Space Hulk: Death Angel

This review has been a long time coming. I’ve has this game for quite a while, and have played over a dozen sessions, both solo and with teammates. Death Angel was one of the first few games I picked up since getting back into board gaming. It was one of several by FFG which convinced me that this company not only had legs, it knew how to use them!

Death Angel is a card game for 1-6 players, themed after Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40k universe, and Space Hulk in particular. Space Marines (Earth’s – no, Terra’s – mightiest warriors, bred for battle and armed and armored to the teeth) board gigantic derelict ships – space hulks – teeming with xenos they must eliminate or send back to the depths of space before these ships reach Terra. For the Emperor!

The game is played with normal sized cards (thankfully!) of varying types: Combat Teams and their corresponding Tactics cards, Genestealers (and their big-bad equivalents, Brood Lords), Locations (that define the terrain layout, number of Genestealers in the area and sometimes have special effects), Terrains (which determine the likelihood of Genestealers spawning and occasionally have special effects) and Event cards (which usually have special effects, cause Genestealers to spawn and maneuver). There is one special six-sided die and 12 support tokens, which we’ll get into in a bit. It’s a coop game, so everyone works together and you all succeed as a team or die trying. Each player gets one or more 2-man squads (designated both by color and an icon, which is nice as some of the teams have very similar coloring) which he is responsible for. In a 1-player game you get three teams. No need to memorize this, however, as the Void Lock cards – special Location cards where you enter the ship – indicate how many players get how many marines.

The die

The die has the numbers 0 through 5 on it (instead of 1 through 6), half of which also have a skull icon. The die is rolled for both attack actions and in defense against Genestealer attacks, as well as other special circumstances as indicated on various cards.

Support tokens

These tokens are normally spent to improve odds, allowing a re-roll after a failed attack or defense – unless the poor marine was attacked from behind, in which case he’s out of luck. Other frequent uses are as counters on various cards – such as the Door terrain – to scale a given effect as needed. The Door, for instance, allows you to blow the hatch and kick several Genestealers out into space – as many as you have support tokens piled on the Door – before traveling on to a new Location.

Setup

Setting up involves finding the matching Void Lock for the number of players involved, randomly determining which additional locations the troops will be traveling to, and building the Formation, a single column of all the troops in random order, facing predetermined directions: the top half faces left, the bottom right. Facing is important in Death Angel. Terrain cards are set out on either side of the Formation according to the current Location, which to begin with is the Void Lock. Then the blip piles are created, small stacks of Genestealers that represent all the possible threats in the current Location for either side of the Formation. Lastly, an Event card is turned over to determine initially-spawned Genestealers, which are pulled from the blip piles and placed on corresponding Terrain cards.

Rounds

There are no individual turns as such. Instead players take actions simultaneously, planning their strategies together and resolving actions together. Each round consists of four phases:

  1. Choose actions
  2. Resolve actions
  3. Genestealers attack
  4. Event

Choosing actions

Each player must choose one Tactic card from those available for each of the teams he’s responsible for. There are 3 Tactics available to begin with, but every turn after the first you only have access to two of the three, as the previous round’s card is unavailable. For the given Tactic, both [surviving] members of the squad get to take action, and given they are in separate positions in the Formation and may be facing different directions, there is much strategy here.

The three Tactics (shared by all teams) are Support, Move & Activate, and Attack. Each of these has predetermined effects:

  • Support adds a support token to a marine, even those not in your squad.
  • Move & Activate allows a marine to [optionally] shift up or down in the Formation, [optionally] changing facing, and [optionally] activating a terrain card that has an Activate option, such as a Door.
  • Attack – who would have guessed – attacks a swarm of Genestealers. That is, a pile of bad guys on the same side of the Formation as the acting marine is facing. Rolling a skull results in one dead Genestealer, otherwise nothing happens.

Resolve actions

Each Tactic card has a numeric value indicating its priority, with lower numbers going first. If you have expansions adding new troops to the roster, some duplication in numbers is possible, so non-letter numbers go first. (For example, 4 goes before 4B)

Each card is resolved entirely before continuing to the next card. Usually the common effect occurs (the standard action as described above) and then any special effects occur. Sometimes a card will explicitly state that an alternate effect occurs in place of the standard effect, such as a special attack.

Support actions happen first, then Move & Activate, then Attack. Be sure to plan accordingly.

Genestealers attack

After all teams have acted for the current round, any surviving Genestealer swarms attack the marines they are positioned next to, from left to right and top to bottom. The defending marine needs to roll higher than the number of Genestealers that are attacking him, so a swarm of five or more is literally impossible to defend against by normal means. If the marine fails this roll, he dies. Yes, it’s quite a vicious game, which is why teamwork and careful choice of tactics is necessary. If the marine was attacked from in front (meaning he is facing his attacker) he may spend a support token to re-roll.

Dead marines

Any time a marine dies, the Formation collapses, with the smaller half sliding up into the larger half. Through this transformation it is possible for multiple swarms to combine, as well as multiple Terrains to stack up in the same position.

Event

After Genestealers attack, the top card from the Event deck is drawn. First the special effect occurs. If it includes the keyword “Instinct”, the player must make a decision without the rest of the group seeing the card first, which can lead to mistakes in strategy if the table has sub-optimal communication/awareness/familiarity with the game.

After any special effect, the acting player (this role rotates around the table and serves little additional purpose) must spawn new Genestealers at positions corresponding to the colors on the Event card: green is least likely to spawn, red most so.

After spawning new xenos, the acting player may have to move some of the Genestealers around based on icons on the Event card and the Genestealer cards themselves. Once this is completed, the next round begins.

Traveling

If, at the end of any phase, either of the blip piles is empty, the marines travel to the next Location. (Unless they’re already at the final Location) this involves emptying the remaining blip pile if there is one, flipping over the new Location, changing out the Terrain cards to match the icons indicated on the new Location, and performing any On Enter effects for the new Location, if any. The next phase begins as normal.

Winning

Win conditions vary based on the final Location. Sometimes sending the ship back into deep space is enough, other times you must battle the Brood Lords, which are harder to defend against and move twice as often as other Genestealers. They can only be killed after all other Genestealers in their swarm are dead.

Losing

The game is over if all marines die. This will happen more often than not. Get used to it. Embrace it. Let it drive you into a Dark Side rage that makes you want nothing more than to kill every last Genestealer. Next game!

Wrap up

If you’re not ok with TPK and individual player elimination, this one may not be for you. If, however, your group likes a challenge, likes to argue about the merits of one tactical choice versus another, it might be right up your alley. It can be tense, fast-paced and cathartic with the right bunch of people. It can also take forever and a day with those less inclined. It must be noted, though, that it plays most excellently as a solo game. It’s probably still my favorite, though Elder Sign is next on the list. I also really want to try some of the solo games from Victory Point Games, I enjoy their silly random two-player dungeon delver Loot and Scoot a good bit, even if it is a bit simple.

This game would be amazing for mobile devices, particularly with online coop. For now it’s just a dream.

5 out of 5

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