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Gaming this weekend: Entering the Space Hulk…

Posted by Andreas Ludwig on October 4, 2010

The game box is rather small, but the contents of a very high quality and with an attractive artwork

Because I had a rather bad cold, Denny and I couldn’t actually meet and play for the  last 2 weeks (except online on XBox Live for extensive Halo Reach sessions…). This weekend was the first time for us to sit down at our gaming table again.

The week before, we had ordered the new Warhammer 40k game by Fantasy Flight Games: Space Hulk: Death Angel – The Card Game which is already out of print as I read recently (surely FFG will re-print  it again rather sooner than later, since it seems to be such a huge success). This weekend’s focus was to learn and play this game. To get into the mood of monster hunting, we also watched Starship Troopers on DVD in the evening, which kinda seemed to match the theme of the game nicely – elite soldiers hunting nasty aliens 🙂

So let me give you just a few thoughts about the game, the review will have to wait until we played a few more games, so stay tuned!

Death Angel is the card based version of the board game Space Hulk (which we haven’t played so far, it’s hard to get for a reasonable price and since we already own Doom – The Boardgame, which seems to be very similiar gameplay-wise, we didn’t have Space Hulk on our radar) but contrary to the latter, Death Angel is a cooperative game. Each player commands one or more teams of Space Marines (depending on the number of players, the game can be played with 1-6 players) which form a military formation that enters a Space Hulk (a term for the remains of an ancient starship or space station) to investigate what’s up in there and to reach and check out a certain location. Players form their formation, they start in a preset location and try to make their way through the Space Hulk, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.

a Genestealer swarm

The station is not empty but filled with aggressive aliens called Genestealers and indeed watching the movie Alien gives you a pretty accurate picture of what the Space Marines teams can expect to find in the confined rooms and corridors of the space station.

The game is a bit tricky to learn at first, because the 32-pages-rulebook is often explaining things on several pages, referring to other paragraphs, so you have to flip through the RB  back and forth to get the hang of the mechanics. After the first game, though, you realize that the game is quite easy and not really complicated and you can enjoy the often tough decision-making required to keep your men alive without further referring to the rulebook. If you are curious about the game mechanics, the rulebook can be downloaded here from the official FFG support website (PDF, 1.9 MB).

Setup. The game certainly requires some table space

As you fight spawning swarms of aliens, which tend to come out of the usual ventilation ducts, doors, and dark corners or even sneakily flank you and attack you from behind, you try to make your way to the final location. In this destination location, there’s something you have to do, like activating the launch procedure of a space vessel to get out of there or whatever (usually a task that needs some time to accomplish…) and in the mean time, your number one priority is actually to stay alive.

Each team has 3 Action Cards, but no Action Card can be used twice in a row, so you have to plan ahead

Each player has 3 Action Cards (Support, Move & Activate, Attack) for each of his two-men-teams, and some of the Space Marines have  special abilities as described on the Action Cards – which often come in handy when the formation is in a desperate situation (and there will be many of such situations before you reach your destination…). But be careful – once you used one of the three possible actions, this action can’t be used again in the next game round. So everybody going with guns ablaze when some aliens get in the way isn’t such a good idea because then no one will be able to attack again in the next round – players are required to plan ahead.

The Genestealers spawn in the Event Phase, depending on the location card you are currently in and the terrain cards in play, so the players have to discuss their options and try to support each other  in order to keep the enemy off and to minimize casualties.

Combat is brutally short and simple – the Space Marines hit when they roll a skull on the die (the game uses one  special six-sided die with numbers ranging from 0-5 and 3 skull symbols), killing one alien card of a ‘swarm’ (one or more Genestealer cards in a specific position) – 50% chance of killing one swarm with the attack… Then the Genestealers attack and they will hit when the die is equal to or less than the  number of cards in the attacking swarm – and since the die ranges from 0 to 5, the larger the swarm, the larger the chance of a successful Genestealer attack, and even a lone swarm has a 1/3 chance of success because of the “0” side. Any Space Marine who is successfully attacked is… slain and out of the game immediately! No health bar, no hit points.

A Space Marine card

A swarm can easily move around the formation of Marines or follow the group to a new location, different swarms can merge into a larger swarm or flank a Marine, so it’s quite a task (but essential!) to make sure that such a swarm doesn’t grow too large. A swarm with 5 Genestealer cards will hit – and instantly kill – a Space Marine with every number rolled on the die. Even a swarm with only 3 cards will hit and kill on a 0,1,2 or 3…

Although combat is very brutal (and the game can be short because of this, but doesn’t have to, we played a good deal longer than the 30-60 minutes mentioned on the game box), luckily some Marines have some cool weapons or special abilities which modify the combat in their favour. For example, there’s  the guy with the flamethrower who doesn’t  hit on a skull but uses the actual number rolled to kill a corresponding number of Genestealers, the one with an auto-gun, someone with psychic abilities, or a Marine who is stronger in the defense than in the attack and so on.

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

Then there’s the Event Card deck which is the “AI” of the game, providing events and spawning and moving aliens. Events most often make the situation worse, but sometimes allow the players a bit of relief in all the tension by giving them more options to get rid of these nasty aliens.

So the formation of battle hardened Space Marines makes their way through the dark corridors of the Space Hulk killing aliens, supporting each other, discussing what to do next, while the players get silent when another brave soldier is ripped apart or they cheer up and laugh when that big swarm actually misses and Brother Claudio gets into berserk mode and kills the entire swarm with his claws.

The game plays very smoothly, has interesting mechanics, requires lots of decision-making  and coordination between players. All players can only win if they are working together and they must make good decisions to achieve that objective. The game provides a good atmosphere, especially if you are a fan of the Warhammer 40k  universe (but knowledge of this universe is not required). If you are able to get a bit “in-character”, it’s a great game experience you can find in that rather small (and inexpensive) box.

Our first impression is very positive and you may wait for our review of the game to learn more – or just go and get it yourself 😉

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