I’m getting into Malifaux!

Plenty of games try for the steampunk aesthetic–Alternate Civil War 1861’s Kickstarter was just making the rounds (again?), and a buddy and I’ve been eyeing Wild West Exodus for a while. However, one of the major impediments to either of those games grabbing me is their focus on a time and place that provides…complicated choices for army selection. I could say “problematic,” but on the internet that word’s been simultaneously emboldened and drained of significance through over use. Still, it’s probably more accurate n this context.

After you strip out the “good guys,” which I’m just about never interested in for either aesthetic, flavor, or metagame reasons. I eschew the most popular things as reflexive action; I’m tempted to get on the upcoming Harlequin Train, because sinister jesters, commedia dell’arte, and the combination thereof has been a thing for me since college. That’s a case where my utter disdain for eldar can be trumped by a pre-existing preference, but I don’t run into a lot of those. Plus, again, the “good” guys in miniatures games, especially, tend to be utter dickheads.

However, when you strip away these good guys in a game like WWE or ACW (I’m not talking about wrestling but I’m one letter off from looking like I am), you’re left with, again, problematic options. I can either go with awkward cultural appropriation–Native Americans, facing that “culture-not-costume” issue writ large–or play actual, you know, villains. The South is not, at the time these games are focused on, a banner I’m trying to raise. Now, I fully acknowledge that I regularly play a cavalcade of daemons and rapacious, hirsute monsters. But I play rapacious, not rapey. In fluff and aesthetics I work to distance myself from rape and slave-taking with any of my armies, and Dark Eldar are ensconced enough in both that I’ve never considered them an option. I actually enjoy going “No, these guys represent this alternate take an that idea, this path most people aren’t seeing is there.”

See, I can do that with fantastical space monsters. But I find it much harder to do with Confederate culture. A similar problem kept me from ever getting into Dust (Tactics, Warfare, what have you). All of the stuff I found interesting lived in an army I had no desire to play, no matter how…well, whatever the term for the opposite of whitewashing National Socialism by replacing antisemitism with mind-controlled corpses and genetically augmented apes would be.

Still, I love the thematic options present in Westerns, and the stories they lend themselves to, feudal and redemptive. Same’s true, at least in theory, with Victorian-era stuff with its threads of rampant experimentation and looming horror (less so the colonialism and cultural consumption). I love increasing diversity on the tabletop by coloring my models in ways that evoke cultures other than White Space Catholic. However, painting a bunch of Braves and having them shot to death by Confederate guns is not only emotionally problematic, it’s likely to feel tediously familiar. I’m already running three different armies who run screaming and near-skyclad into fusillades of enemy fire, which is to say all of my Warhammer armies essentially do that.

Malifaux, though, shows surprising variety in race, setting, and general rules. The models are flavorful and distinct, and that flavor infuses the gameplay as well. When you play the Jack the Ripper counterpart (and sure, that’s a problematic model for all sorts of reasons), his melee attack–“Backhand”–has a chance to trigger a second strike, which is called “Palm-Side.” I love that. I love the narrative being baked that deeply into everything you do.

Plus, the models themselves are microcosms of gameplay, in a fashion similar to what Warmachine and Hordes promised (but I didn’t necessarily see delivered). The Dreamer lends himself to two different styles, based on how enamored you are with playing a levitating mashup of Little Nemo and Damien versus turning him into a howling avatar of nightmares and murder everything with tooth and claw. Both styles are generally supported by the same models, keeping costs low, but still provide highly distinct gameplay.

My birthday gifts were all Malifaux-related, for myself and my wife, so I’m excited for us to set to playing. I’m picking up the Hamelin and Mei Feng boxes, which will give me a sinister pied piper character with a horde of rats and an Asian railworker with crippling kung-fu stylings and shambling, cybernetic railroad monstrosities. Assuming the game grabs me and I have people to play with, I’d love to also get hold of the drug-pushing gambler (where “drugs” are cosmic illumination from an entity of primordial hunger, natch) who is served by a pair of fellows much like characters a longtime friend and I ran in several DnD campaigns; and Jack Daw, who is the hideous, scarred effigy of the town of Malifaux itself, come to punish all with the shades of the wrongly slain.

How could I not play that?

12 thoughts on “Malifantastic

  1. Good luck in Malifaux. I can’t speak to how you’ll find it in terms of the fluff (which, like all miniatures games varies wildly in quality) but the game itself is fun, simple and has good balance between and within factions.

    1. Thanks! I’ve loved the fluff I’ve seen so far, especially Jack Daw and Lynch, so I’m looking forward to when my rulebooks come in and I can tear into some more of it.

  2. Now this is a meaty post. I’m going to have do some in-line replies, I think…

    “After you strip out the ‘good guys,’ which I’m just about never interested in for either aesthetic, flavor, or metagame reasons.”

    Ohhhhhhhh! I get it now! That would indeed make it difficult to play most historical miniatures genres of at least the last 200 years or so, yeah.

    “I love increasing diversity on the tabletop…”

    As someone who increasingly enjoys playing good guys, and agrees with that sentiment, I’m pretty sure my next WW2 project is going to be these guys. But the mere fact that they represent by their very existence the segregationist policies of the “good guy” side proves your other point! So yeah, I absolve you of your reticence surrounding historicals. 😛

    “…whatever the term for the opposite of whitewashing National Socialism by replacing antisemitism with mind-controlled corpses and genetically augmented apes would be.”

    Mm-hm. That sort of thing is fine in RPGs, but if that’s supposed to be YOUR faction in a minis game, it strikes me as more than a tad flip and reductionist of, you know, actual human evil.

    “…facing that ‘culture-not-costume’ issue writ large…”

    That’s an awesome link, but when I first read that line I couldn’t but think of Return of the Living Dead (mildly NSFW side-boobage).

    As for Seamus and his “Backhand ==> Palm-Side” combo, I love that kind of stuff in this game! A friend is running a Zoraida crew, and looking at her card I saw that she has a Tactical Action called “You Remind Me of the Babe” that summons a little Voodoo Doll minion! It’s like there’s all these wonderful Easter eggs buried throughout the game like that.

    Glad to see you’re already planning on doing multiple crews. The rules pretty much encourage it, since you’re not supposed to “reveal” your crew choice until you’re halfway through the pre-game setup, which sort of implies you’ll have a stable of crews to choose from. And at about $50 a pop, why not? I’m hella putting together a Dreamer crew this year, I can tell you that.

    BTW, the draft rules for 2e-compatible campaign games have been released. I’d highly recommend checking them out, especially if you get a third or fourth player involved. My Malifaux weekend last November was a mini-campaign of three games per person using the 1.5e rules, and it really added to the experience!

    1. I’ll do a semi line-by-line back (saves me attempting to lay any paint on this Landraider I’m staring at)!
      -I appreciate your benediction regarding historical games! It’s fortunate that I don’t feel I’m losing much, since I’m far less interested in gunpowder-related warfare and its history than a lot of wargamers seem to be. I just don’t…like guns. As an aesthetic or a gameplay choice, really. That’s why all of my Warhammer armies keep coming up all melee, my Malifaux looks poised to follow suit, and so on and so forth. On some level–and ironically considering the ever-burbling political furor over their effect on violent proclivities–I blame video games for this. You never have to reload your sword unless you’re playing Monster Hunter, but scrounging for arrows and/or bullets in games has always stressed me out. I just put together a party for the PC Temple of Elemental Evil last night, and genuinely built an archer in good faith, but now I somehow have only 4 arrows left so I’m hitting things with her greataxe.

      There’s a visual element, too, that tends to make melee more engaging. So I’d much rather play an army of impies (there are shields to decorate! adornments to adorn!) than British soldiers in nicely-dressed orderly formation. That’s why I spent so much time following this Kickstarter despite in no way needing another large-scale miniatures game. There are wholly three non-European cultures represented there! Maybe four, as I genuinely don’t know what’s going on with the Kyrans but the curved blades make me think they’re angling for Persian. I like Dark Age’s Kukulkani for the same reason, but not their website, which alwasy seems wrecked.

      -Buffalo Soldiers are tricky, for the reasons you list. I think knowledge of units like that throughout history goes a ways towards explaining my affection for shit-upon-underdogs in most fantasy settings; I’m the guy who’d sooner play an Orc than an Elf (and wouldn’t touch a Drow because they’ve fully looped that). A lot of my empathy for 40k’s Chaos–especially guys like the Night Lords–comes from recognizing that they’re often individuals trying to survive in a society that has limited places for them to exist, and no sympathy for the consequences of fitting into the places they’re left. With something like Buffalo Soldiers I have the added challenge, being black, of not only representing those policies with such an army but wondering if I’m also supporting them or saying “Yeah, that’s a good enough place.” You may have seen the meme making its rounds today where all of the 40k Loyalist chapters are given brief descriptive blurbs, and Salamanders are “Space Scary Ethnicity.” And Salamanders aren’t even ethnically black anymore, as I understand it!

      -I never want to reduce actual human evil, either (though many of the people I went to grad school with are no doubt rolling your eyes at any association of Nazis with “evil,” because pants knows they did any time I brought it up). I love fantasy for the opportunity to expand concepts into entire nations, even though that’s the “fantasy racism” I see critics constantly panning. I appreciate being able to explore broad frameworks that might spring from some smaller idea–I had an entire campaign world built out of 9/11 and the concept of “blowback,” based on one play I watched and, you know, 9/11. But also based on goblins, which I like, and elves, which are dicks.

      -That Return of the Living Dead link had me expecting a poster in line with the other ones, but for zombies. Which sent me down a fascinating side track because, at some point in the not-inconceivable future, there will totally be robots holding up frat boys in silver face paint and saying “This is not okay.” Tears in rain!

      -I showed Stacey the “Remind me of the babe” ability (which the Facebook Marvel: Avengers Alliance also features, wherein Spiral can use Dance, Magic Dance to gain Babe With the Power) and was crestfallen when she shut down my whole monologue about Sue by having no familiarity with the significance of any boys bearing such a name. I love how evocative Hamelin’s Horrible Realization is (and I don’t even know what it does!).

      Aight, I’m off to watch my dad play pinball. Draft rules downloaded and maybe we’ll ease into play with those if I manage to snare a couple other players by the time my boxes arrive. Thanks as always for the insightful commentary!

      1. I’m curious how you feel about pre-modern historicals. Do you know about DBA? Each army only features 12 “bases” of troops, and it covers 2000 BC to 1500 AD. If you ever had a yen for historicals, that would be my recommendation.

        At any rate, I actually agree with you vis a vis melee being more interesting! I LOVE building factions that are all about getting stuck in and messing shit up, to the point that I don’t even care if it’s *my* shit that gets messed up as long as it’s gloriously chaotic and bloody.

        “With something like Buffalo Soldiers I have the added challenge, being black, of not only representing those policies with such an army but wondering if I’m also supporting them or saying ‘Yeah, that’s a good enough place.'”

        That makes sense. From my perspective, WWII gaming is SO white-washed, having ANY POC-type troops on the table who aren’t “the bad guys” is making a certain interesting statement. It encourages discussion and further study, which is a good thing.

      2. The challenge with pre-modern historicals is, you know, I’d just as soon have gods and magic. There was another kicskstarter recently (I didn’t back it because I vastly prefer plastic models to other options) that took historical cultures but also gave them Jotun and so forth. Basically, if I can get magic I want magic, but I appreciate the targeted recommendation if my hungers ever change.

        It’s interesting how often, with melee armies, you arguably have less diversity in terms of model-to-model play in a unit, yet I still find them more engaging. A unit of Space Marines might have 3-4 different guns present, whereas my Bloodletters all have the same sword and maybe the sarge gets a marginally better one, but I still do find that a more engaging style of play!

        Stacey’s Orks are even more interesting, since you genuinely have the ability to build units with dramatically distinct roles between the rank and file and the leader.

        You make an excellent point with the PoC, though I usually just paint everyone with some more varied ethnicities–but again, not trying for any historical accuracy. It gets even trickier with the question of, you know, do black soldiers get special powers? If so, do they make them better than white ones? If so, is it because they’re stronger? ‘Cause that leads into some Michael Brown Hulk areas. But if they don’t have special powers, and acknowledgment of some of the challenges in terms of equipment, command respect, etc. they faced, then how are they actually different from just painting a soldier a darker color?

        I think that’s part of what I appreciate so much about my fragile Daemon hordes, and my Egyptian-themed Beastmen, and other armies like that. The actual models, as presented, aren’t really given distinction or personality, so it’s easier to layer it on top of them. Whereas the number of threads I’ve seen screaming about how you can’t have a female Space Marine army, how is it even on the table, how dare you??? make me glad I’m playing on the fringes.

        One of my CSM is both black and a woman, and no one’s ever said a damn thing. She also has a crab-claw hand and fangs though.

  3. Just a couple final thoughts on this:

    “The challenge with pre-modern historicals is, you know, I’d just as soon have gods and magic.”

    If I was playing a GW-style, points-build game, I’m in the same camp. (Indeed, Des’s Amazon army for Armies of Arcana is basically re-skinned classical Greeks only with centaurs and an avatar of Athena…)

    The appeal of historicals, to me, is seeing how I would perform as a commander, particularly in a scenario based on an actual battle. I don’t even mind if the victory conditions (and force compositions) are asymmetrical; a contest to see if I can “lose better” than my historical counterpart can be just as fascinating as one where I’m strictly playing to win.

    “It gets even trickier with the question of, you know, do black soldiers get special powers?”

    This is a tricky question in general, and one that WWII games already grapple with vis a vis the Germans–do we give them “special powers” to represent their winning qualities?

    The answer, of course, is no, across the board. The only room for variation in *any* game based on real life events is (a) equipment and (b) morale/initiative. So one could give early war Germans better initiative, or one could give the men of a unit with an actual historical record of dogged stick-to-it-iveness (like the men of the 92nd) a higher force morale. Otherwise, to put it in Warhammer terms, it’s 3’s across the board and I don’t care what army it is.

    With fantasy gaming, there’s much more room for variation of stats, and that’s what makes that type of gaming fun. Conversely, I find the quality of sameness with only slight variations to be one of the draws of historical gaming.

    1. And I think that’s a well-presented argument in favor of them! However, if that’s what’s on the table, my brain takes it to “Let’s just play chess.”

      There’ve been a spate of articles recently about whether 40k is competitive, and a ton of laborious and ill-directed conversation in the wake of that tournament I mentioned about the same. Part of the argument being presented, both places, is essentially “Well, this is IN the game, so if you’re playing the game, and you want to win, just play this thing that’s in the game.” But, for me, that also loops back to chess; if I wanted to play a game where I knew going in there would be set and specific winning strategies and a clear and immutable hierarchy (barring promotions, natch), then I feel that there’s a solid game for that already. When I sit down to build, and paint, and maneuver my plastic men I want to have my thoroughly, thoroughly iconoclastic stamp on all of them.

      Still, your concept of “losing better” is a super-compelling one. I think, there, the problem I run into is that the armies I’d want to see win definitely, profoundly, and utterly have -not- won on the stage of history. Sweeping the Zulus North into Europe, or letting China win the Opium Wars…these would be interesting things, but ultimately I’d still be going “And then what? How did the culture develop? Do we have awesome hovertanks with buffalo horns?” aaaaand…suddenly I’m playing fantasy or 40k again!

      That’s something that I’m interested in seeing develop with the Wild West Exodus expansion factions. A Native American army that’s embraced their darker animism–wendigos with chainguns and so forth–provides an interesting refutation and subversion of the “noble savage” concept. Also, confederate rebels are an intriguing idea; I already see Lynch as basically being that in Malifaux, since he’s just Doc Holliday possessed and literally asks you to Play for Blood.

      1. Okay, I just wanted to come back to this briefly because a thing happened over the weekend that perfectly sums up why I love historical miniatures.

        So I ordered the “Buffalo Soldiers” boxed set and, as I’m waiting for it to arrive, I start doing research on the 92nd Infantry Division in WW2. Because, as we discussed here, one needs a qualitative good idea of how things played out in real life in order to make quantitative judgments in terms of troop morale, etc.

        And holy shit, it was grim.

        Basically, not only did the division have an all-white officer corps (which I knew going in), but the division commander was a graduate of Stonewall Jackson’s own Virginia Military Institute. One guess as to how he viewed his troops, and how they viewed him in turn…

        Morale in the division was rock bottom. They did not perform well, as a general rule. Even the episodes of recorded heroism (like this bit of heart-wrenching bravery) weren’t recognized with Medals of Honor until nineteen-fucking-ninety-five.

        All of this left me thinking that it might indeed be best not to pursue this line of collecting.

        But in the course of researching the 92nd, I read a reference to how they fought alongside the Brazilian Expeditionary Force, which was the only racially-integrated Allied military unit. This piqued my interest, so I started researching them. And then I saw their unit insignia: a snake smoking a pipe. No lies:

        (The imagery came from an expression regarding earlier prognostications as to when the Brazilians would put boots on the ground, “à uma cobra um cachimbo fumar” being the Brazlian equivalent of “when pigs fly.”)

        And, of course, being Brazilians, they all look like bad-asses:

        So I’ve found my WW2 Bolt Action project. The FEB wore American equipment, so I can simply use a mix of the “Buffalo Soldiers” box and the “American Infantry” box to create an interesting racially-mixed force that one doesn’t normally see on the table, while now having an excuse to do some research on a little aspect of the war I didn’t know about before.

      2. I knew that the snake-pipe scenario was familiar to me, which pretty much meant it had to come from a Cracked article (pretty much my only window into the history of gunpowder warfare). It showed up on a list of the least intimidating battle flags, but I admit that I loved it. That snake looks satisfied with himself.

        I’m glad you found a project, and can definitely appreciate how it ended up as a quasi-rejection of the available options in favor of your own. I’m especially glad you found a way to reconcile history with the models you wanted to play because, yeah, the history of the Buffalo Soldiers doesn’t exactly provide a bunch of fist-pumping historical re-enactment! Looking forward to seeing the painted folks when the time is right!

      3. Yes, he’s a totally self-satisfied snake!

        I’ve already found the best little anecdote, reading the Osprey volume on the Brazilian Expeditionary Force. I posted it on my Google Plus, but I’ll repeat it here for posterity:

        Another Brazilian squad were quartered in a church, where they were attacked with hand grenades by Germans who took cover in the cemetery. Lieutenant Pires borrowed a bazooka man from another platoon to deal with them: “When we got close to the cemetery, the bazooka man said to me, ‘Lieutenant, I need to take a dump.’ What could I do? He was the bazooka man, so I said ‘Go ahead.’ He did, while we waited. Then I pointed out the target to him, and he fired. There were bones flying everywhere, and the Germans left.”

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