Malifaux: An Introduction

Gunslinging shades battle it out with stitched horrors amid ancient catacombs…

Winged demons descend on a Union picket line, only to be repulsed by waves of ice magic

Saffon-clad monks venture into the Bayou, only to stumble on a drunken Gremlin hoedown and a pack of vicious war pigs…

Welcome to Malifaux.
If you like weird westerns, genre mash-ups, and actual lore progression, you should check out the world of Malifaux. If you like tight, low-model-count skirmish games where both players are making meaningful decisions on every turn, you should check out the game of Malifaux. And if you like companies that proactively work to keep their game balanced and fresh and doesn’t have a high cost for entry, for the love of God check out Malifaux!

Credit: Wyrd Games

The World of Malifaux

Malifaux takes place in the early 20th century, in a world shaped by fate and magic. To combat the slow death of magic in our world a couple hundred years ago, a group of mages and shaman from all over the world gathered in Santa Fe, New Mexico to perform a ritual that would bring magic back to the world. The results were catastrophic—an explosion that leveled the city and killed most of the assembled practitioners. The survivors, however, found that they had succeeded… after a fashion.

Rather than revive Earthly magic, they had torn open a gigantic portal into an alternate dimension. Stepping through, they found themselves in a vast, abandoned city, its architecture both familiar and utterly bizarre—styles from all different Earthly cultures jumbled together with no rhyme or reason. This enormous city was utterly empty, but its former inhabitants had left behind its name, a name that was soon adopted for the world on the far side of the portal: Malifaux.

The first explorers found that the currents of magic in Malifaux were far stronger than anything at home. Difficult spells that could barely light a candle on Earth were trivial in Malifaux, and produced raging conflagrations at the drop of a hat. The gleeful wizards soon discovered something else, a treasure that came to define this era in history: Soulstones.

Soulstone, in its natural form, resembles a dark green agate. When a human being dies near a Soulstone the stone becomes charged, glowing with emerald fire. These charged stones can empower tremendous feats of magic, and can even be carried back across to Earth, where they allow arcane feats not yet dreamed of. Soulstone is naturally occurring in Malifaux, with vast veins beneath the earth just waiting to be tapped.

Soulstone immediately became the world’s most valuable commodity, and people poured into the abandoned city to retrieve it. Unfortunately, they quickly found out that the strength of Malifaux’s magic was a double-edged sword. Necromancy (or “resurrectionism”) was not only possible on the far side of the Breach, it was downright simple. It was as though a dark Whisper filled their ears, driving them mad and sending them questing through sewer and cemetery for forbidden secrets. These Resurrectionists soon became a plague on the people of Malifaux. Worse,  the city of Malifaux was empty but the world was not. Dark things watched the humans from the shadows, and eventually they decided that enough was enough. The Neverborn, the original inhabitants of Malifaux, rose up from the darkness and cast out the humans, resealing the Breach for a hundred years.

Without a fresh supply of Soulstones, Earth fell into chaos and war. From the ashes of that conflict arose the Guild of Mercantilers, a cabal of magic-users with the mission of controlling the world’s supply of Soulstone with an iron fist. When the Breach reopened, a hundred years to the day after it had closed, the Guild was ready. They sent forces into Malifaux, fortified the far side, and prepared to repulse the inevitable Neverborn attack. It never came, and once suspicions of a trap faded the humans repopulated Malifaux. This time, the Guild was firmly in charge and appointed a Governor-General who imported convict labor to work the mines. With new innovations over a century of warfare—advanced guns, locomotives, and Soulstone-powered constructs—the Guild kept the peace.
Not everyone accepts their rule quietly, though. Resurrectionists skulk in the shadows, still listening to the Whisper that teaches them their blasphemous magic. The Arcanists, a conspiracy of free-thinking magic users, use the Miners & Steamfitters Union as cover as they gather power and knowledge. The Ten Thunders, a crime syndicate under the command of the ruthless Katanaka family, spread a web of intrigue and deception. The Explorer’s Society, a group of wealthy dilettantes and treasure-seekers, plunder Malifaux’s secrets for their own ends. A variety of Outcasts from mercenaries and bandits to plague cults and time-warping horrors, pursue their scattered agendas. And the Neverborn are still there, still watching, still waiting for their chance to throw the upstart humans out of Malifaux once and of all.

Also, there are drunken swamp gremlins. They love pigs, moonshine, and whuppin’ on folks too dang stupid to stay out of the Bayou.

Recent events have shaken the Guild’s grip on the world, and in the chaos, eight factions struggle for supremacy. The story of Malifaux moves at a solid pace. The Breach reopened in 1897; at the start of first edition, the year was 1901. It is now 1907, and as unfolding events gather steam, the world changes. In the world of Malifaux, Fate is a fickle mistress; you have to cheat her, or lose your soul.

Credit: Wyrd Games

The Game of Malifaux

Malifaux launched at Gencon in 2009. Twelve years later, it is on its third edition, having just released the first expansion book of the edition: Malifaux Burns. The game has changed and expanded significantly since its origins, but some things remain constant.
The chief selling point of Malifaux is its unique resolution mechanic. Rather than use dice, Malifaux players flip cards to determine the outcome of actions. Each player has a Fate Deck, a standard 52-card deck with two jokers—though the familiar suits have been replaced with Rams, Crows, Tomes and Masks. When a model performs an attack, it flips the top card of its deck and adds its relevant stat. The defending model does likewise, and the two compare totals. If the attack meets or exceeds the defender’s value, the attack hits. Otherwise, the attack misses. Tactical Actions often require a player to flip a card, and must hit a specific value in order to activate.

Seems straightforward enough, but the use of cards instead of dice allows for two twists that make action resolution in Malifaux far more strategic than it seems at first glance. At the start of each turn, players draw a control hand of six cards. After flipping your card, you may “Cheat Fate” by replacing it with a card from your hand. This way, you can guarantee hits when you need them, or keep a model safe at all costs. Some effects also allow a model to flip multiple cards and pick the best one—or alternatively, flip multiple cards and keep the worst one as a penalty.

The other benefit to using cards instead of dice is the suits. Almost all attacks and abilities in Malifaux have “triggers,” secondary effects that resolve if the card flipped for the attack or ability had a specific suit. Some of these triggers have minor effects, increasing the damage done or allowing the attack to reposition. Others have major, transformative effects that utterly change the nature of the ability. Some abilities, rather than having triggers, won’t function at all unless activated with a card of the proper suit. Each player has a cache of Soulstones which they can use during key flips to add the suit of their choice, ensuring that these essential triggers pop up when you need them.

The card mechanic has been controversial since launch, but it’s an essential part of the game. It adds an entirely new angle of attack: many abilities draw cards, force your opponent to discard cards, or allow you to manipulate your deck. Other abilities require you to discard a card to activate them, creating tension: do you hold your cards to win key duels, or do you pitch them to use your strongest abilities?

And of course there are the jokers. The Red Joker represents salvation—when flipped, it has a value of 14 and the suit of your choice, and it prevents your opponent from cheating fate. The Black Joker, on the other hand, represents doom—it has a value of 0 and no suit, and once flipped it cannot be cheated away. You’re stuck with it. These jokers create moments of sudden excitement during games, as any attack, no matter how overwhelming, has a chance of failure if a Joker appears.

Credit: Wyrd Games

A game of Malifaux takes place over five turns, with alternating activations. At the start of the each turn, the players flip a card to pick Initiative; the winner chooses who goes first, but after that the players trade off one model at a time. Malifaux armies (or “crews”) are small, usually around 7-10 models, so every activation counts.

Malifaux has gained some notoriety as the game where you can be completely tabled and still win; granted, that’s not easy, but the scoring system of the game doesn’t pay any attention to kills. Instead, each game has a Strategy—a shared mission both players are trying to accomplish—and a pool of Schemes. Schemes are secondary objectives of the sort used in many other games, but your schemes are secret. You and your opponent pick two each from a shared pool of 5 without revealing them. Midway through the game, if you accomplish a Scheme’s prerequisites, you can reveal it to score a point; from there, you must accomplish a second set of prerequisites (sometimes the same, but not always) at the end of the game to score again.

Players cannot score on the first turn, and each player can only score one point per turn from the Strategy and one point per game from each Schem. Even with a second Scheme point possible at the end of the game, there are only eight possible points per player per game. Scores in Malifaux tend to be close, and ties are not uncommon. As the turns tick by and the crews dwindle in size, every single action counts, and it’s a rare game of Malifaux that doesn’t have both players making impactful decisions right up until the last turn of the game.

Credit: Wyrd Games

Getting Started

Malifaux is one of the easiest games to pick up and play—both because of the small crew sizes, and because the models are actually affordable. Each crew is led by a Master, a unique character whose “Keyword” defines the models they can hire and their playstyle. For example: Nekima, queen of the Nephilim, leads a crew of fanged and winged Neverborn horrors, while Lady Justice of the Death Marshals fights the wickedness of Resurrectionists by turning necromantic magic against its practitioners.

Each of the game’s 54 Masters comes with a Core Box, a $50 (or so) box that contains the Master and the core of their crew. The Core Boxes are playable right out of the box (if not perfectly balanced against each other), but once you get a feel for your Master they’re easy to expand. Wyrd tends to package models in thematically connected boxes of 3-6 or so, ranging in cost from $25-$50. What this means is that you can have a competitive, tournament-capable crew for less than $150, with quite a few spare models to boot. Malifaux models are made out of the same hard, detail-holding plastic that Warhammer models are made from, and so can be easily assembled using plastic glue—no more gluing your fingers to the table or each other.

While Masters can hire models from their faction outside of their Keyword, Wyrd Games has taken care to ensure that thematic, Keyword-focused crews are the default, and players are not encouraged to just run “the best model in every category.” On the other hand, there is enough flexibility in list construction that no two players will run the same Master exactly alike.

Malifaux’s third edition launched a few months before COVID dropped an iron curtain across the gaming world, and the game struggled to find momentum—but coming out of COVID, it’s stronger than ever. Wyrd was a major sponsor of Gencon this year and unveiled a number of cool new products, and the message was clear: they’re back and they’re ready to take their seat at the table. Malifaux’s a great game and this is the best it’s ever been, with tight rules and gorgeous models (which, admittedly, can be a little fiddly to assemble… be patient!).

I hope you appreciated this introduction to the world of Malifaux. Coming next: a series of Faction Focus articles, introducing the game’s eight factions and their Masters.

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