Saturday, January 8, 2011

Space Hulk: Death Angel Review

Today, I would like to venture a little away from my usual topics and take a short journey to the realm of board games. If you like fantasy, science fiction, and/or games in general, this might just be your kind of thing. If you do not, well…, you might still want to give it a try and see if you like it.

For those of you familiar with board or role-playing games I probably do not have to tell what Warhammer 40,000 is. But, for the sake of others not falling under this category, let me briefly introduce it. In short, Warhammer 40k is among the darkest and most unique sci-fi (although technically the definition would be ‘gothic science-fantasy’) universes ever created. If you like something different from mainstream science fiction, I would highly recommend looking up Warhammer 40k and possibly even purchasing a few novels.

Since its creation in the mid-80s, this universe has enjoyed the release of numerous board, video, and role-playing games, creating a large and quite passionate fan base. Space Hulk is one the board games, in which a team of space marines (genetically engineered super soldiers) enter a derelict ship, station, and such (called space hulk) and try to fulfill some kind of mission. Space hulks, however, usually are swarming with genestealers, a hostile alien race that wants to rip the intruders apart, creating the basic theme of the game.

The original Space Hulk is a fairly complex board game; it plays on a large surface utilizing myriads of figures, dices, and a ton of other accessories. Death Angel, on the other hand, tries to deliver the core experience of the board game in a faster, easier-to-follow, cooperative card game format. Players simulate the events on the space hulk using only cards, a limited number of tokens, and a single dice. They do that by moving a column of space marines through randomized locations and events (all represented by cards) while fighting off swarms of genestealers. Fights are resolved by the dice, and the game is over when the marines either fulfilled their mission presented on the last location card, killed all genestealers, or all died. Simple enough; the random nature of the game and the large number of cards, however, allow players to experience different scenarios from game to game—well, in theory, but I will get to this later.

The rules are fairly simple; so, I do not want to get into them here—they can be downloaded from the publisher’s website and do not make much sense without the cards anyways. I do, however, want to discuss the single player aspect of the game, which was essentially the main reason why I picked it up.

People do not always have friends available for playing; so it is advantageous that Death Angel can be played alone. The mechanics of the game remain the same during solo play; the player simply assumes the role of other players, controlling more than one space marine squad. While this does not change the gameplay drastically, it does give the player more freedom to come up with different strategies trying to tackle the genestealer attacks. Solo play, therefore, is an integral part of the game, just as fun—if not more—than playing with friends.

While I believe Death Angel successfully captures the essence of the original Space Hulk in a creative and engaging card game, unfortunately, it does suffer from some minor flaws. For instance, despite their bulky armor, space marines fall prey to the alien swarm much too fast. In a 4+ cooperative game where each player only commands one squad (two space marines), this becomes especially problematic, often resulting in an untimely death and rendering the dropped out player a mere spectator while the others play. Although on a somewhat lesser degree, but difficulty also affects games with fewer players (controlling more squads) and even solo play. After more than five tries, I have yet to win a single game!

Another, and perhaps a bit more serious, although not at all uncorrectable, issue I have with Death Angel is its core mechanic. The game puts almost all emphasis on fighting, meaning that other aspects, such as exploration or problem solving, do not live up to their full potential, if at all. This not only hurts replay value but also renders the game one dimensional—although, for fairness sake, I have to point out that it delivers the mechanics of fighting exceptionally well. The good news, however, is that this issue can easily be corrected with an expansion pack, with which this game is clearly destined to wind up. New cards providing more diverse terrain (something that Death Angel desperately needs, as currently it has only 8 of these cards, 4 of which rarely come up), new locations, more mission objectives and events putting a bit more emphasis on exploration and a bit less on fighting could really spice this game up.

Before getting to the conclusion, I would like to touch on the quality of the product. I am not all that unfamiliar with board and card games, but I had not come across anything released by Fantasy Flight Games before picking up Death Angel. So, I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the box. Death Angel is a gorgeous game with excellent artwork made of really high-quality materials. I would especially like to point out the cards, which are coated with a layer of nicely textured plastic. This, considering that cards form the core of the game and therefore are subject to frequent physical damage, is a welcome addition (although I would still recommend using card sleeves; if you can find some as Death Angels does not use standard-size cards).

Despite my many complaints, I had a great time with Death Angel. It delivers a solid game experience (in solo or with friends) while successfully captures the gloomy atmosphere of the original Space Hulk. The game has a fair amount of replay value, which hopefully future expansions will further improve, is complex enough to capture the more hardcore crowd while not too complex to intimidate casual players, and only costs $25. These are qualities hard to come by these days. So, if you like board or card games, the Warhammer 40k universe, and/or science fiction, I would highly recommend picking up Space Hulk: Death Angel.

Final verdict:

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