The city is silent, deserted. As you look around, searching for signs of life in the ruins, a hunched figure shuffles towards you from the depths of a dark alley, its breath wheezing and grunting behind a strange, brightly-patterned mask… No, it’s not the aftermath of COVID-19 – it’s the beginning of a Mordheim campaign.
Why am I making a Mordheim Beginner’s Guide for such an old game? Read on to find out why this 21-year-old skirmish game is so beloved, and why you should start playing Mordheim in 2021.
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What is Mordheim, anyway?
Mordheim is a tabletop skirmish game in which players take control of a small warband, battling it out with other warbands in search of treasure and glory in the ruined city of Mordheim. If Age of Sigmar is the Battle of Pelennor Fields from The Lord of the Rings, Mordheim is a street fight in Game of Thrones.
What distinguishes Mordheim from other tabletop skirmish games is its commitment to a very particular ‘low fantasy’ aesthetic, where greed and betrayal rule the day, there are no clear-cut ‘good guys’, and only the ruthless prosper. If you enjoyed reading Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law Trilogy (you should read it, it is that good) or playing The Witcher, you’ll find something to like in Mordheim.
In the lore of the game, Mordheim is a city of the Empire, existing in roughly the same time period as the now-discontinued Warhammer Fantasy Battles (soon to be revived in Warhammer: The Old World tabletop game). In the Imperial year 1999, Mordheim was struck by an enormous twin-tailed comet, which reduced the city to rubble and wiped out nearly all the inhabitants. The impact shattered the comet, leaving shards of ‘wyrdstone’ scattered throughout the ruins. The wyrdstone offers those who collect it mysterious powers, and warriors from far and wide have journeyed to Mordheim to gather what they can.
In our world, Mordheim was released by Games Workshop in 1999 as a dedicated small-scale version of WHFB. Written primarily by Tuomas Pirinen, the rules and background were developed over time in a series of articles in White Dwarf magazine. Official support for Mordheim in the form of new rules, miniatures and materials stopped in 2004, and in the years following, existing miniatures and rulebooks were also removed from sale. There continue to be rumours of a new release of Mordheim, sorta like the new version of Blood Bowl. These rumours continue to be silent whispers and we have seen nothing substantial (so it might only be pure wishful thinking).
But don’t let this discourage you from diving into the old Mordheim in 2021! There is a very strong player community on Facebook, multiple dedicated websites, and a brisk trade in second-hand and out-of-production miniatures. (As we’ll cover further on, the huge range of possible warbands also means almost any miniatures you already own could be easily adapted into a battle-ready force.)
OK, I’m sold. How do I play Mordheim?
The following is a brief summary of the main gameplay elements. (If you’re familiar with tabletop wargaming in general, or Warhammer Fantasty in particular, the gameplay in Mordheim should hold no real surprises, and you might like to skip this section.)
Each model within your warband is a single character, either a ‘hero’ or a ‘henchman’. Heroes are, as their name suggests, the stars of any warband – the leaders, magic users, particularly effective fighters, and so on. Henchmen are the core of a warband, the basic warriors you need to fill out your ranks.
Whether hero or henchman, each member of a warband has a set of characteristics defined by a number value:
- Weapon skill
- Ballistic skill
- And leadership.
Each of these characteristics come into play at various points within the game, with, for example, movement showing how far a model can move or charge, and toughness indicating how easily a model can shrug off attacks.
Mordheim is turn-based, meaning you will move and attack with all of your warband members, before your opponent takes their turn to do the same with their models. This differs from skirmish games like Warcry, which are based on you and your opponent swapping back and forth as you activate your models one by one.
Each turn is divided into four phases: recovery, movement, shooting, and close combat. The last three are self-explanatory. The recovery phase is where you deal with the effects of the fighting from the previous turn, for example, if any of your models were injured in close combat, or decided that discretion was the better part of valor and started running for the hills.
In Mordheim, attacks roll to hit (to see whether your model strikes the other model with their weapon or projectile), roll to wound (to see what damage is done to your target), and, if applicable, roll to save (to see if any armor or magical protection can save your unlucky foe). Each of these rolls can be modified by a whole range of factors, from the characteristics mentioned above, to whether a target is in cover, or even whether the opposing model is particularly fearsome.
The game carries on from turn to turn, with each player moving and shooting/attacking with their models as they decide, until one warband is either completely wiped out, or has had enough models taken out of action (OOA) to make the entire warband run away – known as a ‘rout’ in the game.
How to build a Narrative in Mordheim
There’s no getting away from it: Mordheim is a complex game. Beyond the very simple summary above, there are rules for running, hiding, climbing, dodging, shooting from an elevated position, fighting a downed opponent, fighting with more than one weapon, fighting more than one enemy model, the impact of different types of weapons on different types of armor…and the list goes on! If you are used to more modern rules writing, Mordheim can feel super clunky in it’s approach However, if you approach it with the right mindset, that very complexity is one of the game’s most appealing features.
In Mordheim, the gameplay is focused on helping you build a narrative with your particular warband. With just a few games as practice, the detailed nature of the rules stops being a challenge, and starts paving the way for you to create great moments within each game. You never forget the first time your weakest warband member takes out an opponent with a diving charge…or misses completely, and goes ‘splat!’ on the cobblestones.
That image is a good reminder of another thing that sets Mordheim apart from other, similar games – it is lethal. This isn’t the Eightpoints, and most warband members aren’t hardened warriors. They’re just desperate men (or dwarves or elves or Skaven) trying to survive. In-game, this is represented by few models having more than one wound. Stumbling off a ledge can take them OOA just as easily as being skewered by a spear!
However, in Mordheim, it’s important to remember that what happens to your warband during battle is only part of the story.
Playing A Campaign in Mordheim
Mordheim is designed primarily as a campaign game where you create your warband, then take them through a series of skirmishes within the city. In fact, the optimal way to play is to make use of the ready-made scenarios included with the core rules. Each one is a mini story in its own right, whether the focus is on making off with a treasure chest, occupying a specific building, or attempting to break out of an ambush.
No matter which scenario takes place, the post-battle sequence is arguably as important as the battle itself. This stage is where you determine exactly what has happened to your injured warriors, discover treasure (gold and the all-important wyrdstone), add to your warband members’ skills, search for rare and precious equipment, and much more.
In a campaign, the post-battle sequence follows a set pattern.
- Roll to see what happened to the warriors that were taken out of action in the battle you have just fought. For heroes, this could be anything from being captured by the enemy, to losing an eye, getting robbed, or going mad. For henchmen that are taken OOA, the options are simpler: they live or die, depending on the dice roll.
- Allocate experience to your warband members, for taking enemy models OOA, or even just surviving. This is also where you decide on any additional skills or characteristic increases your warband members have earned.
- Explore the ruins! Roll a dice for each surviving hero in your warband, and see what you discover. The total gives you the number of wyrdstone shards you have found (vital currency for any warband). Doubles, triples, or other multiples mean you could find anything from an overturned cart, to an alchemist’s laboratory, to a noble’s villa, each with additional benefits.
- Sell wyrdstone. Get gold(!)
- Search for and buy rare items to give your warband a boost in their next battle. Fancy poisoning your dagger with Dark Venom? Want to dress in the finest Cathayan Silk Clothes, or down a pint of Bugman’s Ale? All possible in Mordheim, as long as you can find what you want, and pay the price.
- Hire new recruits. Fill the gaps in your warband caused by the tip of a spear or a Vampire’s fangs, and add more heroes and henchmen, or choose from an array of exotic Hired Swords.
As you can see, the campaign structure, and particularly the post-battle sequence, exists in service to your warband’s own story. As you encounter and defeat more foes, you will add more members to your warband, equip them with better-quality gear, and make sure they are ready for their next battle. Over time, your warband members will improve, gaining additional skills or enhancing their characteristics.
If they survive long enough, your warband will boast unstoppable monstrosities, or seasoned warriors capable of dazzling feats of swordplay, or archers that can put three arrows into an enemy’s eye between one breath and the next. But how do you decide exactly which warband is for you?
So, how do I decide which Mordheim warband is for me?
Your goal should be to assemble a crew of characters that you want to see tackle the mean streets of Mordheim. A good place to start is the basic Mordheim rulebook, which includes background, characteristics, equipment lists, and every bit of information you’ll need to field one of six different warbands:
- Mercenaries – assorted cutthroats, villains, and ruffians from across the Empire. Divided into three distinct warbands: Reiklanders, who emphasize strict martial discipline and field expert archers; Middenheimers, tough northerners who prefer big beards and bigger axes; and Marienburgers, rich merchant types who receive a bonus to their starting amount of gold.
- Sisters of Sigmar – think warrior nuns. The Sisters of Sigmar are attempting to clean up the streets of Mordheim and save the remaining few innocents, using a combination of piety, prayer, and giant hammers. The Sisters are well-equipped with their own specialist weapons, and can benefit from an exclusive set of skills representing the strength of their faith.
- Skaven – these sneaky rat-men are often dismissed as a myth, which suits them fine. They specialize in speed, agility, and striking from the shadows. Skaven also have access to a variety of ninja-like weaponry that other warbands can’t use, like fighting claws or weeping blades made with wyrdstone.
- The Cult of the Possessed – mutants, evil wizards, and worshippers of Chaos, searching for wyrdstone to fuel sinister rituals and all sorts of nastiness. The main attraction of this warband are the Possessed: hideous beasts that have welcomed a demon into their souls, granting them unnatural strength and resilience, as well as all sorts of grotesque mutations.
- The Undead – Zombies, Ghouls, the reanimated corpses of vicious wolves, all led by the unholy killing machine that is a Vampire. Individually weak, most members of the warband cause fear in their opponents, making it easier to swarm an enemy and drag them down in a sea of dead flesh.
- Witch Hunters – zealots whose primary means of bringing order to Mordheim is burning things, including anyone or anything unlucky enough not to share the Witch Hunters’ unwavering devotion to Sigmar. Watch out for the Flagellants, crazed fanatics who fear nothing, and think every problem can be solved with the swing of a flail.
If you want to see some cool old school warbands, check out Echoes of Imperium.
While each warband has strengths and weaknesses to exploit, the true spirit of Mordheim lies in the story you want to tell, and the warband you pick should reflect that.
Of course, the only real limit is your imagination, and your converting and kitbashing skills. If the narrative element of Mordheim isn’t a strong drawcard for you, the setting makes for a hobbyist’s delight. Even within a standard Mercenary warband, the opportunities to personalize your miniatures is immense, from adding weapons and equipment you discover or purchase during a campaign, modeling the injuries your heroes sustain, or just adding a few packs and lanterns.
There is also a multitude of unofficial and ‘homebrewed’ warbands available online. With a few quick searches, you can find rules for everything from Orcish pirates to dedicated vampire hunters, circus troupes to Beastman raiders. (Just keep in mind, as with any fan-made rules, there can be balance issues when compared to the six original warbands in the Mordheim rulebook.) A good place to start for that sort of thing is the Broheim website.
As a skirmish game, the number of models actually needed to play is significantly fewer than, for example, an Age of Sigmar or Kings of War army. With somewhere between 2-20 models required, you can really go all out on personalizing your warband. If you’re looking for some inspiration, how about:
- A ragged gang of veteran halberdiers, seeking the fortune denied them after years of service in the armies of the Emperor;
- A noblewoman wracked with grief at the death of a loved one turns to necromancy, searching Mordheim for the wyrdstone needed to bring them back from the dead;
- A pack of wandering Ogres, simply on the lookout for their next meal;
- A group of men in strange, matching clothing, who keep talking about a portal pulling them to Mordheim from somewhere called Cadia; or
- A band of Wood Elves sworn to guard the last living trees in Mordheim.
In short, Mordheim is a chance to dive into your bitz box and let your imagination run wild!
What You Need To Play Mordheim today
Getting into Mordheim can be sorta of hard, because the game does not exist in stores anymore. But it can also be sort of a relief, as you can really do what ever the heck you want. But yeah, there are no Starter Sets to buy and get going, so you need to work some things out for yourself.
If you’re committed to one of the six original warbands, Skaven, Dwarves or Undead are your best bet in terms of availability from Games Workshop or other suppliers (in that order). The original Games Workshop Mercenaries models are quite rare, and sprues from that set can fetch high prices online. The same is true for the Cult of the Possessed, and definitely the Sisters of Sigmar, given that models for both these warbands were only ever available as metal miniatures. Of these two, the Possessed are easier to find other options for, as the Sisters have a unique look.
However, almost any boxed set of models could be the core of a new warband, especially if you are willing to put in some time and effort to make them suitably grim and grimy. For example, this box of Skaven Night Runners is the same set of models that arrived in the first release of the boxed set of Mordheim, back in 1999, and this box of Flagellants are perfect for a Witch Hunters warband.
For the more budget-conscious gamer, second-hand sales on eBay or trading groups via social media are usually the best option. You never know what diamonds you might find in that bulk lot of unpainted, mixed models…
If want something a bit more fresh in the design or if you do not want to go looking for old models, your options are practically endless. Warband boxes from Warcry and Teams from Underworld would be a super good place to start.
If you are after something a bit more different, 3D printing is a super duper good option right now. You can get so many good models from various Patreons and once you have the machine it is a super cheap way of getting cool looking minis for games. As an example, just think how cool a vampire Mordheim warband you could make if you could paint these guys (from the Titan Forge Patreon):
Someone to play against, and somewhere to play
Like any tabletop wargame, you’re going to need opponents. For a Mordheim campaign, around 4-6 players is usually optimum, as this provides enough variety in possible warbands, while ensuring a campaign can be completed over the course of a few long weekends.
Also like any tabletop wargame, you’re going to need a tabletop. The relatively small size of a Mordheim battlefield (approx. 4’ by 4’) usually makes it easier to find room. A dedicated battle mat is also a good idea, but a kitchen table will do, as long as you have…
Terrain – and lots of it.
Mordheim takes place in a ruined city, and it should feel that way when you’re playing. An average 4’ by 4’ playing area should be packed with scenery, with multiple levels, narrow alleys, hidden tunnels, and so on. In addition to the importance of things like hiding spots, elevated positions, and blind corners to the gameplay, a wide-open setup tends to make warbands that specialize in ranged warfare overly effective.
If you don’t already have a large amount of terrain available, it can feel daunting to assemble enough to recreate the twisting streets and narrow alleys of Mordheim. But the truth is, any scenery will do, as long as there’s enough of it. If you’re used to playing on wide green battlefields with a cottage and a few fences, move everything closer together and use fences to mark the edges of (invisible) buildings.
If you’re usually a sci-fi gamer, make use of your bombed-out factories and disused chem plants. Even if you’re totally new to wargaming, a few cardboard snack boxes and a couple of Pringles cans will get you on your way to a set of ruined houses, complete with fortified towers.
Of course, in the 21 years since Mordheim was released, the options around battlefield terrain have advanced considerably. A quick search online will show plenty of options for cardboard, wooden, or plastic scenery, often modular, and priced for almost any level, from a few small dwellings to entire townships and castles. A little bit of research and a bit more creativity will take you a long way in the world of Mordheim.
An option could be to look into Warcry terrain, where a lot of it will have elevated positions. It would be great to couple it with something else as well, but it is a good starting point.
Rules and warband rosters
The rules summary in this article just scratches the surface of the Mordheim rules – remember, half the fun is the fine detail in how your warband moves through the city and interacts (i.e. kills or is killed by) its various current inhabitants. Grab the Mordheim living rulebook, freely available online, and you’ll have everything you need to get started straight away.
Your warband roster is where you record and keep track of the details of your warband – the names of your heroes and henchmen, the equipment and supplies they have, their skills and characteristics, how much experience they have gained, and so on. If you’re familiar with role playing games, think of the roster as the character sheet for your entire warband.
All the usual requirements for tabletop wargaming come into play in Mordheim: six-sided dice, rulers or tape measures with inches, snacks, drinks, etc. If you want to invest in a laser pointer to determine line of sight, go ahead, but it’s usually more fun to get down and squint from a ‘model’s eye view’.
So sum it up for me. Why should I play Mordheim in 2021?
Essentially, Mordheim has something for everyone:
- Experienced players looking for an in-depth, small-scale wargaming experience, where you can invest in a storyline and make your warband your own (especially if they are looking for some old nostalgia).
- New players looking for an introduction to skirmish wargaming, especially those players wanting to make the leap from pen-and-paper roleplaying into the world of models.
- RPG groups looking for a combat system ready-made for dungeon-crawling adventures.
- Modelers and hobbyists looking for opportunities to model and paint unique warbands, with (almost) no idea being too outlandish.
If you are a wargamer, of any experience or interest level, looking for a detailed, immersive fantasy setting for evocative and characterful battles, Mordheim is the game for you. Good luck, and welcome to the City of the Damned.