Monday, January 02, 2006

A rash of enthusiasm...

... For Space Hulk

Part 1. In the beginning was the hulk
What with the theme of some of my recent posts, I felt it was time for a burst of untrammelled enthusiasm. Where better to look for inspiration then than this classic game from GW?

Space Hulk was the first 40K game from the GW stable I got into. I was given a copy by a friend and before I knew where I was, I'd been introduced to one of the most exhilarating adrenalin-rushes of tactical skirmish boardgaming I've ever played. Playing it week after week as I did in the days before I could afford to amass a playable army back in the dog days of Rogue Trader and the early days of 2nd edition 40K, it wasn't long before Space Hulk entered the first division of my most played games.

It's been quite some time since I did any serious hulking, but those glory days live vividly in my memories, and Space Hulk is up there with games like Up Front and Memoir'44 as one I'd happily give some serious attention to anywhere, anytime.

A bit of history
Space Hulk was first published in 1989, only 2 years after Rogue Trader- the game that launched GW's Dark Millenium on an unsuspecting universe. Adeptus Titanicus- GW's gothic take on Japanese giant robot combat- had been released only the previous year. These then were the days before GW had come to bestride the gaming industry as the behemoth we know today.

So it has to be said that the publication of Space Hulk was something of an event. It came in a big box reminiscent of the kiddies' games like Mouse Trap which many gamers will have loved in their childhoods. And the Space Hulk box was full of goodies equally reminiscent of those games too: 30 clip-together plastic miniatures; a pile of jigcut board sections in thick card; lots of doors with little stands; a pile of counters of similarly chunky quality; and 2 lavishly illustrated rulebooks.

For those already fond of the style of Rogue Trader this was a real treat. And for anyone else? Well, these were the days when the better typical boardgames came in boxes not much bigger than a coffee-table book, with paper maps and fiddly wee counters. So, like I said: the sight of a product like Space Hulk being released by a British company was big news, a real heads up. Just a pity then that I had to wait 3 years before getting my hands on my own copy. Ah well, these things happen. After all, I didn't learn to play backgammon until my early 20's, and goodness knows how many centuries old the game was by then.

The setting
The premise of Space Hulk was simple, and its inspirations obvious to any fans of SF. Space hulks were giant agglomerations of space wreckage drifting randomly through the galaxies of the Dark Millenium. Some of them were infested with Genestealers- relentless and deadly creatures of chitin and slithering flesh. Their sole purpose was to conquer other species, through infiltration and genetic implantation; a kind of extraterrestrial cuckoo if you like. Genestealers were so dangerous that when a space hulk was sighted in human space, only humanity's supreme warriors could face the threat: Imperial space marines equipped with Terminator armour that made them the equivalent of a pocket walking tank.

And so the game pitted skittering bugs with an instinct for slaughter and a taste for alien genes against genetically-engineered supersoldiers with a pathological hatred of the xeno and a holy imperative to protect their geneseed. This potent cocktail of familiar themes revisited through GW's penchant for pushing the macabre to new extremes proved to be another winner.

The game
The basic game itself was beautifully simple. It was played in predefined scenarios, with specific victory conditions for each side. These were called 'missions', a nice touch immediately setting a certain tone ('mission' has a certain imperative lacking in 'scenario' don't you think?). This was enhanced by the cheerful titles of the missions in the basic set: who could resist playing out missions like 'Suicide Mission', 'Exterminate', or 'Cleanse and Burn'? The Dark Millenium was a grim place, and hulking was its grimmest business, and boy, did you know it!

The mission set-ups were quick and easy: just lay out the board- a maze of narrow corridors and small rooms- as per the mission, set up the doors, assemble your forces, and you were good to go.

Terminators came in squads of 5: a sergeant, a heavy flamer trooper, and 3 others. Standard equipment was a storm bolter and a power fist (nifty names again). The sergeant would have a power sword instead of a powerfist, something you'd be really, really grateful for every now and again. You'd have 1 or 2 squads depending on the scenario. And that would be your lot.

If the Terminators were neat (and they were), it was with the Genestealers (Stealers hereafter) that Space Hulk first got really neat. The thing was, Stealers didn't set up on the board as models, they set up as 'blips'. Conceived to represent the hidden movement of Stealers out of sight, coupled with the effects of the scanners on the Terminators' assault ship feeding data into the marines' HUD's, blips were counters representing an unknown number of Stealers- 1, 2 or 3 in the basic game.

These blips couldn't act as Stealers- eg. attack- until they were 'converted', ie. flipped over and replaced with the appropriate number of Stealer models. The rules governing this meant a major element of the game was the war of manoeuvre: the Stealer player looking for the ideal place to convert his blips so as to launch an attack; the Terminator player trying to catch blips in open sight, thus surprising the unwary Stealers (a.k.a. 'involuntary conversion') and gunning them down before they could react.

As well as sneaking about out of sight, the Stealer player also had the advantage of reinforcements. Every turn he would get a certain number of additional blips- drawn at random- which he could place at certain designated entry points beside the board. So a major tactic for the Stealer player was massing and swarming if he could- ie. was drawing good blips; or using bluff and uncertainty if he had to- ie. was drawing puny blips.

The gameplay was neat and clean. The turn structure was I-go-U-go, and models were activated using action points (AP). Terminators had 4 AP, Stealers 6, and the effects of the AP costs of the various actions was to make Terminators slow and lumbering while Stealers were fast and agile. Close combat was based on rolling d6's, highest winning (ties were a standoff). The Stealers had 3d6 to roll and choose from though, to the Terminators' 1d6, so close combat was very one-sided: Terminators who lasted more than 1 round with a Stealer were heroes; those who killed one were legends!

Of course, the Terminators had those storm bolters, so they were hoping that the bugs wouldn't get that close. Shooting was dead easy: roll 2d6 and pray for 6's. If you missed, roll again, and pray for 5's or 6's this time, unless you were storming forward with moving fire or firing in overwatch. Ah yes, overwatch! This was the core of Terminator tactics (except for the flamers that is). A marine could spend AP to set overwatch. This allowed fire at Stealers once per action conducted in LOS in their own turn. This was normal fire with the added risk that if you rolled a double, your gun jammed. You just had to pray that you'd survive long enough to repair it!

The resulting overwatch corridors gave rise to another of the game's crucial conflicts, with the Terminators trying to lure the Stealers onto their guns to thin down their numbers; or trying to hold in one direction while seeking to break through in another. The narrow corridors- 1 model wide, and the small rooms - only 3x3, were useful here. But the Terminators' greatest friend in this respect was the heavy flamer.

Unlike the storm bolter, which could only shoot at one target at a time, the heavy flamer was a template weapon that could clear entire rooms with a single shot. But because they left an impassible wall of flame on the board during the Stealers' turn, their prime use was in blocking corridors. Cutting off the advance of the main Stealer swarm on one flank while storming forward on the other was the mark of a Terminator commander who knew how best to utilise the combination of heavy flamers and overwatching storm bolters.

The Terminators had another trick up their sleeve: Command Points (CP). Representing the effects of the leaders aboard the assault ship, CP were generated by drawing a chit at the start of each Terminator turn to get a value from 1-6. Counting as extra AP available to spend on any marine, these could be spent at any time- including during the Stealers' turn. Of course you could never rely on them, but they gave the Terminators an added edge, and sometimes more.

The last rule in the basic game applied to the Terminators, and it was as important to their play as the blips rules were to the Stealers, and key to the whole game IMO. This was the timer rule. Terminators had only 3 minutes per squad to take their turn. This was reduced to 2 minutes and 30 seconds if a sergeant had been lost. Once the time was up, that was it, turn over.

And that's about that.

A bit more history
As ever Space Hulk received support in White Dwarf, and its success was sufficient for the release of 2 supplements: Deathwing, and Genestealer (both 1990).

Deathwing introduced a host of new rules: Terminator characters; new weapons; rules for multi-level games and new features of the hulk; rules and points values for DIY scenarios, and for solo play. Genestealer introduced genestealer hybrids- different phases of the Stealer life-cycle; new blips; more weapons; the psychic rules; new wider corridors; and Grey Knights.

In 1992 GW also released Tyranid Attack. This was a bit of an oddity. It was a legacy of GW's collaboration with Milton Bradley, featuring the components of their Space Crusade game, and using a set of stripped-down Space Hulk rules. The genestealers had begun to mutate away from their original concept towards what they are today. This is just one aspect of the wider Tyranid species: a hivemind collective that genetically mutates its various subspecies to meet its various needs as it strives to fulfil its purpose, which isn't that much different from that of the original Stealers- ie. the conquest and destruction of all other lifeforms through the absorption of their biomass and genotypes.

The game itself was set aboard a Tyranid hiveship instead of the corridors and rooms of the space hulks of old. It featured space marine scouts against Tyranid warriors instead of Terminators against Stealers. Tyranid Attack wasn't a huge success, and it, and then the rest of the Space Hulk range soon disappeared from the shelves in GW stores.

That wasn't the end of this great game though. It was rereleased in a brand, spanking new edition in 1996, a game which IMO is up there with Blood Bowl 3rd edition and WFRP2 as the best new editions of any GW game, ever.

Space Hulk 2nd edition contained all the bits familiar from 1st edition, and a bit more. For a start it was in glorious full colour: board sections, counters, rulebooks, the lot (well, OK, there were a few black and white illustrations). There were 18 scenarios compared to the 6 of the 1st edition (reprinted in the 2nd edition), and a total of 14 from the 3 parts of the 1st edition. There were nice new Terminator models that were as good as the existing metal miniatures sculpted by the inimitable Jes Goodwin. Thre was some other chrome, like the new shooting dice. And there were the rules.

With one caveat, the rules of 2nd edition Space Hulk cleaned up a few niggling gaps in the originals, and at the same time made some valuable advances. Terminator AP options were tidied up by allowing firing while turning as well as just while moving forwards or backwards- sensible enough when you think about it. Involuntary blip conversion was tweaked to allow the Terminator player to decide the facing of the Stealers- thus giving you your full and just reward for outmanoeuvring the swarm. The LOS rules were simplified in a way that closed down any possibilty of unfortunate arguments while at the same time reinforcing the claustrophobic feel of the confines of the hulk. The blip deck was brought up to date with new blips- 0, 4, 5, and 6- which had been introduced in the expansions to the first edition.

Most important though IMO was the complete rewriting of the heavy flamer rules. The original rules were that the template covered all of the particular board section into which it was fired. This could be as few as 2 squares, or many as 12- obviously a bit dumb, and something that was houseruled away pronto. The new rules gave a heavy flamer 12 flame markers (plus a reload) which could be fired in a 'chain of fire' in a rather realistic way. The overall effect of these rules was neatly to distinguish killing fire from blocking fire while also stripping out any record keeping when it came to the blocking wall of fire. Playable and clever: I liked it!

So what was this caveat I referred to? Simple: they left out the timer rules for the Terminators. The charge of dumbing down is often levelled at GW in respect of new editions of their games. I'm not usually in agreement with these opinions. I am in this case though. Removing the timer rules gutted the game of one of its key features. Terminators in Space Hulk without the timer is like alcohol-free lager, or decaffinated coffee- it's unnatural in other words. Spending CP in the Stealers' turn was also left out, but that's not so important. Both were houseruled back in in any event.

Despite this high quality, the new edition wasn't universally popular among the fans of the original. The most common complaint I've heard was that there weren't all the expansions the 1st edition enjoyed. This is undeniable. In this respect the new edition fell victim to the corporate policies that had come to rule GW in the days since 1st edition: the game simply didn't have the margins to make it worth the company's while, whether we like it or not.

Beyond that though, it has to be noted that all the extra rules from the expansions to the 1st edition ended up making the game unwieldy. The simple shooting rules had been replaced with tables where you cross-referenced weapon and target type to get the d6 score needed to hit. And then there were the psychic rules. Even fans of the 1st edition are wont to agree that the psychic rules were simply over the top. And that's not to mention all the complications introduced by the arrival of the Chaos Space marines, power armoured marines, and so on, in the pages of White Dwarf.

Against the complainers, I would have to point out that the simple and deadly hi-octane carnage of the original game had got lost under all the chrome. The game needed to be stripped back to its core and reworked; maybe then it could've been re-expanded. Sad to say, when this was done- and done very well indeed IMO- a game like Space Hulk was no longer on GW's agenda. This classic tactical skirmish game had fallen victim to the very corporate policies that had made its revision possible. ;)

- Part 2. The timer rule and player point-of-view
- Part 3. Tactics, tactics, tactics!
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