Ashes of Malifaux: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Another release in the books!

I hope that by now, you’ve all managed to get a few reps in with Ashes of Malifaux.  Like Malifaux Burns, every keyword gets some fun toys; unlike Malifaux Burns, those toys hopefully won’t break the meta wide open.

No book is perfect, of course – so let’s go through Ashes and see what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s just plain ugly.

The Good

No Pass Token Shenanigans

It’s a little weird to headline this section with something that’s not in the book, but I want to get this out of the way: the last two releases, while cool in their own way, have both snapped Malifaux over their knee until fixed.  Pass tokens weren’t the only problem with Burns and Madness at launch, but they were (and are) a big problem.  Wyrd avoided that problem this time by not putting Pass Token generation everywhere, and I want to specifically call out Sen and K.O.T.O. as examples of good design.  Favor Tokens are an elegant replacement for Pass Tokens, and I hope this presages a more wide-reaching adjustment to Qi and Gong.

Somehow she still hasn’t been nerfed, so I get to use this image again. Credit: Wyrd Games, Kelly, and Me

Sure, you can generate pass tokens with Biting Insult, but having to win a stat 5 opposed duel vs. an unactivated model is not reliable enough to be dangerous.  Some pass token generation is fine – it just can’t be as reliable as Frodsham, Jin Baccara, and other offenders.

New Life to Old Keywords

The upside of everyone getting a model is that even unloved (or underloved) keywords can get a patch.  I’m going to single out Syndicate here: it’s no secret that Syndicate is languishing in the bottom percentiles of the game, but this book brought them three new models, all of which I can see myself hiring at different points.

We haven’t had an errata recently, and the last one was great to Big Hat but not so good to other underperforming keywords.  There are plenty of keywords like M&SU, Savage, and Frontier – not awful, but not great – and they all get something fun out of this book.  Enough?  Who knows?  Crookskins are getting a very positive early report.

The Lenticular Designs Are Great

One of the biggest difficulties with designing dual-keyword models is that many keywords are super parasitic.  Sometimes literally, in the case of Cadmus.  Witness Witness (heh) – you need those models to interact with the Configuration, but if you’re not playing Witness, how do you keep the Configuration abilities from being wasted text?

I think the solutions Wyrd came up with are pretty elegant.  The Witness/Performer models can fuel the configuration in Witness, but in Performer they can just use the Configuration to squeeze out some extra AP.  The Alleyway Echo can benefit from the Fast that McCabe’s Relic upgrades hand out, but he can also eat Ivan’s Shadow Markers to get the same effect.  Sometimes the effect is a bit kludgey – the Ahool’s Pack Sickness is really two rules with one name, one for each keyword – but the model synergizes enough with what both of its keywords are doing that even that little bit of clumsiness doesn’t undermine a cool design.

even if sometimes the cross-keyword synergy is “giving Hannah Secret Passage.” Credit: Wyrd Games

“Lenticular” design is design that changes based on how you look at it, and that’s what we’ve got here.  Models like Vee and Hard Stop Herbert blend the mechanics of two pretty distinct crews in a way that feels like there’s no wasted text.  I think the Ashes of Malifaux designs are cool and that’s a win all by itself.

The Flavor is A++++

Malifaux lives and dies on its aesthetic.  For better or for worse, it has always been a game with a really strong sense of theme and tone, and that’s never faltered even as the game has changed from edition to edition.  There are very few “guy with sword/guy with gun” models in Malifaux; the visual storytelling in the sculpts has always been a great strength.

Ashes of Malifaux hits that out of the park.  Ghost train conductor fused with the exploding boiler that killed him?  Gremlin tinker riding a mechanical pig and firing a hat-mounted gatling gun (a hatling gun)?  Hispanic gunslinger husbands with maraca grenades?  Everything in this book is cool as fucking hell, and that makes me want to play it all, even when the rules are less than exciting.  The day Wyrd makes a boring model is the day we’re all in trouble, but I don’t think that’ll be anytime soon.

The Bad 

The Rich Get Richer

No book is perfect.  Ashes of Malifaux has more than 75 new models in it.  They can’t all be as strong as each other.

That said, I am a little nervous that the keywords that seem to be doing the best are ones that, mildly, don’t need the help.  Jebediah is head and shoulders the best model in Bayou… and look, Tricksy is one of the best keywords in the game already.  Amalgam is another keyword in contention for the top, and Vee and Herbert both seem really strong.  It’s not universal – I think Redchapel is one of the top keywords in GG4, and both of their models seem fine but not actively broken – but it is a bit noticeable that some of the strongest new hires are in keywords already doing the best.

Maybe that’s inevitable, to a degree – a keyword is often strong because the designers have figured out what makes it tick, and so its models are all well-designed and fit for purpose.  But it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and having a wealth of options just pushes these keywords farther from the pack than they already were.

Ceddra’s Probably a Problem

There’s only one model in the book that I can say with confidence needs errata.  Ceddra kind of does everything, to an extent that’s actually rather shocking.  She reads like a Madness model that got delayed.  It’s not just the self-synergy, though it’s astonishingly strong (and, frankly, needless – like, why does she get a free Ice Pillar each activation just for showing up)?  It’s also that her card is a classic example of what I call Rask Syndrome.

go away! go away, you horrible thing! Credit: Wyrd Games

Named after a Warmahordes model of old, Rask Syndrome is an affliction that causes cards to grow more text every time you look at them.  Why does Ceddra have Demise (Eternal)?  Why is her melee attack a Stat 6 3/4/5 with good triggers?  Why can her tactical action target herself?  Why does her human form randomly have one of the best ranged attacks in the game?  Why any of this?

Ceddra is going to show up out of keyword everywhere until she gets fixed, and that’s annoying.  It makes Arcanists a lot stronger in the Bans format, too, since now you can’t ban both Performer (for the Coryphee Duet) and December.  So something’s going to slip through.

The Ugly

What Are We Doing Here, Guys?

On the other end of the scale from the Rich Get Richer problem, there are some models here that are… well…

Wyrd, listen to me.  What does the Kin keyword actually do?  What are they for?  What are they supposed to be good at?  I understand that Ophelia was a bit of an NPE, but taking brutal, over-the-top nerfs to her best two models and her better title has left her in a bad, bad place.  Kin is in rough shape right now, and the Ashes releases really don’t do anything to fix that.  For one thing, they’re both pretty bad (although I can see a home for the Swine Twirler sometimes)… but for another, they don’t even read like Kin models at all.  I sort of see the Sooey/Pig synergy.  But Kin?  What about those models is remotely Kin?  Aside from being bad?  Is that their keyword identity?

There are a couple of other examples in this book but that’s the one I keep coming back to.  Frontier is another (though I do think Clipper does at least make an effort to synergize, he reads much more like an Augmented model).  The flip side of the design effect described above is that sometimes weak keywords are weak because the designers don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing or why, and unfortunately the Kin models in this book showcase that all too well.

Beware of Bloat

Malifaux’s a great game.  It’s one of the best miniature wargames I’ve ever played.  It’s also small, with a dedicated following, but without the reach and breadth of Warhammer (or even some of its larger competitors).  Staying alive is never a guarantee in this bracket.  Games can die.  And while I think Malifaux is well-managed (especially compared to some of its fallen comrades), it is struggling against one of the biggest nemeses of any game: bloat.

Foetid Bloat Drone
no, not like that. Credit: Rockfish

There are now 791 unique models in Malifaux, not counting the Dead Man’s Hand.  Sure, core boxes contain (usually) four different models, and most others are solid in boxes that package 2-4 different cards, but that’s still a ton of SKUs.  That makes the game hard to stock, and it intimidates new players, too.

Malifaux is a hugely complex game, probably the most complex modern wargame – certainly the most complex skirmish game.  The sheer profusion of combinations and corner-cases is out of control.  And that kind of thing is intimidating to new players, especially since Malifaux also has a notoriously high skill ceiling, meaning a new player whose sparring partner isn’t taking it easy on them is going to lose a lot.  There are ways around that, of course, but the sheer sprawl of the game makes every potential fix harder.

I don’t think it’s necessarily time for Mk 4.  But I do think it’s time to think about that, and think about what changes might have to be made.  Collapsing a big roster is hard, and as any Stormcast or Beasts of Chaos player can tell you, it can be extremely painful (for you).  There are other options – my favorite is to fold multiple existing models into one, and then let the various different sculpts survive as alternate sculpts for the new character.  But this isn’t a problem that solves itself or goes away on its own.

Adding It All Up

Malifaux players could be forgiven, I think, for a little trepidation around new releases.  We’ve been hurt before.  But Ashes seems like it’s going to be much healthier for the game than Madness or Burns were, and the models are also releasing at a brisk clip (so we won’t be waiting a literal year for all of our boxes to be out, I hope).  I’m very positive about this release.  I don’t know if we have another book coming before M4E, and I wouldn’t be surprised either way, but if we don’t, this is a great one to go out on.

What do you think?  Are you pumped to get your hands on the new goodies?  Anything you’re particularly looking forward to/dreading?  Drop a comment and share your thoughts!

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