Review: The Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth

Review: The Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth

This fast-paced tactical skirmish game throws rival Space Marines into a frantic fight for survival. Could it tempt a lapsed Warhammer player back to the table?

The Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth board game
The Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth hands players control of Space Marines serving the human Imperium or the twisted Chaos gods.

They say you never completely recover from an addiction.

As a teenager I found myself hooked on the science fiction battle game Warhammer 40,000. I obsessed over assembling hordes of little metal soldiers, robots and aliens. I spent hours poring over rulebooks, devising strategies and inflicting some truly hideous paint jobs on the models in my collection.

As the years passed, though, my love for the game began to fade. The prices of miniatures increased, my friends started to drop out of the hobby and eventually I made the astounding discovery that going on dates with guys and girls could be more rewarding than painstakingly maneuvering troops around a table with the aid of a measuring tape. More than a decade on, I’d assumed that my teenage fixation with dice-chucking futuristic combat was behind me.

I was wrong.

The Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth is a new game in the grim and gritty Warhammer 40,000 (40K) universe. Set during the cataclysmic civil war that would rend the forces of humanity in two and provide the fictional foundation for millennia of conflict, it hands players command of forces of genetically-engineered super-soldiers: the Ultramarines – religious zealots fanatically loyal to humankind’s god-emperor, and the Word Bearers – their former brothers-in-arms fallen to the worship of the twisted and malevolent Chaos gods.

Like its predecessor, the game revolves around miniature figures, all of which come in multi-part kits. You’ll have to assemble them yourself, armed with clippers, craft knives and a tube of superglue. It’s a long, fiddly and laborious process, but it does mean that you’re able to build your minis in a variety of dramatic poses.

Horus Heresy Betrayal at Calth Ultramarines miniatures
Zealous, dauntless and fanatically loyal to their god-emperor, the Ultramarines are humanity’s most steadfast warriors.

But while Betrayal at Calth shares 40K’s emphasis on miniatures, in other ways it’s markedly different. Where 40K lets players fight battles on a scale limited only by their budget and the size of their kitchen table, Calth aims to capture the atmosphere of a small, desperate skirmish. You’ll take control of a handful of troops battling for control of a sprawling subterranean bunker. Rather than an open tabletop battlefield dotted with carefully modelled terrain, you’ll fight your way through cramped tunnels and darkened vaults represented by a modular game board.

The game’s dice-based combat system is quick and merciless

Each game round sees players taking turns to activate their units, with each able to take two actions – moving, shooting or fighting in hand-to-hand combat – before it’s exhausted. This is a dramatic departure from the pace of full-scale Warhammer battles, where one player moves and attacks with all of their troops before passing the turn to their opponent, and it neatly does away with the long periods of down-time that can cause big battles to drag painfully. It also lends the game a fast-paced and frantic air, making quick reactions to enemy attacks more important than overarching strategies.

To emerge from the fray victorious, you’ll have to constantly read the battlefield, moving vulnerable units behind cover, catching exposed enemies in deadly crossfires and picking off your opponent’s most dangerous troops before they get the chance to wipe our half of your squad.

And make no mistake, that’s a real and ever-present risk. Units equipped with heavy bolt guns, plasma rifles and vicious close-combat weapons can annihilate whole sections of your force in a single burst of gunfire. The game’s dice-based combat system is quick and merciless, and any unfortunate space marines left out in the open are likely to find themselves gunned down in double-quick time.

Horus Heresy Betrayal at Calth Chaos Space Marine miniatures
The Word Bearers are ferocious fighters corrupted by the malevolent Chaos Gods.

All of this takes place in confined underground surroundings, and the game goes to great lengths to convey a brooding, oppressive sense of claustrophobia. Each of your models comes with a stat representing its size, and there’s a limit to the total combined bulk of troops occupying a single space on the hex-grid game board, meaning that units positioned in the wrong spot can block their comrades’ path with potentially disastrous results.

There’s also no limit to the range of combatant’s weapons. In this brutal close-quarters fighting, staying at a safe distance isn’t an option, which also means there’s no need to measure the distance to targets – a neat little design decision that works well thematically while simultaneously streamlining and speeding up the game.

And that streamlining process is what Betrayal at Calth is all about. It feels very much like a stripped down, simplified version of 40K, but that’s not to say that it lacks depth. Just like 40K, you’ll have the chance to customise your forces before heading into battle. Just like 40K, you’ll have access to a range of powerful special weapons that all come with a very different set of effects. Just like 40K, you’ll be presented with a multitude of critical tactical decisions on each and every turn. But where the original’s prolonged setup times and sometimes drawn-out gameplay mean you’ll have to set aside an entire afternoon to play, this new interpretation gives you the pure, refined essence of tabletop warfare in a game you can run through in half an hour.

Some might say it’s 40K for people with short attention spans. I say it’s 40K for people who don’t have time to play 40K, and as I played through the first of the six scenarios that come with the game, all my teenage geek impulses came flooding back. I tensed up with every dice roll. I felt despair with every one of my chaos warriors that met with a sudden and ugly demise, and elation with every goody-two-shoes space marine that went down in a hail of red-hot shrapnel. God help me, I wanted to dive back into this world of valour and violence and tiny plastic men.

I’m not going to, though, and here’s why:

The Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth costs £95. That’s over $135 US at the time of writing.

That’s steep, but as an old Warhammer junkie who’s clearly not as recovered as I’d allowed myself to believe, I might consider it worthwhile. Look at publisher Games Workshop’s web site, though, and you’ll find that by the time you’ve bought the game, the modelling tools, glue and suggested paints to prepare your figures, you’re looking at paying just under £270 – $388 US.

If you’re already a Warhammer 40,000 player, you might already have all of this extra kit. You might be able to add these models to your existing armies. You might – might – consider this game reasonable value. But to anyone not already embedded in Games Workshop’s brand, games like BattleLore – RRP £64.99 – or Magic: The Gathering – Arena of the Planeswalkers – RRP £29.99 – will be much more attractive propositions.

Hell, if you can’t decide between them, you could buy both for the same price as Betrayal at Calth.