Out with the Ortegas – a short review of Malifaux


I took my Malifaux Ortega crew to Myth Games yesterday to have my first game of Malifaux. Brett was kind enough to run me through the game and was using his Nocodem Ressurectionist crew. We played a 30 Soulstone game which gave me enough points to take all the Ortegas from the starter set as well as the Enslaved Nephilim totem for Perdita and a few extra Soulstones to use in the game.

I didn’t take any photos of the game as I was trying to concentrate on playing and learning the rules. I am going to write this as a bit of a rambling mini-review and exploration of the game so this will be a touch long. I have also only played a game so take my comments on the rules with a touch of salt. :-)

Game basics
Malifaux is an odd setting to put your finger on and its probably a good idea to not try. The setting is infused with magic, characters wield katanas and six-shooters, the undead roam the earth and magically powered constructs fight giant Ice Golems. It is wacky and fun and very novel.

The game is played using a set of 52 cards split into four suits – Tomes, Rams, Crows and Masks. Each suit is numbered form 1 to 13 and there are two Jokers, Black and Red, in the deck. These cards are played in lieu of dice rolls and the cards take on an additional function in the game in that some abilities and spells require specific suits or multiple suits in order to be used.

Cards are either flipped from the deck or you can “cheat fate” by playing a card from your hand. Soulstones can also be used to add another card to your total to increase it and also add another suit. Draws in the game are either opposed (ranged or melee combat for instance) or against a target number (casting a spell).

It is this card draw and play dynamic that runs throughout the entire game and it is the first major learning curve that new players have to deal with. It can be very random at times and one reaction from my initial game is that spells and abilities weren’t used as often, or used successfully, as you would expect. So even though a character might have eight or ten different things they can do it isn’t an automatic success like Warmachine. Some are actually quite difficult to pull off. The Ressurectionist model Mortimer has an ability that allow him to dig up body parts but the ability requires you to flip a card with a Crow suit. So unless you have a card in your hand you have a 25% chance to use the ability. In our game, my opponent was only able to use the ability once in the game.

This reliance on Suits being required for abilities and spells means that you have to plan your actions in a game not only one your board position but also on what cards you have in your hand and the odds on getting a required value or suit (or both) from a random draw from your deck. Your Master might have a devastating spell but if you can’t get the suit or a high enough card to activate it then you are SOL and it won’t go off.

Draws can have modifiers attached to them, either positive or negative, and this increases the number of cards drawn but negative modifiers make you pick the lowest card drawn and higher modifiers allow you to pick the highest card drawn. Cover, for instance, is a -1 draw modifier so if you hit a target in cover you would draw two cards and then pick the lowest. Some triggers give you positive draw modifiers. These are additive and so you can have a +2 modifier and a -1 modifier to give you a net +1 modifier.

This sounds wildly random and it can be if you don’t plan and pay attention to your cards but it acts as a nice inhibitor on the power of models and ultimately makes you have to decide what to spend your high cards and specific suits on during your turn.

Crews and models
Each player in the game has a crew from one of the five factions: Arcanists (magic users), Ressurectionists (necromancers and body thieves), the Guild (the “law”), Outkasts (mercs and fringe dwellers) and the Neverborn (wild, magical beasts and beings trying to take Malifuax back). Each crew has to have a Master (or a Henchmen) to lead the party and it is this Master that is the focus of the party. Malifaux is more akin to games like Necromunda than Warmachine in that the Master is powerful but not as overwhelmingly powerful as the Warcaster in Warmachine.

Each of the factions has a particular focus but within those factions there are a wide variety of Masters. The Guild has, in the first book, Perdita, a gun-sligner, Sonnia, a spell caster and Lady Justice who is a mix of both. The Arcanists are all magic users but each one has a wildly different focus. There is a lot of variety in the game and there are very few models that are specific to a single Master. You can even try to recruit models from different factions but at an increased cost.

Crews are assembled using by spending Soulstones. Models, aside from Masters and Henchmen, have a Soulstone cost and each Master has a variable Soulstone cache that can be added to this total. A small game is 25 – 30 Soulstones and a larger battle is 50 Soulstones. Models cost anywhere from 2 to 10 (or more) with 5-7 being an average price. Masters can also keep some of these Soulstones asisde for use during the game to get additional draws or to boost draws.

Every model in Malifaux has abilities, spells and triggers as well as one or more special rules. Many of the special rules are universal, like Hard to Kill or Armour, but some models have unique special abilities. In addition to special rules there are abilities, triggers and spells. Abilities and Spells have an Action cost of either (0), (1), (2) or (All). Each model has two actions when they activate and can only do a single (0) action per activation. Some models have abilities such as Casting Expert (1) or Fast (1) that allow them to do an additional spell casting, move or other action. Abilities, unlike Spells, do not require you to flip cards as they are assumed to be active as soon as you pay the Action Point cost.

Most Masters have the option to also purchase Totems that are linked to them and can give them buffs, extra abilities or, most commonly, cast one of the Masters (1) cost spells. Some totems, like the Wendigo, are for a specific Master (Rasputina in this case) and some can be used by any Master.

Models have a set of stats that define their capabilities – Walk/Charge, Willpower, Casting, Height, Defence and Wounds. Some stats also have Suits assigned to them. So Lady Justice, a Guild Master, has a Casting value of 5 Ram. Some stats with Suits also help fulfil one or more of the suit requirements for an ability, trigger or spell and those stats are printed in the faction’s colour. Lady Justice as a Defence of 5 Ram as well and this stat satisfies the suit requirement for her Defence trigger.

Combat stats are separated from the model and are listed by weapon. Models can have a melee or ranged weapon entry and each one has a Range, Combat and Damage stat. Models can therefore have both ranged and melee attacks but have different proficiencies in each type allowing models to be very good at one but only mediocre in the other.

Triggers are an interesting wrinkle in Malifaux. In addition to a model’s basic combat abilities it also sometimes has one or more Triggers. Triggers are assigned to a stat and require one or more suits to become active. These are typically Defence, Casting or Combat related. Mortimer has a Combat trigger that requires the Crow suit. So if Mortimer hits with his Shovel attack and the draw or card played from your hand has the Crow suit then it also sets off the “A Grav For Your” trigger which, in this instance, lets you immediately cast a spell with no action point cost.

Triggers are very similar to the Critical Effect abilities in Warmachine but are more common and have a wider range of potential effects and always require a suit and sometimes a specific spell or attack to be enabled.

Examples of the stat cards with abilities, triggers and spells can be downloaded from the Wyrd Games forum.

Playing the Game
So how does it all come together?

At first there is a lot of information to deal with. All of your models have quite a few abilities and your opponent also has a fair number as well so there is a lot to take in when you first play. Add to this the Suits, cards and different types of way to play cards and it is easy to get bogged down during your first few turns.

Much like Warmachine, it is a good idea to read through your model’s cards prior to the game and get a good idea of what they can do, what sort of Suits you need for their abilities and what synergies there are between the models. Since Malifaux invariably requires a Suit for abilities or spells to go off the synergistic effects in the game aren’t as overpowering as they are in Warmachine.

For instance Perdita, the Ortega Master, has a spell called Obey that can be used to get a model to do a single action or Charge. In my game I had to use my Enslaved Nephilim totem as well as Perdita to cast the spell (the Nephilim failed) in order to get Papa Loco to use his “I’ll Take You With Me” spell. Even though I got the spell off I was still not able to get Papa to use his Spell since I wasn’t able to draw the required suit to trigger it.

In Warmachine this would have been much different and it is this reliance on target numbers and suits for abilities that really puts a cap on chaining spells and abilities into “über” combos.

Malifaux uses an alternating activation system in which players take turns activating individual models. There are some options to allow you to chain activations together (typically the Companion ability) but given the small number of models in the game its often not a good idea to activate too many models at once unless you are going for a final push to win the game.

There are not a lot of models that have abilities that are usable outside of their activation so you can really focus on the model you are activating and not have to worry about your other models as much which is nice given how much information typically comes with most models.

Combat is actually a lot simpler than you’d expect. A player nominates a target, makes sure that the attack is in range and then makes a flip from the deck to determine the suit an value of the card which is added to the Combat stat of the weapon being used. Melee combat is typically 1″ or 2″ range and ranged weapons are anywhere from 8 – 12″ with some exceptional weapons being able to reach out to 16″. When the attacker has a total attack value the target then flips a card and adds it to their applicable stat (usually Defence). If the defenders total is equal to or higher than the attack value then the attack does not hit. If it does hit then the attacker makes a damage flip. Depending on how much they succeeded by the flip may have positive or negative modifiers added to it. Typically you have to succeed by 6 or more in order to have a damage flip with no modifiers.

A damage flip is made and the value of the card determines if the weapon does weak, moderate or severe damage. Each weapon has a damage stat with value for each of the three damage levels.

That sounds like a lot

There is a lot going on in a game of Malifaux. An average game has about 5 to seven figures in it and due to the alternating activations you aren’t having to keep the entire army in your head while you move. You set up combos, buffs and synergies in series as you activate your models and so the level of detail doesn’t really get overwhelming. It strikes me that it can be a common enough occurrence to be blind-sided by an ability that a model has but that is a danger in most games. Since your opponent has the same number of small figures you have less to keep track of.

The alternating activations keep you in the game and the card duels also mean that even during your opponents turn you are still active and involved.

The mechanics around the card draw and resolving attacks and actions is definitely nonstandard but it doesn’t take you took long to get your head wrapped around it and start beginning to see some of the strategy around card usage.

People talk about Warmachine being a resource management game and in a similar respect Malifaux is a luck management game. Each turn you have five cards that you know the values and suits for and it is your job to utilize those as best you can. These cards help define your tactics for the turn and even though you can attempt to do crazy stunts that you don’t have the cards or suits for you and still pull them off it seems as if your best course is to leve the vagaries of luck to less critical spells and actions and use your cards to maximize your important actions.


Malifaux has a very unique scenario system. After deciding how many Soulstones worth of troops you want to take you can use the terrain tables to generate a location and terrain for you. This appear to be optional but its a fun way to set a thematic locale for your game. This also determines how you deploy.

After you have decided how to deploy and set up terrain you flip to determine your Strategy. Each player has a randomly determined strategy and this determines what your victory goal is for the game. There are five of them and these are known to each player. Players then pick a number of Schemes which as private victory goals that are worth fewer points that the Strategies. There are quite a number of Schemes and some of them are specific to Factions.

So how was your game

So that was a 2300 word intro to my game report :-) I can assure you that the game report itself will be shorter.

Brett brought out his demo tables and some very nice O scale railway terrain for the game. Since this was my first game we didn’t use the Strategies and Schemes and instead just went out attempting to crack heads. Ultimately this is probably not a good way to play the game since the Strategies and Schemes really add a lot to the game and make it very goal driven.

As I mentioned, I had the Ortegas consisting of:

  • Perdita Ortega
  • Enslaved Nephilim
  • Nino Ortega
  • Fransisco Ortega
  • Papa Loco
  • Santiago Ortega

The Ortegas are very focused on shooting and each model, with the exception of Papa Loco has a ranged weapon and is very good with it. Papa is unbalanced and just tosses dynamite at people. Even using it as a melee weapon.

Brett was playing Nicodem the necromancer and had:

  • Nicodem
  • Mortimer
  • 3 x Punk Zombie
  • 2 x Necro Punk

Brett outnumbered me but his models were slow and none of them had a ranged attack. Nicodem of course could raise undead by using the corpse tokens that his models would leave littered over the field as I shot them up. And this is basically how the first few turns went. Brett slowly moved his Undead up and I managed to shoot three or four of them. His Necro Punks have a Leap spell but sadly it requires a Mask suit to cast and Brett was unable to find the Masks to get it off and so they crept along the table at a slow pace giving me even more time to shoot them.

By the time Brett was close enough to start to attack me there were four corpse tokens that were situated in the centre of the table. Brett moved Nicodem up during turn three and cast his Reanimator spell and turned them into a Flesh Construct and a Mindless Zombie. Suddenly I went from being firmly in charge of the game to having a huge undead Flesh Construct parked right next to my Master.

I spent the better part of the rest of the turn shooting the hell out of the Flesh Construct at which point I realised that as soon as I killed it, it would drop three Corpse tokens which Nicodem would then just turn back into a Flesh Construct. Clearly a better plan was required. Only one of my minions had any real melee skills and that was Fransisco which explains why Brett took the first opportunity to chop him down with a Punk Zombie. That left Papa Loco as my main threat to Nicodem and I attempted to use Obey to get Papa to charge Nicodem after using a dynamite toss to clear the way to him.

Sadly I was unable to get the Obey spell cast and so I had to leave it till the next turn to get Papa to move in and then use his “Take Ya With Me!” spell to explode a huge charge of dynamite. This killed Papa and reduced Nicodem to a handful of Wounds which made him easy pickings for the rest of the crew.

The lack of Strategies in the game meant that Brett was at a bit of a disadvantage since I was just gunning for his master and Nicodem is only Defence 3 and easy to hit and wound. Brett also consistently forgot to use his Bolster Undead action and so his Zombies and other Undead could have had a Combat and Defence buff each turn which would have kept them alive longer.

So what did you think?

The game was fun. I love alternating activations in a game and there are enough different options for models during their activations that you don’t feel stuck having to do a “default” action with them. None of the models I had and none of Brett’s models seemed to be filler used to pad out the force to the required point values. Everything had good tactical options in the game and the triggers for each model also gave you added benefits form time to time that made the game a bit exciting. Nino was able to get his Head Shot trigger when firing at the Flesh Construct which forced Brett to either kill the Flesh Construct or discard card or Soulstones to keep it alive. The trigger wasn’t ever guaranteed so you can’t count on it going off unless you had the required suit in your hand.

This is one of the ore interesting aspects of the game. You can’t ever be sure what your opponent has in his hand and so while models might have triggers like Head Shot you need to judge just how likely it is that your opponent can activate a trigger or spell and also how likely it is that they can overcome your attacks with high cards.

I especially like that there are a lot of tactical options during your turn and that the alternating activations mean that you can’t simply lay out a perfect attack and have it execute. You might prep a model for an attack and have your opponent cast a spell, drop a 13 for his attack and then a 12 for his damage and spend a Soulstone to boost it further and suddenly the cornerstone of your attack is dead.

I had been quite curious about Malifaux when I was in Vancouver but never really had the time to get into it and since moving to Calgary and clearing out my other games I found I had the time and the opportunities for it. I am quite surprised by how much I like the game, how much I like the card mechanic and how deep the game is tactically.

I’ve already put in an order for a Rasputina Arcanist crew and a few more Guild figures for my Ortegas and I am looking forward to learning this game more. If you have been on the fence about Malifaux I suggest checking it out. The core rulebook is available is a condensed version with no fluff for $15 and as a free PDF. Starter sets are available for $35 – $50 depending on the faction and the card deck is available for $9.00 and so for $60 – $75 you can start playing the game. Even less if you use the free PDF to learn the rules. The free PDF doesn’t have the fluff but you can download all the core stat cards for free as well so you can check out the factions and read the rules before deciding on a faction.


  • Low model count means less painting and more gaming
  • Alternating activations are always a good thing in a game
  • Lots of depth
  • No filler models or models that are tactically less useful
  • Card system is less random than dice
  • Core rules are quite simple
  • Depth in game comes from the model’s abilities not rules
  • Rules use a lot of visual symbols and coloured symbols which is great for dyslexics


  • Quite a lot of options for each model
  • A fair bit to remember for the beginning player
  • Math is hard for some people

One Comment

  1. Nice review. Makes me more interested to find out about the game. Unfortunately for me, table top mini is a bit dying around this area.

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