11 Feb

Space Hulk

Filed under: Boardgames 4 Responses

A lone Terminator Space Marine facing down a couple of Genestealers.

I actually first played Space Hulk over ten years ago while studying in Tours, France. Looking over the information on BGG, it must have been the second edition of the game. I was a regular at the Temple du Jeu branch in 1996 and 1997, much to the detriment of my university grades. Just across the central square was also an official Games Workshop outlet but all I ever saw there were endless sessions of miniatures wargaming. Even at the Temple du Jeu, the main thing people played were CCGs. Magic: The Gathering was of course by far the most popular, but there were also small groups into things like Netrunner (still my favorite CCG design), Middle-Earth, Battletech etc.

This meant that I only played Space Hulk a few times but it remained a very memorable experience in my mind. So Games Workshop’s announcement of the new edition of the game not long after I’d just gotten into boardgames grabbed my attention. Now, there’s no chance of me actually ponying up the cash to buy a copy. The days of me being careless with money enough to buy stuff just for the sake of having them are long gone, as I’ve learned my lesson after buying crappy CCGs like The X-Files and Doom Trooper. But I was interested enough to go ogle at all the pretty pictures of the updated miniatures.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that Sean had bought a copy as it didn’t seem like the sort of thing he normally likes. As it’s a strictly two-player game, I had to wait for a time when my wife wasn’t playing to get a session with Sean. First of all, as everyone has reported, the components are top notch and extremely impressive. The miniatures are insanely detailed and so well crafted that you’d expect them to be display pieces rather than playing ones. I didn’t even realize that this level of fine detail and sharp edges were possible in plastic today. At the same time, the individual map pieces are probably the thickest cardboard I’ve ever seen. I must say however I don’t quite get what look they were going for with the cracked-looking dice and sort of miss the old dice with the icons for hits, misses and jams, but there’s no denying the quality of the physical toys you get in the box.

As for the premise, it’s as fresh and exciting as the day the game was first released. Set in the Warhammer 40k universe, it pits a force of Space Marines against a horde of alien Genestealers within the crowded confines of a space hulk, ancient derelict starships of unknown provenance adrift in space. The game comes with a number of scenarios and is played on a board that is created by fitting together map pieces like a jigsaw puzzle according to the needs of the scenario. There are a wide variety of objectives possible. We played the first two missions during our session. For the first one, the Space Marines win simply by having the Terminator with the flamer set a designated room on the map on fire, but the opposing player has an infinite number of Genestealers to stop them. In the second mission, the Space Marines merely needed to outlast the limited supply of Genestealers available.

Space Marines lining up to march to their doom.

As a game with a pretty old design, the rules are very simple. Each figure has a limited number of points available to move and perform other actions with and the controlling player gets to move all of his figures during his turn. In addition, the Space Marine player gets to draw a tile at the beginning of his turn to determine how many Command Points he has for that turn. These points can be spent to give additional actions to any figures or to perform actions during the turn of the Genestealer player.

The Genestealers don’t get Command Points but while the Space Marines are limited to the figures placed at the beginning of the game as stipulated by the individual mission’s rules, the aliens generally get to add new figures each turn by drawing blips and placing them face down at stipulated entry points on the map. These blips represent radar contacts to the Space Marines and each blip can represent from one to three Genestealers but the Space Marines don’t know how many exactly until they’re revealed.

At this point it’s worth noting that while almost all of the Space Marines can shoot, none of the Genestealers can do ranged attacks. This means that they must charge at the Space Marines to engage them in melee but the Genestealers are so deadly at close combat that if they do manage to get close, the marines are usually done for. The Space Marines can defend against this by spending two action points to put a figure into Overwatch mode, which allows them to shoot once at any Genestealer when he sees it move. However whenever the Space Marines shoot with the Storm Bolter, their standard weapon, there is a chance that it can jam.

In the 3rd edition, jams can now be cleared using saved Command Points, but in the 2nd edition jams had to be manually cleared during the Space Marines’ next turn, which meant that they were much more dangerous. Depending on the mission, the Space Marines can also deploy figures armed with alternative weapons. The flamer can set an entire map piece on fire, likely killing everything on that piece, but is limited to a small number of shots. The assault cannon is much deadlier and never jams, but similarly has finite ammunition. For the second mission we played, the Space Marines had a sergeant equipped with a Thunderhammer and Stormshield combo, so he couldn’t shoot but became a melee powerhouse instead.

While large numbers of Genestealers look scary, they die very quickly if the Space Marines are properly positioned.

There’s quite a bit that I’m skipping here of course as I’ve yet to play the missions that feature the Librarian, a special Space Marine with magic-like powers, or special victory conditions that involve retrieving items from the hulk. Still, this should be enough to give a general impression of what the game is like. The main problem with the game remains the same: the Genestealer player has a very passive role since his strategy is so straightforward. Since the Space Marine player usually has more options and tactical greater flexibility, often his decisions alone determine who wins the game and the Genestealer player is just along for the ride. The rules even acknowledge this and encourage the players to switch roles for each mission so that each player will have a chance to have fun by controlling the Space Marines.

Another problem is the usual randomness found in games that determine combat results from dice rolls. All figures die from just a single hit, so luck is extremely important. This is even truer for the Space Marine player as a single bad die roll could result in a massacre of his entire squad as the Genestealers pour through a crack in the defensive formation. Of course, this is also a huge source of dramatic tension as both players eagerly watch the dice to see what happens so this really comes down to understanding what you look for in games. This edition includes an hourglass to limit the time available to the Space Marine player to make decisions so as to ratchet up the tension even more, but we didn’t use it during our session.

All this makes Space Hulk a really good two-player game for Ameritrash fans, especially if you dig the Warhammer universe. The multiple missions should give it a decent lifespan and I’m sure that given the variety of map tiles and differently equipped Terminators included, it’s easy to come up with more. This is the kind of game in which the tactile experience of handling the dice and admiring the nicely sculpted miniatures (even if their uneven sizes makes them a bit inconvenient to actually play with) is fundamental to its enjoyment. Euro-fans however probably won’t enjoy its lack of strategic richness or directly confrontational gameplay and there’s no chance of me buying as it’s not wife-friendly at all.

Finally there’s one last point of praise that I think should be mentioned. Many games work in a strong theme to improve the playing experience but I can’t think of another game in which the theme is intertwined so tightly with its mechanics. The rules of Space Hulk are simple but don’t feel simplistic. Instead, they feel like they’ve been distilled down to just the minimum necessary to portray the tense struggle between the Space Marines and the Genestealers. As the Space Marine player, you’ll feel hopelessly hemmed in and trapped in the claustrophobic corridors of the hulk and as the Genestealers you’ll feel the evil frisson of glee as the Space Marines’ bolters jam and you move in for the kill. There’s nothing extraneous to distract from this very pure and visceral confrontation. This, I think, is why this game is such a beloved classic and why its rules have changed so little since it was first released over 20 years.

Written on February 11 2010 and is filed under Boardgames. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “Space Hulk”


I love this game. I bought 1 for myself too like almost RM400. But it’s really worth for the price with the superbly fine detailed minis, thickest board tiles ever & simple but fun game rules. I had never play the older version but I’ve heard this 3rd edition were more to pro marines. Anyway, I do enjoy play this since I’d just play 1st & 2nd mission only.


Why would you only play the 1st and 2nd missions only after you’ve bought the game?


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