In my four-odd years of gaming, I don’t think any event in the hobby was quite as big as the 2009 reprint of Space Hulk. It was out of print for some 15 years, and used copies were fetching a pretty penny on eBay. And what a reprint it was. The minis and tiles were some of the best ever produced. For perhaps the only time ever, a game totally looked like it was worth $100.
And just like that, the game was gone. Speculators bought up tons of copies to resell them on eBay, and soon $100 looked like a bargain compared to what some people were asking. Those who didn’t make the impulse buy were left to the vultures. Fantasy Flight clearly saw an opportunity here. Having previously done some very well-received work in the Warhammer and 40K universes (with Warhammer: Invasion and Chaos in the Old World), they put the gifted Corey Konieczka to an interesting task. Turn the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere of Space Hulk into a game that might fill the gap left by the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reprint. In a rare show of restraint, FFG chose to make a small card game, and they chose to make it cooperative. Death Angel: Space Hulk – The Card Game was the result.
That they actually were quite successful is no mean feat. Death Angel is very good indeed, and I’d venture to say that it’s one of the best purely cooperative games on the market. The setting for the game is identical to that of its big brother. The players take the role of Space Marines charged with clearing out a derelict spacecraft (the titular space hulk). Standing in their way are the vicious Genestealers, who come crawling out of the walls to attack the players. Instead of miniatures and tiles, however, this is represented in a vertical row of cards. Other items along this line are represented by cards on either side, as are the swarms of Genestealers. The Marines move from floor to floor, slaying attacking swarms and accomplishing other objectives. If you clear all the floors, the Marines win.
The most amazing thing about Death Angel is that the game takes this setting, recreates it very faithfully, and does so in an entirely different way from its predecessor. The formation of Space Marines is definitely abstracted, but it does an amazing job of bringing that sense of claustrophobia. There’s a definite pressure to line up just perfectly, and that’s not completely easy. Another sharp abstraction is the action system. Each player is given three actions, and picks one each turn. That action cannot be selected in the next round, so each player essentially gets a binary decision each time. Each player has a unique squadron consisting of two marines, so they can contribute special powers to the attack. The action selection is very straightforward, but it’s also agonizing. It’s not particularly thematic, but it’s excellent from a design perspective.
The soul of the action is a single six-sided die, which is used for attacking, defending, and several event cards. Trust me when I say that this die is merciless. Like the original game, it only takes one hit to finish someone. If you lose that defending roll, your marine is gone for good. And there are times when you need to successfully hit a Genestealer, and the die is deaf to your pleas. There are ways to get support tokens, which allow for rerolls, but they don’t tone down the harshness of the die rolls much. This may sound a little brutal, but it’s actually a very good thing. Even when groups get good at coordinating between each other, there’s a good chance the die will screw them anyway. It really keeps you on your toes. Every roll feels important, because they almost always are.
In another stroke of brilliance, FFG included a very well-done solo variant. Essentially, the player takes charge of three different squadrons, and runs the game the same otherwise. I am normally not the type to solo much, although fatherhood has forced it upon me. Normally I find solitaire variants to have too much in the way of housekeeping, and not enough in the way of fun. But this one is light enough that you can set it up and run it without too much effort. I’ve played way more solo than with others, probably over 20 games. It makes this game a total no-brainer for people who worry about finding other players. I’d say that it’s a little easier than it is with others, just because it’s easier to coordinate actions without other people to argue with.
If there is any complaint, it’s that Death Angel suffers from the common problem of cooperative games: familiarity. You figure the game out, and it doesn’t really surprise anymore. Death Angel does better than most, because the die keeps things tense. But it really could use some more variety. When there are 3 or 6 players, all marines are used, and that makes things a little more predictable. Fortunately, FFG has produced two small print-on-demand expansions, one with extra locations and another with extra Space Marines. These are terrific, and if you plan on buying Death Angel, you can just pick these up with it. They give just enough variety to make the game stick around. Each expansion also has a little “1” attached to it, so I hope we can see some more like them.
Is Death Angel better than the original? Not many games are, so I wouldn’t say this one is. It isn’t quite as direct or visceral. And of course, you can never underestimate the physical aspect, which is as much a part of Space Hulk as anything else. But Death Angel looks really good too, and if you want to play Space Hulk with any more or less than two people, this is definitely the way to go. It’s a lean $25, which is one quarter the price for three quarters the awesome. That’s a very good ratio, and this one is still available in stores. It’s a great balance between terrific theme and solid mechanics, and it will appeal to Ameritrashers and cube-pushers alike.