Sunday, September 19, 2010

Review: Space Hulk: Death Angel from Fantasy Flight Games

While we've never played a game of Warhammer Fantasy or 40K, we love the properties, their universes, and tons of the peripheral games that have popped up as a result of Games Workshop's partnership with Fantasy Flight Games. FFG has has an opportunity to put out a large stable of games for Warhammer in both Fantasy and 40K and have worked ardently to expand the already-established games that have been produced by Games Workshop in the past. The most popular spin-off game Games Workshop has ever produced is the fanastic mini game/board game hybrid Space Hulk. Space Hulk has had several editions throughout the years, but as the most previous edition, released just last year, shows with its sky-rocketing secondary market value, it's an expensive, high production value, collector item. Retailing originally at $100.00, you got many high-quality space marine terminator and tyranid genestealer miniatures and a very sturdy modular board. 

When Death Angel (DA) was announced from FFG, it was actually quite exciting. Would DA give us a cheap alternative that we wouldn't have to put up our houses for collatoral on a loan for? I would read on to learn that not only would it be a card game retailing for $25.00 but it was cooperative... and have rules for solo play. Having taken the chance to play it now with five players and on my own, I'm going to make you Keep Reading to see if I think it lives up to its prestigious pedigree!
Death Angel (DA) is purely a card game. It follows the same storyline of a small group of Terminator Space Marines (six to twelve depending on the number of players) trapsing through an abandoned space hulk (basically a ridiculously large and cathedral-like capital ship) to kill genestealers (vicious aliens that inspired by the movie Aliens) and complete a mission. In the original Space Hulk players chose a side between Space Marines and Tyranids and would play out scenario-based missions to see who won. Space Hulk is notorious for how brutal it can be to the space marine player. The marines are always (ALWAYS) out-numbered with limited supplies, on the run from the nearest swarm of genestealers, and can die easily with one measly hit point and a luck shot from even one genestealer getting past their armor. That kind of desperation is actually quite fun to play - and it was a quality I was really looking forward to being reproduced in DA.

There are really two view points to this review - how does it play multi-player (specifically in my experience with five players) and how does it play solo? I'll do my best to address both viewpoints if they differ from limited experience with the game.

The first big question that I had going into the game - is it impossibly hard or a cake walk? Like I said above, the face that Space Hulk can be such a difficult game has always been a plus for us and its fans, so does DA make for an difficulty level that really challenges its players? Here's our first split in viewpoints. When we played with five players, yes, DA is a challenging game. Of course we didn't get all the rules right the first round (in the direction where things were more difficult than they needed to be), but that not withstanding, out of the 10 space marines who entered the space hulk, one made it out alive. Of course the rules are explicit in this - if even one space marine survives the mission, everyone wins.

One of the things that actually surprised me about the multiplayer version was how quickly player elimination was to occur. Each player in a 4+ player game gets one space marine to fight with. The team consists of two marines and their action cards (unique to the team - this is where most of the uniqueness of the teams comes into play). So if both of your space marines end up dying - you're out. There's not much else you can do to help or participate. However, given how quick DA takes to play (the box estimates 30 to 60 minutes, which I think is accurate), I don't really see this being a problem for future plays.

We never felt unfairly screwed over in the game, but multiplayer DA was tough. That being said, when that final space marine fulfilled the requirement of the mission (as determined by one of three randomly chosen final destination cards), there was a literal cheer that went up around the table like we all really acheived something. You don't get that a lot in games. It was also pretty much agreed upon that everyone would be up for more DA in the future. Also a nice feature of the game.

So what about single player? When you play solo, you control three space marine teams - six marines. I was a little worried that controlling three different action decks would be a little confusing, but once I got the hang of it, it wasn't bad at all. Unfortunately I feel like it may have been a bit of breeze. Having complete tactical control of all three teams meant that I could coordinate my actions precisely (something not allowed in the rules when there are more players) and figure out exactly how a round would run. This resulted in my finishing the game with five or my original six space marines coming out smelling like roses. My fears at the beginning of my solo game of a repeat of our multiplayer game were quickly squashed firmly beneath my size 20 space marine boots as, with one sole commander leading them, the marines became very competent at killing tyranids and moving to the next level of the space hulk.

The game tends to run itself very well. The main "board" of the game is the space marine formation. Basically the marines are dealt randomly out in a single file line beneath the level card they currently occupy. The level cards (which are also randomly determined and chance composition based on the number of players) tell you everything you need to know combined with the event deck - where a card is pulled from every turn. On the location card you get what terrain features are on that level (such as a corridor, door, control pannel, etc.), where they go (basically which marine they're placed next to), and how many genestealers spawn each turn. When the event card is drawn, there's some kind of effect on it - some good, mostly bad - and then two colors on the bottom and maybe a move icon. There are four colors in the game and they match up with certain terrain pieces on the level. So each spawn indicator has one of the colors (telling you where the genestealers spawn) and either an orange or white triangle (indicating how big the spawn is). Finally the location card also has a number on the bottom corners (you can see these on the right card to the upper right picture). This determines your "blip" pile of potential genestealers where you spawn them from. The focus of the game is to clear out at least one of the blip piles to move to the next location on the ship.

Overall - and you already know this if you've been paying attention - my group and I really liked it a lot. I have no idea if FFG is planning a follow-up release, but I could see so many different directions to take the game as it's set up right now. It flows very well, and it never felt like there was a lot of time between turns since you're kind of always coordinating your actions with your teammates. One of the ways I could see upping the challenge for solo play would be to have to remove both piles of blips from each location before moving on. As it stands, you only have to remove one pile - either the left of right - to move to the next location. You end up not having to fight off any of the genestealers from the blip pile then. If you have to remove both, you'll be fighting at least three to four more genestealers a level.

One of my favorite things about the game is the space marine formation. Everything that comes into play from terrain to genestealers is always in regard to the placing of the space marines. The formation is a single-file column where the marines can slowly move around (very slowly) to different positions within the formation. Facing is also a big deal as a space marine can only interact with one side of the formation at a time, and they need to spend effort on actually turning around. If this feels too constricting, it's not - it adds a ton of tactical depth to the game. It's also a great call back to the immobility of the space marines from the original Space Hulk. I like Death Angels a lot and can guarantee that we'll be seeing more plays on our table.

I got my copy of Space Hulk: Death Angels at Noble Knight Games for a nice little discount available to all customers. Like my review and want to expend just a tiny bit of effort to try to support The Hopeless Gamer and our future endeavors? Simply click the Noble Knight banner above, and it'll start a cookie that means The Hopeless Gamer earns a portion of what you purchase. It's a small thing to do, but it adds up quickly! Of course you don't need to stop at Death Angel when you get to the site, and we'll get a portion of everything else you buy too. You get great games, and we get the opportunity to review great games in the future - everyone wins.


  1. I can vouch for it's fun factor -- it's all about the wolverine claws on the cleverly named Claudio

  2. hello,
    is there any possible way you could do a step by step on how to play? im having a heck of a time understanding set-up, card draws and so on. maybe a youtube video showing how to set-up, understandings of when and what to draw, card placement and the like.
    it would be greatly apppreciated as i live very far out in the boonies and have no one to play with so that i can figure it out.
    maybe even a emulated game round or too via solo play.
    thanks and keep up the excellent reviews as i purchased the game based on this review!

    sorry if this is alot to ask,, but as i said, i can not for the life of me wrap my head around this!

    thanks and i look forward to hearing from you!
    your site rocks!

  3. You know what? I was writing up a really long explanation hoping to give you a hand, but this is actually a really good player's aid:

    It looks like you definitely weren't alone in having a hard time wrapping your head around the rules. I hope this helps! Death Angel is pretty fun and the rare solo board game is a valued gem indeed.

    If you like Lord of the Rings at all I would also recommend keeping an eye out for FFG's Lords of the Rings LCG they have planned. We'll have coverage here for sure as we're very excited (it's not just solo, but cooperative as well!). You can read the interview we did with the game producer Jason Walden at Gencon here:


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