Thursday, April 13, 2017

Deathwatch Overkill review — part 1

Arguably, the most notable 40k releases in 2016 were the long-awaited codices for xenos-hunting Deathwatch and hybrids of Genestealer Cults. The miniatures for the two factions were first shown in a Deathwatch Overkill boardgame. After the release of Shadow War: Armageddon and general rise of interest in skirmish-level games in 40k universe it's interesting to see what Overkill has to offer. So let's finally get past the cool miniatures and take an in-depth look at the game.

Board game fans will find the game somewhat similar to games like Descent, Doom or Imperial Assault with their theme of several elite heroes fighting against a never-ending swarm of vicious enemies. Overkill is admittedly a lot more simple than those: it is made for 2 players only, has no rules for character advancement and is simplified overall. The game will also feel familiar to 40k players — the movement and shooting phases work pretty much the same, although models move by zones instead of inches and attack distances are divided into three fixed lengths: assault, combat and maximum. Similarly to Kill Team, every model moves and attacks on its own. Attack rolls are also simplified — attacker makes a roll, defender makes his armour save is present — that's it. Cover system, morale and psychic phase are nonexistent, which makes it a stripped-down version of basic 40k rule set.

The units included in the game have a lot of differences, even though each model only has 2 characteristics: a number of zones it can cross during the movement phase and armour save if present. It can have some special abilities printed on character cards or in the rulebook for basic troops. Finally, each model has at least one weapon it can use in assault, combat, or maximum range. The weapon's entry gives you the number of dice to throw in each attack and the chance to successfully wound with each one. Special properties of the weapon are also crucial. There are three of those:

Blast — a successful attack from a Blast weapon hits every model in a target zone, including friendly ones. Blast weaponry is commonly used by marines to counter the overwhelming numbers of the enemy, but it is of dubious use for Genestealer Cult player.
Rend — standard attack can only slay one model, regardless of the number of successful rolls. Rend attack, however, can use its successes to target different models in hope of killing several at a time. Constantly surrounded by weaker enemies, Deathwatch brothers often employ this ability, while among the Cult members the Patriarch is the only one mighty enough to make use of it.
Cleave — these attacks allow no armour saves to be taken. It is vital for Genestealer cultists and most of the tactics employed by the Cult are based around units with this ability since a marine is a lot less tough without his armour. Deathwatch player can only really use Cleave ability against Aberrants, Magus or a Primus, which makes it highly situational for him.

So, who is Deathwatch Overkill really made for? It won't replace Descent ant its counterparts, unless you want a really stripped-down 40k-themed version. However, it works great as a gateway drug to 40k proper (a thought GW game designers undoubtedly had in mind). When compared with Kill Team or Shadow War: Armageddon, Overkill suffers from smaller selection of units and factions: even with expansions (to which I'll get later) there are only three armies available: Deathwatch marines, Tempestus Scions and the Genestealer Cult. However, if you decided to switch to smaller format for simplicity's sake, Overkill may be exactly what you need. It still has a lot of depth and variability without having to spend much time remembering cumbersome rules or writing your roster. Finally, if you're a fan of Deathwatch or Genestealer Cult, the game will hit all the right buttons since it nailed the essence of both factions perfectly. Genestealer Cult hybrids spring from every corner, using traps, ambushes and other dirty tricks to get their claws against the throats of their enemies, while the Deathwatch marines finally feel like a true gods of war, dispatching enemies left and right. Overkill is one of the few GW board games that is enjoyable over and over, which I was pleasantly surprised by.

In short: Deathwatch Overkill feels and plays like a bastard child of Descent and 40k. It lacks the high points of each of its parents, but manages to keep a lot of advantages from both. The game has some balance issues and dice frequently decide the result of the game for you, so about every second game ends with one side crushing the other. But when the forces are matched, when the bodies start piling up as both sides desperately try to win against all odds it is evident that Games Workshop managed to pack the grim essence of the 40k universe in a single box. This is a feat in itself.

So that's my general impression of the game rules. Now let's have a look at all the units and missions included in the core box.


As befits veteran super-soldiers, all Deathwatch warriors have formidable armour saves and attacks. Two attack phases each turn make them even more dangerous, and all marines are Characters which entitles them to two wounds. Their enhanced physiology allows them to regenerate the ones they lose instead of attacking, which makes it even harder to finish Astartes warriors off. What they don't have is numbers: there are only 11 marines available and you will only use a fraction of then in any given mission.

In terms of game balance all marines are considered equal: every mission only gives you a number of warriors to use and it's left to a Deathwatch player to decide which ones he wants to pick. Every model has its own advantages so think carefully: similarly to 40k, the game can be won or lost depending on the models you take. So who is worth including in your Kill Team?

DW#1. Ortan Cassius (Ultramarines) — Chaplain with Crozius Arcanum
Ultramarines Chaplain is a great close combat fighter who is exceptionally hard to kill due to 2+ save from his Artificer Armour. His special ability allows nearby battle brothers to re-roll their rolls of 1 when they attack in assault range. Situational, but pretty good overall.
DW#2. Jensus Natorian (Blood Ravens) — Librarian with power sword
First official Blood Raven to hit the tabletop, Jensus is very similar to Cassius, but the librarian becomes much weaker when he fails to manifest his psychic power and has neither the Cassius' improved armor save, nor ally-boosting abilities. Better skip this one.
DW#3. Jetek Suberei (White Scars) — Biker with power sword
This son of Chogoris is a useful warrior whether in melee or in range. His ability allows him to look up one of the Ambush cards Genestealer Cult player lays down each turn, which can make a difference between a right tactical decision and a disastrous one. Due to the size of his base he can also be used to single-handedly block one of the Cult's deployment zones to stop vital reinforcements from arriving. This is made even easier by his exceptionally high speed of 4.
DW#4. Garran Branatar (Salamanders) — 
Terminator with heavy flamer, power fist and meltagun
Only Terminator in a Kill Team is a great warrior with two good attacks at combat range and an impressive 2+ save. His laughable speed of 1 is somewhat compensated by an ability to teleport next to one of his battle-bothers once per mission, but, in the end, his usefulness is mostly determined by the current scenario: he's invaluable in some and way too cumbersome in others.
DW#5. Antor Delassio (Blood Angels) — Jump pack, flame pistol and chainsword
This solid close combat fighter has an improved mobility due to his jump pack. When rolling a double on his chainsword attack the Blood Angel goes berserk and becomes much more of a threat in assault at the cost of losing his flame pistol. However, the odds of that happening aren't that good, and the flame pistol is generally more useful anyway. In the end this makes Antor an awkward choice, hard to use efficiently.
DW#6. Edryc Setorax (Raven Guard) — Jump pack and power claws
Setorax's claws are a perfect weapon for quickly dispatching annoying Cult characters. But keep in mind that he is not that good against the hordes of hybrids. Furthermore, Genestealers and Patriarch will ignore his Cleave ability which makes him even more situational. 

DW#7. Vael Donatus (Ultramarines) — Bolter
This marksman's ability to make two good shots against different targets every attack phase makes Vael a very useful marine to slay dangerous single models at a distance. But keep in mind that two Tempestus Scions from "Treachery Revealed" expansion with weapons of your choice will do his job more efficiently.
DW#8. Zameon Gydrael (Dark Angels) — Power sword and plasma pistol
All Zameon's attacks have the Cleave ability, which is of no use against most Genestealer Cult models, so in the end Dark Angel is not really worth taking. His ability to attack once after death is outright laughable.
DW#9. Drenn Redblade (Space Wolves) — Bolter and chainsword
This Blood Claw has a nice Rend close combat attack and can support his brothers at a distance if needed. But he becomes the true king of the battlefield due to his ability, which allows him to run AND attack each attack phase. It makes this guy even faster then Suberei and he can choose to assault the enemy of choice every turn, which makes him the best close combat specialist among Deathwatch marines.
DW#10. Ennox Sorrlock (Iron Hands) — Combi-melta
Sorrlock's cybernetics grants him an additional save, which makes him almost as tough to kill as Cassius or Branatar, and with Cleave attacks — even harder. Unfortunately, he is is not much of a fighter — his Cleaving melta attack is rarely used and bolter shots are unremarkable.
DW#11. Rodricus Grytt (Imperial Fists) — Frag cannon
Son of Dorn is a great long-ranged warrior, unless you're a master a rolling 2s on your D6. Make sure he has someone around to kill hybrids lucky enough to get into assault range and he'll prove his worth every time.


Cenestealer Cult plays very differently to the Imperium's finest. In most missions Cult player has an unending flow of reinforcements at his disposal, and can send them in suicidal attacks to further his goals. However, he doesn't have full control over which forces he brings to the table and must choose from the units he has on cards he draws from the Broodmind deck. Those cards can also be used as Gambits to heal your models, provide them with some kind of buff or use another trick against the invading marines.

Cult forces also vary greatly in their power level: ordinary hybrids hardly pose a threat to Astartes even in significant numbers, while a Patriarch can kill several in a single turn. Let's look over the Genestealer units, starting start with the three characters.

GC#1. Patriarch (Ghozar)
Cult leader is nothing short of a death machine. He can choose to attack every enemy on his board section simultaneously with his psychic shriek and his claws are deadly to any Deathwatch brother to get into assault. His saving throw of 3+, which he can use even against Cleave attacks and his ability to run AND attack make him the best unit in the game. Every time he arrives on the battlefield, he's sure to become the cornerstone of your strategy and the marines will have to concentrate their efforts to bring this beast down.
GC#2. Magos (Orthan Trysst)
Magos is not much of a fighter and is mostly used to try and stun the most irritating Deathwatch model by a lucky die roll. This ability becomes far less potent when he comes up against the Tempestus Scions from "Treachery Revealed" expansion. 
GC#3. Primus (Vorgan Trysst)
The last of the Cult's characters is a good close combat fighter with a decent armour save of 4+. His ability to buff a group of nearby hybrids can become a key to victory, especially when used along with some Gambits.

GC#4. Purestrain genestealer
This smaller version of the Patriarch is no slouch either: he can still run and attack every attack phase, has a decent 4+ armour save with an immunity to Cleave ability and has three good attacks in close combat, that make a mockery of the marines's armour. Keep in mind that this makes him a huge target the moment he arrives on the table.
GC#5. Genestealer familiar
Pathetic on its own, this tiny Genestealer becomes much more of a threat when near a Magus which gives him a much needed Cleave ability. Be sure to have a camera ready when your opponent has his superhuman warrior torn to shreds by a creature barely up to his knees. Mostly because it is likely to never happen again.
GC#6. Aberrant with power hammer
This mutated warrior has somewhat of an armour save of 5+ and is decent in close combat with two attacks from his power hammer. Hopefully, you can distract the marines long enough to get him in assault..
GC#7. Aberrant with power pick
This alternate version has only a single attack, but this time it comes with a Cleave ability which makes him much more useful than his brother with a hammer.

GC#8a. Neophyte hybrid with autogun
These warriors are the rank and file of the Genestealer Cult forces. Their favorite habits include dying in droves from a singly lucky explosive bolt, and being such terrible shots it takes at least a dozen to pose any real threat. You definitely should spread them out to different zones as soon as you can: then there's at least a chance Deathwatch marines won't have enough attacks between them to kill every neophyte they face.
GC#9a. Neophyte hybrid with grenade launcher
This hybrid got a hold on a weapon with Blast ability. It's not as good for Genestealers as it is for marines, but still has its uses, especially against Tempestus warriors from "Treachery revealed" expansion. Just don't count on it too much; the accuracy of 5+ still leaves a lot to be desired.
GC#10a. Acolyte hybrid with autopistol
This is your basic close combat fighter with a decent chance to do some damage in assault. The difficulty is getting him there, seeing as 6+ save is not much better than no save at all.
GC#10a. Acolyte hybrid with mining laser
This heavily armed hybrid provides you with much needed Cleave attack from a distance, even if it's only from combat range. Unfortunately, a single shot on 5+ will miss more often than not. In addition, it's the only unit except Branatar with a speed of 1, which makes it even harder to use laser-equipped hybrid effectively.


Overkill's replayability is provided by a set of 9 different missions. The scale of the game differs from one to another: one of the missions only uses 3 marines and some require all 11. Victory conditions for Deathwatch also vary, while the Genestealer Cult player is always tasked with killing a certain number of invaders to win.

All 9 missions can be played one after the other as a campaign. This makes things a lot more difficult for Deathwatch player, since Genestealer victory almost always rewards Cult player with some benefit in future missions, while only 2 of them have some rewards in case of Astartes' victory. Additionally, from a story perspective, a lot of the missions take place at the same time in different areas of the complex, which limits Deathwatch player in his choice of warriors and forces him to use marines of dubious value.

It's worth noting that even in stand-alone mode several missions are heavily imbalanced. At least the game doesn't really favor one side over the other: Deathwatch and the Cult both have their nearly impossible fights. And most of missions remain very much playable.

Mission 1: Killstorm
The first mission is a simple kill point one. 4 marines (or 8 Scions, if you're using the rules from "Treachery Revealed" expansion) are tasked to kill 25 enemy models. Luckily for them, Cult player only has the basic hybrids at his disposal, which must kill 2 marines (4 Scions) in order to win.

Killstorm is more of a training scenario and it's nearly impossible for Genestealer Cult to emerge victorious. Alternate models from "The Genestealer Cult Rises" expansion make the task achievable, but by no means easy.

Mission 2: Vox Noctis
This mission tasks 6 marines (or 12 Scions) with capturing four zones in a vox station tile in order to turn the station off and win. Genestealer player can use any units, except for the Patriarch and must stop the invading Kill Team by killing 3 marines (6 Scions).

This one is not only more interesting but a much better balanced: Vox Noctis gives both players a fair fight.

Mission 3: Recover
This time Deathwatch tries to capture a servo-skull with some valuable information. Marines have to reach the skull and bring it with them through the exit. Kill Team for the mission numbers 6 marines (or 12 Scions), one of whom is deployed at the exit at the first turn and the rest appear one by one each turn as the mission progresses. Genestealer Cult commander can use any and all cards, but he only gets a number of cards equal to the current turn number. Gambits can't be used at all. Genestealers win after slaying 3 marines (6 Scions).

This is a very interesting mission that gives a cool feeling of slowly escalating conflict. Given that you're about to travel to the skull and back again it may be tempting to leave some shooty marines behind. Don't, isolated Astartes die easily. Given the nature of this scenario, it is better for Deathwatch to finish it as soon as possible, which can be helped by a clever use of Branatar's teleport ability.

Mission 4: Exterminatus Modicum
The mine complex starts exploding and marines have to escape in time. Deathwatch player picks 4 Astartes (or 8 Scions) and has to safely bring three (six) of them from one side of the board to another to win. Every second turn one of the board sections gets destroyed, killing anyone left behind. Cult player can use any models, except for Patriarch, Magus and Primus, and must stop the Astartes warriors from escaping by killing 2 marines (4 Scions).

The mission has an interesting idea behind it, but it heavily depends on a choice of a Kill Team: Genestealer player doesn't have much of a chance against the right combination.

Mission 5: Officium Solus
This is the smallest mission of all, using only 3 marines (or 6 Scions). This time the board is divided into two parts connected by an elevator. Two marines start the game on this elevator and wait for their battle-brother to reach them. Once he's safely with them or dead, the survivors go for the exit to save themselves. Again, Genestealer Cult can use any models except for characters and has to kill 2 marines (4 Scions) in order to win.

This one's okay, although the forced separation of a Kill Team gives Genestealers an edge: marines will have to fight hard for their lives.

Mission 6: Firestorm Ultima
About to be overrun, Kill Team decides to blow up the promethium silo in hope to burn as many of hybrids as possible. In order to do achieve that, 4 marines (or 8 Scions) must plant grenades in the designated spots. Genestealer player has all units at his disposal and must kill all invading Astartes to stop them from achieving their goal.

It's not the hardest one for the Deathwatch, but you better pick the right warriors and not waste time, or you'll be quickly overrun. And watch out for the Patriarch.

Mission 7: The Tables Turned
The Tables Turned is another classic kill point mission. Genestealer commander can deploy any units except the Patriarch, but every model can only be placed once and once it's gone it's gone for good. 4 marines (or 8 Scions) have to try and kill all available models before the last of them is slain.

This mission is played very differently, changing the usual tactics employed by both sides. Marines have to try and build an impregnable defense, while, robbed of his usual never-ending stream of reinforcements, Cult player has to plan accordingly and make every model count.

Mission 8: Purgation Protocols
This is the first mission that uses all 11 marines (or a whole platoon of 22 Scions). They are scattered across the gaming table and desperately try to make their way to the exit point. A total of 8 marines (16 Scions) must survive in order to win. Genestealer Cult has all its units ready for battle and tries to kill at least 4 marines (8 Scions). The task of Kill Team is especially hard, because the marines are deployed by both players taking turns and each of them starts the game next to a bunch of random hybrids already on the table by the beginning of the mission.

This mission is nothing short of a deadly trap for the marines. Scattered and isolated, Astartes warriors become easy prey and by using all 11 marines Deathwatch player is forced to include the mediocre ones in their Kill Team. The last can be fixed by "Kill Team 'Excis'" expansion, but there is still a very tough fight ahead.

Mission 9: Eliminate the Alpha Threat
The final mission once again makes use of all 11 marines (or 22 Scions) available. Their final objective is to reach the Throne room and slay the root of infestation — great Patriarch himself. Due to the hard fighting they've been through, Astartes warriors can no longer regenerate lost wounds, and their lack of ammunition prohibits them from firing at maximum range. Cult warriors are well prepared in comparison — the game begins with the Patriarch, Magus, Primus, purestrain Genestealers and familiars already in the throne room. But their greatest asset in this mission is the throne itself: while on it, Patriarch regenerates a wound each turn, is able to use his psychic shriek to target a single model anywhere on the table and can only be harmed in close combat.

This is, without a doubt, my favorite mission in the game. A violent slaughter with heavy casualties on both sides from start to finish, it often puts both commanders very close to victory. The Kill Team still suffers from the presence of its weaker members ("Kill Team 'Excis'" expansion still helps in this regard) and is hard pressed against the enemies. Genestealer Cult commander should use every opportunity for laying traps and ambushes in the way of the invaders to ensure none of them will leave the throne room alive. And the enhanced version of the monstrous Patriarch in battle is a sight indeed.

This concludes my overview of a Deathwatch Overkill core box. If you're interested in the game's numerous expansions I have mentioned, take a look a second part of this review, where you can read all about them. Finally,  I'd like to thank my friends who fought me on the gaming table time and time again and made this review possible. Cheers!

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