Warhammer Underworlds: Gnarlwood is the perfect introduction to how this tabletop universe works. To be specific, literally everything here wants you dead. No matter whether it's the rival faction you're facing off with or the very ground beneath your feet, it's all precision-engineered to murder you. And while that doesn't sound like it'd be much fun at first blush, the reality is quite different.
What we're left with is a compelling wargame wrapped in a rich and evocative world you won't soon forget. Actually, Warhammer Underworlds: Gnarlwood might be the best statement of intent for the franchise in a long, long time.
What is it, and how does it work?
- Game type: Skirmish wargame
- Players: 2+
- Complexity: Moderate
- Lasts: 30 - 60 mins
- Ages: 12+
- Price: $95 / £65
- Play if you enjoy: Age of Sigmar, 40K, Kill Team, Warcry
At its core, Warhammer Underworlds: Gnarlwood is a competitive skirmish wargame for two or more players. Your aim? Beat the snot out of each other for points.
However, this is a different flavor of strategy to developer Games Workshop's other projects. It's much more focused, leaning on mechanics commonly seen in board games rather than the mass troop tactics of Warhammer 40K or Age of Sigmar. That means you'll be moving characters along board hexes rather than freeform using a trusty tape measure, and a deck of ability cards are on-hand to boost your warband's prowess. You can also swap in different decks or warbands wholesale, providing plenty of customization for those wanting to take things further.
In this way, Gnarlwood shares a lot of DNA with Steamforged's Godtear; it's a battle of super-powered champions, not armies.
Still, that doesn't mean the pressure's off. You're on the clock here; players only have a few rounds to make their mark. And because bonus points are available from randomly-drawn objective cards, you'll have to stay flexible if you hope to win. Especially due to the fact that death isn't an immediate fail-state. You see, you can still claim victory even if your warband gets wiped out; you just need to have more points in the bank.
In essence, Warhammer Underworlds is about playing smart rather than hard. If 40K is a hammer, this is the scalpel.
Not that you'll need any such tools to put Gnarlwood's miniatures together, of course (beyond clippers to remove them from the sprues, anyway). These are incredible push-fit sculpts with a palpable sense of personality, and they don't feel stiff at all despite fitting together via pegs. It's an indication of the fantastic engineering behind them that the poses are so energetic, and no glue is required at all. Actually, I found that adding glue made them actively harder to construct. Basically, they're very beginner-friendly in spite of their apparent complexity.
Gameplay - is it any good?
To an extent, this game feels like a direct response to the intricacies of Warhammer's 'big' tentpole entries; it's light on prep and is whip-crack fast. Matches typically take between 30 to 60 minutes, with the former being much more common.
Yes, there's a lot of practical setup before you can cross swords. Boards need to be chosen, fighters have to be placed, and tokens must be planted. But generally speaking (and as with so many good board games for adults), it'll breeze by once you've done it a few times.
Crucially, the gameplay itself isn't nearly so hard to get your head around. Gnarlwood's bark is worse than its bite; although the rulebook isn't a five-minute read and there's a fair amount of jargon to learn, it's pretty straightforward on the whole. While it's a good idea to run a test game to get your head around the system (I was halfway through my first match before it all clicked into place), it subscribes to the idea of 'easy to learn, hard to master'. There's a tremendous amount of depth here despite the apparent simplicity.
That's especially true compared to previous entries. Unlike Warhammer Underworlds: Nethermaze or Warhammer Underworlds: Harrowdeep, Gnarlwood features a stripped-down ruleset to get you started. Despite not being as clear-cut as I'd hoped (the 'advanced rules' are dotted amongst the standard mechanics, which makes total sense in terms of organization but does mean an element of going back and forward later), it does allow you to absorb the basics before tackling more complicated ideas. With any luck, future installments will mimic the likes of the Funkoverse Strategy Game with a separate section that walks you through the fundamentals step-by-step.
Gnarlwood's two warbands aren't difficult to get to grips with either. Indeed, they're probably the most engaging additions I've seen for a while in terms of theme and gameplay. First up is the Gnarlspirit Pack, a group of barbarians possessed by animalistic entities that make them quite literally go beast-mode. You can choose to succumb to this ferocity at the beginning of each character's turn or hold off in favor of a more precise strike (at which point they become 'Inspired', offering you other bonuses), and I thoroughly enjoyed the chaos that ensued either way. There's something viscerally satisfying about this team, and boosting their prowess with upgrades or using ability cards that bounced their skills off one another was lots of fun.
Not that their rivals are slouches, of course. The Sons of Velmorn may be dead, but these skeleton soldiers are equally gripping. Acting as classic glass cannons, they don't have much in the way of staying power but hit incredibly hard. Their first strikes of the game are always critical hits, for example, and the warband's leader - King Velmorn - is able to support each fighter from afar after his initial activation thanks to the mystical crown of command he wears. In addition to the band's rivalries that see them one-upping each other, this is the perfect instance of lore being represented by mechanics (I'm fond of 'danger' hexes on the board representing carnivorous plants that want to eat you for much the same reason). Throw in certain cards that let you raise your soldiers again when they're felled and you've got a really unique force to play with.
The downside of all these cool shenanigans? You won't have time to do it all. Underworld's greatest trick is that it uses a ticking clock to apply pressure, and the economy of moves makes you think hard about how to get the most out of your fighters. There's always a sense of wanting to play again to try something else you've discovered, so you'll be eager to return.
Sure, it's not perfect. It desperately needs a form of storage to keep all those tokens, tiles, and cards from getting mixed up within the box. Similarly, the horror theme that makes it a good fit for the best Halloween board games won't appeal to everyone. But by and large, it's a superb entry that sees Games Workshop firing on all cylinders.
Should you buy Warhammer Underworlds: Gnarlwood?
If you're keen to start playing or want to expand your existing collection, I've got no trouble at all recommending Warhammer Underworlds: Gnarlwood. It's an excellent starting-point for beginners and a good continuation for veteran players thanks to its killer theme (literally) and memorable warbands.
Even though it doesn't knock things out of the park in every sense, it does a great job the rest of the time. You really do need this in your collection regardless of whether you're a newcomer or an old hand.
How we tested Warhammer Underworlds: Gnarlwood
After putting together the push-fit miniatures one evening, I played Warhammer Underworlds: Gnarlwood multiple times over a few days with each warband to see how they compared to one another. I also spent time painting the miniatures with Citadel colors to see how complex they were to decorate.