Fantasy Flight’s new Space Hulk: Death Angel card game pits your squad of space marines against a terrifying swarm of aliens inside an abandoned spaceship. All you have to do is make it to the control deck before the Genestealers tear your crew to pieces. Total milk run. Right?
At every game convention there’s a buzz game, something you overhear people talking about everywhere you go. At this year’s Gen Con, that game was Space Hulk: Death Angel. It was almost impossible to demo the game because the tables were perpetually packed with players eager to try it out. It was literally impossible to buy, because Fantasy Flight was sold out of it on Thursday. At the Wizards of the Coast D&D presentation, even the Wizards designers couldn’t stop talking about it. I lucked into an open demo table, learned the game and played a few turns, and I can say that this game deserves the hype.
Space Hulk was originally a board game produced by Games Workshop, set in their Warhammer 40K universe. Fantasy Flight Games has licensed the property to create this card-based version of the game. The story is simple: a squad of space marines (in this case, a Death Angel squad) boards and explores drifting space vessels, known as space hulks, looking for valuable technology and resources. Most of the hulks are infested with Genestealers, vicious aliens that reproduce by infecting other species with their own genetic material.
It’s a cooperative game, with each player controlling two members of the squad. The demo was for four players, so we had a squad of eight. I know the game can be played solitaire, but I’m not sure how it scales for other numbers of players. The layout sets up the squad in their standard formation, a single file line as they make their way through the space hulk’s narrow corridors. Each marine faces a certain direction, which can be changed when you move. Movement is relative to the positions of the other Death Angels — you can shift up and down the formation, but your actual movement through the ship is abstracted by changing terrain features around you.
When you come to a new location, you turn over the top card of the location deck. With a series of symbols, it will explain what you find there and where you find it. There might be a door to the left of the first marine in line (as seen in the image above). You might find ventilation shafts or branching corridors. Exploring these features (by moving a marine adjacent to one and using an explore action) will give the squad some benefit, usually an advantage in combat against the Genestealers. The location cards also indicate how many Genestealers come creeping after you. On subsequent turns, symbols on the cards show which Genestealers move and where. They’ll often outflank the marines and create difficult combat situations. Luckily, half of the marines are bad-asses with special abilities that can severely hurt the Genestealers and advance the mission. When you’ve cleared out all the critters, you move on to the next location and do it again.
Marine mortality is frequent. Your squad will be whittled away by Genestealer attacks throughout the game. By the time you finally get to the control room, you’ll be in for a horrific final battle. Hordes of Genestealers will rush the squad, which may already be crippled by attrition. Players on the message boards report a less than 50/50 success rate — it’s a real challenge to successfully clear the hulk, so when you do win, it will feel like quite an accomplishment. Space Hulk: Death Angel is not a collectible game. You get the entire game, with the cards, counters and play mat in one box for $24.95. If it follows the model of Fantasy Flight’s other card games, there will likely be expansions that add more locations, encounters, aliens and marines. But no booster packs.
Thrown together with three total strangers trying to organize our squad and effectively neutralize the Genestealers, I found that the game captured the space marine flavor very well. We were immediately coordinating, comparing our marines’ special abilities and formulating plans. The actual turns took just a few minutes to execute, but we probably spent ten minutes debating the plan. It was fun — I’ve never played Warhammer 40K or the original Space Hulk, but it reminded me of Aliens. We were stranded on a ship. There were bad things on the ship with us. We had big guns. Most of us died anyway.