Saturday, August 2, 2014

Relic Knights-Initial Impressions

Quite some time ago, I gave a pass to a Kickstarter called Relic Knights.  It had some very interesting sculpts and themes but I was not sure of the rules and had recently bought into Sedition Wars, so I passed. Fast forward 18 months and Soda Pop Miniatures has delivered the game to most backers and also to retailers.  I walked into my friendly LGS and saw some starters and the rules for sale, and I bit.  Turns out I would have been better off putting my money into the Relic Knights Kickstarter!

A very colorful rulebook, as seen on the KS page.

For my money, I picked up the Shattered Sword Knights and the Black Diamond mercenaries, two of the more conventional-looking armies in a game that includes speed-racing babes, space pirates, Japanese space demons, and more. Each starter box (c. $50 retail) comes with a differing number of models depending on size and point value (typically adding up to about 25 points in-game), a deck of battle cards, unit cards, a "dashboard", a very nice set of 24 plastic tokens, and a complete mini-rulebook.

Here are my Sword Knights from the starter box painted up.  The starter comes with 5 Swordsworn, 2 Paragons, and Sir Francis Mallory, the noble Questing Knight, with his Cypher, Quill.

Here are my Black Diamond starter forces also painted.  The starter comes with 5 Diamond Corps, 1 M8 cyber-tank, and Leopold Magnus, a cyborg Questing Knight of dubious morality accompanied by his Cypher, Static.

This game is unlike any other miniatures game I have played.  Most importantly, there are no dice.  Each unit has a selection of abilities which are powered by Esper, or magical power.  A player's supply of Esper is determined by drawing a hand of 5 cards.  You start the game with them, and then spend and refresh your hand on your turn and during your opponent's turn for defensive actions.

Here are the mission, ability cards, and the Esper deck, which are included in every starter, image from the KS page.

Scenarios and Actions for the different "affinities" of Relic Knights.  Each faction specializes in one of the affinities.

Each Esper card has a major and minor affinity, or could be wild or void.  The large symbol is worth 2 esper and the smaller 1.  These are the points used to power abilities.

Here is a selection of cards that comes with the Shattered Sword Knights starter from the KS page:

As you can see, each unit has a number of stats for movement, melee, ranged, psychic, armor, hit points, and "held esper" or stored energy.  Each unit also has a point value for army construction purposes. Units move in inches, and line of sight is what you would expect.  Ranged weapons have no max range in inches as the assumption is you can shoot anything you can see on the table. Tables are usually 3' x 3' or 4' x 4'.  Each unit has 2 cards, one for stats and one for abilities.  Each unit will be placed on the "dashboard" during the game.

Dashboard, Courtesy of Seethingginger's website:


Units are placed in the ready queue at start, and players take turns activating units, cycling them into the idle pile and putting them into the ready queue once again, etc.  It may look complex, but it is quite easy in practice.  Part of the game's strategy involved choosing the sequence of your activation and taking advantage of your opponent's sequence.  There are abilities such as Knockback which remove units from the ready queue, etc. and this adds another layer of tactics to the game. 

I won't explain all the rules of the game, as a free rulebook can be found here:

Most unit cards, and even an Esper deck, are available at the Soda Pop Miniatures website as well if you want to give it a swing.  

As an overview, each game involves the players placing 3 objectives each, then drawing cards to determine primary and secondary missions. Each faction has its own mission, as well.  Missions award victory points for accomplishing tasks, like sabotaging enemy objectives, obtaining valuable intel, or simply controlling the objectives.  Killing units also gives victory points, and victory is determined by reaching a preset total.  For example, in the basic 35-point game the VP threshold is 8.  

Combat is resolved by declaring an attack, paying for the basic attack, and then both sides drawing additional cards based on their relevant stat.  For example, if my Swordsworn shoot at the Diamond Corps, I pay the basic cost, then draw cards equal to my ranged attack stat, with my opponent drawing cards equal to his ranged defense.  We then "pay" for further effects using our cards, such as "pressing" the attack for me to say, boost damage.  While the defender can pay to block or redirect the attack.  If the attack goes through, damage is determined by comparing the damage generated to armor, any cover, and any armor or healing abilities used by the defender.

The centerpiece(s) of any game are the Relic Knights and Questing Knights.  These are the strongest pieces with the most abilities, and they can be extremely powerful.  I would not not quite liken them to warcasters in Warmachine, as they can't typically win the game for you in one turn.  But over several turns, and with the right cards, they can be extremely potent.  They also have Cyphers, Esper-pets that provide a source of power and can have strong support abilities.

I played a learning game with Jormungandr to figure this game out, and we had a really good time.  We played with the two starter boxes above.  Unfortunately I did not get a lot of pics as we were busy learning rules, but here is a quick overview.

Shattered Sword deploy for battle.  The blue circles are objective markers.  My mission was to sabotage the Black Diamond objectives, kill 3 units, and take revenge if one of mine was killed.

Black Diamond hides in the shadows.  Their missions were to destroy my primary or both secondary objectives, assassinate a unit, and to steal some supplies.  

In the early turns, Leopold Magnus bombarded my paragons with ranged and psychic attacks.  He used his second move (units get an initial move, action, and then secondary move normally) to pop back into full cover after shooting.

My Paragons advanced on the rightmost enemy objective and sabotaged it, but were destroyed by Leopold and the M8 tank.  The Paragons were the "assassination" mission target, so that put Black Diamond up 4 points.  My Swordsworn absorbed the M8 tank's fire and Leopold's gentle ministrations while Sir Francis and Quill dispatched the Diamond Corps and sabotaged another objective.

Here Leopold moves to take care of Francis personally.  The M8 tank and Leopold's magic eliminated the Swordsworn, who dies only killing one Diamond Corp trooper.

Leopold attempted to deal with Sir Francis personally, but was outmaneuvered and suffered a Knockback loop which made it hard to get to Mallory.  Both times the tank fired powerful rounds at Francis, I had the cards to turn the attack back on the tank, which was very cinematic! After dispatching the tank with his powerful defensive redirect abilities, Francis made a run for the last objective behind this cargo container.  This also gave me the revenge victory points for killing the unit which had killed my paragons.  This put the VP count at 5-4 for Black Diamond.

At the end of the game, Shattered Sword had 4 victory points, and could score 5 more by taking the last objective.  I managed to use Quill's ability to move Sir Francis out of harm's way to place two of the three required sabotage tokens over two turns.  But at the last moment Leopold Magnus launched himself on top of the container and blasted Francis with an unstoppable psychic attack!  Sir Francis use his esper powers to deflect just enough damage to survive.  But then Leopold's Cypher, Static, placed an explosive area affect trop at Francis' feet.  If I had 3 yellow Esper I could increase his armor, deposit the last sabotage marker and win the game!  But I did not!  Francis activated, took two damage, and went down, giving Leopold and Black Diamond a victory.  It had been a very fun game and came down to my last card draw.

We learned a lot about placing units in the queue, hand management, using Cypher abilities, the power of Overload (night-unstoppable attacks) and the importance of objectives in the game.  The fast, two-phase movement and the varied and colorful abilities of the units and Knights really conveys the frenetic and fantastical nature of anime battles.  Both Jormungandr and I were impressed by an overall tight rules set, which, although slightly ambiguous in places, was generally easy to follow and comprehensive.  We noticed no loopholes of any kind(!) and agreed the design and mechanics are solid and interesting. I also found the hardcover rulebook extremely colorful and interesting, with good fiction and art.  The comprehensive unit lists for all factions is also much appreciated.

If there are downsides to the game, they would be the learning curve at first, due to the unique mechanics and the plethora of abilities and actions available to the knights.  Although the abilities are many, they are not intimidatingly complex.  Also Relic Knights is not an "instant-win" game like Warmachine so the complexity should be less punishing as mistakes will not be inevitably fatal.  In addition, a number of  models and the rulebook have a lot of "cheesecake" that could offend more sensitive, or especially female, gamers with a low tolerance for such things.  I found the resin plastic sculpts to be of varying, but overall good quality.  Some sculpts are excellent, such as Sir Francis and Leopold, but others such as the Diamond Corps have less detail than I would like.

As mentioned above, this game reminds me a lot of Warmachine, and the rulebook of the original Prime. There is a lot of creativity here, new and interesting mechanics, good models, and in this case a very well-developed and highly replayable scenario system, well-suited to tournament play.  What's different is the anime flavor, the diceless mechanics, and the more forgiving power structure that does not really allow for a game-ending coup de main.

Overall, I would give Relic Knights an 8/10 for my first impression.  With more plays, and assuming deeper options and strategies open up as I add more troops for larger games, I can see this game becoming a 9 or 10.  I recommend anyone who enjoys sci-fi skirmish to give it a shot.  The anime aesthetic may not be for everyone, but the underlying game and mechanics are innovative and exciting.  If, like me, you love anime and mecha as well as miniatures, you are probably going to like this game quite a bit.