Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Space Hulk: Death Angel - A Review

I've decided to try and post up some reviews of games and books I've picked up and found interesting or enjoyable.  I'm not a fanboy or advocate for any particular company, but as I generally don't enjoy writing negatively, I don't think many negative game reviews will appear here.  First up is Space Hulk: Death Angel, a standalone card game from Fantasy Flight Games.
This isn't the kind of game I would normally opt for, not having played many card games in my time.  However, three things persuaded me to pick this up; Firstly, I've been looking for a couple of smaller games to add to my collection and, after hearing some favourable comments, thought this might fit the bill.  Secondly, the fact Death Angel can be played solo and, finally, the fact I got a nice, big discount on the RRP.

Death Angel is essentially a slimmed down version of the board game, Space Hulk, minus the board and miniatures.  If you're unfamiliar with Space Hulk, then imagine the film Aliens, but set on a derelict space ship and with much more heavily armed, and armoured, marines - you won't got far wrong.  Set in the Warhammer 40K universe, Death Angel pits Space Marine Terminators from the Blood Angels Chapter against swarms of Genestealers.

The games starts with your marines arriving at the void lock (airlock) and seems them progress through various locations in the ship, on the way fighting through larger numbers of Genestealers, in an attempt to meet the victory condition at the final location.  During set up, players randomly choose their teams of marines and set up the mission by randomly picking hidden location cards for the squad to travel through.  Given the fact there are six marine teams and eighteen locations with four seperate victory conditions to (randomly) choose from, there is a fair amount of replayability.  Add in the fact that there are eight terrain cards and thirty event cards to choose from each turn, the chances of playing exactly the same game twice are fairly slim.
Here's Death Angel set up on turn 1 - beer optional
Once you've familiarised yourself with the rules, Death Angel itself plays out very smoothly indeed.  So smoothly, in fact, that it's initially quite difficult to see the tactical choices available to you. Instead, the game relies on you taking time to look at your available options, set up your marines to support each other and take risks by, for instance, forcing you to choose between defending yourself and progressing the mission.

The rules themselves are elegant and surprisingly complex given the simple way combat is handled.  The turn has four seperate phases that flow together quickly enough, so that each player isn't left doing nothing for too long.  Each team of two marines picks an action to perform that turn, they carry out that action, the genestealers attack and, lastly, an event card is drawn, spawning new or moving current genestealers and resolving a random event.

Tactical choices come into play in a couple of interesting ways.  For instance, players can't show each other the action cards they've chosen that turn, all cards are revealled at the same time (you can, however, discuss your situation and options.)  Actions are then carried out in a strict order, so that one team completes their actions before another starts theirs.  An example of this could be:

Marine 1:  I'll go and activate that control panel, if you support me by killing the genestealers behind me.
Marine 2:  No problem, go for it.
. . .
Marine 2:  Damn, I a haven't been able to kill them all.
Marine 1:  Ok, I'll still move up, but just defend myself, not activate the panel.
Marine 2:  Lets hope more Genestealers don't arrive then.

Add in the fact that each marine team can't choose the same action for two turns in a row, marines can't defend themselves when attacked from the rear, genestealers can move in their phase and that event cards can both help or hinder the marines, then you're presented with a game with a good level of tactical depth, variety in games and random decisions (for instance, combat is resolved with a die roll.)

It's obligatory for one of the players to say "They're coming out of the God Damn walls!!!" whilst playing this game

So, have I any criticisms of the game?  Well only a couple.  Firstly, I think it would have been helpful if the author/publisher had acknowledged that Death Angel needs a certain degree of abstraction on the behalf of the player.  The cards representing individual marines are arranged in a column called the Formation.  However, the Formation has nothing to do with any actual tactical formation you adopt, rather it's simply a device to organise the table.  However, in our first game, I had difficulty explaining this abstraction to the other players, especially when the game has other mechanics called "Movement" and "Travelling."  This may simply be down to the fact I've little experience with card games, but a quick paragraph setting the player's expectations would have been useful.

Secondly, the rules are presented in a peculiar way that, initially, really put me off playing the game.  You're initially shown how set the game up, but are constantly directed to the back of the rulebook during this step.  Then you're shown the turn sequence and again directed to other areas of the book.  This is really a complaint with the rulebook, not the rules themselves and, of course, once you've learned the rules, it ceases to be an issue.

Death Angel after turn 5 - a random event card just moved all the Genstealers behind the marines.
Two turns later, it's all over.

So there we are; Death Angel, a great little game, ideal for casual gaming over a few beers, for killing some time at the club waiting for other players to finish or even for getting your gaming fix without needing lots of miniatures, terrain and space etc.  At an RRP of £20 (and obviously available for less,) Death Angel is an enjoyable game, either solo or with some mates, with lots of replayability and a surprising amount of depth.

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