Monday, June 10, 2013

Why Space Hulk is the best damn boardgame ever.

And now, an exciting episode of hyperbole theatre!  Take your seats and enjoy the show!

I love boardgames, and a broad variety thereof.  Settlers, Lost Cities, Battletech, Balderdash, Robo Rally, Pandemic... masterpieces all.  I'm just as happy to play Apples to Apples (or Cards Against Humanity) as I am to play the awesomely complex 'Up Front'.

I hosted a weekly boardgame night while at Epic for most of a decade.  Sometimes 10 people showed up, sometimes 4.  But every once in a while, a conflict would arise and we'd find ourselves with only 2 or 3 players.  That moment of cancelled plans and frustration would then turn into the brightest silver lining a geek could hope for.  Where you might expect a pouty frown, an evil grin would spread instead... because that night, those who showed up were in for a round of the greatest damn boardgame on the face of the planet.


Space Hulk is a boardgame (with three fairly different editions) from Games Workshop, creators of Warhammer and all manner of material you expect to see when you walk into a hardcore game shop and see "odd people apparently tape measuring model train terrain" in the back of a store.  I'll go on the heretic record and admit I don't actually think their hardcore tabletop miniature warfare games are... well... fun.  They're a hell of a hobby and an amazing creative outlet, but frankly, I would rather spend an evening scratch building Warhammer terrain models than actually playing the game.

It's the association with other Games Workshop titles that has turned off several people from wanting to even try Space Hulk for fear of it being too fiddly or complicated.  If Games Workshop and Warhammer and tabletop gaming is just 'not your bag'... cool, I get it, but Space Hulk is an entirely different stand-alone beast.

In all my years of playing it, I have yet to introduce it to someone who didn't quickly grasp the rules, and after their first game rave about the game and demand later matches.  Barring rules introduction disasters, nobody walks away from Space Hulk and says "yeah, I guess that was OK".


At it's heart, Space Hulk is the classic conflict between "Aliens and Space Marines" taking place in highly cramped space ship corridors and rooms.  Combat is highly asymmetrical.  The Marines (called Terminators) are humans in powered armor the size of an industrial refrigerator, and generally able to blow the head off anything and everything that moves.  The Aliens (called Genestealers) are horrible flesh and claw abominations, vast in number and capable of tearing open a can of Marine ass and pulling their victim's lips over their head in a grotesque face wedgie if they are lucky enough to get close.

In good hands, a single Terminator can chalk up dozens of Genestealer kills as long as he can avoid ever having to get face to face with one.  The bad news for the Space Marine player is that, well, he's expected to.  In most cases the Genestealers just keep coming and piling up.

Here's the crux of what I love about Space Hulk gameplay:

You. Are. Screwed.

The pressure on a Space Marine player up against a good Genestealer player is palpable, the atmosphere is downright thick with tension.  You're powerful, but every single troop you lose is like a stab to the chest.  In most mission setups you have a goal with a time limit (and in some editions actually dealing with real world hourglasses) and every turn more Genestealers are flowing onto the board and upping the ante.  You want nothing more than to sit at the end of a long corridor and dump clip after clip into the horrible beasts flinging their corpses at you like so many garbage bags.  But rest assured, you will eventually die.  You will not outpace the rate that enemies are being reinforced.  Moving is extremely dangerous and every corner can spell death, but move you must if you're to accomplish your objectives and survive. 

Every enemy is a peon, easily killed... right up until you misjudge something and get ripped in half.  Dig in, get surrounded and you're trash eventually.

Cramped combat with a walking appliance.

For the 'alien' player, the game is just as excruciating, just in a different flavor.  You toss dozens of your single-minded beasts at a group of Terminators and see them cut down mercilessly.  Every step closer means that Marine bastard is rolling dice, and the odds are pretty good that every roll means yet another of your Genestealers gets sprayed across the hallway in chunks and mist.

But dice are cruel mistresses.

At some point while you sit there, demoralized, flinging meat down the hallway like a wood-chipper, enduring the giggles and laughs of the Marine player as he removes Genestealer figure after figure from the board (sometimes two with a single shot!), taunting you and grinning and making little machine gun noises...  at some point... one heroic little Genestealer peon endures the fire and survives roll after roll after roll and manages to walk right up to that poor son of a bitch, tear into his armor, and pulp his head like an overripe peach.  On some occasions the Marine rolls very badly and his weapon jams, leaving the avenue clear for your minions to pile in and exact some hellacious revenge.  When defenses collapse, they collapse hard... and it's glorious.

There is, in my opinion, no game to match Space Hulk for the intensity of watching a series of simple die rolls; each roll making some major impact on the game.  Shouts, howls of pure angst, and passionate middle fingers are utterly common.  Space Hulk is some of the most dramatic gaming on any medium you could ask for.

While Space Marines can play it careful or aggressive, Genestealers have one more trick up their sleeve.  They're tricky.  When Genestealers move around the board, they often do so in the form of a "blip", a flat face-down counter that represents a secret number of the aliens.  When a Marine sees a blip moving towards him, it could be a pack of up to six enemies, and depending on the edition... it could actually be a bluff and represent 0 aliens.  This adds immensely to the sense of atmosphere in the game, and makes being the Genestealers a much more entertaining role.  Play the bluffs right and a single blip can hold down a major area of the map with implied troop strength.


There's something else golden about the way Space Hulk plays out for the Space Marine side.  Even though you're controlling one or two squads, each with five different miniatures on the board, it doesn't quite feel that way.  Guys who run off on their own get isolated and torn apart, so it doesn't feel as if you're moving around 10 individuals.  Right off the bat you get the sense that a squad of five actually controls more like one single unit, like you're controlling individual limbs of a greater being.  I've often said it feels almost like you're moving an amoeba through the tight halls, with your ranks contracting and expanding to fill areas in different ways.

Better hold that hallway, Brother Jammius!

When a path branches, the guy at the front of a group steps into one branch, and sets up a defense in the corridor.  Meanwhile the others train through behind him, and when they're safe he'll take up his position at the end of the line, sometimes facing backwards so every route to reach your squad is protected.  Even though the rules for moving each unit around is very simple and accessible, you add lots of those simple moves together and feel like it's one complex tactical whole.

Efficiency at moving around and never missing an opportunity to save an action point is a critical skill in the game.  It's enjoyable when you feel more and more skilled at a game as you play, and not like you're advancing a number in a stat and simulating improvement.


At a higher philosophical gameplay level, what Space Hulk generally gets right is that it strives to avoid ambiguity.  You're not breaking out a tape measure, debating if one guy can see another, or pointing out that someone nudged their troop an extra inch on the board.  Even the layout of the board is crystal clear.  Hallways are one unit wide, meaning a troop literally fills it from wall to wall.  You're not arguing about hit locations, or tracking hit points or damage modifiers for your units.

You know what things do... These guys shoot things... these guys bite things.  You're 100% alive and blowing shit to pieces, or you're 100% dead and removed from the board.

As a game developer, at some point you learn to appreciate the meat of your design not getting too watered down with exceptions and modifiers.  That's a hard task to pull off.  A great side effect is that it helps create a game that is easier to teach to new players.

I'm a bit of a purist and think extra expansions and modules for games rarely actually make the game more FUN, too often they simply add complexity and blur those lines of "this is what the game is about".  Depending on what edition of Space Hulk you've seen, that can apply here too.

There were aliens suddenly wielding pistols, and getting psychic ranged abilities, and several Space Marines that excelled at close quarters combat (ok, even though they LOOKED unbelievably cool).

Lightning Claws, baby.  Complicating game roles, stylishly.

My advice is avoid the add-ons and simply play the pure out-of-box experiences.


There's luck in the game, no doubt.

Often, when things go badly, you blame choices you made in how you moved through the world and where you set up attacks.  Other times of course, the dice utterly betray you... but it's not without amusement when that happens.

I've seen a single Marine (completely out of ammunition and heroically holding a corridor so his squad could escape) against all odds beat down six Genestealers in a row with bare hands.  I was the unlucky one in that scenario but recall it to this day, years later as an amazing moment around the table.  It's often those dice rolls that leave you reading all kinds of personality into otherwise lifeless little plastic avatars.  "Best watch your ass against Brother Snipus over there, he doesn't miss!" etc...

I've known gamers who insist anything with dice rolling is a flaw, and they automatically hate the game.  I believe that element of uncertainty is a prime component to the tension in a game like this.

Ask any professional poker player if there's no skill involved in a game where luck plays into it.




Welcome Back!


There have been two digital official Space Hulk games, both from EA, and both were pretty decent for an existing fan at least.  Both try to balance playing first person as a marine, while also ordering your squad around in some sort of time pressure management mode.

The 2nd version "Space Hulk: Vengeance of the Blood Angels" did something I have never seen another digital game do, and it blew my mind at the time.  When you start off, you are simply a single peon in a squad.  You don't get typical "video game objectives" like fetching a thing or hunting someone down... rather they're incredibly specific and frequent orders.

"Go stand here"
"Clear this room"
"Wait here until told otherwise"
"Flame this space"
"Follow this guy"

You get the sense that an AI player is actually playing the game, and you're merely a piece on his board.  Actually, that's exactly what's happening.  With each mission of the game you get more control, and eventually you're in the map blasting stuff, and at the same time commanding your squadmates.  It's a testament to multi-tasking.  You swap to an overhead map and tell some guys to move somewhere, clear a room, wait there, flame that space, follow that guy... etc, and every time there's a verbal order that is just like the ones you were hearing when you were a lowly peon.  It's oddly powerful when you realize that a game was truly "playing you" for once, in a genuinely dynamic unscripted way.

I get little tingles...

There is a 3rd digital Space Hulk iOS version coming soon actually (screenshot above).  I know very little about it other than having seen a teaser and this one screen somewhere.  At a glance it appears to be a very 1-to-1 adaptation of the boardgame.  I hope it's brilliant and I hope they read my first blog post about "best advice I can give, related to good feedback", and find they do that aspect justice.

I have to be honest, as much as I love boardgames, and as much as I love video games... often completely 1-to-1 digital adaptations fall short of capturing what a table session pulls off in a more social way. Notable exceptions being Settlers on XBLA, Ticket to Ride on iOS, and Small World on iOS.  Waiting for your opponent to take a turn can be torturous, I play Ticket to Ride games with a group of 5 people and our games take about a month.  Regardless though, all my fingers are crossed on this one.  So far the production quality looks top notch, and the devs behind it have done a solid run of other turn based tactical games.


I would be remiss if I didn't bring up the excellent Space Hulk stand alone cardgame "Space Hulk: Death Angel", which is available all over the place including Barnes and Nobles and such.

Great co-op 2 player OR solo!

This adaptation was actually done by Corey Konieczka, who also did the unbelievably good Battlestar Galactica boardgame,  and I had the great fortune of working with Corey as the main contact for the Gears of War boardgame.  He's good people!

I can't judge what his adaptation is like for someone who is unfamiliar with actually playing Space Hulk, but for those who are fans, I think he really delivered on the "Space Hulk in your pocket" concept pretty well.  He really abstracted down a couple key components of the game into different forms and kept the flavor there.

Also of note, you can play single player, in a sort of high end geekery solitaire... and it is DAMN challenging in a very fun way.  It definitely delivers on the "You. Are. Screwed." nature of the boardgame.  Those I know that have played it solo, all have admitted cheating... just a little.


As we approach the last act of this raging love fest... I leave you with a tragedy.

Space Hulk is a complete bitch to find.

First edition, basically impossible to find.  Although several would kill me for saying so, it's not my favorite edition anyway, and the components have really not aged well.  But yes, it started it all, and there are more along the lines of expansions for this, if that's your thing.

Second edition, not impossible, but expensive and challenging no doubt.  Counter to many who are even more hardcore than I, the second edition is actually my favorite (and the one I introduced many to the game with).  They upped the ante on the quality of the figures, rules were simplified in some great ways IMO, 0 blips and bluffing gameplay, and above all they kept the 'clarity' of gameplay very high.  I ended up buying a very expensive version with no miniatures and had to replace the minis with the counterparts for Warhammer, haha.

Third edition is the most recent limited run to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first game, and they certainly did it justice.  The third edition is... for lack of a classier way to put it... fucking balls to the wall STUNNING with regards to its components.  The miniatures included are, IMO some of the most incredibly well sculpted and detailed models I've ever seen for any purpose, and the other board components are absurdly comically high quality.  They merged in some of the fiddlier roles, but they're just so incredibly cool it's hard to complain.  The 3rd edition is fairly simple to find on eBay... BUT... it's also stupid expensive at around $300.

My personal paint job, thanks...

Note that the miniatures included in the game are NOT painted.  Many people, me included, really enjoy painting minis.  What I don't enjoy is the idea of painting 1500 troops for a little army, getting carpal tunnel and murdering everyone in my 3rd year of working on completing the task.  Space Hulk though, unlike Warhammer to me, is a manageable and enjoyable task.  There are about 12 drop dead amazing Terminator marines, and about 25 alien Genestealers which typically get a very simple process driven paint sequence on them.  Regardless though, if you're never going to paint them, and it's a deal breaker for you to play with unpainted minis... you're out of luck, or you need to outsource getting them painted, haha.


Yes, Space Hulk has a dose of "meathead" to it... you might scoff at it as less intellectual than something like Dvonn or Puerto Rico.

I've often said that Gears of War had a major coating of meathead to it.  You're chainsawing people in half and giggling and limbs are flying and dudes are high fiving... but you can't make a successful game out of pure meathead.  Under the hood there has to be substance and mechanics that offer decisions worth making.  Strip away the meat from Gears and you had a damn fine tactical game about cover and timing and flanking and serious quick decision making.  Space Hulk fits right in that slot as well.  Under the violent veneer is one of the most unique and inspired games you could ask for.

It's unfortunate that there's a barrier to entry, and that every session can't include a knowledgable teacher to go over the rules in a couple minutes  (hmmmm... maybe I'll youtube a "how to play" quick guide at some point), but regardless, I hope you get a chance to give it a shot sometime and avoid filing it under "bleh, another souless violent shooty shooty blah blah game".

I've had some of the highest high points of gaming playing Space Hulk with close friends like my buddy Josh Jay, super senior artist over at Bethesda now.  This was our lunchtime jam for many years, and it never grew old.

So yes, you may have your favs and counter arguments... but for my money, the game I most itch to play time and again at the drop of a hat... Space Hulk is my go-to.

Thanks for reading this, a completely gratuitous and frivolous bit of bloggery!  Be glad it's not ten times as long :)


  1. Great write up! As a long-time 40k hobbyist (I rarely play the game but I grew up on the stories and art. Mostly I paint) I somehow missed playing Space Hulk. Maybe it was the lack of people to play with or something. GW just re-released it today, though, so I finally picked up a copy and have been thinking about it all day. I like your review as you're a board and video game nut, not a 40k fanboy. I would love to think I'll be able to convince some of my non-40k buddies to play this. Maybe I'll just have them read your article.

  2. Brilliant article! It perfectly expresses how I feel about this amazing game. Have you read the Space Hulk novella by Gav Thorpe, and Death of Integrity by Guy Haley? Both are excellent stories which do justice to the claustrophobic atmosphere and nihilistic outlook of the game.

  3. Brilliant article! It perfectly expresses how I feel about this amazing game. Have you read the Space Hulk novella by Gav Thorpe, and Death of Integrity by Guy Haley? Both are excellent stories which do justice to the claustrophobic atmosphere and nihilistic outlook of the game.