Deep in the cursed city of Shadespire, warbands battle for shards of precious shadeglass. The gold-clad knights known as the Stormcast Eternals, rampaging berserkers Magore's Fiends, a jolly band of Orcs called the Ironskull's Boyz, and the skeletal Sepulchral Guard are the first warbands to brave this deadly treasure hunt. When they meet, hexes are sketched out on the ground, and the warbands engage in tactical turn-based combat to secure victory points and prove their dominance of the ruined city.
Warhammer Underworlds is one of Games Workshop's best competitive tabletop games. You and your opponent's fighters activate one by one to defend, charge, and take points. After each activation you use 'ploys' from a hand of cards to perform extra special actions. These might let you give your fighters an extra move, or move enemy fighters into an inconvenient position. This phase goes back and forth between you and your opponent, creating a tactical card game after each board activation.
It's a fast and smart system that gives players plenty of opportunity to outwit one another. In adapting the game for PC, Steel Sky Productions have wisely decided to stay completely faithful to the rules. Instead of models, we get some faithful 3D renderings of the warbands. Instead of game boards we get atmospheric environments that do a good job of emulating the grim atmosphere of the dead city.
Battles last about 20-30 minutes. Each takes three turns, and in each turn you get four character activations. If you have a large warband like the seven-strong Sepulchral Guard, you have to think carefully about which four characters you want to activate—though the warband has some neat movement ploys that let you get more from your superior numbers. This puts a strong focus on making a few big, important decisions each turn. That often forces you to consider hitting objectives rather than enemies (unless you're Orcs, in which case many of their objectives will involve hitting stuff a lot).
Even the objective system adds strategic nuance to your warband. In fact, it's essential to the way you choose to build your force. You draw three objectives per round from a deck you have chosen. Some objectives simply ask you to stand on a particular capture point, others might give you glory points for keeping enemy characters out of your territory, or for killing the enemy general, or for charging with every one of your characters in a turn. The team with the most glory at the end of three turns wins the game.
This creates fascinating standoffs that differ based on the warband you're facing. If you see a Sepulchral Guard player rush to take as many points as possible, you can guess at the objectives they are trying to score in their deck, and respond accordingly by pushing skeletons off capture points as often as you can. If your opponent is charging recklessly for your leader, you might want to back them away and let your best defensive characters take the brunt of the attack. Combats are resolved with simple dice rolls that are handily explained in the game's tutorials.
All of these systems are in the videogame, and the ploys and characters are identical to the initial Warhammer Underworlds tabletop release in 2017—apart from Magore's Fiends, a Khorne warband that came out slightly later. That maintains the fine balance between the first few waves of warbands.
The videogame version is in closed beta at the moment. The UI is initially baffling, but supplies most of the information you need once you're used to it. It would be good to be able to see a character's full card at any point, so you can see their inspired states, and how much damage their attacks can do during card phases. When you roll to attack, some characters want hammer symbols, and others want crossed words—this could be clearer too.
I expect combat noises and extra sound cues will be added in time, but otherwise it's a very nicely presented take on the fiction with great potential as a competitive online game. It's rare to see a game merge deckbuilding, tabletop tactics, dice, and card combat into one elegant combat system, but that's exactly what Warhammer Underworlds does, and there's huge potential for future expansion if the tabletop game is anything to go by.
Warhammer Underworlds: Online is in closed beta right now, but it's due to hit Steam Early Access (opens in new tab) on January 28.