Friday, November 15, 2013

Analog Gaming - Space Hulk: Death Angel

I never thought I'd ever get the satisfaction of playing a tense board game with figurines without the board...or the figurines. The tactical feel of moving plastic across the cardboard terrain is something I revel in. So, I was very hesitant to accept that Space Hulk: Death Angel received lots of praise as a great game, when it's just a deck of cards with a die. When you're playing a game, however, it's much more.

It's Getting Cramped in Here...

As a single player game, you're tasked in leading a squad of 6 soldiers (3 randomly-chosen colors with 2 soldiers each) through tight corridors from room to room, until you reach the exit. The soldiers are these 2-sided cards that are laid out horizontally in a vertical line, representing a tightly-formed squad that's facing left or right. Orientation is important, because you're surrounded by your environment; what SH:DA does well is cause claustrophobia - the fear of tight spaces - on your squad.

Everything surrounds you. As you go from room to room, nearby doors and spaces change locations. Enemies will swarm your squad like vultures waiting for their next meal. Events will occur on every turn and either be a hindrance or helpful (most of the time it's bad). You soon realize that you're this concentrated blip smack dab in the center of it all, and you're not going to last.

Things Never Go According to Plan

What surprised me was the amount of tension in the game. In fact, there's a lot of parallels between this and Pandemic, another game that is a great challenge of the single player. Both games have you deploying enemies (in Pandemic, viruses) in each turn, both allow a limited number of actions, and both have you cause events that will change the game around you. No matter how well you plan out your next move, the game's structure will change everything around you, causing you to constantly be on your toes. It perfectly simulates constantly moving your troops through changing corridors as you turn relentlessly to attack your enemies.

Every time you enter a new section, corridors and hallways change around you. After every turn, more monsters show up and circle around your soldiers like vultures over their prey. And whatever maneuver you worked out in your last turn can be your undoing in the next. Once, I ended my second turn with only 2 (out of 6) soldiers left, surrounded by about 9 monsters, and I haven't even passed the first room! All because of...

One Die to Rule Them All

The one thing you'll be doing constantly is fighting, which is done quickly and efficiently through one die. The die has numbers instead of pips, and are listed from zero to five, instead of the typical one to six. In addition, half of those sides have an additional skull icon. All you need to know is, during most attacks, all you need to do is roll a side with a skull icon for one kill; a 50/50 shot. When you're defending, that's when the number comes into play. As long as you roll a number higher than the number of monsters in a group you're attacking, you're safe. So, if you're attacking 2 monsters, you'll need to roll 3 or more, or your guy's gonna die.

What's funny is that, after all the actions and planning, after carefully facing your soldiers in the right direction, having to roll one die for all attacks and defenses is a tad anti-climatic. At the same time, however, it's this precisely this one die roll that makes the game! It's akin to watching someone pull a trigger in a fast-paced action movie. You're not calculating how many shots he took, you're not figuring out if the enemy sustained enough damage to die - you're there to see the good guy kill bad guys quickly, and move on! SH:DA achieves this with the one red die, making you put all your hope into the one roll you need to move on. I can't tell you how many times I've hesitated on a roll due to what's at risk!

Randomness to New Levels

After each turn, you have to deal with new event cards that change the game up. What's more, they all have icons printed on the bottom that tells you where more monsters are spawning, and how they move (depending on the printed icons on each card). So, you have areas that have different halls and corridors in different locations, random events, new enemy spawn in random locations, and random movement for monsters you may or may not have. And yet, amidst all this randomness, this whole setup works like clockwork - a clockwork of DOOM!!!

An Action Movie in a Box

Sure, there are other mechanics at work here, but I wanted to highlight what is so exciting about a box full of cards, some tokens, and a red die. After your first game - your FIRST game - you're going to come out of it with a story of bravery, of the brave men that fought against aliens with impossible odds. You'll describe how you wiped out an entire group in a single blow, how you lost one guy from a sudden attack behind him, how you tactfully navigated through one of the locations with ease, and lost half your squad in another. And perhaps, you'll tell others how, against impossible odds, you were able to launch the control room to win the game.

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