There are some games with reputations that far precede them in gamer lore, despite having few people who can say they’ve actually played them. Games Workshop’s Dreadfleet from 2011 is one of these, and this past weekend I was finally able to dip my toes into a session with this gorgeous and infamous game.
The limited-edition and now out-of-print Dreadfleet was met with mixed reviews when it was released a couple years ago. Set in the Warhammer Fantasy world with the Grand Alliance armada facing off against the undead Dreadfleet, the standalone game comes packed with incredibly intricate and delicate plastic models of ships, islands, sea monsters, treasure, ship wrecks and navigational pieces set on a beautiful printed cloth seascape playmat and accompanied by scores of cards.
The Dreadfleet table with all models painted by my brother
Playing 2 to 10 players, the game finds the two fleets squaring off with sailing and mechanical ships in a sea dotted with fortressed islands. Deep backstories accompany the lushly-illustrated rulebook, adding depth and significant game color to the captains steering their ships toward broadside cannon battles, ramming boarding parties and assaults on enemy island outposts.
The Heldenhammer (left), Black Kraken (upper right) and Swordfysh (lower right) navigating around Turtle Island
The game turn begins by drawing fate cards which inject specific plot points into each round along with shifts in the wind direction and strength. Next, each captain rolls to declare orders for the round. Next, ships move while taking into account the wind conditions as well as the ship’s handling and special skills, which may include attributes of the vessel itself or the captain at the helm.
Ranged fire occurs at 6″, 12″ and 18″ distances to varying effect, and ships ramming into contact result in face-to-face boarding melees between the heroic captain characters. Captains may also call for special attacks using smaller proxy launches from their ships, creating additional deadly chaos in the water. Captains receive wounds and ships draw cumulative damage cards, many of which carry lingering effects that can only be remedied in turns spent using repair actions.
The Black Kraken sailing from Castle Island
After a few turns at Dreadfleet, the mixed reputation was pretty handily revealed. While the game is visually one of the best I’ve ever seen on the tabletop (especially showcasing the painting skills of my brother), the mechanics are incredibly complex. Hitting or sinking a ship is difficult, to say the least. With lots of ships and islands on the table, the waters of the game quickly become complex to navigate. While I love the game’s wind mechanic on the page, shifting winds foil plans constantly. Cards are exceedingly detailed and wordy, bogging the game down as these are referenced repeatedly for the uniquely specific effects and outcomes they each carry.
The dense rulebook comes replete with a number of detailed story scenarios, but all the color the authors can muster quickly drains away under the thick fog of the rules and mechanics which must be referenced again with each turn. Playing a game with multiple players on a side would easily result in a tangle of boats over many, many hours of play.
The original retail price for Dreadfleet of over $100 rubbed a lot of gamers the wrong way for a non-expandable game. However, the enduring love-hate relationship with the game is revealed in attempting to track down a copy for yourself. Some collectors seek these boxes out merely for the models and components, often buying multiple sets to field larger fleets. Others track them down for a chance to experience the game’s rules first hand. Unopened copies can sometimes run into the hundreds of dollars, but a friend of mine recently tracked down five copies a dealer was more than happy to part ways with for $20 each.
Having now experienced Dreadfleet first hand, I completely see why this game was left a mark on gamedom. The unparalleled look of the game just can’t offset the price and wildly complex rules which make replay value a challenge. A well-painted set of models from the Dreadfleet and Grand Alliance are sure to be a showcase on any modeller’s shelf, but hauling the game to the table may very well leaving players feeling a bit adrift.