In my previous post, I discussed the classic fantasy dungeon crawl genre of board games. I took a look at classic examples of the genre and at more modern iterations. Today I intend to do pretty much the same thing, but with a focus on sci-fi games. In considering the classic historical example of the genre, I turn my attention once again to Games Workshop (they really did dominate this genre in the 1980s and 90s) and their classic board game, Space Hulk.
Space Hulk was released in 1989 and was set in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 universe. The game is for two players and involves the first player controlling a squad of Space Marine Terminators as they explore an abandoned ship or “Space Hulk” and fulfilling specific objectives. The second player controls wave after wave of Genestealers, a vicious alien race with cruel rending claws. The game is asymmetrical, with the two sides functioning very differently. The Genestealers are very simple to play and are expected to throw themselves at the marines or lie in wait to ambush them. There is no time limit for this player and they usually have access to wave after wave of alien beasties. The Space Marine player has a far more complicated game. Each Terminator is kitted out with excellent battlegear and can easy take down a Genestealer or two at range. However, they are limited in number, die easily when swarmed, and do not respawn. There is also a time limit on this player’s turn, adding to the frantic tension experienced by the player.
The game featured a number of attractive miniatures and a range of corridor and room tiles, allowing for several different mission layouts, as well as the ability to design one’s own map. This really helped replay value, as did the expansions that the first edition received. The game was given a second edition with a revamped board and miniatures in 1996, but the game was out of print by the turn of the 21st century.
The game remained out of print until 2009, when Games Workshop released a limited third edition of Space Hulk. This version of the game had far higher production values than previous editions, featuring thick, glossy cardstock corridors and rooms, exquisitely detailed and exclusive models, and updated rules. Needless to say, based on these qualities and fond memories many gamers had of earlier editions, the mail-order stock of this limited edition game was sold out three days before release, and most of the copies sent to Games Workshop stores were sold out within a week of release. I was lucky enough to get my own copy from Glasgow’s branch of Games Workshop a couple of days after release.
This game is the archetype of the sci-fi dungeon crawl. It is built for two players, but can be expanded to more players by dividing up responsibility for different members of the squad. This becomes more practical in the 2009 edition as each terminator in this box was given a unique sculpt to set them apart from their battle-brethren. The game has lots of tension and opportunities for diverse and innovative strategy.
There is a long tradition of adapting this game to the digital medium with the first PC edition released in 1993 by EA. In 1995 another edition followed, and I actually own this edition for the Sega Saturn. It has not aged well at all but, for the time, it did manage to capture the atmosphere and tension of the tabletop experience. More recently, a modern version of the game has been made available on Steam and, whilst the game is quite expensive, it does give players to enjoy this classic game with their friends without breaking the bank on an overpriced copy of the limited edition 2009 release.
Earth Reborn is a serious game, in that it really does take a significant level of commitment to get your head around it and actually get to the table. Like Space Hulk, Earth Reborn‘s board is entirely modular and mission maps are put together by placing down rooms, corridors, walkways and other terrain tiles to suit the individual game. There are lots of these pieces and whilst there are a good number of scenarios included in the box, these are mostly tutorial missions set up to explore specific rules. This is another slight problem with the learning curve of Earth Reborn. It’s great when video games have a level by level series of tutorials, each adding an extra level of complexity until you are suddenly playing the full game. This works well in a videogame, but I wonder if it quite works for Earth Reborn. Each mission adds a layer of complexity to ease you into the game, but the setup time and play time of each mission is so significantly longer than it would be for the videogame equivalent, that the time investment for the tutorial does not seem entirely worthwhile, unless you do have the better part of a day to burn. That said, once everything does click, the game is a masterpiece. It’s big and clunky, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun, engaging, deep, tactical and ultimately satisfying. This is not a game to be taken lightly, though, and is certainly not a game to be attempted under the influence of alcohol, lest you start to panic over all of the systems and subsystems such as the nebulously titled “Iconographic Phrasing System”.
I’d love to give a fuller review of this game, but I have just not got it onto the table enough to really do it justice.
I wouldn’t really call Incursion a sci-fi game, but I just do not have enough material to write a third entry in this series on the subject of “Alternative History WW2 Dungeon Crawl Games”. This game takes place in the Secrets of the Third Reich alternative WW2 setting. It sees a squadron of heavily armed and armoured American GIs storming Nazi bases to fulfil objectives. Sounds a lot like Space Hulk, right? One player controls the aforementioned Americans, whilst the other controls the far more interesting Nazi forces, including command characters, werewolves and zombies. The zombies in this game act quite similarly to Space Hulk‘s Genestealers, constantly respawning until their spawn point in blocked off. Like Space Hulk, the game includes a decent variety of missions, but also assigns points values to each character and unit, allowing for customisable yet balanced play. This makes up somewhat for the static game board which does not allow the sort of map customisation that Space Hulk and Earth Reborn both offer. Something else that sets it apart is the use of cards to give players more choice, flexibility and unpleasant surprises to inflict upon their foes.
This is a game that sat on my shelf for a few years before getting much play, but I really have come to appreciate more in the past couple of years. Last year there was a Kickstarter for a second edition, so if you are interested, the game will be getting a re-release in the near future.
Thus ends my personal experience with sci-fi dungeon crawls, but there are a couple of other titles I would like to mention, mainly because they are titles I would like to play in the near future. As a big fan of Privateer Press, I am very keen to try out their new game, Level 7: Omega Protocol. I need to be very specific with the subtitle there as, although I have heard universally good things about this game, I have heard very negative things about the first game in the series, Level 7: Escape. From what I have heard, this seems to be a very well thought out and modern implementation of the sci-fi dungeon crawl genre.
I also worry that regular readers may be perturbed if I managed to get through an entire article without mentioning anything by Fantasy Flight Games. I actually a copy of FFG’s Doom board game sitting in my spare room waiting to be played. I have help of on this as I acquired the game second hand and the box, although in good condition, is an absolute mess inside, and I need to sit down and sort it out. I’ve heard good things and I hope to play it soon. In a similar vein, one of my regular gaming group has picked up Gears of War, another videogame-base sci-fi dungeon crawl from Fantasy Flight Games that I am very eager to try. I don’t think it should take too much persuasion to get a game of that going.