Being a big fan of skirmish games like GW’s Necromunda (and the White Dwarf predecessor, Confrontation), I was immensely excited at the prospect of playing a true spiritual successor given a modern rules revamp and so I immediately jumped on the Mantic Games Kickstarter for Deadzone.
Previously, I had written off Mantic as being very much a ‘me too’ company known for producing cheap & cheerful minis that while not up the GW plastics in quality were at least more readily affordable in quantity. A bit of a poor man’s GW if you were being unkind.
Given my thinking at the time, Deadzone seemed both an interesting and ambitious release for Mantic. I really liked the openness of discussion and interaction of the games designer, Jake Thorton’s blog (www.quirkworthy.com) and the mechanics seemed both fresh and innovative: adopting a grid/cube movement over measuring and the exploding dice mechanics of Dreadball using d8s seems like something special. I didn’t have high hopes for the quality of the miniatures, but then again I have enough painted figures from GW and other games to proxy those in if needed if I really disliked them. Family and work commitments combined with the high turnover rate of GW rules means as much as I love the background and figures of the GW range, I really don’t have the money, time or effort to collect & paint 100-200 figures armies regularly let alone keep up with the new rule releases and still have a spare 2-3 hours needed to play a game with any regularity. I figured with Deadzone if it played well then it shouldn’t be too big a commitment to paint up 3-4 factions and even my old gaming buddies whom aren’t really into collecting & hobbying anymore they are more than willing to play a skirmish game with my figures as a filler in-between our regular weekly roleplaying sessions. The Deadzone kickstarter did crazy well for Mantic and they ended up topping $1.2M in funds. This gave backers like me a crazy amount of plastic soldiers for a money – so far so good.
For the most part the release shipped on time as the bulk of releases shipped to backers in Dec 2013 (Wave 1). The 2nd Wave is in the process of shipping now (August-Sept 2014) and due to a few production/tooling issues some of the hard plastic figures are delayed until a 3rd Wave (late Oct 2014). Given that I much prefer working with GW style hard plastic rather than the cheaper to tool restic that Mantic typically use for most of their ranges, I was happy to accept this delay in release in order to get a better product.
1) Mechanics – there is LOTS to like here. The grid/cube movement and shooting system is an excellent compromise between board game and table top war-game approaches which is a win-win with no downsides IMHO. It is quick to learn and quick to play. The differences in battle card and objectives cards between the factions help give each force a unique play style and flavour. I haven’t played enough to know if it is well balanced for competitive play, but for narrative/casual style play it seems perfect. You just don’t seem to get the bogged down arguments about movement/weapon distances, line of sight and cover save issues that seem to bog down our WH40K games. Similarly, the campaign system is simple and well written: it avoids the classic problem I have found with campaigns which is that an early runaway success can give a player virtually unassailable advantage in troop experience and kit. Deadzone does away with this by making troops that are more experienced and heavily kitted cost more points to purchase for your force – a simple and elegant balancing mechanic. I really love many things about WH40k, but the flabby and sprawling nature of the current rules set is not one of them – Deadzone is a breath of refresh air by comparison.
2) Faction diversity. There are now 5 factions available – enough that most people should be able to find something that fits their play style & hobby aesthetic tastes. Mantic have worked hard post wave 1 release to add in some additional items above the original items proposed in the Kickstarter and by the end of the year with the hard plastics releases there should be a total of 6 different factions with a good mix of basic troopers, specialists, light vehicles and characters.
3) Low cost of entry. The basic game (Enforcers vs Plague) has everything that you need to play the game for around £65 and a starter for a faction is only around £20 each (10-12 figures and the faction play decks). Booster packs are around £10-15 (4-6 figures). Although the quality is far from GW standard, you cannot argue that it isn’t cheaper.
4) Terrain. The Deadzone/Battlezone hard plastic terrain is really great if you are into Sci-Fi wargaming regardless of system. The modality gives you great flexibility in letting your hobby imagination run riot – I simply love modelling, kit bashing and painting up this stuff. It really is like Lego for hobbyists.
5) Support. The Kickstarter has guaranteed that there has been a healthy amount of support in terms of factions, community excitement and a steady drip of releases. It sounds like Mantic have a ‘mini-Kick’ planned end of 2014/early 2015 for a new expansion/new factions/existing faction new boosters which should nicely grow the game. The newly released light vehicles seem to fit within the framework of the game and so I cannot see a GW style Codex/Super heavies/Bigger is better arms race: Deadzone will remain a firmly as skirmish/hobby intro game, but the figures will be useable in Mantic’s larger unit/army scale Warpath war-game it could act as a reasonable ‘gateway drug’ for new players.
Mini Quality. I really cannot say I am massively sold on the miniatures:
1) Sculpts can be a bit meh in my opinion. I really don’t think much of the Marauder/Orx faction as they seem to be moving in a very GW/‘goofy ork’ direction (not a fan of that in 40k, but even worse here). There are some that I really like like the Stage 1A Plague Leader, but they are the exception rather than the rule. That said the pictures of the new hard plastics in wave 2/3 look really good (new Enforcers, Forgefathers and Zombies), but I’ll reserve judgement until I get them in the flesh.
2) Restic. As a material, restic (aka ‘sprueless/premium plastic’) is much harder to clean-up than traditional hard plastics and this isn’t aided by the fact that some of the mould lines on the figures are really unfortunately placed – don’t try to file or scrape off the mould line, but cut them off it at all possible. It is more resilient and seems a bit heavier than GW hard plastic or Forgeworld style resin, but consequently it is a real pain to convert by cutting. A small plus is that you can repose using boiling water and some bending to add a bit of variety (this aids with clean-up too). Don’t think that you will get the diversity of spare bits that you get with GW – If you are a fan of the amazing bits diversity and kit-bashing potential then prepare to be disappointed as the majority of the range are designed to be single pose. Similarly, in the Wave 1 KS release there were no instructions to put anything together or even a quick guide as to which bits went with which model. Again, GW’s step-by-step instructions are a luxury that you will not find here. This is fine if you are an experienced hobbyist, but if you are a board game player looking to dip your to into wargaming then this will likely put you off as it will be much more work than you are probably used to.
I am still very positive about the game and looking forward to the Wave 3 release and to see what future plans that Mantic have for the game. There has been some hinting by Mantic that there will be another ‘mini-kick’ for an expansion for Deadzone some time around end of this year/beginning of 2015 and I have more than enough plastic to keep me happily hobbling until then. I hadn’t been that interested in Mantic’s big battles sci-fi game (Warpath) in the past, but I am now keenly keeping an eye on how that might develop over the next few years. When I initially looked at the v1 free rules download it seems a little too generic and abstract for my tastes. Post Deadzone release, I have been interested enough to look again at the v2 rules and consequently I am now a bit more sold on them now as they seem to have knocked off the most abstract elements which did not feel intuitively right in the v1 ruleset. Given the current WH40k 7th edition rules craziness, I am now coming around to a ‘less is more’ approach to rules design – there is a lot to be said when you can concisely summarise the entire rules in 2 pages. Similarly, while Mantic’s narrative efforts are certainly not in the same league as Black Library, the Warpath universe which is shared with Dreadball & Deadzone now seems to be evolving steadily and developing some previously lacked depth.