Into the Fray – NecromundaSeptember 14, 2018
I love Necromunda. I’ve loved it since its original release in 1995, and I love it in its current, refined edition, released in late 2017. I love everything about this weird, charmingly old-school game, so I’m going to dispense with the notion that this is a formal review and just take the opportunity write about why I think it’s a wonderful game.
If you’re looking for more than the most cursory of rules overviews I recommend googling for the numerous reviews that can be found on the web since the new edition’s launch last year. For the totally uninitiated, Necromunda is a game of skirmish warfare between the savage gangs that dwell in the vast, crumbling hive cities of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 universe.
It utilizes a variation on the basic rules of Warhammer 40,000 with an emphasis on campaign-play. Your gangers will gain experience as in a traditional role-playing game, suffer debilitating injuries, and gain access to rare and unusual weapons. Games take place on two kinds of battlefields; in the dangerous, three-dimensional industrial environment designated “Sector Mechanicus” and on two-dimensional tiles representing the “Underhive.” Both have their charms and challenges, though players of the original edition of Necromunda will be most familiar with Sector Mechanicus play.
A growing number of gangs are available, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and armories, as well as rules for the hired guns and bounty hunter scum that make their home in the perilous depths of Necromunda’s hives. Where Warhammer 40,000 explores the galaxy-spanning and impersonal conflicts between over a dozen massive armies, Necromunda chooses to focus specifically and with great detail upon just this one world, and even more specifically, upon the desperate, impoverished, and often insane individuals who dwell there in the most oppressive conditions imaginable.
It’s exactly this narrow focus that makes Necromunda such a compelling experience. I love 40k for its grandiose scope but getting to explore this strange corner in hyper-detail is just immensely satisfying. The game’s world building is great fun, combining equal parts Mos Eisley Cantina, Mad Max, and Judge Dredd to create a vibrant and gonzo sci-fi setting. No matter which gang you choose to play, your gangers will be wonderfully bloodthirsty psychopaths. The new sculpts Games Workshop and Forgeworld are releasing are just dripping with personality and charisma, practically begging for conversion work and imaginative paintjobs.
Where Necromunda really sings, though, is in campaign play. The game now offers two campaign modes, with the new Dominion rules set looking particularly appealing. This year I played through a six month long Turf War style campaign that, despite a few clunky moments (that appear to be fixed in Dominion), provided an engaging and memorable experience. Rivalries between your opponents’ gangs will arise and you’ll grow attached to your favorite gangers only to mourn them when they come to their infrequent, but always memorable (and occasionally ridiculous) ends.
I really can’t stress enough how much fun the stories that emerge from campaign play can be. The campaign I ran over the course of six months this year featured eight gangs and culminated in a final death game between my Escher, The Dust City Banshees, and my opponent’s Cawdor, The Shift’s End Sanctifiers. We’d instituted a rule for the final portion of the campaign wherein gangers who left play were automatically killed. In the final game my last three Escher faced down a superior force of five Cawdor and after a truly nail-biting game, only our two champions remained on the board.
Both of these champions were out of ammunition and a Cawdor chainsword and a poisoned stiletto knife in the hands of my champion, Stacia, determined the final combat of the game. The entire campaign came down to these bitter enemies and though the Cawdor champ got the charge, he fell just barely short of killing her and a lucky dice roll for me meant she sank her poisoned blade into him, winning the campaign in a desperate and Pyrrhic victory that was maybe the most satisfying win of my entire wargaming career!
Stories arise from gameplay very naturally thanks to both minute-to-minute results of die rolls and the “RPG-lite” experience system that occurs between games. The after-game phase is where your gangers can make you extra credits (to spend on weapons, gear, and new gangers), work your gang’s territory (don’t fall in the spore-mine…) and spend the experience points they’ve gained. I’ll be honest; this portion of the game is a little fussy and combines a little random die rolling with a lot of strategic planning of how you want to outfit your gangers. It’s not for everyone, but it really scratches an itch for me as it successfully marries traditional roleplaying games with miniatures wargaming. Your mileage may vary, but I love the opportunity to pore over rulebooks, roll a few dice, and find out if my injured gangers recover, suffer permanent injuries or even die. It’s a satisfying way to engage with the game on slow evenings when you can’t actually play a match.
The stream of supplements and new games coming out for Necromunda continue to add depth to the game. The original gangs from the nineties are almost all released (except for my favorite, Delaque, naturally, who are dropping this autumn), and they’ve already begun to delve deep into the three decades deep lore to release new models and rules for weird corners of the underhive. Things like the mutant caryatid cherubs that bring good luck to gang leaders and the psychically active spores that grow on the deposits of nutritious corpse-slurry to be found dripping from the vats of hive-dweller food.
Necromunda is not a tournament game. Played as intended it produces games that will pit wildly unbalanced gangs against each other. Knowing when to cut and run, or when to choose the right scenario to eke out a few precious credits from a more powerful gang is just as important as winning games. Balance is beside the point, what Necromunda offers is an experience to generate vicious stories in a richly developed corner of a broader universe and it does that in spades. Find some like minded friends, choose a House worthy of your allegiance, and show those hive scum who rules your Sector.