Wednesday 11 July 2012

Empire of the Dead - Rulebook Review (28mm VSF Horror Skirmish)

This is the third in my three part horror review series which includes Chaos in Carpathia and Strange Aeons.  Empire in the Dead is a skirmish game by West Wind, creators of Secrets of the Third Reich - which is a wonderful excuse to buy stompy Weird War 2 mecha

West Wind makes a well-timed jump on the trendy steampunk/vampire/werewolf bandwagon

The Shiny: A 150-page hardback which surpasses West Wind's SOTR book by an order of magnitude.  It has generous formatting and is an easy read. The art (which I thought rather amateurish in SOTR and isn't much better here) thankfully takes a back seat to lots of great colour photos of minis AND examples of gameplay.   It has plenty of fluff - 22 pages of it - to support the background and factions, and evokes the mood of Victorian sci fi horror well. I'd rather the fluff was in the back rather than the front of the book but at least it is all in the one place rather than interrupting the rules *cough* Malifaux *cough*.  In fact the well-developed factions remind me of Malifaux but I feel EotD has a stronger, more identifiable theme - Malifaux tries to do too much with its wild west-goblins-undead-magic-steampunk-demons-mechs that its background universe is positively incoherent. There are marker templates and a 1-page quick reference sheet which highlights how simple the game is.
 Overall: Well laid out, great photos - well worth the price of admission. 

A nicely presented rulebook, solid value - I have few complaints

The stats are VERY vanilla.  In fact the stat lines of  Movement-Shooting-Melee-Strength-Toughness-Attacks-Wounds-Morale-Magic are basically a direct rip from 40K, LOTR, Mordhiem and many similar wargames.  This is not surprising, as Andy Chambers (a GW pioneer) is behind both SOTR and Empire of the Dead. EotD switches to d10 which is a great move as it offers more (and more gradual) modifiers and degrees of ability. In addition there isn't the need to make a series of rolls (i.e. roll 6, then roll a 4+ on a 2nd dice) like games using the more limited d6.

Surprisingly, EotD even uses a modified version of the the rather outdated IGOUGO that has been abandoned by most modern skirmish games in favour of alternate movement, in a further nod to its GW roots.

 Play sequence goes:
(a)  Maintenance (simultaneous - wound recovery/morale checks)
(b) Roll for initiative (IGOUGO)
(c) Actions: Player A activates, moves and shoots all his models; then player B activates, moves and shoots all his models;
(d) Both sides melee, in order decided by initiative player (Player A)

Actions include the usual walk-run-charge; units can climb, jump gaps, fly and fall.

Missile attacks roll to hit, then to wound (on a universal  'opposed' table). The d10 allows modifiers to be "built in" to the stats and the hit and damage rolls rather than needing an extra"save" roll like GW games.  There is an overwatch mechanic - which always adds more tactics to a game.

In melee, players roll as many d10 as they have attacks.  The highest dice (after adding or subtracting modifiers) wins.  If they tie, the player with the highest combat score wins.  Basically identical to GW's Lord of the Rings skirmish game. However in this case I feel a d10 is not as good as a d6. I'm not a fan of this mechanic and the d10 makes it worse.  The "Melee" rating is almost irrelevant; a melee level 8 super melee expert ninja has a 60-40 chance to beat a melee 1 weakling grandma.  A level 2 peasant has the same 60-40 chance of beating the grandma. Having a higher melee rating makes only a 10% difference in any case.  Multiple attacks are disproportionately important. If the "weakling" has 2 attacks, he would probably defeat the super ninja most of the time.
Like in the missile phase, the winner then makes an opposed roll against the loser (strength vs toughness) to wound. 

The "opposed roll" is made on a chart similar to the 40K/Warhammer/LOTR  Wounding tables, and showcases the extra choices of a 10-sided dice. To be honest I don't see the need for a chart - simply adding a d10 to each model's stats works well for opposed rolls. On the other hand, the opposed chart is used for all opposed actions so at least it is consistent - you only refer to 1 chart.

Wounded models roll a d6 on an injury table and can be:
dazed (with  penalties to dice rolls) staggering 2" with a compulsory movement; it can defend itself but cannot damage foes or initiate attacks; automatically recovers next turn
down - crawls 2" towards cover; recovers if rolls '1' on d6 injury table (a 2nd "down" removes)
removed from play - seriously injured, maybe dead

 This gives you an idea of some of the great minis photos inside the rulebook
There is a free "demo" set of limited rules here

Magic is simple to use.
Passive magic must simply pass a d10 roll compared against the difficulty rating of the spell/ability.
Active magic rolls a d10, adds the caster's magic rating then subtracts the defender's magic rating. If the total passes the difficulty rating of the spell/ability, the spell works.

I really like the selection of spells and powers which offer a good range and really "fit" the genre well. Vampires can mesmerize targets, clerics can bless weapons, trap demons and smite the supernatural.  Undead and vermin can be summoned.  Those with the foresight to see the future can re-roll dice.  

I also like how supernatural creatures cause terror on mundane (normal) opponents but also test for terror themselves when confronted with a crucifix, for example.

Overall: Pretty much Lord of the Rings Skirmish with a new coat of paint, d10s and a better magic system. Calling it original is like respraying a Ford Fiesta, fitting it with race tyres, and calling it a Corvette.  However it IS a slicker, more evolved version of well-loved campaign games like Mordhiem, and familiar GW-style mechanics make it easy to learn.  The d10 generally was an inspired move but I feel exacerbated problems with the melee mechanics. The core rules take only 22 pages and the magic rules another 8 - simples!

Unkind people might suggest EotD is simply a re-badged version of GW's LOTR

Campaign System
This is the remaining 95 pages of the book.  Creating a faction is simple - you may only have up to 1/3rd of your force as heroes (who seem to have the all-important extra attacks and wounds; they also can use all the cool toys and exotic weapons) the other 2/3rds are made up of minions.   

Factions are
Holy Order - a "good" aligned faction of templar monks from the Church who can bless their weapons
Lycoans - "neutral" faction who have werewolves, wolves and human servants. 
Nosferatu - "evil" - vampire lords, their consorts and their thralls. Weaker in daylight.
Gentleman's Club - these come in several flavours
     Diogenes Club style "Sons of the Empire" - a good faction
     Darkfire Club of evil occultists and necromancers
     Wulfen Jager - "good" hand to hand experts who hunt monsters
     Zendrians - Prussian officers and swordsmen (neutral)
I suspect there are more factions to come.  

Weapons, Equipment
There are plenty of weapons from brass knuckles, stakes, halberds to shotguns, heavy revolvers and hunting rifles.  One of the better weapon lists I've seen lately with 25+ choices.

The generic equipment list includes 15 items bulls-eye lanterns, grappling hooks, silver ammo, relics and firebrands.  There are also 16 other exotic weapons such as garlic grenades, tesla coils, heat rays, pneumatic stake launchers and gatling guns.

 The steam exo-skeleton could be modelled from this from Recreational Conflict
Anatoli has a great painted version in his excellent blog

Campaign Play
There are 5 scenarios and 5 randomly generated areas from residential areas and sewers to countryside.  There is plenty of detail in the scenarios but I would have liked more choices.

Players have 500 shillings to buy players and equipment, hire mercenaries or purchase "Influences" 

After a game, injured players roll on the injury table and suffer a range of debilitating effects, or even become "unhinged" which means they might go mental or rock in a corner after failing a morale test.  Models can visit the doctor to be healed, sell equipment at a pawnbroker, or be arrested by the peelers and lose all their equipment. 

Experience is "bought" by paying 10 shillings per advancement roll.  Each player can roll once and may choose from one of the three tables - to increase their attributes, generic skills or faction-specific skills. There are 37 skills that can be gained, from "Regeneration" and "Luna Sight" to "Marksman."

Calculating the value of warbands is easy - starting cost of models + treasury + money spent on upgrades.

"Unusual Occurences" can also be bought and use to influence in game play. One unusual occurrence can be invoked per hero.  They include "Full Moon"  "Holy Ground" and "Angry Mob" - you can guess how they would be used in gameplay. 

Overall: A pretty straightforward system which seems to cover all bases thoroughly; plenty of equipment, skills and abilities to suit the genre

For those looking for the "next Mordhiem" - well, this is it

TL:DR  An evolution, not a revolution from Mordhiem.  In fact the game is simply GW's Lord of the Rings skirmish game  (or "Legends of the Old West/High Seas") with d10s. Andy Chambers has shown with Starship Troopers (and to a lesser extent SOTR) an ability to innovate beyond GW's stagnant Yahtzee-with-lots-of-expensive-models rulesets but this is simply a copy and paste job, with a more interesting magic system than the rather bland choices in LOTR. 

However  LOTR (the best of GW's "big three" games) is a solid platform for skirmish campaign games (as proven by the success of the spin-off Legends historical series); the use of d10 is a positive move, and the game will be easy to learn/introduce to new players. The factions, fluff and campaign system seems solid.  I have concerns about melee (or the supreme importance of multiple attacks > pointless actual melee skill) as peasants dual-wielding bread knives are likely to defeat a single attack super ninja, but this is simply solved by giving the super ninjas extra attacks.

In summary - similar to Lord of the Rings Skirmish in mechanics, and Mordhiem in campaign flavour, but superior to both.  

Verdict: West Wind have come out with a solid mini lineup from the get-go.  Whilst nothing revolutionary, EotD simple, old-school GW mechanics will be easy to pick up. Starter box sets are affordable and the minis are pretty solid sculpts waaay ahead of the old West Wind stuff. If you like steampunk, Victorian horror (vampires, werewolves, Jekyll-Hyde etc), or campaign games; or your old Mordhiem/Necromunda group wants to move on to something better and fresher, you can't go past EotD. Recommended

Other thoughts:
Chaos in Carpathia (a $10 pdf) would be a vastly cheaper option (married with Blue Moon's excellent range of 15mm minis - you get a warband for $7 and a mass of 30 zombies, civilians or monsters for $15)

I also liked Strange Aeons -  similar in price to EotD, but is more narrow in scope - it deals with Cthulhu and cultists (1930s pulp). It is also not directly competitive (players warbands do not directly fight each other) which reduces cheesy builds and unfair mismatches, but since it is so niche, and everyone is the "good guy" faction it might not have the same replay value.

All different "flavours" - all worthwhile games.


  1. While Blue Moon has 15mm figures, their 28mm ones are the ones really worth buying for this kind of game, in fact, I just bought several packs for Chaos in Carpathia (a better game than EotD, IMHO, based solely on the fact that I love classic horror but loath anything steampunk :)

  2. What can I say? I'm a 15mm tragic :-)

    EotD isn't terribly steampunk - in fact none of the starter boxes are terribly "unhistorical" and you could certainly ignore the infernium/handwavium items (unlike say Malifaux where it is inextricably bound up in the gameplay and minis)

  3. Hmmmm... I might try EotD then... :)

  4. I think the "Exotic Weapon List" and "Exotic Equipment List" in the campaign rules are all you would need to ditch to make it a pure horror game - all the actual troop types are generic - i.e. werewolf, vampire, etc. The rather large weapon and equipment list I refer to is correct for the genre/period.

    The exotic VSF weapons were only available to your 2-3 heroes anyway.

  5. I liked the look of the Victorian Zombies, but I'm disappointed that they are not a warband you can use from the core book. I think I'll pass on this one.

  6. Angus - I think you missed:
    "Darkfire Club of evil occultists and necromancers"

    They tend to raise mobs of zombies to be part of their gang...

  7. Ah, thats cool. I was just that I saw the Victorian Zombies set and thought that they looked cool. Didn't realize that they are essentially an add on for another group. If my games club pics up the game I may yet get into it.

    At the moment we are kind of busy with Infinity / Firestorm Armada / HoMachine.

  8. It's nothing revolutionary but I think it would be easy to introduce to a group due to its strong links (i.e. copying) with LOTR/Mordhiem.

    It isn't interesting like Infinity or Tomorrow's War.

  9. As SYW Pulp / Lacepulp, what about playing Empire of the Dead' in the 18th C.? Some of the minis would be directly usable...

    Why this suggestion?
    Since I come from (quasi: Hyboria &c...) 'historical' gaming, the concept of a 'compulsory' association between a setting, a set of rules and a range of miniatures feels quite 'strange' to me (if a neat marketing trick ): if you chose to re-fight Gaugamela, the free choice or rules and minis manufacturer is still yours. Thus I'm sure many games originally set outside the 18th C. can be played by the time of the Lace Wars / with figurines in tricornes. Not only rather 'generic' ones such as 'Pike and Shot and Zombies', 'Witchfinder General', 'Witch Hunter', 'Chaos in Carpathia'... But also more 'specialized' ones, as was done with 'Strange Aeons': I toyed (publicly) with ideas about '18th C. Malifaux', which is perhaps a little extreme (?), but to transpose 'EotD' would certainly be possible without much modifications ('Lacepunk' weird weapons -maybe giving some the appearance of bioweapons to be further away from the 'mechanized' 19th C.?- can be given the stats of the original 'steampunk' ones).

  10. EoTD is moderately suitable for a 18th cent conversion, as are indeed are many of the games you mention (bar Malifaux!)

    I've considered this project in 15mm, and already have a solution: The Solomon Kane Savage Worlds RPG book has everything you need in one attractive package.

    It has an immense bestiary, build-it-yourself characters, and (being derived from a mini game) plays as fast (or faster) than many of the rules you mention. In addition it is a RPG and so has the ability to make fascinating scenarios, and totally original weapons and equipment.

  11. It's a shame they didn't offer this as a paperback or even a PDF. The hardcover is already out of stock in the US. If they are serious about people playing the game on a wide scale, presumably to support miniatures sales as well as book sales, West Wind should be going for the widest distribution possible. Only making this rules set available as a hardcover in limited quantities is a mistake. I've seen this same error from other rules sets coming out of the UK, notably Armies of Arcana which could have a much wider following (i.e. people playing it) if it were offered as a less expensive softcover or PDF.

    Thanks for your in depth review and comparison to other rules sets.

    Nothing more frustrating than wanting to get a rulebook that cannot be found the first months it's available. Is it just me or is the UK not on the same page as the American marketplace when it comes to printing for the table-top market niche?

    Poor planning by Westwind.

  12. Insightful post Iain.

    Actually I had the same feeling with SAGA (the viking skirmish game). It has simple rules but an interesting resource mechanic (battleboards) - offering a wide range of tactics - but there is never a copy in stock when I want to order it.

    Similar frustrations with Strange Aeons - it is a very niche game (a very good niche game) that a pdf version would improve its target audience tenfold.

  13. My rather haphazard reading of this blog - not helped by the very haphazard reliability of the search function - impairs my knowledge of any developments with this game, or, rather, of a considered view of how worthwhile or otherwise they, should they exist, may be.

    I do subscribe to West Wind's newsletter, but at the moment that is almost entirely devoted to their Kickstarter campaign for their forthcoming range of 15 mm ancient figures. There are also some substantial reinforcements for the EotD miniatures, but no news that I can see of a new edition of the rule book(one for SOTR seems to have been announced years ago, but has yet to see the light of day). Any clarifications would, as ever, be most welcome.

    While I'm here, and as it's repeatedly referenced above, I can't hold back any further from bringing up something that's been bugging me since I started reading this blog: why is Mordheim (clearly the correct spelling, as it's shown in the image) invariably, apart from in what I must assume to be typos, rendered as Mordhiem? It's not as though they'd be pronounced the same (c.f. Fritz Leiber, referred to in posts here - and, for that matter, almost everywhere else he is discussed - as Lieber, which,incidentally, he hated). That's a RANT of sorts, I suppose, but someone has to stand up for accurate spelling.

    1. Westwind is haphazard in their productions. In a nutshell, EotD = LOTR:SBG, only with d10s. So it's pretty much just "Legends of Steampunk." The minis are hit and miss, but pleasant to paint, though the EotD ones are better quality than their average.

      Mordheim is spelt wrong because

      (a) phonic spelling in junior school (ei is long a 'ay'; ie is 'i' pie) - the locals always pronounced it "hime" not "hame"

      (b) I don't actually spellcheck or proofread any of my posts.

  14. Thanks. I had a fairly long look at WW's website following my comment, and couldn't see any sign of a rule book for EotD at all. I haven't checked eBay yet, but if it's OOP, it may well be going for the prices Legends of the High Seas now commands - £60+ in 'good' condition. I've seen some of the Warhammer Historical books for more than that, before I stopped checking out of disgust.

    Shortly after ordering Dragon Rampant - now in the post, ahead of its publication date - I also ordered In Her Majesty's Name, and may find this meets my VSF needs, though I'll probably never be satisfied until I've got everything. BTW, the designers of the latter game have also released a Samurai game based on the same mechanics, which is either lazy or inspired design, depending on how well it works. It's called Daisho, and being self-published may be harder to get hold of than IHMN. It's certainly not available through Amazon. The only stockist I know of is North Star in the wargaming epicentre, Nottingham.

    As for the variant / aberrant spelling of Mordheim, I actually can't remember what I was taught at school, at least until I started studying German, where the practice is the precise opposite of what you describe. As Mordheim looks German, this spelling would indeed render the pronunciation 'mordhime', whereas Mordhiem would have to be enunciated as 'mordheem', which I can't imagine anyone wanting to do. On the other hand, I also have some knowledge of Swedish, and even some ill-remembered Old Icelandic (Norse), in which 'ei' does produce the 'ay sound, e.g. Niflheim is 'Neeflhame', or something close to that (I've never deciphered actual phonetic spelling). I therefore suppose it all depends on which 'locals' you are referring to, and as I've never visited Mordheim I'm not in a position to offer a definitive pronunciation. As for your own evolution of the game, you are of course free to spell it as you wish.

    Finally, in a serendipitous harmony of subject matter, my reference to Nottingham above reminds me that 'ham' was a variant of heim. You're probably aware of that city's original name, Snotingaham, meaning 'town of the Snotingas', the tribe who had the poor taste to found it. (Town may not be the precise equivalent, as both ham and heim are, I imagine, cognate with home; I'm not a philologist, but that seems a reasonable assumption.)

  15. Further serendipity in the form of a brand new West Wind website:

    Whether due to improved layout or pure luck, I have now located the rules in the store. This may be old news, but a PDF version is indeed available, at £10. There are currently special offers including both the book and PDF, as well as a set of figures available, and also some free downloads (I don't work for them, or know the proprietors personally, but I thought someone might like to know).

    Off-topic, except inasmuch as I've already digressed in this direction in my earlier comment, I received my copy of Dragon Rampant today. IHMN is still on its way.