On the short list of games that don’t require another review, Space Hulk is near the top. But on occasion, you stumble into absurdity, and that happened during the May Getaway when my buddy Sam opened his box to find he had left all his Genestealers at home on his workbench for painting.
At first his reaction was “Oh, shit.” and a quick conclusion that we wouldn’t be able to play a game that he had very much wanted to get to the table; one that I hadn’t played since 2009. I was itching to get to it, too, so there was a pretty solid dose of disappointment in the air. He had set up the map. He had gotten the Marines out of their container. He didn’t realize that the Genestealers were missing until his heart was fully committed- at midnight on a Friday, 125 miles from home.
But Sam refused to be denied and he started working possible alternatives. Realizing that the Genestealers are all the same except for in a couple of the scenarios, he walked over to the kitchen island looking for a proxy, first reaching for the M&Ms and then getting an emotional lift – we had Goldfish.
This is Space Hulk 3rd Edition, published in 2009 to much fanfare. Space Hulk was one of the “holy grail” games of the modern boardgaming era that begged for a reprint and had a climbing price in the aftermarket. It was one of the legendaries and when Games Workshop republished it, they did it in style. Perhaps one of the best-looking games published in the last 25 years, copies were sent to stores around the world and buyers that entered with no intention of purchasing it changed their mind, just based on the look and feel of its pieces. Gamers had heard it was good but, damn, the look of it made the sale in spite of its astronomical price of $100. Space Hulk 3rd Edition was the first self-contained “board game” (i.e., not a collectible minis game like its sister title Warhammer 40k) to crack triple digits and it did so with elan. Self-identified “serious gamers” had to give Space Hulk a go and, in case I haven’t mentioned, the gameplay is so entertaining that it just may be better than the game’s stunning looks.
Our game group rarely plays two-player games, so Sam was hungry to do this. That’s what the May Getaway in Dewey Beach Delaware is for. For two weeks prior, we all make requests and verify that the games that don’t play well in an evening because they are too long, too grand, or too complicated are making the trip. I had told Sam that if Space Hulk hit the table, I was in. (I’ll note that Space Hulk is not particularly complicated and not particularly long. The “grand” part I’ll leave to each of you to decide.)
So when Sam came back to the table with the foil bag of Goldfish crackers, I couldn’t help but smile and laugh. I mentioned to him that I was doing a write-up for every game I played during the Getaway on ThereWillBe.Games and that, frankly, I couldn’t have come up with playing Space Hulk with Goldfish if I wrote up 1000 articles, let alone a dozen. It’s either too perfect or too ridiculous. I can’t figure out which. But there it was, forming up on the table in front of me. The tiles were set, the doors were in place, the Marines were lined up in the hallway and the blips were on the radar. The foil bag holding about 500 small orange Genestealers, smiling all, waited to one side for their debut.
And Space Hulk certainly comes out of the box with a nail-biter in scenario 1. Entitled “Suicide Mission”, five Space Marines file down a long hallway in an attempt to destroy a room with critical technical gear to prevent it falling into the wrong hands. None of the Marines have to survive. In fact, the scenario doesn’t even include retreating from the room in its description, declaring mission success when the room gets fried. Given how difficult it is to make it there, the thought that any of the Marines can make it back afterwards, effectively doubling the length of their trip, is beyond reason. The Marines have to travel through two or three places where the Genestealers can get in behind them and start tearing them apart from the rear. We played without the sand timer, since Sam and I were so rusty, and he put real focus into his maneuvering of the Space Marines. Their work is much harder than the Genestealers'; creatures modeled on the film Alien that more or less make a mad rush at anyone they can get to. If they reach you, your chance of survival is exceptionally low. Marines do well to shoot Genestealers from a distance and Sam worked all the options available to him to do that. Marines got eaten, but they also accomplished their mission. Credit where credit is due.
I’ve done this scenario before, twice in fact: as the Space Marines the first time and the Genestealers the second. Before sitting down with Sam, I could picture the map in my head in spite of my most recent prior play being in 2009. The game had had that level of an impression on me and not because it’s oh-so-pretty. You’re heads-down with Space Hulk, examining the passageways for where danger lurks. There’s a visceral nature to the play that comes through because the sides are well balanced and the layouts at an appropriate level of complexity. You can understand the map quickly during a pre-game review and the places that you know are going to be trouble make for lasting impressions. Space Marines are going to die. There’s nothing you can do about that. Keep pressing forward. The theme of Space Hulk isn’t a derelict ship. That’s just the setting. The theme is loss. If you take a moment, you can hear the choir singing melancholy hymns in the background as you play.
So when a game that is so plush and so thematic and so engaging is being played with crackers, you would have to think that some part of the effect would suffer. The damn things have little smiles on them, for God’s sake. But it didn’t and I’m trying to decide what the implications of that are. We’ve all replaced a piece with something when it’s gone missing, but this is (cue the choir) Space Hulk and it wasn’t just one piece. It was two dozen copies of one of the most important pieces. Space Hulk was pulling it off in spite of the cheesy replacements.
Prices have risen in the last ten years and goodness knows modern printings are far prettier than what came before. Space Hulk 3rd still holds its own but there’s solid competition now and some of it is going for $150 and even higher. The question I’m asking myself is, “What are we getting for this?” Yeah, I know if the gameplay is good, the rest is academic, and Space Hulk is plenty good. But you could make a prison copy for about $5 in materials, if you don’t mind edible character pieces, and in some ways that might be more amusing. Amusing is good, right? Given the choice, I’ll take the legit Genestealer pieces. But there’s a part of me that thinks that Space Hulk’s magnificent printing may be why Sam had emotional permission to replace the baddies with little, orange fish and why it actually enhanced the gameplay experience. Space Hulk is a game that is so confident in its $800 silk suit that seeing it slumming in a sweatshirt down at Dewey Beach can’t take away from that. THAT is a game that is comfortable in its own skin.
Space Hulk 3rd Edition has not been printed in years, though a 4th edition did in 2014 that is very similar. Alas, Space Hulk once again is hard to find. New copies generally sell for about $200 as I write this, but take care – as with other Games Workshop titles, Space Hulk is a project as well as a game, because the pieces come unpainted. You can play without painting them, but I mention this because it’s not unusual to see fully-painted copies sell in excess of $1000 on eBay and its competitors. That’s a lot of cash, but some of the stuff you’ll see out there is beyond what words can describe. Be sure to see what you’re getting into if you’re looking to pick up a copy in the used market.