The original Space Hulk is about cramped corridors, fast genestealers and the feeling of not quite knowing what comes next even though you can actually see the map, the blips and the smirk on your opponents face. Death Angel – the Space Hulk card game - captures this feeling perfectly. Except for the smirk, of course, though I’d swear I sometimes hear a cackling laughter emitting from the cards when things go haywire.
First of all a small disclaimer: I have only played this game solo which is why I’ve called this article “A Solo Game Review”. I have tried the two-player setup a couple of times and it seemed to work, but I really don’t know how it scales. But I’ve played numerous solo games and if I wasn’t typing up this review I’d be busy playing some more.
Death Angel is a card game. You have cards that represent terrain (doors, activation panels, corridors etc.), cards that represent your marines, and cards that are genestealers. So there’s no board, but instead the cards placement in relation to other cards generate the playing field. Oh, and there’s also a really cool custom die meaning that even your best laid plans can be buttfucked by a streak of bad luck. Which is absolutely wonderful in my book.
In the solo game you lead three teams of two Space Marines each through four major locations in a derelict space hulk. The marines are all placed in a column (called the formation) facing either right or left, and as you progress genestealers will attack you from both sides. This last part is extremely important and, I think, one of the really cool parts of the game which I’ll get more into later. One of these locations will always be the void lock where you enter the hulk, and the last one will be the objective – a genestealer lair with brood lords for instance.
Now, when there’s no board, how do you actually travel to a new location, I hear you ask.
Basically each location has its own setup of terrain cards that are placed next to marine cards on either their right or left side. So the top of the formation can hold, for instance, a door, while the bottom has a dark corner. And since each of these locations can spawn new enemies, you really get the feeling that your marines are spread out trying to cover a large area crawling with aliens … er, I mean: genestealers. The spawns come from two blip piles that lie on either the right or the left side of the formation. And when one of the piles is empty (meaning that you’ve either killed lots of them or that you’re swarmed with enemies) you move on to the next location.
So far it sounds pretty damn abstract, but since everything is relative to another thing it really isn’t. This is my marine, he’s next to a ventilation duct that might spawn tons of stealers, and right behind him is another swarm of ‘em ready to tear him apart. Yes, behind him. As I said each marine can face either left or right, and since both sides can hold both terrain and/or stealers, and since you can only attack and activate beneficial terrain (such as the door) in the direction you’re facing, this is a crucial part of the game. And also, I think, a very cool way of condensing line of sight and turning from the original game that really can be boiled down to: sometimes the stealers come from behind, and then you’re basically fucked.
Okay now, here’s what happens on an average turn:
First you pick orders for each of your marine teams which are then executed in a set order. You can either place a support token (which allows rerolls on either attack or defence), you can move within the formation (switching places with an adjacent marine) or you can attack the abominations. After this any surviving genestealers will attack, and finally you’ll draw an event card that also spawns new genestealers at the terrain cards and/or move them. Mostly they’ll just move up or down in the formation, but sometimes they’ll flank and move behind your marines. This is bad. So you might have a general idea as to where your opponents will show up and/or move to, but you can’t know for certain. In other words you have to place your marines so that they’ll be able to cover each other – just as in the original game.
See, that’s not so complicated. So while some parts of the game are really hard to wrap your head around (travelling to a new location, having a “formation” rather than a board etc.), what you actually do is quite simple. But then again it really isn’t, and this is where I get the feeling that I’m not giving this game the review it really deserves. Yes you can only attack, support, and move, but there’s much more to it than that. First of all you cannot pick the same card twice in a row. So you can have cleaned away a huge army of genestealers by a combined attack from all your marines, only to see new swarms appear almost as if they were waiting for you to reload. This might sound gamey, but to me it really captures how even though your marines have superior firepower and bad ass armour, the enemy are faster and meaner, so you have to position them, cooperate, and so on in order to stand a chance.
And there’s more. All of the teams are different which primarily shows on the order cards. For instance the guy with the flamer makes a potent attack, while the guy with the power sword can slay stealers when defending. And this is really the single most cool part of the game. Because, the way the different teams synergize means you literally have to rethink your strategy every time you play. All the marines also have names and a small piece of flavour text making them more than just pawns. And while the game most certainly needs more terrain cards and some new locations, I could play for a very long time with just the six teams of space marines. Also, did I mention you get to roll a die and scream in frustration a single stealer kills your psyker while your “potent” flamer fails to inflict as much as a scratch?
Death Angel is an extremely cool game. It’s tense as hell, it’s loaded with theme and story, and – which is very important for a solo game – it’s quick to set up and plays fast – I can usually play two games in an hour including setup. It’s also gorgeous to look at with nice illustrations of menacing marines and gluttonous genestealers (yes, I needed the alliteration) that stares hungrily at you from the cards.
I don’t know if the game scales well, and I don’t know if it’ll be prone to the boss player syndrome that can affect a lot of coop games. But honestly I don’t give a shit either. Death Angel is a great buy even if you only ever player it solo, and everything beyond that is just added bonus.