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Warhammer Underworlds: Online Preview

Edited by: Jade Swann

My first impression of the preview for Warhammer Underworlds: Online (WUO) was that the tabletop game had been ported to a video game. But that doesn’t exactly explain it, and I couldn’t quite figure out why until I looked up the original Warhammer Underworlds. I immediately saw what has made tabletop Warhammer so popular for decades — a vast world rich in lore, miniatures painted in vivid detail that set your imagination on fire, and a tactical experience on multiple levels (involving cards, dice, a playing board, and figurines). These are all the kinds of things that WUO appears to be copying at first, but on closer examination it’s more like a flat shadow cast by something that can only be appreciated in three dimensions.

Technically, this game has all the same elements as its tabletop counterpart…

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Both the tabletop and video game versions of Warhammer Underworlds involve exactly the same play elements: attack and defense dice, objective cards that allow you to score glory points, skill cards that allow you to spend those points in battle, a board with objectives, and the characters themselves represented by 3D models. In fact, this game seems to be catered to people who want to practice in the virtual world so they can get better at playing in the real world. For that purpose, it’s just fine.

But that’s a narrow set of players. I personally love many of the Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War games (which are real-time strategies), but I’m not familiar with the tabletop version or much of the universe’s lore. Still, I was interested in previewing Warhammer Underworlds: Online to see what the tabletop game was like and maybe challenge my enthusiast friend to a real life match. In the end, I as a beginner didn’t feel very welcomed by WUO. Because when it comes down to it, the tutorials are hard to follow and the battles are boring, and there’s one very simple reason:

Making a board game into a video game is not as easy as it looks.

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WUO’s mechanics and rules are Byzantine. Why? Because most of the work that a computer would normally do is calculated by dice and cards and, most importantly, your slow brain. But that’s not to say you can’t play a board game on the computer, it just means the important feelings of the board game need to be interpreted into the medium somehow.
A perfect example of this is WUO’s color palette. It’s dark and dingy and everything is tinted green for some reason. There is good artwork laying around, but it’s flooded out by this aquamarine environment. Contrast this to the tabletop models, in which the details are clear and a good paint job really stands out. As a Magic: the Gathering kid looking across the game store at the Warhammer players, I can tell you that Warhammer figurines draw the eye and tempt the imagination (and also make your wallet hurt — one reason I never got into it).

The aesthetics of the tabletop simply do not translate to this game.

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The dark, faded feel of WUO is pervasive, and it really works against the game. The objective and skill cards have an archaic look to them to fit the setting, but making them old and dusty also makes them hard to read. The appeal of playing cards in the real world is that you get to hold them, look at them idly while the other person is playing, and conceal them from prying eyes. Translating this feeling into the unique medium of video games takes imagination — like the “secret” mechanic in Hearthstone, or any of the voices, artwork, or animations.

When it comes down to it, there’s nothing tactile in WUO to simulate a tabletop game. The dice hardly make a sound when they roll, and they roll automatically. Winning is a mundane tallying of glory points. There’s no personality or character to any of the lifeless figures on the board.

And, so far, there is no story or link to that vast Warhammer universe. The tutorial isn’t framed by any narrative background either; you are just trying to keep up with the scenario’s list of tasks and game phases. I couldn’t even play online, which is a pity since Warhammer should be played with other people. There was simply nobody online to play against when I tried.

We can only hope the game improves in development. Right now, it’s fine. It’s a good way to practice Warhammer Underworlds if you can’t find anyone to play with. But that’s about it.

Barely Not Heresy

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Warhammer Underworlds: Online is so far an adequate representation of the tabletop version. Many of the great qualities of the tabletop version are missing (the tactile elements, the social elements, the story elements), while many of the more tedious qualities are very present (waiting for turns, counting up dice rolls and glory points). Overall, the audience of this title seems a little narrow and the purpose a little inaccessible to new players.

Nicholas Barkdull
Written by
Wednesday, 22 January 2020 23:30
Published in Editorial

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Nic is a writer and narrative designer with a PhD in Social Research and Cultural Studies. He thinks real time strategy games are still a valid form of e-sport, that true RPGs should be turn-based (with huge casts of characters), and that AAA games have a long way to go before they earn back our trust. He is the Lead Writer for Pathea Games's My Time at Sandrock, and his work can be seen in Playboy, South China Morning Post, The Daily Beast, and many other places.

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