Madness of Malifaux Finale: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Can’t believe it’s come to this… it seems like only yesterday we were previewing the Clampetts. We’ve covered every last model in Madness of Malifaux, and I wanted to pause here for a bit of a retrospective.  This is Wyrd’s second full release in the span of a year (or so), a pretty brisk pace for a small company – as I write this, there’s still one box from Malifaux Burns yet unreleased.  The next few months will see the Madness crews hit the streets, and before you know it we’ll be anticipating a new release again, but as this is the second full release cycle since I rejoined Malifaux I wanted to provide some seasoned perspective on it.

Overall, I love Madness of Malifaux.  I think Wyrd is hitting it out of the park creatively, and Malifaux’s like no other game I’ve played before.  I’ve been having a blast, but of course I wouldn’t be a wargamer if I didn’t have Thoughts to Share.  I’ll separate these into three: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  Classic Westerns are deeply embedded in Malifaux’s DNA, so it seemed appropriate.

I’ll preface these thoughts by saying that, as far as Malifaux goes, I’m a pretty competitive player.  I play in the Vassal Malifaux World Series events as well as on the tabletop, so that colors my perspective a bit.  Nothing I say should be taken as gospel; I’m just one incredibly talented, handsome, and brilliant Malifaux player.  But I’m the one with a column, so you get my opinion, delivered steaming fresh into your lap.

The Good

Let’s start with the Good, because there’s plenty of it.  There’ll be time to complain later.

Malifaux’s an amazing game, and part of that is the aesthetic.  On that score, Madness of Malifaux hits it out of the park.  There’s not a single crew in here that doesn’t look incredible.  Harold Tull’s Cavaliers are probably the closest thing the book has to an “ordinary looking” crew, and they’re incredibly distinctive, between the porcelain masks the Sappers and Rocketeers wear and Tull and John Watson’s military uniforms.  They even have Walter the cat and Frederick the bulldog!

Come on, how can you resist this lack-of-a-face? Credit: Wyrd Games

The rest of the crews are even cooler looking – Kastore’s Returned blend Neverborn and Resurrectionist influences perfectly, evoking the creepy, ritualistic side of the former and the nightmarish monstrous side of the latter.  The Clampetts embody classic Gremlin wackiness but with a strong nautical twist that gives them unique flavor.  Linh Ly’s Red Library models all seem otherworldly, but her Stories are the real show-stoppers – each one embodies a real-world legend, Malifaux-itized.  I even love Damian Ravencroft’s Witness models, as they really feel like the servants of an ancient power drawn together by circumstance and misfortune.

The gold medal winner, though, has to be Tiri.  Wyrd has taken the Aua, who basically appeared for less than a paragraph in one lore book, and fully fleshed them out into a tragic, fallen, but still fearsome race.  The blend of desert nomad and high tech works perfectly, and the Aua themselves look human enough to talk to but still alien and strange.  I cannot wait to get them on the table.

The rules design of the crews, too, is extremely cool, and it’s great to see that this late in the day Wyrd still has gas in the tank it comes to new crew concepts.  The Configuration and Ideal upgrades are wholly new, but despite their conceptual similarity play out in completely different ways.  The Clampetts are a marker crew, which we’ve seen plenty of before, but going for swarms of low-impact markers rather than a few high-impact ones makes them play totally differently.  Kastore’s overhealing feels much less gimmicky than you might think once you get it on the table, and Linh Ly takes a new approach to the old split-keyword problem and finds a way to make it feel fresh.  Even Tull, who is probably the most straightforward of the new masters, has a fun minigame in Assault Markers.

Finally, I really appreciate that they’re pushing the envelope on designs.  Between the Configuration, the Ideal upgrades, and even the subtler things like the Bally-Hoo Bucket’s “perma-concealment” upgrade to Tide Markers, there’s a lot of stuff in this expansion that’s super creative and fun to juggle.  Playing these crews feels good, just like it should.

The Bad

Of course, there has to be some downside to all this unbridled creative energy.

Balancing games is hard enough when the ruleset is much simpler.  Malifaux’s ruleset is very complex, with a lot of moving parts.  It’s also doubly hard when every new release has to both 1) improve the game as a whole and 2) sell models.

Given that, I don’t fault Wyrd for aiming high with each new release.  There’s nothing worse than releasing a crew to a lot of fanfare and it falling completely flat.  And they’re generally pretty regular with errata, which means problematic releases don’t stay problematic for long.

But there’s the ordinary rough-and-tumble of buffs and nerfs, and then there’s Damian.  Damian is way too strong, on multiple axes at once.  He has a hyper-efficient crew that breaks lots of core design rules.  Typically, for example, positive twists to damage are very hard to get… except Lohith just hands them out like candy.  Typically, triggers have powerful effects balanced by the randomness of the required suit… but he builds in triggers for his whole crew.  Most importantly, typically drawing cards is hard, something not everyone can do and something you have to spend AP for.  Witness draws a new card every time one of its models activates.  Yes, you also have to “discard” a card, but:

  1. Not really – it’s going into the Configuration, so you can still use it with Witness the In-Between or just to generate suits;
  2. It’s so easy to draw a card out of your configuration – you can just build in Prioritize and have your Gamin injure each other in the backfield – that you still end up adding 5+ cards to your hand every turn;
  3. A 1 or 2 in your hand is, barring an enemy with discard effects (not that common), not really a card.  A 10+ is.  If you draw a 10 and discard a 1, you have, for all practical purposes in 80+% of situations, drawn a card.

The net result of all this is a crew that is strong, very strong, maybe even too strong, but also draws 10+ cards a turn.  That makes Damian utterly unreasonable.

someone has to tell the hard truths. Credit (and blame): Wyrd Games

He’s not the only offender, though he is the worst.  Tiri’s Matron bullet is very hard to dodge, does outrageous damage, and also sits in a crew that draws 8+ cards a turn.  John Watson would be the game’s most efficient 9 stone enforcer, but he costs 7 stones.  The King’s Wall makes attacking Tull’s crew nightmarishly inefficient.  The less said about Harrison and Koji, the better.

I have faith that Wyrd will eventually fix these issues.  But Damian has been in the wild for six months, and his most egregious issues were clearly visible after 1.  He’ll get nerfed, sure, but by then will we be onto the next book?

The Ugly

I feel like I’ve made my point regarding power level, but there’s an underlying issue here that I want to raise – because even after the Madness releases’ power level is brought in line, this might still be here.

Malifaux is, as I have previously indicated, a really hard game.  It’s hard to get good at.  The top echelon is very competitive.  I lost a game this past weekend that I was heavily favored in because I made one minor <1″ positioning screwup.  That’s an extreme example, but the game is tough and extremely tight at the highest level.

There are a few things that we keep seeing on busted models.  Generating pass tokens is one of those things – it really makes me think that the design team undervalues them, because pass tokens are incredibly strong and the models that make them don’t seem to pay a great cost to do so.  Youko Hamasaki, Unseen is probably the strongest pre-Madness master, largely off the back of Cunning Patience (though drawing two 13s every turn doesn’t hurt).  Card draw, taken to excess, is another.  When you draw enough, you can afford to cheat every relevant flip, and it takes the variance out of the game.

with apologies to ward sutton. Credit: Wyrd Games, me, and the Onion.

I think that when the Madness models go back into the Balance Furnace to purge their impurities, it’s worth taking a moment to think about who else deserves a trip in there.  Jin Baccara, Youko2, Yannic Waller… all of these models fundamentally break resource parity with pass tokens and cards, and they show up in the game’s most busted crews.  It’s really worth thinking about whether these areas of design are a bit dangerous.

Beyond that, I’d like to see more frequent FAQs.  Errata is one thing – it’s complicated and difficult, it takes time to get right.  But there are crews right now where we simply don’t know how the core mechanic functions.  The Clampetts are the biggest example: Use ‘Em As Bait has a unique “comes into base contact with a Tide Marker” wording.  The easiest and most common way the crew generates Tide Markers is by dropping them with Inclement Weather.  Is that supposed to trigger Use ‘Em As Bait?

Right now we have no idea, and that’s the central thing this particular crew does.  Does their core mechanic work one way or another?  That’s hugely determinative of the crew’s power level, and the Clampetts are fresh enough that I’m sure Wyrd knows which way they intended Use ‘Em As Bait to function.  We shouldn’t have to wait until the next errata cycle to understand how the crew’s central mechanic actually works.

Back to the Good!

Phew, ok.  We got the negative stuff out of the way.  I always like to make a compliment sandwich, and I think Wyrd have been good enough to deserve a delicious one.  Malifaux Third Edition is a great game, my favorite I’ve ever played – and I’ve played a lot.  I remember when Malifaux first came out: I was a Warmachine/Hordes tournament grinder, and at first I didn’t want anything to do with this weird, card-based skirmish game.  Little by little I came around, and by the time Storm of Shadows dropped at Gencon I was hooked.  I still have my old metal first edition Hoffman crew, Ophelia crew, and even tiny metal Lucius and his weirdos.  I’ve played far more Third Edition than I ever played of Second or First, and I want nothing more than for the game to succeed.

Madness of Malifaux is a really cool release.  Dual-faction crews are one of best parts of Third Edition, and the two we got here are real home runs: they play so differently between their factions that I’m excited to try all four combinations.  The Starter Boxes are another really neat edition, and while the two here definitely need to be toned down, they’re dripping with flavor.  (Can we please have a new Explorer’s Society starter, though?  The lack of keyword synergy is a bit odd!).

The Clampetts are, at time of writing, coming out in 2-3 weeks, and I am frantically clearing my painting desk to get ready for them.  In the meantime, I’m playing as much Malifaux as I can.  I encourage you to join me!  Join me!  JOIN ME!  READ THE BLESSED FLAMMAE!  HEAR THE WORDS OF THE MASTER!  THE BURNING MAN CALLS! 

Or, you know, something like that.

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