damned is based on the 1999 Games Workshop tabletop title of the same name, which was designed as a simpler take on the full-scale Warhammer wargame that features armies of miniature figures in intense, tactical battles. Like its boardgame variant, City of the Damned focuses on small warbands (generally comprised of around 4-8 units) in skirmish scenarios. But how does this conversion stack up for Warhammer fans, and is it approachable for newcomers?
Mordheim is structured in a perma-death campaign format that sees you running a warband of units from factions within the Warhammer universe, taking on various missions in order to earn gold, equipment, and “solidified Chaos mutagens” known as Wyrdstone (also called Warpstone in some variants of Warhammer lore).
The overarching goal during your campaigns is to meet the Wyrdstone demands of your designated sponsor. They will make regular requests for deliveries of Wyrdstone which must be met by a given deadline. Ultimately, each campaign in Mordheim functions as a test of endurance - a question of how long your warband will last before they succumb to injuries, disband due to lack of funds, or are unable to fulfil the demands of their sponsors.
Most of your time during campaigns is spent actually undertaking missions. Primarily, these are simple skirmishes against an enemy faction where your goal is to eliminate all enemy units or cause them to rout by lowering their morale sufficiently. These take place in procedurally-generated environments and, much like in tabletop Warhammer, all actions and encounters are based on statistics and dice rolls.
At first this can seem rather intimidating, with the screen awash with dozens of percentages. However, for those who are already familiar with Warhammer’s systems, this approach may actually prove rather comforting. As someone who has spent a fair amount of time with the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay tabletop RPG (which utilises similar mechanics), I was able to fairly quickly grasp the numbers that Mordheim was serving up to me. Newcomers may be a little more in over their heads, but thankfully there is a fairly lengthy and in-depth tutorial system that runs through several scenarios and provides examples of almost every mechanic that you are likely to encounter during regular play.
In addition to random skirmishes, you will occasionally be presented with a more in-depth “story mission.” Unlike skirmishes, missions have a fixed difficulty but can be left until such time as you feel prepared. Unfortunately, while they are generally more interesting than the standard battles, they still frequently boil down to fairly simplistic fetch quests or boss fights against larger enemy units.
There is also an option to take on other human players in skirmishes - either no-stakes friendly encounters (with no permanent consequences for your warband but no additional benefits either) or competitive matches where any spoils of victory will be awarded to your campaign, but the consequences of failure are just as real.
The game’s factions all do feel somewhat distinct in how they fight. The Skaven are fast but weak individually, relying on hit-and-run tactics and swarming enemy units, whilst the Sisters of Sigmar hit hard and utilise miracles to buff their abilities. However, outside of battle campaign progress feels very similar across factions, with even story missions often being simple reversals of another campaign’s scenario.
In between missions, you must take care of your warband: paying the wages of any units who were active in the latest fight, upgrading stats and purchasing skills for warriors who have earned enough experience, and shelling out for any treatment required for injured units - who will then also require a certain number of weeks to recover and may even still come away with a permanent debuff if their injury was severe enough.
As noted earlier, the most significant limiter on your campaign is your sponsor requests - fail to deliver sufficient Wyrdstone to meet their demands in time, and your warband’s campaign will be at a sudden end. Somewhat irritatingly, collecting Wyrdstone - therefore a key objective - can often feel like a side activity, as it appears randomly during battles and must be picked up by your units. This does provide an interesting risk-reward - splitting up might allow you to snag more Wyrdstone, but strength in numbers is very much a key factor during combat - but it also provides an odd disconnect.
Your core mission goal during skirmishes is to defeat or rout the enemy units... but doing so too effectively might actually harm your progress, if you miss out on collecting Wyrdstone to do so. Your team will collect a little of the remaining Wyrdstone on the map following a successful battle, but it still feels at times as though your short-term and long-term goals are somewhat at conflict.
Mordheim is, however, a campaign-based game - one where it is clear that the developers intend you to take multiple warbands in succession through a series of battles and see how far you can go until they finally fall. To aid you is the Veteran system - a separate experience tally which is earned account-wide, and may be spent to unlock various bonuses to your current warband (such as reduced upkeep and medical costs). Veteran skills are specific to each campaign, but the experience earned remains on your account, giving you a small sense of permanent progression across multiple warbands.
Visually, Mordheim is a rather grimy-looking affair filled with greys and browns - although this does feel in-keeping with its subject matter. It does make the occasional streaks of vibrant colour (such as the luminous green of the Skaven’s toxin blades) stand out, but it can make some key objectives tough to spot at times, which is occasionally frustrating. You also have the option to freely customise the outfit styles and colours on all your units - which can be a handy way to keep track of them, if you find remembering everyone’s name a little awkward.
The game isn’t afraid to surface its numbers, which will be a welcome touch for the more mathematically-minded, but they also offer quick-toggle options on the d-pad to switch between or hide some of those more in-depth numbers if they all get a bit much for you. However, I suspect that the people who will ultimately get the most satisfaction from what City of the Damned has to offer will be those who enjoy bathing in the ocean of percentages and dice rolls that it has inherited from its tabletop namesake.
Mordheim, then, is a relatively faithful adaptation of the systems of Warhammer into a pleasing skirmish-oriented game. Fans of the tabletop game and fans of tactical turn-based titles such as XCOM will probably find enough to enjoy here, but unfortunately the activities on offer don’t provide all that much variety to maintain your attention for the long-term. If the underlying systems alone are enough to keep you engaged, however, then Mordheim could still be right up your alley.
Stay tuned to The Midnight Gamer for all the latest and greatest from the video gaming world. Mordheim: City of the Damned is developed by Rogue Factor and published by Focus Home Interactive. It’s out now on Steam, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One as of October 2016. Two additional downloadable factions (Undead and Witch Hunters) are also available for purchase separately at the time of writing.