I’m not entirely sure what has started this off, but I’ve recently been really into the Blackstone Fortress game once more, though this time I’ve been playing it more! When it was released back at the tail end of 2018, I was really into it, but played it just once before it was somewhat consigned to the pile, and it hasn’t really seen the light of day since!
Well, all that changed a couple of weeks ago, when I read through the rule books over breakfast, then just launched myself into a game!
Now, to start with, the miniatures are very beautiful, and cover some incredible corners of 40k lore. This game came out only a couple of months after Kill Team Rogue Trader, where we had incredible plastic sculpts for stuff like Death Cult Assassins, as well as the Rogue Trader herself and her crew. In Blackstone Fortress, we got another Rogue Trader model, along with a plastic Navigator, Ministorum Priest, and expansions brought plastic Crusaders, Primaris Psykers and more esoteric wonders. To say nothing of the adversaries!!
It was an incredible dive into the lore of the 40k universe, and I don’t think anybody really saw it coming.
But the game came to an end, after a good run of expansion content that brought us plastic ambulls, plastic zoats, and a Traitor Commissar, no less! It was phenomenal, but while I was collecting all of these expansions (except for No Respite, curses!) I didn’t really feel the need to play it further. Weird…
I think this is because at its core, once you’ve played a game with it, you pretty much know what you’re in for, and subsequent games feel very much like more of the same. I think a lot of the game happens in terms of the background and story, and it requires some element of storytelling from the players before you can really enjoy it. The raw mechanics of the game are a bit bland, and the fact you could be setting up four different boards, from in-numbered tiles, does mean that you’re in for a lot of downtime between actual gaming. There are definitely better dungeon crawler games out there, but given how dripping with theme this can be, not many of them compare in terms of the background fluff.
I suppose, then, that Blackstone Fortress is a massive vehicle for telling some awesome stories, as you play a Rogue Trader facing off against weird Dark Mechanicus cultists, or whatever.
The rules, while they’re not bad per se, are nevertheless laid out in a very weird manner. There are five booklets, three of which contain the rules of the game as it is played, but you find yourself flicking through at least two of them throughout. The Rules booklet itself tells you how to set things up, and also covers what are called “special rules”, though I’d say they are pretty much general rules that come up quite a bit. The Combat booklet covers what to do when fighting a combat, oddly enough. The Precipice booklet covers the bookkeeping part of the game, as well as the linked scenario stuff. Why these couldn’t have been bundled into one, slightly bigger book that covers everything in a better layout, I don’t know!
So, when you play Blackstone Fortress, you play an Expedition into the fortress. To do this, you create an Exploration deck that contains four challenges and four combats, and shuffle it together. The object of the game is to find clues and archeotech from the Discovery deck, and these Explorations will give you many opportunities to do so. The challenges range from all sorts of things, and often take place without the need for your miniatures, as you just need to roll dice, or whatever.
The combat is more the traditional dungeon crawl that we perhaps expect from the game, and requires a board to be set up that features enemies drawn from an Encounter deck. You start the game facing up to four enemy groups, but more can be added in over time (more later).
So, you set up the board according to the card you drew, with discovery markers placed and hostile groups set up essentially guarding those markers, and away you go. There are four phases to play through per round; Destiny, Initiative, Activation and Event. In the Destiny phase, you roll five black dice, discarding any doubles, and place these on the Precipice board. These dice can be used by any hero as basically an extra move.
In the Initiative phase, each hero has a mini card which is shuffled along with however many hostile groups are taking part, and these cards are placed along the Initiative track to determine player order. There are opportunities to mess with this order to some degree, swapping stronger heroes or those in need, etc. Each hero also gets four dice to roll, which are placed onto the hero card (wounds can decrease the number of dice you roll, however).
The Activation phase is where the action happens, and you’re moving around the board, searching those discovery markers, shooting up the bad guys, and so on. To take an action, a hero spends one of the dice from the hero sheet (and Destiny dice provide additional turns, though a hero cannot spend more than two per turn).
You don’t have to spend all of your dice, however, as you can save it for Overwatch, if you anticipate a hostile coming into range later in the turn. It’s an interesting rule that I forget (I forget a lot of stuff though!). When a hero’s turn is finished, they can attempt an Inspiration roll, trying to roll under the combined wounds value of all the models he’s killed off that turn; if you killed 5 wounds of models and roll a 4 on the d20, you get a point. These can be used to reroll dice, to search a hex or to flip your hero sheet to its Inspired side.
Hostiles activate according to a nice AI system that again requires the d20 to determine their behaviour.
Finally, in the Event phase, unless all heroes are out of action or in the exit tile, another d20 roll is made, consulting the Event table to see what happens, before heading into a new round. Generally, results from 1-10 are bad news, and 11-20 are good.
The explorers can choose to end the Expedition before all eight Exploration cards have been worked through, or you can play through them all – while it sounds like a lot of work, challenges are only a few minutes each, and Combat can be over in an hour. When it’s all over though, the explorers head to Precipice, the space station/port where their ships are docked. Considering this step has its own booklet, there are only three pages of rules for it.
To start with, you draw a Legacy card, which will either give a new global effect for all additional games you play if you’re on campaign, or it’ll be a new type of hostile you need to use in subsequent games, or it’ll be a Countdown card, which is a bit like a breather in that nothing bad happens, but if the Legacy deck runs out then you are out of time (more in a bit).
You then get to trade in any archeotech for the stuff each ship has to offer. Each hero receives a discount if they go to their own ship, and each ship has an effect that you can try to activate, with a specific hero’s ship giving that hero a better chance of success.
That is pretty much it, anyway! Once you’ve visited Precipice, the sequence begins anew, and eight more Exploration cards are drawn for a new visit into the Fortress. However, to make this more like a campaign game, there is a linked game system of The Hidden Vault, where players must overcome four Stronghold scenarios before attacking the Hidden Vault itself. To find a Stronghold, you must have already found four Clue cards from the Discovery deck, which you can use to start the process. There are only 12 Legacy cards in the game, and you’ll have at least four post-Stronghold Precipice stages where you’ll draw from this deck, so you only have a maximum of eight “free” Expeditions before the deck runs out, and you can no longer attempt to find the Hidden Vault.
It’s interesting, but I do feel that as a campaign system it does somewhat lack. I mean, you have almost no way to level up a character, as they always start out the same. The majority of stuff that you can pick up from Precipice is single-use, though when you defeat a Stronghold you do get interesting artefacts. There feels like something else missing, for me. I think it probably makes for a more streamlined game, having less bookkeeping to worry about, but it could have been so much better.
For the last few weeks now, I’ve just been enjoying playing essentially pick-up games of Blackstone Fortress, with a vague idea that I might try for a Stronghold just to see what that’s all about. It’s been a lot of fun, and I think playing the odd expedition has been better than just grinding through game after game in an effort to get to the hidden vault. You don’t notice so much the set up time because you’re only doing four separate boards, and some of those aren’t too big. It’s even quite thematic if you turn up the same board as a previous expedition, as it heightens the sense of the Fortress being a random place where all of this has happened before…
I’m really enjoying it, anyway, and I recently put together the minis from the expansions, so that I’m ready! It’s going to be a long time before I get there, of course!!