Carnevale: Vicious Fighting Along the Canals of Venice

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Carnevale: Vicious fighting along the canals of Venice

Disclaimer: The starter set in this review was provided to Goonhammer.com by TTCombat. 

Europe was forever changed when a mysterious visitor bringing the secrets of magic was slain by the Vatican, levelling the city of Rome, plunging most of Italy below the sea and wrecking havoc across Europe. The powers of the Mediterranean and wider Europe are reeling, starvation haunts the lands and chaos spreads. Sheltered from the cataclysm, Venice which had fallen into ruin and irrelevance finds itself in a position to restore its fortunes. With control over the Mediterranean thanks to the destruction of other naval powers and the eradication of other Italian cities, the Serene Republic rises once more. Trade brings in a flood of new people, and power struggles erupt. 

The rent in the sky that was opened by the cataclysm shines a baleful light onto the city. Now it never truly sleeps, being trapped in a terrible perpetual twilight. A sense of doom pervades all, and magic and horror reawakens among the canals and streets of the city. 

The worshippers of Dagon, and their inhuman masters, plot under the cover of charity. The Guild, a federation of criminal enterprises exerts its influence. Dracula, the Impaler, has awoken and travelled to Venice to learn it’s secrets and to attack and dethrone God. The Patricians, the nobles the city, have driven themselves into madness and debauchery, fuelled by the terrible oppressive foreboding and their desperation to hold onto their power. The Vatican, reborn in France thanks to stolen magics, wages a holy war to reclaim it’s influence. The secretive doctors that once looked to cure the madness brought in by the rent in the sky now harness it, abducting people off the streets to serve as subjects of their experiments.

This maddened sleepless fervour, the endless blend of days and night, the pulsing unnatural light of the rent in the sky: in the face of this why not live for tonight? That’s why two years ago when Easter arrived the Carnevale did not end, and has not yet finished. Every night is soaked in alcohol and desperate frivolity, as the city loses all sense of time and place. It is 1795 and the end seems close.

Welcome to Carnevale, one of the most compelling and beguiling miniatures games we’ve encountered to date.

What is Carnevale?

Full Carnevale Board

Published by TTCombat, Carnevale is a narrative skirmish miniatures game where each player takes control of a small handful of miniatures (usually around ten) representing one of the factions fighting for control of Venice. The unusual architecture of Venice is used to full effect, with canals and buildings playing an essential role. Characters will climb, jump and swim around the board to find an advantage as they battle it out.

In this article we’ll be reviewing the rules of the game and how it plays, and also looking at the Starter Box which provides an excellent entryway into getting started. We won’t be covering any if the factions in great detail here, as in the coming weeks we’ll be publishing a faction focus article for each of them. We’ll also be interviewing Lewis Clarke, the lead developer of the game, and looking at how to build a board depicting the iconic city of Venice.

The Rules

Carnevale is built on a comparatively simple ruleset, but a robust one that allows for lots of interesting play. It also ably supports the myriad abilities and special actions available to characters, which lets them be really distinctive and flavourful without breaking the game.

Core mechanics

At its core the game is very simple (this is in no way a criticism): players take turns activating characters (models) on the board. These characters have a certain number of action points to spend when they are activated, and different types of action have different costs in terms of the number of action points spent to actually do. The number of action points available is usually 2, though leaders and some heroes have 3 – a substantial but not overwhelming advantage. 3 action point characters are naturally more capable, with their big advantage being able to chain together more actions, allowing for pretty impressive hit and run play, or buffing while also engaging the enemy.

Actions are pretty much as you might expect – attacking, moving, climbing, using magic and so on. There are a few that are worth picking out however – swimming has a set of actions related to it which are very important with the prominence of canals in the game. Dive in particular gives amphibious characters an enormously powerful way to navigate the board at speed, albeit limited to water. Another action that’s worth calling out here is the chain jump, which is a 0 action cost manoeuvre that can be used once per activation after a jump action is successfully used. This lets you hop across canals effectively in a single action, if you’re leaping to a gondola or something similar and then out again. It also lets you chain jumps across rooftops, giving a great use of the environment.

Jumping is also worth talking about because jumping down is very important. Firstly it lets you reduce falling damage, but more importantly (from my perspective anyway) jumping down onto an enemy is a viciously effective tactic, letting you do more damage and really turning an acrobatic character into a power house with decent setup.

When the outcome of an action is in doubt, you’ll make a test. Tests involve rolling a number of ten-sided dice equal to the appropriate stat of the character, and looking for a target number on each. The target number is usually 7 but it can go up and down depending on circumstances and special effects, and in combat is set by your enemy’s ability to defend themselves. Opposed checks mostly involve reducing successes (dice showing the target number or above) by the number achieved by your opponent. One die you roll is always the destiny die, which tells you if you have a critical or fumble on the check depending on outcome.

Combat

Combat is an interesting factor because it works a little different from other actions, but still sits in the same core mechanics. The target number of rolls depends on your opponent’s stats. Perhaps unusually there’s no particular distinction in the rules between ranged and melee weapons. Weapons have a range associated, which can be 0″ and therefore need base to base contact, and as long as you’re in range you can attack. Attacks of opportunity are also important, because if you’re entitled to one it can be within the range of your weapon, which can be considerable in the right circumstances. Charging is handled by giving a free attack of opportunity to a character moving into base to base contact with an enemy, making it just a natural part of the rules. The same is true for disengaging – if you leave combat, then you roll off with your opponent and they may get an attack of opportunity against you. This is all very elegant and easy to grasp, making combat a smooth function.

Taking damage is very simple too – characters have life points, and suffering damage reduces these. If they hit zero, the character is removed as a casualty. They can be subject to a bunch of other effects too – stunning is the most important, which generally makes characters less effective for a while, but in water is much more overtly dangerous. Drowning is a surprisingly big part of combat too, particularly for the Rashaar – drag your enemy into the water and drown them is a tactic that works shockingly frequently.

Command and Will

So far there’s not much to make Carnevale’s rules stand out, but the real meat of the game is in the special rules on units and on command and will.

Will is a measure of a character’s personal focus and determination, as well as magical aptitude. Will points are a pool each character has to call on throughout the game. They can be used in three ways: the boost rolls, to cast spells, and to activate some special abilities. Generally will points are fuel for magic, or to boost rolls by rolling extra dice.

Command points are more significant, and generated only by a select few characters. They represent the control and coordination of the gang, and they can be used in a bunch of different ways. The most common is that a command point can be spent to give another character an extra action point on their activation (to a max of three). This lets you suddenly boost less powerful characters and make them a presence on the board in an unexpected way. You can also use them to make out of sequence actions with your characters – effectively interrupting your opponent’s go to act in unexpected ways. This happens before attacks of opportunity, so you can use it to back off out of combat, fire a gun at a charging enemy, reposition out of line of sight, and so on. You can also spend them at the start of the game to redraw agendas (objectives).

Perhaps the coolest thing you can do with them, however, is use command abilities. These are special abilities that characters possess, and each faction has a generic one that can be used to. These have enormous flavour, and careful use of them can have an enormous impact on the game. Even the faction-specific (rather than character-specific) ones do a huge amount to differentiate play between the different factions in the game – Patricians, for example, have a fiercely effective buffing ability making their leaders powerhouses in combat, while the Rashaar can gain will points by sucking the life out of enemies (or allies), and the guild can reroll just a ton of dice. These all give a lot of flair to factions, and there are specific command abilities on characters too (so the Fencing Master improves penetration on melee attacks for friendly models, for example).

One note: these command abilities are not in the rulebook. There’s a full gang builder online for free, with all the unit cards and the faction special abilities baked in. It’s not immediately obvious this is where you need to be looking, but since you’ll need it to build a gang at all it doesn’t take too long to work out.

Magic

Some characters can cast spells, and there are a bunch of magical disciplines to choose from. These are not, in of themselves, game-breaking powers. These are not the mighty sorceries that will wreck the world, but instead subtle twists of magic and thematic oddities. They’re useful and powerful, but not definitional – you’ll likely want some way of combatting sorcery on the table, even if you don’t bring any of your own, but ultimately you can probably survive if you don’t. Different characters have access to different disciplines of magic, choosing spells from within one, and almost all of them are useful in some way. Using magic effectively is often about working out how to combine it with the special abilities and command abilities of other characters.

I actually like this approach to magic – all too often magic either just feels like a flavoured gun, simple buffs that don’t tie into much, or are way too powerful and impactful. It’s a nice balance, and the way in which magic can make effects build is unmatched, meaning that the careful application of sorcery is very effective, but just throwing the odd cantrip around isn’t going to tip the balance too much. Magic is a resource to control and use carefully to make the most of it.

Missions and campaigns

There are a lot of missions in the core rulebook – like, an unusually large number for a game like this. This is fantastic, and is partly because the missions are organised into campaigns. There are absolutely lots you can just run for one-off play (and it’s clearly intended that this is the case), but they’re organised into one general campaign (which is a good grab bag of missions to play with any factions) and then a faction-specific campaign for each of the major factions, where one player plays that faction and the other can play any other(s). There are also missions for 3 and 4 players, meaning that this is a hugely flexible selection.

Missions broadly have a main objective and then you can win supplementary victory points by accomplishing agendas. These are little narrative hooks (like “drown an enemy”) that push your play in particular directions. This is a fun way of mixing things up, and potentially encouraging some exciting play that otherwise might not happen every game.

There are also rules for legacy campaigns, which are optional, where you characters earn experience and can grow, improve (and also lose limbs, etc). It’s very Mordheim and I love it.

The Starter Box

The Starter Box itself is a strange experience. From the outside it’s an elegant product, the mask illustrations set against a dark background, but it’s not a luxury experience. The card is relatively cheap, and opening it up the interior is bare brown card sheeting, plain boxes with handwritten labels and the components film wrapped without any particular pretence. Once you start going through the contents however it becomes clear this was a choice – cutting corners on the stuff that, ultimately, doesn’t really matter in order to pack it to the gills with an absolute astonishing amount of stuff.

Starting with the incidental stuff, there are plentiful dice, tokens, templates and all the other bits and pieces you’d hope for in a starter box. Tokens are acrylic rather than card, making them far more resilient. The thing that’s most surprising in some ways is a lot of what’s contained would be the luxury upgrade version in other games.

The Rulebook

The thing that strikes you first about the rulebook is the cover art which, like the art throughout, is striking and beautiful. Venice has such a distinct aesthetic, and the decision to lean into this even when it wasn’t historically accurate, really pays off in the artwork and overall design of the product.

The second thing that strikes you is that this is a substantial book – no simple rulebook of a few dozen pages, this is a hefty glossy and sense book. Full colour artwork is lavishly strewn throughout its pages, and it’s of a remarkably consistent and high quality. It’s punctuated with photos of models in situ, which I like a little less – the studio paint scheme is certainly striking, but feels very flat and smooth in a way that doesn’t suit the chaotic rotting grandeur of the setting.

Reading the lore and background material provided is a enjoyable experience. The quality of the writing is high, and it’s clearly been proofed and edited to a high standard. It’s also compelling in a way that I wasn’t necessarily expecting – the broad strokes are rather striking and almost crude in their directness, but the details that accompany them transform the setting into something with a huge amount of depth. 

The basics (a vast explosion that levels Rome and the following cataclysm) are easy enough to grasp, but the book then leads you through the logical and intriguing consequences. It seems to understand cause and effect in a way many fantasy settings miss – the world is obviously different in almost every way because of this cataclysmic diversion from history. It doesn’t shy away from that, and though the setting has a lot that is familiar it is definitely not our world. It is alien and terrible in a way not immediately obvious.

The setting is, to my surprise, one of the darkest and most horrifying I’ve seen for a wargame. Many other games have seemingly more hellish settings, but this is not a world whose horror is told to you, but instead shown. Each thread, explicable and believable, draws together with every other, to weave a terrible nightmare that is unpleasantly familiar and identifiable. There are almost no elements in the backstory that do not feel like the way people would genuinely react to the circumstances. As such, the terrible world that results pulls on a hundred little threads of seeing how we might get there.

This might sound easy, but to tie all of this into a coherent and cohesive whole that still serves your game is a herculean task. The end result is a lurid, vicious, ethereal nightmare of a setting. The people in it are pushed past normality into madness and inhumanity, but in a way that stays grounded. The Guild fight their war in the streets because the people are starving, and there’s money to be made. The Patricians, pushed to constant wakefulness by the terrible light of the rent in the sky, fall into greater and greater debauchery to attempt to distract themselves. The Doctors slowly twist their purpose from aiding those afflicted to using them. The Vatican, shattered, belligerently attempts to claw back its power. 

Even the more overtly inhuman factions mostly have known visible motivations and they act in a way that makes sense. Dracula and the Strigoi are in service to his vision to attack and dethrone God. The Rashaar cloak their activities in charity and piety so desperately hungered for by the poor. Their motivations may be mysterious, but their methods are familiar and explicable.

The end result is Venice resurgent, for reasons that make sense and are coherent. But this is a Venice permeated by madness, and the sense of desperate lunatic revelry of a carnevale two years in is palpable from the pages. There are mysteries littered throughout the text, but they all feel like mysteries thematically at home. It’s mentioned that at the height of chaos, as the city is on the brink of starvation and order is about to finally collapse for good, ships arrive with food and stores, that are sold for nearly nothing. They disappear again, their origins unclear. It’s a mystery not with no answers, but too many. There are far too many explanations for these events, and all of them are terrible and foreboding. This is masterful world building, weaving a setting together to serve the narrative but without any discordant or jarring notes.

The rules we’ve covered elsewhere, but they are written and communicated clearly and easily. The layout is clean and easy to follow, and there’s a good index. Where necessary the rules are illustrated with diagrams that are extremely well done, making it much easier to follow than many other rulebooks.

The Terrain

Whenever you have a skirmish game that needs a packed table it’s often a real challenge to get people on board. The terrain requirements are enough that it’s a huge barrier to entry, and that can make it difficult for new players to start playing – you have to really invest an enormous amount to get up and running. Carnevale’s solution is to provide a full table of card terrain and boards providing you with literally everything you need to get up and running. Well, almost everything (we’ll get into that in a minute).

The card terrain is of an extremely high quality – stiff and thick card, good adhesion where it’s been glued together, and super easy to assemble. The designs are lovely and they really look great on the table. The tiles are also absolutely excellent – very nicely made, beautiful designs and double sided for more options. If you only ever played on this terrain I think you’d have an attractive table with great options and variety. They also sell it separately in case you want to beef up your options, or create larger layouts, which is honestly fantastic.

You’ll also get some resin terrain, which is a surprising addition to a box like this. In the box you’ll find three mooring poles which can be placed in canals to provide points to chain jumps across, and a resin gondola model. The mooring poles are simple but effective,  and there’s not a huge amount to say about them – they come with little bases so you can position them however you like, but I’d be tempted to leave this off and sink them into a resin pour when you do one for the table (though this inevitably limits your layouts).

The resin gondola deserves more attention. I absolutely adore this model, and I love that gondolas are a significant part of the game. They’re such a wonderfully iconic feature of Venice that a game set there without them would feel odd. The mini itself is made of several pieces but it is very easy to assemble, and the end result is tremendous. I don’t think anything in this box quite brought me as much joy as this mini.

It is an odd addition though, for a number of reasons. Firstly, a resin mini like this seems an inordinately luxurious addition – I was expecting card tokens rather than full minis for the gondolas. That’s not a criticism though, it is an absolutely wonderful addition to the box. What is a criticism however is that including specifically one leaves you in a very odd situation. There are no card tokens for them, so you can’t run them without the models easily, but players place a gondola each when they start, meaning that you’ll almost never want just one. It leaves you with an incomplete experience, and it’s confusing that this was the decision made. It would have been better to include a second gondola, or to not include any and provide card tokens instead.

Having ordered a second Gondola to make up the pair left me with no regrets though. There’s an adorable little range of options for them, from cargo boats to funeral gondolas, and I’ll probably end up with one of each.

The Miniatures

The factions in the starter box are the Guild and the Rashaar. We’ll be covering each of them in their own faction focus in the upcoming weeks, but it’s worth looking at the minis as they come in the starter box for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there is a really well considered and well thought-out selection included. These are 100 ducat gangs for each faction, meaning you can play a full game just with what’s in the box (several of the missions are for 100 ducats, and these are absolutely “the full game” in every way). Even better almost all of the faction boxes are 50-70 ducats of models, meaning grabbing just one will bump you up to the largest game size of 150 ducats. In particular the Rabble Rousers and Deeper Denizens boxes aren’t just near-perfect ducat values to add, but combine with the playstyle and themes of the models in the core box perfectly.

The Guild of Thieves, who run the criminal underworld of Venice – credit Lupe

 

The Guild get a Capodecina as their leader; two fishermen as heroes; a gondolier and then four citizens. This is a really good encapsulation of the Guild as a faction in playstyle and theme – some professions who add some serious skills but in a particular areas, a rabble who are strong as a group but weak individually, and a leader who is an assassin dashing criminal capable of leaping between rooftops and leaping down onto their targets with their hidden blade sword. The gondolier is a good ferryman who can help speed up transit around the board (necessary when fighting the fast-swimming Rashaar) and the fishermen are both expert swimmers and specialists at taking down big monsters. The combination works really well and gives a lot of clear tactical options – the citizens to hold the line, the fishermen to tackle the monsters, the gondolier to help get everyone where they need to be and the Capodecina to run across rooftops and then jump off to stick a blade in the magi-rashaar who leads their foes. The Rabble Rousers are a great complement to this, adding some ranged punch in the form of the Arbalest and the two recruiters, who also enhance the citizenry further. You also get an extra citizen to add into the mob, and a gondolier for more boats. You can’t fit quite all of these into 150 ducats, and I’d probably leave the extra gondolier to one side.

The monstrous Rashaar, who lurk behind the charitable front of the Church of Dagon – credit Lupe

 

The Rashaar get a Magi-Rashaar to lead them; three slaves as chow for the fish monsters; two lesser Ugdru; and the hulking Raadru. Again this is a great, if slightly more one note, representation of what this faction is like. Big fish monsters, magical support from the priests, and some tasty humans to eat. The Ugdru and the Raadru are your real combatants here, but that’s enough to scare anyone – they’re fast, strong and fullt acquatic, making them very different to predict. Along canals they’re absurdly fast, and they can pull enemies into the water and drown them really very effectively. The Magi-Rashaar is also intimidating, able to throw out spells that, in the starter box, the Guild just can’t counter easily. It makes him a distinct and intriguing threat, and gives a good introduction to the powers (and perils) of magic in the game. Deeper Denizens adds another slave (delicious), another Raadru (terrifying) and two hybrids, who are a really good addition to round out a full 150 ducat list. They’re not nearly as big and scary as their larger siblings, but they’re more adaptable and less tied to the water to be effective. You’re absolutely leaning into the “giant fish monster” theme with two Raadru in a list, but that’s not a bad thing. Altogether it’s bang on 150 ducats, so this is a fantastic way to get up and running with the larger games.

The miniatures are of very similar quality to everything else in the range – well-casted resin, nice detailed sculpts, a few holes and slips to clean up (we’ll put putting out a full article on how to handle resin and get it looking great in the next few weeks), but overall easy enough to work with. My big grip is that except for the fish monsters all these come with slot bases and slots on the sculpt. None of the other miniatures in the range come with this, and I think it’s to try and make it easier for people to get started with them. But this is a right pain in truth – taking them off the slots and posing them onto bases normally is possible in theory, and I did it for some of the minis, but there are some where the contact points would make it very difficult indeed. This bugs me because I picked up some of their lovely resin cobblestone bases, but some of my minis are inevitably not based in the same way, and it’s a little incongruent when put as a group. It’s a minor quibble at the end of the day, but it is a mark against the set.

One last thing worth noting is that this miniatures are unique sculpts. You aren’t going to end up duplicating models if you buy this and, say, the faction starter boxes. But, and this is really important, with the exception of the fishermen, none of these are exclusive model types. If you don’t want to buy this set you can still get a Magi-Rashaar, or a Capodecina, or citizens. I would personally say if you want to play these factions they’re a great thing to pick up to add variety to your available sculpts, but it’s a great balance between giving you something special for the starter box and not making it mandatory in a frustrating way.

Conclusions

Ultimately there is probably no better way to get into Carnevale than getting the Starter Box. There are many games where that’s not the case, but here TTCombat have done a stellar job making sure that the Starter Box isn’t just the best route in, it’s an absolute fantastic route in. From the perspective of getting a new player into the game and up and playing, I don’t think I can think of a box that’s better. It provides you with a full board with scenery, little terrain pieces, two good sized gangs able to drop you in a full game immediately, the full rulebook, and a bunch of tokens and accessories that are of surprisingly high quality. The packaging is a little odd and homemade, but if that’s the payoff for a starter this comprehensive and good for this low a price… fine. I’m absolutely fine with that. Sure thing.

Pros:

  • Two full gangs of great minis
  • A whole table of terrain with resin scenery pieces
  • High quality components
  • Great quality rulebook

Cons:

  • Gangs are mostly on slot fittings which doesn’t match the rest of the range
  • Needs an extra gondola
  • Packaging is a little rough and ready

The game itself is simple, but flexible and flavourful, really capturing the flavour of the city and the setting well. The rules are easy to learn, and I can’t imagine it will be long until they’re more or less committed to memory – and if they’re not, there are good quick reference print outs to help.

Pros:

  • Smooth and simple game mechanics
  • Cool use of overlapping effects and buffs through command, will and magic
  • Great selection of scenarios and ongoing campaigns

Cons:

  • Faction rules aren’t in the main rulebook, which can be confusing
  • Attacks of opportunity are a decent solution, but are easy to forget about in play

If Carnevale even slightly appeals to you, I encourage you enough to grab a copy. The rules are simple and streamlined, and the setting and background material is top notch. At £65/$85 (exchange correct at time of publication) with free worldwide shipping, it’s very very difficult to say no to the starter set. You can get a copy direct from the TTCombat website.

 

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