Or, why Relic Knights is like Wacky Races.
Relic Knights is a miniatures game. You buy, assemble, and paint (maybe) miniatures, place them on a gaming table, and move them around with a tape measure or other measuring device. What Relic Knights isn’t, or it at least stretches the definition to close to its breaking point, is a wargame. Most miniatures games are wargames to some degree or another, and this can create an expectation in new players for not only how they should play Relic Knights, but how Relic Knights should play. When the game then doesn’t meet those expectations, it can create a frustrating gaming experience, and sometimes even the feeling that the game doesn’t quite work properly.
A wargame simulates the experience of warfare, and a miniatures wargame does that using miniatures. So far, so obvious. At its most basic, a miniatures wargame involves two armies deploying at opposite sides of a table, moving towards each other, and fighting. Victory is usually determined by casualties inflicted and troops who have fled. Combat is the ultimate goal of the game, and doing combat better than your opponent is how you win. Many games add scenarios to the mix, so that a given game may be determined by whether one side can gain control of a hill defended by the other side. The amount of casualties inflicted has no bearing on the win condition, but inflicting casualties is the key to being able to achieve the win condition, so combat remains the essence of the game.
Some games, especially some low model-count skirmish games, push that even further, and make victory dependent on completing several tasks that score points. Scoring more points than the opponent determines the winner. As these tasks are often not related to combat, then it isn’t necessary to engage in combat to complete them. That said, it remains the case that the easiest path to completing even a non-combat task is to first kill as many opposition models as possible.
If you’ve any previous experience of playing miniatures games then the likelihood is you’ll recognise one or more of those as being how miniatures games are played. Even if you’ve played games such as Malifaux, which place a heavy emphasis on non-combat victory conditions, and are thus quite comfortable with the idea that combat is not the be-all and end-all of the game, there’ll still be the expectation that killing enemy models will be, and should be, a key part of the game.
And with Relic Knights it sort of is. If you can kill enemy models then you will score victory points just for doing that, and you will also make it easier to score your other victory conditions. The problem is killing enemy models can be difficult, in some cases very difficult, and even if you take out one or two units, you can find you’ve lost the game by a wide margin while you were doing it. It doesn’t help that Relic Knights is a fairly complex game, not unusual for a modern skirmish game and certainly no more complex than the likes of Infinity, and it requires players to keep track of quite a lot of information. Included among this are three (or even four) victory conditions for both players. You not only need to remember what you score victory points for, but also what your opponent scores their victory points for. It’s easy to lose track, lose focus, and find your opponent announcing victory by completing a condition you’ve struggled to remember they have.
The result can be a game in which you spend futile activations attacking enemy models who defend your attacks. Meanwhile your opponent zips their models around the board interacting with objectives and killing some of your models with seeming ease.
This is the first stage of playing Relic Knights. This blog post is in the main an attempt to get players over that hump as quickly as possible. I’ve also written some quickstart rules for starter box games which are currently uploaded as files to the ‘Relic Knights: Darkspace Calamity’ and ‘Relic Knights UK’ Facebook groups, which are intended to simplify the game for new players, including giving clear and relatively simple victory conditions for both players. Using those rules for a game or two with this post in mind should hopefully mean that stage one is passed quickly and painlessly.
There are several moving parts which are collectively responsible for the way Relic Knights plays. The first is that the game employs a first-past-the-post victory point system. The first player to score a set number of VPs will immediately win the game. There are games, such as the aforementioned Malifaux, which also determine a winner based on scoring VPs, but these are totted up when the game ends and the person with the most points wins (or at least it did in 1e). This means that a player can meet a victory requirement during the game but then lose it later, and that one player can make up a VP deficit no matter how far behind they are at a given point in the game. VPs that are scored in Relic Knights are never lost, and as soon as your opponent hits the VP threshold then you have lost and cannot make up the deficit. You must not only score VPs, but score them faster than your opponent.
The second moving part is the alternating activation sequence. There are no turns in Relic Knights over which all the models are activated, and you only activate one unit at a time, with play passing to your opponent to activate one of their units before you get to activate another (notwithstanding Link). Warmachine also utilises a FPtP VP system to determine the winner, but it uses an ‘I go, U go’ activation sequence, in which each player activates their entire army in one go, before passing to their opponent to do the same. So if you set your army up to begin scoring VPs, your opponent can then bring their entire army to bear on preventing you, and vice versa. If your opponent is set up to score VPs in Relic Knights, then you only activate one unit before they activate again, and the queue means there’s no guarantee it’ll be a unit which is of any use to you. Once again, the onus is on you to score your VPs fast, by using the minimum number of activations possible.
The third moving part is what you score VPs for. There are six primary conditions worth 5VPs each, six secondary worth 3VPs, and six faction conditions worth 2VPs, plus two further victory conditions worth 2VPs each if either the Wild or Void card is flipped. Of them, only five directly require you to cause any damage, the remainder can be completed without ever doing a combat action. You do also get 1VP for killing a non-knight enemy unit, and 3VPs for killing a knight, but why invest activations trying to kill five enemy units when you can complete a primary victory condition for the same number of VPs in many fewer activations and spending much less esper?
The final moving part is the durability of many units, which means killing them will either take a lot of activations, or even be functionally impossible before the game ends. Relic Knights has attack prevention abilities which can cancel the entire attack on the target unit, and if they have the esper to pay for them then the defence is guaranteed. If you spend an activation attacking a unit which Guards, then you have achieved nothing with that activation. Bearing in mind you need to reach the VP threshold in as few activations as possible. So if an enemy unit has a Guard, and you think they could afford to pay for it, why bother attacking it? Use that activation on completing your victory conditions. Even if they have no Guard or Redirect or can’t afford to pay for it, if they have sufficient Health, Armor, and/or Recover (or even access to Heal) that means it would take you multiple activations to kill them, why bother attacking it? You are risking falling behind your opponent in the race to reach the VP threshold.
This is the point at which stage two of Relic Knights is reached. Your focus should be on completing your victory conditions and not on attacking your opponent. So Relic Knights becomes a game in which you and your opponent zip around the table blindly ignoring one another while you score VPs, and the first one to reach the threshold wins. In many ways this seems worse than stage one. At least then you were interacting with your opponent. Now they might as well not be there. Plus if you do that and at the end of it you lose, then you’ve lost a game which you could do nothing about, assuming you were completing victory conditions as fast as you could, because your opponent could complete theirs faster than you. And you didn’t get to interact either. Why bother? Why not just play something else?
If you’ve realised why then welcome to stage three. If not, then this is why: if you ignore your opponent and focus on completing your victory conditions as fast as you can and you lose, then you should have been trying to slow your opponent down. If you have a foot race against someone faster than you then you will lose, unless you trip them up.
And this is why Relic Knights is the Wacky Races of miniatures games.
If all the entrants in Wacky Races just raced as fast as they could to the finish line, then the one with the fastest car would always win. Probably Penelope Pitstop in her Compact Pussycat, which seems appropriately Cerci.
But, you might be asking, having just explained why trying to kill enemy units just wastes activations and puts you behind in the race, how exactly are you supposed to do this? Well, just like the entrants in Wacky races. They don’t kill each other, but they hassle, hamper, harry, harass, distract, and generally get in in the way.
This will be the subject of the next blog post. For now, the main points I hope a new or new-ish player takes away from this post is not to get frustrated if it feels like you’re futilely blasting away at a enemy cadre which is running rings around you and taking out your units, or you’re having joyless games in which you run around the table oblivious to your opponent and then lose. Relic Knights has lots of ways for you to interact with your opponent, many tricks you can use, and many ways to ruin their day.