Magnagothica: Maleghast, or just Maleghast, is an indie skirmish scale war game developed by one person in a self-proclaimed fugue state over the course of about a month and change, as far as I’m able to tall by following the designer’s social media accounts, this time also importantly accounting for the production of all the original art assets in the rulebook.
In almost all cases, hearing that sentence about the creation of a game would make every muscle in my body tense in a fight-or-flight fear response.
Tabletop game development of any sort is rarely a quick process. It requires the creativity to know what makes a game appealing enough to catch someone’s eye and make you want to play the game, while also having the understanding of what makes your game fun to play for all players at a table. Both of those are rarely quick work, and usually require the time of several teams of people brainstorming, writing, drawing, revising, playtesting, revising again, and possibly even more writing before you’re in the ballpark of what audiences would agree on as a “good” game. Maleghast being put together in such a short time requires skimming or even skipping over several of these steps to approach something vaguely playable, let alone good. A single person being able to intuit all the aforementioned things required in development in that short a timeframe is a herculean effort.
There’s not a lot of people I think could pull this off. But if anyone can, its Lancer co-creator Tom Bloom.
I don’t know Tom personally, I only follow him on twitter and read his weekly updates of the webcomic Kill Six Billion Demons. I do know two things he’s very good at though: kickass art and writing good game mechanics. If Maleghast is going to succeed in being a good game in such a short time, both of these skills are going to be needed. Fortunately, Maleghast is rarely found wanting for good art direction or good game design, with plenty of blast beats and face-melting riffs along the way.
Bringing Maleghast to (Un)Life
An honest argument can be made that for its current retail value of $6.66, the Maleghast rulebook is worth picking up for the art and background alone.
The setting of Malghast is one heavily inspired by extreme metal and gothic horror. Maleghast takes place in a massive necropolis called Anzenmezzeron, a place where anything that dies is returned to life in a matter of days and great houses of necromancers vie for power between one another. The background of the setting is effective if not brief, but the short background for the games setting is more than made up for in the art.
The days of Tom Bloom’s artistic mastery at drawing some of the coolest shit I’ve seen in my life are certainly coming to a middle with Maleghast. The art of Maleghast doesn’t just wear its gothic and metal influences on its sleeve, it screams them at you from the page. It’s evocative and memorable, filled to bursting with death, decay, unholy symbology, and other necromancer things that make you say “Yo, that rips”.
The art is mostly in black and white for the book, and in many cases Bloom uses this to emphasize shadow in his work here. It’s especially noticeable in the unit portraits later on in the book, where some of the units for a necromancer crew have an almost unsettling quality to them, like they are emerging from the darkness with malicious intent, only making out the vague shape of a threatening creature that does not wish you well. Meanwhile, the full-sized art of the iconic necromancer for each house is rife with little details and splashes of color that make these pieces draw the eye right away. If you love the things that Maleghast draws influence from, the art is a slam dunk.
And the soundtrack. How could I not talk about the soundtrack?
Since the music of extreme metal is such a clear influence on this game, Maleghast at several points does a neat thing by adding in a “soundtrack”, which in reality is better thought of as a listening guide. A few of the big art pages in the background section of the book have a suggested song in the corner, and each of the necromancer great houses has a selection of three songs that act as a bespoke faction soundtrack. Some greats can be found here in the recommended listens inside Maleghast, like Cannibal Corpse, At the Gates, Revocation, and Cattle Decapitation. There’s no audio involved in the soundtrack of Maleghst, you can’t make music explode out from a PDF, but it’s a great touch that shows the heart that went into this game by Bloom. This is the devil music my mother warned me about and I love it.
Hell is Empty and the Devils are Here, Playing Wargames
Maleghast is a skirmish scale wargame meant to be played on virtual tabletops (though Tom has encouraged kitbashing models for the game on his twitter.) It takes place usually on a 8×8 grid between two necromancers and 5-10 other units on each side, and the game is played through alternating activations over six rounds. The goal of most games is very simple: kill the other necromancer to win. There are some variations of this scenario that’s expanded on in the book, but even in these missions taking out your opponent’s necromancer is almost always a secondary win condition.
The process of making a congregation of undead idiots for your necromancer has enough simplicity that picking whichever great house and units you think looks coolest and hopping into the game is pretty simple, but also containing enough meat on the game’s bones that there’s some real deliberations to be made in list building for games.
For a standard game, you pick five slots to accompany your necromancer in your black mass, and these units have a few different types. Thralls are basic units that you can get two of per slot, scions are specialists who enhance factions unique playstyles, freaks are support units, horrors are fast but fragile glass cannons, hunters are ranged DPS, and tyrants are 2×2 powerhouses that you can only take one of per black mass. Each great house has some variation in what their units do in these roles, all roles except thralls are limited in how many you can take, and each great house is lacking in one of these unit roles on their roster. Additionally, the Necromancer can take a few different traits and abilities at the listbuilding stage that will affect how you play, adding to the possible combinations to be tried out while playing Maleghast.
The six factions, each representing a different necromancer great house, also play differently from one another, further adding to the games depth. Each great house has a set of different unique mechanics and tags, as well as specializing in different types of tokens that represent buffs or debuffs in Maleghast. Some of the houses have very straightforward playstyles, C.A.R.C.A.S.S wants to shoot you with its operator-wannabe skeletons and Goregrinders wants to play an extremely fast and aggressive melee game and punch you in the teeth. Other houses show off Tom’s great strength as a game designer, which is creating interactions in combat that are interesting and powerful without just being all about attacking an opponent and damaging them.
Deadsouls is probably the clearest and best example of this. In the rulebook, the Deadsouls playstyle is described as “attritional skirmishers”, which at first seems a bit vague. Looking at their roster and abilities, Condit was able to better define Deadsouls playstyle in layman’s terms: “They’re the tricky fuckers”.
Building a Better Necromancer Trap
Deadsouls is rarely able to last long in a stand up fight. Despite having a high defense value, the value needed to roll a hit in Maleghast, their roster has generally lower HP and even when you miss in Maleghast you can still take damage from a graze. So, the Deadsouls playstyle is built around rarely actually engaging your opponent, but instead by placing walls on the battlefield and spreading weak tokens to reduce your opponents ability to see or hurt you. When you do engage, you often get bonuses by using the unique isolation special tag, which goes off when a unit has no adjacent allies.
Lastly, the big Deadsouls special mechanic is the doom mechanic. If a unit is affected by doom, they receive a doom token. If that unit does not clear the doom token by either cleaning negative tokens or slaying a unit by the end of round four, it takes a huge chunk of devil damage that can’t be ignored and will kill anything short of a Necromancer at full HP. And the Necromancer won’t be having a fun time if they survive.
So, the Deadsouls gameplan is to be figuratively and literally cagey. Hang just out of reach and engage as little as possible, while building up walls and spreading weak or doom tokens when you can. Isolating units by pulling them away from their allies (sometimes even through walls) or just trapping them with nowhere to go. Bide your time, do everything you can to avoid open engagement, pick your enemy apart one by one or let doom cut them down in one fell swoop, and go in for the kill when your opponent lacks enough gas to meaningfully keep knocking down your walls or engaging with your bullshit.
Almost all of the factions, to some degree, have these very interesting mechanics that focus on non-combat actions that feel like a worthwhile alternative to just “punch guy more”. The balance between each faction is remarkable as well given the games short development. While I think the aggressive melee Goregrinders and token-focused Igorii could use some small buffs, they still have plenty that can compete with the other four houses, and Tom Bloom has already put out one update for the game addressing balance changes. There’s no real systematic issue that can be abused to be found in the balance of Maleghast, which is wild considering how short of a time the game was made in.
The only real shortcoming I think Maleghast has is in its scenarios and maps, and its a strange criticism at that. What Maleghast already has as far as scenarios go isn’t bad, the games I played were all a great time. But when it came to things like example maps for what a basic game setup for Maleghast should look like or scenario play in general, I felt myself really wishing there was more here.
The special scenario missions called haunts are supposed to fill in for this, and the rulebook even encourages you to make your own scenarios. But three of the six scenarios are just special maps that bump you back to more basic scenarios, and another scenario is a very basic “kill more” scenario where you take extra damage in different parts of the map. If more content for Maleghast comes out in the future (which I dearly hope it does), I would like to see a piece of that content really dedicated to developing what playing around different win conditions would look like, with killing the enemy necromancer as an always present secondary win condition.
Overall, I think Maleghast is a great game and a seriously impressive effort on Tom Bloom’s part for creating this in such a short time period. It’s a delightful love-letter to the angriest music on earth with an excellent game behind it. Even if you just want to listen to the soundtrack built in to the game, if anything about extreme metal or gothic horror seems like something you want in your wargame you should pick up Maleghast on Tom Bloom’s itch.io page for $6.66 Even better if you listen to Withstand the Fall of Time while doing so.
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