Ah Malifaux, my one true love. Where do I begin?
Do I start with the setting, where cowboys fight against necromancers in the streets of an other dimension? Should I even try to explain how awesome it is when your idiotic gremlin army manages to use moonshine as a lethal weapon? How about beginning with how well the game blends in the fine art of bluffing from poker into it's mechanics? How about how the game solves balancing problems by simply making there be so many different ways to approach winning a match in the first place? No...no, maybe I should start simply: with the mottos of the game itself, words that echo in my head when luck turns against me, and yet I still can't help but laugh and wait for the next round.
Welcome to Malifaux. Here, bad things happen. Here, you'll have to cheat fate, or you'll lose your soul.
A Good Story for a Bad World
Let's start with the story, let's start with how Malifaux got me to start playing wargames again. I know that I've mentioned how much I love Wargaming before, but for a long time, I simply hadn't had a chance to play. Like many, the Warhammer game series is what introduced me to the world of wargaming, but I was a teenager at the time, without funds to call my own or a way to form up a community. Being invested in miniatures isn't just like buying a game console a heading home: games involving miniatures are a medium that need a pulse of players, a heartbeat of enthusiasm and dedication to really start taking off. It needs a wow factor, something that causes a person walking into a game store to stop, look at a box off the shelf, or just ask a couple of guys already playing "how can I get involved in this?".
Malifaux has managed to spread as a game, and that's in no small part because of how it looks and feels different than a lot of the giants that came before it. There are some great historical miniatures games out there, and there are also some great futuristic games out there, and some great fantasy games out there too. Malifaux found a compelling medium for these by taking place at the very start of the 1900's. Not just any 1900's though, oh no: in this world, the industrial revolution was hijacked by the discovery of an alternate world, filled with glowing stones of power that could fuel everything from trains to honest-to-goodness necromancy.
Malifaux is a world where government lawyers have magic to literally cause laws to hurt you, and mechanical golems can come to your aid against them.
Let's not short-change the fact that this portal dumps people into a city of tilted angles and many back alleys. A city that has monsters seemingly pulled from the human imagination of yesteryear slinking outside, wanting to take back the world they call their own. It's a dangerous place, a dangerous world; a gateway to untapped potential, but with unexpected complications at every turn. Even after three years playing the game, I find it refreshing and wonderful that the story promotes a world where a sorceress of fire can fit right in next to a man armed with the fanciest attempt at a Gatling gun one could find in 1907. It takes talent to sculpt a setting, and Wyrd Miniatures has done that with masterful style.
A Theme for every Crew, and Flavor for Everyone
The game is wonderfully chaotic in it's thematic influences. One of the games original designers, David Caroland, summarized like this: "I'm often asked what genre and elements make up Malifaux... that's simple, it's Steamvictoriohorrorwestpunk! Hope that clears it up for you". It can come across as a flippant response, but it's used because you can't really separate the mash of elements that Wyrd's fused together here.
Let's take one of my favorite crews you can take in the game, Von Schill's Freikorps. Now, there was a real Von Schill, who actually had an army called the Freikorps, who lead an unsuccessful campaign against the French years before Germany was successful in becoming it's own country. However, this is Malifaux, and the world's history goes off the rails at about 1800, when soulstones are introduced, and a decades long war occurs over the right to control them. This merges magic, an industrial revolution, and a world war to create something entirely new.
I love these guys: they play like the poor average guys that decided enough was enough, taking matters into their own hands.
The Von Schill in the game could easily be the son or grandson of the original man, and his crew in the game has a lot of the same influences of the historical man: a well trained team of soldiers, looking to carve their own place in the world. There's some models that have access to magic, and even one that uses technology to look like he has an 1900's version of an Iron Man suit. But it all just works, right next to their flame-throwing specialists. Remember, flamethrowers were first used at the start of the 20th century, after all.
Of course, this sort of fun historical anachronism is right up against the absolutely bizarre. Pandora is real, and she's a manifestation of humanity's worst emotional states. Her crew of demonic looking children don't really hurt you exactly...they just make you sob until you bleed out the ears, mentally scarring you until you can't move, dying from the inside. Well, except Baby Kade: that baby has a knife, and he is really, really good with it.
Ask anyone that plays Malifaux if they've fought against Pandora. If they look angry, then that's a yes.
This is the tip of the iceberg: there's seven different factions in the game, each tied together by either cause or mentality, and there are over thirty different crew leaders in the game, called Masters. They are the ones that lead your crew to victory, and each has their own style and flair that you build around, making for some really unique styles. Another favorite of mine is Rasputina, a reluctant ice mage that uses her gift to bounce spells off other icy models, staying where it's safe while causing devastating spell effects. Many people on seeing the game can't help but notice Seamus, the Jack-the-Ripper inspired Master. It's probably because his army are the remains of a brothel he visited when he was feeling especially chipper, leaving his models looking especially grizzly to most.
Did I mention there's backwater bayou gremlins that ride car-sized war pigs into battle? Or how about the Ten Thunders Faction, an Asian-themed criminal family based on the infiltration of all other factions? There's everything from cowboys to ninjas here, from soldiers to demonic children. Somehow, it all just works, and half the fun of the games is seeing what bizarre combinations of models you'll end up with the board between you and your opponent.
Smaller Crews, but Bigger Choices
There's something a bit odd you'll notice about Malifaux the first few times you see it when you are used to games like Warmachine and Warhammer. In large-scale games like the latter, you can have twenty to thirty models, many of them being large scale affairs Here, in settings meant to portray back alleys and swampy moors, you typically have about six to nine models in a game, and it's rare that you'll have more then two of them end up on large 50mm bases. The boards are also a bit smaller, only 3x3 feet, but with more terrain on them to skulk around and hide in.
Movement is very important: staying in cover against gunfire is a big priority, as well as making sure you will be in the right place to capture objectives.
It's less impressive at first glance, but there's a good reason for the scaling back. Malifaux is sometimes called a skirmish sized wargame, which means it's built to have more focus on fewer models. Even if you are playing as the undead, you'll find that your weaker, crumbling zombies can have a massive impact on a game just by being in the right place at the right time, slowing down more dangerous foes while you can capture key points across the battlefield. Because there's less on the field, the characters that are have more importance. Most models have a few effects just for being on the board, and it's rare that you'll find a model that only has just one active ability it can bring to the table. Masters and valuable pieces can actually purchase upgrades before a game starts, gaining more abilities in exchange for perhaps less people on your side.
Another thing about Malifaux is that the games aren't always just about a straight out slug-fest between sides. Take McMourning, a coroner that moonlights as a junior Dr. Frankenstein: sure, the flesh construct you get in his starter box is menacing and dangerous, but it's often a use of the nurses that can make the game. They can't dish out as much damage, but their needles can paralyze people in place, or make them unable to attack for a round. In a game where there's only five turns, that can be a huge victory, nullifying the foe's ability to be aggressive during crucial moments..
This all comes in his starter box as well: enough to play just with what you have.
There's also the wonderful benefit of cost to the player. A starter box for this game typically runs about $40-45, and has enough in it to play games with. Purchasing another starter box in the same faction can often triple your playing options, as you now have two Masters to play with, and the individual minions that you can swap between them to mix and match in many different ways.
Cards, Not Dice: Bluffing to Kill
A game with great themes still falls apart unless the game-play can keep up. Fortunately, Malifaux has great core game mechanics, many of which lend to the bizarre style it built into the crews. Here, instead of massing dice to attack or attempt abilities, you instead use cards. Playing cards, to be exact: while the suits have been altered to be more thematic, you could easily use any full deck you might have laying around the house in a jam, as long as you still have the jokers.
Card duels between characters usually play out like this: the attacker and defender flip a card from their own deck, and add the number and suit to the statistic they already have listed. If the attacker scores a tie or higher, he's managed to land a hit; however, it doesn't stop there. The loser of the original duel can 'cheat fate', and use a stored card from his hand, changing the numbers to try and force the duel to go into his favor. The other player can then do the same, and now the real winner of a particular attack is decided.
This is often what a hand in Malifaux looks like: some high cards, some low cards. It's up to you to choose when you really want an attack to succeed, or maybe just bluff your opponent into thinking you have more than you do.
This is much more interactive than dice, and a lot of players will tell you that they feel a lot more skilled when they manage to force repeated victories out of the dueling card decks. The suits matter too: Rams (Hearts) can cause many models to deal extra damage when they hit with an attack, while Crows (Clubs) often allows for crazed necromancers to summon back bodies from the grave. There is a lot of resourcefulness required to really make sure you are going to hit when you need to, and get off those special attacks when they matter.
The Resurrectionists faction loves the suit of Crows, giving them the power to give back life, or take it away. Many factions have a favorite suit, and mastering the game is learning how to manipulate your deck of cards.
I absolutely love this mechanic. It takes several games to really start getting the hang of it, but it's worth it; you can have characters with devastating attacks, but you need to work towards playing your deck of cards to get the resources you need. Luck is reintroduced to the game, but now there is the veil of control over the game of chance. Having a bad string of low powered cards? You know that coming up should start to be some big ones, since you are playing out of a set amount of 54 options before shuffling. Get lucky earlier in the turn? maybe it's time to be more careful, because you never know when those low cost cards are going to start to ruin your day. It's so much fun to get a terrible hand of cards, and watch your opponent become convinced that you are holding something very dangerous against them, tricking them into second guessing themselves.
That Personal Touch
There is so, so much more under the surface that I can't get to in just one article. So many anecdotes about hilarious moments in individual games. Remembrances when, at our local game store, six or seven of us would crowd around one particular game, boggling at the absolutely weird events that had occurred. It's easy to get caught up in the wonderful insanity of it all: two ton steam automatons getting into fist fights with Shao Lin-esque monk, or when the long arm of the law gets into a shooting match with gremlins equipped with fireworks.
Of course, you could always choose to hire a mercenary Oni that devours opponents whole.
You never quite feel like you are playing the same game match after match, and that's a good thing. In fact, you can play against the exact same friend with the exact same crews several times in the same night, and they will be different: sometimes, the objective is to simply take the board's four quadrants while defending particular claims you put down, while other times it could be to make sure the center of the board is yours while also capturing - not killing - a particular foe. Going back to the fact that you have smaller crews than many miniatures games, this means you have to learn to create a specific team for a specific goal: do you want to take all the models that are great at killing? It's certainly fun, but it might not always win you the game.
I know that some people here reading this might be feeling as if I'm on the attack, putting down a lot of other games in my quest to sell Malifaux. You wouldn't be wrong about my love for this game being biased, as I am a Henchman for this game - someone that demos and organizes local events as a volunteer for Wyrd Miniatures - and so I have a bit more attachment than many might. This attachment is earned however; I've been playing this game for three years now, and so that initial rush of excitement of something new, something different to play has long faded. In fact, as my life got busy, I had to step away for months, never quite having time to get out to my local store to play with friends as work piled up.
In the last six months, I've only had a chance to get in a handful of games in the last few weeks, but already, the excitement is back. The warm feeling of greeting an old friend, as I organize game boards and several games set up on Thursday nights. A chance to gather with others, to play a game that's fully engaging, multi-faceted, and often completely hilarious with dark humor.
Malifaux isn't just a good game, it's a great game that's stood a test of time, leaving me still excited, still interested, and wanting to see what my luck will bring the next time I try to crush Dana with my army of mechanical spiders. If you've been interested in wargames, but haven't found just that right game, let me suggest Malifaux: it's better than what I first imagined, and to me, been worth every penny.