The latest dungeon crawl to sprawl across my table is Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress, a hundred plus dollar monstrosity that Games Workshop has stooped to my level to offer. That level being people who would play a Warhammer game, if not for the painting of a bunch of miniatures, the finding of a tape measure, and the task of pressing into service a friend who will then have to paint his own miniatures. We can share a tape measure, however. If I were willing to go to those lengths and drag someone along with me, I’d be playing Netrunner regularly.
So along comes Blackstone Fortress as a less hardcore Warhammer tabletop enterprise. It sets itself apart from the usual miniatures boondoggle by accepting that you might not be as committed to the idea of miniatures as the average tabletop Warhammer-er. Okay, it concedes, maybe you’re not going to paint them. To this end, it helpfully molds the heroes out of eye-catching red plastic and the monsters out a duller grey plastic. When everything is set up, the tabletop is like a heat map for which bits of plastic you really need to worry about. But it does expect you to take the time to put them together. You don’t need glue, but you do need time. And probably some clippers to get the plastic bits off the sprue.
Once you’ve sunk the hour or so (nearly three, in my case) into assembling bits of plastic, Blackstone Fortress decides you’re ready. It spent this time showing off what lovely miniatures are on offer, forcing you to take a closer look as you put them together. This is some top-notch sculpting. It better be, given the price of the game and the reputation of Games Workshop, a company built on its customers’ love of miniatures. Given their intricacy, I was surprised how easy they were to assemble. I’ll always remember my friend’s advice for how to handle high quality miniatures, specifically in the case of Kingdom Death Monster. “Just remember,” he said, sensei-like, “the pieces want to fit together.” That certainly applied here.
Once you’ve passed this minor test, the next test is the three rules books. Four if you count the one for snapping together the miniatures. Six if you count the lore booklet and the rules for playing tabletop Warhammer skirmishes with your miniatures. Seven if you count the sample chapter from some Warhammer books they hope you’ll buy. Look, games makers, there is never a good reason for multiple rules books. Never. Unless you’re duplicating all the necessary information in each rules book, everything should be in one place. One! Breaking the rules into separate books, or worse, consigning them to player aid cards — you’ll juggle a lot of cards managing characters and monsters in Blackstone Fortress — is just going to add fumbling time. Blackstone Fortress is especially egregious for how it thinks it’s being clever by giving you a rules book for rules, a rules book for combat, and then a rules book for progression between missions. There is no such easy division in the game. Happy fumbling time!
But these first two tests are easily enough passed by anyone who dropped their hundred plus dollars on a Warhammer miniatures game. That person will at last come to a breezy tactical tabletop game, perfect for solitaire gameplay, or co-op gameplay among people who don’t want anything too demanding. It actually might be a bit too breezy. Aside from the miniatures, there’s not much that says “Warhammer.” The characters are simple to a fault. Each one is mostly just a special ability and a couple of options for throwing dice to kill a monster. Some characters get better odds toe-to-toe. Others are stand-off fighters. Otherwise, let’s see, the robot can shrug off damage. The little gnome snipers are two characters in one. The telepath can set up a shield to give everyone nearby a defense boost. I’ll give you one guess what the priest guy can do. If you guessed “bless”, how about you take on the burden of being the party cleric for once in your life?
Unfortunately, the characters never really break out of these limited roles. They don’t change or even advance. This simply isn’t that kind of game. Most dungeon crawlers recognize the appeal of leveling up characters with new skills, with better stats, with magical gear. But this simply isn’t a part of the Blackstone Fortress design. Oh, sure, your characters will get an occasional doo-dad, and perhaps even a couple of Significant Doo-Dads, but not very many, and only within the context of a simple combat system. What’s more, a lot of these rewards are one-shot items. Use it and it’s gone and now your character is exactly like he was before he had the doo-dad. They’re potions, basically. The sort of thing you never use because you might need it after you’ve used it, so it’s probably better not to use it yet.
This lack of character progression is actually an odd but effective approach to the difficulty curve over the course of a campaign. As you work your way through dungeons on the way to the endgame uber dungeon — this will probably take ten gameplay sessions — you gradually fold in more difficult enemies. You uncover rules tweaks that put you at a disadvantage. Blackstone Fortress pushes back as you get closer to the end. Without your characters leveling up or getting more powerful, there’s a sense of going deeper and deeper into more dangerous territory. It’s a solid overarching gameplay structure, but it sacrifices the lure of leveling up and getting more loot. Is a meaningful challenge worth boring characters? Play Blackstone Fortress to find out.
Although the “meaningful challenge” part might be a bit of a stretch. What a monster does on its turn is determined by the roll of a d20 checked against a table with various columns for how far away the monster is from a player character, what kind of weapon it has, whether it’s in cover, that sort of thing. The result triggers a behavior that should give different types of enemies different gameplay personalities. The Ur-Ghuls rush at you, the Guardsmen hang back and fire their lasguns, the Rogue Psykers hang back and send evil brain waves your way. But in reality, this mostly comes down to monsters charging directly at you, across relatively small levels without much room to maneuver. Which means most scenarios play out the exact same way: hunker down, let the enemy kill itself against your overwatch fire, and then proceed to the exit.
Part of the problem is that there’s not much pressure to move forward into the dungeons. Games like this, in which characters punch a bunch of monsters on randomized dungeon tiles, tend to need a clock. Because the best way to boost a dubious AI is to push the player into a time-critical situation that forces risky choices. Usually this is a hard time limit. If you haven’t won within a set number of turns, you’ve lost. Mage Knight, Legends of Andor, that sort of thing. Gloomhaven is unique in that the pressure is your character getting progressively weaker until he’s too exhausted to open a door or even bend down to pick up a gold piece. It’s a rare game like Kingdom Death Monster that invites you to take as much time as you need/can afford.
Blackstone Fortress’ tentative solution is respawning monsters. If you just sit there and let the monsters come to you — which they will — eventually, a couple of them might respawn. But they respawn so rarely, and usually so piecemeal, that it’s a trivially small danger. So you let the randomized dungeon vent its fury at you, then when it’s done, you move along at your leisure picking off any johnnies-come-lately.
The intended exceptions to this pattern are the four boss dungeons you have to play on your way to the endgame uberdungeon. These are scripted to be more challenging, but most of them just open the respawning spigot a bit wider. Which, sure, is challenging. But it also gets a bit tedious. The combat system, which I would characterize as breezy for maximum pacing, bogs down into a slog of die roll after die roll after die roll, and now the breeziness is gone. Would you rather fewer interesting monsters (i.e. the Kingdom Death Monster model) or more tedious monsters (the Zombicide model)? Because Blackstone Fortress seems to attempt the former, but ultimately provides the latter, and the only real challenge comes from when it grinds down into a battle of attrition.
I do appreciate how killing monsters isn’t the objective. More will always come. You don’t get experience points for killing monsters, so you can’t very well farm them. The point of each level is to reach search points, grab the loot, and move on. It’s partly what gives the game its breezy sensibility. You’re just passing through, there are some bad guys in your way, and you could just as readily kill them as run from them. Six of one, half dozen of another. It’s just too bad the the scripted boss dungeons couldn’t provide better gimmicks or gameplay tweaks. Maybe the inevitable expansions?
Until then, I can’t say there’s much reason to play Blackstone Fortress over the hundred other co-op/solitaire tabletop dungeon crawls that offer bolder design choices. Without any sort of interesting character progression or bad guy behaviors or even vivid theming, what’s left? I have a sneaking suspicion that at the end of the day, Blackstone Fortress is a game for someone more interested in painting miniatures than using them in a cleverly designed tactical game.