Lots of games come with ‘basic’ rules, like you’re some kind of short-busser who can’t handle all the rules at one time. In some cases, they’re right – Through the Ages is best if you take a practice run at it before you bite off the whole six-hour boondoggle. But some, like Hordes High Command, should absolutely not bother with the easy set-up rules.
The first time we played Hordes High Command, a deck-building game from Privateer Press that takes place in their Iron Kingdoms setting, we followed the suggestion in the rules and build the quick-start game. In this version of the game, decks are smaller and the game is shorter. Also, it’s not fun.
So I was dismayed and disheartened, because a game that looks this pretty should be fun, especially in accordance with the addendum to my recently released legislation requiring games to be attractive. But I also knew that I had played the basic rules, the quick set-up decks, and that the game is supposed to be longer. So while it took me a little bit to try it again, I did finally make it back for a second round. I had the sense that there might be something here, some reason this game wasn’t a complete waste of money. After all, Hordes High Command is actually an expansion-slash-sequel to Warmachine High Command, so I was kind of thinking that it couldn’t completely suck or they wouldn’t have tried it twice.
And man, was I wrong that first time (except that I wasn’t really wrong, because the basic set-up really does blow green goat balls). The full rules are basically exactly as tricky as the basic rules, except for being way, way more fun. Of course, they could have been barely any fun at all and still been better than our first game, but we actually really loved it. Even my dad, and he thought the setting from the lid of the box looked retarded (that’s a paraphrase – if you want to hate someone, don’t look at my old man. I’ll be your huckleberry).
Hordes High Command is a deck-builder – I mentioned that already. But the cool thing is that you all have different cards you can buy, because the creepy red claw guys are not going to be recruiting the giant blue trolls, and the druids are not going to have any use for the miniature dinosaurs that feed on corruption and spoiled Thanksgiving leftovers. And you recruit all these different mean motor-scooters because you will need them to march off to war and battle your opponents for the scarce-but-very-valuable land. So on top of having your own cards to buy, you also have direct conflict with the other people playing the game.
There have been other games with conflict, of course – Nightfall remains my reigning favorite in-your-face deck-building game – but few have had you build whole, personalized armies to send into battle. The theme in Hordes High Command is more evident and more fun than nearly any other deck-builder I can think of, including Arctic Scavengers, which is a total blast with a theme that actually works. But this theme works even better.
For instance, when you manage to defeat your enemies and claim a piece of land, you get to add the land card to your discard pile – it will take a while to start returning resources, so you won’t get to mine the land for fuel and opiates until you shuffle up again. And then after you grab the land, the soldiers you committed are out of the game – they can’t come fight again, because they are occupying the land. Only some land cards will let you move some of those soldiers to your discard pile instead – they’re exhausted from the fighting, but the land is so barren and small that you only need a few battalions to hold it.
The theme is also readily apparent in the art. If you’re at all familiar with the Iron Kingdoms setting and the magnificent illustrations that go with it, you know how dead-sexy this stuff looks. Your big, blue, bone-breaker troll looks terrifying as he throws enemies around like Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting Mrs. Greenbottom’s kindergarten class. The noble but clearly terrifying red knights are imposing and powerful. You can picture how these wars are happening, and it only helps that the game itself backs up the story the wars are telling.
The goal at the end of Hordes High Command is two-fold – control the most valuable land, and build the most impressive armies. That makes sense, right? Big armies and land grabs? But the cool thing is, once again, how the theme is delivered through the rules. Your best units are worth victory points, and so is the land. Spend a lot of time throwing weak-but-cheap warriors at quick conquest, and you may win the land war – but without the hulking monsters you’ll see in opposing decks, you know you’ll never be able to keep them (which means you will still have fewer victory points).
It’s quite rare to see a game, especially a deck-building game, do such an effective job of delivering the theme through the rules. Deck-building games tend to have a lot of abstraction and not a lot of confrontation. They can be fun, but they rarely tell a story. Even Nightfall doesn’t tell a story, no matter how much I adore it. Hordes High Command delivers a thoughtful game full of difficult and entertaining decisions and wraps it all in a theme that actually makes sense. It’s tough to do much better than that.
A deck-building game with a theme that really works
Tough decisions and good long-range strategy
Multiple ways to winBeautiful art
Don’t even bother with the basic set-up instructions
If you want to try a bad-ass deck-building game with some killer art and an exceptionally cool theme, you should check out Hordes High Command:
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