Guilty Gaming Pleasures: Space Hulk Death Angel

death angel

“So I do a bit of ameritrash. It’s OK. I can handle it”…

It’s Richard Ham’s fault. He makes a series of boardgame videos, which I enjoy watching. To be honest, they’re a bit longer than I’d prefer, and the iPhone-shakycam makes me feel a bit nauseous sometimes … BUT … he seems to have a pretty close taste in games to my own taste in games, so they’re usually worth at least a quick skim. Especially when he covers something that has completely bypassed my own games radar.

And then, one day… he goes and pulls out Space Hulk: Death Angel, a dyed-in-the-wool, unapologetically dice-driven ameritrash title, and says massively complimentary things about it.

Eh???!! That can’t be right…

…Then I notice that he’s scored it as 12th Highest on his Board Game Geek ratings. The guy has 373 games listed at the time of writing… and Death Angel is number TWELVE. It’s _right_ up there, alongside all my own favourite eurogames… Agricola, Troyes, Hawaii, Pandemic, Castles of Burgundy, Death Angel….


So.. yeah, It’s fair to say my interest was piqued 🙂

OK… it maybe wasn’t too hard a job to raise my interest. Like most male british gamers of a certain age, this isn’t my first brush with the Warhammer 40K universe. Back in my mid-teens — when White Dwarf magazine was the centre of my gaming universe — I remember some long months of anticipation waiting for the first release of the WH40K tabletop miniature game, “Rogue Trader”. It seemed to be a game in perpetual delay… of course, we didn’t have the internet back then; information on games releases wasn’t nearly as easy to obtain — so we’d trot down to the FLGS every Saturday, saved-up pocket money in hand, hoping to slap down a handful of notes on the new rulebook… only to be disappointed week after week. By the time it finally arrived, it would be fair to say we were pretty ravenous for it … and a lot of 40k was played in our group over the next couple of years.

I collected Space Marines … my brother had an Ork army. My friend Keith, who lived down the road, collected Eldar figures. They both invariably kicked my butt at the game — though I like to think that that’s because the first edition rules were woefully unbalanced, rather than because I just sucked at it 😉

Of course, the time comes to set aside childish things, and we all grew up, disappeared to disparate universities (which might as well have been disparate universes, given the rarity with which we saw each other thereafter) and stopped playing stuff like that. I did, however, pick up a few 40k-related computer games over the years, including this one:

space crusade

Gremlin Graphic’s “Space Crusade” …and no, your eyes are not deceiving you… this is one of the very few games that I enjoyed so much that I actually bought it twice (once on the Atari ST, and later in its PC incarnation) …and which I still have stored in my big-cupboard-of-things-from-my-past-which-I-cant-bear-to-throw-away. Space Crusade is a simple turn-based wargame — somewhat in the Laser Squad/X-Com vein — which involves shuffling a squadron of space marines around an abandoned spaceship, zapping aliens, and trying to achieve some arbitrary mission objective. I loved it to bits… and spent many happy hours commanding my troop of marines around, purging the Xeno menace.

Well, here’s the thing: Space Crusade (the computer game) was based on the mass-market Games Workshop/MB board game of the same name …which was, in turn, a simplified variant of the 1989 Games Workshop title “Space Hulk”… which is also… the very game game that “Space Hulk: Death Angel” is a direct descendant of!

So, yeah. This was worth finding out more about 🙂

But… there was that one big hurdle: Death Angel is an ameritrash game. My tastes have moved on in recent years… Did I *really* want to drop 18 quid on a game that was — fundamentally — all about lucky dice rolls and pulling the right card out of the deck at the right time? Maybe I was looking back on all this stuff with rose-tinted glasses?

Fortunately, while doing my usual pre-game-purchasing research, I discovered that there’s an unsanctioned Vassal implementation of the game in circulation … and I *cough* accidentally *cough* managed to get a copy of that version onto my computer. Vassal is a bit of a clunky way to play games at the best of times — but I still had a lot of fun with my “trial” solo game, and I was pretty much sold on it within a couple of rounds. The order for a real-world, cardboard version went off that same afternoon!

Well, I’ll cut to the chase… for an ameritrash game, I’m really impressed. Death Angel does a shockingly good job of re-creating the vibe I used to get from the Space Crusade computer game. The game is a co-op, which allows from 1 to 6 players … but most people seem to think the solo variant is the best of the bunch.

The game is described as a “card game” … but it’s really one of those games where 99% of the game components just happen to be printed on cards, rather than one that involves typical card-game mechanisms. In brief: there’s a formation of space marines lined up in the middle of the table — each player controls a certain number of marines, and each different colour of marine has its own special abilities and talents. The game’s storyline involves proceeding through a random sequence of rooms on an abandoned space hulk. As you enter each room, you draw a card that contains instructions to place various items (buttons to press, bad guy spawning points, stuff like that) at certain points alongside the formation, and which provides you with any special rules that are in action for that particular room … then away you go, blasting away at bad guys, changing the formation around to get the guys with the special abilities into the spots where they can be best-used, carrying out character-specific support actions, and generally hoping you make it alive to face the next room. If you make it to the last room (card number 4 in the solo game), there’ll be a specific mission objective that you need to carry out to win the game.

Yep, there’s a lot of randomness involved… so the game is really about mitigating your odds and making decisions along the lines of “Hmm, Brother Zael is the guy with the really cool flamer weapon… but there’s a lot of bad guys near him; if I shuffle him one space up the formation and use Brother Deino as cannon fodder, he might be alive to use it next round…” or “If I push the teleporter button, all the badguys get zapped into deep space… but there’s a 1-in-6 chance that some of my marines will get zapped too… do I risk it?”. The game is brutal, and you DO get stung by bad luck a lot (my track record is 1 win in 6 games played) … but there’s a really pleasing “puzzle” aspect to figuring out the best orders to issue in a given situation — and even when the dice screw you over, you at least get a nice narrative explanation for your team’s demise (I’ve got quite attached to some of the characters over a few games!).

So, yeah… it’s way out of my usual gaming territory, but I like this one; I think I’ll be playing the solo version a lot… your milage might vary, and it might depend on whether or not you’re already invested in the WH40K mythos… but I think it’s a fun game, and it plays fairly briskly. I might even get it to the table when there’s other people around one day 🙂

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