The folks over at Fantasy Flight Games must have a pretty good internal communication system: I mention to one of their staff an offhand comment that with a demanding six-month old in the household I don't have time to play anything that isn't short or soloable and a couple of weeks later, without asking, an unheralded review copy of Space Hulk: Death Angel – The Card Game turns up unexpectedly in the post. It wasn't something that had particularly been on my radar, but as it turns out, it fits the bill for the type of game I have the opportunity to play at the moment perfectly. So having had no trouble fitting in the requisite plays to review the game, here's what I thought.
Death Angel is a fast playing co-operative card game based on the Space Hulk license. And being based on such a phenomenally successful predecessor you might have thought would invalidate the need for any follow-up games. But Death Angel does things rather differently from its parent game: aside from being co-op. it's also soloable, supports up to five players instead of two, fits in your pocket and, significantly, won't leave you unable to feed your family for a month if you buy it.
So the first question on my lips when I got it out of the box was undoubtedly how well it re-creates the experience of playing the original game. It might not have the ludicrously overproduced tiles and miniatures of Space Hulk but there's no denying that Death Angel is a very fine looking game indeed. The cards are all well-produced linen-finished jobs, each one dripping with high quality graphic design and artwork. Indeed this is easily the best-looking card game I've seen since Citadels and, given the incredibly detailed artwork of the latter, that's high praise indeed: the two games are the only card-based games I know that are capable of accruing an audience just to admire the game in play.
I was also immediately impressed and surprised that the game manages to capture the basic essence of Space Hulk play whilst retaining it's own distinctive character - again, an impressive achievement for a translation of a board-based game to a card-based one. Each player commands one or more "combat teams" of two marines each: one grunt and one specialist (such as a flamer or librarian). These are laid out in a column called the formation and the marines move through a number of randomly-chosen location cards on their way to an unknown mission objective. Each location instructs the players to lay out certain terrain cards - like doors and ventilation grills - at certain positions along the formation. Some of these have a higher chance of spawning swarms of genestealers to attack the marines than others. So essentially gameplay is about covering the most dangerous bits of terrain with your big guns whilst making use of the remainder of your squad to clear out the genestealers and advance to the next location: much the like essence of its board-game counterpart. Even better, the card game manages to convey much of the tension and claustrophobia and with it the legendary atmosphere of the parent title.
What's less impressive is the often large gulf between mechanics and the theme, which jars badly in a game as reliant on narrative as this one is. You order your marines about using one of three types of action card (attack, support or move) and in addition to the basic action, each card also has a special ability tied-in to the equipment of the marines in the combat team. So, for example, the combat-team containing the autocannon marine has an appropriately fearsome attack action card that allows it to attack three times instead of just once. Much of the strategic choice on offer in the game comes from the implementation of a rule that states a combat team cannot carry out the same action on consecutive turns. So once our autocannon marine has laid down his curtain of lead, on the following turns he either has to move or support his fellow marines. Simply put this makes absolutely no sense at all: why on earth can't these marines armed with fully automatic high-tech weaponry not lay down a continuous base of fire? Why do all the marines have to stop and take a breather after they move? It's screamingly obvious this mechanic only exists to make the game interesting to play as without it, winning would be a cakewalk.
The action system also produces some other odd thematic anomalies. Whilst some of the special abilities only function for one marine out of the pair (if your autocannon marine dies, his buddy in the combat team can no longer use that special ability when attacking), most don't. This is clearly there for balance reasons as the basic grunt marines would be largely useless otherwise. But it leads to further nonsensical situations such as the marine paired with the librarian miraculously being able to play cards simulating psychic abilities whether the librarian is dead or not. Atmospheric the game may be, but I found these mismatches tended to be jarring enough to spoil my sense of immersion.
However it has to be said that anti-thematic as many of the mechanics are, they do do a good job of offering the players a series of tough choices to battle through on their way to the objective. Indeed far from being a cakewalk the game is actually very tough, even when you've got the basic tactics down. I actually think it walks a nice line in difficulty: you don't want co-op games being too difficult (and offputting) or too easy and with a 25-33% estimated win rate, I reckon Death Angel is right on the money in this regard. Because you can't just go ahead and do what you want each turn, making sure you choose the right actions when genestealers are swarming out of every door and access vent is a tough ask. Each marine in the formation has a left-or-right facing and that's key to controlling the situation. A marine can only attack genestealers that he's facing, and he can only burn support counters (gained from the "support" action - d'oh) to force rerolls from genestealer attacks if he's facing the swarm that's attacking him. So it's always a question of making use of the available actions to kill as many genestealers as possible, and where you can't trying to make sure that marines under attack are going to be facing the enemy and are well stocked with support counters. You can rarely cover all the bases though, and then it's nail-biting time as you have to roll the dice to resolve combat. Most marines have a 50% chance of killing a genestealer per attack, and genestealers have to roll equal or less than the number of 'stealers in the swarm to kill a marine on a custom dice that runs 0-5.
The co-operative nature of decision making in the game is handled exceptionally well with some innovative mechanics used to make up for the lack for variety that's almost inevitable in a small-box card game like this one. Each player has their own marines to control with their own hand of action cards and the rules specify that although players can discuss these cards, they can't show them to other players, ensuring potential for independent decision-making. This is re-enforced during the event phase that caps off each turn: an event card is turned over, which causes genestealers to spawn and move around the formation, but also has a specific effect to implement. A lot of these cards are marked as "instinct" which means the player drawing the card has to choose how to implement the event without discussing it with his fellow players. As such the game does an excellent job of minimizing the "alpha dog" bossy player syndrome that so bedevils (and in my opinion totally ruins) the majority of co-operative games. The one area the lack of variety does bite is in the location cards: there's only a choice of three different ones at each location, and repetition sets in very quickly.
However, after a couple of games I really started to feel that the level of decision making in the game was little more than a thin veneer over what was essentially an extremely random and chaotic system. When genestealers spawn, for example, you tend to get at least a pair popping up at once, if not more. A pair of genestealers has a 50% chance of killing a marine: support counter re-rolls reduce this but they're in limited supply. The upshot is that marines often die, quickly, through no particular fault of the player and as soon as marines start to die you're on a downward spiral as you have less actions to perform whilst the same number of 'stealers are still coming into the game. This creates pressure, and it can be very exciting, but more often than not I just found it frustrating. The game throws further curveballs at you by enabling genestealers to sometimes swap sides when they move, leaving your marine needing to effectively waste his action simply turn to face the enemy in order to benefit from those vital support counters.
It occurred to me that I could be being overly harsh here, or perhaps just being very dense and not seeing a myriad of ways in which clever tactics could minimize the risks. Then I had a look through the event deck and saw how many cards there were in there which could royally screw up your game without any recourse for being able to plan for them occurring, such as the one (and there are several copies in the deck) which makes all your marines face in opposite directions from their current facing, which you'd presumably set up to cover all the danger points in the terrain. Drawing a card like that in such a tough game environment is pretty much game over unless you're very lucky. There are other examples, like terrain effects that give you a 50/50 chance of instant death versus a few valuable stealer kills. Balancing luck and skill in co-op games is, much like the difficulty balance, another tough ask and here I think Death Angel gets it badly wrong. As soon as the perception that the game was basically a dicefest set in, I started to loose interest. And whilst the game is atmospheric, there is in no way enough theme, variety of narrative packed in here to compensate for a lack of interesting choices.
Ultimately though, Death Angel redeems itself somewhat simply because it's light, quick and cheap. It occupies a niche in the gaming market that's currently very sparsely populated: Ameritrash-style filler games. As a result, in spite of the fact that the game lacks that certain addictive quality that marks out the best games, I'm pleased to own a copy of this that I can break out to cram in a half hour game when we might be waiting for others to turn up, or when it's late at night but we're not quite ready to go to bed yet. If you sometimes find yourself yearning for some serious death and destruction that you can play to conclusion in 30 minutes or less, you might find that Death Angel deserves a place in your collection too.