Warhammer 40,000: Apocalypse Review and Unboxing
Large games of Warhammer 40,000 have always been cooler in theory than in execution. While players start imagining massive battles the moment they start playing, the reality is that massive games of Warhammer 40k have traditionally been a slog, being 6+ hour affairs where players stand around waiting for their opponents to finish moving and shooting, only to lose their largest units before they ever have a chance to be used. 8 hours later, they’ve played two whole turns. Suffice to say, the reality doesn’t live up to the hype.
So when Games Workshop announced new Apocalypse rules designed to streamline the process and make Apocalypse games take considerably less time, we at Goonhammer were psyched. Anything that can make games of that size fun and manageable is something we’re absolutely in for. But how does the final game stack up, now that we have the rules in-hand? And is it worth buying the box or the accessories?
In this post, we’re going to do a thorough unboxing of Apocalypse, from cards to rules. We’ll cover everything that comes in the box, plus the game’s ruleset. We’ll talk about what we like, what we don’t like, and what we think some of the key strategies will be for players looking to tackle Apocalypse competitively.
Games Workshop was pretty up-front about what comes in the Apocalypse Box. It’s a solid box that comes with a rulebook, some dice, a bunch of punch-out tokens, and a bunch of Command Asset cards. So there isn’t a *ton* to say here, but I’ll run through the contents and what’s nice about them anyways.
The tokens are pretty solid quality and you get a ton of them. The photo doesn’t show it, but there are two sheets of the large blast markers/objective markers to punch out. The dice are pretty much GW standard D6s, plus a handful of D12s. I have no idea how the D12s roll or if they’ll need to be replaced like all of my other standard GW dice.
One cool upside to the box is that it comes with a plastic organizational insert, so you can put all of your cards and tokens in the box for storage–I love this. There are enough slots for every faction in the game, plus two extras (well, depending on how you want to divide them, but I put Sisters of Silence with Custodes). One of these gets used for the universal Command Assets. The big downside is that these dividing spaces aren’t wide enough for sleeved cards, which is something I wish more game companies would take into account.
Getting everything out of its packaging took a few minutes, and sorting the cards (plus the additional Command Assets) only took a few more. As you might have guessed, the cards aren’t evenly-distributed by faction. In addition to the large group of universal Command Assets, Space Marines and Chaos Space Marines get the most Assets out of the factions, while some factions like Chaos Knights and Custodes only end up with a few unique cards. This seems like a power imbalance to me right now, or just general laziness on the developers’ parts. There are a few cool Command Assets that work across enemy factions however, such as Ancient Doom, which can be used by Eldar or Slaaneshi units.
The Extra Stuff
- The Command Assets
These are just more cards for building decks with. They’re pretty neat, but I haven’t gone through them in detail yet. There’s plenty of room in the Apocalypse box to hold these with the other cards if you want.They come in a flip-top box like 40k’s faction datacards.
- The Printed Datasheets
I picked up the datasheets for Chaos Space Marines and Chaos Daemons. They’re essentially what you can print out online, only printed on nice cards. It’s not the thickest card stock ever, but they’re nice and I can see them getting a lot of use in games. The big downside to these is that they don’t include Forgeworld units.
- The Movement Trays
The trays are cool. You get a ton of them in each box and they’re well-made. They have a bit of a weird shape to them, but that’s a plus when you have one or two models in weird poses, or with outstretched arms, and you need an extra bit of space on one side to accommodate them. The only thing I didn’t like about them was that due to their odd shape, they don’t tesselate in the ways you expect. They can still fit together some other ways, but it’s not super-intuitive.
With the box contents out of the way, let’s talk about the rules. For the most part, games of Apocalypse play like big, streamlined games of Warhammer 40,000 with a few changes to how turns are played and how damage is handled. Anyone familiar with Epic 40,000 will see a lot of similarities in the new Apocalypse rules, in a good way.
Games Workshop already put out a pretty good summary video you can check out that covers the basics (you can check it out here), so we’ll dig into more of the details in our article.
Unlike Warhammer 40,000 8th edition, Apocalypse uses shared turns with alternating activations, more akin to games of Kill Team. Each game turn is split into four phases:
- Initiative Phase, where players roll off with D12s to determine who has the Initiative for the turn. If you tie, then whoever didn’t have the Initiative last turn gets it this turn.
- Orders Phase, where players identify Out of Command Units, Set up Reinforcements, Generate Command Assets, and Issue Orders. Orders are chosen secretly in a double-blind fashion. There are three orders you can issue to a Detachment: Advance, Aimed Fire, and Assault.
- Action Phase, where players alternate activating Detachments and carrying out the orders they’ve been assigned.
- Damage Phase, where players resolve the damage that has been done to units. Note that because this happens after actions, units will get to carry out all their actions in a turn before they are destroyed, regardless of how much damage is piled on them.
Before the game, each player constructs a deck of 30 Command Asset cards (no duplicates allowed). Each turn, players generate (draw) one Command Asset, plus an additional Asset for every Warlord they have on the table. Hand sizes cap out at 10. When you run out of cards, you shuffle your discard pile back into your deck.
Army organization in Apocalypse is done through detachments. Apocalypse has a list of detachments similar to the ones in the 40k 8th edition rulebook, but with some key changes. The first is that unit requirements are loosened, and the second is that most detachments have special abilities. The only way to get access to your faction’s detachment special rule is to have all of the units in a detachment be part of that faction. Also, troops in a Battalion get ObSec. When you issue orders and activate in Apocalypse, you do it at the detachment level.
Every detachment you create has to have a Commander, which is a unit chosen from among those with the highest Leadership value. If your Commander is also a CHARACTER, they become a Warlord, and help you generate Command Assets. When Commanders die, you choose a new Commander in that detachment, but they don’t become Warlords. One of your Warlords gets chosen to be a Warmaster at the start of the game, and they get a randomly-chosen (d12) Warmaster trait.
SHOOTING CHARACTERS: Unless they’re the closest unit to the enemy, Characters count as obscured, and the enemy shooting them gets -1 to their To Hit rolls. So unlike 40k, characters are targetable in Apocalypse, albeit slightly harder to hit.
There are three Orders you can issue to a Detachment in the Issue Orders phase:
- Advance – The units in this detachment can each make one Move action, then each unit can make either a Shoot or Fight action.
- Aimed Fire – The units in this detachment can make either one Shoot action or one Fight action. If they shoot, they get a +1 To Hit and if they Fight they get a -1 To Hit.
- Assault – The units in this detachment can make one Move action at double their Move characteristic. Then each unit can make one Fight action.
This has immediate consequences with regard to army design: You’ll frequently want to build Detachments based on the orders you’ll want to give units in them, which means grouping assault units and shooting units separately in order to maximize their benefits. The last thing you want is not being able to shoot with a unit because you need to assault with another unit in the same detachment.
Wings Note: Unless you’re Craftworld Eldar, because Elves are Better Than You.
There are three types of actions that result from Orders issued: Move, Shoot, and Fight. These work mostly how you’d expect them to.
- Move – The unit can move all its models up to its Move characteristic in inches. Models in a unit have to maintain a coherency distance of ½”. As with 8th edition, units locked in combat can Fall Back, in which case they can’t shoot or charge (unless they’re Titanic or have FLY) and can Pile in if they’re already in base-to-base contact with a unit.
- Shoot – Shoot all the ranged weapons a unit is equipped with. If it has multiple different weapons, you can split its fire to different targets. Units that are locked in combat can’t shoot unless they’re Titanic, Aircraft, or Buildings.
- Fight – Pick a unit in base-to-base contact with the unit and do your melee attacks at them.
Damage in Apocalypse works very differently from 40k. Attacks still follow the Roll to Hit -> Roll to Wound model, but saves and damage don’t happen right away. As units are wounded, they’re assigned blast markers, either small or large. If a unit with a small marker would be given another small marker, it upgrades a small marker to a large blast marker instead. During the damage phase, players alternate rolling saves for each unit with blast markers on it, using D12s for small blast markers and D6s for large ones. Every failed save results in the unit taking damage, and damage equal to Wounds kills a unit.
Units can also be critically damaged if they have damage equal to half their Wounds or more. In these cases they halve their attacks and take a -1 to hit on attacks made with Heavy weapons.
Terrain in Apocalypse is pretty interesting. Terrain is divided into Obstacles, Defensible Terrain, and Buildings. Obstacles are basically walls, barricades, crates, etc. If you have a unit wholly within 3” of an obstacle, and its between you and the opponent, you count as Obscured, and they get -1 to hit you. Note that being an obscured target is a state, and so Characters behind an obstacle don’t get any extra bonuses
Defensible Terrain is much more interesting, as it covers area terrain and things like ruins. Basically if a unit is wholly within 6” of a piece of Defensible Terrain at the start of its Move action, it can essentially “embark” into a piece of Terrain by Garrisoning it, allowing it to break coherency and from that point, LoS and ranges for it are measured to/from the terrain footprint. While garrisoning a piece of Defensible Terrain, unmodified save rolls of a 6+ always succeed, so it basically gets a more traditional cover save.
Aura abilities basically work like they do in 40k–they aren’t “on” while you’re in a transport–but if you garrison a piece of Defensible Terrain, your aura only extends to (but applies to) every other unit that is garrisoning that piece of terrain.
The Detachment Options
The rulebook gives players 5 regular detachments (Battalion, Outrider, Vanguard, Spearhead, and Super-Heavy), each with optional HQ options, and 5 Special detachments (Patrol, Air Wing, Super-Heavy Auxiliary, Fortification Network, and Supreme Command), which have some additional bonuses and restrictions on top of what you’d see in standard 40k. Note that there is no Brigade. You wouldn’t want to run one anyway though, because as we discussed earlier you generally want to be “focusing” your detachments.
That’s the bulk of the rules. They’re surprisingly light–the core rules only take up about 11 pages, plus there’s another 10 or so to cover Detachments, Keywords, Universal Special Rules (those only take a single page), and Warmaster Traits. I’m a big fan of alternating activations in 40k generally, and I think the detachment-level activations with damage resolution at the end of the turn seems like a great compromise between going full AA and keeping some elements of standard 40k’s IGOUGO system.
The Apocalypse rulebook details six basic missions, plus it has rules for generating missions randomly in a similar fashion to the Open War deck from 40k. All of the missions end when either one player has no units left, or at the end of turn 5. Five of the missions are standard 1v1 affairs, while the 6th is a multiplayer mission that has players deploying in table quarters. Because of the alternating activation nature of Apocalypse and how damage is resolved, it’s ideally suited to handling multiplayer scenarios, which is great.
The mission generator looks a lot like the Open War deck, and has you roll for deployment map (using the 6 core rulebook maps from 8th edition), Objective (12 options), Twist (12 options), and then if the armies are unbalanced, you can roll for a Ruse (6 options) or Sudden Death victory condition (6 options). These are all pretty straightforward, and none of them seem quite as broken as some of the Open War cards, and several revolve around Command Assets.
Finally, the book also includes War Zones, or rules for playing in specific types of battlefields. They’re all pretty interesting, though I suspect that, like the Killzones in 40k 8th edition, they’ll rarely see play. The ones included are:
- Fog of War – Low-visibility battlefields with disrupted communications, making it harder to hit faraway units and see the orders they’ve been given
- Firestorm – Orbital debris rains down on the battlefield, making the skies dangerous terrain for aircraft and causing damage to units on the ground
- Warp Storm – The warp bleeds into realspace, causing problems for psykers and bolstering Daemonic units.
- Sector Imperialis – If you want special rules for your Sector Imperialis terrain and tiles, this War Zone has rules for Roads, Imperial Sanctuaries, and Garrisoning tall buildings.
- Death World Forest – Rules for deadly flora and fauna, and Eldritch Ruins.
- Sector Mechanicus – Special rules for the Sector Mechanicus terrain, including plasma conduits.
- Wall of Martyrs – These battlefields are marked by trenches, fortification networks, and preliminary bombardments.
- Xenos World – Five special rules for worlds that belong to Necrons, T’au, Eldar, Orks, or Tyranids.
What we Like
In all, there’s a lot to like about the new Apocalypse.
- As a product, it gives you the basics of what you need, with no extras. Extras are fine and all but after a dozen box sets and kill zones stuffed with extra terrain and models, it was refreshing to just be able to buy a box of rules and cards.
- Alternating activations keep the game more active. We argue a lot internally about whether base 40k needs alternating activations (I’m in the “pro” camp (Wings Note: look at these bad opinions right here)), but Apocalypse definitely needs them, because turns can run so long and so many games are multiplayer affairs. Having alternating activations work on a detachment level is a great way to make detachments matter, and solves the problem of having things take forever if AA is done on a unit level.
- Command Assets. This is another area where we can see modern gameplay concepts bleeding into GW games. We’re big fans of the new Maelstrom rules and Command Assets basically combine those with Stratagems. Command Asset decks allow players to further customize their armies and build to specific strategies, and Warlord generation of assets makes characters matter. I like the CP concept in 8th edition, but as the number of stratagems armies have access to has exploded, I wouldn’t mind replacing that with something more like a Command Asset deck.
- Streamlined Rules. The game desperately needed to tone down the complexity of individual units and datasheets to ensure things run smoothly. In the past, I’ve said that games of Apocalypse only work when you either break them up into concurrent smaller games or force players to leave infantry at home, and this is a good compromise.
- Damage. One of the other big issues with Apocalypse was how devastating a first turn could be, both in game terms and morale terms. Spending two hours setting up your army only to see every titan get blown off the table before it has a chance to shoot suuuuucks. The new rules make more sense for shared turns and ensure every unit will get to shoot. Win-win.
- Garrisoning Terrain. The terrain rules aren’t very well-written, and there’s no set definition of what terrain can be garrisoned (you agree with an opponent before the battle), but the concept and execution of garrisoning Defensible Terrain is great and it speeds things up to where you don’t have to putz around positioning each model on a piece of terrain for optimal line of sight or whatever.
- Free Datasheets. Awesome. Love this. Wish this was part of the standard 40k strategy.
- Encouraging More People to Get Movement Trays. The official movement trays are nice and we expect to see way more of them on regular 40K tables as a result of this release, which is a nice side effect.
What we Don’t Like
Overall, we like the new Apocalypse, but there are some definite missed opportunities in the new system.
- Not Enough Streamlining. The streamlining on units doesn’t quite go far enough – there are many instances where units can add heavy or special weapons to a squad at an additional power cost, and to be honest this feels super-unnecessary. A single plasma gun or missile launcher just doesn’t matter all that much and I’d have preferred its impact just be factored into the baseline unit cost/effectiveness.
Wings Note: One place I really don’t like this is how auras still work pretty much as they do in 40K and at the same distances. This means you still need to do quite fiddly measurements for some of them, and also encourages you to “overlap” detachments for especially good ones like Guilliman’s. Were I writing the rules, pretty much all Auras would have changed to “<Keyword> units in this detachment that are In command…” rather than a measured distance. That streamlines you to a single, relatively generous measurement to keep track of things, and keeps each detachment nice and distinct.
- Command Asset Imbalances. Given how important Command Assets are, it’s pretty lame that major factions have half the number of options that marines or chaos marines have. It’d be one thing if the idea was that marines get more because they’re more tactical, but it really just feels like Command Assets are apportioned according to the number of units an army has and its relative popularity.
- Scale Issues. The new Apocalypse doesn’t really address one of the game’s biggest challenges, which is that 6×4’ tables just aren’t big enough to run games that size. The book attempts to address this by recommending 6×6’ and 10’x4’ table sizes, but logistically most players can’t really accommodate that kind of space and it can be really difficult to move units that are in the middle of a table that is 6’ wide on all sides. In GW’s defense, I’m not sure how they could have solved this one at the game’s current scale. But then, I’d have also played Epic if they’d re-released it.
Wings Note: I would dissent on this one – I think the rules look like they could be pretty good for just throwing down with what would normally be 4-5K armies on a 6×4. I’d be much more likely to do this with the new rules than trying to run that with standard 40K, so I’d call them a win on this front.
- Command Assets. I love Command Assets as a concept. There’s just one problem. Everyone that plays needs their own deck. That means if I run a game of Apocalypse, every player will either need to buy the game, borrow a deck of cards leftover after I’ve built mine, or just not use them. And realistically, there’s no way I am going to be able to convince everyone in my play group to drop 100+ dollars on a box set and extra cards for a single game.
- The Print Datasheets You Can Buy. The free datasheets are great, and I’m extremely glad GW made the Apocalypse datasheets free. For the print ones you can buy, not having any for the Forgeworld units seems like a really big mistake. Isn’t half the point of Apocalypse to bring these big, expensive titanic warmachines? I don’t really need Apocalypse datasheets for chaos cultists, thanks.
- (Wings) Small Characters Are Too Easy to Murder. Bizarrely given that the games are at a much larger scale than normal 40K it’s much easier to pick off infantry characters; -1 to hit is really not much of a defence when this quantity of firepower is being thrown around. Because “Warlords” are a source of Command Assets, I think you’re heavily incentivised to pick off as many of them as possible early on, which isn’t very cinematic and quickly cuts down the number of fun toys people have access to. I could turn out to be way off base about this, but I would certainly go into my first game planning to ice as many detachment Warlords as possible on the first turn, which doesn’t feel terribly thematic (but then I am a horrible tournament grinder).
- (Wings) Mechanics Still Seem to Favor MSUs. Possibly there’s just some depth here that I’m not seeing, but I’m surprised by the fact that a lot of mechanics still seem to push you towards running “Minimum Size Units” (MSUs) of stuff rather than larger ones. The weirdest thing is that “full” units often cost more than twice as much as minimum units, where for streamlining purposes you want to be actively promoting larger ones. In theory the fact they stick around longer could be an advantage, but the “Critical Damage” rule heavily offsets that, and all the big juicy weapons with “Destroyer” can be much more beneficially pointed at larger units. It’s a little thing, in the end, but it definitely stands out as weird from a serious read-through of all the lists of datacards (which is definitely not how I have been spending my evenings why would you say tha-FEED ME RULES).
The new rules are a huge step in the right direction for Apocalypse, and it’s easy to see how they speed the game up and make it more interactive for players on both sides of the table. Even though we felt there were a few missed opportunities in the new rules, the reality is that playing massive games of 40k using the 8th edition ruleset is just such a miserable slog that you don’t really have an alternative – Apocalypse is a must-buy for players who plan to run games of Apocalypse more than once or twice a year. If you aren’t planning to play that often though, you can probably skip it.
I’ve already got a copy, and I plan on running several games of Apocalypse this year and early next in the Astradus Campaign, where I’m hoping the streamlined process makes having regular games of Apocalypse easy enough that each one doesn’t have to be a major event.
Wings Note: I’ve also bought a copy even though I’ll probably play fewer large games than TheChirurgeon. I really appreciate the set as a game design exercise, and look forward to having it on my shelf as an option for if I can lure the foolish local Imperium players into challenging me and a friend’s 500PL of elf bullshit.
So What’s Next?
We’ve barely scratched the surface so far on Apocalypse. Sure, we’ve gone into detail about the rules and what’s in the book, but we haven’t talked about strategy, how the factions compare, or the Command Assets that make up a massive part of the game’s strategy. In the coming weeks we’ll explore good tactics and bad for Apocalypse, the units we’re most excited to use in the new game (my Warhound will finally see use!), and the basics of building a good Command Asset deck. So keep checking back in with the Goonhammer crew for more articles on Apocalypse–we’ve got plenty more content planned.