Saturday, October 10, 2015

First Play- Death Angel: the Space Hulk card game

    My friend Aaron got the Space Hulk board game back in High School, and we also got into the Warhammer 40,000 wargame too.  So I kind of fondly remember the WH40K universe, and when we saw the Death Angel card game I talked him into getting it (which just involved putting it in his hands).  That was a few years ago, and just now I finally played it solo (apparently he forgot about it).
    I was not a big fan of the Space Hulk board game, while a hard game makes winning feel even better, I don't like games so hard that you should expect to lose far more often than you win.  I'm kind of a wimp gamer that way.  And Space Hulk was hard.  You played a group of Space Marines, basically super-soldiers in high-tech armor, exploring a "space hulk" - a ruined starship - infested with Genestealers, basically the aliens from Alien.  There were only about 6 marines, and a whole bunch more of the aliens.  Like Descent you had terrain tiles that made up the rooms of the ship, and you had a "quest" to get to a certain room or do something.  It was a tactical wargame, and the Space Marine player needed a lot of luck and smarts, and the Genestealer player got to enjoy being evil.
    While I was not a huge fan of the board game, I had some sort of fond memories playing it - so I was more than willing to give the card game a try.  Essentially the two are the same, in the card game up to 4 players control the Space Marines, and cards set up the rooms and control the Genestealers.  Which was one of the things that intrigued me about the game, you can play it solo.  At the end of each turn there is an event card that creates new Genestealers, moves a random number of them to random places, and basically controls everything else.  I played solo, everybody else was at work.  The Space Marines form a line, and each row is like one space or hex.  The Marines also have facing, and can only use some abilities against Genestealers in the same facing, so there is a real boardgame feel of space and positioning.  Most Marines can shoot 1 or more rows, so they can help defend other Marines, but a few are melee only and restricted to their own row.  Each room has terrain, like a corridor or door or grate, and each piece of terrain is in a different row, and the Genestealers spawn from those rows at random.  There can only be one Marine in a row, but the Genestealers can form groups.  To attack, the Marine rolls a custom D6 and has a 50% chance to hit, killing 1 Genestealer.  The Marines also roll to defend, and the die has numbers from 0 to 5.  If the Marine rolls a number greater than the Genestealers in the group attacking he survives, roll equal or less and he dies.  Thus, a group of 5 Genestealers is a automatic death sentence, which has that feel of dread and pack tactics that the board game also had.

    The game is hard, but the funny thing is that it feels artificially hard.  Like it was deliberately stacked against you, not that the circumstances themselves were difficult.  Each pair of Marines chooses one action to perform each round - from Support (help another Marine), Move + Activate (switch places or change facing and use a door or terminal if it is on the same row) or Attack (try to kill Genestealers).  In the board game each Marine could move and attack using Command points, and basically vary exactly what and how much they did from turn to turn.  In the card game, you cannot perform the same action twice in a row.  So if you attack this turn, you have to Move or Support next turn.  Why?  This feels like a totally artificial problem, it does not make any sense on its own.  Also, in the board game the Genestealers were represented by "blips,"  face-down markers that could be anywhere from 0 to 3 (I think, maybe even 5, not sure) individual Genestealers.  Basically, it was like the Aliens motion tracker, you were pretty sure something was over there, but not exactly how many.  This lack of knowledge was a big part of the suspense and downright fear of the game.  In the card game however, every blip card is exactly 1 Genestealer.  So there is no guessing, no fear involved.  To move on to the next room you have to clear one of two blip piles, and to win the game you have to clear the final room.  I lost 2 Marines in the first room, and then 2 more in the second room, and survived a turn or two in the third room - the fourth was the last.  So it was hard, like I remember the board game being, but it didn't really feel fair.  I felt like I was supposed to lose, like the rules wanted me to lose, not like they wanted to challenge me.

What I liked...
  • Has The WH40K Trappings - you have the Space Marines, one that carries a Heavy Flamer, another has the Autocannon, going room by room trying to survive the wave of Genestealers; so it has that Warhammer feel that is pretty cool.
  • Tactical Positioning From Simple Rules - getting that "board game grid" feel from having rows and facing is actually a pretty neat trick for just some simple rules, I would love to see that layout used in other card games to give them some depth.
  • Solo Play - it is neat to have a game that you can play without an adversary, or even without any other players.  I do like that sort of thing.

What I didn't like...
  • Doesn't Feel Hard, Feels Mean - hard is okay, when there is a good reason for why things are hard; this just felt mean.
  • No Good Example Of Play - the rulebook is not that long, and really the game is pretty simple, but there is not a great example of play to make the game and its steps clear and easy to understand.  Still, you get the hang of it pretty quick.
  • Not Sure What Good Having Friends Is - I played the game solo, and honestly I don't know what benefit it would have been to have friends with me.  So much of the game is random, and so hard to plan ahead, I would think adding more people would actually make it harder, not easier.  Still, I never did try it with multiple players, this is just an impression.

My recommendation - skip this one, or borrow a friend's deck to try it first.  May not be everyone's cup of tea.

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