Warhammer Underworlds Shadespire is a competitive skirmish wargame, set in Games Workshop's Warhammer Age of Sigmar setting. Age of Sigmar replaced Warhammer Fantasy when it was released in 2015, and it revised all the factions contained within. Unlike previous Warhammer releases, Shadespire's focus is on fast paced skirmish battles between very small bands of warriors trapped in the cursed city of Shadespire.
This review is for the Shadespire Core set only. Reviews of the other products in this system and how they interact with the core set will follow. As a result we'll look at the core set as a stand-alone product, what you get for your buy-in, Shadespire as a competitive skirmish game, and what the future holds for it.
In Shadespire, players take on the role of one of the factions trapped in the city and take turns to capture objectives and destroy their enemies. The core set contains two warbands, a Stormcast Eternals warband composed of 3 heavily armored fighters and a Khorne Bloodbound warband, which are 5 lightly armored berserker fighters. The game combines elements of skirmish and deck building games, and everything you need to know is printed on the stats cards for each warrior and the cards you draw during the game. Players have two separate decks of cards, an objective deck and a power deck. The objective deck contains cards that detail missions you must try to complete to earn glory points. Having the most glory points is what wins you the game, but they are also used for upgrades on cards you draw from your power deck. The power deck also contains tricks, actions and reactions that can be used throughout the rounds to add flair and variety to the games. Picking the right cards for both decks that work well with your warband can be what makes or breaks your victory.
Each game consists of 3 rounds of 2 phases each. The phases are simply the action phase and the clean up phase. Each action phase gives players 4 activations, which they take turns to complete. Activations are actions that a character takes, such as moving or attacking. Characters can attack multiple times (unless they have previously used a charge action to move and attack, or another event prevents them), but can only move once per round, so positioning is key. Over the course of every game, you only get a total of 12 activations (4 each turn), so correct use of every activation really matters.
Combat takes place using the special Shadespire dice, and each character's stat card details how many dice to roll, and what symbol you are looking for to attack or defend. During play, warriors can also become Inspired if they can meet certain criteria outlined on their stat card. When a character becomes Inspired they flip their stat card over and use the improved stats on the Inspired side of the card.
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The product itself comes with Games Workshop's usual high quality of miniatures, boards, counters, cards and rules. What I like most about components, which seems trivial, is that they made the core set box really streamlined, which saves a lot of space. As a wargamer, you're usually going to transport your models/components in a carry case where, for me anyway, they live most of the time between games. This means the empty box is going to live in a stack/cupboard/under the bed taking up space, so for me, the smaller the box is better. Stand-alone board-games are different, as the box is usually the standard method of transport, and obviously some tabletop wargame starter boxes need to be big, but it's refreshing to see this product in a streamlined box. The double sided playboards are sturdy and the miniatures are clip together, and only require removing from the sprues to set up. All the cards are of decent quality and the rules are well produced and punchy, so punchy in fact that Games Workshop have produced a short video which details nearly everything you need to play.
Shadespire is very fast paced as all the information you need is readily available on the components you use for play. With limited turns, every game is quick and intense and that's what makes it so enjoyable to play. Set-up is quick and you can easily thrash out several games in a two hour play session, which makes it great for a round-robin tournament. The core set is for two players, but more players can be added with the addition of more core sets. We haven't be able to test more than two players yet, but with limited activations per player each round and only three rounds per game, adding more players won't increase the time drastically, but will add interesting mechanics and strategies beyond the 1 vs 1 game.
Even as a stand-alone product the core set is great. Shadespire's cost is reasonable for what you get, and you will get lots of play out of the core set on it's own. The only issue I had was the balance of the two warbands. The Stormcast Eternals are very beginner friendly. They hit hard and are hard to kill, whereas the Bloodreavers require some thought. The Stormcast are able to kill enemies in a single hit, which can put the Bloodreavers player on the back foot early on. Having more models isn't as handy as it is in a normal war-game as you only have 4 activations each turn, so you have to consider which characters you want to activate each round. Having more models does make taking and holding objectives easier, but it takes a few games to really learn the tactics for the Bloodreavers, which leads to a few games of the Stormcast ploughing through the Khorne warband.
After those first few games though, for which you are advised to use the pre-made set starter objective and power decks, you start making your own decks with the extra cards included in the base set. Once you start making your own decks Shadespire becomes a very interesting competitive skirmish game. The variety of options for deckbuilding does make the game varied, but not infinite if you are playing with a limited group of players and only have the core set. As the new competitive skirmish game though, this is a real contender, especially considering the expansion warbands that are already available for the game. For fans of Warhammer, there is a lot to like here, the fast paced nature and the low buy-in cost as opposed to playing a full sized war game stand out. If you've never played Warhammer before, Shadespire is a great place to start.
Shadespire's future will be determined by how well Games Workshop supports the game. Currently, there are the two warbands contained in the core set, two additional warband expansions available, and two more warbands have been hinted at. Beyond that, if GW releases further customization options for warband cards and models, and different boards and scenarios, then Shadespire could have a real future. With enough support of Shadespire GW might possibly tap into a market of players that have left because of cost/time or attract a new market of competitive gamers. As it stands, Shadespire is very fun, interesting and is very reasonable cost-wise, but the current limited customization options means that it doesn't stand against existing skirmish games with a huge amount of support like X-Wing. That could all change, and that's all down to GW, because the foundation that Shadespire has laid is rock solid. It's also worth noting that GW have released the rules for using the Shadespire core set models (Stormcast Eternals / Bloodreavers) in Age of Sigmar, so players of AoS benefit more from a core set buy-in.
Every war-gamer knows how it feels when your plan and your rolls are going South, and when they start to go, games can get one-sided very fast. Shadespire's beauty comes from the blend of card and miniatures game, and nothing is settled until the last objective cards are revealed. I've saved games by keeping a core objective card for the last round, even though my warriors have taken a pounding, or simply drawn the perfect card in the last round. The Stormcast Eternal's can spend the game holding objectives and pounding the Bloodreavers, but the Bloodreavers are capable of pulling off some crazy wins in the last round and the same the other way, I've had an Eternal simply hold the right objective in the last round while his comrades have been wiped out around him. Nothing is decided until the last cards are played and nothing feels so good as pulling off the perfect combination of cards to smash your opponent in the last round when they've been dominating the game.
The Bottom Line:
Shadespire is great fun, fast paced and competitive. The quality of the core set is very high, as expected by Games Workshop, and it provides a large amount of gameplay. The future of Shadespire depends completely on how much Games Workshop release for it, but the foundation is there for a high-quality, competitive skirmish game with a long future. The initial balance with the recommended deck-lists must be noted, and the first few games will appear very one sided, but it really isn't so much of an issue later on once players have control over their decks.
Get this game if:
You're a previous Games Workshop fan who left because of cost/time.
You're a fan of fast paced competitive skirmish games.
You're looking for an introductory product for a potential war-gamer (this is a great gift for anyone who likes or is interested in miniatures games).
You're looking for the next competitive skirmish game.
Avoid this game if:
You're looking for infinite replayability out of just the core set.
You're looking for a large-scale tactical miniatures wargame.
This copy of Warhammer Underworlds Shadespire was provided by Goblin Gaming and you can pick up a copy from them with a 20% discount off the RRP.