Combat Arena: Lair of the Beast review: "Full of clever flourishes"

 The Dreaded Ambull, now reused in Combat Arena: Lair of the Beast
The Dreaded Ambull, now reused in Combat Arena: Lair of the Beast

It didn't take long for me to realize that I'd misjudged things in Combat Arena: Lair of the Beast. My first clue? The fact that the eponymous 'beast' destroyed a third of my character's health with a single swipe. And unfortunately for us, it was just getting started. Before long, our resident Space Marine had lost his head… and not in the metaphorical sense.

In this Warhammer-themed board game for adults, you'll quickly learn that cocky players will be little more than an appetizer. Good tactics and thinking ahead are essential, making Combat Arena: Lair of the Beast a welcome challenge for strategy fans. It doesn't outstay its welcome either due to a fast and furious runtime, so anyone put off by the commitment needed from wargaming should pay attention.

Features & design

An Ambull stalks one of the game's heroes
An Ambull stalks one of the game's heroes

Essential info

Price: $34.99
2 - 4
Play if you enjoy:
Star Wars: Shatterpoint, D&D Trials of Tempus

In Combat Arena: Lair of the Beast, up to four players are battling for the honor of slaying a monster (the insectoid Ambull, which dates back to Warhammer 40,000's first appearance in 1987). The game ends when someone destroys it, and extra points are doled out if you manage to off your rivals in the process. This five-way battle is a first for the series; normally, you're just fighting other heroes.

Putting a stop to the Ambull is easier said than done, though. Thanks to razor-sharp claws, pincers, and an offensive degree of strength, it can ruin your day with upsetting ease. Because it's controlled by slain players or whoever's the most wounded, you can also guarantee that grudges will come back to haunt you.

There's some prep to take care of before you get to all that, however - Lair of the Beast's models come unpainted and unassembled. Luckily, they're push-fit so they go together easily once you've clipped them off the sprue. Well, mostly. The Ambull is a little trickier to make, and some heroes (like one of the halfling warriors, Rein) are slightly awkward.

Lair of the Beast is full of clever flourishes

While we're on the subject of models, you may be thinking that these characters seem familiar. There's a good reason for this. Lair of the Beast repackages models from Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress (or, more specifically, all of its heroes). The miniature from its 'Dreaded Ambull' expansion comes along for the ride too.

What about new sculpts, then? There's only one to speak of here: Sergeant Venarro, a Blood Angels warrior. Although he's fairly bland compared to his compatriots (he's the definition of a classic Space Marine), he's been given a suitably heroic pose and a textured base that helps him stand out.


A Borewyrm from Warhammer Combat Arena: Lair of the Beast
A Borewyrm from Warhammer Combat Arena: Lair of the Beast

Combat Arena: Lair of the Beast doesn't play like a typical session of Warhammer. Instead of having free reign across the board, you're given a hand of five cards at the start of each round. You can then choose one of three options printed on them (move, attack, or a special action). In many ways, it's reminiscent of RPG adventure Gloomhaven; even though damage is still determined by the roll of six-sided dice, the game's skill comes from learning when to deploy those cards. It's a refreshing change from Warhammer sibling 40K at the very least and results in a quicker, more focused experience - particularly because you can sacrifice a pair of cards to enact your character's special move. This can be anything from throwing a devastating frag grenade to zipping around the field with a grappling hook.

Much like Dungeons and Dragons books, when and how often you do any of the above is determined by 'Initiative'. Depending on the amount of 'Energy' your character has (expended when dealing more damaging hits and gained by taking certain actions), you might have more or less turns per round. Basically? Blasting through your most powerful attacks right away will leave you with fewer opportunities to act in the future. This is chess, not a sprint to the finish; those who bide their time can press the advantage while everyone else is forced to sit and watch, allowing for last-minute twists as patient players cash in their moves to clear the board.

Thanks to a wide variety of characters with their own playstyles, you've got plenty to dig through

In short, there's a lot to juggle. That's especially true of the direction your model's facing. Rather than being able to turn as and when you like, only certain actions let you adjust. Seeing as a model's direction impacts where its attacks land, not to mention who you'll be able to hit with those blows, you have to get it right ahead of time.

And believe me, you'll want to. Faff about and you'll find yourself on the receiving end of an Ambull attack. This thing hits with the force of a dump truck filled with bricks; it can obliterate characters without even breaking a sweat. Remember that Space Marine I mentioned earlier? He'd been doing rather well for himself by closing the distance and engaging with his chainsword, but then the Ambull drew a 'Headshot' card. This wiped out his remaining health and killed him in one fell swoop. It was a sobering "oh, crap" moment around the table.

Sure, its flunkies - the Borewyrms - aren't as effective. In fact, they're more like landmines and don't do any damage unless someone steps into their space. But this allows savvy players to inflict even more damage by pushing rivals on top of them.

Lair of the Beast is full of clever flourishes like this, and the more I played it, the more it got its claws into me.

Should you buy Combat Arena: Lair of the Beast?

A robot strides across the battlefield in Combat Arena: Lair of the Beast
A robot strides across the battlefield in Combat Arena: Lair of the Beast

Despite not being a 'classic' skirmish game, Combat Arena: Lair of the Beast is still a deeply tactical experience with bite. Thanks to a wide variety of characters with their own playstyles, you've got plenty to dig through.

OK, so scrapping with the Ambull may get tiresome after a while (due to it being the only monster in the box, the novelty will eventually wear off). But in the meantime, this is a battle worth fighting.

Buy it if:

Don't buy it if:

Want to take on the full 40,000? Here's our advice on which of the Warhammer 40K starter sets you should get, whether Warhammer 40K Leviathan is worth getting, and our Warhammer 40K 10th edition first impressions.