Gladius: Revisiting a Misunderstood Warhammer 40K Strategy Game

Is this overlooked gem now worth picking up?

Warhammer 40000 Gladius: Relics of War is one of the first 4X strategy games set in Games Workshop’s grimdark science fiction universe. The structure of the game follows the core principles of 4X – eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. The objective in Gladius is to establish a base of cities, explore the dangerous terrain and wildlife of the planet for artifacts that boost unit stats and resource producing outposts. Players research new technologies that unlock new units, unit upgrades, abilities, and buildings. Ultimately, the goal of the game is to complete a series of quests that are unique to each faction or destroy each of your opponents.

 

A Unique and Misunderstood 4X Strategy Game

Warhammer 40000 Gladius Relics of War 1

The easiest comparison to make with Gladius is that it is similar to Sid Meier’s Civilization series. This would be an unfair comparison. The Civilization series is based on an evolved understanding of 4X strategy where there are alternative objectives to exterminating your opponents. Gladius is the purest form of 4X strategy where there are two functional goals to pursue in each match: optimal resource exploitation and military dominance. Therefore, Gladius is closer to Starcraft in the way it plays than Civilization.

There’s a quick comparison to draw between Gladius, Civilization, and Starcraft. The main similarities with Civilization lie in the aesthetic and turn-based nature of Gladius. The map is hex-based and players act in a turn-based manner. Furthermore, Gladius heavily features a wildlife mechanic, where in the early game the main opponent players must face are not AI or live opponents, but the deadly rogue inhabitants of the planet. Finally, city development in Gladius is reminiscent of Civilization as cities expand slowly over time and players construct buildings that produce units or provide resources.

Gladius’ similarities to Starcraft are most pronounced in the military domination objective and the application of simple and clear unit strategies. In Starcraft, there is no diplomacy and the only goal is to destroy the opponent’s capability to fight and their will to resist. Civilization, on the other hand, has a variety of complex strategies that can shift and change to the evolving diplomatic and political landscape.

Simple research, resource exploitation, and focus on combat in Gladius are also more similar to Starcraft than to Civilization. Starcraft may not have an explicit research tree, as technology is “discovered” through the construction of new buildings and researching unit upgrades, but all the technology in Starcraft is meant to directly buff units or resource production. It’s similar to Gladius as the research tree only focuses on faction abilities, new units, and upgrading existing units.

The goal of establishing cities and claiming outposts in Gladius is all for the purpose of creating an economic engine that can exploit the mass production of units to overwhelm the enemy. In Starcraft, getting an economic advantage means outproducing the enemy, in terms of units and seeking victory through greater force. In effect, resource exploitation in Gladius is only in service of the player’s military strength. In Civilization, resource exploitation does not necessarily have to service the military and can instead focus on technological, diplomatic, cultural, and other means of competition or alliance with other players.

Units in Gladius have detailed weapon stats and researchable upgrades and abilities similar to Starcraft, which further puts the emphasis on effective control of units and good tactics. Units in Civilization do not usually have active special abilities or upgrades and instead have an abstracted strength rating with bonuses from terrain or social policies. For example, a unit of Space Marines can unlock high-explosive Frag Grenades as an active ability to help take out large units. Also within a unit of Tactical Space Marines, they have their own stats and weapons that differ from the basic warrior unit of other factions. Such focus and detail on the units defines Gladius’ complete dedication to the military aspect of 4X strategy games.

 

Chaos Is Inevitable

Chaos Is Inevitable

Recently, Proxy Studios released their 2nd paid DLC faction expansion, which adds the Chaos Space Marines to the game. This is one of the most complex factions to play as the Chaos Space Marines come with their own set of unique mechanics, unique units and strategies. There are four defining features of this faction: Champions of Chaos, Marks of Chaos, Boons of Chaos, and Sacrificial Rites.

Champions of Chaos and Boons of Chaos are tied together as the latter builds upon the former. All Chaos Space Marine infantry units are Champions of Chaos, meaning that they have a chance to evolve into powerful Daemon Princes or devolve into mindless, frenzied Chaos Spawn upon killing an enemy unit. In the case of Chaos Cultists, the basic Chaos unit, either evolution is an upgrade.

Boons of Chaos are researchable upgrades than have a chance to activate similarly to the Champions of Chaos transformation. Whenever a Chaos infantry unit kills an enemy unit, they also have a chance of obtaining a boon, a random one from the ones the player researched. For example, Chaos can research a Tier 1 Boon called Bloated where the unit, if it is lucky to unlock it from a successful kill, will gain passive hit point regeneration.

Marks of Chaos are a more controlled version of Boons of Chaos. Players can research four different Marks, one for each of the Chaos, with each Mark granting a unique non-stackable permanent buff. These Marks can only be placed on Chaos infantry with the Champions of Chaos effect. It’s important to think through which units get which marks as they cannot be removed and once a unit is marked, it may not receive new marks, though it may still receive Boons of Chaos from kills.

Champions, Boons, and Marks are all unit-oriented mechanics. The main unique strategic mechanic of the Chaos Space Marines is that they can sacrifice their low-tier Chaos Cultist units for temporary city buffs. In addition, players can research Sacrificial Rites, allowing players to sacrifice the population of their cities for powerful temporary boosts, such as production or research. In summary, the theme of the Chaos Space Marines mechanics is an embrace of randomness and luck or applying double-edged upgrades where a player must sacrifice something to gain power.

In regard to strategy, Gladius’ balancing is skewed in favor vehicles as most vehicles, especially in the mid and late game, are extremely powerful and are relatively easy to get to if the player goes for a research heavy start. The Chaos Space Marines break this state of the game up with their Marks and Boons of Chaos mechanics that only affect infantry, giving Chaos a powerful potential early game focusing on infantry. However, they still have the option of going for vehicle-oriented unit production in the later stages of a match.

 

A Retrospective Look at Gladius’ Content Expansions

A Retrospective Look at Gladius’ Content Expansions

There have been a total of four paid content expansions to Gladius, two of which, including the Chaos Space Marines DLC, were faction expansions. The first expansion called the Lord of Skulls DLC adds a unique, powerful late-game wildlife unit that roams the map to find hapless armies to destroy. If a player is lucky enough to destroy it, it gives a factionwide buff to the player’s units. This expansion adds a bit more relevancy to the wildlife in the late-game as player armies trounce the planet’s inhabitants. However, I would not recommend this DLC for the sake of a single unit.

The second DLC was the Reinforcement Pack, which added four new units to the original vanilla factions and one wildlife unit. The units added were the Necron Immortal infantry, the Space Marine Land Raider heavy armored personnel carrier, the Astra Militarum Tempestus Scions infantry, the Ork Flash Gitz infantry, and the Neophyte Hybrid infantry. This DLC is a must buy for the Necron and Space Marine unit alone as these two units fill a gap in their factions’ roster and adds more flexibility to player unit choice.

The Tyranid expansion was the first significant content expansion to Gladius. One of the main strengths of Gladius, courtesy of the Warhammer license, is its faction variety as each faction has unique city, resource, and unit mechanics. The Tyranids continue that trend with the introduction of a voracious, aggressive swarmlike faction with the sole objective of devouring everything on the planet, even the planet itself.

Strategically, they fit perfectly into the conquest-focused nature of the game. Yet, the current balancing of the Tyranids puts them at a disadvantage compared to the already present factions and it is hard to recommend a faction which, in a pound-for-pound engagement, struggles in any stage of the game. Proxy Studios has done a great job of patching and working on the game and it is safe to assume that the Tyranids will get some balancing attention.

The most recent content expansion to Gladius was the introduction of the Chaos Space Marines. This is a wholehearted recommendation and a great point to reenter Gladius to test them out. The new faction’s unique mechanics alone and embrace of randomness gives the faction an aura of excitement. This is because no one knows if a glorious Chaos Space Marine unit on a killing spree will be granted a powerful transformation into a Daemon Prince with its own abilities and powerful weapons, or will the Marines be turned into a unit of formless, tentacled, ravenous horrors? The Chaos Space Marines add enough complexity of choice and strategic thought to liven up the game.

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