Malifaux. It’s a name I’ve heard mentioned a few times before, but I never really understood what it was. It was only recently that I dove headfirst into the unknown, and I’ve returned with the knowledge of what this term means. Malifaux is a 32mm character-driven skirmish game put out by Wyrd Games. Just like with other wargames, players collect, assemble, paint, and play with models that are put together in teams called Crews and fight over a precious resource known as Soulstones.
Now I know that was a lot of information to throw at you, but you’re here to learn about what Malifaux is, right? So what we’ll do is break it down into two parts: history and gameplay. One thing about Wyrd is that they absolutely love to put fluff in their game. In Malifaux rulebooks you’ll see a pattern, where you’ll read through about five pages of rules, and then there will be a huge section of fluff. One thing about Malifaux is that it is rich in story. After all, it is a character-driven game, so story is very important.
Since we’re on the subject of story, let’s take a look at the history of Malifaux.
The year is 1787, known as The Year of the Breach. The game’s world is not unlike our own, though it is set in an alternate-reality Earth. In this world magic very much exists, but it is in decline. Even the most skilled practitioners found difficulty in performing the most basic of spells. Many argued that humanity had become too dependent on magic and that this was the beginning of a new age. Others argued that magic, especially the sort that showed in the healing arts, was beneficial and necessary to mankind.
In 1787 the most powerful mages known to man came together and united in the pursuit of a new source of power that would bring magic back to the forefront of everyday life. Even to this day the process of how they discovered a new power is still kept a guarded secret, they did just that. In a world just beyond our reach, separated from our current world by a thin barrier – a barrier that could be opened, existed a powerful source of magical energy. The raw energy that seeped through this barrier became too much for the practitioners to ignore.
The magicians put forth their best effort and called upon their greatest force of magic. This resulted in a hole being torn between the two worlds. Destruction was nearly immediate as the aetheric feedback caused each of the beings taking part in the ritual to perish. The city surrounding the ritual site was broken, flattened down as its citizens had their life force stripped from their bodies. Aetheric equilibrium was cemented between the worlds, and those that managed to survive found their powers increased exponentially. The passageway – the Breach – was now open.
A cold wind escaped from the Breach, and with it came the smell of death. Search teams were assembled to enter this new world and bring back some of its secrets. On the other side of the Breach these teams stumbled upon a large city. It was very similar to our own back on Earth, yet very different at the same time. Many of the buildings had strange writing scrawled upon their bricks, other markings were painted on wooden doors. The search parties worked long and hard for two weeks, but not a single living thing was found. There were no signs of a struggle, no corpses, and no destruction. It was a ghost town, and scholars learned that it was called Malifaux.
Explorers wanted to search beyond the town to look for the source of the aetheric power they felt. Several miles from the town existed a small settlement that could only be perceived as a mining settlement. Searching the area, explorers came upon a large shaft cut into a hillside just to the west that lead deep underground. Investigating the shaft turned up a gemlike substance that radiated aether –the magical energy the Earth so desperately needed. The stones varied in size and shape, each carrying precious energy within.
Scholars researched the stones and found references to them in ancient manuscripts. These references mentioned a great danger accompanying the stones, but the need for energy was too great. Those who worked with the stones noticed an unusual effect – as a stone was used, its power grew dark, eventually running out. Completely by accident, however, it was discovered that a stone’s magical energy could be replenished by bringing it into close proximity of a dying person. This effect earned them the name Soulstones.
After six full months of exploration the Breach was opened to the public. Trade began Earthside for those who were brave enough to harvest Soulstones. The dilapidated buildings of Malifaux were rebuilt and those willing to brave the harsh environment of the other world populated its cities, many magicians moving to Malifaux to further study the stones. Magic could thrive once more.
Peace didn’t last for long. As more and more people poured into Malifaux, settlements were established further and further out. Explorers would venture out to tombs, and though many left very few would return. Those that did brought with them stories of nightmarish creatures they encountered on their journey. These explorers named the creatures the Neverborn. They were ruthless, and embodied the horrors seated deep in the human mind.
Even with the threat ambitious men and women continued to explore. Ten years had passed in Malifaux and a brutal winter struck the world. Despite magicians’ efforts Earthside, the Breach was closing. It was as if a powerful outside force was preventing passage through the portal. In the morning following an exponential effort to prevent the Breach’s collapse, it had shrunk to 12 feet in diameter. Without warning, a mangled body was shot through the Breach and the doorway closed in on itself. Etched on the body’s torso was a single word: “Ours”.
Turmoil rocked both sides of the Breach. Every effort was made to reopen the doorway, but none was met with success. Earthside, Soulstones were being destroyed by trying to use them to power the most altruistic rituals. Magic was again in danger. Insane acts were enacted to try and replenish the energy trapped within artificially-made Soulstones, but each act was met with failure. In response to these heinous situations, the magicians that originally opened the Breach finally had the opportunity to be recognized as a political power, thus the Guild was formed.
The Guild took over control of all access to Soulstones, handing them out in exchange for powerful positions in each government. They also instituted facilities where their members had access to departing souls with which to fill their Soulstones. People had become too dependent on the Guild’s magical influence to let them fall out of power. Soulstones were then routinely renewed at hospitals, prisons, and facilities that housed the elderly. Life continued this way for nearly 100 years.
Exactly one century to the minute from when the Breach closed, it mysteriously ripped open once more. The Guild readied its military might in readiness to turn back anything that may try to come through the Breach to Earth. After months without any action, the Guild decided to take matters into their own hands. They sent a heavily-armed team through the Breach to investigate the situation in Malifaux. Once on the other side, the team found the city in ruins, signs of a huge battle scarring the land. What was the most disturbing was the lack of corpses found on the city streets.
The Guild knew that the best thing to do was to manipulate society into thinking that their claim to Malifaux was in their best interest in order to let magicians govern traffic through the Breach. In reality, the group wanted to solidify their control over the acquisition and use of Soulstones. A new civilization was formed in Malifaux, run by the Guild, who learned a valuable lesson the first time the Breach closed. This time around the Guild instituted a practice where the world’s most hardened criminals and other social misfits had a choice: serve their terms in Malifaux, possibly earning freedom through hard labor, or serve their time Earthside, with the possibility of lifetime in prison or even execution. Many of these criminals accepted their fate in Malifaux and became the Guild’s mine workers in harvesting Soulstones.
Four years have passed since the Breach reopened. The Guild remains a superpower, and they’re beginning to draw displeasure from the citizens both Earthside and in Malifaux. New groups have begun to solidify their power. The most well-known of these groups is the Arcanists, whose only goal is to overthrow the Guild and its monopoly in Malifaux. With the reopening of the Breach, the Resurrectionist threat has returned, as before these mages began studying and using the power of necromancy. The Neverborn are still attracted by explorers searching for artifacts, and they’ve made themselves more known now than ever.
In response to all of this, the Guild has stepped up its authority, reasserting control over Malifaux violently and without mercy. This is where the true story begins. Malifaux lies in wait for something. Everyone on-world can feel it. Many believe the Breach will close again, others think that it’s something much different. Either way, things are going to get much worse.
Now that was a lot of history there, and it only covered the Breach and existence of Malifaux. The game is chock-full of more fluff surrounding each of the characters, factions, and more. That’s enough to get you started, however, and hopefully it piqued your interest. Now let’s get on to the gameplay!
In a game of Malifaux, players each control a Crew that consists of different miniatures. A Crew can include several types of models depending on how a player wants to play the game. Masters lead a Crew, and they contain the ability to manipulate the world around them, twisting fates through the use of Soulstones. Minions serve their masters, and are a collection of beings ranging from humans all the way to hideous monsters. In addition to this, Henchman can lead special Crews in their Master’s wake, or serve a Master directly as part of a Crew. Totems serve both Masters and Henchmen as extensions of their magical powers which increase things like spellcasting range. Finally, each Master can transform itself into a powerful Avatar, representing a specific aspect of their personality.
Games of Malifaux are called Encounters and are built just like many other skirmish games. Players first agree on a Soulstone limit for the game. Think of it as a point value for models. Each model has a Soulstone cost that is subtracted from the agreed upon amount. For example, let’s say you’ve agreed to play a 22ss game. Your Master always costs 0 Soulstone Points. You want to add Izamu, the Armor to your Crew. He costs 10ss, which means you have 15ss left to hire models with. Get the drift?
For each Encounter players must choose a strategy for their Crew to achieve. There is a handful of strategies to choose from, ranging from Treasure Hunt to straight up Slaughter. Think of a strategy as a scenario for your game. Apart from these are schemes which are optional sub-strategies that you can choose. Some of them are faction-specific while others are general. After you’ve agreed on a Soulstone limit, you choose your Crew, Encounter location, deployment type, and finally strategies. Then you’re ready to begin.
What Do I Need to Play a Game of Malifaux?
The cool thing about Malifaux is that it doesn’t require a high model count to get an enjoyable game going. In fact, some of the most action-packed games are played with 3-4 models per player. Now that we’ve gotten past the basic gameplay beginnings of Malifaux, here’s what you’ll need to play:
- A 3’x3’ playing area – This can either be a battle mat, sheet of felt, custom playing board, or general table. You’ll also need some space to put your cards and other tokens for the game.
- A Crew – As mentioned above you’ll need a Crew to play with. Most of the time you’ll be starting off with a starter box, though each one varies in Soulstone value.
- A rulebook – It’s extremely handy to have a copy of the rulebook nearby. Right now Malifaux is in its second edition, so you’ll be wanting to pick up a Malifaux 2E rulebook to use.
- A Fate Deck – Another cool thing about Malifaux is that it doesn’t incorporate dice into its gameplay. Instead players use a Fate Deck – a normal deck of 54 playing cards that have had the suits changed specifically for the game. Wyrd Games sells specialized Fate Decks per faction as well as general decks, but you can also use a normal playing card deck if you like. The suits would be changed as such:
Rams = Hearts
Crows = Spades
Masks = Diamonds
Tomes = Clubs
- A measuring tape and some tokens to keep track of Soulstones and other effects
Once you’ve got all of your materials you set up for a game and get started. I know I mentioned it earlier, but here’s a breakdown for starting a game:
- Select a Soulstone limit
- Select a Crew
- Select Encounter location
- Select deployment type
- Determine strategy
- Deploy Crews
- Draw Control Hand (draw cards from your Fate Deck depending on whether you’re playing a Scrap [1-45ss] or a Brawl [30-70ss])
Once you’ve gone through this setup you’ll each flip the top card of your Fate Deck to see who has initiative for the round. The player with the highest initiative decides who takes the first turn. Now you’re on your way to playing a game of Malifaux. Of course there’s still a lot to cover – strategies, combat, magic, movement, actions – but we’ll be breaking that down in later installments. Malifaux is something new we’re diving into, and we hope you come with us through the Breach. Stay tuned for more about the steampunk-horror world of Malifaux and all of its inhabitants!