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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A rash of enthusiasm...

... For Space Hulk

Part 3. Tactics, tactics, tactics!
If the timer and blips rules gave the players of Space Hulk a point-of-view from which to play, the rest of the rules brought the premise vividly to life and made the game a thrilling challenge. Given the importance I have already attributed to the timer rule, it's hardly a stretch that I would see the simplicity of the action and resolution systems as important here. This simplicity made sure that the timer rule brought tension and excitement to the challenges of the game, instead of being experienced as a punitive burden.

Beyond the rules, I would also have to say that the board itself was a key element of what made the game so good. There might've been a certain implausibility to all those narrow corridors and tiny rooms- especially in the Dark Millenium, where everything was always on a grand scale; but their effect on the game was simply excellent. I guess at the most obvious level, a more open board would've made for pretty dull play in a game where only one player had ranged weaponry. But the tight confines of the Space Hulk board created a fascinating set of tactial problems for players.

These problems arose from the way in which the maze of the board broke your forces up into discrete groups, and forced them down certain definite lines of advance. As a result of this, corners and junctions became key points around which entire strategies could hinge.

The AP rules were also crucial here, breaking movement through the hulk down into bounds requiring careful judgement. The effect was that every single action counted, especially for the Terminators. Games could be won or lost as much by a misspent AP as by the fortunes of the dice.

The combination of the impact of the tight confines of the board and the strictures of the AP system placed a high premium on carefully planned advances. Moving your pieces in the wrong order could have terrible consequences. One badly placed Terminator could block a corridor, backing up the rest of his squad and leaving them open for a vicious Stealer counterattack. One misplaced blip could be caught out by a Terminator, and subjected to involuntary conversion so that it turned out to be a single Stealer instead of the 3 on which the player had been relying.

A variety of tactics had to be developed to deal with these challenges. The most obvious one was straight out of all the classic textbooks: paying attention to your flanks and rear. The maze-like nature of the board meant that there was always a chance that your opponent might hit you in or get round your flanks. Terminators had to be stationed to cover likely avenues with overwatch fire. Blips and/or Stealers had to lurk in suitable locations to deny easy access.

Apart from these basics, each specific feature of the board- doors, corners, corridors, rooms- posed its own problems for each side. For Stealers the mission usually involved stopping the Terminators achieving some objective, so the problems these features posed were all about lurking and swarming, building a force sufficiently big to swamp the Terminators with numbers. For the Terminators, typically on the offensive, these features were often intermediate objectives to be taken on the way to fulfilling their mission.

Doors for example. These were very useful to Stealer players. Blips couldn't enter a Terminator's LOS, and could only convert before moving. So a standard Terminator tactic was to fire on the move, trying to blow as many doors as possible. The hope here was to open up long fire lanes that would slow down Stealer infiltration of the hulk- only a single Stealer at a time could cross the firelane, and it might go down to overwatch.

The Stealer response to this was 'doorkeepers': get to the door first, and open it (this tactic only worked if the door was on some kind of corner btw). Next turn, the 'doorkeeper' would close the door, maybe moving off to let another Stealer/blip take its place. Now LOS was blocked and blips could move at will. Then a 2nd 'doorkeeper' would open the door to keep it safe for next turn.

Then there were corners and corridors. As a Stealer player you'd usually have a bug or blip or two lurking off side corridors, round corners, and so on, just waiting for an unwary, careless or just plain unlucky Terminator to get too close. Smart Terminators would hold back of course, but sooner or later someone would have to take the corner or shoot the corridor ('shooting' a corridor meant charging up a short corridor to clear the area ahead).

By the time you were sending your Terminator in you'd know exactly the minimum AP- including additional CP- required to get up there and clear the area. But often you'd have to get your heavy flamer up there too, to block off the corridor ahead and prevent the Stealer reinforcements just round the corner from swarming in to leave the next guy in line to have to do it all over again. A lot of the tensest dice rolling of my gaming career has come from those situations!

Sometimes too you couldn't hold back like that. Then there'd be nothing for it but to send a few Terminators in close, set them into overwatch, and hope that they'd take enough Stealers with them for you to clear the position next turn. Truly grim stuff!

One of my favourites to come out of this spiral of tactic and counter-tactic was one we called the Dance of Death. Often there'd be a position where you'd have a lone Stealer just round a corner with a Terminator on overwatch 5 squares away. That would give you 1 attack, but only after you'd been shot at 5 times. Not great odds. But then someone noticed the rule that overwatch fire was mandatory, and that it was per action, not per AP spent. Stealers could make a 90 degree turn for 0AP, and so it began: move a Stealer out further away- overwatch; free turn- overwatch; sidle- overwatch; free turn... and so on, hoping for that jam that would let the first Stealer get in for its attack.

You could lose a lot of Stealers that way if you were unlucky, sometimes blowing a whole position, but what the heck: we figured that was how the hivemind worked anyway.

Another trick we mastered was the art of packing more than 9 bugs into a 3x3 room- clinging to the walls and ceiling in other words. This all had to do with the logic of involuntary blip conversion. You set your blips up just right and then left them there waiting for a Terminator to come through the door. The first blip would convert. Its Stealer(s) would be killed, revealing more blips, which would convert, and so on. This was a lot of fun, and a handy way of stopping powerful characters.

By the time my regular hulking stopped we were also beginning to get into the intricacies of board design. This was because we'd noticed a lot of the published missions made it easy for the Terminators to interdict Stealer entry areas, or had too many long straight corridors that made good swarming and lurking too difficult for the Stealers. Naturally enough, not wanting to make life too easy for the Terminators we decided to change this around.

By way of a conclusion
The range of tactical problems and solutions and the spiral of measure and counter-measure I've sketched out here should go some way to underlining why Space Hulk deserves its classic status. Simple basic elements giving rise to complex gameplay is a hallmark of classic games, as is immense replay value. Second edition Space Hulk- with the addition of the missing timer and CP rules from 1st edition- enjoys these in spades.

Space Hulk is also a game offering the satisfaction of mastery as a reward for serious play. For me, one of the great experiences of my years' gaming has been found at the Space Hulk table. It was the sense of my Terminators as a finely honed team, poised and ready to spring into action at a moment's notice. It was a wonderful feeling, and is probably about as close as I've come in boardgaming to that feeling of being possessed by a favourite roleplaying character.

This hymn of praise to a modern classic would be a bit academic if it wasn't for one thing. The last time I went to Games Day UK, a couple of years ago, I made a point of going to the Fanatic stand to ask why GW weren't supporting Space Hulk with their Specialist Games line which supports other old games like Blood Bowl and Necromunda. I was passed down the line to Jervis Johnson.

We had a nice chat, and he explained to me what I've already explained about margins and so on. He also told me that he hoped that GW might- just might, he stressed- want to launch a boardgames division in the future. Space Hulk could have a place there he suggested, although as a proper boardgame, and not a boardgame/miniatures game crossoever. I have to say I think this would be rather cool. Games like Memoir'44 and Settlers of Catan show the kind of thing GW could do with WFB and 40K.

So if you've never gone hulking before, check out your 40K acquiantances (you must know at least one), and see if you can't get someone to introduce you to Space Hulk (don't forget to use the timer and the CP rules). And then bug GW into making Jervis' dream come true. And then maybe this great game will get another, longer-lived, revival. ;)

Related@RD/KA!
- Part 1. In the beginning was the hulk
- Part 2. The timer rule and player point-of-view
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