It's rare for a game to scale well enough that you can enjoy it solitaire as much as with five friends. It's also rare when a game's mechanics perfectly reinforce its story. Space Hulk: Death Angel does both.
Image via VP Corbella.
Let me just get this out of the way at the start of the review - I love this game. It's great, fun, well-designed, has excellent production values, is highly replayable, and so on. I don't even have any minor quibbles or criticisms. It's one of the best games I've ever played. Bravo, Fantasy Flight Games.
The story of Death Angel is the classic Space Hulk plot. Your group of space marines has boarded a derelict ship to salvage it, only to find that it's been overrun by genestealers: slavering, deadly aliens that seem to multiply at a positively Leporidaesian rate. You have to cooperate to survive wave after wave of their attacks long enough to get to the main control room and retake the ship.
The base game is intended for four players, each controlling a team of two space marines. All the marines line up single file as they trudge down the dark corridors of the ship. Initial placement is random. Your line of marines doesn't actually move throughout - they'll shift positions within the line, but their movement through the ship is shown by changing the scenery around them. At various positions in the line, there will appear terrain types. Some of them don't have any inherent effect other than determining how often genestealers appear there. Others provide goals for the marines at that location, like doors and control panels.
The scalability of the game is created by the initial location, the Void Lock. There are different Void Lock cards for different numbers of player, from one to six. If you're playing with some number of players other than four, you'll control more than one team of marines. The Void Lock card determines both the number and types of locations you'll have to move through to win the game, as well as the number of genestealers that spawn at the end of each turn. By dialing the difficulty up or down, the Void Lock cards ensure a balanced game for any number of players.
And by balanced, I mean, "Pretty damn hard." I've played solitaire half a dozen times and only won the game once, and then only because I hand-picked my marines instead of choosing at random. We played a few three-player games, and won our first time out, then got utterly slaughtered the second time.
One of the mechanics that does make the game more fun with a group of players is the actions available to the space marines. There are three basic actions: attack, support, and move + activate. Attack is self-evident, support lets you place a support token on any marine, which can be used for reroll attacks, and move + activate lets a marine shift one position up or down the line, then perform an action at a terrain card, if one is available. However, each team has its own special abilities that come into play when an action is used. For example, the green team can spend a support token to make a free attack after a move action. Yellow team can move anywhere along the line, instead just shifting one space, and Brother Claudio can make a risky attack that automatically destroys a bunch of genestealers, but has a chance of killing him.
The combat mechanic is simple. When you attack, you roll the special D6 that has numbers from 0-5, with a skull on half the faces. Roll a skull and you kill a single alien. When the genestealers attack, you have to roll higher than the number of genestealers in the swarm attacking you, so obviously the more there are the harder it gets to survive. If you fail, that marine dies. Facing is important, since you can't usually attack genestealers behind you, and if you're attacked from behind, you can't use support tokens to reroll. The movement of the genestealers tends to clump them into ever growing swarms, so if you don't take them out quickly they can chew through your forces.
Each turn is also modified by an event card. There are a few beneficial events, including one that brings a dead marine back to life, but most of them are not so friendly. There's one that forces all your marines to change facing, which is brutal if you've just spent a turn getting everyone into position for a big attack. Suddenly the genestealers are all behind you! The event cards also control new genestealer spawns and genestealer movement through an ingenious system of icons.
You do have to be a bit careful if you're playing a game with friends, since space marine death comes quickly and easily at times. If both your marines are killed early in the game, you'll be sitting out for a while. Fortunately, once you've learned the rules you can play through a game in less than an hour (or much faster if the genestealers wipe you out quickly).
I have a strong feeling we'll be seeing some expansions for this game (it's not collectible, you get the whole game in one box). There's certainly space for more locations, which would increase replayability, as well as new event cards and new teams of marines. Frankly, I can't wait.
This post originally appeared on Robot Viking.