Monday, 15 September 2014

Review - Space Hulk: Third Edition (2009)

In the first week of September 2014, Games Workshop announced a new limited edition of the classic tactical squad-based miniatures game, Space Hulk. This edition would be almost identical to the 2009 third edition release, but with a few extra scenarios and board sections. This is fantastic news for those people who have always wanted a copy of the game, but who are not prepared to pay the obscene eBay prices.

To celebrate, AlwaysBoardNeverBoring has decided that this week is going to be Space Hulk week. I will be bringing you a series of reviews relating to man's desperate battles with aliens in outer space. Starting, of course, with my review of Space Hulk: Third Edition (2009).

Space Hulk

Space Hulk: Third Edition (2009)
Designed by Richard Halliwell
Published by Games Workshop
For 2 players, aged 12 to adult

In my youth, a hazy period of time that was longer ago than I like to think it was, I owned a lot of Games Workshop games, or games produced in association with Games Workshop. I had Heroquest, Advanced Heroquest, Warhammer Quest, Space Crusade, Advanced Space Crusade, Necromunda, Talisman, Battle Masters, Blood Bowl... The list goes on, but I won't.

The one game that I never owned was Space Hulk.

That may seem unusual, considering how highly regarded the game is; but there you have it.

I think the reason I never really wanted it was because it seemed less colourful and varied than the other games I liked. All the terminators were pretty much the same, and they trudged through very similar-looking corridors, shooting a bunch of identical aliens.

But as I grew older, I grew wiser. I started to realise that Space Hulk is an immaculate game.

Yes, I said "immaculate."

It is a lean, muscular game with a stripped back design that exposes all the bloody guts of the thing and makes you root around in the filth and bile. It is a visceral, atmospheric experience that wrings the maximum amount of tension from just a handful of game mechanisms. Some might say it is an elegant design. It's not. It's about as elegant as a punch in the face.

Thematically, it is everything you could want from a science fiction game. Hundreds of wrecked space craft have fused together over time to create a floating mass of metal, infested with alien life forms that scurry through the husk like vermin. A group of terminator space marines infiltrate the wreck in order to exterminate the aliens, retrieve valuable artefacts, and most importantly, retrieve lost honour.

It was a bad call, Ripley. A bad call.

Space Hulk contents
The game barely squeezes into the box.

The theme sets the bar high, and the game lives up to it in every possible way: You create a maze of brutally narrow tunnels with modular board pieces, you grab a pitifully small group of terminator space marines with woefully inadequate weapons, and then you start your mission...

Your terminators are slow. Really slow. They have limited action points, and by limited I mean, "not enough." When turning to your left or right costs you one of your four actions, getting anywhere with any kind of speed is arduous and difficult, and making a bad move that costs you several actions to rectify could be fatal.

But why would you make a bad move?

Because you're on a timer. That's why.

Space Hulk tokens
The game tokens.

At the start of your turn, the timer flips. And then you flip. Your rational brain turns to mush. Your best laid plans suddenly seem impossible to execute. Even rolling the dice seems to take too long. So you scramble to get things done, desperately trying to move up to ten marines, setting up firing arcs, covering routes where you expect enemies to appear, advancing as far as possible... as far as you dare... while the sands drain away inexorably.

You form your squad into single file, and then push into the claustrophobic tunnel ahead. Here there is no room to manoeuvre; you have to continue, or you have to fall back. If you have placed the wrong marine at the front of the line, it's game over. If you didn't leave a marine defending your rear, it's game over.

You made your decision fast, and now you watch in agony as your slow marines plod through the motions, revealing too late - always too late - that you have just made a bad call.

Your marine with the flamethrower doesn't have line of sight because he is not at the front of the line; your sergeant doesn't have enough command points left to defend himself; the marine at the back... well, you never liked him anyway.

Space Hulk in play
Looks like fun, right?

And now your opponent, who is playing the genestealer aliens that infest this ship, places a small cardboard token on the board. A blip.

A small round counter, representing the readout on your marines' motion scanners.

A small round counter that could be a single alien scurrying to hide, or a swarm of aliens in a tightly packed mass waiting to turn your marines into confetti. Horrible, meaty confetti.

He places one. Then another. And another. Suddenly the board seems too small, and the enemy are too many.

One of the blips is RIGHT THERE, only a few spaces from your tightly packed smorgasbord of marines who are just waiting to get peeled out of their armour like crab meat.

It's okay. You're okay. You put one of your marines in that corridor, and you used two of his valuable action points to put him in overwatch. That means his bolter gun is loaded and ready, and if anything moves in his line of sight he gets to take free shots at it.

No worries.

Your opponent flips the blip to reveal it is a swarm of genestealers, and they spill into the tightly packed corridor. They move faster than the marines. Much faster. They get six action points each, and they get to make free 90 degree turns as they advance, allowing them to dart through the maze at terrifying speed.

Your marine fires his bolter. You roll two dice. You need at least one six to kill the genestealer, but you roll double three. You miss. Even worse, the bolter jams when you roll doubles. Your marine frantically tries to unjam his gun.

His scream echoes through the corridors.

The rest of the team need to push on. They must push on. There is honour at stake... And their lives.

Space Hulk dice
These dice hate me.

And if that sounds like something you would enjoy. Then you need to own a copy of Space Hulk. The fact it is one of the most beautifully produced games I've ever seen, with astounding artwork, thick cardboard tiles and tokens, and stunning plastic miniatures, is really just the icing on the cake. The big, bloody, meaty cake.

But wait. Wait.

There has to be a downside, right? No game is truly immaculate.

Space Hulk does indeed have faults.

For a start, you need to assemble the miniatures (and paint them if you want). I enjoy modelling and painting, so this isn't a problem for me (although my set is still unpainted after five years); but if you just want to break open the shrink wrap and play the game, better think again.

Space Hulk librarian
Terminator marines are cool.

While the miniatures are fantastic, they are also a bit cumbersome to use at times. For example, it is vitally important to know which direction miniatures are facing, but with the dynamic poses of the marines, this is not always easy. To be fair, I never had this problem (the rules state that where the miniature is looking represents the front of the model), but it is a fair criticism that the facing of each miniature is not as immediately obvious as it really should be.

Space Hulk Sargeant
Which way, exactly, am I going?

The genestealers might bother some people too. In older editions of Space Hulk, the genestealers tended to get their limbs tangled up during play. This time around, Games Workshop tried to minimise that problem by sculpting the genestealers at different heights and in different poses. Some of them are towering over the board on pillars, while others are bursting up through the floor. I think this is neat; but some people do not like the look of a genestealer running around dragging a piece of the ship with it.

Space Hulk genestealer
He looks friendly enough... Shall we ask for directions?

And to be fair, some of the genestealer miniatures are a bit whacky. Four of them have bad sculpts and they only have three arms instead of four; and one of them looks like he is having fun sexy time with an iron girder.

Speaking of genestealers; playing as the aliens isn't anywhere near as fun as playing as the marines. Genestealers are all the same, with the exception of a boss monster called the Brood Lord, so options on any turn are sometimes limited. I enjoy the challenge of playing the genestealers, figuring out when to reveal blips, amassing my troops, and then watching the marine player panic. However, there is no denying that the marine player has more to do, and more to stress about.

Space Hulk Brood Lord
That's a nice collection of skulls you have there.

And then there are the scenarios... Some of them are completely one-sided, making them a real challenge for one player (and one of them is basically broken, making it impossible for the marine player to lose). This makes it almost essential to swap sides after playing, so the other player gets to see what it is like when the shoe is on the other foot.

And that's it. If those things don't sound like things that would bother you, I think you should try this game out. In fact, I truly recommend Space Hulk to anyone who likes tense, atmospheric, puzzle-like games with lean rules and a strong science fiction theme.

Of course, some people might just refuse to buy it because... you know... Games Workshop.

Yeah, I couldn't really sign off without addressing the big faceless corporation in the room.

A lot of people dislike Games Workshop. A lot of people hate Games Workshop.

I don't.

I do believe they make very bad decisions. Often.

I believe they have lost touch, and I believe they are struggling. They built an empire that anyone would be proud of, and some of the richest, craziest fantasy and science fiction settings in gaming history. I would love to buy games in those worlds; but it just isn't possible most of the time. When they bother to release a board game, like Space Hulk, I buy it. The rest of the time, I just ignore them, and leave them sitting in their ivory towers making stupid mistakes, while their forward-thinking rivals gobble up the market share.

So no, I don't hate Games Workshop. If anything, I pity them.

Space Hulk librarian cose
The detail on the miniatures is exquisite.

In some ways, the company reminds me of those terminator marines, trudging through the shattered hulks. They are slow moving, set in their ways, and totally dedicated to a dying order. And as they advance relentlessly, their faster, smaller, more agile opponents swell in numbers, and occasionally make sneak attacks. One by one, the terminators fall, and their mission becomes more desperate. They want to turn back... They need to turn back... But the corridor is long, and they have travelled far along it.

And so they press on into darkness.

We all know how that story ends.

It ends with a jammed bolter, and radio static.


  1. Fantastic write up - thanks very much

  2. So far my friends and I went up to the 4th scenario... playing each one of them 2 times.
    On that last one I even had obscene luck, the kind of luck that rolls 4 sixes in a row against a tyranid assault... And even then I couldn't achieve my objective (retrieve the CAT thingie from point A to point B) cuz at some point the marines always fall under genestealers assaults. Always.
    I felt like we oughta save time next time, and just roll dices. The one with the most 6 would win.
    As you, I grew up with GW games, I love the warhammer 40k universe, the models, tilesand token of this box worth the 100€ I threw in it...
    But the rules and game mechanics, are broken if you ask me.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

      I strongly disagree the game mechanisms are broken. Some of the missions aren't well balanced (there is one that is literally impossible for the marines to lose if they are even half competent), but the mechanisms themselves are wonderful.

      Playing the same mission twice, swapping sides at half time, is a good way to play, because both players get to have the advantage. And if you manage to win while playing the underdogs, you earn some serious bragging rights.

  3. Have the 2009 3rd edition, played all 12 scenarios multiple times against a tough opponent. We both agreed that 3rd edition favors the marines. More than one scenario is a cakewalk for the marines. And we decided from the beginning that the librarian couldn't use that power of his that blocks hallways. That broken power would create even more cakewalks.

    Some of the 12 scenarios were tough. But once you have played a scenario enough times to find the optimal marine approach, marine victory is over 50% in all the scenarios.

    2009 3rd edition scenarios favor the marines because they are scenarios from the first two editions of the game. Translated as directly as possible. These scenarios were more balanced in their respective earlier editions. Or who are we kidding favored the genestealers, first edition was brutal. But the third edition rules favor the marines much more, so the direct translation of classic missions into third edition means that they get easy for the marines.

    I accept this. I think it was nice of GW to give us these classic missions in third edition. I had a ton of fun playing them. And Space Hulk 3rd edition is actually more streamlined than first edition. It is just so good, every praise people heap on Space Hulk is true. Economic rules, tense, dripping theme and atmosphere, orgasmic production quality, etc.

    Also if you need a challenge, 3rd edition contains all the components you'd need to play all 12 missions using the first edition rules. All you need is a copy of the first edition rulebook, plus the first edition Deathwing expansion rulebook for all the marine special weapons. I haven't done this yet, frankly I'm a little scared. But it is one more great option you get with this great game.


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