Friday, December 9, 2016

We've Got Movement - Space Hulk Review

When Games Workshop mentions cinematic, what they're talking about is some dumb randomizer or making up rules on the spot for a handicap, or taking as many fully painted models as possible, or conforming to some silly requirement, or being able to take an army of whatever hodgepodge you want to because it sells better, or ignoring the fact that even rough point values make better balancing mechanics than nothing.

What I think of when Games Workshop mentions cinematic is Space Hulk.

With the reprint here, I felt it was finally time to get some thoughts down on Space Hulk. Despite its typically overwrought Warhammer 40,000 stylings, I consider this game basically as close as one can get to a minimalist masterpiece while still being a wargame.

In Space...
I think this is the first time I've ever started a review with its atmosphere.

Other than a kinda' cartoony box cover (not as bad as recent years), the game is near-perfect in this regard. It stays true to its bleak, cold, poorly lit, digital green displayed, claustrophobic, against-all-odds, ALIENS knockoff origins, with just enough gothic and 40k background to remind you where you are. The art, mechanics, tiles, illustrations, and flavor text are wonderfully cohesive. There are a few recycled bits of illustration, but mostly new material, and what I consider just the right amount of background- enough to feel immersive, without so much that it feels like a novel or brochure for buying more from the broader game setting.

I don't really like some of the photograph-based diagrams, but don't particularly begrudge them not illustrating those, and it's not like they were trying to make it wholly cohesive, so this is more of a stylistic thing than a failing. I also don't really like the aliens' color scheme or bulbous heads, but the former is easy to adjust and not an issue when unpainted.

Uh, couldn't think of a great title for materials...

This will be the second reprint of the game originally released in 2009 (which itself was the 3rd edition of the original Space Hulk). By this, I mean that it may be considered a reprint of the 4th edition or may be the 5th edition, but I consider the 4th to be much closer to a version 3.1 or 3.5, since the update consists of 1/3 more scenarios and only one (minor) global rules change. Either way, Games Workshop confirmed it's the same content as their prior edition.

The miniatures have held up extremely well in the last near-decade. They're snap-fit and as long as you have some decent clippers and a reasonably steady hand, you should be fine assembling them, most models are in the 1-3 part range. There are a few areas where there could have been better undercuts, but I think that they were mostly worthy sacrifices for simplicity of design.

The Terminators (posthuman supersoldiers) have a bunch of individual character and details, and there are 13 unique sculpts (2 squads, 1 commander, 1 specialist, 1 corpse). They're on weird little geometric bases, and while I certainly would have preferred textured inserts compatible with their main line, I do respect them making them different as a commitment to making a unique game rather than a 40k model pack that happens to come with rules, like many of their others games.

The Genestealers (not-Xenomorphs) aren't quite as good. I don't mind that most of the poses are repeated, but do find some of the mirror details to be a bit lazy, where, for instance, the big boss is standing on a symmetrical pile of skulls.

The minis come in color-coded plastic (darkish red, and very dark blue-purple), and it's HIPS (crisp plastic that takes paint well, either identical or very similar to GW's standard mix) as opposed to (soft and preassembled) PVC for most board games. There are a couple weak points where models might snap, but I've been pretty careful with my minis and only had one damaged over the course of quite a bit of play.

The tiles are just great, with embossed detail that makes them stand out despite dark printing and a glossy finish. The material is very heavy and as long as you don't tear them punching them out, I expect these will last you a very long time. I use mine in SF dungeon crawl-style RPGs where possible, and even have a spare set of tiles for giant sprawls, though I don't think I've needed them. What's particularly remarkable is, every tile and door (and door side) is a unique image. They reuse elements, but it really was above and beyond your typical effort, and shows on the board since even pretty generic rooms don't repeat.

The rule book, unlike their recent disappointing ones like Silver Tower, is a very heavy stock in both 3rd and 4th editions (slightly heavier cover stock in 4th, I believe). Fingers crossed for potential players that the new edition doesn't skimp here. It's also worth noting that there are two halves, the rule book, and the scenario book. Typically, this means you have the scenario spread open, and the rule book fully ready to thumb through if necessary (though, as stated below, it probably isn't).

The tokens are from the same stock as the board, and equally very satisfying (without embossing). The d6's are pleasantly weighty, and a caramel-cream swirl that kinda' makes me want to eat them. The game contains everything you need to track every option it has. (Note: the game doesn't come with any horrible, cheap GW cards so there's nothing to sleeve.)

They're Pretty, But Can They Fight?
This is where that phrase "minimalist masterpiece" comes in. The game has two asymmetrical turns in a round, each composed of two phases. The game has 10 distinct unit types in its core, and this accounts for over 20 (depending on how you're differentiating, you could call it over 30) generic actions divided among a variable action point system, including moving, terrain interaction, attacking with different weapon types in different ranges. Sound kinda' complicated, except...

... it's all catalogued on a cheat sheet on the back of the manual, in maybe 12 pt font, with room for 1.5 spacing, some pretty formatting, a picture of a model, and big headers. And it's completely intuitive after maybe the first game.

Given a reasonable variety of models, the game just does a remarkable job resolving things succinctly. I believe the only rules not listed are destroying doors, which is an odd single oversight, but it doesn't really bother me.

After the first (which begins with 4*), each scenario adds at most 2 model types, so you typically have a lot of time to get used to mechanics.

*2nd scenario in 4th edition, I'll get to this later

Marines have 4 action points, and Genestealers have 6, and these are spent to take any combination of actions (moving, shooting, melee, etc.). There are 5 dice packed in the game, because this is the maximum any interaction will ever require. Ranged attacks are a dice roll vs. a target number. Typical melee attacks are a dice pool vs. a dice pool, highest single wins and ties are draws. The most complex a roll ever gets is if one of the Marine leaders (melee specialists among the posthuman side) modifies a roll and/or forces a re-roll.

Marines also have a few other things to do with their action points- each round, they get a random number of additional points they can spend between their side (including a couple reaction moves), and can guard, either getting defensive bonuses in melee or laying suppressing fire in a given zone.

Genestealers start as bluffing blips (containing 1-3 bugs, unknown to the Marines until revealed before a given combat) which they place at the beginning of each turn, from spawn points of their choice, scattered around the board. They don't have guns, but are extremely maneuverable, faster, and will usually kill any Marine they actually get toe to toe with. Also, there are usually infinitely recycling bugs, did I forget that part?

Speaking of added pressure, the Marine player is supposed to play on a timer. My group doesn't often use ours, because we're all tired workin' adults that don't have the energy for a stressful game, but it's there for a pretty cool and more aggressive play style if you prefer it (and a strong indication of the intuitive speed of the game).

The vast majority of the board space is made up of one-square-wide hallways, which makes marching order extremely important in a game where Marines can neither shoot past nor move past each other, and which means the Genestealers, despite their fragility at range, are almost always a threat.

What this all adds up to is a fairly tense, fairly fast game that has, in my opinion, absolutely everything an action horror game should. It's got epic rearguard sacrifices (man, can that chain gunner hold a hallway... until he runs out of ammo), improbable and tense odds as single guys mow down swarms or fail to hit anything, unknown threats, panicked gun jams, claustrophobic combat, hulkingly invulnerable big baddies, extremely difficult retreats, fast murder swarms, and I can't forget torching rooms with flame throwers.

Unlike practically anything else Games Workshop has ever put out, there are basically no ambiguities or holes in the rules. There's one very cheesy and clearly unintended loophole for the Marines which I've never used, but I'm not entirely convinced that even that would have a huge effect and it's probably a bit of a gamble, and I'm not sure I've ever had an argument about the mechanics.

Also unlike any other GW game, it has basically nothing I'd consider superfluous to the experience. The closest thing is the guy who cuts through (destroys) doors, but even that is nice for a little extra specialization.

Suicide Missions
Setup time isn't too bad, considering the volume of components. There are big maps in the book (no squinting required) and tiles that interlock cleanly. As long as you remembered to bag all your tokens well last game, this is pretty fast, like a simple puzzle. The board does take up a very large space- you'll probably want a medium-sized dinner table or good chunk of the floor available- poker tables won't do.

The scenarios each come with a few different narrative components, including context, a story, and a mission log, which builds to a nice little atmosphere. Forces, battlefield, special rules, and objectives are all clearly delineated. About the only thing I don't like is that the Marine deployment always ends up looking like a wall of text. Some bolding or a bullet pointed list would have been preferable.

There's a pretty good variety of scenarios. While there's a campaign, the scenarios aren't actually linked so it's more a matter of narrative than an actual chain. They're worth playing in order, though, since they do introduce things in a nice progression.

The exception is the first scenario in the 4th edition. I hate it. It has weird special rules, and way too many Marines, which could easily lead to misconceptions or just overwhelm new players, and it's a fairly big scenario so takes longer to set up. It's pretty clearly designed to give the Marine player an advantage, but the way it does is just very poorly conceived of based on all the complexity it adds.

The second scenario in the current edition, and first scenario of the previous one, will always be my conception of the game's first scenario. If the marine player needs help, they can just play without the timer.

The scenarios tend towards pretty close games, and some are pretty interestingly unforgiving. About the only thing I can say negative about them is that the game's protagonists are very, very clearly the Marines from both a narrative and mechanical perspective, so, if no one likes to be the faceless horde, you could have a problem.

Insidious Presence
These are... ah... not the most essential.

First off, there are three mini-campaigns of 3 scenarios each (most of which require tiles from the 4th edition version), which were released for ios only, and not too cheap at that. These are themed around each of the three other particularly iconic/well-supported factions of Space Marines in the game- Dark Angels (space templars with a chip on their collective shoulder), Space Wolves (space vikings), and Ultra Marines (space Greeks), and theoretically require you buy a different Terminator boxed set for each (which would roughly double the initial cost of the game for all of them), though the composition would be easy enough to proxy with the core game's contents since the archetypes (leaders, grunts, heavy troopers, etc.) are present. They all also include rules for creating your own scenarios using a points-based system, which has a pretty nice caveat, that the scenario creator never gets to choose which side they play (as a balancing mechanic).  However, where I think actually has value to the casual player (as opposed to the superfan who's making their own scenarios) is that it allows you to sub in models to vary up the existing scenarios, since you have equivalent values now.

The more GW-savvy of you will have noticed that I've been showing off marines that have nothing to do with either of those 3 chapters here (also, I guess they're not on the right bases, either). With the exception of I believe two Dark Angels terminators with specialist gear, any old army with terminator armor will do just fine, since there's nothing very specific here. Even Chaos marines can join in the fun since they and Space Wolves have fairly similar options, let's say they're just doing it for some more selfish reasons, looting instead of purging, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I haven't used these at all, mostly because the core game hasn't gotten tired for me.

I think these should have been free or printed in a mini-expansion, but I'm a traditionalist (or possibly
"Luddite") and believe in print expansion collections, and that DLC which encourages you to buy more toys shouldn't be pricey. Of course, if you already collect 40k and have some of these, this might be a bonus to you rather than an added cost (past the files).

And this is why I like what they released in September's White Dwarf, a little 2-page spread consisting of a universal special rule to give Genestealers some more options (ducts, at a penalty based on how many you take), and a scenario that implements them. Notably, the extra rules re-implement existing tokens, so don't require any other purchases. (Note that this brings the scenario count up to 26 at the time of writing this, including 4th edition and all expansions. I think there might be another floating around somewhere, too.)

It's also worth noting that previous editions of the game have included rules for far more playable options and point values, which are largely compatible with the current game (and some fans have made them moreso). While I haven't tried these out, just a note that there's a reasonably active community creating more content options, for the particularly devoted new player.

...Signing off. 
Final Thoughts
Uhmmm...... I like it a lot?

Other than being cranky about that new first scenario and things costing more than I think they should, I've basically got nothing bad to say about Space Hulk. If the above style sounds like one you'd like and you're okay with a kinda' pricey game (proportionally less-so as games have asked for more and more) and think that something that's pretty much self-contained is good, I'd highly recommend getting it. I got my copy blind, and think it's one of the only such purchases that I've never even considered regretting.