Space Hulk: Death Angel (card game review)

While I’ll always prefer the original, there’s simply no way around it – Aliens was one hell of a good movie.  Games Workshop thought so too, and back in 1989 they decided to show this love by ripping off the premise and cramming it into the Warhammer 40k universe with the release of the board game Space Hulk.  11 years and 2 re-releases later, Fantasy Flight Games decided to use their licensing rights to re-imagine it as a card game.  The results, like the film it’s ripping off, are exquisite.

In the Warhammer Universe, a Space Hulk is a derelict spacecraft left floating through the cosmos, its crew either dead or abandoned.  Death Angel tells the tale of a team of Space Marines who board the ship Sin of Damnation.  Their mission? To quell the Genestealer infestation aboard and destroy the forward launch control rooms.

And in case you had any doubt about where the inspiration for Death Angel came from, the Genestealers in question look like this:

“Quell,” of course, means blast these ugly buggers to kingdom come.  But to do that, you’ll need to strategize effectively.

On each turn a player decides if his squad(s) will attack, support, or move and activate.  Different Marines will have different attack ranges, allowing some to attack Genestealers two cards above or below them, for example while others can only attack enemies they’re adjacent to.  Squads that choose to support will be able to place a support token on any Marine in play, which will allow them to re-roll on any attack or defensive maneuver that goes sour.  Move and activate, as the name suggests, allows players to move each member in a squad up or down one position in the formation, and if they’re next to a piece of territory with a gadget on it, activate it.

The trick is that a squad can never make the same choice two turns in a row.  So if my yellow squad attacked last turn, they’ll have to either choose to support or move and activate this turn.  This means you’ll need to play your squad with the decisions of all other squads in mind, lest you be unprepared for the choice after next.

Each action card also has a perk attached to it, and, along with planning ahead, these perks makes up the bulk of the strategy in Death Angel.  Playing the blue team’s attack card, for example, allows you to place a support token on any Space Marine if you slay a Genestealer, effectively making any successful attack an attack + support card.  The grey team’s support card let’s you prevent a swarm of Genestealers from attacking or being attacked for a round.  The red team’s move and support lets you double up the results of activating a Door terrain card.  Since each squad has three different cards, and each card has its own unique perk, there are a lot of options to weigh during every turn to make sure you’re utilizing your squads in the best way possible.

Combat itself is somewhat ingenious, as you’ll be able to use a single die in two distinctly different ways.  There are numbers on all six sides of the die, and on three of those sides a skulls joins them.  When rolling for a Marine’s attack, you’ll be trying to roll a skull – the numbers don’t matter.  But when the Genestealers attack, they’re trying to roll the number of creatures in their swarm or less.  The bigger the swarm, the more likely they’ll be successful in their attack, leaving your Marine a terribly disfigured (and no doubt partially eaten) corpse.

There are lots of other little elements that really help to round out the experience too.  The direction you’re facing, for instance, matters because you can’t attack what’s behind you, nor can you defend when flanked.  The game also features event cards that can screw with you every turn, ways for the swarms to move from Marine to Marine, and a variety of activatable terrain cards that can change the experience for better or worse.

Depending on how many players you bring to the table, Death Angel’s difficulty and number of Space Marines in play will slide up and down.  A solo game will put one player in charge of three different squads, for example, while a six player game will put each player in control of a single pair of Marines.  With different numbers of players resulting in different numbers of squads, the experience really feels different with each varying group size you take into battle.

Likewise, the number of players you have at the table will dictate the number of enemies that will spawn each turn.  A light spawn in a single player game will only put one Genestealer onto a piece of terrain, but in a three player game with every Space Marine on the table, it’ll add three.  And once you’re playing with all 12 Marines and pull a heavy spawn of 5 Genestealers?  The game can be over before it’s even begun.  There’s no doubt about it – the more Marines you have in play, the harder Death Angel  gets.

It’s impossible for me to say how well Death Angel matches up with the Space Hulk board game, simply because I have yet to experience Games Workshop’s cult classic.  The 2009 re-release from Fantasy Flight Games sadly predates my own interest in the hobby, and hunting it down now requires skills of Predator-like proportions.  That being said, my own lack of experience with Space Hulk (and the Warhammer Universe in general) goes to prove one thing: you don’t need any knowledge of what’s come before to love what Death Angel has to offer.

Fantasy Flight has seen fit to release two minor expansions using their Print-on-Demand model, which means you’ll need to order them directly from the FFG website (or if you’re lucky like me, have a local game store with the forethought to order some through their POD service).  Neither of these are in any way essential to the experience, though once you’ve played the game through and through, you’ll be delighted to have the new experiences these expansions offer.  Mission Pack #1 introduces new location cards that I find preferable to the ones in the core set, as well as a new terrain piece.  Space Marine Pack #1 introduces two new squads of Marines that bring some exciting new skills to the table.  The Marine Pack also ups the number of players the game can support to 8, but for some reason they didn’t think to include a new starting location card, meaning you’ll need to agree on some house rules about how many Genestealers can spawn for the full platoon of 16 Marines.

The rulebook may be a little daunting at first (I’ve heard it compared to a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, and rightly so), but once you get the hang of it, Death Angel is an absolute blast to play.  A challenging mix of random elements and strategy, Death Angel feels like a new experience every time I shuffle the cards.  As a huge fan of solo experiences, I can also say that Death Angel scratches that itch perfectly.  If you’re looking for a game that dishes out the claustrophobic terror of being trapped on a dead space ship full of hostile aliens, then look no further.  If LV-426 were a derelict spacecraft instead of a derelict terraforming colony, they’d have to call it Death Angel.

Jim Squires

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