Review: Death from the Skies

Games Workshop, as it is wont to do, has been working on a summer product rollout, with a supplement, some new kits, etc. A few images leak, certain unnamed rumors sites get ahold of them, and speculation runs rampant. The game is ruined. $Faction will run unchecked through the tournament scene, destroying all in their wake. We all might as well give up playing now.

For my usual take on these, we turn to William Shakespeare:

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

So it is with Death from the Skies, their new aerial combat supplement.

As a disclaimer, unlike many of my reviews, this one is not accompanied by play experience. The reasons for this are two-fold:

  1. Finding someone willing to play several long, flyer-heavy games on short notice is a tall order indeed.
  2. I have a sinus infection from hell, and I am doing the responsible thing and not subjecting someone else to several hours in close physical proximity to me. Doing my part to keep Nurgle at bay.

Instead, this is a considered read through of the book, discussing the implications of it, how it will impact the game, and what’s inside for those who want to look before they leap.

Aesthetics

I bought the iPad version of this book, so I can’t say much about the physical product, save for my usual praise for the iPad enhanced editions. For electronic versions of gaming product, they’re pretty much the best I’ve encountered. Art wise, if you like 40K and flyers, there’s some excellent pictures – Valkyries coming in on what’s clearly a Daemon world, Crimson Hunters squaring off against Helldrakes, etc. There’s more of the new art style that first showed up in the Damocles books that I don’t particularly care for, but that’s a minor complaint when it comes down to it.

Fluff

In the “The War Above” chapter, each faction with significant flyers (notably not those with Flying Monstrous Creatures – the Tyranids are nowhere to be found in this book) gets a little spread talking about them. The heroic and rather likely to die pilots of the Aeronautica Imperialis, the decadant and capricious “Scions of Vileth” who dominate the air power of the Dark Eldar, and the semi-feral packs of Heldrakes that infest the decks of Chaos warships. They’re nicely written sections, just enough to get some flavor without belaboring the point. That is…except for the Space Marine sections. Presumably to maintain compatibility with the later chapters, and because they are slightly different, the Blood Angels, Grey Knights, Space Wolves, Dark Angels and Space Marines all get their own sections, and after awhile, this gets more than a little tedious. The same is true for the color plates etc. There are only so many ways to show a Storm Raven.

With that covered, lets consider what’s actually made everyone so nervous: The new rules. Those are divided into roughly five sections:

  1. General rules for flyers
  2. Rules for dog fighting
  3. Rules for Wing Leaders
  4. New aerial missions
  5. New datasheets for most flyers

It is the first that I expect to cause the most consternation. Like City Fight, the rest is clearly purely optional.

New General Rules

The first is the addition of some new traits: Combat Role, Pursuit and Agility. Combat Role is exactly what it sounds like – what this plane should be doing. The Crimson Hunter is a Fighter, while the Storm Talon is an Attack Flyer. Pursuit is a stat representing how fast the flyer is, and Agility how…agile.

They’ve also clarified (because they add some rules later that use this) what is an “Air Target” and what is a “Ground Target”. Interestingly, Air Targets include not only flyers and FMCs, but Skimmers and Jetbikes as well. This will come in handy for people fielding Fighters against Eldar. This is going to matter quite a bit – for example, Fighter aircraft have -1 BS to Ground Targets, but they’re also the only aircraft with a Skyfire mode.

One of the more problematic rules is the “Air Superiority” rule – basically, if someone has flyers in Reserve and someone else doesn’t, the player with the flyers in Reserve is said to have Air Superiority – they get a +1 to their reserve rolls, and their opponent gets a -1. The issue is that this is at the end of the “Dogfight Phase” – which is optional both within the game, and more importantly, with whether or not you’re using these rules. It’s powerful enough that I can see flyer heavy forces pushing for it, and whether or not it’s being used should be made very clear before a game starts, as it will very much effect army composition.

The same is true of the new “Break Turn”, which is a second 90-degree turn during a flyer’s movement, which can be made if you roll equal to or less than the flyer’s Agility value. Note this doesn’t replace Vector Dancer moves, so a Crimson Hunter, with an Agility of 5, can reliably rotate up to 270-degrees per turn, and most flyers generally got much more agile. Again, cool enough that I can see people who play flyer heavy armies pushing this as how they want the “default” to be for their games.

And that really gets to the heart of what I think is wrong with this expansion. Because flyers are still relatively “New”, battle lines have already been drawn between those who want flyers, and those who’d prefer they not be in the game. This expansion pushes “I’d like some flyers” more toward “Hey, I brought four flyers…”, and I think will stiffen the resolve of those who dislike them. I think the Dog Fight rules (discussed later) would have been sufficient to make a cool flyer-centric sideboard game, but because GW has tried that once already and failed, I think they felt the need to “punch up” the aerial combat supplement a bit more. In doing so, they’ve created a set of weird optional/not-optional rules that is, in essence, “Unlock to Make Your Army Better” for people who brought flyers. They say in the text that these rules “replace those from Warhammer 40,000: The Rules” but…well…the easy counter to that is “I don’t own that book.”

This is perhaps best embodied by the next major change, the “Flyer Wing” – essentially a squadron that is not a squadron. Between two and four flyers, who must have come from the same datasheet or be part of the same formation, there are bonuses based on how they’re positioned on the board. These rules are nice, often a small but significant bump (+1 BS etc.) to either offensive or defensive power, based on the aircraft’s role. The larger the formation you cajole into formations, the more powerful they get – four aircraft formations tend to involve “The bonus from this formation, and also this formation”. As an example of the more powerful ones, four aircraft in a square formation is the “Fortitude Attack Pattern”, which grants them a 4++ save, It Will Not Die and Interceptor. That’s pretty powerful for “Place your flyers on the board in a certain way.” And definitely makes taking more flyers more powerful. One flyer is good, two flyers is are massively better, and four flyers – especially since Wings aren’t obligated to fire on the same target ala squadrons – are better still.

This would result in myriad bonuses...
This would result in myriad bonuses…

The Dogfight Phase

This is probably the most controversial addition, the one most rife with rumors – which is ironic, because the Dogfight rules have been presented before, and the fact that most people seem to be surprised by that should indicate how impactful they are. In essence, the Dogfight Phase is a new phase of the game before flyers are brought on. If both players want to Dogfight, they do. If one player does and one player doesn’t, there’s a roll-off. People have been interpreting this, and spreading rumors about, this applying to all the rules in the supplement. It really doesn’t. Even if you are using the supplement, Dogfighting is optional, and you may rightly opt not to do it – for example, if you’re pretty sure your flyer full of Wolfguard Terminators will get shot down by a Crimson Hunter fighter ace, and you don’t feel the need to risk that.

Basically, the Dogfight phase is a little mini-game that should take place on a side-board, each fighter secretly designating orders, and then seeing how those orders pan out. Players taking more Fighters are more likely to be the Attacker (representing their flyers as a combat air patrol), and as you go through three stages (Engagement, Manoeuvre, and Attack) you accumulate bonuses, like being allowed to Jink (normally disallowed in dogfights) or the right to shoot first when it comes down to shooting. At the end shooting is resolved with some benefits and penalties depending on how the flyers are positioned, and then, well, things die. Or don’t die. If they don’t die, they return to Reserve. If they do die, they either Crash and Burn! in friendly territory, enemy territory, or most likely just blow up off the board.

How do I feel about this? Well…it depends entirely on context. I bring a lot of flyers to Apocalypse games, and more than once this has involved me and another player getting into a flyer-on-flyer grudge match. For a circumstance like that, the Dogfight rules are amazing. It adds so much more flavor than just “Crimson Hunter enters from reserve. Lines up on your flyer and blows it to kingdom come.”

For a standard game? This feels utterly unnecessary. For tournament play? This will slow down games a lot, and that’s not going to fly with organizers. But good times for an optional sideboard game, random variety (ala Kill Team, etc.), or for two genuinely passionate flyer aficionados (my brother and I).

Wing Leaders

Wing Leaders are a free upgrade for flyers, and one member of a Flyer Wing can be updated accordingly. They get a Warlord-trait-esq roll at the beginning of the game based on a faction-specific d6 roll. For example, the Astra Militarum or Militarum Tempestus get:

  • 1-2:  If the Flyer Wing starts in an attack pattern, they can move an additional 3″ and auto-pass their Breaking Turn test
  • 3-4: The Wing Leader and models in their Wing, can re-roll To Wound and Armor Penetration rolls of 1 if they are in an attack pattern.
  • 5-6: The Wing Leader and models from their Wing can re-roll failed Jink saves if they are in an attack pattern.

Similarly, the Dark Eldar get:

  • 1-2: Add 1 to the Wing Leader’s Pursuit value when making Engagement rolls for the Wing Leader in a Dog Fight.
  • 3-4: You can re-roll one dice roll for the Wing Leader each turn.
  • 5-6: Add 1 to the Wing Leaders BS if they attack before the other Flyers in their wing/

Note the decidedly selfish nature of the Dark Eldar ones. Nicely flavorful, to be sure, but none of them super-powerful.

Air War Missions

A collection of six missions, with a crudely tied-together campaign for them, which are decidedly…Age of Sigmar-y. Clearly, clearly designed for you and your friends, getting together at a local club/FLGS/garage for a day of flyer-related antics. The first one doesn’t have points values. One is a standard 40K game…except one player has to take an Air Wing, and the other player needs to take five fortifications. One is a mission involving a supply drop from the air, and involves free flyers (with characteristically no restrictions – my Eldar will be getting their supply drops from Vampire Hunters, right?). One is a single flyer against a Wing, racking up as many kills as possible.

These. Are. Not. Balanced. Missions.

They’re awesome missions. They’ll make for spectacular narrative games. This also introduces the rules for Flyer Aces, which are, as you might suspect, really, really good pilots. Essentially, when a specific flyer kills 5 enemies, they get a skill. Basically, a d6 roll for one of the Wing Leader abilities described above, +1 BS, a 5++ save, or +1 to the Agility value of the Ace. Each additional five kills gets you another roll on the table, until you reach 30 kills and are essentially the King of All Flyers.

Top-Gun
This Guy

If your Ace is shot down, the count resets to zero, but they’re not necessarily slain. They have a table they can roll on, the likelihood of them being dead going up for Explodes! or Crash and Burn! type results. These rules, like the missions they come with, would be great as part of a linked campaign or narrative, but otherwise can be safely ignored.

New Flyers and Formations

The first addition is a new detachment, made up of 1-3 Flyer Wings, allowing you to take a staggering number of flyers in a Battle Forged army. They get a bonus to Air Superiority and some other reserves shenanigans, they arrive on the same reserve roll if you wish, and the transports in that detachment that can hover are Objective Secured.

Most of the other data sheets are essentially the same as their Codex counterparts, with the addition of Pursuit and Agility values, plus “May be upgraded to a Flyer wing by taking up to three additional $Flyers for $Points/model”. This will free up some fast attack slots for folks spamming flyers, but if anyone was hoping for subtle and nuanced fixes to their flyers, you’re out of luck (sorry Dark Eldar players, the Voidraven is still…what it is.) Similarly, everyone gets a formation that is also…fine…usually made up of a Wing that is a mixture of the different available flyers. Again, as an example:

  • Dark Eldar Blackheart Talon: 2 Razorwings and 2 Voidravens, with one of the Voidravens as the Wing Leader. They get two rules, Close Escort, which gives Razorwings the Interceptor rule if they’re in an attack pattern, and the Voidraven Bombers can’t be engaged in a dogfight if the Razorwings are also in Reserve. Both are decent ways to protect the vulnerable bombers from being pounced on and shot down by dedicated Fighters. Side note: The Razorwing’s role is Fighter, despite still being manifestly better as a ground attack fighter. They also get Priority Target – you designate an enemy unit at deployment, and flyers in this formation have Preferred Enemy, which is nice for making sure the very one-hit wonder-y Dark Eldar flyers get the most bang for their buck.
  • Chaos gets no Formations, because it would just be “Take Some Heldrakes”. Let the saltiness ensue.
  • Space Wolf Ice Storm Assault Pack (very very long name): 2 Stormwolves and 2 Stormfangs. They get Hailstorm Assault which gives units that disembark from the flyers Fleet as long as the Wing was in an attack pattern, and Ice Storm (are we sensing a theme?) that improves Helfrost attacks coming from more than one flyer to the same target.
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New Space Wolves scheme…

The two biggest pieces of news are new flyers that GW has slipped into the book, one for Orks and one for the Space Marines:

  • Stormhawk Interceptors: A dedicated Fighter (in contrast to most of the current SM flyers which are Attack Flyers) for 125 pts., the Stormhawk falls somewhere in between the Stormtalon and the Stormraven, with AV 12 in from, and 11 on the sides and rear. It is very heavily armed for its role, with a Twin-linked Assault Cannons, a Las-talon (24″ range, S9 AP 2, Heavy 2) and Twin-linked Heavy Bolters. The las-talon can be replaced with an Icarus stormcannon (48″ range, S7 AP4, Heavy 3 Interceptor, Skyfire) for free, and the Heavy Bolters can be replaced with either a Skyhammer (60″, S7 AP 4, Heavy 3) or Typhoon (48″, Frag or Krak) missile launcher for 5 or 20 pts. respectively. Finally, has some special rules and equipment, including the Infernum halo-launcher (re-roll failed Jink saves) and High Altitude Fighter which adds 1 to the Pursuit and Agility values. That’s…a lot of medium-strength firepower coming out of the Stormhawk, which should rightly concern anyone looking to have their flyers not be shot down. Note that this can expressly not be taken by non-Codex Space Marine armies.
  • Wazbom Blastajet: Flimsy, fast, and Orky, the Wazbom is a attack flyer covered in weapons and special rules, as any cobbled together Mekboy flyer should be. It’s armed with a Twin-linked kustom mega-kannon (36″ range, S8 AP 2, Heavy 1 Blast, Gets Hot) which can be swapped with a twin-linked Tellyport Mega-Blasta (18″ S8 AP2 Assault 1, Blast, Tellyported). It also has a Smasha Gun (36″ D6+4 S, AP 1, Heavy 1), and can optionally be equipped with a Gitbusta Turret (which confers Interceptor) with a Supa Shoota (36″ S6 AP4 Assault 3). It also comes along with a Stikkbomb Flinga (5++ invulnerable save against one glancing or penetrating hit) which could be made a Kustom Force Field. It’s got some decent special rules – Waagh! Plane, which only really impacts some of the weapons – and Rokkit Boostaz which is a once-per-game ability that boosts Pursuit to 6 and Agility to 1 until the end of the turn for a dogfight. That’s a decent amount of S8 AP2 firepower, though I honestly don’t know enough about the Ork codex to have much of an opinion beyond that.

Curiously absent at all is the Vendetta. I wouldn’t make much of that, as it’s mentioned several times within the book, and thus I doubt it has been squatted. It’s also each to patch in in friendly groups.

And so we arrive at the end of the book, and a fundamental question: Is it good?

As an optional supplement, it’s outstanding. I’d give it a solid 9/10. The rules they add are great for flyer heavy games, matches between two air forces as the prelude to a larger game, adding interest to units that are often a little bit “I fly onto the board, I fire missiles, I fly off the board…”, etc. Fighter Aces should absolutely appear in long narrative campaigns, and the grudge matches that ensue from those should be embraced and fostered.

As a set of rules that is inherently part of “Mainline 40K”? No. Just no. 4/10, maybe, if I’m feeling generous. There’s not any one thing that you can point to and say “Clearly, clearly this is the problem…”. But the rules presented in Death from the Skies are too flyer heavy – they encourage not taking a few flyers, but creating a flyer dominated army. Which would be fine, but right now spamming flyers is clearly the correct choice over just taking one. The Dogfight rules add a new phase to the game, and a slow phase at that, to part of the game that actually is fast. And that phase doesn’t use the standard rules to the game – instead, it starts a mini-game that’s only semi-related to 40K.

As much as I love flyers (and I love flyers – my standard Eldar list is actually fully compatible and ready for this, and my Space Wolves are close), I really can’t support this being the standard way the game is played. There’s just so much of the game that’s suddenly dictated by your opponent bringing a specific type of unit in a way that’s not really analogous to any other type of unit – even psykers.

So the question is…is it mandatory?

Games Workshop seems to be positioning the answer to that to be “Yes”. The word “supplement” doesn’t ever actually appear in the book. The verbiage on the website clearly intends for this book to be used ubiquitously. But, like the Iron Priest in Warzone Fenris, or other books where rules completely replace what’s in the main rulebook, this fails to address a very fundamental question: “What happens if I don’t buy it?” Is that playing some strange Oldhammer-esq version of 7th edition? Or is that using the rules for the game as they were originally intended to be used, recognizing that all rules add-ons are essentially optional supplements.

For friendly play, I’d put this squarely in the “Ask your opponent” category. For organized play, given the rules as they are done add both a slow phase and the need for a side-space, I’d put good money on the answer to be “No, and we’re not using them.” Mainly, I’m annoyed that this is probably going to get more shade thrown in the direction of flyers, which are already occasionally maligned. And it would be such a good book if they made it abundantly clear it was optional supplement for filling the skies with super-awesome flyer hijinks. And that’s what bothers me the most – it’s so close that it feels like a missed opportunity.

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5 Comments


  1. Great review and read through, but once again like you mentioned before, since you haven’t play tested it…

    The wargaming group that I run with, we used this at our tourney and it didn’t have much impact at all on game time. In fact it cut down game time haha because flyers were being blown to bits off map. Granted during the tourney not many people ran flyers but I will say that we didn’t have a problem squeezing in the dog fight phase into a 2 hour game time limit.

    That being said I think you are spot on for much larger tournaments, for small groups like mine with about typically 8-14 people this doesn’t add on all to much hassle.

    I’d say give it a try. On the note of forgeworld flyers we determined their “role” based on armament and whether or not they have the “strafing run” special rule. If there was no agreement between the two players, then no dogfighting.

    One thing we did notice is that even though this book has nothing for FMC’s. they have just become exceptionally good now since they are now harder to kill. (tau get no love) (T-T )

    just my 2 cents here. thanks for reading

    Reply

    1. I think the Tau indirectly get some love. Lots of armies relied on what are now attack aircraft for their AA defense, whereas Tau can muster a largely ground-based approach.

      For small groups and the like I agree, I think it looks like a ton of fun. I was more talking about the large, multi-day LVO-style tournaments that are already pressed for time and space.

      Forge World fliers should be easy to adapt, I agree.

      Reply

  2. Great review. As for if it’s optional or not, this is what GW said on their 40k Facebook page when asked that very question:

    “You can choose to use any rules you like in your own games. These rules are designed to replace those in the rulebook, and we think they make flyers more true to their true battlefield roles, but it is totally up to you.”

    I have a Stormtalon and I bought it specifically for anti-flyer duties. I was super choked that Attacker flyers didn’t get a -1 to hit air targets as the logical polar opposite to the -1 hit ground targets that Fighter flyers did. I suspect it was purely to sell the new Stormhawk kit. If I understand how it works correctly…why is it that my Stormtalon can dogfight an aircraft…but then can’t shoot another out of the sky on the gaming table??!!

    Long story short – no supplement for me. And if my opponent insists we use it, well it’s a good thing I have a Hunter tank already!

    Reply

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