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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Xenos Rampant


Truth in advertising time: I'M A BIG DAN MERSEY FAN. Okay, now that's out of the way.

A miniature agnostic, fast playing, highly customisable Scifi skirmish wargame? Have Osprey pulled it off with Xenos Rampant? You bet your ray gun they have! Any models and miniatures, and the freedom to play with them, really is the heart of the system. It’s interesting and telling that Xenos Rampant doesn’t start with a rules section. It starts with how to build a detachment for the game, because this really is about making a system that works with anything you want to play (Including Victorian Science Fiction!).

The Izmaylovsky Lifeguards of the Imperial Russian Army supported by a heavy Steam Walker (Heavy Infantry and an Elite Infantry Walker)

Straight away if you’re aware of what Mersey and Osprey have been putting out recently, you know you’re in for a few things:

1. Great rules

2. Fast play

3. High production values

This game delivers. Mersey is the designer responsible for Lion Rampant; the medieval skirmish battle rules and with various co-writers, all the myriad solid rules that Osprey have produced using the same basic mechanics with twists.  From Pikeman’s Lament for the 17th century, Dragon Rampant for fantasy, The Men Who Would be Kings for Colonial, Rebels and Patriot for warfare in North America, etc. These are Science Fiction wargame rules that deliver a 21st century wargaming experience: fast, fluid, customizable and flexible.

Are they genetically enhanced Space Marines? Or are they the Mobile Infantry of the Bug War? You get to decide.

Xenos is a miniature-agnostic skirmish wargame for science fiction settings. It could be played at 28mm in a grim dark galaxy, it could be used to cover near-future grounded combat, it could be just the rules you’ve been looking for to do the Weird War 2 campaign you’ve been thinking about, or simply to throw whatever you and a friend have to hand onto the table to crank out a fast, enjoyable and deceptively simple game. It’s got heroes and villains, vehicles, aliens, soldiers, shooting, high-tech and high-concept, explosions, psychic powers and everything you could want for your Sci-Fi skirmish, all built on a solid grounding of clear and flexible rules.

In a full color, well produced and proof read (!!!) 192 page rulebook with great art , illustrations and miniatures throughout, you get a ruleset that’s easy to pick up and difficult to master, astonishingly broad and flexible army selection rules, a campaign system, multiple scenarios and even examples of genres and settings to let you get started exploring the game in several different ways.

You can use any scale you want and you don't need to rebase. Here are my GW Space Marine (Now Epic 40K) Tyranids.

There are two major selling points for me here: clear, clever rules and the amazing flexibility of the army building system. This is a set of rules where you can take any model you want and build it within the framework the game gives you. The possibilities are almost endless, and that is exciting.

Zombie Boys night out.

I'm not going to go through the entire rules system of Xenos Rampant one bullet point at a time, because – for one – it’s a short, easy to understand system (only 28 pages, and that’s with lots of miniature photos on half-page display), but also to highlight a few systems that speak to the philosophy of the game as a flexible, fast play experience.

Xenos is an activation and action based system, so if you’re coming in from strict IGOUGO games like Warhammer 40k, be prepared for learning a new system that, in my opinion, makes games better. Xenos goes for a straightforward Activation test (2d6 rolled against an activation stat) mechanic, but with a clever twist. Units have several actions they can do when activated, built around a core of move, shoot and attack (melee) and additional reactive activations.

The active player activates units until they fail to pass an activation test, and that failure hands over control to your opponent. Not all your units are guaranteed to activate, and that, at the most basic level, builds tension and meaningful choice into the game. You need to prioritise what you’re doing, who’s moving, or shooting, or chopping the opponent into pieces, and at any moment you could fluff that test and hand the initiative straight over to your opponent who’s been itching for revenge since you fired your first shot.

Of course you can have a sniper.

You get this kind of thing in a lot of games—as someone who plays a lot of historical games the test to activate system is familiar ground. Where Xenos has a clever little ripple is that each action you can take with a unit has a different activation value. Straight off the bat, that lets the game differentiate choppy units (who will easily activate for a charge and subsequent melee), shooty units (who’ll shoot easier) and mobile units. Elite units will activate easier on all three, while raw, untrained mobs of models may be difficult to activate. Elite units might even get a free activation, while some may lack the option to activate specific abilities at all. Your artillery, for example, might activate for free to shoot but will not be charging into battle.

Yes we did have Wyatt Earp and friends fight mechanical flying monkeys, giant wolves and the Winkie Guard (snicker) with Xenos Rampant.

I like this a lot. It provides very simple and very effective differentiation between units. It shows variation in expertise, inclination, unit quality or purpose quickly, subtly and intelligently in a way that is instantly understandable both to you and your opponent. It can be used to easily draw character, background and story out of your army and does so in a rules-supporting way, fluff and crunch working together to deliver a satisfying choice-filled mechanic.

So you want to still use your chain sword? You can!

This kind of easy to understand but deeply impactful rules design works throughout the game. Rules that could, in other systems, take up multiple pages are reduced to their essentials, streamlined for better and more effective gameplay. Units shoot, fight and lose models according to general principles, like rolling ten dice for shooting if your unit is above half strength, or unit morale being split between fine, suppressed, and fleeing off the table. Everywhere, if a rule or system adds needed complexity to support a satisfying play experience, it’s kept. Shooting is a great example: you hit by rolling your shooting value or above. You wound by comparing the number of hits to the targets armor value, with a few modifiers. DONE! Anything else that you really don’t need – like, say, rolling to hit, to wound, to save against armor and to mitigate damage all separately is removed. It’s tight and that’s a pleasurable play (and reading!) experience.

There are a plethora of unit types all built on the same basic stat lines – activation scores, courage, fighting and shooting ability, movement and armor – and the simple variation in these values gives the game it’s basic unit archetypes. The profiles cover staples like Elite Infantry, Beserkers, Giant Xenomorph monsters, hordes of chittering lesser aliens, military, zombies and civilian vehicles and transports. 

These Necrons could be a unit of Heavy Infantry with the Automaton rule and fight humanity in a Terminator game!

On top of those 13 basic unit types, there are 30 additional rules for infantry, 18 for vehicles and 35 “Xenos rules” representing weird and wonderful abilities. The core infantry and vehicle additional rules are things like Armor Piercing (reducing an enemies effective armour value when shooting), or Mobile (faster movement), and 30 different options, variably available to the 10 infantry archetypes, cover an awful lot of ground. You can design virtually anything you want from these – and the same goes for the three types of vehicle and the 18 vehicle options. All of these options are very simple mechanically, explicable usually in 1-3 lines of text and come with a points value as an upgrade or downgrade.

So you want to have a flying, Victorian air ship with heroic air pirates to battle Xenomorphs? With this game you can.

You’d struggle to find a unit profile in a Scifi skirmish game that couldn’t be expressed through these, and if you can it’s likely that it will be found in the Xenos rules – 35 exotic and slightly more complex additional rules that really bring the weird. Xenos rules include a set of psychic powers, rules for zombies or other brittle, mindless styles, zealous crusaders, high-tech weaponry or cloaking devices, force fields, powered weapons, robots and paratroopers.

Green Martians from Barsoom? You betcha.

It’s a phenomenally massive range of customization that means you can put anything you like onto the field, and have it work as you’d like – and how the models portray it. It’s obviously a fantastic narrative opportunity to have the means to put whatever you want onto the field and have it backed with rules, but it’s also a great mechanical one. Every building block you need is here, with a points value, clarity on any interactions (can’t stack anti-tank and armour piercing, for example) and easily explainable to your opponent. You can go as strictly WYSIWYG as you like, or combine with the Strength point system to stick some bizarre and fanciful creations on the board.

If I sound excited by this, it’s because I am!  It’s all in service of the shining idea: a pickup, narrative or campaign game played with whatever models you want. You can tailor your force to what you want to play mechanically, thematically, aesthetically, and you could put this against a force that your opponent has done the same. Giant Mechanical Squid and it’s horde of mind-controlled civilians against Soulless Vampire Knights mounted on naked mole rats? Yep. Marines (from Space, mind you) versus Paradropping Aztec psychers? Sure. It’s not even that these forces would seem painfully generic as in many games that claim to be miniature-agnostic, because the rules back up meaningful differentiation and provide solid crunch to back it all up.

One of my Star Wars Legion commanders who has joined the ranks of Xenos Rampant.

The campaign system and the commander traits that accompany it are probably the one weaker point in an otherwise fantastic system. This isn’t where you look for a fully fleshed out, granular campaign, and that’s fine – lots of other products for that – and the campaign rules presented are light touch stuff mainly focused around improving (or eating!) your commander. The commander trait rules though are quite random, a set of d6 tables with several ok, one spectacular and one or two negative traits per, and that quite doesn’t sit right with me. As a result I'm modifying the Commander traits from two other Mersey rules: Rebels and Patriots and The Men Who Would be Kings. If you don't like this, they’re easily skipped, or house ruled like I am doing and therefore not a major issue.

Bottom Line: Lieutenant Juan Rico, Mobile Infantry, gives this game an enthusiastic two thumbs up.


  1. Looks like this would be a great set of rules to get my hands on Neil - I always like your Pulp and great game AAR's, so if you rate these rules, I am sure I would like them too - thanks for the review and tip!

    1. If you have played any of his games like Dragon Rampant, Rebels and Patriots, The Men Who Would be Kings, etc.; this is everything and more. Highly recommend.

  2. I got the rules a few weeks ago. I have to wait until I get back to the US in late July early August where my sci-figs are. They look very versatile, as you say.

    1. I think you are really going to like them.