At Call to Arms earlier this year I bumped into an old friend, Shane, whom I’d heard had gotten into Relic Knights. Relic Knights is a game I’d been following for about four years now – it had some very interesting ideas and innovations so I asked if we could tee up a game later on.
Relic Knights is a tabletop miniatures game by Soda Pop Minatures, first published by Cool Mini or Not but now by Ninja Division. Like Kingdom Death and Malifaux, it started out as a small range of boutique miniatures that became quite successful and then led on to a game release. Relic Knight’s came in the form of a Kickstarter, launched in August 2012 and promising to be shipped by the following May. The standard script followed: nearly a million raised, delay followed delay, finally shipped in July 2015 more then two years after the promised date. I got carried away during the Kickstarter and was in for a couple of hundred, however after looking at my pile of unpainted minis I withdrew my pledge before the end, but I did pick up the rule book later on just to read through it.
So, the game. Shane came up to the club with two cadres: the fast but delicate Cersei Speed Circuit – a racing team fighting the good fight – and the doughty Black Diamond – a hardened band of mercenaries. Being the gentleman that he is I got first pick, and chose the Speed Circuit. They seemed to be the more interesting of the two to play. We set up, flipped for our objectives (like Malifaux, it exclusively uses cards) and deployed.
It is at this point you realise that the designers of Relic Knights really have deconstructed the traditional miniatures game and thought about every single assumption that the genre makes, and changed it to suit their universe. So when you come to deploy, you can deploy anywhere on the board! I’m so used to having a deployment zone that it’s really hard even to think about the tactical ramifications about putting my models anywhere on the board. There are some restrictions of course: you take turns placing models, and each has to be at least 8″ away from enemy models and objectives. We found that they ended up in small clumps, usually defending your objectives.
The game is is a race to reach a certain amount of victory points. Each player has a randomly generated primary and secondary objective (worth 5 VPs and 3 VPs), a set objective per faction (worth 2 VPs) and gains 1 VP each time they destroy an enemy character or unit. So as you can see, it’s heavily skewed towards objectives with the destruction of the foe a minor concern. We played to 8.
Relic Knights is played at a breakneck pace. Each player’s moves are very short as you act with a single model or small unit. You and your opponent rapidly ping-pong back and forth, and most importantly you never have the traditional end of turn pause. Because there is no turn! The whole game is just alternating activations until someone wins. This is achieved by requiring each player to set up a queue of models to activate, so you can’t just use the same model over and over again like in Infinity. This is just as brain-bending as you’d imagine, as you have to plan beforehand and are telegraphing your plans to your opponent. Of course, they’re doing the same, so mind-games aplenty.
Likewise, combat is also quite different to most other systems. For one thing, every ranged attack has infinite range. All areas of effect are the same size. Easy! Every ability is handled by playing a combination of cards from your hand to pay for it. If you can pay for it, the attack hits. Next each player draws more cards based on their offensive and defensive abilities, and the acting player can pay to boost the attack while the defender can pay to boost armour, redirect or dodge the attack. It’s a very clean system and has its hooks into the other parts of the game: spend your hand now to dodge an attack, and then you won’t have enough cards to pay for your next model’s attack. The punchiness felt pretty right, the smaller models couldn’t stand in the way of the hard-hitting characters, but they could slug it out with each other for a while.
On a whole the game felt very fluid and fast-paced. The tactical repercussions of having to plan your activation order ahead of time I was just getting to grips with by the end of the game, and I could see a ton of depth there waiting to be discovered. The designers have done an amazing job of capturing the essence of the source material, something that you very rarely see in miniatures games. For that alone I have to salute them!
There were a few things I didn’t like though. It seemed very fiddly to me. There were a lot of things to remember, especially the innate shared abilities that almost every model has. The way you interact with the objectives was hidden away in the scenario section of the rules and we didn’t find that till near the end of our game. Effects that you add in the game require you to use a generic numbered token and then write down what that number corresponds to – very odd! All things that I imagine repeated plays would get you knowledgeable on, but it felt very much like a first edition set of rules that is begging for a second.
Where this game falls down for me is the range of miniatures. Which is such a lost opportunity, because the range started off so well and had a huge potential.
The first thing that strikes most people when they look at the game or miniatures is that they have turned up the perv factor to 11. Almost every female character design begins and ends with emphasising the ludicrously proportioned breasts. The miniatures are then generally posed in submissive or compromising poses – knees together, feet facing each other, arching through the small of their back, or on all-fours in the classic “sexily riding on a motorbike” pose. That coupled with the variable quality of the sculpts leaves me with the sad impression of the fevered scrawlings of a horny teenage boy.
In short, not exactly the kind of minis I want on my painting desk or display cabinet. Let’s face it, miniature wargaming already has to fight an uphill battle to not being seen as grown men and women still playing with children’s toys, and this will do nothing to disabuse people of the notion. Soda Pop cling desperately to the tenet that this is a man’s (boy’s?) hobby and seem hell-bent on proving the point by going out of their way to make their products as puerile as possible – Tentacle Bento, anyone? The worst example I came across is the artwork introducing the Noh faction, a race of demons, which attempts to get titillation out of showing a group of hyper-masculine alien warriors surrounding a bloodied and bruised woman prisoner. The saddest thing is that this is so normal in our hobby that it takes a game like Relic Knights, which takes it to another level, to bring attention to it.
As to the quality of the miniatures, I was unimpressed with the Kickstarter miniatures. They are done in a type of resin/plastic that didn’t appear to hold details very well. Even the flagship models like Malya and One Shot were quite poor. Shane told me that they’re looking at recasting everything in resin which is good news – I picked up some of their early Noh in 2011 and they were amazingly detailed.
There are also scale issues, something that won’t be solved by going to resin unless they can upscale some moulds. Some miniatures tower over others, and one miniature’s head might be the same size as another’s whole torso.
So those are my thoughts on Relic Knights. Rules-wise, fantastic. It has some amazing ideas and is a very interesting direction for miniature games to go in. The concept I’d give a 10/10, the execution about a 6 – too many rough edges on the rules that keep it from truly flowing as it feels like it wants to. I’ll put this into the same basket as the second edition of Infinity – good ideas, but needs another edition to smooth everything out.
Theme-wise, it has huge issues for me. Which is such a shame, I could see me getting into this game otherwise. The hypersexualisation of the women in the game makes me uncomfortable and is unhealthy for both the hobby and society in general. Only one of the factions, Shattered Sword, is “restrained” enough in character design for me to think about getting them, but their play style and miniatures don’t excite me.
So I think I’ll be sitting this one out.