I’ve been playing Malifaux lately. The greatest attraction of the game, so far, is that I can comfortably fit my entire crew and full set of gaming aids inside the satchel I normally take to work, and still have room for a book to read on the coach.
This is not to suggest that the only appeal of the game is ‘it’s small’, far from it. It’s been fun from the word go, partly because I’m utterly incapable of taking it seriously. The wealth of options on each model’s card is compounded by the alternating activation sequence and the range of victory conditions in play at once, creating a tactical environment where I just can’t keep track of or evaluate everything – so I’ve stopped trying to keep track of everything, and just gone for what seems entertainingly destructive.
It’s not optimal, but Malifaux doesn’t strike me as a game that someone of my, ahm, limited faculties will ever be able to play ‘optimally’. The only parts I’ve not enjoyed, so far, have been the ones where I go all Warmachiney, trying to wrangle the exact positions and angles of models and exploit the precise dynamics of sequence and mechanic; those have all been quite stressful and have seldom resulted in any genuine tactical advantage. I’ve only been enjoying the games when I say ‘hang the sense of it all and blow stuff up’ – fortunately, that seems to be working out for me.
The LaCroix Gremlins are a blast to play (pun intended) – they’re shooty as hell compared to the factions I usually go for in wargames. Their tendency to injure themselves while dealing out MASSIVE DAMAGE would have me worried in a system that doesn’t have so many ways to control, or at least influence, the random factor. The thing is, Malifaux’s capacity to cheat fate with the cards in hand means that, if I should happen to flip something that would deal MASSIVE DAMAGE, I can always cheat and replace it with a lower value card, or one from a different suit that doesn’t meet the trigger conditions for whatever hilarious Gremlin ability is in play.
I’ve played two games against a chap called Thomas (I think) and his Marcus crew, which generally includes a lot of annoying cheap chaffy things and one big scary tricksy killing machine. The beast-wrangling Arcanists have so far been a bit fragile, but pretty damn hitty, especially that fiend Marcus with his easily-gained three ‘free’ actions per turn, and the thing he does where he takes over one of my models and gets a full activation with it and stops me using it is just beastly.
He’s done it to me twice now; the first time it proved somewhat to his detriment. Marcus successfully possesssed Pere Ravage and sent him off on a suicide-bombing run, trying to kill all the clustered-up Gremlins in one go, but the Gremlins proved slightly better at dodging explosions than the assorted birds and beasts at Marcus’ command, and he ripped the heart out of his own crew instead! It’s the sort of thing I’d try to rig in a demo game that I thought I was going to win and demoralise the new player in, but apparently Thomas doesn’t do that sort of thing and I was just lucky.
We’ll talk about the second time in a bit.
Anyway, I won my first game, in fact I tabled Thomas in my first game, despite a few hairy moments. So far, the linchpin of the crew appears to be Ophelia. Her collection of free actions which afford automatic triggers to key damage dealing or evasion abilities, offer extra activations and pull other Gremlins around behind her were invaluable to me, and I suspect I’d struggle a bit without them. Pere Ravage is in theory awesome but he seems to spend a bit too much time being possessed and encouraged to blow himself up – I think he’s wrong for the match-up. Rami’s a brute but he’s a brute who’s easily shut down if a cheap piece can engage him in melee, and Thomas’ crews seldom want for cheap pieces. Raphael’s awesome – flexible and tough and actually halfway decent in melee and becoming much more dangerous once he’s taken a few hits. I’m not so keen on Francois, despite him being the best painted of my Gremlins – I don’t know why but I can’t seem to get him to do anything, even if he does have some really neat abilities that can get the best out of a bad control hand, and a theoretical capacity to just keep on throwing out bullets and drilling holes in things.
The second game… did not go well for me.
Part of it was the strategem. Hide the Evidence was pretty rough for a small, ranged-game crew like mine. The Gremlins don’t seem to thrive when their objectives are all on the other side of the board and there’s a fast, numerous, melee-focused crew up against them. Of course, the way things are supposed to go in Malifaux City is that you sort out the strategem first and pick the crew second to avoid these ‘wrong build for the mission’ scenarios, and it’s only my very limited collection that landed me in this pickle in the first place.
The limited collection had another drawback; it left me saddled with models who are a bit of a liability against Marcus, whose cheery little “I hit you, now you’re a Beast, now I’ll steal your activation and kill your friends with it” trickery works very well on Pere Ravage. He pulled it off again, and this time Thomas’ positioning was better and my luck was worse and it actually had the desired result of taking three Gremlins off in one go.
Part of it was my scheme choice. After Thomas’ efforts to target Rami last game, I opted for ‘Frame for Murder’ – bonus VPs if Marcus killed Rami – but kept it secret because, ahm, it seems really easy to avoid if your opponent knows it’s there. I suspect that was also part of the problem, and next time that Hide the Evidence comes up, I’ll go for something involving keeping enemies out of my deployment zone and bunker up as well as models that can’t see over most cover can bunker up.
My deployment didn’t help matters either; not having any real sense for the optimum ranges of various overlapping abilities meant I didn’t have any real sense of how far I could spread out, and I ended up just bunging down a tight group and hoping for the best. This meant Marcus was able to engage and tie up three of them on his own, while the REDACTED Jackalope managed the other two. This, in turn, meant that I had to spend a lot of activations either trying to walk out of combat (with models lacking a melee attack) or trying to hit things in combat.
That proved rather tricky given a succession of frankly crappy control hands – it’s difficult to cheat fate when you have three or four hands with every card in the 3-7 range – and the lack of soulstones available to Ophelia for her own nefarious purposes. And, of course, being in a tight group also made me a perfect target for the ‘possess and explode’ attack with Pere, and after that went off and blew Ophelia and Rami to kingdom come the result was never really in doubt.
Finally, there was the classic schoolboy error of reacting to your opponent rather than moving toward an objective. In my defence, when a tiny lady turns into a hulking great bear that can still cast all the tiny lady’s spells, and the bear is waddling into melee range of your very shooty guys, some of whom literally can’t step on a bug if it’s within an inch of them, something pretty much has to be done about it. I did do the right things in the right order eventually, after about five take-backs as the Malifaux rules for positioning, targeting and line of sight were explained to me*, and the bear did drop. That said, dropping the bear represented a major loss of tempo: it took me too many action points and too many activations stacked up with Companion to actually do it.
So, basically, I had the wrong stuff for the mission and the match-up, deployed badly, made poor tactical choices and was thumpin’ unlucky… but still really enjoyed myself. They say you learn more from defeats than victories and that’s certainly true of this game. We’re lining up for a best of three match next week, and I have some new toys to chuck in – a couple of Slop Haulers, who heal other Gremlins and are apparently so useful that they might as well have “if you do not field these, you forfeit the game” in their rules, and a Gremlin Taxidermist, who I wanted chiefly because… well, because…
He’s his own excuse, really, isn’t he?
* – I have no shame about asking for take-backs when I’m learning how things work and how different conditions affect them, by the way – the sooner one can become accustomed to the fiddlinesses of a system, the faster one can learn how to play it properly.