Wednesday 17 September 2014

Review - Space Hulk: Death Angel

In the first week of September 2014, Games Workshop announced a limited release of the seminal classic, Space Hulk. To celebrate, AlwaysBoardNeverBoring is running a series of Space Hulk reviews. We started with Space Hulk: Third Edition (obviously). Next up, is Space Hulk: Death Angel.

Space Hulk: Death Angel

Space Hulk: Death Angel
Designed by Corey Konieczka
Published by Fantasy Flight Games
For 1-6 players, aged 13 to adult

Space Hulk: Death Angel box
Compact, and perfectly formed.

It's no fun being a terminator space marine charged with clearing the alien infestation from one of the gargantuan "hulks" floating through outer space. You're clumsy and slow, you're out of place, you're constantly being asked to do stuff that doesn't make sense, and you're surrounded by feral creatures that want to give you a sound beating.

It's a bit like being at school.

In fact, the original Space Hulk board game came out in 1989, when I was still at school. Maybe that's why I wasn't keen on it at the time: Playing it was just a bit too much like a busman's holiday.

Over time I grew to love Space Hulk... You know, after I finished school, and all the therapy started to pay dividends. I learned to appreciate the tension, the sense of clawing dread, the terrible panic...

But there was always a problem.

Space Hulk is a two-player game: One marine player versus one genestealer player.

What I really wanted was a way to experience that gruelling terror with a group of friends. Or even on my own in a solo game.

What I really wanted was Space Hulk: Death Angel.

This card game comes in a box that is as lean and compact as the original Space Hulk rules; but that box is full of gaming goodness: 128 full colour cards depicting marines, actions, events, aliens, locations, and terrain; a punchboard of tokens; and one dice... One dice made out of refined evil. But more on that in a minute.

Space Hulk: Death Angel - inside the box
With two expansions, the box is pretty packed.

As you would expect, the game is a valiant (and almost entirely successful) effort to distill the essence of Space Hulk. In other words, it is an effort to put you under stupid amounts of pressure, and to make you feel like you are constantly on the verge of losing.

The back of the box says, "44% chance of mission success with 86% squad casualties."

To be honest, I think those odds are quite generous.

Death Angel is an incredibly simple and streamlined game, but anyone confronted with the rule book is going to feel much like a young space marine scout confronting his first slavering genestealer. The mixture of bewilderment and panic is probably going to be enough to convince you that coming to this floating graveyard was not your best idea.

The rules are baffling, badly laid out, and incredibly long (32 pages for a simple card game is more overkill than a squad of marines with assault cannons on overwatch).

They are also complete.

The rules are actually good; but if you just sit there and try to read them, you're going to feel like you stepped inside an M C Escher painting.

I really struggled until I actually set up the game. Seeing the cards in play, suddenly all the rules I had been struggling with made perfect sense.

And so, my marines boarded the hulk, and the mission began...

In Space Hulk, you spend a lot of time in narrow corridors, walking in straight lines, and trying to avoid flank attacks. So, perhaps it is not surprising that in a card game seeking to recreate that kind of environment, you start by placing your marines in a column. Some of the marines are looking left, and some are looking right.

You reveal a location card, representing where the marines are at the moment. Then, you place items of terrain, such as air vents and dark corners.

And then the genestealers appear...

Random card draws dictate where they arrive. They could pop out of that tunnel on the left, or from that vent on the right. They could spill through a narrow corridor, or emerge from behind a closed door.

They arrive in hordes, and then they start to scurry... The genestealer that spawned in front of your sergeant suddenly skitters across the ceiling and drops down behind him. The genestealer you had lined up in the sights of your flamer suddenly dodges.

The game is on.

You respond with fire: Bolters blaze, your assault cannon whirs, lightning claws crackle as you slice through the approaching masses. Desperately, you order some of your squad to adjust their facing to tackle approaching enemies that are sneaking up behind. The stuttering white light of the bolters illuminates the foe. And still they press closer...

All this is achieved through a simple system of card play, and a single custom dice.

Each player has one or more pairs of marines, and each pair has exactly three order cards. One card is an attack action, one is a support action, and one is a move action. You simply choose one action for each pair, with the only rule being that you are not allowed to play the same action two turns in a row.

Space Hulk: Death Angel cards
Two marines with their associated action cards.

The attack action allows your two marines to attack, your support action allows you to place a support token on any marine (which allows that marine to reroll a dice once), and the move action allows your marines to swap spaces with an adjacent marine, change facing, and potentially activate a special terrain feature such as a door.

Additionally, each action offers a special ability unique to the marine pairing. For example, the player who controls the librarian gets to make a special psychic attack when playing his attack card, and so on.

The design of the cards is exceptional, and really does create a lot of tactical options. Sure, at the end of the day you are making a 50/50 choice each turn (because you cannot use the same card twice in a row), but that's fine, because it's not just about your choices, it's about the choices the entire team is making. There is plenty to have heated discussions about, and yet there are never so many options that players feel overwhelmed.

It is an incredibly streamlined, incredibly effective, and incredibly challenging design. And that challenge is compounded by the presence of that bloody custom dice.

Space Hulk: Death Angel dice
Expect to see the "0" often; the skull never.

When you attack a genestealer, you roll the dice and you successfully kill the genestealer if a skull turns up. There are three skulls, so there is a 50% chance of killing an alien with a basic attack. That's not so bad.

When genstealers attack a marine, you roll the same dice. If the number that turns up is less than or equal to the number of attacking genestealers, your marine dies.


Just to emphasise the point, this dice has a face with a "0" on it, and caps at "5." So, if your marine is attacked by a single genestealer, you have a 33.3% chance of dying. If you are attacked by five genestealers, there is nothing you can do about it... You're alien chow.

And the dice hates me.

It must do.

It defies the rules of chance to get quite as many "0" results as I get. It verges on the ridiculous.

Space Hulk: Death Angel tokens
Support tokens. THEY DO NOTHING!!!

But if you manage to defy the dice for long enough, your marines move to a new location (by replacing the current location card). New terrain is laid out. Some genestealers chase after you, while some may get locked behind closed doors.

You press on. Ever onwards. Until you reach the objective location.

Here you have a special task, such as blowing up something, or clearing out all the genestealers. If you succeed, you win.

If you fail, of course, your helmet gets used as a nice decorative vase.

Death Angel is easy to play, easy to teach, but tough to master. It is exciting and tense. There are real decisions to make. And yet...

And yet...

Whether you win or not is only partially down to your tactics.

The order of the events you draw, the numbers you roll on the dice, the locations where the genestealers arrive: Every variable directly impacts your chance of success, and only sometimes does good play get you out of a jam.

It is possible to march into the hulk and romp home to victory without taking a casualty. It is just as possible (in fact, much more likely) that you will march into the hulk and suffer a horrifying defeat. And afterwards, you will review your performance, and you will realise there really wasn't anything you could have done differently. You handled the challenges as they turned up, but the dice failed you. You did what you could, but it wasn't enough.

And then you will set up the game and play again.

Because it's fun.

Space Hulk: Death Angel genestealers
Genestealers. Nothing to worry about...

Yes, there are times when the luck has to go your way. Yes, there are times when the actions you need to take are blatantly obvious.

But then there are the stories.

Your marine standing valiantly at the rear, hacking to bits genestealer after genestealer with his lightning claws before finally succumbing to weight of numbers. Your sergeant blowing the reactor, sacrificing himself in order to suck a horde of genestealers into outer space. Your librarian toasting genestealers with his psychic blasts before being sucker-punched from behind by that one genestealer nobody saw coming.

It's all there...

The heroism, the misery, the insurmountable odds, the last-minute victories, the teeth-gnashing defeats.

The essence of Space Hulk.


  1. Nicely written review! I agree. SHDA is one of my most-played solo games over the past year, and it does distill the experience of the board game very effectively. I recommend this game to any Space Hulk fans (but watch a YouTube tutorial for your first play; the rulebook is confusing!)

    1. The rulebook is certainly a mess. But once it clicks, you start to wonder why you ever had problems, because it is such a quick, smooth gaming experience. It's the perfect way to get that Space Hulk vibe without setting up a map and finding an opponent.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    2. agree all around the learning curve is steep not only did it take 2 rule reads a mini play and a final rules read then actually paying it clicked, i also was not able to teach it to my spouse easily wich has never been an issue and havent even tried teaching it to the 3 other regular players, but this has become my alone time game, its rare two days pass between plays even after about a month this is the gamer i wish i had for 20 years of no one to play with. i played the original only once or twice as it was a guy outside our regular group and who lived relatively far by our then means and this does a good job of conveying the theme and experience. . yet i am reluctant to recommend this since i learn games easily(i have picked up a rpg rule book for the first time and ran it the next day at con for its creator no less) and also have the patience and interest to slough through it is not for the casual gamer or those with difficulty picking new concepts up
      and a love for the source helps you will either not get it and feel cheated or you wil and love it i found it worth the effort .

    3. This is a great solo activity. In fact, I prefer playing Death Angel solo to playing with a group.

      Mage Knight and Assassinorum: Execution Force are now my go-to solo games, but Death Angel still gets its fair share of table time.


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