Darklands Intro: Redux

Before I cast the previous incarnation of this blog into the void, I wrote an intro to the game of Darklands from the perspective of a newcomer.  Since that has been left behind, the game has changed, I have played more, time has inexorably passed and we have all been steadily prodded towards death I figured now was as good a time as any to re-do the intro with more of a focus on breaking people into the game.

So what is Darklands?

Darklands is a 30mm scale (well…) tabletop skirmish (kinda) game set in the dark ages of northern Europe.  The primary difference between the lands of darkness and the world we know is that the folklore and mythology of those times is made real, providing an interesting mix of historical and fantasy setting with satanic Romans, werewolves, trolls and the living dead all clashing.

The game itself melds elements of games like Warhammer and Warmachine, with an almost RPG like breadth of rules and alternating activations to provide one of the deepest and most complex games systems I’ve played.  Despite this complexity the core game is fairly simple and fluid and a tournament sized game (1800-2000g at present) should be easily viable within 2.5 hours once players become familiar with the rules.  Darklands is incredibly brutal, and games can be over much quicker.

What do I need to get started?

The full rules are available to download for free from http://mierce-miniatures.com/darklands_first_edition/darklands_first_edition_rules_v0.5.pdf and the printed rulebook is expected to be available shortly

Erm…

Ok, the first thing you will notice is that the rules stretch to somewhere around 300 pages.  Darklands is most certainly not a game that makes any compromises on content in the name of simplicity.  While the core game is fairly straightforward, it really is up to you how much more you take from it.  When demoing the game I usually ignore combat results, any actions other than apprentice actions, and most of the rules concerning acuity & heart states, in order to get people used to the way the basic engine works.

On the subject of demos, this is the absolute best way to get into the game. The rulebook is a great reference if you are playing and need to see exactly how something works, or have played a game and want to check what you did is right, but in terms of learning the game it can certainly be daunting. If you are based in or around London, feel free to drop a comment on this and I’ll happily demo to anyone that wants it. Otherwise the best place to start may be the recently reactivated Mierce forums at http://www.mierce-miniatures.com or at a show such as Salute where Mierce are exhibiting.

What else will I need?

Mierce regularly run kickstarters where you can purchase a starter host for £60 in metal, this will usually provide you with a unit of infantry, two or three characters and either a monster or small unit of monstrous infantry.  While they are intended to be for 500g games, they often contain enough stuff to play up to seven or eight hundred gold.

I believe the idea is to eventually have these starters available from the webstore, so that people can pick them up and start playing, rather than having to wait for a kickstarter to fulfill.

Darklands uses 10 sided dice (although they run from 0-9 rather than 1-10) so you will need a couple of handfuls of these and at least one should be in a different colour as you will need to make attribute checks on a d100.  You will also need a tape measure marked in inches.

There are also a host of tokens and templates that are used but as you start out a selection of coloured beads will be enough for now and you can pick up anything else you need as you go.

What are all these words mean?

I have been playing for around 6 months now and the language of Darklands has become second nature, but I remember looking at a paragraph of fluff and feeling like a dog trying to read a chemistry textbook. In the world of Darklands immersion is key, so certain game terms have their own Miercan equivalents, each model, even soldiers within a unit has their own name, and the majority of the kindreds’ warriors are names in their own language. To help you through this intro here are a couple of the in game terms:

Kindred: Don’t say faction… Kindred are the different forces in Darklands that your army can be drawn from, however simply being from the same Kindred doesn’t necessarily mean you are amenable.

Realm: Within those kindreds there are often several realms which more accurately delineate a warriors allegiances. Your army list will always follow your general’s realm and any units that don’t conform to this will have to be allied in. Some Realms (notably Dis and Legio II Var) run across more than one kindred (Byzantii and Infernii in this case) and this means warriors from different kindreds can be taken without having to be allied in. Often warriors are available to more than one realm, although they will usually have different ubiquity depending on the realm.

Ubiquity: A unit’s ubiquity denotes how common a sight they are on the battlefields of the lands of darkness, ranging from Mainstay through Rare to even Mythic and Unique. When choosing your army you may only take a certain number of each ubiquity dependent on the battle size, and at battles of 500g or more you must take a certain number of Mainstay units. Usually kindreds do not have any units that are naturally mainstay, and which ones become Mainstay is decided by your character set up, although there are exceptions.

Gold: Points! A units points value is referred to as its gold cost in Darklands and the gold size of the game defines what ubiquities are available to you.

Hour: Each game turn is referred to as an hour.

Muster: The musters are the equivalent of army books, the lists from which you select your forces before going to war.

Host: Host usually refers to your mustered force, your list or, in the case of the starter hosts, a preselected collection of units and Warriors.

So what kindred should I choose?

I believe the received wisdom here is to ‘pick the kindred you like the look of’ but frankly they all look pretty awesome, so here’s a bit of guidance on how they play. In the future I hope to have more in depth articles on each one, hopefully written by someone who plays them, but for now here’s a summary.

Albainn Albainn are the anti magic kindred. Representing Scotland at the Darklands table, they have all manner of ogres, giants and other hill people, most of whom carry giant magic-absorbing stones. Often these can absorb your opponent’s magic and use that power to cast your own spells. Their own spells are defensively powerful and they are able to use them to make their already tough unit nigh-on impervious.

Anglecynn: The Anglecynn are shape shifters and their primary realm Mierce are wolf-oriented shape shifters, so yes that means Werwulf. They also include were-bears and boars and apparently in the future deer. Almost all kindred in Darklands also include a human element and Anglecynn have a couple of options on this front. In terms of play style they tend to hit hard early on with big fast wolves buffed up by magic and their howl abilities but aren’t the most resilient and can fade quickly. They have a lot of units capable of flanking or scouting, meaning they can come on from the board edge or emerge from terrain and mount an ambush, so if the idea of having a 20ft wolf come flying out of a forest and devour your enemy is appealing then these are the guys you should call.

Atalantes: These predecessors to the Ancient Greeks are one of the three ‘new kindreds’ alongside Jutes. They rely on giant bronze constructs and sunlight harnessing magical technology to batter their enemies. Due to their newness and the majority of their sculpts not having appeared in the wild yet I couldn’t tell you exactly how they play, but watch this space… (Or read their muster)

Brythoniaid: The dark age Welsh, this kindred brings all the dragons and dragonmen you’d expect and plenty you wouldn’t. While they don’t currently have their own sorcerers (they are coming), they do do everything else very well.  The easy access to flight means they can easily play in an aggressive style, without having to rely on uncontrollable feral troops, while strong archers and anti-magic that can hurt the enemy casters with feedback means they can force the opposition to come to them.  They also have all manner of tricks in the form of fiery breath weapons and screeches that drop enemies skill.

Byzantii / Infernii: Satanic Romans, and their Demonic counterparts.  I’ve included these two kindreds as one entry as they cross over pretty comprehensively.  The Byzantii are the (more) human side of ancient Rome, featuring legionaries, centurions, camel & hippo men (wait…), giant scorpions (excuse me?) and so on.  Much like their demonic cohort’s the Infernii they bring relatively high armour, a lot of shields and they can also field some of Darkland’s only warmachines.  The Infernii on the other hand are like a beefed up more elite version of their human allies, with the most expensive single model in the game, Krull, a giant flying demonic over lord capable of taking out pretty much anything you could throw at him.  With their ability to resummon fiends the Infernii contribute to a very resilient army, with plenty of powerful options.  If that sounds like it’s up your street then you just need to decide whether to go Dis (Demon heavy, likely lower model count) or Legio II Var (human-centric with the demon’s rarer in the list).

Erainn: The nature boys and Darklands’ dark age Irish. Erainn bring numerous human infantry and tree, peat and bog beasts to the table. Again these guys are a relatively new kindred but have some very interesting mechanics with a combination of restorative life type magic and amphibious creatures that can emerge from water features to ambush their opponents, as well as consuming and insta-killing smaller models with their sucking chests, not to mention giant, rock chucking trees. They seem to be the guerilla warriors of the lands of darkness, and are also blessed with an insatiable hatred of the Fomoraic.

Fomoraic: Darklands’ true bad boys, the Fomoraic are actually sea devils with their sights set on conquering the land, but are represented on the table by their hybrid servants, all manner of beastmen from the Gabrax and Gabrox goat warriors to the hulking rhinomen that are the Sronox and Sronax. There are still nods to their underwater heritage with the Kraaken and Walvax (giant anchor-wielding, octupus headed monster and walrus men with nets and harpoons respectively) and the entire underwater realm of Conand which has yet to be fleshed out. On the table the Fomoraic wield incredibly powerful (some might say too powerful at this point in time) offensive magic, and all manner of wild and feral beasts. While feral creatures in Darklands are largely uncontrollable, they are very powerful, being able to counter charge and always attack back even if they have already fought. The amount of feral troops available and the ferocious combat potential of the other units makes the Fomoraic probably the closest to a ‘push it forwards’ army in Darklands, but the powerful magic missiles mean there is significant mileage in holding off and bombarding your enemy with icey death before engaging.

Jutes: The last of the new boys, Jutes are everything that is rotten in Darklands, at least physically if not necessarily morally. The Jutes are the both the undead and their living descendants, featuring skeletons, wraiths and necromancers as well as giant spiders and beetles. They are a relentless force with an unprecedented ability to restore models to their units and use the living to buff their undead ancestors. The undead also do not use their eyes to see so are not limited to 180 degrees like most other warriors. Although they are slow, once you get into your enemy they will have a very hard time grinding you down. Jutes can also ally with the Anglecynn to bring another dimension to their play.

Khthones: Khthones so far are the only kindred not to feature any human troops, and have only recently added non-monstrous infantry at all. They are the escaped reptilian slaves of the Atalantes and feature Crocodiles, snake men and women, basilisks and all manner of reptilian monsters. Khthones can be built quite differently depending on your character set up as they have a few different realms representing the different species on offer. This means there is a decent amount of flexibility to how you set up, however with even the new missile troops only having a short range you’re unlikely to be shooting your opponent off or fielding a horde army. They do however have access to some pretty hefty magic and a nifty ability to activate some units twice in a turn.

Norse: The Norse represent the Vikings of old and bring with them all that that entails. Trolls, ravens large, small and humanoid and some terrifying beasts, not to mention a whole lot of lightning. I’ve not actually played with it against Norse so will have to defer to Ady, Mierce’s resident Viking warlord whose gave the following description: “They have the ability to defend well with magic that tangles and blinds so you can keep people at arms length , yet they get good range with flyers so have the ability to strike where you wish . Trolls are robust and can heal when lightning spells are cast at them”

Vras: Vras are at present not a fully fleshed out kindred but only really viable as allies of the Ysians. They are ratmen of all size and shapes and a useful accompaniment to the Ysians evil ways.

Ysians: The Ysians are one of the most fully fleshed out (no pun intended in so many ways) kindreds in Darklands. They were the first to get missile troops and have a real combined arms feel. Thematically they are probably the most deliberately evil force amongst the kindreds, using all manner of corruption and experimentation to bring their abhorrents and brutes to bear on the table. They have strong monstrous and conventional infantry, some fearsome monsters and respectable magic. They are able to use discarded flesh on the battlefield to stitch together more warriors. They also have a sorceror who gains power from eating human genitalia. In fact although the Darklands world is no stranger to private parts, if that’s really your thing then the Ysians will be a dream come true, from the pig-bogs collection of severed peni, to the bone abherrant’s exposed vagina, there really is something for all nature of body part enthusiasts here.

Why should I play Darklands?

Darklands isn’t necessarily easy or cheap to get into, it doesn’t play along with the contemporary ‘simpler is better’ mindset that seems to prevail amongst games designers. Cost-wise I would expect it to set you back a similar amount to something like 40k, assuming you are sensible about your purchases and make use of the kickstarters and sales, even if you don’t you still won’t be spending quite forgeworld amounts.

What it does do exceptionally well is fill the middle ground between strategy and fun, fluffy rules that Warhammer used to occupy, without the hands-off approach that GW took to WHFB, which led to the rise of the netlist and tournaments where half the field were the same army, or even the same list. Mierce are clearly making a concerted effort to balance the game as much as possible and tighten it wherever needs be, with a focus on making it a viable tournament game. The wordy nature of the rules is down to a desire to eliminate loopholes wherever possible and it is clear that they have been written in a very specific manner to ensure what you can and can’t do is very controlled. The musters are living documents meaning they are constantly being tested and honed where needs be.

Darklands is probably the deepest tabletop wargame I have played and there will certainly be tactical and strategic options that arise that none of us who have been playing regularly have yet discovered, so here are some of the things that stand out to me about the game:

Deployment & Terrain

To deploy terrain in Darklands you choose which 1’x1′ square on your side of the battlefield you will deploy terrain in and your opponent places it, you both then get to place your own kindred specific terrain.  Table edge is chosen before terrain deployment and once you have deployed the terrain, the general with the highest authority chooses a flank.  This means you have tactical decisions to make even before you start deploying.

Once terrain is deployed, you have 8 different deployment maps to choose from (although some are mirrors) in secret.  You can opt to measure your deployment zone and risk giving your map away to your opponent, or you can not measure it and risk deploying outside the positioning field.  Once everything is deployed this is checked, and if you have deployed outside your designated area your opponent can redeploy any errant units.  It is even possible for deployments to almost overlap, often resulting in some very brutal first hours!

List Building

List building in Darklands can be a tense affair, and I pity the individual who has to do list checking for an event.  There is far more to consider than just gold value here, however it makes for a very thorough system that produces well balanced and interesting lists.  If you are so inclined you could probably spend weeks list writing for a tournament.

Lists are built around a command structure, whereby each noble leads a command of one or more units, whose authority must not exceed his own.  Apart from the general a character cannot join any unit that is not in his command, making deathstarred up units with 15 uber-characters pretty much an impossibility.  When deploying, you deploy a whole command at a time, and every unit in that command has to be deployed within a certain distance of the commander.  This means when deciding who goes in which command you are also deciding which units they will deploy near and where your character will be able to hide.  On top of this each command starts on the same orders, so including a unit you intend to use as an attacking spearhead in a command with a unit you want to use as support could cause you problems down the line.

You must then also consider the ubiquity of each unit, as well as their Realm in the case of some kindreds.

Alternating Activations

Each hour both generals roll for initiative with the winner activating one of his units and performing all their actions before passing the initiative to their opponent to do the same.  However units in Darklands have to be activated in some semblance of an order, Feral troops first, units on hold orders last for example, which means you have to think long and hard about which order both you and your opponent are going to activate your troops in.

On top of this, you have a number of options to disrupt the flow of the game and try and cause problems for your opponent.  If you have less activations you will be given tokens that allow you to pass the initiative at certain points, meaning your opponent is forced to activate again, and perhaps show his hand when he would rather not.  You can also either force or retain the initiative, with the former allowing you to activate two units simultaneously, perhaps to combo-charge a tough opponent, and the latter allowing you to activate a second unit instead of passing to your opponent, ideal for when you need to force home an advantage.

Magic

Magic is a powerful tool in Darklands, and carries the commensurate risk.  Sorcerers use their own constitution (a measure of both their resilience and remaining wounds) to cast spells, and can use even more to boost the spells and make them more powerful.  This cost can be recovered, and can never actually kill a caster, but can make them very weak and susceptible to other damage.  Recovery is also a dangerous game, with your sorcerer usually taking further damage, or even facing instant death on failing the test to recover.

The ‘360 degree battlefield’

Darklands offers numerous ways for you to ambush your enemies.  Dragons dropping from the skies, skorpions and giant worms bursting up from under ground and wolves emerging from the woods to bite your limbs off are just a few examples.  There are a multitude of possibilities and angles from which monsters could attack you, meaning just guarding your front is not good enough.  You will need to think about deployment, facing and positioning to ensure your opponent cannot get to your weak points, the last thing you need is a bog beast popping out of a pond and swallowing you wizard in one go.  Fliers and flankers can even end up fighting off the table.

While there is plenty more for me to evangelize about in Darklands I won’t let this post end up the size of the rule book, the best way to learn really is to play the game and not worry about making mistakes, and then go back to the rule book and work out what you should have done differently, then you can slowly start to add in the more complex rules and actions.