The Horus Heresy – my first impressions

At the time I’m writing this, I probably have somewhere around the realm of 5000 points of Space Wolves for the Horus Heresy – not a legal army at that points, mind you. There’s about 4 HQ models, 2 Contemptors, 5 Tartaros Terminators, 10 Veterans, around 40 Grey Slayers equipped with everything from bolters to power axes to combat shields, 2 Rhinos, 9 Seekers with combi-plasma, a Fire Raptor, 5 Heavy Support Marines with Missile Launchers, a Leviathan, Sicaran Venator, Spartan Assault Tank and, of course, Leman Russ and his Wolf-kin. Every one of these miniatures has been lovingly assembled, converted, had brass etch shoulder emblems super glued on, based, washed, edge highlighted, sealed and based. The process of building this army took me somewhere in the realm of 6 months (albeit with some other projects running concurrently) of hard work, and the end result is one of my largest and most prolific collections of miniatures from a single faction, and perhaps even tied with my Maggotkin of Nurgle as the army I’m most proud of to date.

I tell you this to give weight to one rather absurd fact: a couple of weeks ago, I played my first ever game of The Horus Heresy, and indeed 7th Edition Warhammer 40,000.

To further complicate matters, it was also my good friend and long-suffering opponent Andrew’s first game of 30K also – his Thousand Son’s (how perfect) just freshly assembled, the super glue practically still curing as we rolled dice. I brought a rough 2000pts list – a mixed bag of infantry and armour to give a flavour of how the core mechanics of the game behaved without overextending myself too much. No Primarchs, at least.

My 2000pts list – a Legion Praetor and Speaker of the Dead, 2 big blobs of Grey Slayers with power weapons, a Veteran Tactical Squad with Missile Launcher and Plasma Gun – in a Rhino, a Contemptor with Kheres Pattern Assault Cannon and Power Claw, 5 Heavy Support with Missile Launchers, a Sicaran Venator and a Spartan Assault Tank to deliver my Praetor-led choppy Grey Slayers.

My opponent Andrew brought with him the contents of a Betrayal at Calth set and some extras, giving him a pair of Tactical Squads, a Veteran squad, a brace of Terminator Squads (one Tartaros, the other Cataphractii), a Contemptor Dreadnought, a Praetor and a Chaplain. I also supplemented his list with some pieces I had for my new Iron Warriors legion list, namely a Leviathan Dreadnought and another pair of Contemptors, giving him a talon of 3. In the end, we decided not to bother with objectives – the game was going to be such a riot of forgotten rules and stop-and-start rulebook flipping that there was no point in putting any competitive pretense behind it. Our lists were largely thrown together and not particularly double checked (one or both of us may have ended up about 100 points over or under). We figured ‘let’s just put models on the table and kill each other for 5 turns’, so we rolled our first dice…

… and then we realised we had no idea what we were rolling for. Neither of us had any experience with 7th Edition rules – in fact, the last time that either of us had played 40K before 8th Edition was released was over a decade ago, back in the grim darkness of 3rd Edition (gone, but not forgotten). In the end, I consulted the rulebook as if playing from complete scratch – we couldn’t rely on anything from 8th Edition to be business as usual, so every step of the way, the rulebook was read aloud and the rules figured out. We picked our deployments, and we put our models down, and we prepared to take first turn.

Andrew had won the roll-off and decided to let me go first – my army was mostly close ranged anyway compared to his, and I was the one holding the rulebook. It made sense for me to have to take the first, confusing steps.

In the end, I think that deployment and that first turn alone took about as long as the rest of the game. I had to figure out how fast my vehicles went – the difference between a walker and a tank, the effects of difficult/dangerous terrain, the impact of moving at various speeds and ranges on disembarking, shooting and assaulting (although 2 of those 3 weren’t really relevant on my first turn), how shooting at vehicles behaved vs infantry, and so on and so forth. There was an awful lot of consulting the rulebook, of flipping backward and forward, and figuring out what the various special rules did. In the end, I think my turn resulted with my foot sloggers being a little further forward, my vehicles being an awful lot further forward, and my Sicaran Venator doing absolutely nothing of value. This would be a trend that would continue the rest of the game.

Over to Andrew’s turn one, and things were a little easier at first. The kinks of movement had been mostly figured out, and movement was over in a flash. Then on came the psychic phase.

Oh lord, the psychic phase.

To be clear, I’m not upset about the overall complexity of the psychic phase. On the contrary, it reminded me a good bit of the Magic phase in Warhammer Fantasy 6th Edition (much of this edition of 40K did that, in fact). I like the idea of big pools of warp energy hanging around and being bent to the controlling players will however they best see fit. I loved that there were generic schools of Psychic Disciplines to choose from, all with different key themes and effects. I was a little disappointed to learn that spells could only be dispelled by the defending player if they directly affected one of their units, but given my limited amount of warp charge dice, it wasn’t the biggest of deals. The phase was cool, and fun to learn, although we had an awful lot of page flipping trying to figure out how many psykers Andrew had, how many warp charge dice they contributed, what they could cast, learning spells and all this fun stuff that we perhaps should’ve looked into and generated before the game began. It was fun to learn, and relatively easy to get the gist of though. The abundance of schools and spells and their potential effects seemed ridiculously deep and exciting, and I imagine this phase might have been an awful lot more punishing for me had either of us really known what we were doing there.

Andrew’s shooting phase was a lot more interesting than mine. We had some fun figuring out how the the Rend special rule works against vehicles (we settled on Strength + 6 + D3 to determine if a glancing/penetrating hit, after much initial confusion), and blast weapons were an interesting hurdle when we realised that we didn’t own any weapon templates (although thankfully our friend had a Scatter dice). Figuring out how Hull Points worked was a bit of a confusion for a while (mostly due to my own inability to read a paragraph staring me right in the face). I definitely lived to regret giving Andrew a loan of a Leviathan with Grav-flux Bombard and Storm Cannon though, which popped my Rhino open turn one (and went on to absolutely shred a number of my other models throughout the game). It was the perfect antithesis to my Sicaran Venator.

Turn two, and things got a little more interesting again as I pulled into assault range with my army. I have to say, I was impressed with the Spartan’s performance as a transport – when you can move at half speed, disembark, and then charge out of it all on turn two, it’s fairly effective at delivering it’s payload in good time. Afterward, it proved to be a great weapons platform – although Andrew immobilized it on his turn two, the Machine Spirit rule letting me split fire one of the lascannons like it’s 8th Edition all over again was pretty nice. Although deeply frustrating, as turn after turn I’d hit with both my lascannon shots without the need for the twin-linked reroll, whilst my Venator would consistently miss both with it’s main cannon. The frustration was real.

The assault phase was.. confusing. 7th Edition has an awful lot of rules regarding where models can charge and where wounds are to be allocated first, and throughout the experience I never felt entirely sure that I was getting things exactly right. Of course, now would probably be a good time to re-consult the rulebook and figure things out, now that I’ve got a little context.

Confusing as it may have been, it was also hugely exciting. Space Wolves, and particularly The Bloodied Claws, can be a somewhat terrifying prospect when unleashed on the charge. Getting that army wide +1WS on the charge, along with the +1S from Furious Assault and 7th’s generic +1A makes the Wolves of Fenris just horribly brutal. Twin Lightning Claws can and will turn tactical marines to mulch and the all-or-nothing AP system of 7th Edition makes the addition of power weapons to a squad so much more frightening. The Specialist Weapon rule on things like Power Fists or Frost Weapons limiting their attacks seems like a trade-off worth considering, and you need to be a little careful with with who you throw into the front lines and where, as models in base-to-base seem to be the ones at risk first (compared to 8ths whoever you like approach). Still, having a few power swords in a squad of Grey Slayers netting 3 attacks each at WS5 S5 AP3 just felt so dangerous and cut through tactical squads like butter.

If I’m honest, one of the things I really liked an awful lot about The Horus Heresy over 8th Edition was the classic AP system that I recalled from 3rd Edition – compared to the ‘Rend’ system of 8th. Much as I like 8th Edition and it’s many trappings, the addition of Rend just seemed to vastly change the dynamic of the game for me – suddenly, Guardsmen were saving 1/3 of their men against Boltguns and things like Necron Destroyers became amazing anti-Terminator units. Power armour didn’t feel like so much of an advantage any more, and the venerable ‘walking tank’ Terminator armour has become something of a running joke in our games.

Similarly, while Vehicle rules were more complicated, I liked the notion that vehicles behaved like a different class of unit to Monstrous Creatures. Vehicle orientation and different armour values feels refreshing to return to, having come from an edition where my Venator could shoot it’s cannon backwards. It’s nice that my Spartan is impervious to small arms fire, and although AP1/2 weapons can get lucky and one-shot the whole thing, I still get my whole save against everything but the heaviest of dedicated anti-tank weapons. Even a Lascannon would need to roll a ‘6’ followed by a ‘6’ to blow up the tank in one shot, and in an edition where Twin-Linked means higher accuracy rather than increased weight of fire, that’s not exactly a common occurrence. I also really liked that Walkers could move and fire their weapons without hindrance – it felt like the game was encouraging me to move my Contemptor forward, turn-by-turn, firing it’s weapons as it went and eventually engaging in close combat to smash up some enemy armour or tear apart some unlucky Astartes.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my first game of The Horus Heresy. Whilst I certainly understand the views of those who would rather the game moved on to 8th Edition to join Warhammer 40,000, I’m much happier with ForgeWorld’s decision to stick with 7th until they’re finished covering all of the original legions. There’s something about 7th that just seems to better represent the feel of the Astartes and the impact of their awesome Power and Terminator armours. As a specialist game largely revolving around one major faction, I’m more than content to deal with a larger learning curve in favour of a richer game. The majority of issues arising from this steeper curve slowly melt away as you play, and what’s left is a ruleset that is – in a world where 8th Edition is now the dominant tabletop wargame – as seemingly uniquely nostalgic for the Warhammer that I played and loved as a teenager as ForgeWorld’s sculpts are for the Rogue Trader and Red Period-era miniature’s that so inspired the art and visual style of The Horus Heresy as it is presented to us now.

And I can’t wait to play my next game.

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