Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A rash of enthusiasm...

... For Space Hulk

Part 2. The timer rule and player point-of-view
Like I said, I haven't done any serious hulking in quite some time now, but when I was I played the game often enough to put it in at #3 in the 1st division of my most-played games. More than that: I reckon I played Space Hulk more intensely than any other game, including Up Front (believe it or not), because it was pretty much the only game I had for a couple of years or so (my then regular gaming opponent wasn't into Up Front that much). We used to play every other week or more, often for 2 days solid, which amounts to several hundred games.

In that time I came to cherish the riches that lie behind the deceptive simplicity of the game's basic elements. And don't be fooled by that simplicity. Space Hulk is more than just an atmospheric beer'n'pretzel quickie. It is a demanding tactical challenge requiring cool nerves and the ability to think on your feet. In short: it is a feast of riches derived from simple elements after the fashion of the old school of classic games.

There are 2 key levels on which the rules of Space Hulk work to create such a thrilling gaming experience. One is the ease of play enabled by the simple basic elements. The other is (funnily enough) the way that 2 key elements of the rules combine to give the players well defined points-of-view which mean that the game vividly generates the atmosphere of its theme.

Regular readers might remember my previous comments on the matter of creating definite points-of-view in my articles on Up Front and Memoir'44. Space Hulk contrasts interestingly with these games because it is essentially a good old fashioned board and counters game (the models, however pretty, are purely decorative).

The rules that create these points-of-view are the blip rules and the timer rule. Before going on to explain this, I should note- for the benefit of any old timers who were fans of the 1st edition- that although I played the 1st edition a lot, I was always more au fait with the whole Tyranid hivefleet thing than with the classic stealer cult background of the original game. This experience naturally colours my thinking on how these rules work to enforce the points-of-view of the 2 sides in the game.

The way I see it, the time limit rule is fundamental here. I see it as working like this: the stealer player is not subject to a time limit. Thus able to take as much time as desired, the stealer player is put in the position of the hivemind in all its mysterious workings. In contrast to this the time-limited turns of the Terminator player represents the smaller individual minds of humans (even genetically-engineered supersoldier servants of the God Emperor of Man) and their less efficient coordination based on verbal communication. Thus it is stealer player's luxury of time relative to the time-pressures of the Terminator player that enforce the basic points-of-view of each side.

The blip rules pin down the Terminator player's point-of-view by neatly unifying the perspectives of the individual marines with that of their commander, who is off-board (as ever).

Note the rather odd case I am putting forward here: that it is the Terminator player's rule that defines the essential point-of-view of both sides; that this rule defines the players' points-of-view because the stealer player isn't subject to the rule; and that it is a stealer player's rule that finishes off the defintion of the Terminator player's point-of-view. This is all evidence of subtle game design if you ask me.

I have already explained (in the articles linked above) why I believe the advent of a design focus on a clear and definite player point-of-view to be a legacy of the arrival of the rpg. I believe this same pedigree is evident in the case of Space Hulk. It's fairly obvious really, given GW's early days as an rpg importer and publisher. Interestingly enough the original Space Hulk box displayed a logo announcing the game to be a '3D roleplay game'. I have to confess that I thought this to be a bit spurious at the time. With hindsight though I would have to admit that there was more to this than initially met the eye.

Apart from enforcing the players' points-of-view, and generating gut-wrenching tension on the part of the Terminator player, the timer rule also had another important effect. This was to provide a neat solution to one of the perennial problems of games in general: sitting waiting for your turn. This wasn't a problem for the stealer player, who'd never have to wait more than 6 minutes before their turn.

More interestingly though, it wasn't a problem for the Terminator player either, no matter how long the stealer player lingered over their turn. Why? Because as the Terminator player, the key to good play was constant planning while paying close attention to each and every move the stealer player made. Add in overwatch fire and the use of CP in stealer turns, and you had a game in which player involvement was as near constant as possible, a remarkable feat for a classic I-go-U-go turn structure with simple and one-sided rules for interrupting opponents' turns.

- Part 1. In the beginning was the hulk
- Part 3. Tactics, tactics, tactics!
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