Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Space Hulk 3rd Edition – Kicking Ass And Taking Names Since 1989

Every once in a great while a game comes along that transcends time and space, and manages to transport the player into the universe the game resides in. Right through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, and into a world of the designer’s making where you find yourself gritting your teeth as your heroes face insurmountable odds and are staring death in the face at every turn. Any game that gives you this experience is clearly a cut above the rest, but to do it over and over again throughout hundreds of plays, well, that’s simply bloody brilliant. You just don’t get anything like that these days, normally, but out of the abyss was recently pulled such a work of sheer brilliance and timeless perfection that I felt it my duty to make sure that every one of my readers knows that this game should not be passed up for any reason. The game is the 3rd edition of the one, and the only, Space Hulk.

I know many of you hate Games Workshop for what they did to their fan base by writing letters of “cease and desist” en masse like an indigent forging stolen checks for cheap liquor all around town. I understand the reasons that many of you may despise them like a bee sting to the scrotum, but this is not a valid reason to preclude you from acquiring a copy of this game, even if you have to sell a lung to do it. Space Hulk may be the single greatest board game ever made, and the 3rd edition is a work of art that is both a beauty to behold and is far less a game than an experience. Any game that has the ability to make you care about the characters as if you were personally related to them and cause you to sweat profusely from its intense, maddening feel is just too amazing to pass up simply because the guys who produced it have a bunch of overzealous, cockweasely barristers. You just need to shed your nerd-rage and get a copy, and that’s that.

Allow me to get into the history of Space Hulk briefly before getting deeper into this latest iteration, to provide some perspective on how this all came about: Twenty years ago in 1989, Games Workshop produced a game that would forever change the way that people viewed wargames, and it was magnificent. It contained a level of quality that was unrivalled at the time for a stand-alone board game, containing myriad interlocking modular tiles that were amazingly illustrated, even by today’s standards, and a mountain of plastic soldiers and aliens that surpassed anything on the market then and is easily on par with the best games available today.

Space Hulk’s box had the tagline of “Man Versus Alien In Desperate Battle”, which is without a doubt the single most bad ass tagline for a game ever. Better yet, it was completely true to the gameplay. Although complex both in theme and interactive mechanics, the game was actually quite easy to play, with rules that were completely ahead of their time in effective and elegant simplicity as well as tactical accuracy. The concept was simple: Space Marines were to board a derelict, giant conglomeration of parts that were equally spaceship and celestial body, called a “Space Hulk”. These Marines’ mission was to embark upon a righteous and glorious campaign to rid the Hulk of a terrifying scourge; a seemingly infinite horde of alien horrors, the Genestealers, and to recover any alien technology.

These missions had the undermanned Space Marines plodding along narrow corridors with far too many entries and corners to effectively defend, facing Genestealer aliens who craved nothing more than to claw open the Marines’ armored suits and tear their throats out just to hear a last dying gasp of, “Emperor, why have you abandoned me?” The sheer level of intensity when a line of Genestealers is moving forward was enough to make the toughest gamer sweat, and that alone made it unique, and what made it the masterpiece it was.

Two expansions were released shortly after the initial printing of Space Hulk, both of which changed the game substantially. The first was called “Deathwing”, which focused on bolstering the Marines capabilities via new weapons, and more importantly, with the inclusion of a new character, the Librarian, who was equipped with arcane powers. The expansion also included expanded rules as well as a new set of missions which really provided a unique new scope to the game. The second expansion was called Genestealers, and had new Genestealer forces called Hybrids, as well as expanding the game via a complete package of psychic combat rules.

During the time before the 2nd edition of Space Hulk was released, both the White Dwarf and Citadel Journals magazines expanded the game even further with some new rules and scenarios. Much of this was later reprinted along with a good deal of new materials in what became the Holy Grail of Space Hulk, the much sought-after compendium called “Space Hulk Campaigns”, which was a hardcover publication initially in 1991 and was later reprinted in paperback in 1993.

Fast forward to 1996, and out came the 2nd edition of Space Hulk. It was again a visual masterpiece, with highly detailed miniatures and a new array of even better looking tiles, but the rule changes made in this version were so massive and actually took quite a bit from the original recipe that it was largely used by the owners only for the upgraded art, tiles, and models while continuing to play with the 1st edition rules. I mean, they even changed the tagline, which was a move of the highest level of stupidity I can imagine. That being said, the artwork was a great improvement over the already exceptional original, so it sold reasonably well, but then died on the vine despite a large, rabid fan base.

Finally, after a tremendously long 13 year hiatus, the 3rd edition of Space Hulk was released in September of 2009, and it’s simply the best iteration of what is arguably the best board game ever made. The miniatures are beyond compare and put even the best models that Fantasy Flight has to shame. Instead of each faction having identical models, almost every Space Marine is completely unique, as are the Genestealers. Although the models are the best that I have ever seen in my 26+ years of gaming, the modular tiles are, without reservation, the most utterly superb game artwork ever envisioned by man. They’re masterfully embossed, with the space separations and thematic artwork raised several 32# paper thicknesses higher than the depressions. To top off the embossing, the glossy tiles are amazingly well drawn and absolutely give you the feel of a dark, desolate, abandoned freighter. In short, everything in this new edition is truly in a class of its own and should be viewed as the metric by which all other games are judged. The rules took a step back to the original 1st edition, with many of the 2nd edition rules being relegated to the scrap heap of history, but new rules were added as well, making this game as close to perfect as I can imagine.

Now that you know the history of Space Hulk, let’s move onto the components. When you crack open the game, you’ll be met by what feels like hundreds of 9x11 sheets of markers, terrain tiles, some very cool looking dice, an hourglass, and the best part, several sprues of plastic figures that hold untold legions of Space Marines, Genestealers, and some campaign items such as a small robot, a chalice, and a fallen Marine on a throne. Although none of the models are painted, they are of the highest caliber of sculpting and are reasonably easy to assemble, provided you’ve had even a pittance of experience in your lifetime in the art of building models.

There are also two books within; one is the rulebook that explain the mechanics of the game and the other is the campaign book that walks you through the missions, in a narrative and exciting format, complete with illustrations that show you exactly how to assemble the portion of the hulk that you’re planning to cleanse. On the back of one book is an excellent quick reference guide that helps resolve almost every possible query you might have during play, and the other book contains a portrait of each of the Marines, perfectly painted, as a guide to use should you decide to paint your troops. The box art is astoundingly good, and along the edges reside photos of fully painted Genestealers should you elect to paint them as well. If I recall, there’s even a reference on which precise paints and inks to use in order to duplicate the magnificently painted sculptures.

It is very difficult to explain what the object of Space Hulk is due to the “sandbox” nature of the game system, so I’ll discuss the game in generalizations. The tiles are laid out in either a prescribed configuration or one of your own design, and the players mark the entry points for the Marines, the entry points for the Genestealers, and the objective which the Marines are attempting to fulfill, depending on the scenario chosen. All of these points are indicated via the wonderful markers provided within the game, and if the scenario calls for finding a specific item, you may place those models in the appropriate area.

The concepts of the game are essentially unchanged from its first iteration, with the Marines starting their assault in a predetermined room or rooms, and the Genestealers starting out as “blips” on the Marines’ scanners, indicated by blip tokens which the Genestealer moves in lieu of models. This mechanic allows the Genestealer player to move forces without revealing how many individual units of its forces are represented by the circular blip marker until a Marine views it directly within its line of sight. When a blip is seen by a Marine, the Genestealer player immediately reveals it and places the indicated number of models in the adjacent spaces. Further, while the Genestealer player can take as long as they want to plot and execute the insidious plan of wanton destruction upon the Marines, the Marine player is limited in the amount of time that can be spent on any given turn by the included sand timer, giving a level of tension and urgency that is not often found in wargames.During their turn the Marines can perform certain actions, such as moving, turning, and firing upon the enemy, where the Genestealers are limited, mainly, to moving and attacking Marines that are adjacent. Marines have ranged attacks, but up close and personal the Genestealers are simply unstoppable. If a Marine gets attacked by a Genestealer, the odds are very, very slim that they’ll survive, which again adds to the incredibly tense feel of Space Hulk. This forces the Genestealer and Marine players to play completely different strategies, and adds to the already limitless replayability by allowing players to switch sides between matches and get a completely different experience.

All that being said, the true magic of the game is in two mechanics that set the bar for all games that followed: The overwatch mechanic and the command point mechanic. Overwatch is a special game condition that costs a Marine a certain amount of action points to initiate and allows a Marine to take a shot at a target any time that anything comes into that Marine’s line of sight, as well as any time something within that line of sight moves or takes any other action. The downside of overwatch mode is that if a Marine rolls doubles while taking shots, his gun jams. At that point, he must use the other mechanic, command points, to clear the jam and continue firing, provided he has command points remaining.

This simple mechanic adds a level of tension to the game that is unparalleled in any other game I’ve ever played, and is incredibly well executed. When a Genestealer is rushing toward a Marine and his gun jams, the Marine player will truly become panicked at the prospect of his Marine being torn to pieces, invoking true emotion, which is rare at best in a boardgame. It’s simply a cut above any other tactical combat mechanic I’ve ever seen.

The other interesting mechanic, the command point system, is a randomly assigned amount of extra actions that are allotted to the Marine side that can be used at any time to perform any legal action. This can be used during the Marine’s turn, or alternatively, to interrupt the Genestealer player’s turn. This mechanic gives the Marines a tactical advantage, but the overwhelming advantages granted the Genestealers due to their infinite supply of units and unlimited turn time are still formidable at best, and downright insurmountable at worst.

In short, this game is amazing, groundbreaking, and has a legacy that is simply unrivalled in wargames both modern and classic. If you don’t own this game, you need to, and if you think you won’t like it, you’re probably going to be pleasantly surprised.

Things That Make Space Hulk The Sistene Chapel Of Boardgaming:
*Overwatch is a marvel of game design and provides a level of pure intensity that is simply unequalled
*The art, components, models, and every single bit within the box is absolutely of the highest possible caliber of design, manufacture and execution
*The theme is so strong in this game you may actually have dreams of walking the catwalks and corridors of a Space Hulk
*The rules and mechanics are so well explained in the rulebook that one play will be enough to have you completely understand the game
*Every single decision you make is important and relevant to the outcome of the game
*The luck factor is definitely in Space Hulk, but it’s not just a dicefest in Chanceland

Things That Sadden The Emperor:
*The MSRP of the game is USD$100.00, which is a hell of a lot of money
*The Marine player usually loses, which can disenchant the simple-minded
*Games Workshop makes this, and they are being a bunch of douchebags lately

This is to boardgames what Biz Markie is to beatboxing. It is the Muhammed Ali of squad-based tactical wargames, and as I said before, I believe it to be one of the best games ever made. If you’re a complete eurolitest that has a genetic predisposition to hate dice, theme, and fun, you may not enjoy this game, but I hear farming is nice.
5/5 Stars

To learn more about Space Hulk, go to Board Game Geek, because Games Workshop was apparently a recipient of a Cease and Desist letter…I can’t find Space Hulk anywhere on their website:

Are you still reading this? Dude, go out and GET SPACE HULK! It may be another 10 years before they reprint it!

And as an aside, if you, Games Workshop, wish to cease-and-desist me for using these images, please review, in detail, Title 17 of the United States Code, specifically section 107, which defines Fair Use of a copyrighted work as:
"Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright."

This is a criticism, commentary, and a news article, hence the copyright holders are not being infringed. In short, tell your slag lawyers to go fuck themselves and get back to doing what you do best: make exceptional games.


kenchan13 said...

Awesome article on one of my fav games. I'm an active member of boardgamegeek and what g.w. did is kinda douchy but i live near one of their stores and the guys there are super awesome. They helped me paint my figures and they even let me bring the game in to play at the shop whenever i want.

Anonymous said...

Best review i EVER saw on space hulk. Keep up the good work.

daveroswell said...


I am coming to a realization that I want to have more Trash classics in my collection. Aliens and Epic Duels skyrocketed to my top games list. Why? Because both games are very visual, have a rich movie history and they make me want to immerse myself into the culture of the movies they represent.

I just bought the new edition of Space Hulk from Zev. I hope the lack of movie background doesn't detract; I am almost positive it won't.