It’s no secret that getting into miniatures games can be a daunting prospect. The cost of the miniatures, the time needed to assemble them - let alone paint them. If you want to play at home, you need to have the space, plus there’s terrain to consider as well. It’s a fantastic, rewarding hobby, but it requires a lot of effort and it's hard to just dip a toe in.
If that sounds like you, you should check out Warhammer Underworlds. It’s the perfect game for anyone looking to dive into the world of tiny plastic soldiers with the minimum of fuss. And if that isn’t you, I’d suggest checking out Underworlds anyway, because it’s bloody fantastic. Warhammer Underworlds is Games Workshop’s most approachable game by some way and a great introduction to minis games as a whole.
While GW produces a bunch of games with smaller model counts, they’re mostly traditional miniature wargames - albeit designed for skirmishes rather than mass battles. Underworlds is different because it’s a hybrid of a minis game and a card game; the whole thing plays out on a board with no additional terrain required. You can play the game on your coffee table, but even the £40 starter set gives you a complete experience out of the box. Even if you decide you don’t want to go any further, you’ll still have another game for your shelf that can come out for an evening’s play with no fuss.
The core of the game is very straightforward. You and your opponent have warbands of three to seven fighters, each represented by a push-fit plastic miniature and a card that has their basic statistics, attacks, special rules (if any) and their Inspired condition. When the Inspired condition is met, the card is flipped over to reveal the fighter’s Inspired state, which usually boasts improved stats. Each game consists of three rounds, during which each player gets four activations, regardless of the number of fighters in their warband. An activation consists of a single action, such as moving or attacking. Attacks are resolved with special attack and defence dice and take no time at all, with each player only having to make a single roll of a few dice, usually one to three.
Power cards are where the real meat of the game is and where the unique flavour of each warband becomes clear.
If that’s all the game consisted of, it’d be pretty dull. That’s where the cards come in. As well as their fighter cards, each player has a deck of 12 objectives and 20 power cards, and draws a number of each at the start of every round. Objectives vary from warband to warband, ranging from simple tasks that can be scored instantly to more complex goals that will take some planning over the course of the game to pull off. Naturally, the latter scores you more victory points than the former. At the end of the game, the player with the most VP wins, regardless of how many fighters are left on the board.
Power cards can be upgrades for your fighters, special moves called ploys, or a number of more exotic types. Usually these are played at the end of each activation, with players taking it in turns to play a card or pass, but some can be played at other times. This is where the real meat of the game is and where the unique flavour of each warband becomes clear.
Depending on the warband, the individual fighters may not have much in the way of special abilities, but with upgrades and ploys, you can vastly increase the power of a single fighter, or use cunning coordinated attacks. As you might expect, many of the warbands can bend or even break the core rules of the game. The Gnarlspirit Pack, a group of barbarian warriors possessed by bestial spirits, can flip their fighter cards back and forth between their starting and Inspired profiles, representing them choosing to rein in or unleash the beast within. The Sons of Velmorn, the undead remnants of an ancient dynasty, support each other closely in combat, but can also be brought back after being defeated. If that’s not enough for you, some formats allow you to build your own deck from a larger pool of cards.
These two warbands can be found in the latest release, Warhammer Underworlds: Gnarlwood, which provides a great excuse to segue seamlessly into talking about the game’s release structure. Much like a trading or living card game, Underworlds releases are split into seasons, with the current season having kicked off in October and lasting six months. The start of a season sees the release of a new boxed set with a couple of warbands and all the rules, tokens and dice necessary to play. Over the course of the season, new warbands and cards will be released. Grabbing the latest season box is a great next step after the starter, or you can head straight there if you’re a more experienced gamer. Just like the starter set, the seasonal boxes are complete experiences that can be enjoyed on their own.
Earlier in Underworlds’ lifespan, there were issues with how the game was released. Universal cards were released with warbands, forcing players interested in deckbuilding to buy models they had no interest in, especially if they wanted to maintain a competitive edge. Over the last couple of seasons, GW has tightened things up considerably, with warbands only coming with their unique cards and any additional cards being their own, separate releases.
The use of a board and cards makes Underworlds instantly recognisable as a tabletop game, in a way that other miniature games aren’t.
Different formats have been introduced too, with the total now at four. Relic and Championship are the two full deckbuilding formats, with the latter being limited to more recent releases. Rivals only uses pre-built decks, either the unique cards that come with a warband, or Universal decks, such as the two included in the Gnarlwood set. The last format is Nemesis, which uses cards from a warband’s unique cards plus one Universal deck, allowing limited customisation without needing a huge pool of cards.
Another spanner in the works for Underworlds was the pandemic, which not only caused supply chain issues (while GW makes miniatures in the UK, the printed materials tend to be produced in China) but also killed off the burgeoning organised play scene. Unlike players of games with more miniatures, Underworld players couldn’t just occupy themselves by working on their massive painting backlogs.
Thankfully, with the latest season GW has gone all out with organised play in hobby shops, clubs and its own Warhammer stores. This is great news, especially as many players were concerned that the disruption would cause GW’s support of the game to fizzle out.
Not only is Warhammer Underworlds an easy entry point to miniature gaming, it’s a fantastic game for old hands too. The use of a board and cards makes it instantly recognisable as a tabletop game, in a way that other miniature games aren’t. Whether you want to get involved in organised play, take your first steps with collecting and painting miniatures, or just want a fun competitive game for your collection, Warhammer Underworlds comes highly recommended.