Blackstone Fortress is a tie-in novel. OK, all Warhammer 40,000 novels are tie-in novels by definition, but some are more tie-in novels than others. Whereas many pieces of Warhammer 40,000 fiction take inspiration from the game universe and its various sources of lore, Blackstone Fortress by Darius Hinks is intentionally crafted to coincide with the release of a specific Games Workshop product.
The product in question is Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress. Warhammer Quest, back in the day, was a sort of followup to the classic HeroQuest boardgames which had such memorable TV adverts. HeroQuest itself was Games Workshop’s take on the “dungeon crawl” subcategory of boardgame, which for a long time HeroQuest was the most famed and widely-played example of until it fell out of print, Warhammer Quest superseded it and then also fell out of print, and then new games in the same vein like Descent or Gloomhaven and the like arose to fill the vacuum.
HeroQuest was not the first in this vein, however; arguably, that accolade goes to Dungeon!, a boardgame put out by TSR, the original publishers of Dungeons & Dragons. Much as Dungeon! provided both a more casual game to round out TSR’s catalogue and a potential point of entry for players who could later be convinced to give D&D a try, HeroQuest was in part a way to get a set of lovingly sculpted Citadel Miniatures into the hands of kids – who of course would then want more and start collecting Warhammer armies and the like in the process of accumulating more.
Still, it was well loved in its own right, as was Warhammer Quest; both games eventually faded from the limelight when Games Workshop shifted its overall strategy in the 1990s and 2000s to focus more or less exclusively on their wargames. However, recent shifts in the regime at Games Workshop have prompted them to take another look at their portfolio and diversify their offerings a bit more. As well as providing more support for games like Kill Team – in which each player only fields a small squad of combatants rather than an entire army – they’ve brought back a range of boardgames, including the beloved Space Hulk, Blood Bowl, and a new edition of Warhammer Quest set in their new Age of Sigmar fantasy setting.
In general, someone at Games Workshop seems to have realised that by focusing solely on their main wargames, they were only really catering to customers with the patience and focus to want to collect large armies – and that there’s an entire other customer base out there who wouldn’t blow a lot of money on collecting a single army, but who’d be more than willing to drop money on buying a few Kill Teams here, a few Blood Bowl squads there, a boardgame there… In addition, the management seem to have rediscovered the joy of their settings, with websites like the Regimental Standard injecting a much-needed dose of comedy and satire into the Warhammer 40,000 setting and the game lines generally stepping back from the precipice of taking themselves too seriously and learning to indulge their weirder sides again.
In that context we’ve had the release of Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress, the first Warhammer Quest boardgame to be set in the Warhammer 40,000 setting. Blackstone Fortresses are mysterious, ancient, vast starships which are one of the enduring mysteries of the setting. Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress has the players taken on the roles of various explorers who’ve come to Precipice – an ad hoc, cobbled-together space habitat at the edge of inhabited space that’s accumulated in the vicinity of a recently-discovered Blackstone Fortress. Gameplay unfolds in a series of expeditions – you go in, face various combat encounters and other challenges, and try and come away with precious clues and ancient technology. The latter can be traded for cool equipment which can increase your character’s survival skills and capabilities, the former can be traded for a chance to hit one of the four Strongholds within the Fortress. Once your group’s hit all four Strongholds, you can go after the Hidden Archive, the prize at the end of which… is concealed in an envelope which comes in the box, which you’re sternly told not to open until you’ve busted open the Archive.
It’s all quite fun and I’ll probably at some point do a review of the boardgame itself over on Refereeing & Reflection. One of the nice things about it is that the designers very much approach it as an excuse to delve into more obscure nooks and crannies of the setting which don’t otherwise get much representation in the wargame itself. One of the playable character is an honest to goodness Man of Iron – one of the AI robots whose devastating confrontation with humanity gave rise to the Dark Age of Technology out of which the Emperor arose. There’s a duo of Ratling player characters who are basically hobbits; one of them totes around a small fridge on his back because, you know, hobbits and food and stuff.
This sense of fun almost, but not quite, is translated into the novel itself. I suspect that the novel fails to capture the tone of the boardgame in part because of the way they were designed in parallel; obviously, so as to release the novel simultaneously with the release of the boardgame, Black Library must have commissioned Hinks a safe amount of time ahead of final release, and I think it’s quite likely that he based the novel on an earlier draft of the boardgame.
For one thing, it’s lacking most of the iconic enemies from the boardgame itself. Though the Blackstone Fortress has its own defences, as well as a population of ur-ghuls who have somehow made their way here from the otherplanar realms of the Dark Eldar, the majority of foes you face in the boardgame constitute the forces of the terrifying Chaos warlord Obsidius Mallex, whose starship has had an accident and ended up physically melded with the Blackstone Fortress – stranding Mallex and his crew, but prompting him to attempt to take control of the Fortress so it could be used as his new battlestation. Literally none of them have any significant presence in the book, with Hinks dealing with a whole other big bad.
For another, the party of characters who go on the expedition into the Fortress here are a weird mix of characters taken directly from the game, characters who are a bit like characters from the actual game but are not actually those characters, and characters Hinks seems to have invented. The novel covers a single expedition into the Fortress, and one which ends in semi-disaster, so I suppose having additional characters there allows Hinks to kill some of them off without saying “sorry, your character in the game dies in canon” – but the choice of who’s killed off and who survives seems off, with some of the new characters surviving when you’d think they’d be clear death-fodder.
In terms of the characters from the game who actually appear here, you have Rogue Trader Janus Draik, the closest thing to a protagonist the novel has, you have the Kroot mercenary Grekh, you have the preacher Taddeus and his flamethrower-wielding murder-sidekick Pious Vorne (think a woman raised in a gang out of Mad Max or Judge Dredd who’s suddenly discovered religion and wants to burn everyone at the pyre); the depictions of them involve a lot of invented extra backstory which to my eye doesn’t always sync up with the explanations of the characters in the actual game. For the other characters in the game, if you were excited to read about them you’re shit out of luck – some are reduced to cameo appearances, others don’t even get that. The weirdest case is that of the Navigator – whilst a Navigator character appears here, he’s got a different name from the one in the Blackstone Fortress game and has very different motivations. Anyone who was keen on that character is going to read this book and end up feeling very confused.
I realise I’m talking a lot about how the book would be received by folk who are quite invested in the boardgame, but to be honest I don’t think it would hold up for anyone who wasn’t already quite keen on the boardgame itself. I found it enjoyable enough when it came to the action taking place on Precipice, the weird space shanty town that the expedition takes off from, but once things got to the Blackstone Fortress itself it ended up being yet another dungeon crawl narrative interspersed with psychological weirdness which feels a bit cheap and undercooked. The traps and encounters the characters endure feel tonally off compared to the sort of encounters you get in the game itself, and I’m left with the distinct feeling that if someone wasn’t already familiar with the boardgame, they’d be a bit lost here – and of course, that very familiarity means that they’re that much more likely to spot the dissonant notes.
On the whole, I’m not sorry I got the novel (it came packaged with my preorder of the game), but I’m not going to hold onto it either. Hinks has got a long way to go before he hits the heights of the likes of Dan Abnett when it comes to Warhammer 40,000 tie-in fiction, and the confusing and muddled encounters in the Blackstone Fortress in particular emphasises that he doesn’t quite have the same knack at action scenes which the best Black Library authors have.