In part four of our Review of Liber Imperium, the new beast of a book for Horus Heresy, we take a look at the Divisio Assassinorum. Thanks to Games Workshop for providing us with a free copy of the book to write this review.
When a faction expands its range by 75% in a single book, you know you’ve hit the big leagues. Let’s check out the newest sneaky bois in the 31st millennium, the Divisio Assassinorum!
A secret force of, well, assassins, the Divisio Assassinorum was controlled by Malcador the Sigillite, Regent of Terra, to remove those obstacles to Unity that couldn’t be solved by sheer brute force. Their first full supplement was Codex: Assassins for Third Edition 40k in 1999, coming in at a whopping ten pages. Until now we haven’t seen them on the battlefields of the Horus Heresy, despite being in the lore since pretty much day one. If you’re looking for some good books on them, John French’s Tallarn and James Swallow’s Nemesis are the two big ones set during the Age of Darkness, while Robert Rath’s excellent Assassinorum Kingmaker is a fascinating look at how a kill-team might work on an Imperial Knight household where they can’t just rock up and kill everyone, and Ian Watson’s Inquisition War takes a shall we say unique look at the Callidus temple.
So, how do they fare on the tabletop?
Bottom line up front
Assassins are… not great. You’ve got a variety of options for how you want to spend your 125 points (each assassin costs the same), but none of them pack much of a punch and all of them are likely to die before achieving their mission. We’d have loved for a scenario to take advantage of a full Execution Force a la Nemesis and the surprisingly fun 40k board game, or a unique force organisation chart to just run them all together, but it was not to be. Warhammer 30,000 is an incredibly killy game, and there’s very little in this game that can’t do two or three wounds to a model with a 4+ save. With a poor average statline across the board, you’re also not going to be really worrying most characters. You know, the heroes and villains Assassins are supposed to be up against.
There’s only seven models to look at here, so let’s not waste any time.
Playing with Assassins
Making Traitors a little sad, but representing Malcador’s control, you can add a single Assassin into any Loyalist army, taking up a valuable HQ slot. Assassins are, unsurprisingly, Distrusted Allies which means you can’t join them to units. This is wildly unhelpful because Assassins are so freaking fragile, with only two or three wounds and 4+ saves – something that could be greatly mitigated if they could join a unit. We’re only a little bit into this review but we want you to bear this in mind – fragility is the defining trait of these units. Every assassin has both Infiltrate and Scout, so getting them where they need to be will be no real hassle – we’re just not entirely sure what they’re expected to do when they arrive. Doubling down on their unit shenanigans, their unique unit-type (Assassin) means they ignore all penalties when moving and charging, and automatically pass Dangerous Terrain checks, so you’re never slowing them down.
While all six Assassins in this book have the Loyalist special rule, the Liber specifically calls out the existence of future non-Loyalist Assassins. Thanks to The Shadow of Death, you gain an extra VP if your assassin kills a character, independent character or primarch in missions where you’d gain VP for them normally. This rule is almost always going to be in play thanks to Slay the Warlord, but you’d likely also gain an extra VP in Blood Feud if you managed to kill a Sergeant as the final model left in their unit, or a Fury of the Ancients dreadnought character. An edge case, to be sure, but a welcome one.
Tactical Displacement Advanced Reaction
Your unique reaction! Unlike Legion unique reactions, Tactical Displacement can be used every turn in the shooting phase when your Assassin is targeted by an enemy shooting attack and allows your Assassin to immediately move twice their Initiative. You aren’t impeded by Impassable Terrain here, and nothing that reduces your movement will affect you. If the model can no longer be targeted (because, for example, you’ve moved out of line of sight or range) the shooting unit can’t change targets. Congratulations, you now have a vastly superior and every turn version of the Alpha Legion’s Smoke and Mirrors, already one of the most aggravating advanced reactions in the game. This goes a long way towards keeping your Assassin alive, the squishy two to three wound beastie that they are.
While this hugely mitigates the threat from shooting, the biggest vulnerability of your assassins is the Overwatch and Return Fire reactions. Your melee Assassins can get close just fine, but even a basic Tactical Squad is probably going to shred any of them with just bolter fire, while your dakka Assassins are probably going down just as easily – your Vindicare may happily murk a valuable Apothecary, but the unit escorting it is going to make you pay, since Tactical Displacement occurs in your opponent’s shooting phase. And sure, you can entirely mitigate a single unit shooting at you, but you know what most armies have? More than one unit.
Clade Vindicare Assassin
Your traditional sniper, Vindicare Assassins roll into town a frankly unnecessary Ballistic Skill 8, with most Primarchs coming in at a pathetic BS6. If this doesn’t give you a slight hint at what the man with the longest gun might do, the Vindicare goes all in with a Trajector Auspex Array to ignore all rules which limit range or to hit roles, always hitting on a 2+ with a frankly absurd 100” range Exitus Rifle. The rifle itself is a single shot Heavy, Strength 7 and AP2, with Murderous Strike on a 5+. This would be great, and I’d love to sit around sniping out characters all day, but there’s no way here (unlike with Vindicares in 40k) to negate invulnerable saves, so you’re reduced to plinking off sergeants, or gambling your entire turn’s attack on a beefier model failing their invulnerable save. If you need to move, the Exitus Pistol is fine, being a 3 shot Sniper Pistol with Breaching 6+, but if a bad guy is close enough that you need to run away, it probably won’t save you.
Thats, uh. That’s it. He has a single big shot for 125 points and in a world where any army can get five Recon Marines with Nemesis Bolters for 135, he’s going to be very pretty on a shelf.
Clade Culexus Assassin
An anti psyker Assassin, we expect this fella to become increasingly useful as the meta develops and people start working out how nasty psykers can be – or we see daemons entering the fray! Enemies can only target the Assassin with Snap Shots, which, combined with Tactical Displacement, makes them functionally immune to shooting. This alone is probably what’s going to make this fellow see the most use – when you’re almost guaranteed to fall to a stiff breeze of bolter fire, every little bit helps. Adamantium Will 3+ is an interesting choice since Culexus are also Anathema and thus simply cannot be targetted by psychic powers. Force Weapons and Psychic Weapons equally can’t affect Anathema, so we’re not entirely sure why this is here; maybe just to get you that sweet 3+ save against Force Weapons attacking as basic Power Weapons? Much, much more usefully, having Psyk-out grenades means that if you charge any unit that has a Psyker or Daemon in it, that unit can’t make Reactions. Will the Culexus do much? No, but whoever you send in with them will.
Offensively, you’re AP2 in melee, but only WS4 and lacking Brutal so you’re not going to be hitting too hard, which is a problem because your ranged weapon is a S4 template. Yes, it’s Rending 6+ and Psy-Shock (causing an automatic Perils of the Warp on Daemons and Psykers) but that’s… not great for a unit immediately primed to evaporate. For some reason the Animus Speculum also has the Force special rule, but can’t actually use it because he’s not a psyker. Let’s ignore the weird fact that the soulless anti-psychic abomination is carrying around a weapon that can only be used by psykers and focus on how he’s got Fear (2) instead. That’s good, right? Right?
Clade Callidus Assassin
A polymorphined up, chameleonic terror, Callidus have traditionally had some way to meaningfully impact the battlefield and mess with your opponent’s plans before the game even started. This is not the case, apparently, in 30k. Reign of Confusion, her only such rule, means that if your enemy successfully Seizes the Initiative from you, they have to reroll. While this is unlikely (you’ll be trying it yourself half the time, and only succeeding one in six times) this can be incredibly aggravating. With the increasing prevalence of the Recon Company Rite of War, the Callidus could see her time to shine, functionally cancelling out the Seize reroll benefit the Rite brings to the table.
A Callidus Assassin can never be targetted by a Shooting Attack, Charge or Reaction until the Callidus makes her own Shooting Attack. Note that this does mean you can charge and murder every enemy model in the army and they can’t shoot at you, so long as you don’t pull out your gun. While you can’t be targetted if you haven’t shot, you’ve got a pretty good reason to want to shoot in your Neural Shredder, a template weapon that, while being Strength 1 with no AP, has Rending 5+ and, on a Wound roll of 6, inflicts a wound on the target with no saves or Damage Mitigation rolls allowed. Her Phase Sword has the same rule, while also being AP 1 but being only Strength 3 which is… less than helpful.
With only two wounds, the Callidus is an odd one – you want to use her to get in a good position to pop out the Neural Shredder, but once she does so she’ll likely be blown off the table or beaten down in melee, so you’re unlikely to get a lot of work out of her, and her battlefield effects are nowhere as interesting or useful as they have been in other editions of 40k.
Clade Eversor Assassin
The first of the beefy boys with three wounds and four attacks. More nastily, Initiative 6 means that you’re moving a full 12” if you get to use Tactical Displacement, and you’re striking before even Praetors. Thanks to Counter Attack you’re never getting fewer than five attacks even if charged, and each of those is at AP3 with Shred and Rending 6+, so you’re going to blend an awful lot of Marines. The Eversor is really a bully unit, and shines when punching down. Even if he dies, every model within D6” suffers a S4 AP3 Fleshbane hit, so even when you lose a combat, you still win.
With Frenzon Rage the Eversor can increase its attacks by up to three, but for every natural 1 you roll you’ll take a wound, which you can still save, so not much of a risk, and probably the only chance you have of winning whatever fight you’re in. The Executioner Pistol is mostly useful for granting the extra attack, being otherwise a bolt pistol and needle pistol. You’ll never do much damage, but the chance of Pinning a victim before making a charge is always nasty.
If this is sounding like the most optimistic we’ve been yet, that’s because it is. The Eversor is a beast and is likely the only Assassin we’re imagining seeing much use. For 125 points you’re going to murder a lot of Astartes – send in a squad of gunpigs to soak up overwatch, charge this fella in and watch the Marines fall. You’re still going to struggle against 2+ save units (though the Rending 6+ certainly helps) but pick the right unit and they just won’t be there anymore.
Clade Adamus Assassin
The new kid on the block, the Adamus is a katana wielding weeb with a bit of an identity problem. Death’s Artisan means you must always issue (but not necessarily accept) challenges, and you raise your Weapon Skill and Initiative to match your opponent. This sounds nasty, but if you’re in a challenge with WS or Initiative 6, you’re probably not making it out of there in one piece regardless of any buffs – you’re still only a 2 wound squishy with a 4+ save.
For absolutely no reason whatsoever, the Needlespine Blaster is literally just the Eversor’s Executioner Pistol on crack, making it a three shot bolt pistol and with the needle pistol wounding on 2+ instead of 3+. The gun also counts as a combi-weapon, calling out that you don’t need Firing Protocols to fire both components despite not needing those in the first place with combi-weapons, and doesn’t specify whether it’s a magna or minor combi-weapon so it’s unclear (by the rules) whether your three shot bolt pistol secondary weapon can only be fired once per game. Sure, why not. Why the rules can’t be the same as the Eversor’s Executioner Pistol (roughly ‘shoot both profiles or a single one, we don’t care’) we don’t know, but we suspect it might have something to do with the current global proofreading shortage.
In combat, the Nemesii Blade (aka, katana) is a S5, AP3 Rending 5+ sword, so, once more, pretty decent at killing units but not so much at killing characters, your true threat, and the one that you’re forced to seek out to challenge. To solve that you might want to call in a Decapitation Strike, trading in all your attacks for a single AP1 attack with Murderous Strike 2+. This sounds great, except you’re now Unwieldy (wasting half the bonus from Death’s Artisan and your natural Initiative 5), still missing half the time (since you’re probably matching with a character you want to kill), and every model you’d want to use this on will have at least a 5+ invulnerable save at worst. Those are… not great odds. Cool idea for sure, but needs a bit more to actually make it work.
Clade Venenum Assassin
Did we say Adamus had an identity crisis? Meet the Venenum, the one the Adamus is modelling his after. With your Unnatural Conditioning you’re immune to Rad-phage, rad grenades, or any other rule which reduces toughness, while Poison and Fleshbane can never wound on better than a 5+. The problem here is that pretty much anyone who carries those rules around is going to decimate a model with three wounds and a 4+ save. You’re no tougher against a blurt of bolter fire, and while your Poison Globes (stolen from Skaven, we assume) means that your opponent has to re-roll charges against the Venenum your only ranged weapon is a Toxin ejector, which, while nasty as basically a heavy bolter statted flamer with Poison 3+ and Rending 6+, if you’re that close to an enemy unit then that re-roll isn’t really going to help save you.
In melee the Venenum is a little more interesting, where your Hookfang is AP3 and Poison 3+, so you’re going to kill a couple of Marines, but the special rule The Venem really doesn’t interact well with it at all. If you inflict a wound on any model with the Hookfang, that model takes an extra wound on a 5+, rolled at the beginning of every battle round. This has the first problem of any model that cares about this has probably murdered the Venenum, and the Venenum… probably didn’t do anything back, because most of those scary multi wound models? 2+ save, which they still get as the Hookfang doesn’t have any way to mitigate it. Hilariously, the rule specifies that a model that dies from this rule doesn’t count as slain if it has Eternal Warrior so, y’know. Stop trying to poison Sigismund, I guess.
We love narrative options but what are they supposed to do?
Clade Vanus Assassin
The Vanus, star of Tallarn (still the best Alpha Legion book out there, don’t @ me), is the most rules-dense Assassin of the lot, with almost an entire page of wordy text to work through. First up, Auspectre means that Infiltrators can’t set up within 18” (bit of a Thallax flashback here), and you can use the Interceptor Advanced Reaction for free once per turn. This wouldn’t be that helpful, given the Vanus has two laspistols, except that the Vanus can choose to make a morale check to instead Intercept with any (all? A single? Who knows!) defensive weapon on a unit within 12”, using the Vanus’ BS of, uh, 4. Now, here’s the problem: Interceptor requires that the unit that uses the reaction be “within maximum range of at least one weapon in that unit”. This Vanus’ rule is pretty clear that the Vanus is the one doing the reaction which means… 12” laspistol range on this rule. Now clearly that’s not the intent of Auspectre, so you’re going to have to do that fun 30k thing again where you shake hands with your opponent and ignore the rule, and the cyber-possessed unit does the intercepting and shooting instead.
Next up we have Noospheric Interloper, taking a Leadership check instead of shooting. Failure means you suffer a wound, but success inflicts D3 wounds on an Automata within 12” with no armour or damage mitigation saves allowed. If that robot dies, you can pick another robot within 18” of the original target to take another D3 wounds, just in case you thought Mechanicum needed another kick while they were down. Autonomic Servo-limbs grants the Assassin Hit and Run once per battle, which is… interesting because we honestly can’t think of a lot of units who would take more than a single turn to just annihilate this dude in close combat. You’ve got S6 AP3 with Rending 4+ and Haywire in melee, so bullying tanks is certainly on the table, but just like the other Assassins you want to avoid being hit back. Finally, you’ve also got the freshly, uh, tweaked Vox-Disruptor Array, royally messing with any enemy reserves.
The most disappointing thing about the Vanus for me is the lost potential. Moving your opponent’s vehicles, maybe shooting with them, cancelling bonuses such as Vox or maybe even changing a Reaciton, these are all cool things which Vanus have been seen to do in the books, but here you’re reduced to ‘maybe shoot a defensive weapon at a deep striking unit’ or ‘do D3 wounds to a robot within 12” before you’re nuked off the table for being danger close’. In a game so heavily defined by narrative, why does the Vanus feel like a model that hasn’t graduated training yet?
Overall, the Assassins are a more than a tad disappointing. Remember, no matter how killy your assassin is is, you’re only (at best) a 3 wound model with a 4++ save, so unless you’re being body blocked by another squad who charged in with you (hopefully soaking up the Overwatch), you’re going to get squished on the return punch. Some (mostly the Eversor) can do some damage on the way in, but even a basic Tactical Squad has a damn good chance of putting them in the ground, and we’re yet to play a game where that 125 points isn’t better spent elsewhere.
Narratively, the Eversor again wins the ‘doing on the table what they do in the books’ award, with all three new Assassins winning the coveted ‘what are we actually doing here’ trophies. I’ve run each of these at least once so far, and other than the Eversor zooming around a Zone Mortalis game out of control before exploding to clear an objective with his final breath, the only other Assassin that’s come close to being useful has been a Culexus using his Psyk-out grenades to soak up overwatch for my Praetor’s unit to mangle a Librarian and his bodyguard.
Assassins are in a super weird place. They’re designed as lone killers, but need to hide behind Marines to avoid getting killed by Overwatch or curb-stomped by a tac squad. They’re meant to be designed to eliminate high value targets, but there’s a worrying dearth of AP2 combined with a stat line that couldn’t really take advantage of it anyway. They’re meant to be good at their job but I can’t think of a Centurion that can’t do more for roughly the same, or in many cases fewer, points. Look, the Adamus is gorgeous, and I’m so happy to see the Vanus, my favourite Assassin clade thanks to Tallarn, on the tabletop, but they just… need some work. It doesn’t mean we don’t love your murder babies, Malcador, it just means that this is still an Asartes’ world.