Recently, I made the comment that I might be going through a midlife crisis. I am judging this purely on my recent reattachment to the world of Warhammer 40,000. I used to play games set in this universe a lot when I was younger. In fact, my Internet handle (Great Wolf) is drawn from the background of this universe. Of late, there seems to have been a revival in games set in the 40k universe. Or maybe I’ve just been noticing more. And so, today, I’d like to talk for a moment about the new edition of Horus Heresy from Fantasy Flight Games.
And, for those of you who aren’t gamers, there’s still a bit of classic “Dark and Quiet Room” introspection at the end of this article. Stick with it!
First, here’s a thumbnail sketch of the Horus Heresy, for those of you who don’t know.
Once, the Emperor of Man walked among his people, having created the twenty Primarchs and their Space Marine Legions from his own geneseed. They had embarked on a Great Crusade to conquer the galaxy for the good of mankind. And the Imperium spread, and all was good.
But trouble came. The Warmaster Horus, the greatest of the Primarchs and beloved of the Emperor, fell to the corrupting influence of Chaos and turned against the Imperium. Fully half of the Space Marine Legions rallied to his banner, and the Imperium was split by civil war.
Horus knew that the ultimate success of his rebellion required the death of the Emperor. So, he diverted a number of the loyalist Space Marine Legions and then, in a bold gambit, struck with the bulk of his forces directly at Terra, the capital of the Imperium.
Initially, the traitor forces swept aside the loyalist defenders, who were also betrayed by Chaos sympathizers within their own ranks. The Imperial Palace itself was breached, and bitter house-to-house fighting filled the compound with bodies. Massive armies collided, and the dead were everywhere. Time and again, the traitor Marines hurled themselves at the defenders, and each time they were repulsed. And yet, slowly but surely, the loyalists were pushed back. They were running out of time.
Interestingly, so was Horus. Word reached him that the other loyalist Marines had defeated the troops he had sent to pin them, and now an armada was en route to Terra. If he could not kill the Emperor in time, he would be overwhelmed by reinforcements. So, he dropped the void shields on his flagship, hoping that the Emperor would beam aboard.
The fate of Terra was sealed in single combat between the Emperor and the Warmaster. In the end, the Emperor was victorious, killing Horus while suffering a mortal wound himself. And so the Emperor ascended to the Golden Throne, where he is kept in perpetual life support so that his powerful psychic mind can continue to protect his people.
The siege of Terra is the single most important event in the history of the 40k universe, and it is the setting for the wargame Horus Heresy. One side plays the loyalist defenders, and the other side plays the attacking traitors. Like other wargames, part of the joy of the game is seeing if you can outperform the historical (or, in this case, “historical”) outcome. Can you actually succeed where Horus failed? Or can you preserve the Imperium with fewer losses than the Emperor?
Yeah, this sort of thing totally works for me. Some have noted that the universe of Warhammer 40K is a fascist one, and I’m hard-pressed to argue with them. However, that’s not the appeal of the setting for me. Instead, it’s the overwrought heavy metal opera-ness of it all. You know, massive heroes in massive armor doing massive battle with each other. (For a sense of this, check out the intros to the Warhammer 40K computer games Dawn of War and Dawn of War II.)
And the siege of Terra particularly works for me, because it’s such an epic battle. You know, not just treachery, but vile treachery!!!. Not just heroism, but desperate heroism!!!. Not just combat, but grim combat!!!. And yeah, those exclamation points are definitely appropriate. But there’s more.
Horus Heresy does a fine job of depicting the siege of Terra as it’s described in all the stories: a grim, grinding, desperate battle. Combat isn’t about slashing maneuvers as much as it’s about feeding troops into the meat grinder and hoping they survive just a little longer than the enemy. The scale is so vast that the armies feel more like lumbering behemoths crashing into each other. And both sides feel the hot breath of bitter defeat on their necks.
As the loyalist defender, you are constantly surrounded by forces that seem more mobile and responsive than yours. The besieging ships barrage the ground from orbit, killing your few defending troops. Drop pods land everywhere, disgorging traitor Marines at your weakest points. You are betrayed by your own units who join the enemy, rather than standing strong by your side.
But the traitor player is no better. There never seems to be enough forces in place or enough maneuverability to get the job done. The defenders have vast adamantium fortresses which shelter them from your onslaught. Loyalist Marines slaughter your troops as soon as they land, scattering the survivors to the four winds. And time is not on your side. The game has a built-in timing mechanism and all the Imperium has to do is hold on long enough for relief to arrive. Wait too long to muster your forces, and you may not have enough time to use them.
And so, both generals feel the pressure, the sinking feeling that it’s all about to come apart, that defeat will claim you. I’ve found that it’s a common occurrence for both players to feel like they are losing at the same time.
And this led to a conversation I had with my wife. I was commenting on this aspect of the game, and she said that she actually didn’t like that part of the game. Well, kinda. Because then she launched into a passionate description of the desperate last stand. You know, the kind of story where the defenders are outmanned, outgunned, and surrounded. The kind of story that ends either with a hard-won victory for the defenders, earned at great cost, or their finally being overrun and slain. And we agreed that the important part of these stories is that the defender doesn’t let go. The point isn’t that they won or lost. The point is that they refused to give up. That, whether victorious or defeated, their will was not broken, and they stood tall against the onslaught.
Even if they died. All of them.
We respect that kind of story. Those are the virtues that we celebrate, which just goes to show that we were made for each other. I’m not as interested in a conquering hero as much as a desperate man, surrounded on all sides, who refuses to yield because his cause is righteous and just. Victory is irrelevant, because, really, he has already won. He fought the battle against his fear, and he emerged victorious.
That’s why the siege of Terra and Horus Heresy speak to me.
But, if these are the sorts of stories that I celebrate, what does this say about me? I often find that I discover qualities in myself through gameplay that I can then apply to life. What can I be learning about myself from this?
Could it be that God made me to fight this sort of fight? Not a grand and glorious push to achieve some noble goal, but something darker? A grim resistance, perhaps, surrounded on all sides but refusing to yield, having already won the battle against myself because I know that the cause is righteous and just.
And, if that is the case, should I be surprised if I sometimes feel tired and surrounded and alone? After all, for some bizarre reason, I consider that to be a position of honor. Maybe I need to see it as such and learn to shoulder that burden. Maybe…just maybe…God is actually seeking to honor me in this way. So maybe…just maybe…I need to learn how to honor Him in those times. Incomplete thoughts, I know, but there you are.
So, a big thanks to Jeff Tidball for designing Horus Heresy. I enjoy the game, and I’m looking forward to playing it more.