Malifaux Is Really Hard: How To Stop Losing So Bad

Hey, folks! After a short break, I’m back. I was debating tackling the other Madness of Malifaux crew spoilers – for those who aren’t aware, we’ve now seen Kastore and the Returned keyword, Linh Ly and the Red Library/Story keyword, Harold Tull and the Cavalier keyword, and Tiri and the Bygone keyword. Not to mention Damian Ravencroft and the Witness keyword, and the Clampetts and the Angler keyword!

But with the exception of Witness, we’ve only seen the core boxes for each of these crews, plus a random sampling of other stuff. We don’t really know enough to fully evaluate the keywords. So rather than do this twice, I’ll wait until the book drops and then hand you my fresh first impressions, straight off the dome, with exactly as much thought put into them as my choice of sandwich at lunch.

Instead, I’m going to talk about a topic that I don’t think gets enough attention: Malifaux is really hard, you guys!

Malifaux is Hard

It’s true. I love this game – I’ve played a lot of editions of a lot of wargames over the past two decades, and Malifaux third edition is my favorite of all. The game’s not perfect, and I might have some thoughts on that in the future, but it’s in a good place, and it’s in very capable hands (I’ve met a few of the Malifaux designers and they’re really good at their jobs).

But the game is hard. One thing to think about when you’re designing a game is complexity – you have to “budget” it, as a game with too much complexity is a game that won’t survive. Malifaux has opted for tiny game sizes (8 models on a side is about average), but with a lot of complexity packed into 1) the core rules and 2) the rules on the models’ cards. The keyword system helps to reduce that complexity a bit by streamlining crew creation, but even if you aren’t hiring out of keyword models or versatiles, there’s a lot going on. The ruleset also lends itself to complex, emergent gameplay patterns, like Mah Tucket’s combination of movement triggers and Pit Traps or Nexus’s Parasite Token minigame. And with the objectives changing every game – and being asymmetrical even within a game – you have a lot to keep in mind beyond your crew and your opponent’s!

Malifaux is very hard, and that means new players are likely to lose. A lot. And that’s very demoralizing. There are some great onramps to the game – Henchman Hardcore is one of the best “tutorial” formats I’ve ever seen in a wargame, and the Starter Boxes are extremely well designed to get you playing right out of the gate – but a lot of people just buy a crew and jump in. After all the blood, sweat and tears you pour into assembling your tiny dudes and getting them painted, you want to see them kick ass, right?

I think the complexity is manageable. Everyone was new once. My first Malifaux tournament ever, I went 0-X and won the Wooden Spoon. It was awesome.

This article is for those of you who are struggling, who really like the rules and the lore and the models but can’t seem to translate that into winning games. Or those of who you win a decent amount, but who are trying to build a local meta and don’t want to scare off all the new players.

How To Get Really Good At Malifaux Without Practicing Or Applying Yourself

You can’t.

How To Get Really Good At Malifaux While Still Having Fun And Also Not Investing Dozens of Hours Into It Before Winning A Single Game

That’s more like it!

Believe it or not, this is very doable. The game is hard, but you’re a smart individual, bbviously, or you wouldn’t be reading Goonhammer. Let’s assume you’ve picked a keyword, bought the core box and an expansion box or two, and read the rulebook. Maybe you’ve watched some battle reports online. You’re ready to play but the game seems overwhelming – what do you focus on first?

Simply follow my three-step process, and you’ll find yourself 8-0ing fools in no time!

Step 1: Learning the Rules

This is the shortest step, but its still going to take you a while. In this stage, you should simply be focusing on the core gameplay loop of Malifaux. It doesn’t matter which keyword you’ve picked up – your goals in this stage are always the same:

  1. Learn how activations work: how to take General, Tactical, Attack, and Bonus actions, and how initiative and pass tokens function – the core “building blocks” of a turn.
  2. Learn how attacks work – what’s Line of Sight? What’s Concealment? How do I Charge?
  3. Learn how to make duels and damage flips, what modifiers are, how to apply them, and how they interact.
  4. Learn how Conditions work – what’s the difference between Slow and Staggered? Why would I Concentrate?
  5. Learn how your hand works – drawing, discarding, and cheating
  6. Learn how Soulstones work – how to use them, who can use them, and what they can do.
  7. Learn how deployments, strategies and schemes work – how to set up your models, pick schemes and score points.

Each of those steps is pretty simple, and if you have any wargaming experience you’re probably roughly familiar with concepts like range and line of sight, melee vs. ranged attacks, and so on. But the card mechanic is what sets Malifaux apart, so spending some time really understanding how duels work is worthwhile. What’s an opposed duel vs. a simple duel? How do I modify a duel? What is the most common way to modify a duel? What is the reason to do so?

It’ll probably take 1-3 games before you really feel solid on this stuff. Different crews teach you the game in different ways. For instance, if you play Parker Barrows you’re going to be intimately familiar with +twists to duels, cover, and concealment before long. But every crew uses these building blocks, so even the really weird ones like Tara and Hamelin benefit from learning the fundamentals.

I’ve left schemes and strategies for last. Note that here I am not suggesting you read over the Gaining Grounds 3 document in detail. In fact, for your first few games you should probably use a set Scheme Pool with simple schemes. The Henchman Hardcore pool (Wedge deployment, GG0 Plant Explosives, Vendetta and Assassinate) is great, but if you’re looking to get more live fire experience this is my recommendations:

  • Standard Deployment
  • Cursed Objects
  • Assassinate
  • Catch and Release
  • Breakthrough
  • Leave Your Mark
  • Hidden Martyrs

Maybe change up one thing – say, switch to Flank deployment, or trade out Cursed Objects for Guard the Stash. Up to you! But the goal here isn’t to become totally expert on strats + schemes, it’s to learn how strategies and schemes work generally, and how to do them.

You can learn all of the above in 1 game, but really your first 2-3 games should be all about focusing on the basics. Don’t worry too much about top level strategic plays. Just learn how to push your dudes around and take the other player’s dudes off the board.

Step 2: Learning Your Crew

Now you basically know how to play a game of Malifaux. You know what Focus is for, and why it’s very common half of your crew to spend turn one walking and Concentrating. You know how to prevent damage with Soulstones, and how to to cheat fate.

So now, we’re going to put that crew you bought to work.

Your goal here is to learn the ins and outs of your crew. Every crew in Malifaux has tricks. Some of them, like the appropriately named Tricksy, are basically nothing but tricks. Others, like Nephilim, are refreshingly straightforward – but they have lots of nuance. Your goal in this stage is to learn, not how you play Malifaux, but how your crew plays Malifaux.

This will almost always involve talking to other players. The Wyrd discord is pretty active, and there are also friendly people in the Goonhammer discord (sign up for our Patreon!) who would be glad to talk shop with you. We even have our own channel! But mostly, this involves putting your crew through its paces.

Set yourself goals. For example: “I am going to try to summon a Flesh Construct every turn that I can with McMourning.” What models do you have to hire to make that happen? What actions do you have to take? Or maybe: “I am going to knock someone into a Pit Trap with Mah Tucket for fun and profit.” What’s your order of operations there? What’s your goal? It’s important to learn to be able to do things with a sense of purpose and not just flailing around randomly when its your turn to act.

Look at what your crew is trying to do. The cards themselves will usually tell you – they’re not bashful. “I am going to try to shoot someone for 8 damage on Turn 1 with Seamus.” Awesome! That’s sort of his Thing. See how to make it work.

This is also the step where you learn what models you do and don’t want to hire. Yan Lo has access to three different Retainer minions, six different Ancestors, and then weirdos like Sun Quiang. You can’t hire everyone every game so ask who works with your playstyle? Who doesn’t fit? You can start tentatively thinking about scheme pools in this step, too. What schemes is your keyword really great at?Where does it struggle? You should have no trouble scoring Load ‘Em Up with the Infamous keyword, but the Urami keyword will find it close to impossible.

Another important goal of this stage is to perfect your “unpack.” The unpack is how your crew goes from a bunch of weirdos standing around behind the starter blocks to a well-oiled murder-and-point-scoring machine. Some crews have a very simple unpack – Lady Justice basically just runs screaming at the enemy. Others, it’s like doing high-level calculus. Brewmaster, Moonshiner is basically playing a weird form of drunken solitaire on turn 1. How does you crew unpack? What are your goals for turn 1? What does a “successful” turn 1 even look like for you? The answer won’t be the same every time, and it may be as vague as “all my shooters are up the board in good firing positions,” but now’s the time to learn what a “good firing position” is.

You’re still going to drop games to opponents who pull out Some Bullshit, but at least at this stage you’re hopefully not going to lose because you forgot how to make an attack. And you’ll start to win one or two! Won’t that be nice?

As you become more and more familiar with your crew, you can start thinking about your next purchases, too. Are there some Versatile models you really want to try out? What about Out of Keyword hiring? Experiment! And if another Master starts to catch your eye… maybe try them out too!

Step 3: Learning the Game

And now we’re out of the kiddy pool. This is the hard part. Up to now things have been somewhat complicated, but there are plenty of guideposts. But now you have to take a leap.

You just learned how to play one keyword backwards and forwards. Now you have to do it 59 more times.

I’m kidding, of course. But this is the step where you stop focusing on what you’re trying to do, and start focusing on what your opponent is trying to do. And I have some bad news for you here: it’s almost always Some Bullshit.

Here, you need to be very straightforward: Talk to your opponent before the game. “I’ve never run into Nekima before. What does she do?”

“Oh, cool, Guild! Nobody in my local plays Guild – what Master are you running?”

Ask questions! Ask lots of questions! Here are some good ones:

  • “How much out of activation movement does your crew have?”
  • “Does your crew mostly do damage in melee or at range?” If it’s a mixture: “Who shoots and who slices?”
  • “How fast is your crew? What’s their threat range?”
  • “Does your crew tend to bubble up or spread out?”
  • “Do you have lots of blasts and shockwaves?”
  • “Does your crew have a lot of card draw? Do you make me discard a lot of cards?”
  • “Do you apply a particular condition a lot? On yourself or on your opponent?”
  • “Do you summon? How?”

You don’t have to ask them all every time, but you should definitely ask to read their cards. You can get a lot of information from a card- for instance, a master with a 1″ range 2/3/4 melee attack is probably not a beatstick, unless they have some insane triggers Summoners will say what they summon on their card. Nekima’s Frenzied Charge and Stat 7 3/5/6 melee attack means that she will absolutely carve your face off if you let her. And so on.

The number one reason new players lose Malifaux games is Some Bullshit. You think you’re safe, you think you’re in scoring position, then Jack Daw bursts out of the TV like Samara from The Ring and starts dragging your models around through hazardous terrain, racking up ping damage like he’s trying to tilt a pinball machine.

That’s ok. It can suck to lose to something for the first time, but now you’ve seen it. Your goal in this stage is to understand what your opponent is trying to do to you, so you can see it coming and counter it. Sometimes learning the hard way is the best teacher

I’ll let you in on a wonderful secret here: it gets easier! Way, way easier! There are 60 keywords in the game once Madness of Malifaux releases (ok, there are technically a few more with Starter Boxes and Half-Blood and Asylum and Zombie and dual keyword masters and and…), but you aren’t going to lose 59 brutally one-sided games. You’re going to start understanding what crews do. Once you’ve got a couple dozen games under your belt, you don’t have to play against Hoffman to know what he does – he juices up his robots and sends them out at you, relying on their armor to keep them safe. That also tells you how to beat them. What kind of irreducible damage or armor piercing do you have in your keyword? In your faction? Maybe you have to reach out of keyword a bit.

There are some that are weird and will trip you up – Tara and Jack Daw sort of have to be seen to be believed – but for the most part, you’ll know what a crew is trying to do without having to lose to it first. Titles add a bit of a wrinkle here, but not as much as you might think – a few of them radically change the crew’s playstyle, but an 8-model crew with a different Master still has 7 models in common. You may not know what Dashel Barker, Butcher does (though it’s really not hard to guess, looking at his card) but you know the Dispatcher has to die. Kill that friggin thing!

This is another stage where forums and discord channels are a great source of advice. Just pop into a channel and say “hey, I’m playing against Colette this weekend, what should I look out for?” People will tell you! They’ve put a lot of thought into this question!

Bonus Step: Learning to Win

This isn’t really part of learning the game, but it’s aspirational. Once you’re good, once you’re winning games, how do you level up?

The number one “advanced skill” for getting real good at Malifaux is learning to pick schemes and strats. It’s extremely difficult and even very advanced players mess it up regularly. Some games, the pool and the crew lineups make it so 8 points is a realistic possibility. Many games, it’s not. Most Malifaux games are close, within a point or two. And many of them come down to the last activation on the last turn. That happens a lot.

Think about: how many points can I realistically hope to score off this Strategy? How many can I deny? Standard Deployment Guard the Stash is really hard to get four points on unless you’re absolutely curb-stomping your opponent. Maybe just aim for 2-3, but try to lock your opponent to 1-2? In Your Face is pretty easy to score 1 point on, but quite challenging to score 2 on, unless you’re really building for it. Think about what your goal for the game is. Think about what it’ll take for you to get there. What has to go wrong, what has to go right?

Of course, there are other advanced skills. Malifaux is full of weird combos, use them! For instance, if you’re playing Explorer’s Society and you expect to face a Coryphee Duet, take Jin Baccara. He can wait until the Coryphees split, then kick one of them back to the deployment zone and kill the other with an Armor Piercing knife (although you will want to have softened it up first). Botanists – what crews can feed them? What crews are just wasting their time if they try? What’s the best way to drop corpses across the centerline for Seamus?

Experimentation is key to improvement. Don’t rest on your laurels. Try new things. Practice! Play new opponents – I cannot recommend Vassal highly enough. It lacks the tactile joy of a game in plastic, but it’s always easy to get a game, and you can play literally any crew you imagine.

I hope this article is encouraging to you. I love Malifaux, which means I want the game to flourish – which means it needs a constant stream of new blood. There are plenty of new-player-friendly options, and the road from Insignificant Minion to Master doesn’t have to be that long or that rocky. Find a friend and play a game or two. Just remember – in Malifaux, Bad Things Happen.

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