This? This, my friends, is the good stuff.
Man, I loves me some Shulk. Ian and I managed to get in a game of it on Friday, which was great as we haven’t played it in ages. This makes me sad.
So what is Space Hulk, other than an outstandingly good boardgame? Well, it’s based in the Warhammer 40,000 background, and involves the genetically-engineered super-soldier Blood Angel Space Marine Terminators walking around the corridors of a giant derelict space ship and gunning down Genestealers, gribbly alien murdermachines. One player takes control of the Marine, and another controls the Genestealers. The Marines have a mission to complete (generally destroy something or retrieve something), and the Genestealers have to stop them by applying claw liberally to face.
The two forces are obviously complete opposites. The Marines have guns and special tactics, but the Marine player has (at most) 10 guys, and every loss hits hard and reduces the chance of completing the mission. The Genestealers, on the other hand, have no guns, but have unlimited numbers and will shred a Marine if they get within claw-to-face range. Models act by using Action Points; Marines have 4, and ‘Stealers have 6. Different actions have different AP costs; for example, moving forward one square is 1 AP for every model, but Marines have to spend 1 AP to turn 90 degrees, but ‘Stealers can do it for free. Marines also have a Command Point system, which effectively gives them a pool of bonus Action Points, which is their second big advantage. The Marines can even use Command Points to perform actions in the ‘Stealer’s turn, so you can sneak in cheeky last minute attacks or movements.
Of all the board games I’ve played, Space Hulk still sticks out as one that marries tension and tactics perfectly. For a start, the Marine player has only a limited time period to complete his turn, to represent the quick thinking you would need when in a spaceship full of alien gribblies. The ‘Stealer player uses “blip” counters to deploy ‘Stealers, and each blip could be 1, 2, or 3 ‘Stealers, so the Marine player can defecate masonry if he sees a load of blips lurking around a corner.
It doesn’t hurt that the game not only has perfectly effective and simple rules, but it also encourages you to play smart and be cautious while rewarding clever, risky tactics. Allow me to explain via anecdote!
Ian and I have the 3rd edition of Space Hulk, i.e the one with the utterly gorgeous models and decent thick card floorplans. The 3rd edition is probably the best, combining the elegant rules of 2nd edition with most of the bells and whistles of 1st edition such as the Librarian (more on him below), the assault cannon (dakkadakkadakkadakka), and Broodlord (Papa Genestealer).
Yesterday, we decided to play The Artefact; a simple retrieval mission where the Marines have to tromp to one end of the map, pick up their space-shopping, and tromp back. Easy, right? Well, a horde of ‘Stealers were ready to stop the Marines popping to space-Tescos.
There’s an interesting dynamic to playing Marines in Space Hulk; the Marines can set up killzones of overwatch fire to blast ‘Stealers, but if the Marine player is too cautious, the mission can never be completed, and the ‘Stealer player has more time to bring in reinforcements from different entry points on the map, build up numbers, and just rush in numbers that the Marines simply can’t deal with. However, if the Marine player is too reckless, the ‘Stealers are free to waltz up with no fear of overwatch fire and homf nomf our boys in red.
The way I like to play Marines in Shulk is to creep forward and set up overwatch whenever possible. However, The Artefact gives the Marine player some serious toys; Claudio, the lightning-claw armed nutter (and one of the few Marines who can reliably outfight a ‘Stealer), and Calistarius, the Librarian. Now, I have a love for Warhammer 40,000 Space Marine Librarians, because, come on. They’re not only genetically-enhanced super-soldiers, they’re genetically-enhanced super-soldiers who are GODDAMN SPACE WIZARDS.
The Shulk Librarian is all forms of trolling. He has 20 psi points at the start of the game, and has four psychic powers. He can pump up his psychic pimp-axe and be unbeatable in close combat, he can grant the Marines an extra Command Point, he can drop a psychic blast on a room of ‘Stealers or a single unlucky gribbly, but his most troll-worthy power is to drop a barrier that blocks movement for a whole turn. My use of this power in the game brought Ian to the very brink of ragequit.
The opening turns of a game of Shulk are usually the same; half the Marines storm forward while the others peel off to set up overwatch on the corridors near the closest ‘Stealer entry points. It essentially occupies those Marines for most of the game, but it’s necessary if the Marine player doesn’t want to the commander of corpses. Meanwhile, Ian built up a worrying number of blips and continued to make “bleep-bleep, bleep-bleep” noises. Space Hulk seriously needs to come with the disclaimer; “WARNING: Will make you endlessly quote Aliens.”
With Claudio storming ahead, my guys managed to pick up their space-shopping while the Librarian and my flamethrower Marine performed area denial by dropping barriers and burny bits everywhere, and my two guys on overwatch had the long corridors locked down. I had this shit down. I had it down tight.
And just like that, Space Hulk woke up and kicked my teeth in when I lost two Marines. Then my flamethrower was out of ammunition. And Ian had 20 ‘Stealers on the map. I’d been owning the game up until then, and now it looked like Ian was going to claw it back. In the end, I had to use the Librarian’s last psi points to blow up the ‘Stealers in the way, and use all my Command points to play pass-the-parcel with the space-shopping, feeding down my line of Marines to the guy on the end, who then powered through, thereby ensuring that the surviving Marines would be able to have spaghetti hoops on toast for tea.
So, yes. Despite kicking ass, the game still came down to a few single lucky dice rolls. If I’d failed, Ian would’ve swamped my Marines and munched their faces. Still tense, still down to the wire, even at the end.
That’s why Ian and I love Space Hulk, and you should to.