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Death Angel Review

Updated on October 18, 2014
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Editor's Note:

Hey guys, I'm taking a look back at many of my board game reviews this week to see how they measure up a year or two later. Look for my Looking Back section at the bottom of the page!

Space Hulk: A Brief History

Space Hulk: Death Angel is a card game based on a famous, giant board game titled Space Hulk. The original game was a two-player dungeon crawl where one player took a team of Space Marines called Terminators through a derelict space ship (called a Space Hulk). Their mission may vary between scenarios, but usually the goal involves killing the other player, who plays a group of creepy bug-men called Genestealers. It is their job to terminate the Terminators. Apparently it's quite a fun game, but it's hard to find and quite expensive as a result.

The game is set in the popular Warhammer 40,000 universe. If you're already a fan of the setting, you'll feel immediately comfortable with this game. I didn't know anything about Warhammer going into this, so my impressions will hopefully align with that of the average consumer.

Death Angel is intended to be a much more affordable version of the giant hundred-dollar game, clocking in at about twenty-five bucks and fitting neatly into a tiny box. The game's designers sought to condense the epic paranoid dungeon crawl into an epic paranoid card game. Did they succeed?

The weapon of choice
The weapon of choice | Source

Setup

While the original Space Hulk game was a 1v1 experience, Death Angel is purely cooperative and it plays 1-6. Yes, this means it can be played as a solo game.

Despite the fact that it's a card game, Death Angel really feels like a board game. There are so many cards in the box that by the time you've set it up, it's eaten the better part of the kitchen table.

Instead of moving your marines through randomly-generated rooms, the marines stay in static positions throughout the game in a column. Inside this column movement is restricted to going up or down or facing left or right. Terrain features like locked doors, hull breaches or (highly explosive) gas canisters are represented by cards that are placed to the left or right of the marines. These terrain cards inform you of where monsters spawn.

During the game the terminators will "travel" to new locations. When this happens, terrain features will shift in relation to the marines. Strangely, I think this really makes it feel like you're moving throughout a large ship. Every time you travel to a new location, something (usually bad) will happen to the marines. There are about twenty locations when you buy the game, and any given game will only call for three or four for the whole game. This gives Death Angel a pleasant replay value and an element of randomness.

Each player will ideally be in command of one squad of marines, which contains two Terminators. All at once, players will issue orders to their marines via three different cards that are as follows:

  • Move and Activate
  • Support
  • Attack

In addition to basic orders, every order card will have a slightly different effect that takes place after the initial order. For instance, one marine squad can chain attacks together, while another might simply raise their defense for a turn or stun-lock a group of Genestealers. Each marine squad will have different factors that will determine their usefulness. All squads have a "hero" unit who is the sole benefactor of some abilties. You really don't want them to die.

Speaking of death, the game handles death in a hard-and-fast way: Everything, including your marines, will die in one hit. This makes combat resolve extremely fast, while also giving the players some degree of stress every time they roll for defense.

Depending on how many players you're using, you'll have a certain number of marine squads on the table. In the one-player varient, you'll only be using six marines, while with six players you'll have a whopping TWELVE, which is a setup that threatens to consume all but the most lengthy of tables.

The Red team's three order cards (click for larger image)
The Red team's three order cards (click for larger image) | Source

Gameplay and Difficulty

The game is played in rounds, and it breaks down to a very simple order of events. In one round:

  1. The players choose one order card.
  2. The players resolve their order cards, usually resulting in the death of some Genestealers.
  3. The players draw an event card and resolve it. This usually results in spawning more Genestealers.

What I find interesting about the game is that once you've played an order, that card has to "cool off" for one turn. This means that if you have all of your squads attack at once, you're limited to Support or Move during the next turn. This mechanic might annoy some gamers, but I think it adds what I call an "oh crap" feeling to the game.

All attack and defense actions are resolved by rolling a die, which hits 50% of the time. Some special abilities will shift the statistics in some way, helping players get some leverage on the randomness. There is also a mechanic in the game that allows players to reroll attack or defense rolls by spending "support."

All in all, it's pretty darn challenging. You'll often find yourself outflanked and outnumbered. It's like being in the movie Aliens, and because all of the marines are named, you'll find yourself growing attached to them, cheering when the succeed and mourning them when they die.

Brother Noctis in the column, next to the door and ventilation duct
Brother Noctis in the column, next to the door and ventilation duct | Source

Final Thoughts

The difficulty of this game can fluctuate wildly from game to game. While it would seem like the randomness of the events cards, locations, spawns and dice rolls would make the game into a volatile mess, it doesn't. Playing with the 1-player setup makes the game ridiculously easy, and playing with six players makes the game essentially impossible. The sweet spot is in the two- or three-player variations. This gives all players more squads to command, making the game more tactical and interesting.

Despite the randomness, most games can be won by superior tactics and planning. Almost like a more thematic version of Pandemic, Death Angel ramps up in difficulty often. Winning the game with only a fraction of your starting marines is a wholesome, satisfying experience.

Pros:

  • Inexpensive, wonderful components, small box
  • Highly replayable due to randomized setup
  • Warhammer 40k theme fits gameplay; would have also worked if it were called James Cameron's Aliens: The Card Game
  • Suitably challenging most of the time

Cons:

  • Poorly-written game rules
  • More players leads to a nearly impossible game
  • Randomness of die rolls can be frustrating, despite solid tactics
  • Not a casual game; don't expect to play this with your family

I give this game 7 decapitated genestealers out of 10.

Looking Back: Two Years Later

After two years and twenty or thirty plays of this game, here are my thoughts.

• It's dense. Teaching the game to people who have never played a cooperative game before can be challenging. This is made worse when everyone dies (see below).

• It's extremely hard to win. While any cooperative game is disheartening to lose, this one punishes you even when you did everything right. Pandemic at least rewards players for planning; this game will crush you without warning or apology.

• It's not balanced. With one player this game is so easy to beat it's silly. With maximum players it's practically impossible. In the "sweet spot" I mentioned in my initial review, the difficulty can still randomly (and violently) fluctuate, wiping out half of your marines in one turn.

• Despite the apparent variety, there's not much of it. The game boils down to a very simple select-a-card-and-see-what-happens formula. Even with the expansions, not much changes.

• It's not really fun. This is perhaps the worst thing anyone can say about a game. I came to realize this terrible truth around play #18. It's a game of endurance, patience and perseverance. If you want a balanced solo game, you could easily just play the card game Solitaire (which is free).

Save your money. If you really want a great cooperative game, go play the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game or Robinson Crusoe.

Adjusted score: 3/10

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    • JohnGreasyGamer profile image

      John Roberts 5 years ago from South Yorkshire, England

      Ooh, sounds fancy! I might give it a try, but as you said - it's not casual, so I might not enjoy it so much. Voted up, useful and interesting ^^

    • profile image

      Andrew Wiggin 5 years ago

      Some friends & our tolerant wives play this game and even our wives enjoy it in moderation. This is a good & accurate review. I only want to add that there are currently 4 reasonably priced (though the shipping will kill you if you order) expansions which add additional replay value.

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