Sunday, 6 May 2012

Forge World's Monstrous Arcanum - A Lovingly Negative Review

Let's start with a question: what do you do when two things from different times in your life - both of which you think are great - collide in a way that results in one of them looking like total shit. The answer? Tell the internet! And so begins our delve into Forge World's Monstrous Arcanum...

This is a book that I really wanted to love. I've had it for a few weeks now (as soon as it was announced on pre-order, out popped my credit card) but I haven't really known what to say about it: until now. My mind was made up during a conversation with my esteemed friend Dr Bargle. It was he who first said "compare the stuff FW put out with the old Realm of Chaos books..." and from that point the fate of this Monstrous Arcanum was to be forever sealed (in my own, humble opinion, of course). 

The positives
  • Gorgeous art and design
As with Tamurkhan the artwork is gorgeous and really captures the essence of the book. Similarly, MA also has the feel of an artefact from the fantasy world, which has reasonable fetish value.
  • Interesting rules
The narrative section at the front is superfluous so I'll skip that and get on with the rules. Quite a few monstrous beasts here: the elementals look fun, some others are reasonably inventive (e.g. Colossal Squig), while there will be plenty of scope for kit-bashing and scratch-building (e.g. Necroflex Colossus). A few new deployment ideas and a short campaign of sorts quickly round things off.  Interesting, but not much more...
  • A somewhat caged urge to push boundaries?
Picture this: someone shouts "it's your game, do what you like!" always echoed by "as long as you use Storm of Magic and all the other official rules provided by GW!" So: be free, but don't ever forget that the corporation will crush you... which leads me to...

The negatives
  • Gorgeous art and design
Hang on! Wasn't this a positive? Yes, but you can have too much of a good thing, and the artwork in MA is extensive, leaving little room for anything else, meaning that...
  • Lack of scope and ambition
It's difficult not to look at MA and see a lack of ambition. There are hints through the sketchy fluff and rules - hints - at something much broader that never came to light. There is, or could be, a whole world buried here but we never get to see it. Maybe the whole project was shackled for some reason? Perhaps it was a rush job so that the next campaign book is ready in time for Games Day? Whatever... What we have here is perhaps 30 or so pages of useful expansion and little else.
  • Mistakes!
K'daai rules replicate unit rules from the Fireborn to the Destroyer - the curse of cut-and-paste... Dread Maw is a monster but rules refer to units... These kind of errors in a book no longer than 20k words in length are embarrassing, unprofessional and lazy.
  • Compare and fail
The Realm of Chaos books, published in 1988 and 1990, are the benchmark for works produced by GW - yes, they're jumbled and difficult to navigate, but that's because the ambition, scope, aim and imagination of these books outstrips anything else GW has ever produced. Looking back at Tamurkhan now, having seen how MA has taken the formula forward, I can only feel sad. Tamurkhan remains a good book, it's just not the great book I thought it was, given hindsight and some perspective brought by MA.

The verdict

I wanted to enjoy MA and in some ways, I do. This positivity runs dry, however, when I look to the dusty and dogeared books on my shelf from 'back in the day'. Perhaps it's age? The Realm of Chaos books came out when I was 13 and 15, so how can I expect to have a similar reaction now I'm a near-middle-aged man? No, it's not just age. I read Slaves to Darkness now and it's still brilliant - mad, chaotic and jumbled, but brilliant nonetheless. I feel the same when I look at the 3e Warhammer army lists: aside from all the 1/2 points and other odd calculations, it was just better then.

So the verdict is... I'm an old fart. No, I think we knew that. The verdict is: MA is a sticky treat that is full of empty calories (and likely to leave you with a headache) that dangles temptingly in the jaws of the GW venus flytrap. Avoid...      



  1. Very incisive review, I've not picked up the book myself (what the hell do I know then?) but I've read a lot of it and its the empty feeling that leaves you wanting something more. That aside I'll be buying the models regardless of rules if they look awesome so GW win again...

    1. I just wanted it to be so much more than the sum of its parts and it isn't. Such a shame.

      The models are gorgeous though. I picked up the Elemental of Fire at the FW open day and it's miles better than the photos illustrate - it's a brilliant model.

  2. I loved Throne of Chaos and the idea of an expansion as per Storm of Magic so I was under the impression Monstrous Arcanum was going to expand on the monster side of things in a bigger way as well. I like the book itself but as an expansion I don't feel like it really did...anything...


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