Chess has always been a pretty violent game, but the really nasty stuff would generally play out in your mind, the splatter erupting beyond the board and far removed from its cold, almost polite, tactical clarity. Warhammer 40,000: Regicide is pretty violent full-stop. It's still cold and tactile, if not particularly polite, but when you make a good move here you know about it, because your enemy has turned into a red mist, raining giblets down on the barren earth.
This is chess done the Warhammer way, then, and while you can play Classic mode, which is standard chess decked out with wonderfully vivid animations, Regicide mode draws the ancient board game into a more modern world of cooldowns and special abilities. It's a strange mix, as you have to get your head around a range of new tactical opportunities that have been laid over movement rules that you probably first learned in childhood - but it's a mix that works.
There's lots that will be familiar once you take a second to understand the basics of the transposition that leaves white and black armies as Orks and Space Marines, the likes of Shoota Boyz replacing pawns on one side, Devastators standing in for Bishops on the other. The board's still 8x8, and the main objective is still to take down the enemy king while protecting your own. Rooks still zip along the board in a deadly straight line, knights still move in that funny angled fashion, and the queen's still so crazily powerful that I'm practically guaranteed to panic first time I take her out for a wander and unwittingly sacrifice her for no tactical benefit whatsoever.
Here's where it gets interesting, though: movement's just the first stage of each turn. After you've chosen a unit to move and dropped it into a new position, you get to the initiative phase, where you can spend a small pool of points on a range of offensive or defensive abilities, covering things like shields, psychic stuns, hunkering down, and grenades.
There are two levels of these: player abilities, which tend to be big and powerful and hungry for your initiative points, and unit abilities, which are tied to a specific piece on the board. Having played the game for the best part of a morning, I'm still sounding out favorite combos, but the most immediately striking thing is that you can now do quite a lot of damage in a single turn: get a rook into position (I'm ashamed to say I still have a rook-heavy endgame), and then take quick, low-cost snap shots with three different pawns, for example. Snap shots don't do a great deal of harm, but if you focus them all on the same target, your enemy's going to know you're there.
The kicker, though, is that underneath all the new stuff it's still chess. So if you can't take a bishop down with the feeble gunfire of your pawn, you can still capture the bishop with the very same pawn if you're in the right position, and that's an instant kill. This cross-breeding, chess meeting a more contemporary turn-based approach, and both rulesets co-existing with an exciting kind of nervous energy, may be what makes Regicide brilliant. Play it like XCOM and you can cover a lot of fronts, but you'll be chipping away at health bars for quite a bit of your time. Switch to chess-thinking for the right moment, though, and you can make dramatic in-roads as you clear the board - but with the dangers inherent in getting up-close and personal.
As an Early Access game, Regicide's initial release is relatively generous. Campaign, progression unlocks and custom games have yet to be implemented, but there's single-player in the form of one-shot skirmish maps and online multiplayer, which works fine and allows you to duck out between turns. You can see the rough edges, both in terms of the paucity of available armies to choose between at the moment and the slightly clumsiness as one animation judders into another, but there's already plenty of character if you look for it, whether it's an Assault Marine knight jetting down onto an empty square, or a Weird Boy queen warping across the board in a flash of green light.
Chess variants are nothing new, of course, but this could turn out to be a surprisingly thoughtful one. I went in wondering how many Warhammer fans would be lured back into the world of chess by this strange, characterful twist on strategy. Now I'm starting to wonder if anyone might find themselves headed the other way, too.