Our Man In Malifaux: Dipping Our Toes Into The Breach

For those of you who have read our articles already, you may have gathered that my friends and I are fans of Games Workshop and the products they make (I started when I was five!). While that will continue to be the case for a long time to come, a couple of weeks ago I discovered a new game that has excited me in a way that other, more familiar games, haven’t been able to do in a while. That game is Malifaux.

Malifaux, created by Wyrd Games, launched in 2009 at Gamescom and is now in its third edition twelve years later, with no signs of slowing down as Wyrd release their first expansion: Malifaux Burns. In terms of scale, Malifaux clocks in at the same size as Warcry or Necromunda, with you controlling a crew consisting of a master, their totem, and between three to twelve henchmen and enforcers as you and your opponent fight in the streets of the titular Malifaux and its surrounding environs. For those of you put off by the size of other miniature wargames and the price that entails, you could do worse than look into Malifaux for that alone.

Malifaux character Captain Zipp
Captain Zipp from Wyrd Games

Mechanically, Malifaux likes to loudly declare its uniqueness from the rest of the pack by doing away with dice in favour of using a standard deck of 54 playing cards (keep those jokers) which players flip to determine the numerical values used in abilities and combat, and sometimes gaining special benefits when certain suits appear in the result. Wyrd have since taken this deck mechanic and applied it to their other games set in the Malifaux universe: The Other Side and Through the Breach, but having not played either of these (yet) I can’t comment much beyond that.

So, with the excitement of a newly discovered game still pumping me full of adrenaline, I proceeded to immediately run to my friends and pester them into trying the game out with me. A small amount of convincing later, I managed to convince two very good friends of mine, one of which is Handful of Dice’s very own Ben Judge, who’s articles you can find here, to play a game with me. With this practical experience under our belts, we’ve decided to do the only sensible thing you can do on the internet: espouse our opinions for others to read. We’ll be doing this in a round table format to give some broader opinions on our first time with the game, rather than reading me gush over it for the next however many paragraphs.

KVB: As a group we’ve played a lot of games, on tabletop and online so means we’ve got a pretty good idea of what we like, and sometimes even why we like it. We’ll start with you Ben since I know you’ve been compiling thoughts since we played our game. After I positively thrust the Malifaux website in your face, what were your initial thoughts about the game overall?

I really think the game has something for everyone, or for the right person, everything for someone.

Ben: Without wanting to lay all my cards on the table straight away, I had a lukewarm response to the game’s wild west steampunk visuals. It reminded me of the Steamforged Games football game Guild Ball, a game I unfortunately didn’t try before it went out of production, but much more cowboy led compared to Guild Balls more city focused gangs and gaslights aesthetic. From a painting and modelling standpoint cowboys don’t excite me, so I started digging through the list of Factions for something else.

The Guild, Outcasts, and Explorer’s Society all seemed quite cowboy forward but if you do a little more research boy does this game start spreading its wings. The factions are all quite human (or humanoid) led with one stand out exception, but the henchmen were the models that started getting me excited and really showed off the differences between each group. I found a few models I really liked spread over a number of different factions. My personal favourites were the candle wearing goblin shamans summoning demon ghosts, the pig-tailed woodland knights, and of course Sophie the skeleton cow.

I really think the game has something for everyone, or for the right person, everything for someone. I did a little googling to see what people recommend for beginners, which fortunately included a leader I’d picked out for their aesthetic. The Malifaux app handily meant I was able to make a team for our game without knowing any of the rules, and just like that I was ready to go. I think it’s fair to say you found yourself in a very different position of loving everything and not being able to play it all, so your research must have been a little more in depth. How did you go about narrowing your choices to the factions you played?

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KVB: Short answer, I haven’t. Long answer, I also wanted to try something beginner friendly for our first game, and like you I wasn’t particularly interested in any of the more human factions in the game, though that may have more to do with my dislike of painting skin tones than their being ‘normal’. I also tend to like things that err toward the elite, less models to ultimately have to paint (though I am willing to throw this rule out as and when it suits me).

Being a long-time player of all things villainous and sinister in other games, I focused my attention on the Resurrectionists and Neverborn, the two most obviously monstrous factions in the game and in there I found a very smiley dude who seemed to be right up my street: Dr. McMourning, a Frankenstein stand-in with a crew of stitched monstrosities, loyal lab assistant, and zombie chihuahua. But like you said, I am far more into the whole Victorian-Lovecraft-Gothic-Steampunk-Western thing Malifaux has going on, so I’m keen to try many more things in the future.

THE RULES ARE FREE! All of them, for everything in the entire game, all available on the Malifaux website.

You also brought up the rules and this is a point I cannot shout loud enough: THE RULES ARE FREE! All of them, for everything in the entire game, all available on the Malifaux website. There are books you can buy for each faction, but doing this massively lowers the barrier to entry for new people like us. I don’t know about you, but on first blush I found the rules as written to be a little…dense.

Ben: I never sat down and read through the rules cover to cover, so it should be commended that we made it through a game relatively painlessly by reading the basics, using reference cards, and checking what we needed. If you’ve played a skirmish miniatures game before the basics are pretty intuitive. There are a lot of key words and symbols though, not all of which I think were necessary, and could, on at least one occasion, have been more evocative of what they mean mechanically.

I picked the bloody queen of the fae Titania for our game. All the fighter cards are wordy. I don’t think I’ve seen a single one that didn’t have at least 6 attacks, traits, or abilities to get your head around. The fae faction’s ability to summon bramble bushes to damage and slow opponents meant I immediately needed to find a few definitions for my “concealing, severe underbrush markers”. Concealing gave my opponents disadvantage to shoot me through the markers, as you might expect, but severe was a bit of a mystery, especially since it’s also used to describe the magnitude of damage when it’s dealt. Severe terrain halves your movement as you pass through it and, in my opinion, should have been called something else.

Malifaux character Titania Queen of the Fae
Titania Queen of the Fae from Wyrd Games

By the end of our second turn I had a little lightbulb moment where I suddenly saw through the veil and realised how all my abilities could be used together

Learning key words and memorizing all the abilities and stats of your fighters is a part of almost any skirmish game though, and by the end of our second turn I had a little lightbulb moment where I suddenly saw through the veil and realized how all my abilities could be used together, and how bad my decisions in the first turn had been. I’d say it makes this game better suited to players experienced with tabletop games but it didn’t limit my ability to enjoy the game hugely, and if you like a complex tactical experience you might find it a plus.

KVB: By comparison, Dr. McMourning’s mechanics revolve heavily around the poisoned condition and the use of corpse markers left behind by fleshy things when they die; he is a necromancer, after all. But both of these things were very obvious from the get-go, so there’s definitely a breadth in complexity across the Malifaux range.

Having done some research beyond the games I played, there does seem to be a consensus among the community that some crews are much more beginner friendly (Lady Justice) and others are akin to 6D chess (Nexus). There’s also a lot of variety in how these different crews play; in my second game I tried out the Bayou dwelling Gremlin crew of Som’er Teeth Jones and his moonshine-swilling family shooting highly lethal-but-random guns. Whereas McMourning and co. can really stand on their own, the Joneses play best by dogpiling on one unsuspecting opponent and getting major buffs for doing so. Of course, most of these abilities rely on the flip of a card, what are your thoughts on using a deck of playing cards as opposed to the industry standard of dice?

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Ben: Ah yes, the deck. So, correct me if I get anything wrong, but the deck is called the Fate Deck and is a regular 52 card deck of cards plus jokers. Every time you might roll a dice in a game like Warcry, in this game you flip over a card from the deck instead. You’re almost always taking a stat from the fighter you’re activating and adding the value of the flipped card in order to beat a target number.

In the case of an ability, like Titania’s ability to move underbrush, the target number will be given on the card. For combat the target number is decided by your opponent simultaneously flipping one of their cards and adding their defence. As far as generating a random number I wouldn’t say this functions noticeably differently from rolling say a 12-sided dice, but it does give you the benefit that a run of bad luck with the cards is guaranteed to eventually be followed by a run of good luck, within your next 52 draws.

No more games where you only seem to roll 1’s, and that can only be a good thing; instead, bad luck at the start of the game will mean you’ll be stronger in the latter half so there’s less reasons to pick up your models and call it a day if the first turn goes badly for you. 

There’s another unique property of cards that the game takes advantage of. Every card (excluding the jokers) has not only a number, but also a suit. Hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades, are replaced with rams, masks, tomes, and crows. Often you won’t care what the suit is, but sometimes attacks and abilities will have “triggers” that occur if the card you’re using is the correct suit.

For me that meant getting to attack back if I defended with a ram, or drain some health from an opponent if I attacked with a mask. These abilities don’t always require you to succeed on the action you’re trying to perform so can make a nice consolation prize, and give value to otherwise useless low numbered cards, taking a bit off the pass/fail out of each flip. We had very different experiences with fate in our game, how did you find it played out in your other game?

KVB: I can’t remember anything specifically about how my flips went in either game, which generally means there was a healthy mix of good and back luck for both sides in both games. A couple things I will add to what you already said though is the existence of the player’s personal hand of six cards, and the ability to add positive and negative modifiers to flips as well. The hand of cards allows a player to “cheat fate” when flipping cards for basically anything except the initial flips which decide the scenario being played and deployment, replacing the card they flipped with one of the cards they have in their hand. There are exceptions that prevent you from cheating but you’ll be able to do this a majority of the time, and it helps a great deal with alleviating any bad luck you may be having with your flips. 

Malifaux character Collette Du Bois
Collette Du Bois from Wyrd games

Modifiers appear mostly on the abilities of the models themselves, though can also come about by circumstances on the field, like shooting through concealing terrain for example, and apply either a negative or positive effect to your flip. For the D&D players in the audience, think of it like advantage and disadvantage. In either case you flip multiple cards and either take the highest or lowest result depending on whether you have a positive or negative modifier; and these can stack ad infinitum too. In my first game I was much too liberal with my hand of cards, throwing them away for little gain, a mistake I didn’t make a second time let me tell you. I lost my second game for entirely different reasons.

We could probably wax lyrical about the models and mechanics for a good long while yet, so I think for our readers’ sakes we should start making for the conclusion. Having now played a game of Malifaux is your opinion of it any different than when you went into it and, more importantly, can you see yourself playing more of it in the future?

The sequential activation and “cheating fate” mechanic meant I always felt involved and constantly had interesting decisions to make…

Ben: Our game was good fun. The sequential activation and “cheating fate” mechanic meant I always felt involved and constantly had interesting decisions to make, even on your turn. I ended up leaving a lot of my attacks down to chance and saved my hand of cards to pull of a series of clutch defences with Titania, once your hand had run out, and I think on at least one occasions I cheated fate assuming or knowing I would still lose the duel because I wanted to trigger an ability by changing my cards suit.

You don’t get to make that kind of decision in most skirmish games and it kept me on my toes. Our half size game probably didn’t show off the strategic elements as well as they could have, we ended up bunching our units into 2 choke points and having a brawl while the objectives we’d placed were mostly ignored at the back of the boards, but with 4 different scenarios for objective placement and deployment, and with a greater unit variety in a larger game (I’d have taken a teleporting boar if I could have) I can see where those elements would come in.

Malifaux character Dr McMourning
Dr. McMourning from Wyrd Games
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I should also mention that in a truly competitive game we could have altered our teams after seeing our opponent’s faction and the board set up so there would be little to no imbalance based on those things as so often happens in Games Workshop’s Warcry. I went into the game sceptical of the aesthetic, and sceptical that the deck of cards would really feel any different to dice. I’ve been won over on both counts and therefore can definitely see myself playing more in the future. You’ve played 2 games and 2 factions so you’ve seen a greater tactical breadth of the game, is the tactical variety there to keep every game fresh, and would you play more?

There’s so much variety here and it all just works.

KVB: I may have played my hand early here but I’ll definitely be back, provided I can get the opponents for it. In a more competitive environment, there would definitely be more tactical variety, but even in kitchen counter Malifaux, most of the crew keywords have enough models in them to keep things fresh for a good long while, and that’s even before you add the faction versatile models.

The factions I’ve played as and against have wildly different ways they want to go about winning as well, from McMourning’s stitched elites and Jones’ gaggle of drunk gremlins, to Titania’s board control and Colette’s ability to manipulate enemy models. There’s so much variety here and it all just works. If people can get past the sunk cost of moving from Games Workshop titles, then there’s something truly incredible here with deep (and free) rules and gorgeous miniatures. Can you tell I like it?

That brings us to a close for now. Let us know in the comments below if you’re an old hand at Malifaux with your own thoughts to add, or if maybe you’ve never heard of the game and are now eager to go look it up for yourself; and let us know if you want to see more Malifaux content in the future. That’s us for now, have fun out there and we’ll see you in Malifaux.

Did you enjoy this article? You could always tip the author with a coffee (or something stronger). If you want to try out Malifaux yourself then check out Element Games. They have great deals on this and other table top games like Warhammer, as well as loads of painting and modelling accessories. Finally, make sure you’re following us on Instagram to stay up to date and get involved in our community!

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