Thursday, 14 October 2010

Space Hulk: Death Angel

The Game

Space Hulk: Death Angel is basically Space Hulk the card game. It comes in a much smaller and also much less expensive package. However the game format changes from a 1-on-1 contest (space marines vs aliens) to a cooperative game, where players are the marines trying to complete their mission. The game is all cards, except for one type of token, and one die.

The players control teams of space marines. Each team has two members. All the marines line up in single file. They need to go through a number of corridors to reach the destination where they can complete their mission. They will be attacked by genestealers (aliens). They need to survive long enough to reach the destination and then complete their mission.

At the centre of the play area the space marines are arranged in single file. At the head of the column is the location card of the current location. It describes special rules for the location, and also dictates how many genestealers appear each round. On two sides of the column are some feature cards (air vents, branch corridors, doors etc), and the genestealers.

Every round, you select one of three possible actions for each team you control - (a) attack, (b) support, (c) move and activate. Attack means you shoot genestealers. Support means you place support tokens on marines. These allow you to reroll the die, whether in offense or defense. Move and activate means you can swap places with the guy before or after you, you can switch facing (left or right), and in some cases there are items at your current position that you can activate or use. The tricky part of choosing actions is you cannot choose the same action twice in a row. That means the players need to coordinate their actions, e.g. they should not be all attacking in the same round, because in the next round they will not be able to attack.

Two Attack action cards. The number on the top right determines the order in which the actions are to be executed.

More genestealers will appear every round, and they will attack the marines next to them. The more genestealers attacking the same marine, the higher the chance of the marine getting killed. Genestealers can be on the left or right side of the marines. The facing of the marines is important because they can only shoot at genestealers that they are facing. Often it is preferable to have the facing arranged in a zebra pattern - one facing left, the next facing right, then the next facing left again, and so on.

All the marine action cards have some special ability. They make each of the marine teams unique. Some of them are strong offensively, some are strong defensively. Some have useful special abilities, e.g. casting a force field that prevents a group of genestealers from attacking (or being attacked). There is a lot of flavour here and it is important to make good use of your marines' special abilities.

The Play

Han, Allen and I dived into the game after a quick run-through of the rules. We did rather poorly with shooting. We were lousy shots (bad die rolls). On one occasion when one flamer marine had the chance to shoot a burst of flames (number rolled = number of genestealers killed at one go), he rolled 0, on a 6-sided die numbered 0 to 5. Allen lost one of his marines quite early. Surprisingly most of the other marines lasted quite long. We didn't kill many genestealers, and the swarm around us grew and grew, but somehow we managed to keep them at bay with our fists and swords. We were quite lucky with the genestealer attack die rolls.

The positioning of our marines was bad. We had two guys who were only good at hand-to-hand combat stuck far behind, where there were no genestealers. What a waste. It was quite tedious to try to move them up, since the Move action only allowed moving one step at a time.

We had one very dangerous build-up of genestealers on our left. There were so many genestealers in that swarm that if they attacked, the target marine would certainly die. Many times we had to rely on one of our marines' special ability to cast a force field to block this swarm. However this force field thing was associated with a Support action, which meant we could only use it every other turn. This also meant every other turn some guy would die. Thankfully at one of the locations we picked up an artifact that held this particular swarm back for one turn. That saved one life.

This is one big scary swarm of genestealers. The icons on the cards are for determining how they move. Event cards dictate how genestealers with specific icons move in specific ways. Being attacked by 5 genestealers already means certain death. We had 14 here.

Towards the later game, our shooting skills improved a little. I guess we had had a lot of on-the-job training. On one occasion one of my marines, Lexicanium Calistarius, killed five genestealers in a row, on the same turn! His special ability was every time he made a kill, he could attack again. Normally a marine can only attempt to kill one genestealer on a turn. This Lex guy was probably the top shooter, because of this heroic feat.

This is not a draw deck. This is how many genestealers had accumulated at one position.

We rushed past room after room. The army of genestealers surrounding us became bigger and bigger. Things looked more and more bleak. We started losing more and more men as we approached the last room, where our objective lay. When we entered the final room and examined our objective, we suddenly saw a glimmer of hope. Our objective was to fix a control panel and press the red button. This required the activate action. We realised that all this while this was a suicide mission. We were not expected to survive. We were expected to complete our mission. There were still about half of us left. We could just ignore the approaching genestealers, and try to get the control panel to work.

Three marines could squeeze into the small space in front of the control panel. Two of them tried to make some repairs, and the third pressed the button. We needed to roll 0, 1, or 2 (i.e. 50% chance), now that we had done two fixes. The button presser was one of Allen's marines, who had two support tokens, which meant two rerolls in case he missed. And guess what. He missed all three rolls! Shaky finger because of too much coffee!! No more Starbucks for you! The three stooges squatting in front of the control panel had about 2 seconds to look at one another and say "Oops" before they were dragged away by genestealers.

We were at the last room. The control panel was right at the middle on our left, so the three marines in the middle could reach it.

At this point in the game Han, Allen and I were all standing up and cursing our luck. All was not lost yet though. We still had two marines remaining (out of the original twelve). Needless to say, these two gentlemen no longer cared whether they lived. 10 of their brothers had just died before their eyes. Their only thought was to press that red button. The question was should both take turns trying to press it and hoping it would work at least once, or one should do some repair so that when the other pressed the button the chance of success would be higher. Two 50% chances or one 66% chance. We went for the latter. In hindsight, mathematically speaking, the former had a higher probability of success. But then when you are outnumbered 1 to 100 by hostile aliens, you may not be able to think straight. So, the die was cast. This was the final die roll of the game, win or lose. The red button lit up! Woooooohoo! We won!

The two marines who completed the mission.

Note: I took some liberty with some of the details of the story, to make it more interesting.

Note 2: I later realised that we had played some rules wrong, and most likely we would have failed in our mission. Support tokens can only be used for attack or defense rerolls, and not for activations. Also the control panel can only be activated once per turn. That means we should have only had one chance to do one repair, and then once chance to press the red button.

The Thoughts

At first the game seemed a little convoluted, and it did take some time to get familiar with and make good use of the special powers of each of the marine teams. However once we got used to the mechanism, the game was quite fast paced. I like how the tension mounts as the marines rush towards the objective while the genestealers pile up. You are constantly trying to kill off as many genestealers as you can, even though it's an uphill battle, while trying to move as quickly as possible. You need to plan and coordinate carefully your actions, like a well-trained elite squad.

We certainly had one fantastic game. However I have some worry about replayability. You don't know your mission at the start of the game. You only find out about it when you enter the final location. This doesn't feel logical. Without knowing your mission, one game won't differ much from the next. The random event cards and random locations create some variability, but from our game, they didn't seem to tell much story. Basically you are just trying to survive whatever is thrown at you.

We did not peek at the other missions in the game. I guess we need to play more to decide about the replayability.

One thing that I admire is how the designer did not implement some life point system, e.g. three hits before a marine gets killed. The game is more exciting without this. Every genestealer attack, even if involving just one genestealer, means at least a 33% chance of getting killed. You are constantly on your toes, never quite knowing how long you will last.


Mike said...

I hate to be a downer here, but you can only use support tokens to reroll attacks or defense rolls: not things like activations or special ability rolls.

Also, each location can only be activated once per round.

Of course the rules are way longer than they need to be, so how are you supposed to know this.

Anyhow, having said this I wanted to also come in and say how much I like reading your blog and seeing what items and games come up: I really like all the photos you include of the games you've played.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Thanks Mike for pointing out the errors. Looks like if we had played with the correct rules, we likely would have failed our mission.

Han was the one who read the rules and taught the game, so I can put all the blame squarely on him. :-)

Kurthl33t said...

I received the game as a Christmas gift, and it's had a surprising amount of replay value for me. This may partly be because I love playing in the Warhammer 40K universe. Still, I've played the game probably ten times, and plan on playing it solitaire tonight. It's still fun!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

That's great! Were there significant differences from game to game? E.g. how you have to adjust your strategy / tactics?

Is it a concern the fact that your team only finds out the mission when you enter the final room? This is one of the worries that I had when I played the game. I've only played once though.

Nate said...

We also bungled a few of the rules our first few times: we made the same Support Token error and we messed up spawning and movement, as well. Having worked out those kinks, we're really enjoying the game. I play with my girlfriend's son in two-man games, and we both tackle it solo, as well. We've been able to win the solo version, but are still looking for our first cooperative victories (we have found the spawn numbers in a three-man game particularly unforgiving). Our strategy probably still needs some nuance to get the extra performance needed to win the multiple player games.

Good review; thanks for posting.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I haven't had the chance to play Space Hulk: Dark Angel since that first outing, and by now have forgotten most of the rules. :-P Now one game I'm interested to try is Lord of the Rings the Card Game, which is also a cooperative game.