A few months ago, my friend Michael invited me to play Blackstone Fortress, a popular dice-based tabletop strategy/combat game. [HEADER PIC] As a newbie to the Warhammer 40K universe, my immediate response was to do a quick Google search for strategy guides. There weren’t any. This article will attempt to fill that void by providing a concise overview of BSF strategy. Because part of the fun of Blackstone Fortress comes from on-the-fly problem solving, trial-and-error tactical planning, and unexpected obstacles, I’ll keep the guide as general and as spoiler-free as possible. Yet I’ll still provide tips to make your life easier and the Fortress survivable.
Players familiar with the game should skip the overview and proceed directly to the observations/tips.
- Gameplay overview
- Observation #1: Only grievous wounds matter.
- Observation #2: Enemy behavior is procedural and therefore highly predictable.
- Observation #3: Reinforcement is a rare event.
- Observation #4: Inspired characters are extremely powerful.
- Observation #5: Gambits have a high return.
- Observation #6: Not all characters are equally good.
- Observation #7: Not all hostiles are equally dangerous.
- Observation #8: Items provide huge buffs.
Blackstone Fortress takes place in a newly-discovered space station which houses various secrets and advanced technology. [OBSIDIOUS MALEX PIC] The goal of the game is to defeat four Strongholds and then to defeat the Vault, unlocking the secret of the Blackstone Fortress. Players select a party of four from a total of eight available heroes, each of whom has unique abilities and weaknesses. In particular, the heroes differ in the strength of their agility, vitality, and defense rolls, in the optimal range of their attacks (1 hex, 2-3 hexes, or 4+ hexes), and in their mobility (1, 2, 3, or 4 hexes per movement action).
The party embarks on a series of Expeditions in an effort to discover clues that allow them access to each Stronghold. If the Vault is not defeated within 12 Expeditions, the game is lost. An Expedition ends either when all the encounter cards are drawn, when a hero dies, or when the players decide to retreat.
After each Expedition, the heroes return to their ships, where items can be purchased and various abilities can be used. Each ship also comes with a power that can be activated once during each expedition.
Inside the fortress, players engage in combat with various types of enemies, face challenges, and search the fortress for clues, items, and currency called Archeotech. Combat is dice-based and is conducted on hex-grid maps. Each player receives three to four dice at the start of every initiative cycle along with access to a pool of public “destiny dice.” They expend dice to perform actions like movement, healing, exploration, and attacks.
In each of the tips that follows, I’ll make one important observation about gameplay and will then provide suggestions based on that observation.
Observation #1: Only grievous wounds matter.
When enemies attack, they can miss, inflict a normal wound, or inflict a grievous wound. Both types of wounds occupy a die slot and consequently deprive you of one die in the following round. [PIC OF HERO CARD WITH DICE SLOTS] However, grievous wounds cannot be healed until the expedition ends. This observation is absolutely crucial. Yes, if all your dice slots are already filled with normal wounds and you take an additional wound, you will be rendered unconscious. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll be knocked out unless your whole team gets overwhelmed in a firefight, because you can perform a healing action for a cost of only one die. Normally, you can retreat and heal, or wait until you’ve repulsed nearby enemies to devote an entire round to healing.
In contrast, if you take a grievous wound, the injury is permanent. One lost die makes a tremendous difference over the course of an expedition. Moreover, the effect snowballs since you’ll be less mobile and less able to kill enemies before they attack. The take-home lesson is: DO NOT TAKE GRIEVOUS WOUNDS. Only grievous wounds will stop your party from advancing through the fortress.
But how can grievous wounds be avoided? No matter how cautious you are, eventually an enemy is going to roll a critical attack and you’re going to fail to block it. So much for my advice, right? Wrong. There’s one exception to the grievous wound rule and that makes all the difference.
Tip #1A: Include UR-025 in your party as your main tank.
The only exception to the grievous wound rule is UR-025. Not only does he have the strongest defense roll of the heroes, he can heal grievous wounds. [PIC OF UR-025 MODEL] He is the tank to end all tanks. The first key to surviving the fortress is to plunk poor UR right on front line and let the enemies whale on him. No matter how many grievous wounds he takes, he can convert them into regular wounds and heal them. If you let him take all your team’s damage, then the only mechanism for halting your advance through the fortress is completely nullified.
Difficulties: Two factors might make players hesitant to adopt this strategy. First, UR-025 is also an offensive terror. His power claw has the highest attack roll in the game and his assault canon is deadly from a distance. Using him solely as a punching bag seems like a huge waste.
Second, UR-025 has only three dice slots, not four. It hardly seems fair to take a player who’s already in a dice deficit and cower behind him while he takes multiple wounds.
Let me make three responses. First, UR’s defense roll is so strong, that the enemy will rarely hit him. Chaos Space Marines have one of the strongest, scariest attacks of any enemy unit, yet they have only a 18% chance of landing a regular wound and a 4% chance of landing a grievous wound on UR. That means that a squad of two Chaos Space Marines who both perform double attacks on UR have about a 49% chance of inflicting one normal wound on him and only a 14% chance of inflicting one grievous wound. Second, good teams will eliminate most enemy units long before they land any attacks on UR, so he’ll still have plenty of offense to contribute with his dice. Finally, BSF is a team game. Playing your role is vital and you can get just as much satisfaction from staring stony-faced into a hail of bullets as you can from blasting away with your assault canon.
So let me reiterate: put UR-025 in front and let him absorb every single one of the enemies’ attacks. It will pay tremendous dividends when you walk away from battle after battle with no permanent damage and can descend deeper and deeper into the fortress.
Tip #1B: Skip risky challenges.
On an expedition, you’ll encounter both combat cards and challenge cards. Challenge cards usually present you with some obstacle that must be overcome through a series of random rolls. Occasionally, these challenges pose a risk-reward tradeoff: you can skip the challenge. Or you can gain a clue or some Archeotech at the risk of taking a wound or even a grievous wound.
If there is any possibility of taking a grievous wound, skip the challenge. Period. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to discover clues and gain Archeotech during combat… provided that you don’t have to retreat from taking one too many grievous wounds.
It seems reasonable to opt out of certain challenges, but can you really ensure that UR-025 takes all the damage? What if the enemy flanks your team or splits your team in half? That will be the subject of our next tip.
Observation #2: Enemy behavior is procedural and therefore highly predictable.
BSF can be played with 1-5 players. If there are four or fewer players, each player takes turns controlling the enemy units. [PIC OF ENEMY UNIT GROUP #1] If a fifth player is involved, he controls the enemy units throughout the game. During my first few expeditions, I made the mistake of treating the enemy units as if they were really being controlled by a human player, in part because our fifth player, Michael, cheered for them and laughed maniacally whenever they attacked us.
However, even if a fifth player is involved, his actual control of the units is very limited. The behavior of hostiles is governed by strict rules based on dice rolls. The human player only has freedom of action to break ties in the case of two equally permissible moves. He can’t make the units do whatever he wants. This restriction provides a tremendous advantage.
Tip #2A: Keep your team together and send your tank out to draw fire.
All enemy units will always approach and attack the nearest enemy, unless two players are equally close. As a result, you can and should employ techniques that would be suicidal if you were playing against a human opponent. For example, let’s imagine that a glass canon like Pious Vorne is only two hexes away from an entire squad of Traitor Guardsmen. There’s no need to have her retreat. Just walk UR into the hex adjacent to the guardsmen. They are now required to attack UR even though a human player would walk right past him and annihilate the weaker target.
These game mechanics suggest a very reliable formation shown in the figure to the right: UR-025 should be placed in the point position closest to the enemy units. [PIC OF EXAMPLE TEAM FORMATION] Mid-range characters, like Taddeus or Pious, should be placed in the two hexes directly behind UR. Long-range characters, like Amallyn or Raus Ratling, should be placed in the back. UR will draw not just most but all of the enemy fire while the rest of your team mows down units at their preferred distance.
Difficulties: the main problem with this strategy is the possibility of facing attackers on all sides. In particular, some combat scenarios are designated as ‘ambushes.’ Ambushes usually take place on very small maps where the players occupy a central room surrounded on three sides by groups of enemies. Additionally, during ambushes, all the enemy units are placed in front of all the heroes on the initiative track, allowing them to attack first. We’ll say more about the importance of the ‘gambit’ action later, but let’s first talk more generally about how to deal with attacks on multiple fronts.
In these situations, the heroes need to turn a multi-front attack into a one-front attack as quickly as they can. Usually, the easiest way to accomplish this is to choose the weakest group of enemy units and rush into their room, killing as many of them as possible in melee combat while ignoring the other enemies. Leave UR at the entrance to absorb attacks and then sit behind him and snipe the enemies as they come to you.
Another possibility is to send your secondary tank towards the second group of hostiles to draw fire from your weaker characters. Use this approach only when absolutely necessary because of Tip #1; only UR can heal grievous wounds and even a good secondary tank will not have this ability.
Tip #2B: force the enemy to walk through traps.
Pious Vorne and Dahyek Grehk can lay down firewalls or traps that either injure or immediately kill most enemies who walk over them. If your opponent were a human, they would simply walk around these traps to avoid damage. However, enemy units are required to take the shortest path to the nearest player. Consequently, you can often predict exactly which hexes they will traverse on their turn. Use this knowledge to your advantage.
For example, if a squad of Traitor Guardsman has to traverse a narrow bridge to reach your team, send Pious Vorne out in front of the bridge to lay a flamewall on two consecutive segments of the bridge before falling back to her team. The enemy units will be forced to march through two burning hexes.
A possible exception occurs when a fifth human player is controlling the Fortress and when two paths are equidistant to the explorers. Only then will your opponent have the option of choosing the less-dangerous path. However, careful team and trap placement can usually guarantee that the enemies have to run a gauntlet of firewalls and explosions to reach you, much less attack you.
One final suggestion: Pious Vorne’s and Dahyek Grehk’s traps should be used in different ways. Pious’ firewall stays active from the moment she activates it until the beginning of her next turn. Consequently, you can keep her firewall active longer by deliberately moving her to the end of the initiative cycle so that she moves last. Also, the nature of Pious Vorne’s firewall makes it more appropriate for attacking large groups (Traitor Guardsmen) because it will remain active even after many hostiles have walked through it. In contrast, Grehk’s traps should be used on small groups of very dangerous hostiles (Ur Ghouls, Negavolt Cultuses) because they inflict a single grievous wound but are then immediately removed. Both traps are better used against melee enemies, because enemies with ranged attacks may shoot you from a distance rather than advancing into your trap.
Observation #3: Reinforcement is a rare event.
Whenever an enemy group has suffered any casualties during combat, it will roll the 20-sided Blackstone die to reinforce during its turn. [PIC OF ENEMY UNIT GROUP #2] Only a roll of ‘1’ will cause the entire group to return while rolls of ‘2’ or ‘3’ will reinforce some fraction of the enemy units. Consequently, there is only a 15% chance that a particular enemy group will reinforce at all during a particular initiative cycle. If you factor in partial reinforcements, that means that -on average- it will take approximately 11 initiative cycles for the entire hostile group to return.
Next, let’s think about damage output. A good team using their weapons at optimal distances can easily inflict one wound of damage per dice. If the team spends all their dice on attack rolls, they will easily eliminate 4-8 hostiles per round. That corresponds to completely wiping out 1-2 groups of enemies per round.
What’s the relevance of these statistics?
Tip #3A: take it slow.
If hostile groups were to reinforce rapidly, there would be a great deal of urgency in gameplay. You couldn’t afford to advance cautiously, keep together, and stay in formation. You’d have to take risks. This problem would be compounded if every encounter brought with it the possibility of taking a grievous wound. However, given the slow reinforcement rate and UR’s role as a tank, there’s no need to rush. You can play conservatively, advancing on the hostile groups one at a time, taking strategic positions, and waiting until most of the enemies are destroyed before taking points.
Tip #3B: let the hostiles come to you.
One of the hardest parts of letting UR run point as a tank is his immobility. A 4+(?) die allows him to move two hexes, but otherwise, he moves at the snail-like pace of one hex per die. As soon as you emerge from the maglev, it’s understandable that you’d want to hand him all the Destiny dice and tell him to go take a position close to the hostile groups. The rest of your team would then have no problem closing in behind him and getting into formation. Good idea? No, bad idea.
Imagine a typical example. [PIC OF EXAMPLE COMBAT MAP] Let’s say that there’s a group of hostiles located 10 hexes from the initial maglev. UR uses all three of his dice and five destiny dice to close to 2 hexes. Amallyn can cover the same distance using only two dice and can spend two dice taking potshots at the hostiles, but slower characters will have to use 3 dice to get into position. So congratulations: you’re now in position, but you’ve spent all your dice and the hostiles get to pound on you for the remainder of the round. What’s worse, a hostile that takes a ‘rush’ or ‘charge’ or ‘fury’ action, will have very little distance to close. They’ll just pistol or grenade you repeatedly without even having to move.
In contrast, imagine the result if you had marched UR three hexes from the Maglev and had other characters form up behind him. [PIC OF EXAMPLE COMBAT MAP] You then set an ‘overwatch’ with your remaining dice, which allows you to use these dice to immediately attack if a hostile comes into your line of site during their turn. At worst, all of those overwatch dice get wasted. But your more conservative play has several advantages. First, the hostiles will spend their turn moving, not attacking. They will have to waste their turn closing the distance instead of you wasting yours. Second, when they do attack on the following round, it’s likely that they’ll be spread out: some will have rushed forward, some will have hung back, some will have retreated. So you can deal with the hostiles one at a time rather than in one huge group. Both of these factors give you a tremendous advantage.
Difficulties: the hardest part of the strategy described above is the time it takes. Yes, it’s painful to watch UR lumber across the board. Yes, the game would go much faster if sent Pious and Amallyn charge all over the board hacking at things with their power blade and chainsaw. But a fast-and-loose play style is fun only until someone makes a few bad rolls and has to be carried out on a stretcher.
Observation #4: Inspired characters are extremely powerful.
Each hero can become ‘inspired’ during an expedition. When a character is inspired, they flip over their hero card, revealing new statistics. [PIC OF INSPIRED CHARACTER CARD] Inspired characters often have stronger attacks, additional abilities, and reduced attack costs. They retain their inspiration throughout the Expedition. Consequently, getting characters inspired as early into the Expedition as possible is very important.
Characters can become inspired in several different ways. First, any character can inspire by trading in 3 inspiration tokens. To receive an inspiration token, a character must roll the 20-sided Blackstone die and obtain a number less than or equal to the number of enemy wounds they inflected that round (with the exception of Dahyek, who has to roll a number less than or equal to twice the number of wounds he inflicted).
Second, three characters have inspiration conditions: UR-025, Taddeus, and Pious. These conditions all involve killing certain types of enemies in certain ways. UR-025’s condition is fairly easy to meet. Pious’ condition is harder and Taddeus’ condition is the most difficult.
Third, four characters (Janus, Amallyn, Espern, and the Ratling Twins) have secret agendas in the form of items found at discovery points. If a character possesses his secret agenda card, he is permanently inspired not only for that particular Expedition, but for the rest of the game.
Tip 4A: Switch to characters who are permanently inspired.
Because inspiration is so powerful, if you discover a character’s secret agenda, someone should consider switching onto that character for future expeditions. Keep in mind that items can be traded back and forth during the Precipice phase, so if Amallyn obtains Janus’ secret agenda at a discovery point, she can hand it to him once they are on board their ships. Don’t be so wedded to a character that you pass up the chance to play a permanently inspired character.
The exceptions are UR-025, who will always be needed as the primary tank, and Espern Locarno who is generally an underwhelming character.
Tip #4B: Set up characters to meet their inspiration conditions.
If you have a chance to inspire a character, take it, even if the play is suboptimal. For example, to inspire, UR-025 has to kill a spindle drone with his power claw. Normally, you would not send UR-025 off by himself to melee an enemy. But in this case, you should. Inspiration is worth it.
Setting up conditions for Pious and Taddeus to meet their inspiration conditions may likewise take some work, but it will pay tremendous dividends later on in the expedition.
Tip #4C: Shunt inspiration points to key characters.
After every initiative cycle, you’ll roll the Blackstone die and an event will take place. There is a 20% (?) chance that the group leader will be able to award an inspiration point to a player of his choice. Don’t spread these points around in an attempt to ‘be fair.’ Pick the character whose inspired form provides the most benefit to the team, and give him all the points until he can inspire. Usually, UR-25 should be inspired first, because inspiration improves his mobility.
Observation #5: Gambits have a high return.
Tip 5A: Choose Janus
Tip 5B: Gambit to avoid grievous wounds
Observation #6: Not all characters are equally good.
Tip 6A: Avoid Espern
Tip 6B: Prioritize UR-025, Janus, and Taddeus
Tip 6C: Pick complementary characters
Observation #7: Not all hostiles are equally dangerous.
Tip 7A: Prioritize unblockable enemies
Tip 7B: Focus fire
Observation #8: Items matter.
Tip 8A: Expensive items provide the greatest value
Tip 8B: Pool items
Tip 8C: Use items to patch weaknesses
Tip 8D: Use items to super-power strengths