Thuloid Speaks: Kings of War Hardback Review
Greetings, O House! I return in due season to perorate on the virtues and vices of Mantic Games’ new Kings of War hardbound book. My last post (ages ago, it seems) addressed the
basic structure of the rules in broad form, and I have no intentions of doing that all over again. Instead, I plan to tackle a few main areas of interest: physical
characteristics of the book, fluff, and the eleven army lists that come in this volume. This is going to be a long post. In the future I plan to go over the lists in more individual detail, and to do a review of Uncharted Empires, the softbound supplement that adds an additional nine army lists to the game.
A few notes before we start. There is a free rules PDF on the Mantic website. Those rules are accurate and nearly complete, missing only the list of Magical Artefacts (is the spelling “artefact” an unfortunate accessory to life in the UK, or an oddity peculiar to Mantic?) and the section on Scenarios. Also available for free on the Mantic website are slightly abbreviated (approx. 70% complete) lists for the rulebook armies, as well as the full list for the Twilight Kin (more on them later). Likewise, there is a rules-complete softbound edition of the rulebook for sale, denuded of fluff and much artwork. I’m reviewing the hardbound book, which retails for $40 US (you may well find it for less).
So, the book. To begin with, it’s a nice size, smaller than GW big rule books or even codexes. That might seem like a small thing, but I find this book much handier to carry around and flip through than those monsters. It’s 10.5″ x 8″ and comes in just over 200 pages. The binding is decent quality, stitched so that the pages lie flat when opened. There are a few typos and misprints, but not many–at this point, the errata for the book is relatively short. There’s plenty of art in it–photographs of models, concept sketches, some paintings and odd doodles. Mantic is slowly building up their fantasy world through these pieces–nothing yet of John Blanche-level genius, the spark that will inspire countless players, but some lesser gems. I’m particularly fond of some of the small sketches, marginalia really, that remind me of some of the simple illustrations in early D&D books. The cover illustration is excellent. All in all, a fine looking book.
Now we shall consider the fluff. This is not an easy thing to assess straightforwardly, as it must serve multiple purposes. Mantic’s fantasy setting, the creatively named Mantica, is both relatively new and intentionally generic. It must accommodate armies made up of the standard fantasy races– elves, dwarfs, orcs and so on– while also making room for whatever more unique model lines Mantic may decide to produce. At the same time, Mantica can’t lack for storytelling hooks to help players develop interesting army themes, create campaigns and become attached to major personalities. One should not expect anything as built up as GW’s Old World, or as original as the Iron Kingdoms–if there is to be real creativity, it will mostly have to come from the players (just as well). The approach, then, is mixed–some founding mythology (a bit about an elf, a mirror, a cataclysm and some divine beings, reading between Silmarillion-lite and Greek myth), some specific names, locations and stories, and a lot of generalities to be filled in. It isn’t high art, but competently written with a little humor and enough detail to give players a starting point.
The fluff isn’t confined to one section of the book. The initial background section (“A World at War”) includes a brief history of the world of Mantica and then a tour through its various lands and peoples, with a map. Said map is attractive enough, a bit Old World-y, roughly corresponding to Europe, North Africa and Western Asia, but the names need attention. Primovantor, a fallen empire analogous to classical Rome, sounds stately enough. Basilea (Greek for kingdom) evokes the Byzantine Empire as a hyper-religious successor state to Primovantor. Ophidia has a nicely foreign, slightly sinister ring. But other names–Elvenholme, Infant Sea (infancy?)–are terribly dull, and some are worse than that. What to make of Difetth, Deiw and Croguedd Pass, impossible for mortal mouths unaccustomed to cavorting in the dark with slithering violations of reason? (SinSynn would do fine). I have heard rumors that the map could see some slight revision in the future, and I hope them true.
In addition to that background section, each army list is preceded by a few pages of fluff, and unit entries are followed by a short (paragraph length) description. Occasionally this is very vague indeed, especially when it comes to large monsters–the goal almost certainly to encourage use of a wide range of models by not specifying too clearly what sort of beast a hero rides to battle. Some fun little information boxes also lie scattered through the book’s fluff sections, detailing specific heroes, cultural attributes or other notable features of Mantica. With the release of Mantic’s Dungeon Saga (perhaps a future review), some of these legends and famous individuals are being fleshed out more. While Mantica will always be fairly standard medieval fantasy (intentionally), it is slowly acquiring its own flavor.
Now on to my favorite part: the armies. Differences from race to race and unit to unit are not necessarily huge–most armies have some kind of elite heavy infantry with very similar stats, most heavy cavalry are similar, etc. A few special rules, a point of speed or a pip worse defense and lower overall cost add up to significant effects on how a unit should be used, and what each army list lacks ends up as important as what it is able to bring to battle. A brief rundown of Mantica’s rulebook armies:
Basilea is, as mentioned, a high fantasy version of the Byzantine Empire whose armies are supported by nearly divine beings such as angels and phoenixes (phoenices? That sounds awful). Ordinary human soldiers with swords, spears and crossbows show up, as do mobs of religious fanatics, but the distinctive flavor of Basilean armies come in the elite Paladin Foot Guard and Paladin Knights, the blazing fast and aggressive (frequently panther-mounted) Sisterhood, and the bright and terrible Elohi, the aforementioned angels. Basileans have no shortage of useful heroes: priests, wizards, paladins on dragons…
I have mixed feelings about the model line. The Paladins are nice, and I think with the right paint scheme the Sisterhood could look alright. The Elohi are good, perhaps apart from the heads which aren’t my favorites–but what fool can’t manage a simple head swap? The standard men-at-arms sprues are not good– mushy and oddly proportioned. I hear Mantic is having them redone. I’ve seen pictures of Basilean armies that substituted a number of historical minis and pushed the Byzantine angle quite hard, giving some lovely results.
Mantic Dwarfs should be familiar to anyone who’s played a Dwarf army before, though they have both more mobility and more flexibility than their GW cousins. Dwarfs are generally slow (not as slow as in Warhammer) and very tough, with a variety of heavy infantry and powerful shooting. The expected heavy artillery (four different types) are available, and more mechanical weaponry in the Steel Behemoth (a tank) and the smaller Battle Drillers. Mantic Dwarfs command units of Earth Elementals, plodding on their own but surprisingly nimble and deadly when aided by a Stone Priest (yes, Dwarfs have spell casters). Berserker Brock Riders are Dwarf cavalry, frenzied warriors atop giant badgers. Dwarf Kings and Berserker Lords are also capable of riding into battle on various savage beasts.
As to the models, I’m lukewarm on their rank and file, but high on the characters, war machines and Berserker models (including the Brock Riders), and I love the new Greater Earth Elemental. Many companies manufacture attractive 28mm Dwarf models, but their proportions and sizes are different enough that mixing must be done carefully. Mantic rank and file Dwarfs are large, particularly the heads.
Elves are elves–ancient, proud, noble. They are an elite army–swift, expensive troops with tremendous skill in both shooting and melee, so that their combat outcomes are extremely reliable. Elves have a little of everything: blocks of spearmen and archers, deadly heavy cavalry and the fastest light cavalry skirmishers in the game. In addition to bolt throwers, Elves can bring Dragon Breath flamethrower teams. The list as a whole has a dragon theme–Elf Lords on Dragons and units of flying Drakon Riders are staples. Elf armies may also field nature spirits of varying sorts, walking trees and the great Tree Herders. The latter stand out in the aggressive Elf list for their defensive resilience. Elven Mages are particularly effective.
I’ve spoken about the Mantic Elf models before. I like them. A new one is their Elf Lord on Dragon–the dragon is a fine piece of work, an excellent large model (the picture is from this blog, which has a great step by step on the model). The lord himself I’m unsure of–he’s a bit oversized. I may well adapt another figure to sit on that dragon. The old Drakon Riders are comically bad, but now gone from the Mantic webstore. I suspect they’re being replaced. Mantic makes some decent Forest Shamblers as well. Look to other companies at present for the smaller and larger sized forest spirits.
Kingdoms of Men
The Kingdoms of Men is a catch-all human list, awesome in its diversity. It could fit most historical armies from bronze age to the 16th century without trouble. No fewer than eight kinds of melee infantry appear, as well as missile troops, cavalry, chariots, artillery and a few more exotic entries–the Beast of War (anything from an elephant to a giant), and the option for a general to ride a Winged Beast (Hippogryph, Manticore or the like). Mantica is covered with small human kingdoms, only a handful of which are ever likely to be split off into distinct army lists. This covers the rest.
As far as models for the Kingdoms of Men go, Mantic doesn’t make any and really has no plan to. Take your pick of other manufacturers– the Perry Brothers make some of my favorites in 28mm. Pictures in the rulebook are drawn from a wide variety of manufacturers.
Forces of Nature
Nature armies combine both wild creatures and druid-led elemental forces. Some of the forest spirits are held in common with the Elf list, but the rest is very different. Watery Naiads (yes, fishmen!) serve as light infantry, missile troops and shock cavalry (all with tremendous regeneration but poor armor). Centaurs provide medium and light cavalry and Salamanders (think GW Saurus) heavy infantry. A wide assortment of monsters can be constructed for specific roles from the Beast of Nature and Greater Elemental unit entries. Sylph Talonriders are a rarity in the game–flying missile cavalry. Forces of Nature lists can be customized in such very different directions that they are hard to characterize apart from their common ability to ignore most negative terrain effects.
Mantic’s new hard plastic Naiad and Salamander sprues are, in my view, lovely. I have mentioned the Greater Earth Elemental and Forest Shamblers as well. Beyond these (very nice) models, much of the Nature list needs to be sourced from other companies.
Mantic Ogres are nomadic steppe tribes, like GW Ogres served by large numbers of weak goblins. Those goblins provide all-important masses of bodies (and in mounted scouts, raw speed) for the Ogre hordes. The Ogres themselves fight mainly on foot (some ride chariots to battle), capable of dealing tremendous damage but often a little lacking in defense and staying power. Their missile troops are extraordinarily powerful, doing tremendous damage at range and then striking as hard in melee as many armies’ heavy infantry. Unusual units are the Mammoth, Giants, and the curious Red Goblin Blaster–cheap, certain to die (it can only attack by detonating), potentially devastating to a player’s own lines, but capable of destruction on an unmatched scale.
Personally, I’m a fan of Mantic’s Ogre miniatures. They don’t match well with GW–a player needs to either use one or the other. Mantic Ogres aren’t as large, and are certainly slimmer, but their aesthetic is a bit Warcraft-ish with a touch of tribal savagery. For Red Goblins I’d at this point not recommend Mantic’s Goblins–more on that in a bit.
Underworld critters of the usual evil sort. Technically, these are dark beings from within a great geographical feature called the Abyss, a chasm that spans the planes of existence. Abyssal armies are mostly infantry, with a little cavalry and some decent medium to short range shooting. They range from an armored demonic elite to enormous, unthinking hordes of bound mortals, flying troops of gargoyles and the enormous, mighty Molochs. Flying heroes are common among the Abyssals, and many of their units regenerate wounds efficiently–they must be knocked out quickly or not at all.
The Abyssal models are quite new–hard plastic infantry, some metal larger infantry, and a resin monster that looks fairly impressive. I have little firsthand experience with these multi-piece models, though I like the single-piece plastics (very similar look) in the Dungeon Saga set.
The Abyssal Dwarfs are twisted and evil, dominating territory around the Abyss from their two great cities at either end of the chasm. Blocks of warriors supported by Obsidian Golems and terrifying artillery batteries sound very similar to the Dwarf list, but there are some considerable differences between ordinary Dwarfs and their Abyssal cousins. In general, the Abyssal list is more aggressive and less able to take a punch. Aside from the war machines, no long or medium range shooting is available–only (highly effective) short range gunners. Abyssal Dwarfs Halfbreeds are a kind of centaurish cavalry, and they come in an extra large form as well: the powerful Grotesques. Small troops of Gargoyles fly out to screen and harass, and the Abyssal Dwarfs supplement their numbers with Orc slaves. These Orcs fight as both infantry and cavalry, and though their morale is poor they are capable in battle.
Some of Mantic’s Abyssal Dwarf infantry are Dwarf models with additional bits. Resin, resin-plastic, hard plastic, and metal all figure in, with several models composed of mixtures among these media. Of the current figures, I like best the Gargoyles, the Obsidian Golems, and the new Supreme Iron-Caster on Great Winged Halfbreed, a monster that shares most of its body with the dragon pictured above (rider and the beast’s head are additional metal parts).
Goblin armies are a fascinating thing. Their soldiery deploy in great numbers, but lack individual skill. Sheer volume of attacks can inflict some damage, however, and the Goblins are so numerous that armies relying on small numbers of elite troops risk envelopment. Goblins bolster their ranks with extremely speedy cavalry (both missile and melee) and chariots, and Trolls and packs of vicious wild Mawbeasts to add melee punch. They have a few monsters at their disposal and some cheap and efficient war machines as well. No player should take Goblin War-Trombones lightly. Goblin heroes are as numerous as the rest of their army. Goblins are not a weak list!
As for models, a player obviously has a lot of Goblin options at her disposal. I’m perfectly content with Mantic’s Trolls (some don’t like the spindly legs, but they amuse me) and like the war machines and characters, as well as the Mawbeasts. Nearly nobody is happy with the hard plastic Goblin infantry sprues–like the Basilean men-at-arms, these were tooled badly, and are also in line to be redone.
Kings of War Orcs are strong and numerous, with poor nerve . The list is not subtle. Infantry come in the creatively named Ax, Greatax and Morax; simple Ax are very dangerous. Gore Riders, Gore Chariots and Fight Wagons offer speed and power. Skulks are the rare Orcs who use bows. They and Orclings provide nice screens for the glass hammer infantry regiments. Giants, Trolls and War Drums all are valuable, but Orc heroes, called Krudgers, stand out. On foot, mounted or on a large monster, these cheap killers keep Orcs in the fight. A note: Goblins often field Orc allies, and vice versa. This makes sense for reasons of fluff, army composition (they are naturally complementary), and because many old Warhammer players own both.
Unlike the plastic Goblins, Mantic Orcs are passable. They are smaller than GW (what isn’t) and so probably shouldn’t mix with those models. The line is nearly complete.
Kings of War Undead are a wild grab-bag. Most units are slow in themselves, but can be impelled to swift movement through necromantic magic, though vampires and Werewolves neither need nor benefit from this. Skeletons, Ghouls and Zombies provide cheap infantry of abysmal to mediocre quality. Revenants and Revenant Cavalry are solid if unspectacular–better armed than simple Skeletons. Soul Reavers are vampires, and fight to deadly effect on foot or mounted. Wraiths flit around the battlefield at impossible speed while Mummies, massive Zombie Trolls and Wights offer brute strength. Undead have a little artillery in the Balefire Catapult. The heroes are as diverse as the troops–Necromancers, Vampires on Undead Dragons, Cursed Pharaohs and other more exotic sorts all appear.
Well before the collapse of Warhammer Fantasy, Mantic’s Undead figures were finding their way into Vampire Counts players’ collections. In my opinion, this is Mantic’s best line of figures. I’m not so high on the Mummies (they’re ok, to me a little strangely proportioned), and the current Wights are being phased out in favor of (eventual) larger models, but other than that the models are quite good.
Enough for now! In my next post I’ll give an overview of the lists, fluff and models in the new Uncharted Empires book.