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Review: Space Hulk – Death Angel, The Card Game

Posted by Andreas Ludwig on October 26, 2010

Game: Warhammer 40k: Space Hulk – Death Angel, The Card Game

Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Published in: 2010
Designer: Corey Konieczka
Topic: Fantasy / Sci-Fi (Warhammer 40k universe)
Game Type: Card Game
Contents: 1 rulebook, 18 Action Cards, 2 Brood Lord Cards, 30 Event Cards, 36 Genestealer Cards, 22 Location Cards, 12 Space Marine Cards, 8 Terrain Cards, 12 Support Tokens, 6 Combat team Markers, 1 die

HFC Game-O-Meter: E


Our Rating (1-10):

 

Graphic Presentation: 9
Rules: 7.5
Playability: 9
Replay Value: 8

Overall Rating: 8.5

PRO Easy game with interesting mechanics, captures the Space Hulk atmosphere, lots of tactical decisions, can be played solo or with up to six players, good artwork, can be played quickly…
CONTRA …but can also be quite long sometimes, possible quick elimination of players, rules suffer from necessary back and forth flipping, a few points not well explained

 

Introduction

Space Hulk – Death Angel, The Card Game (SHDA) is a new game published by Fantasy Flight Games. It is set in the Warhammer 40.000 universe created by Games Workshop, also known as Warhammer 40K or simply 40K. This is a huge sci-fi gaming universe in a far distant future and several tabletop systems and roleplaying games as well as books are based on this specific setting.

Game components

Space Hulk is one of  the many spin-offs within this universe and a board game published by Games Workshop which deals with  the battle of the Space Marines (a Templar-like order of genetically enhanced super-soldiers who act as a special guard in the military ranks of the Imperium of Man, one of the factions in the 40k universe) against the Genestealers, an aggressive culture of aliens. Generally, the Space Hulk theme is very close to the story of the Alien movies, which are also about a troop of humans dealing with aggressive aliens infesting a space station. A Space Hulk in the 40k universe often is an ancient starship and it is supposed that many of these are drifting around in the far dark corners of the universe. Sometimes, such a vessel is found when it drifts through the territory of the Imperium, and the technology that can be found in these relics is often something that the Imperium is interested in, so when such a space station is found, squads are sent in to gather information, technology blueprints, or similiar things of interest.

But it seems that these old vessels make for a great breeding ground for the Genestealers, so such a trip into the Hulk  usually leads to some serious fighting before the Marines can find the secrets they are after. The aliens reproduce themselves by introducing their genetic code into a host of a different species which eventually leads to the birth of hybrids. More detailed information about the Genestealers can be found in this article.

The board game Space Hulk is actually quite expensive and hard to get (it contains 64 board sections or room tiles, doors, plastic Citadel miniatures and much more stuff ), and we don’t own it. We never played any game based on the 40k universe before and the only game in our collection that comes close to the topic is Doom – The Boardgame. From what I have read so far, it seems that Doom is quite similiar to the theme of Space Hulk, but is not as detailed and rich in gameplay.

Lately, we became very interested in the new LCG format of several card games published by FFG and when Space Hulk Death Angel was announced, we followed the game development very closely because it was announced as a cooperative game – which is something we like in both video games and board/card games. It turned out that SHDA was not another LCG but a ‘normal’ card game, so there’s no starter set followed by several expansions and no deck building involved here. Instead, it’s a stand alone card game, so you get everything you need in the box (although FFG is known for publishing expansions to many if not all of their games, so it might be possible that we will be seeing some add-ons for this game in the future).

Presentation

The game comes in a small box that contains a 31-page full color rule book in the size of the game box, two shrinkwrapped packages of 128 playing cards, a counter sheet with 18 game markers and a red die that has the numbers o-5 and 3 skulls printed on it. There’s no map included since the game uses a more abstract way to create the environment of the Space Hulk.

The strong cards are made of glossy coated cardboard - very good quality

FFG often uses big game boxes where the package is quite spacious compared to the content, probably making room for possible expansions which will follow the basic game, but the SHDA box is exactly of the size the content needs and that may be a sign that no expansions are planned.

The artwork of the box is great and shows the formation of Marines fighting their way through a horde of aliens in a tight corridor. The quality of the contents is very high as well, the cards being thin but nevertheless sturdy and their surface is somewhat roughened so they don’t stick together as it is often the case, especially with new cards. The cards have a good feel right from the start and are protected by a form of glossy coating.

The cards are divided into several card types (actions, Brood Lords, events, Genestealers, locations, Space Marines, and terrain) and they are richly illustrated, so they are able to evoke the specific environment and atmosphere where the game is supposed to take place. The markers, divided into support tokens and combat team markers are also of a good quality, using thick cardboard and nice artwork, too.

Great artworks and top-notch quality is something we actually expect from FFG by now, since every game we own by this publisher is of an excellent production quality – and that’s really where FFG gives you a lot for your money. Of course, a good-looking game doesn’t have to be a good game, so let’s start with the rules to get an impression of what to expect.

Rules

The rulebook contains full-color illustrations

The game comes with a handy rulebook in the size of the small game box which is printed on the typical high quality glossy paper most FFG rule books use. The 31 pages are fully colored and use many illustrations to explain important concepts and there are some examples as well which further help the players to get into the game.

The first two pages are written in a story-like format and they describe the situation the Space Marines find themselves in when the players start the game. It’s a nice touch and adds to the atmosphere. Then the components are explained in detail, followed by the set up procedure. The Sequence of Play and the action phases are  accompanied by illustrations, and the wording of the rules is precise and to the point.

However, the rules do explain some aspects of the game on different pages, so prepare for some back and forth flipping when something is explained because you’ll often find the words ‘see page (…)’ when looking for a more detailed explanation. Not really a big deal, but it makes the game look more complicated than it really is and several folks seem to have some serious problems in understanding some of the mechanics.

The game uses a certain abstraction model since there’s no map for the Space Hulk (instead terrain, aliens, and locations kinda shift around the Space Marines) and the rules could be a bit clearer sometimes to explain this concept. The best way to learn the game is (what we always do with every new game btw) to read the rules in one go to get a general overview over the basic game concepts and then to follow the set up and sequence of play by actually laying out the cards and start playing.

After the first action turns, it will become obvious how the game works and the mechanics are simple enough, so you won’t need the rule book anymore and can start concentrating on the tactics. So far, there’s only a very short FAQ available for the game – which is proof enough how simple it actually is. If you want to take a look yourself, you can download the rules and the FAQ on the official support site for the game (rules pdf, 1.9 MB; FAQ pdf 464 KB).

Gameplay

A Space Marine character: Brother Noctis, Team Green

The game is about a troop of Space Marines who, according to their orders, enter a Space Hulk. It seems a bit odd, though, that they don’t know what they are supposed to do inside the Hulk, because after setting up the starting location, they (and the players) only know they have to make it through several rooms (up to 4 location cards will be played in the course of the game) and the final room will then reveal a specific goal to fulfill.

I don’t know if Space Marines always go on a mission without knowing the details, but it sounds a bit weird to me. Anyway, the objective of the game is that a formation of Space Marines enters the Space Hulk and then tries to reach the destination location while Genestealers come out of the ducts and corridors to attack them. Any time a Marine is hit by the aliens, he is instantly killed and out of the game. Depending on the number of players, there will be more or fewer teams commanded by each of them – so in a game with 4-6  players, everybody commands  a combat team of two Marines characters. In a game with only two or three players, everyone commands two combat teams, i.e. 4 Marines in total for each player. A solo game is played with 3 combat teams, the player commanding 6 Marines then. Each of the 6 combat teams has a specific color and uses a combat team marker in that particular color, which is just a reminder of which team(s) belong to which player – they don’t have any further meaning or function.

 

Set Up:

At set up, the Genestealer deck and the Event card deck are shuffled and then placed on top of the gaming area, together with the pool of support tokens. Then a starting location (“The Void Lock” of the Space Hulk) is chosen from among the 4 starting location cards. You cannot choose freely, though – which card you use depends on the number of players involved in the game, so if you always play with the same number of players, there’s always the same Void Lock card used as a starting point.

Setup. The game certainly requires some table space

This starting location is also placed on top of the gaming area between the Genestealer deck and Event deck and symbolizes the general direction the Space Marines are moving to. Then the remaining location cards are sorted according to their identifier (a printed number and/or letter on their backside) into several small decks (three cards each share a certain identifier) and are shuffled. Then, a final location deck is built by randomly drawing cards from these small sub-decks according to the instructions on the set up location card. That means, except from the specific Void Lock location the Marines find themselves in at start, they don’t know which locations they will travel to afterwards.

When revealed, these locations give specific instructions about the terrain the Marines will find there (ventilation ducts, doors, corridors, tunnels etc.) but this is an information which becomes only available when the Space Marines actually travel there (after clearing and leaving their current location). This adds a nice atmosphere of uncertainty for the players.

Then everybody chooses their combat team, takes the respective combat team marker and action cards and then all the Space Marines in play will be shuffled (under the table, so no one can see them, which is necessary because both sides of the character cards are printed). The Space Marine cards are then placed on the table in a row, starting from the top of the gaming area right below the Void Lock in a vertical line down until all cards are placed. This line of cards is called the ‘formation’ and the Space Marines will always stay in this formation when they proceed through the Space Hulk and everything will happen around this column of cards. The environment is formed around this formation by putting certain terrain cards at the position of a Space Marine and albeit at first it seems to be a bit strange to have the part of the game that is supposed to be moving as the fix point and the terrain actually moving around them, after a while it works well.

The Space Marines on the top half of the formation will be facing left at start of the game and the other Marines will be facing right, which is shown by flipping the card with the facing arrow pointing at the correct direction. Every Space Marine card has a two-sided printing, so they can either look left or right.

Void Lock: The starting location. Numbers in yellow and white triangles show the number of Genestealers spawned in major and minor spawns

Afterwards, the terrain cards are placed accordingly to the instructions on the location card. The Location card indicates the type of terrain that exists in that location and the position of it in relation to the formation of the Space Marines. Two so-called ‘blip piles’ are built on each side of the formation, which are also built according to the specific information given on the location card. The blip piles consist of  Genestealer cards which have a radar image on their backside. This nicely gives the impression of Space Marines walking through the dark corridors while looking for suspicious signs of movement on their motion trackers… put in that Alien DVD again to see how it works ;)

The last thing to do before the game starts is spawning the initial Genestealers. This is done by drawing an Event card  from the Event deck. For setup purposes, consider only the section at the bottom of the card where an ‘activation area’ will tell how many and where Genestealers may appear (together with the info on the location card). Generally, Event cards provide more information than Genestealer spawning, but during set up, only the Genestealer positions are used, then the card is discarded and the game begins.

The game is played over a number of game rounds until the Marines reach their destination or they are all killed in action.

In each game round, every player gives out orders to their respective team(s) based on a fixed card hand of three action cards which are team-specific. If Genestealers are present in their current location, they will attack the formation, and finally an Event will happen.

At any point during a game round it can happen that the formation will travel to a new location.  If they actually manage to reach the final location, all they have to do is completing the final objective mentioned on that location card… and they win the game – but it isn’t as easy as it sounds…!

 

The Game Round

1. Choose Actions

All action cards have the same basic orders for each team, i.e. Support Order, Move Order and an Activate and Attack Order. These cards define what the Marines are able to do and when during a given turn (there’s an “activation number” printed on them to show which action of which team will be resolved first; there is no fixed player order).

Choose wisely... your current choice will not be available next turn

Each player chooses secretly which order to give to their team(s) in the current round and puts it down on the table with the backside up. The interesting aspect here is that you cannot choose any action that was chosen last turn,  a mechanic I consider as covering a certain passing of time to rethink, reload, reorganize etc..

This means, the players will have to plan ahead and to really communicate with each other. Discussing and planning together is crucial for survival in the game – if all teams would attack during the same round, this would simply mean that no one could attack in the next round, which could result in a quick ‘game over’ for the Marines. Also, the restriction that all players conduct their actions strictly in an order given by the numbers written on the cards in play for the current round makes it absolutely necessary to discuss what to do within the formation, or the actions could be done with a wrong timing and entirely screw up any plan that was made for the round. Say if one team announces that it would like to attack the Genestealers if another team would give them some support for that attack (technically: giving the attacking player a support marker allowing for a re-roll of the die), and then it turns out that the attack order has to be resolved first because the support order’s number is higher, this would mean the supporting team comes too late (too far away, not ready yet, still reloading etc.) to actually help the attacking Marines. That’s a nice touch to the strategic decisions in the game and ‘simulates’ how a combat team must have a sound plan instead of going in guns ablaze.

Support Order:

Marines surrounded and under attack... desperately studying the rulebook... but no chance for escape...!

A Support Order allows the player of the supporting  team to receive a support marker and to give it to any Space Marine character he wishes, which may be one of the members of his own team(s) or one of the other players’ teams. There is no restriction for Space Marines who already have one or more support tokens to receive more of them and there’s no limit either.

It’s a good idea to gather as many as possible because a support token allows a Space Marine to re-roll the combat die while attacking or defending (but only if he is actually facing the swarm whose die he wants to roll anew and no re-roll is allowed for re-rolling the effect of a special ability) and he can do so as long he has support tokens available. The final result that comes up (i.e. a result that can no longer be re-rolled with a support token or modified by a special ability) must be used then.

Move & Activate:

When a Move & Activate order is given to a team, each member of this team can move to an adjacent position within the formation, and/or change facing (remember: there’s an arrow on the Space Marine cards to show into which direction the soldier looks) and/or activate a terrain card (usually showing a control panel, a door, an artifact etc.). The player can not do these actions in any order, though, but has to follow a strict order of priority:

  • 1. moving: any Space Marine of the team can switch positions with an adjacent Space Marine of the same or a different team, but may only be moved once this way. All terrain cards and all Genestealer swarms that were at the position of the moving Marine stay at this position and don’t move with him. Important: it’s only forbidden to actually give a Marine a move order twice, but he may be switched multiple times when other Marines are following their move order! Technically the difference here is ‘moving’ (active) vs. ‘switching positions with’ (passive).
  • 2. change facing: when the “moving” sub-phase of the Marines is over, they may change their facing once (no matter whether they moved or not) by flipping the card over to the other side (that’s why all Marine cards are printed double-sided).
  • 3. activate: after the” change facing” sub-phase is finished, any Space Marine who has a terrain card with the key word ‘activate’ in front of him may activate that card once by following the instructions given on the card.

Attack Order:

When an attack order is given to a team, each member of this team may attack Genestealers in any order that are in front of the Space Marine in question and in range. All Space Marines have a range number listed on their cards from 0 – 3 where zero means the Marine can only attack enemies that are at his position, so that would be the guy for the melee fight only. Range 2 allows him to attack an enemy at his position and up to two positions away, range 3 goes even further up to three positions away. When a Space Marine attacks a Genestealer swarm, the combat die is rolled and a hit is scored when a skull comes up, eliminating one Genestealer card (players choice) of the swarm engaged with him. Otherwise the result is a miss with no effects on the Genestealer swarm.

Special Abilities

Charging weapons... die, Genestealers, die!!

However, each team has some special abilities which are also listed on these action cards, next to the standard order. This may be an ability the whole team can use or sometimes it’s a special ability only one of the Space Marines can use. In addition to these special effects, the action cards that belong to the same category are named differently to give some more distinction and flavor to the teams in play.

For example, the support card of the blue team is named ‘counter attack’ and allows one specific member of the team – Sergeant Lorenzo – to use any skull that comes up while defending as a hit against the Genestealers, so he is able to kill enemies in the Genestealer attack phase. Or the support card of the yellow team is named ‘defensive stance’ and allows both Space Marines of this team to use a support token while defending to re-roll the die of the Aliens and to turn it into a miss – unless the re-roll result is a zero which as a result is low enough to score a hit on the Marine even with only one Genestealer card attacking. This way all teams get a bit of a individual personality, specific strenghts and weaknesses. Each team is able to deal differently with a given situation, which also means there’s always the point of how well the teams in play interact with each other and how well a player uses the specific strengths of a given team. This adds a nice additional level of strategy to the game.

It makes a lot of sense to randomly choose the teams when you enter the Space Hulk since that will present the players with a randomized formation and not the “ultimate tank combination” with which they will have to make their way through the dark corridors to their destination.

2. Resolve Actions:

The chosen action cards are then revealed simultaneously and the actions are resolved in the specific order dictated by the activation number in the corner of the action cards as mentioned above (starting with the lowest number in play proceeding upwards). Each action can only be resolved once and then the card is put aside to make clear it can’t be used again the next round.

3. Genestealer Attacks:

A Genestealer swarm - nasty beasts!

When the Marines are done with their actions, the Genestealer swarms (if any are present in the location the formation is currently in, if not the phase is skipped) will attack in a specific order (left side and top positions of the formation will be attacked first). That means each Marine who is engaged with a Genestealer swarm (i.e. one or more Genestealer cards on the same position of the formation) will be attacked by such a swarm (not by every single Genestealer card, but the larger the swarm, the more dangerous!).

The combat die is rolled once for each attack, but this time the skulls are ignored and the swarm will hit if the number rolled is equal to or less than the number of Genestealer cards in the attacking swarm. If the result is higher, the attack is a miss. Whenever a swarm  rolls a hit, the attacked Space Marine is immediately slain (discarded from play)  and when the last member of a players’ team(s) is killed, this player is out of the game.

A Space Marine facing his attackers can use a support marker to re-roll the Genestealer attack and can do so as long as he has a support marker on his card. Some Marines also have special abilities that may further modify the combat result when defending. When a Space Marine is attacked from behind, there’s no possibility to re-roll this attack by spending a support marker – which means a Marine caught by surprise this way is usually killed.

If the Event Card has the keyword "Instinct", the current player has to decide alone which Space Marine will be the target of the card effect

4. Events:

When all swarms in the location of the formation have attacked the Marines, the current player (i.e. the one who played the action card with the lowest activation number that round) draws the top card from the Event deck and resolves it. Usually that means the card is simply laid out and the instructions are followed, but whenever the card has the key word ‘Instinct’ printed on it, there’s some different procedure to follow.

Namely the player then has to make the decision of how the specific effect on the card will be resolved – before he puts the card on the table and without consulting the other players. Event effects are often related to one or more Space Marines and are making things worse more often than not. A normal Event card can be discussed freely amongst the players to find the best solution for the formation as a whole. Instinct cards force the current player to make such a decision on their own without any debate regarding the consequences – he is bearing the full responsibility of what happens. Instinct card or not, the instruction is to be followed as close to the text as possible to determine who will be a valid target for such an effect.

The Event cards not only bring in events that may sometimes help, but often enough hinder the formation on their way through the Space Hulk, but they also provide the necessary information for the Genestealers, the ‘paper AI’ of the game system so to say.

Each Event card has two boxes at the bottom that together with the spawn boxes on the current location card will determine if, where, and how many Genestealers will spawn at the end of the event phase. The card will also give information if and which swarms will move and/or flank the formation. In addition, the terrain cards have a color coded system printed on them which indicates how likely aliens will  probably spawn  there, ranging from green (rather safe) over yellow and orange up to red (most dangerous and most likely to spawn many Genestealers at once), but the actual number of aliens coming from these directions is based on the Event card drawn each round, thus keeping the players uneasy about what to expect next.

Moving vs. Traveling vs. Shifting

 

The changing of positions within the formation of the Space Marines is called ‘moving‘ and doesn’t change the location the formation is currently in. Traveling, on the other hand, is the actual movement of the entire formation as a whole through the Space Hulk on their way to their destination.

At the top of the playing area, left and right of the location card, there are two so-called ‘blip piles’ where a certain number of Genestealer cards are placed (according to the information on the location card in play, so some locations will have more room for more enemies to show up than others) with their backside up. That side has a radar blip printed on the card and is what the Space Marines can ‘see’ on their motion trackers. So as long as blip piles do have cards left, it’s clear that there is still possible enemy contact in the current location and the formation cannot simply run through it, but has to watch out for aliens lurking in the dark with each step.

Whenever such a blip pile has no cards left, though (it will be reduced by spawning or be refilled by events, or special abilities), it means that the formation sees an opportunity to actually leave that location (since there’s no motion to be seen on their trackers, it allows for a quick dash) and speed up on their way to their objective.

The formation is in serious trouble and just lost a Marine

At the end of any phase, if there’s no card in any of the blip piles, traveling occurs as follows:

  • A new location card is drawn from the location card deck and placed on the previous location card so as not to cover the spawn information of the set up location card (this will depend on the number of players and won’t change over the course of the game). If the location card deck is empty and no new card can be drawn, it means the formation has reached their final destination.
  • The terrain cards from the previous location are removed and new terrain according to the information of the new locationis placed.
  • If there are cards left in one of the blip piles, these cards are now discarded and two new blip piles are built from the Genestealer card deck according to the information on the new location card.
  • If the new location has a special instruction called ‘Upon Entering’, it is followed now and resolved immediately. Location cards that do not have an ‘Upon Entering’ instruction have an ‘Activate Control Panel’ instruction and are resolved each time when a control panel in the current location is activated by the Marines (only possible with a Move & Activate Order).

It’s important to know that all Genestealers which are currently in the same location as the Space Marines will follow them to the new location and stay at the exact position in relation to the Space Marine they are currently engaged with. The only way to prevent that is to kill the Genestealers before traveling occurs or to use the ability of a door card in the location the formation is currently in. The door effect is activated immediately before traveling by spending support markers the Space Marines put there – with Move & Activate orders – and will kill one Genestealer card for each support token that is removed from that door.

When a Space Marine is killed and is therefore removed from the formation, the Marines will keep in line by shifting the smaller segment (based on how many Space Marines are in that segment) of the formation up or down to the larger segment to fill the empty position that was left by the slain Marine. All terrain cards and all Genestealer cards will shift too, which may lead to the merging of two Genestealer swarms into one bigger swarm and to more than one terrain card at one Space Marine position. If this happens, it is important to keep the swarms that already attacked the formation separated from those who didn’t attack yet to prevent that a swarm attacks the formation twice during one turn. That only happens when swarms are actually merging in the attack phase (it doesn’t have to be this phase because Events can lead to the death of a Marine, too) and even then is only temporary since after the attack phase, the cards are merged into one swarm and will attack together in the next round (if still there). Shifting only happens when a Marine is removed from the formation permanently, otherwise any change of positions is technically ‘moving’.

Victory Conditions:

The objective of the Space Marines is to travel from their starting position (the Void Lock of the Space Hulk) to their destination, which is the last location in the location card deck drawn for the current game session and to fulfill the victory condition mentioned on that card.

As an alternative, the Space Marines will also win if they are in the destination location and have all Genestealers present there killed and there are no cards left in both blip piles (i.e. all aliens in the room with the Space Marines are killed and the motion trackers don’t show any sign of movement anymore – area is clear). When they are able to fulfill the winning condition written on the final location card, it doesn’t matter how many Genestealers are left in the Space Hulk and they win the game immediately without the need to wait for a certain phase in the game round to end.

Also for both winning conditions it doesn’t matter how many Space Marines are left in the formation – as long as at least one Marine is still present at the destination when one of the victory conditions is fulfilled, all players are considered to have won the game! On the other hand all players  immediately lose the game when all Space Marines are killed and removed from the game, no matter when that happens. If the last Marine should actually be killed at the same time one of the victory conditions is fulfilled, that counts as a victory for the Space Marines!

 

Brother Zael, sole survivor. Witness the last seconds of his life!

Replay Value

Generally, there’s a certain problem with coop games which has to be resolved by the designer in order to actually make the game work – and that’s finding the sweet spot between making the game too easy and too hard. A coop game that is too easy and which can be won without much of a problem is as devastating to game fun as it is to find no way to ever win against the game system, no matter what tactics you choose. And this aspect will eventually define the replay value of such a game.

A skull symbol kills a Genestealer. Your chance is 50/50.

Space Hulk as a story, as part of the Warhammer 40k universe, also has to be in line with the general lore of this universe and from what I know, the Space Marines are bad ass troopers and can really deal out some good blows, but are also always on the brink of being overrun – the old Serious Sam motto ‘always outmanned but never outgunned‘ seems to be the motto for the Space Marines as well.

The design had to capture this tension and send the troops into a really dangerous situation – or else it would not fit to the background story and would disappoint the fans. Luckily, Space Hulk Death Angel has found this sweet spot. This means, while the game is hard and what the back of the game box says is true (“Estimates: 44% chance of mission success with 86% squad casualties”), the players will feel that they have the chance to beat the game.

Everything can happen, the formation can be ripped apart in the first room or the entire formation makes it unharmed to the destination location.The average game session portrays a helluva fight for the Space Marines with heavy casualties, but always with the possibility that at least one Marine survives to complete the mission. So the replay value is quite high (although the ‘paper AI’ is driven by random card draws) because the game is nicely fine tuned to the number of players (1-6) and the players actually do have some tactical decisions to make.

Three action cards per team and only two of them playable at a time doesn’t sound like many options for the players, but there’s indeed enough room for making the right and wrong choices in any given situation to minimize or maximize the risks. Even when the teams were beaten badly in a game session, the players often have the feeling they could make it better next time and that brings everyone back to the table. The more you like the background story, the more likely you’ll come back, of course.

Creativity

Gamers are always looking for interesting and innovative games, there’s not much thrill in playing games that feel too much like the one played before or with too few changes to a known game engine. With coop games, this is even more true because there’s the issue that the design has to create the game not only as a platform for player interaction and competition but rather as an additional ‘player’, the game system has to be part of the overall gaming situation and must be able to react to what the players do. That means there’s always the danger – more so in the coop genre than in other games I suppose – that working game engines are rather copied and re-used than created new from scratch, just to minimize a possible failure and to be on the safe side.

Each of the six Marines teams is symbolized by a color and icon. The icon indicates the team's specialization and strength.

Space Hulk Death Angel feels fresh, though, and I didn’t have the impression I was playing a game I already knew from a different setting – the only aspect feeling familiar was the use of support tokens, which more or less work the same way as the clue tokens in Arkham Horror with their die re-roll ability. But since these games deal a lot with combat situations, a re-roll is always something that has to be a potential option for the characters involved (while it may very well represent something completely different in “game terms”, as for example in Arkham Horror the characters “use their knowledge to their advantage”, while in SHDA, the Space Marines use help from their brothers in form of some “combat support”‘) -  it makes sense in both games and therefore it doesn’t feel copied.

The mechanics in this game work well and portray a situation known from the 40k universe true to the lore without the use of miniatures or a board, there’s some abstraction but it works and that’s what gamers want to say after the first game sessions.

The idea that the formation of the Marines is the focus and everything is moving around them feels a bit strange at first, but soon the players will accept that as a possible and clever way to portray movement without the need for a board or hexes. The combination of the basic information on the Space Marine cards regarding combat range together with special abilities that come into play with the use of the action cards is actually giving the teams a personal note. All teams play differently  and there are teams that seem to work better with certain other teams, although I am not sure right now what the best combination is. Since the number of teams also changes with the number of players, there’s not a fixed combination that would count as ‘the best’  as such. Randomized choice of teams is what I would suggest to simply add another dimension of  always dealing with a new situation when playing this game. Notwithstanding that I never have played the Space Hulk board game nor any tabletop system in the 40k universe, I would still say that the game does a good job in bringing over the experience of what gamers might get with the other games in that universe. Probably not as huge, not as detailed as in those games, but with the same tension,  thrill and satisfaction and in my opinion clever ideas with easy-to-use mechanics created for a good transfer into a card game.

Simulation Value

Mind the blip....

Sure, it’s not a consim, but of course ‘simulation’ goes beyond a mere representation of history and ‘realistic actions’ and in such a huge and detailed universe like Warhammer, the players who will likely be interested in and pick up this game, will have some expectations of how it has to be. I’m not a 40k expert, far from it, but I would say it is close to what I know about the ongoing struggle between the elite guard of the Imperium of Man  and the Genestealers.

There’s the bloody combat, there’s the feeling of being outnumbered, the need for supporting each other (the Space Marines are calling themselves ‘brothers’ for a reason), the thrill of fast combat actions and quickly done decisions together with the fact that the general odds are against the Marines, not in their favor. Any victory feels like one and the bloodier the battle was, the more it feels true in the eyes of the fans of this universe, I suppose.  All in all, I would rate the 40k simulation value as quite high.

Solitaire Playability

Perfect, the game can be played with 1 – 6 players and because the game engine works as a ‘paper AI’ that handles the enemies, you can have as much fun playing this solitaire as with other players joining you. There’s no hidden information that you would have to know when playing solitaire to make it work and that you wouldn’t know if playing with others, so nothing that is spoiling the party here.

The players always know only so much in any given situation and that doesn’t change with the number of players and the aliens will jump from the dark corners at you no matter how many players control the teams. It’s also often the case that there’s only one player left anyway because all the other teams were eliminated, so the solitaire aspect is already part of the game from start – either as a possibility in the end game of a multiplayer session or as a true solitaire experience from the beginning, the game works the same in all these situations.

What is missing in a solitaire game, of course, is the interaction with other players and the discussion and decision-making in a group which makes coordination between teams more challenging. I would say, this game is better suited as a multiplayer game because of that, but that’s just my personal opinion since I’m not really that much into solitaire games and prefer some interaction with others in a game, especially in a coop game.

Cooperative games are something I really like – no matter the platform, be it on the Xbox 360 or at the actual gaming table – and I would miss something playing this game alone. But technically it works perfectly and if you are a solitaire gamer by heart (I know there are many of those out there), this is a great game for you.

Can be compared to:

The Brute Lord is more dangerous than the common Genestealer

Any other coop game, because the basic idea of pitting the players not against each other competitively, but all of them playing together to beat the game is true for all coop games. So if you like Arkham Horror and you have a little interest for the Space Marine/Alien movie theme, then this game will give you what you want as a coop gamer and/or solitaire gamer.

It can also be compared to Doom – The Boardgame, which is quite similiar thematically (not portraying the Space Marines from the 40k universe, but Marines fighting against demons on a Mars station), although it is not a cooperative game and of course it strongly resembles Space Hulk – The Boardgame, but only because of the theme and the components (plastic miniatures, corridors, doors, room tiles…). As a pure card game, there’s no similarity with all the other games mentioned here and it’s definitely not to be compared to Living Card Games (the game is published by Fantasy Flight Games, so one might think at first this is just one of the many LCGs done by FFG) because there’s no collecting aspect and no deck building.

Andreas Ludwig’s Conclusion:

As I mentioned above, I’m not a Warhammer 40k expert and didn’t play any games based on that universe and story before, but I like the Alien movies and I like cooperative games. So, when we heard that FFG was going to publish this game, it sounded like an interesting game idea and the concept and mechanics that were explained before the publication actually made me curious about how it would work as a coop game.

When the game was released, the fact that it’s not really an expensive game (about 18 Euro) helped to convince us to just give it a try and see  for ourselves how good it is (or isn’t). And it turned out to be such a good game that we are glad to have it in our gaming collection now. The quick set up, the not too long gaming sessions (game length can vary greatly however, from a quick slaughter in 30 minutes to a nail biting 2 hour battle), the great artworks, and the clever abstraction model that this design is using makes it a fantastic gaming experience. It can be played as a filler for two persons before calling it a day, or also as an interesting game for up to 6 players who keep trying to beat the game for several hours. This flexibility is a big plus and if you are a solitaire gamer, it works as well, adding a whole new dimension to how the game can be played and enjoyed.

The door can make a difference between life and death when traveling...

It’s not a collectible card game, so what you need to play is in the box and you don’t need anything else, although I’m sure FFG will consider bringing out expansions, because it’s apparent how this game could easily be kept fresh for a while by publishing more Space Marine teams, more scenarios/locations or new Genestealer and/or Action cards. I don’t think it’s necessary, though, and the game feels complete as it is. Since it is not an expensive game, I would suggest that you check it out even if you are not a die-hard Warhammer fan or you never played a solitaire/coop game before, just to see whether you like the theme and design or not. Many games are quite expensive in these days and one has to really think twice about which game to buy, so it’s nice to see a good game with a high replay value which can be bought without much thought about your credit card.

The rules could be a bit clearer sometimes, but they are ok in most parts and it’s not really a complicated game. It has some good examples and the rulebook is short, so one read through and one game played while following the SoP in detail again should be enough to get you going. The game provides a certain feeling which comes quite close to the board game (what I learned from various reviews) and it doesn’t need any miniatures (although some of those who also own the board game use its miniatures as well, placing them on top of the Space Marine cards). Nevertheless, the game needs some table space, so this is probably not the game to be played on your train ride back home from the office. Quality is top-notch as ever with a FFG game and the cards definitely don’t need any sleeves to be protected.

Some action cards have powerful effects... but the price can be deadly

I really like that the players have enough options of what to do and how to keep everyone alive and it doesn’t feel that the game is playing you instead, there are choices to make, even sacrifices sometimes when the player e.g. draws an Instinct card and then has to decide who’s the target, who will probably be going down. The movement of the swarms and the dangers of being flanked by a swarm are convincing for what the game wants to evoke as a storyline. The possible real life maneuvers of the soldiers are also feeling right, you always have to make sure that someone is covering the back of his brothers, you will have to use any breathing space to support each other, so when the fighting continues, everyone has at least one  of these precious support markers. See that the guys with the big guns are covered best since when they go down, it weakens the entire formation (it sucks when you can’t use some of the best abilities just because the Space Marine who could use them is dead already after the first encounter with a small swarm because he was facing the wrong direction without cover) and don’t play with score or competition in mind. There’s nothing to gain if a player just tries to make the most kills and by doing so is putting the whole formation in danger, you know… there’s something to learn from coop games if you don’t know it already…

So in general this is a fun and great game and there’s not much to say with regard to criticism except perhaps for two minor points.

First, the locations are limited and after a while you’ll know them all and despite the fact that the location decks are built depending on the number of players, this possible variety won’t help you much if you always play with the same number of players. The only variety will come from the random draw of the location cards to build the deck for the current game session. And although there are 22 location cards in the game, which may sound a lot, not all of them will be used all the time – there’s a certain ‘pool’ of cards used with a given number of players. This limitation also goes for the terrain cards (there’s not much to see in the Space Hulk other than a door, a ventilation duct, a control panel, a corridor etc.) and when you are through the Hulk several times, you’ll see no real surprises anymore – which is also true for the action cards, but your game will be usually over before you reach the bottom of the deck, so you won’t have to go through it twice in one game.

Expansions are always cool, but the game is great "out of the box" already

This is nothing more than a simple fact of a small game box (which still provides enough content for having a great time, just to be clear here!), and not a real problem, though. The core of the game is not so much about what you encounter and see, it’s not an exploration adventure that is based on lots and lots of stuff to find (as Arkham Horror is), but about how you will react to what the game throws at you and how you can beat the game with the best tactical decisions in each situation. SHDA will usually be thrilling and interesting enough, keeping the players on their toes with all the Genestealers flanking and moving and swarms spawning and getting so big so quickly that the next combat roll seems to be a certain death for a Marine unless someone has a great idea how to get out of that situation, that the limitation of locations and terrain won’t be an issue.

But that leads to something which could be considered a more serious problem of this design, because combat is so brutal and the Space Marines don’t have any health points or something like that – it can be over real fast for a Marine because each hit is simply a kill. There are ways to modify the combat roll and that’s pretty much the only possible way to avoid being killed – changing a hit into a miss by using a support token to reroll it, hoping the next roll is better for you, or use a special ability that will kill the Genestealers instead when a certain number is rolled etc..

It makes for an intense combat action, that’s for sure, but these Space Marines look so protected in their huge armor that this ‘one hit/one kill’ procedure feels a bit weird. But I don’t really know how well protected the Marines in the 40k universe actually are and whether the combat is such a quick and brutal encounter in these other games as well, so this is more of an impression I had than a real criticism. It can be problematical, though, because if you have a 6 player game where each player only commands a two-member-team, a player can be out of the game quite fast if things go wrong. Two successful hits on both of your team members and you are free to play another game or to get  up and leave because you are simply out of the game.

Brothers should always watch their backs and protect the others from being flanked

It depends on the perspective what you think about that, so you certainly can consider this unforgiving combat system as a good reason to plan wisely ahead so you don’t get eliminated too early in the game, or you’ll see it as a design flaw when a game allows for such a huge group of players to join in the first place and then kick them so quickly. Also, if the game session for all players is over quickly, this doesn’t matter much because you just reshuffle everything and are ready to go for the next game, but there’s no guarantee that the game will be over in 30 minutes…you could be the first one in a 6 player game who lost both team members and then you see the others play for another 1.5 hours… being just a spectator. So I would say, either keep the eliminated players involved in the game somehow by discussing tactics with them or better play this game with such a large number of players only if there are more games and players around, so the eliminated players can join a different game and play something else while waiting.

The last point I’d like to mention is the fact that the rules state that the players “may share any information on the action cards in their hands, but are not allowed to show them to each other”. That just doesn’t make much sense to me. The information on these cards are related to the action the player wants to conduct with his team(s) this round, it’s about how to react to the situation at hand. To know these information is vital for coming up with a sound plan for the entire formation if the Marines want to survive and indeed, there’s no secret here. After a while, you know all three action cards of all teams anyway. The only information which is written on the action cards that might have a possible side effect regarding the actions and the interaction between the Space Marines is the activation number. Since the lowest numbered card always  is resolved first there is a certain possibility that the designer wanted to have this time frame as not being under the total control of the players, adding another dimension of uncertainty to the game and simulating that many things can go wrong in a real life fight even if the plan is great.

So say when one Marine agrees to be the main attacker in the current game round against a big threatening swarm, but will only take the risk if two other Marines will support him (i.e. giving him a support token each with their support action so he is at least able to have two re-roll opportunities) and although they agree to do so, it then turns out that the attacking Space Marine has a lower number on his attack action card than the supporting ones… this would mean they can’t give him that marker since he has to attack first and could end up dead on the floor before the other players have their own action turn. It would make for some nasty surprises and could be fun, but since the rules say you can share any information on your card with the other players, nothing stops you from telling them which activation number your action card has and in the above mentioned situation it would be pretty clear then that the support would not come in time for the attacking Marine. I don’t know what that rule is supposed to mean, really. It should read ‘you are free to share any information about your cards in hand except for the activation number’ if that was the idea behind it. If that is not what the designer had in mind, I simply see no reason at all to not simply have the cards open on your table instead of on your hand.

We solved this problem by simply playing more ‘in character’, saying what each team was going to do or at least considered the best option in a given situation  (“I would like to launch a big attack with my flamethrower, but this thing is awfully slow”, “I would like to change position with Brother Lorenzo and press the door button”) but not giving away the exact activation number of the planned action. After some games it’s likely to remember that the attack of the blue team needs some time to prepare (= high activation number), or that the yellow team can support pretty quickly (= low activation number), but there’s still the potential that this was not remembered correctly and the plan is screwed by someone being too late to the show.

So, my summary is: get this game and see if you like it! Chances are good that you’ll have a great time alone or with your friends if you like the theme and if you like playing together instead of against each other. Cooperative games can make for a welcome change in the usual ‘I vs. my opponent(s)’ setting and this one belongs to the best coop games I’ve played so far – Readers…Dismissed! :)

The threat is immediate. Success seems unlikely. Failure is not an option.

Welcome to Death Angel.

8 Responses to “Review: Space Hulk – Death Angel, The Card Game”

  1. willmanx said

    My only concern is the difficulty isn’t the same, depending on the number of players. The game yet is really hard with 3 or 6 players (where all the squads are in game, 2 or 1 per player), but it become quite impossible with 2 or 4 players (2 or 1 squad per player, missing 2 existing squads). Same for solo game (3 squads in game, 3 missing)

    The fact is the more special power the players have, the easier the game is. So with 1, 2 or 4 players, you really miss the combo you’re able to make when all the squads are in game.

    5 players game is quite like 3 or 6, because you only miss 1 squad.

    • Well, we had games with two players and some with 3 players so far and all these these game sessions were difficult, but not impossible and so actually hitting the sweet spot. A Warhammer 40k game where the Space Marines are not under real pressure wouldn’t feel right, but the players must have the feeling of being able to make it. That has always been the case in our games, although we usually were eaten by the genestealers ;)

  2. Gjallarhorn said

    Auch wenn mein english nicht das beste ist konnte ich doch einiges aus dem review herauslesen. Wie nicht anderst zu erwarten eine 1A Publikation. Vielen Dank dafür und liebe Grüße vom Westwall. Gjallarhorn

  3. Zebulon said

    Very nice, thorough review. Just a question though: in the Move action description, you state: “Important: it’s only forbidden to actually give a Marine a move order twice, but he may be switched multiple times when other Marines are following their move order! Technically the difference here is ‘moving’ (active) vs. ‘switching positions with’ (passive).” Rules state p. 17 that “Each space marine of the card’s Combat Team may only be moved once during each Move Action.” There is no explicit ‘moving’ (active) vs. ‘switching positions with’ in thee rules, and this is debated in this thread: http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/edge_foros_discusion.asp?efid=189&efcid=26&efidt=381204
    For instance we have 3 contiguous marines (A and B being different teams): A1, A2, B1. Let’s say team A moves. You could first move A2, which swaps with A1: A2, A1, B1. Then you could say: I can move A1, swap with B1 and obtain: A2, B1, A1. The rule “move once” should prevents this, because A1 would have moved twice, even if A1 first swap is “passive”. I have submitted the question to FFG and await the answer though.

    • Hi Zebulon,

      thanks for your comment.

      Well, sure there’s no specific ‘active’ mechanic called ‘moving’ in opposition to a ‘passive switching’ in the game and that’s why I said ‘technically the difference here is ‘moving vs switching positions with.’ The rules talk about movement only related to playing a ‘move & activation’ card and therefore I think it’s safe to call a repositioning with such a card ‘movement’ – because the order was to ‘move’ and/or to activate. The active team gets a move order and all I can read in the rules is a limitation of such a specific ‘move’. With several teams in the game you could theoretically move all teams in one turn and if the sentence in the rules would actually mean you are not allowed to reposition any Space Marine twice that could probably forbid a Marine to move at all with his own (team) move order – and that can hardly be the intention of the rule and it wouldn’t be that realistically either. Also the rules say as you quoted yourself: “Each space marine of the card’s Combat Team may only be moved once during each Move Action” so clearly the limitation is one of this particular card in relation to the associated combat team. And btw that’s what I also see as the conclusion of the debate in the FFG forum thread you gave as a link. Anyway, let us know if you get an official answer on this :)

      • Zebulon said

        I have received an official answer from Corey Konieczka:
        “Each Space Marine can only actively move once, HOWEVER, his position may change due to other Space Marines moving any number of times.”
        So that means there is an active and passive movement, and that passive is unlimited, contrary to what was speculated in the FFG thread above.

        • Denny Koch said

          Yes, I always thought they could be moved passively several times during a turn. In contrast to the FFG forum, I think the rules are quite clear on this. The rules state that you can move a specific marine card only once during a single move action (not turn). And you can change his position with any marine card (even cards not belonging to you). There is no indication that you cannot switch positions with a marine card which was already moved this turn or that changing positions is limited to marines who didn’t move yet or anything like that.

          Thank you very much for asking Corey and clarifying the point, hopefully this will end the discussion (Actually, I think passive movement is an important tactics which greatly improves your options during a turn). And thanks for posting this on our website, too! I’m sure this will prove very helpful.

  4. bunnycatch3r said

    Excellent review -I’m impressed at all of the thought and effort that went into this. Thank you!

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