Review: Space Hulk: Death Angel

shdeathangelSpace Hulk was always a favorite Ameritrash board game of mine. While it eventually got bloated with a lot of different expansions, the core game was a fun asymmetrical romp as one group were armored marines with big guns and the other a stealthy group of terrifying aliens seeking to surround and eventually overrun their opponent in hand to hand (or more aptly fangs and claws). It went out of print long ago but occasionally GW reintroduces it for a limited print run. It’s a fun game but not something I think worth picking up again especially as there are other options out there which are better games and just as fun (cough… Level 7: Omega Protocol… cough).

Nonetheless, Space Hulk has that draw and interestingly was something mined for a co-op strategy card game via Fantasy Flight Games. Space Hulk: Death Angel is a cooperative 1-5 player game, where players are teams of 40K space marines exploring a derelict spacecraft, seeking to purge it from genestealers during a salvage operation. They will either succeed in establishing the win condition at a final location (usually by eliminating all the genestealers), or die trying.

Players select a pair of combat teams, commonly one ‘regular Joe’ space marine and the other a special marine. They also get a specific deck of action cards that either allow the space marine team to move and activate a terrain card, support another marine, or attack. The special marine sometimes has different weaponry but will also have a particular ability associated with one of the action cards. So they might be able to do a cool attack with the attack action card, or shift around genestealers with a movement action card, etc.

After players select their combat teams, they line up in a random order in a straight line. The top group in the line facing one direction with the lower half facing the opposite direction. The players have to go through a series of locations represented by a deck. Depending on the number of players, there will always be a specific start location. However for the remaining deck, it will be randomly constructed from three possible cards for each location.

Players have to get through all four location cards and complete the end task on the final card (this doesn’t include the initial starting location for a total of 5 different areas). As a location card is revealed, additional terrain cards are placed in the line of marines representing doors, tight corners, or ventilation shafts. These terrain locations indicate potential spawn points for genestealers.

Players go through action cards in their hand and select one which both marines in their combat team will take for the turn. Each action card has a sequential number and turn order for actions occur based on them. After all the marines have completed their action, remaining genestealers in the area attack the space marines.

Finally, a random event is drawn to end out the turn. Sometimes it’s a boon for players but typically it is some added difficulty like genestealers shifting attack positions, or a marine’s weapon jamming up. The event cards also indicate where more genestealers will spill into the current area by drawing cards from specific piles. Lastly, some groups of aliens might also shift around based on having symbols that match with the drawn event card (more on that later).

Each marine has a range with their weapon showing the number of cards on either side in the formation line which they can shoot. They also have to be facing the direction of aliens they attack, rolling a d6 with special icons. The die has numbers ranging from 0 to 5, and half the faces have a skull icon. If the player rolls a skull icon they remove one genestealer card from the area (so a 50% chance).

When marines are attacked, they have to roll greater than the number of genestealer cards attacking them. So if they are facing five or more cards, they are dead. If a player loses both marines under their control, they are out of the game. Players can get around this by spending support tokens. They allow them to reroll either attack or defense rolls. However this can only be used on groups of genestealers that they are facing. If attacked from behind, they can’t get any rerolls.

Once a turn is over, players cannot use that action card for the next turn (and keep track using special tokens). Instead they have to choose one of the other two options in their hand. This restriction of actions, importance of orientation, and constant random shifting of genestealers means the limits of choices in marine actions lead to tough choices. You will be constantly wrangling your reduced options with other combat teams, trying to attack when you can, maneuver to offer support in future rounds, and pass off support tokens to other teams if needed.

Each location has a limited number of genestealer spawns. As cards are removed from their piles and added to the area (or are eliminated), the piles become exhausted and this becomes a condition to draw another location card. The marines essentially move deeper into the space hulk with new genestealer blip (spawn) piles created and new terrain cards added. The kicker is that all the genestealers from the previous location shift along in the same positions as the previous location. With more creatures constantly being added to the area, the threat of being overwhelmed ramps up. So the players are under constant pressure to keep destroying genestealers.

Not being able to freely select all your actions each turn is where Death Angel shines. Sometimes it can be agonizing to decide what to do and occasionally you have to sacrifice a marine so that others can fight on. It can be heroic and frustratingly challenging.

The Good – It’s a fun engaging game with some difficult choices. Despite being just a card game, it does manage to capture that feel of a group of marines exploring as you overturn new location cards, ever building up the tension as the hordes of genestealers keep coming, all the while ones from previous areas spill over into new sections of the ship.

The combat is brutally simple, but the positioning and management of limited actions adds to it. There is a small variety of location cards adding some replay value. Given that some locations have special abilities (like a means to teleport all creatures in play into space, or doors to cut off routes for the genestealers), this also adds some other key tasks for the players to focus on instead of just shooting genestealers. The cards are nice stock with the great, classic, gothic sci-fi artwork that you’d expect from the 40K universe. The designs and icons on the cards are also well done once you decipher what the particular symbols represent.

The Bad – Although it is a co-op game, there is still player elimination. Given that combat is so unforgiving, you can potentially see a team get eliminated early which sort of sucks for that player. While there are only 3 cards of each location type, given you have a total of 4 locations to go through, there is a decent variety in the box. The same however can’t be said for the space marines. After a few plays you’ll likely slip into using favorite teams with some having abilities that are more applicable in multiple situations compared to others (hence, you might consider them ‘better’ choices).

The game has a large amount of luck. Particularly with the position shifting of genestealer hordes at the end of each phase. You can have a great setup and support tokens to mitigate bad die rolls some, only to have it all fall apart as a horde of aliens have suddenly merged into another group and flanked a key marine. Along with this are some downright painful event cards (like some that can eliminate a marine instantly), all of which contributes to a game that might be too chaotic for some. While I like the randomness, you can indeed manage to get a series of bad draws of event cards that can pretty much tank your game.

The Verdict – I enjoy Space Hulk: Death Angel. It’s an enjoyable co-op strategy game that is light enough to get into quickly but still offers difficult choices. It has enough randomness in the setup and play to add replay which will break away from repeatedly using the same game to game strategies. The only stickler is that I wish there were a few more options for combat teams, or a variety of ability cards for existing marines.

This isn’t the same tactical experience of the original board game. However it’s still pretty fun and even in its abstract form of cards and piles of genestealers shifting around, you still get that experience a little of tense exploration, never quite knowing what the next section of the ship will hold. I think the limited action choice from turn to turn encourages you to talk with other players and try to get some synergy with tactics. Also, it provides a demanding solo play experience too. Given the small box and price, there is a lot of fun to be had inside. If wanting an abstract, tactical game with a sci-fi twist, this isn’t a bad choice.

[UPDATE: Some big news came out a few weeks ago regarding the licensing of GW IP and Fantasy Flight. Appears FF will not be continuing GW games. So it’ll be interesting to see if Death Angel gets picked up by someone else.]