Mali-wha? Malifaux (Mal-i-foe if you want to sound it out). It's the game everyone came back from GenCon buzzing about - Wyrd Miniatures has finally created a game to go along with their amazing series of figures. Finding a setting to encapsulate the huge range and variety of Wyrd's miniature line is definitely quite a creative undertaking. Nathan Caroland, Mr. Wyrd himself enthusiastically describes the setting as "SteamVictorioHorrorWestPunk!" Which about covers it. There's old western style towns, necromancers using their creations to hold up banks, mexican gunslinger monster-hunters, and abominations spawned from men's deepest fears and desires. That only touches on some of the interesting and entertaining stuff that Wyrd has come up with - suffice it to say that the setting is very very cool.
So what is Malifaux the game? It's a skirmish sized tabletop miniature game (5-8 figures per side is about right for your average game) played using "heroic" 32mm figures. The game is built for play on a 3 foot by 3 foot table with a decent amount of terrain - 2-3 small/medium pieces per square foot. Malifaux uses an action point system, and an "I go with a model, you go with a model, I go again" format. What makes it different? The combat resolution mechanic. Malifaux uses a poker deck (+both jokers) instead of dice. This sounds quirky and interesting at first glance, but that really only scratches the surface of the depth and strategy that their system adds to a tabletop miniatures game. Each player gets a hand of cards each turn. When a model wants to do something, their controller flips a card from the fate deck, adds the relevant stat, and compares it either to a static difficulty number (to say, cast a buff spell) or compares the total vs. the defender's total (which they flipped a card for, and added the relevant defense stat). They can then modify the result of the flip with a card from their control hand.
Example: say Perdita Ortega the gunslinger/monster hunter wants to shoot her Peacebringer pistol at a Rotten Belle (that's a zombie hooker - yes this game comes complete with dead hookers). Each player would flip a card from their fate deck, and add the total to the relevant stat (combat for the attacker, defense for the defender - were this a spell, the stats would be different depending on the spell). The suit of the card flipped may activate defensive or offensive "triggers" for either of the models (more or less Critical Hits or Dodges). Assuming our Peacbringer firing protagonist flipped a 6 and had a combat score of 7, her total is 13. The Belle flipped a 9 and added her defense of 3 (dead hookers aren't too quick on their feet) for a total of 12. Since the Belle is losing this exchange (and getting shot), her controller has a chance to "cheat fate" by replacing the flipped fate card with a card from their hand. The Belle's controller drops an 11 from his hand, changing the Belle's total to 14. Now Perdita's controller has a chance to cheat fate as well. Depending on what's in Perdita's controller's hand, which other actions the they may still want to make sure happen this turn, what they think is left in the Belle's contollers hand, and a number of other factors, it may or may not be worth it to make sure the shot hits by cheating fate. The card they may want to play will also depend on how "hard" they can hit the Belle. Barely hitting (meeting the defense total exactly) hitting by 1-5, hitting by 6-10, or hitting by 11+ all influence how easily Perdita will be able to damage the Belle in the next step. Lets say Perdita's controller decides that cheating fate is worth it here and plays a 9 from her hand, changing her combat total to 9+7=16. Perdita is hitting by 2, 16 vs. 14 defense. This barely wings the Belle, so Perdita isnt' likely to do much damage, but hey it's better than missing.
I won't go into the details of how damage is determined here for space considerations, but take my word that above is a fairly basic exchange and a number of other factors and probability twisting effects can influence things. The system is really smooth once you've played it a few times and very elegant in it's execution.
I will say that the rules do have their weaknesses here and there. Some rules questions that come up you'll have to hit the Malifaux forums to get the answer to, because the rulebook simply doesn't have the answer. These situations are fairly rare, and Wyrd does take notice when issues crop up. The Errata document currently is only 2 pages long, and is being added to actively, as needed.
The Malifaux book is very well put together for a first effort from a new company. The layout is well done, the art is very good, and the fluff is well written and fun to read. There are a few typos, and Wyrd could definitely use a technical writer to clean up some of the rules wording, but overall I'm impressed with the book. The rules for all 5 factions worth of models are included, with fluff spread throughout in an engaging manner that doesn't make it feel like you're reading a novel or textbook.
Here is a brief rundown of each of the factions in Malifaux:
* The Guild: The Law. Monster Hunters, Witch Hunters, and Zombie Hunters. Desperately trying to retain authority in a city gradually spinning out of control - the Guild will do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals. Mechanically this faction has a lot of ranged attacks available to it, as well as anti-magic abilities and melee specialists. If you want a reason to hate the Guild, you don't have to look far on the tabletop.
* The Resurrectionists: Necromancers, Mad Scientists, and Zombies. Lots of Zombies. The Resurrectionists have no compunctions about sending waves of zombies at you, and building more out of what remains on the table after a brawl. Mechanically this faction focuses mostly on melee and corpse counter manipulation (playing with dead bodies), something that other factions don't really do. Most Resurrectionist models are tough to kill and generally there's a lot of them.
* The Arcanists: Beast and Construct masters. Wither it's ice golems, swarms of mechanical spiders or mole-men, this is the faction for it. They are the most "magic-y" faction, with masters that specialize in different areas. One is a melee expert/beast master, another works with ice constructs that she can cast spells through, and the last builds lots of little mechanical spider friends that swarm up and go eat his enemies.
* The Neverborn: Monsters from your worst nightmares. Babies with cleavers, giant carnivorous teddy bears, whatever Silurids are, and big winged demon things. This faction has a good mix of terrifying melee ability and spellcasting/control. They are generally quick on the tabletop and dangerous once they get where they're going.
* The Outcasts: The Mercenaries of Malifaux, this faction is comprised mainly of highly effective and expensive specialist models. Mainly melee and ranged attack oriented. There's also a kind of "sub" faction of Bayou Gremlins and their warpigs that are Outcasts - think redneck goblins with entertaining abilities (including making pigs fly) and you're on the right track. Mercenaries in Malifaux can be hired by other factions (at a premium), though not all Outcasts are Mercenaries.
Malifaux is a great skirmish scale game with some innovative mechanics and very intriguing options for gameplay that you won't find elsewhere. The fluff is creative, the setting is cool, and the game is a lot of fun to play. The rules have a few holes in them, but they are being actively patched by the dev team. In short - I think Malifaux has a bright future and I'm excited to watch Wyrd grow into a bigger player in the tabletop miniature games market.
If you're interested in picking up Malifaux to try out, here's what I suggest. Pick up a Rulebook, a Fate Deck (though a normal poker deck will work if you're on a budget), and a starter box. All told this should run you around $70-80. Starter boxes that I would recommend for new players: The Ortegas, The Death Marshals, The Witch Hunters, The Order of the Chimera, Lilith's Brood, The Legion of Sorrows, The Mercenaries, The Redchappel Gang, or The Undertaker's Lot. The others generally have a higher learning curve or will require a model swap or two to perform against the recommended boxes.