It feels like Warhammer is almost a rite-of-passage for UK nerds, and Warhammer 40K is a setting I'll never grow tired of. Many have imitated its 'grimdark' style, iconic factions, and even whole chunks of the lore, but nothing has bettered it. Long gone are my days leading the finest Ultramarines army known to teenagekind; I don't have time to collect and paint miniatures any more, and so now I look out for Games Workshop's many video games for that nostalgia hit. So as soon as Warhammer Combat Cards appeared (iOS, Android) I once more pledged loyalty to the Emperor and dove into the far future: Commander Dickius rides again!
Combat Cards is developed by Leamington's Well Played Games, and is a deck builder where the card counts are much smaller than usual (it's based on Games Workshop's Citadel Combat Cards, a physical card game, but refined for the demands of digital play). A deck needs one 'warlord', after which you have a limited number of points to spend on 'bodyguard' cards, all of which vary wildly in cost. Each card has a numerical attack value for ranged, psychic and melee, and the objective in a match is to kill the enemy warlord before they kill you.
This style mimics small-scale skirmishes and allows for great variety. A Chaos player, for example, might opt to run with just two bodyguards of overwhelming power, banking on being able to one-shot everything you have before their warlord is whittled down. A Space Marine player has huge flexibility, and can build a mini-army of ranged troops that are individually weak but able to do mega ranged damage over multiple turns, or focus on more expensive psykers or the ultimate luxury of a Dreadnought. The Tyranids and Orks have tonnes of low-cost options that can flood the field and tie up ostensibly more powerful enemies, before the big guns stomp in and finish them off. There are 21 warlords spread over nine factions, and the eight I've thus far unlocked are all different in style.
A big part of this range is the 'special rule' for each warlord, which can be game-changing with the right army composition. Take the Eldar warlord Zephyrblade's 'battle focus' ability: "when any card is destroyed, your currently deployed Aeldari cards gain +2 ranged attack." Zephyrblade costs 20 deck points, extremely low for a warlord, so you can afford some of the deadliest Eldar bodyguards and, in theory, rip through weaker opponents with ranged attacks and get better with each fallen foe. That special rule's +2 might not sound like much, but when you wipe out a whole row on the second turn and all three of your ranged attackers get +6... the opponent has to come up with something special.
The special rules act as a kind of replacement for spell cards, enabling surprising strategies and interlocking certain faction cards together. All of your cards outside of the warlord are bodyguards, and the battle rhythm comes down to attack vs counter-attack, and spreading your use of abilities in order to empower others (or depower your opponent). The basics are simple: if you've chosen ranged cards, you're gonna be using ranged attacks. But then if you're using ranged every turn, both your psychic and melee attacks will be getting buffed, and the better decks will include some manner of taking advantage of this (not least because this will then buff your next ranged attack).
There's more judgement involved than one might think, mainly due to the inclusion of counter-attacks. If a card attacks with a ranged attack, and the target also has a ranged attack, then if the defender survives it will counter-attack and deal damage. It's critical to take account of these amounts in your strategy, and to set up in such a way that you're maximising counter potential: entire matches will come down to whether you choose to attack right now, or try to buff/debuff, absorb damage, counter, and then go for the full-force assault. Even after several days' play, counters that I didn't fully understand the implications of still catch me out.
So there's a lot to love here. The game's feel is a perfect fit for the 40K theme, and gives each faction an appropriate identity: the Imperial Guard are individually weak (puny humans!) but if they can survive have incredible firepower; the Chaos cards are a warped mishmash of everything; Tyranids can bulk out high-power decks with low-cost cards that still have terrifying melee attacks; the Eldar are aloof bullshit artists who don't like getting their hands dirty, as ever.
A big part of the credit for this must go to the art and flavour text, so easy to gloss over in a card game but an enormous part of the pleasure. There are a few basic-looking illustrations but the Space Marines in particular look amazing, and the card frames for each faction are gorgeously chunky and stylised. Again with the text, there are a few entries that feel copy-pasted from some wiki, but others that have the sly wit and tone of 40K just right. I was pleased to acquire a great space marine card called Lieutenant Darrios, and even more pleased when I flipped his card to read "[INFORMATION REDACTED PENDING INVESTIGATION BY ORDER OF THE INQUISITION.]"
Warhammer Combat Cards's only problems are a lack of structure, and some elements of the business model. I'm not going to criticise it just for being a F2P card game, because the truth is it wouldn't have a chance on mobile otherwise and in certain respects this is a generous offering: you get a free pack every eight hours, timed 'victory packs' for winning matches (up to a maximum of four at once), and can earn a 'kill pack' every eight hours by destroying enemy cards. So you get a decent amount of cards without spending a penny, and can earn more by playing.
It's hard to put a precise figure on what stuff costs outside of this loop, because the game has two premium currencies (coins and plasma) as well as a bunch of in-built timers and an energy meter for the campaign. Buying 18-card packs through plasma works out at roughly £2.50 a pack, possibly slightly less. That's a little too rich for my blood, but as I was enjoying the game I did buy a one-off 'neophyte pack' of 35 cards for an upfront £3.99.
My major frustration is the coins. Essentially the overarching goal of Combat Cards is to level your cards, which you do by obtaining duplicates and then spending coins to upgrade. Level 1 to 2 takes a mere ten coins, but soon the amounts start to leap, and levelling warlords takes a tonne of in-game cash. It's the game's major bottleneck. You're always being given small amounts of coins in the various packs, but pretty soon you'll be looking at a collection where you've got plenty of materials for upgrades, but a dozen cards that need 60 coins each are just sitting there as you slooooowly grind on opening packs with 27 coins apiece.
With that said, I don't think Combat Cards is a mean game or a terrible implementation of F2P. It just has that unfortunate characteristic intrinsic to the model, where there's these layers of artificial grind baked-in. Given the fact this is a Games Workshop game however, and every fan knows what that usually means wallet-wise, you can grumble about parts of the whole but it's hard to argue with free.
A bigger problem is the current lack of any overarching structure. The game has a 'campaign' mode which in the week or so since launch has had two events: themed around classic conflicts from 40K lore, you play as one of the factions involved and earn cards and card packs by winning matches and ranking up. These are a very decent stab at creating side-content with flavour, though it feels weird that they're sometimes running and sometimes not. That wouldn't be so noticeable if not for the real issue, which is that the PvP core of the game has no form of rankings or ladders or structure to it.
It's impossible to overstate how much Hearthstone's little numbers and logos add to the experience of playing Ranked. Every competitive game I've loved has some sort of ranking system, and the absence of such feels like a gaping hole at this game's centre. You just log in, pick up your packs, maybe have a few matches to earn the kill packs, and then... there's nothing else to do. You can play as much as you want, but there's no real goal or point to it. There's a tab for a 'clan' feature which is yet to be implemented, which will hopefully bring an element of this, but what I really want is to see space marine-boot-meets-ork-face represented in numerical form.
There are a few smaller bugbears. The daily missions can get tiresomely similar: for example, today my missions are to win 3 games with an Eldar warlord, a Tyranid warlord, and an Imperial Guard warlord. That's nine games total, even presuming one wins them all. I appreciate this kind of thing is auto-generated, but Combat Cards frequently throws up very similar tasks like the above that have no crossover (again, one of Hearthstone's subterranean delights is ticking off a little bit of each daily mission in one game).
The game also doesn't seem to allow you to save decks. This is slightly ameliorated by the fact that the maximum deck size is nine cards, so constructing a new deck never takes too long, but it just seems bizarre I can't have various decks saved and ready to go. It feels like an oversight.
These things combined can make Combat Cards feel more like the foundation for a top card game than something which will maintain interest for years. But it also has to be said that it's a great foundation. The core reimagines Citadel Combat Cards in a manner that suits streamlined competitive play. The small-scale skirmish feel of the game is perfect for five-to-ten minute matches on a phone. The factions are well-themed around their weird and wonderful armies.
And it has something a little harder to define, call it the Warhammer 40K flavour. Anyone who loves this universe knows what I mean: fantastical aliens, wild bio-tech, amazing machines, and sardonic humour. Warhammer Combat Cards feels an authentic part of this universe, and the basics are good. With a longer-term structure and a few quality-of-life changes, that would be updated to great.