The Tomb Kings are coming to Total War: Warhammer 2 this month, bringing with them some of the most exotic units in the entire Warhammer universe. In addition to hordes of traditional skeleton warriors, these powerful necromancers can control giant mechanical scorpions, War Sphinx, and towering stone constructs that shoot lasers out of their eyes. Unlike the Vampire Counts, Tomb King armies are decent at range. The statuesque Ushabti can fire massive bows and screaming skull catapults blast enemies with volleys of flaming skulls.
The southern lands of Nehekhara are about to get really weird. After playing with the new faction for a few hours I've had a chance to explore some of the interesting differences The Creative Assembly has built into the latest paid-for expansion. Here are some things you'll want to do when you take charge of your undead armies.
Seek entrance to the Black Pyramid
The Tomb Kings, obsessed by the curse that turned them all into undead nightmares, are not too fussed about the roiling spiral of energy that the other factions are chasing. Instead the four playable generals are looking for the books of Nagash—the arch necromancer that slightly doomed their race for eternity. Once you have those you can assault Nagash's black pyramid in a dramatic final encounter.
There are plenty of reasons to roam beyond the southern deserts, though. In addition to the books of Nagash, you can turn collect special resources scattered across the map, and use them to summon powerful campaign-exclusive legions of legend. "This campaign exclusive element lets us really dial up their effect on the battlefield," says associate designer Gary Deans, "to make them really unique and amazing compared to other units. We wanted to make them aspirational—right I've got this legion of the netherworld and they're amazing, it was really worth going for this resource over here."
Craft legendary weapons and armour
In addition to special units, you can turn special resources into items, which you can then slot onto your generals to make them scarier in battle. "Tomb Kings don't get the same benefits as everybody else from post-battle drops, so you are incentivised to use the crafting system," says lead designer Gary Aldridge. "It plays into the RPG element of 'I'm going to pick and choose how this guys is going to be kitted out'.
"It's going to be things that are easy to obtain, you're going to craft them many times over and give them to all of your characters. There's also going to be some aspirational higher tier stuff, even some legendary items where you're only going to have one or two."
You can claim resources by capturing settlements that have them, or you can trade with other factions. Tomb Kings may be skeletal nightmares, but they are rich skeletal nightmares. Someone out there in the Warhammer universe will be happy to swap you some haunted jars for a fortune.
Raise free skeletons!
The great thing about skeleton warriors, apart from their big happy grins, is that they don't have any earthly desires for food, wages or shelter. The Tomb Kings are such powerful necromancers that you get hordes of basic skeletons for nothing, and you don't have to pay upkeep. That means you always have a reliable lump of bodies with which to defend your kingdom.
In battle the Tomb Kings can make use of the souls departing their bodies. As stuff dies your realm of souls bar fills up and passes several threshold points at the top of your screen. At each point your general performs a mass healing and resurrection spell that brings your troops back into the fight. In its final stages you can summon a unit of powerful Ushabti fighters anywhere on the battlefield.
"By having all these numbers and this mechanic you can basically feed the bar with all your fodder in order to keep your elite core alive," explains Deans. "Within your elite core you have the elite infantry, but also the constructs, that's your Ushabti, War Sphinxes, the big stone robots, essentially.
"If a player wants to use tactics to bog down the enemy and then deliver a killing blow with giant eccentric robots made of stone then that's your army, basically."
Defend your cities to the last
The Tomb Kings have a deliberate rhythm to technological progression throughout the campaign. You always have access to hordes of basic skeletons, but you need expensive buildings to access even moderately powerful units. "Losing a city in a Tomb Kings campaign can be devastating depending on what it is," says Gary. Tomb King cities are designed to be elite focal points for your empire that you will want to defend well as you slowly put together their arcane structures.
You can overcome some of the Tomb Kings' shortcomings with technology. Their tree is split into dynasties representing great Tomb Kings gone by. "Each dynasty you can unlock at any given point in time," says Aldridge. "You might want more growth, or you might want a reduction in turn time for building. You need to go quite deep with your cities to get those better, more illustrious constructs, those tier-five hero titans."
"You can actually resurrect those kings and they present you with extra campaign benefits over your standard Tomb Kings."
Command the oddest units in the game
Tomb Kings are a fan favourite in the Warhammer universe (though they didn't make the transition to the new Age of Sigmar setting, RIP), largely because their troops are batshit insane. I mean, just look at this thing. It's a Necrosphinx, a statue of the underworld brought to life by foul magics so it can jump around and kill things with big scythe arms.
In the game these constructs prove to be extremely resilient, and beautifully animated. The giant scorpion in particular—with its ability to burrow and ambush—is extremely well realised, and the Tomb Kings' ranged options make them a very different threat to the Vampire Counts. In fact, true to their original tabletop war game incarnation, the Tomb Kings aren't especially weak in any area if you manage to get their biggest troops onto the battlefield. The main challenge will be expanding on the strategy layer quickly enough to get the materials you need to start buffing your generals and bringing in the legendary legions that make the Tomb Kings unstoppable.
Rise of the Tomb Kings is out on January 23.