Warhammer is a game that has always interested me but always felt like a large step to get into, so being offered the chance to review Warhammer Underworlds Gnarlwood felt like the perfect stepping stone. The release of Warhammer Underworlds Gnarlwood serves as the next jumping-in point for the competitive skirmish game, so how good is it for players new and old?
What is Warhammer Underworlds?
Warhammer Underworlds is a skirmish game set in the high-fantasy world of Age of Sigmar. Unlike traditional Warhammer where players can battle it out across any terrain with armies of certain point values in Warhammer Underworlds players command smaller groups called Warbands made up of 4-5 units and duke it out over smaller themed boards that are connected to one another. Being a game of much smaller scope, you can get into and finish games faster, and it allows you a bit more flexibility when you try to reattempt strategy.
Each player has a small force of miniatures called their warbands, a deck of Power cards that the player can draw from, a deck of objective cards, and a set of communal dice. Your warbands will all come with their own character cards, detailing the amount of health they have, how they attack and how they move. These cards will also detail any special abilities they have, and the requirements that need to be met for them to become inspired. Inspiring a unit flips its card over, and offers that unit a boost. For some Warbands, this might simply mean they can move faster or hit harder. And for others, it can expand upon their repertoire of abilities.
The way that you attack your opponents is by rolling custom dice, and looking for certain symbols while your opponent rolls their dice with defense symbols. After each player rolls off they compare the number of successes that they've made on their dice to their opponents. With Criticals bearing a lot of weight in these roll-offs the player with more successes than the other is able to successfully attack or block. Your enemy being flanked by allies, or standing near your own allies can give you certain advantages in these roll-offs.
Your power deck consists of Ploys that you can activate on your turn and Upgrade cards that you can use to improve your units for the next round of combat. Each warband comes with its own preset power decks. But with any of the expansions, including the extra decks included in Warhammer Underworlds Gnarlwood, you can swap cards in and out to change the way that your warbands play.
As the aim of the game is not to defeat your enemies but to earn the most victory points, you'll also want to be making sure to custom-tailor your objective deck to match your style of play. Certain objectives may have a focus on objective control, while others will have you defeat your opponents in certain ways. The objectives you pull may entirely change your strategy for how you're going to play Warhammer Underworlds.
What's In The Warhammer Underworlds Gnarlwood Box?
Warhammer Underworlds Gnarlwood contains the following:
- Warhammer Underworlds rulebook
- Two full warbands (The Gnarlspirit Pack and The Sons of Velmorn)
- Two starter decks for both warbands, plus two extra sets of Rivals Decks
- Two double-sided game boards
- Eleven custom dice
- Feature Tokens
- Glory, activation, wound/counter, raise, status, and hex tokens
Each of the warbands comes on plastic sprues that have to cut free and clip together. All of these miniatures are push-fit, so there is no glue required. As each side only has four or five fighters and each part is clearly numbered with illustrated instructions, it should only take you 15 to 20 minutes to put together both warbands and be ready to start playing. With the high level of detail on these minis, the ability to push them together and separate them again gives an added benefit that you'll be able to paint the more intricate parts separately and then assemble them. No need to worry about paints overlapping when it's so spaced out.
Gnarlwood is the ultimate starter set for two players to just dive right in. The biggest hurdle for new players will be the size of the instruction book. The instruction book contains over 50 pages of lore, setup and instructions, additional play styles (including a 4-player mode), and even a glossary for when you quickly need to look something up in the midst of battle.
As a new player, while reading it cover to cover with 100% necessary, a really helpful touch is that each stage or process in the game has its own flow chart. No matter if you're in combat or just remembering where to do what on your turn, there's a simple-to-read flow chart that you can quickly reference and get right back into the game. This keeps interruptions to a minimum, as you don't need to sift through paragraphs of information, but can quickly hop to what you need. There were more than a few times during combat, when comparing attack rolls and defense roles, that I needed to go to the attack and defense tables to quickly figure out what the result of a roll-off would be.
Who are the new Gnarlwood Warbands?
The Gnarlwood is an ancient forest in West Thondia, where everything, including the trees, is trying to kill you. Rumors are that the forest is home to what remains of the Eye of Chotec, a vessel that was said to have been able to travel the void between realms. Warbands that traveled there felt accomplished knowing that they had tamed the surface territories before realizing further down the roots and vines form all kinds of deadly labyrinths. Two of the warbands that still remain in the Gnarlwood are The Gnarlspirit Pack and The Sons of Velmorn.
The Gnarlspirit Pack
The Gnarlspirit Pack are a group of Darkoath Warriors that each has an animalistic spirit of the Gnarlwood calling to them. These warriors are pushed to commit unspeakable acts by their inner beast, constantly calling to them to wet their blades. The Gnarlspirit Pack are a Warband of four led by Sarrakkar Blackwing.
Each of these fighters can move fast and hit hard. Upon activating each member of the warband they receive a Spirit Counter. Once this counter has been activated the fighter is classified as a Beast and obtains a boost to speed or defense. On a subsequent turn when you remove a counter your fighter will become inspired. Over your three rounds, you'll want to activate each of these at least once to allow for a three-stage power increase. While these fighters can move fast it's not too hard to hit them meaning the best defense against them is an overwhelming and targeted offense.
Our favorite cards from The Gnarlspirit Pack are:
- True Selves - An Objective Card that teaches you that there's no time like the present to go Beast with a token, or to become inspired
- Oath of the Hunt - One of the cards where you can earn extra glory if you reveal it to your opponent at the start of the turn. This interesting mechanic pairs well with the rush-style gameplay of the Gnarlspirit
- Self-Command - By allowing yourself to gain a Guard Token you get a bit beefier, but a removal of a Spirit Counter allows for early inspiration
- In Control - This card plays with the three-tier evolution of the Gnarlspirit pack while also ensuring that you have a Warband, not in the middle Bestial stage
- Fierce Competition - Hunting like pack animals not only powers up your Warbands, but pushes you to have them work like a team
The Sons of Velmorn
The Sons of Velmorn are the skeletal remnants of an ancient kingdom that used to reside in territory that the Gnarlwood has since overtaken. Trying to preserve himself amongst the oncoming powers of chaos King Morlak Velmorn sought out the powerful Tyrants Crown. When he received the artifact he was after the life he was searching for instead turned out to be undeath. Upon placing the crown on his head he was transformed into a Wight King and his four sons (including one illegitimate heir) were all transformed into skeletons sworn to fight for him.
The mechanics necessary for the Sons of Velmorn are extremely interesting as they pertain to activating King Morlak Velmorn so that he can offer support from everywhere, and then use the three legitimate sons, known as the Grave Guard, to rush in and gang up on enemies. In the instance that an attack is a Critical Hit the Warband is Inspired if they were the one to deal the Crit, or if they were supporting the one who Crit. Depending on positioning this could mean a single attack could inspire the whole Warband simultaneously. It does require rolling that crit which isn't always assured but there's a good chance you can power up your team very early.
Our favorite cards from The Sons of Velmorn are:
- Morbid Majesty - This card does a good job to promote and reward the ability for a single crit to inspire multiple Warbands. Helps players understand how they should be playing the Warband without directly telling them
- Inevitability Itself - This card is just great for the high risk and high reward factor, chances are if you've got the advantage and your opponent is on the ropes you're winning anyway so why not add some insult to injury?
- Favoured Son - Not only does this card do a good job protecting your Warband but this allows the Grave Guard to have a good in-universe reason for this power-up
- Deadly Manoeuvre - This reaction is a chain of events that allows you to better position your Warbands giving you a chance for a surprise advantage to hit, and an opportunity for inspiration.
- Lord of Bones - While restricted to King Velmorn it serves a similar purpose to Deadly Manoeuvre, with a token on Velmorn it can also set up a Grave Guard for inspiration
What are the additional Rivals decks in Warhammer Underworlds Gnarlwood?
Gnarlwood doesn't just come with additional cards to mix and match into your standard Rivals Decks (which you can still do) but it comes with complete themed Rivals Decks. The Tooth and Claw and Daring Delvers Rival Decks. Each comes not only with a full collection of ready-to-play Power and Objective cards but also an additional set of rules for that deck. For example, when a deck contains any of the Tooth and Claw cards there are new rules that a Fighter in either Warband counts as Savage if they have a charge token, are staggered, or have two or more wound counters. This immediately shakes up the whole game allowing for a variety of different tactics to be used by either side of the board.
The decks themselves are more generic, not relying on the precise strengths of each warband but this also allows you to see a wider variety of mechanics as any warband should be able to be played with these cards and stand a fighting chance.
Tooth and Claw
The Tooth and Claw rival deck is all about unleashing your wild side. A lot of the cards impart the beast status, and the aforementioned rules allow you to turn fighters savage far easier. A lot of these cards also rely on conserving action in one round for a more brutal action in the next one or going all out immediately only to have to recharge the next round. Definitely a high-risk high-reward kind of play.
Our favorite cards from Tooth and Claw are:
- Move or Die - Doubling down on the animalistic sense this Objective promotes movement of your whole Warband (be careful not to attempt this with a Warband that has five members)
- Fully Committed - Where better to have Savage fighters than neck deep in enemy territory?
- Mark of the Stampede - This is a card that again doubles down on the bestial transformation and is exceptionally good with a ranged fighter
- Brutal Transformation - A great example of the risk-reward losing the ability to perform super actions but gaining incredible strength
- Reckless Haste - This card is huge for positioning all of your fighters where you want them to be, but being staggered next turn will leave you a sitting duck for an oncoming attack.
The Daring Delvers Rival Deck is all about building up your exploration count by placing a Feature Token, holding Feature Token territory, and for venturing into enemy territory. Their main aim is to control territory with cards allowing you to place down additional Feature Tokens while giving your fighters the ability to see through obscured spaces and gain additional benefits from being an explorer.
Our favorite cards from Daring Delvers are:
- Sudden Demise - This Objective is a good one to push players to work on increasing the number of hexes on the field
- Undiscovered Secrets - Play to the objective, get 10 Exploration or more, and that's an instant three Glory
- Prospector - A great upgrade for immediately filling the field with additional hexes
- Enshrouded Shot - While not a powerful attack, the long-range on this will promote the creation of hexes and will give you an additional benefit of earning Exploration while dealing damage
- Significant Find - While this works well to increase the hex control on the board it can also be a quick chance to get an Exploration count.
What are our final thoughts on Warhammer Underworlds Gnarlwood?
Warhammer Underworlds Gnarlwoods is a great jumping-in point for the franchise. In one simple box you get the full experience from the snap-assembled miniatures that become your warbands, their own specific Rivals decks giving you a chance to play with mechanics specific to those fighters, but also Rivals decks that serve as more generic examples of additional features. The final cherry on top is that you can then mix and match between these Rivals decks to also give you a better feeling of what some of the other formats are. If you like it and want to keep expanding then the inclusion of the boards and tokens allows you to just invest in additional Warbands or expansion decks to get you launched into the wider world of Warhammer Underworlds.
Should you buy Warhammer Underworlds Gnarlwood?
If you're a new player interested in immersing yourself in the skirmish world of Warhammer Underworlds Gnarlwood then this is the place you want to be. You get to set up with everything you need to start delving deep into the world of Warhammer with this collection and if you choose not to continue then it serves a purpose as a stand-alone competitive game to play with a variety of friends. If you're a returning player the warbands included in this deck are an enticing opportunity. If the playstyles and cards shown above are something you'd like to add to your arsenal then there's your answer, but if you don't really gel with that playstyle then it's likely this box will be a miss for you.
The copy of Warhammer Underworlds Gnarlwood used to produce this review was provided by the publisher.