[Actual Play Review] Grimdark Future: First Impressions

One Page Rules have been making quite a splash lately. Many of my fellow “we wish were were Gen X” gamer-olds are turning into the round-based equivalent of those lads who used to crash every conversation about WFB online with an unsolicited bellow of “HAVE YOU PERCHANCE HEARD OF THE NINTH AGE?” Of course, the reasons Ninth Age annoys me (it’s specifically the ETC’s ‘perfected’ form of eighth edition WFB, which makes it two degrees removed from any version of WFB I am interested in playing) are absent from Grimdark Future, which seems to have come into being in order to fix problems rather than perpetuate them. This is why I ended up playing two rounds of it with Ben yesterday.

Have You Perchance Not Heard Of Grimdark Future?

Essentially, the One Page Rules project seems to have looked at the state of contemporary Warhammer-brand wargaming, with its claims about simple core systems drowning under subsystems for game type, warzone, codex (faction and subfaction!) and supplement, trait and stratagem and doctrine, and said: what if the claims made about these games were actually true?

The result, in Grimdark Future’s case at least, seems to be a sort of greatest hits of Warhammer 40K over the last twenty years. It’s closest to the eighth and ninth editions, with the same rules applied to huge multi-wound vehicle and monster kits as to regular infantry, and a “datasheet” approach to list construction where you buy a standardised squad with standardised kit and either upgrade or swap out discrete elements. It has elements of fifth edition in its makeup too though: standardised movement rates, a reliance on universal special rules in combination to differentiate units, and the very simple “place d3+3 objectives, tag them to claim then move on, deploy along long board edge and pew pew pew” victory conditions, as well as the more clean approach to playing where it’s placement and concentration of fire that matter, not marshalling metacurrency to introduce gotcha rules.

After we’d finished the fourth edition 40K game, Ben and I sat down to knock up some lists on the very handy web app OPR provides for the game – it’s good, although as a fat-thumbed touchscreen-hater I found it a bit easy to accidentally activate some clickable that I didn’t wish to – it’s definitely one for tablets not phones. I made one list that was essentially the one I’d just used for fourth ed. 40K, and another that was “the contents of the Dark Vengeance set”, which conveniently added up to 1000 points, and ran them into Ben’s Actually Painted Regular Ass Space Wolves.

Armies and Units and Stats, oh my

The following are exported directly from the OPR list building app. It’s really rather good, and if I’d realised that the “cards” view creates a viewable reference sheet with no clickables involved, yesterday would have been a much smoother experience.

++ Burning Eighth [1000pts] ++

Havoc Champion [1] Q3+ D3+ | 135pts | Ambush, Hero, Psychic(1), Tough(6)
Destroyer Armor, Warlock, Heavy Pistol (12″, A1, AP(1)), CCW (A2)

Harbinger Daemon [1] Q2+ D2+ | 195pts | Fear, Hero, Tough(6)
Daemon Sword (A6, AP(2))

2x Havoc Brothers [5] Q3+ D3+ | 145pts |
5x CCWs (A1), 4x Heavy Rifles (24″, A1, AP(1)), Plasma Rifle (24″, A1, AP(4))

Havoc Brothers [5] Q3+ D3+ | 135pts |
5x Heavy Pistol (12″, A1, AP(1)), 5x CCW (A2)

Plague Zombies [10] Q5+ D6+ | 110pts | Regeneration, Slow, Undead
10x Claws (A2)

Mutated Brothers [5] Q3+ D3+ | 135pts | Fast, Mutations
5x Dual Claws (A2)

Much to think about here. Instead of the granular statlines I’m used to, each unit has a Quality state and a Defence stat, indicating what you need to roll to inflict or save against damage with it. Weapons dictate the number of attacks, the modifier applied to enemy Defence rolls, and the range at which the weapon can be used. That’s basically it, although special rules may add further interactions like multiplying wounds or adding modifiers.

++ Dork Vengeance [990pts] ++

Cultists [10] Q5+ D5+ | 135pts |
2x CCWs (A1), 8x Pistol (12″, A1), 8x CCW (A2), Shotgun (12″, A2, AP(1)), Flamethrower (12″, A6)

Cultists [10] Q5+ D5+ | 135pts |
9x CCWs (A1), 8x Rifles (24″, A1), Pistol (12″, A1), CCW (A2), Machinegun (30″, A3)

Havoc Champion [1] Q3+ D3+ | 80pts | Chosen Veteran, Hero, Tough(3)
Heavy Rifle (24″, A1, AP(1)), Energy Sword (A2, AP(1), Rending)

Havoc Brothers [5] Q3+ D3+ | 275pts | Chosen Veteran
3x CCWs (A1), 4x Heavy Rifles (24″, A1, AP(1)), Dual Energy Claws (A4, Rending), Energy Fist (A2, AP(4)), Fusion-Mod (6″, A1, AP(4), Deadly(3))

Infernal Brute [1] Q3+ D2+ | 365pts | Fear, Tough(12)
Stomp (A4, AP(1)), Heavy Fusion Rifle (18″, A1, AP(4), Deadly(6)), Brute Fist (A4, AP(4)), Heavy Flamethrower (12″, A6, AP(1))

This second list has a few examples of such behaviour. Rending attacks reduce enemy Defence to a 6+ save – it’s worth noting that a 6+ always saves in Grimdark Future – on a 6 to hit, while Deadly attacks inflict multiple points of damage on a failed save. Multiple points become important when dealing with Tough models, who can take a number of hits before going down in flames. Some of my lads here are also Chosen, affording a +1 to their Quality rolls when shooting or fighting in melee.

Imagining Acts of Violence in Miniature Scale

Actual gameplay is fast, furious and fun, to steal a phrase from another wargame that ended up being anything but that by the end. The biggest change to my old eyes is that a round isn’t two turns, it’s alternating activations (so a player with more units will be able to chain a bunch of activations at the end of the round). Units move and shoot, rush (moving at double rate) or charge (moving at double rate into close combat).

Close combat is decisive, with chargers going first no matter what and defenders getting to attack back. Survivors are forcibly separated (no “locking in combat” like in name-brand 40K) and, if forced to fight again during the round, will be fatigued and only hit on rolls of 6 (again, this seems an advantage to having more units than the other fella, as piling two or three assaults onto a hard target should help whittle it down).

In the first game we were essentially trading units, with one of mine wiping out one of his, then being wiped out in turn. In the second, things were a bit more varied. The not!Dreadnought and not!Helbrute whacked the shit out of each other for several rounds (mine won, by backing off and dousing his counterpart in the huge number of low grade attacks from his not!heavy flamer between wrassles). Meanwhile, my not!Chosen showed that efficient unit loadouts are still very much a thing by not having the range to land their not!melta shot on anything relevant without stalling for a turn in the open, or the weight of either shots or attacks to achieve much in combat. Pick a function for a unit and lean into it seems to be the order of the day.

I did observe that “support” activations – like the buff powers my not!Sorcerer had in the first game – seem to be an early priority. If A buffs B to attack X, X may well be able to attack B first, or Y may be able to deny B’s activation. This may not be your idea of a bad thing but it did leave me struggling to figure out my Sorcerer’s role at first, since so many of his aggro powers were so short ranged. He still did the work, but I think something like Warp Passage (which I wanted to put on the Plague Zombies so they hit a bit harder on a counter-attack in the second round) needs to be your first activation of the first round and you might still lose too much tempo by doing it.

Is Grimdark Future any good, then?

It’s certainly enjoyable, and quick. I haven’t mentioned the layout yet: the rulebook is decent, and any complaints I have about finding things are allayed by how short it is, so it’s 100% on me. I’m a big fan of the rough and sketchy pastiche iconography too – it has the sort of sassiness of those little cartoons in WFB fifth edition’s page corners, but without losing the drama of what’s being depicted.

There is something missing from the game, though. At the time I thought it was the “your dudes” cruft of warlord traits, relics and subfaction choices adding a little army-wide flavour to the lists, but I don’t think that’s actually it. Upon reflection I think it’s the win condition that needs a little context and complexity – this is probably because, even in a training wheels context, “line up and move out to touch arbitrarily placed markers” is the kind of gamey crap that doesn’t get my Narrative Forge fired up.

Grimdark Future’s campaign system and mission cards (clearly derived from 40K’s Crusade and Maelstrom/Tempest modes) adds a little more crunch to the bite, but it’s still done off a baseline of “place marker tokens this far from the edge and that far from each other and don’t think about what they mean”, and its reliance on random generation really irks me. Contemporary 40K has finally moved beyond this and just allowed players to choose their secondary objectives and experience gains and character traits if they want to, with randomness relegated to the “don’t care/no ideas” backup state where it belongs.

The silver lining to this particular cloud is that the game’s so slim and elegant that it should be possible to build fun context driven scenarios with detail in them and not have that ignored or bypassed due to the cognitive load involved in playing the goddamn game at all, which is why I think Warhammer players so often settle for “pitched battle” fodder in the first place. 40K 4.0’s scenarios, with their Alpha Level victory conditions left intact (absolutely no “Victory Points” on my watch) and a few key special rules transposed along with, should do very nicely in an environment like this.

There’s probably a cutoff point at which Grimdark Future stops being fun, though. 40K’s inane granularity starts to shine in small engagements, with a handful of figures on each side. I still consider the Raid missions and the original Kill Team to be the epitome of 40K’s design, and I see Ben’s love of second edition 40K in the same light. The more models and rules and roles you force onto that base, though, the worse the game becomes as an experience, until you arrive at the scale-distorting hell of super heavy vehicle kits and Apocalypse (just play Epic you nanas, that’s what it’s for). Grimdark Future shows us that the core feel of 40K holds up even if a lot of the ironmongery just isn’t there; and the resulting game plays perfectly well.

On balance, I’d rather play a small game of 40K than a small game of Grimdark Future, but I’d rather play a big game of Grimdark Future than a big game of 40K.

9 thoughts on “[Actual Play Review] Grimdark Future: First Impressions

  1. Urgh, don’t get me started on the “HAVE YOU PERCHANCE HEARD OF NINTH AGE” people. I’ve had a few of them slide into my DMs after dropping some PSAs about how 6th edition Warhammer still exists and there’s at least one player in your area, and had to tell them politely but firmly to leave. Right now they seem to be locked in a battle with the local “HAVE YOU PERCHANCE HEARD OF OATHMARK” crowd, and the one silver lining is that it means an influx of square based armies that I might be able to get interested in Warhammer.

    And I *would* just play Epic, if only they still made the models for it that that I want (stares into empty drink glass in monochrome)..

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    1. Tiresome, isn’t it? I’ve already encouraged people to give me a slap if I get that way about Grimdark Future, or anything really. Interesting that Oathmark should attract that kind of evangelism – I don’t know much about the game, having identified it as a source of inexpensive Wood Elf infantry and taken no further interest.

      Don’t start me on the Epic range. It must have been over twenty years by now and I’m still salty that the game was run down not after (which would have been ideal) nor before (which would have been dismissable) but DURING the Chaos revamp, so the infantry were rereleased and the little tanks were done but no Chaos Titan or Daemon Engine kits were forthcoming. I know proxies are a thing, but I can never find a cohesive range of Chaos ones for some reason, and with the pivot toward 3D printing it seems less and less possible to simply Buy Things, rackum frackum mumble grumble price of beans etcetera.

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      1. I feel you. My number 2 and number 1 40k armies are, respectfully, non-existent in Epic and an afterthought from Day 1 as far as model support goes. Just a Forgeworld run of the bare essentials and some Forgeworld models, and one of the first casualties of the Great Specialist Games Betrayal (I cannot help but look back on Forgeworld’s quiet assassination of its Epic Tau range as the thin end of the 2010s wedge). And I don’t think I’ll ever find a range of Tau proxies that meets my exacting aesthetic demands in any model scale (they always seem to emphasise the *wrong parts* of the Tau look for me, doubling down on my least favourite aspects and neglecting my favourite parts).

        I suspect Oathmark’s evangelical popularity is piggybacking off the Frostgrave connection. There’s a not insignificant number of Frostgrave enthusiasts in my local scenes, and from what I can tell they seem to have locked on to the big fantasy game from the same creator for their big fantasy game fix. Funnily enough I only just made the connection between the Elf models on here and the game system just now.

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      2. Ahh, Fadgrave. All becomes clear. I remember rather liking the rules but having fallen in with a disparate group of cynics, half of whom were VERY into it, half of whom knew the other half would be back on 40K within the year.

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  2. Thanks for the review Jon. I’d always been curious about the one page rules but with my only mild hobby dabbling in 40K, I’d never put any effort into actually looking at it, so you’ve saved me a chore 😁.

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    1. Glad to be of service! If you’re very good I’ll give their fantasy variant a try at some stage (once the current wave of Night Lords mania has passed over) and report back on that too.

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      1. I recently downloaded a pdf of the rules for fantastic battles, an agnostic fantasy ruleset that a few people at the club have been trying and liking. At some point I’ll actually give that a try too.

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  3. Fantastic review – very helpful. :) The simple “take-X-objectives” win condition could indeed use more elaboration, and your idea of bringing in scenarios/missions from previous editions of WH40K is excellent. Thanks for the article and the details on how your game went – much appreciated. :)

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    1. You’re welcome, Brother. It’s a fine and adequate little game, in need of a few corners knocked off where pursuit of the Authentic Experience has led it back to design choices abandoned for a reason.

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