The Emperor's Finest

You couldn’t tell they can’t walk sideways by looking at them

In what must be roughly 25 years of miniature gaming, modeling, and painting, I can say with little to no exaggeration that the twelve Space Marines pictured here are the first unit of anything that I’ve completed in that time. Not only that, but they’re my best work, largely thanks to greater patience (from being older) and the ultimate store of human knowledge known as YouTube.

In the old days, in order to learn how to paint miniatures, you had to a) read a book, b) know someone else who was good at it, or c) just figure it out yourself. Fantasy miniature painting is a bit of a niche hobby, so options A and C were pretty much it. Recently, though, when I decided to get back in to painting, I just fired up my browser and watched a guy do it. It all made sense when you could see the actual brush strokes!

These guys are from Space Hulk (4th edition), the latest incarnation of Games Workshop’s classic Aliens rip-off corridor shooter board game, first released in 1987 or so. It’s a tense two-player game that seems at first glance to be a tactical miniatures game, but soon reveals itself to be a time-limited tactical puzzle for one player and a gleeful disposable-dude simulator for the other. You see, the space marine player is on the clock: 3 minutes per turn to move your whole team, and those bulky guys have limited maneuverability. There are 16 scenarios in the box, and each one has a different layout of modular board tiles and different victory conditions and special rules. It’s the marine player’s job to spend his limited actions and precious armored dudes as efficiently as possible to achieve the scenario objective. He’s got several different weapons – gatling guns, flamethrowers, swords, psychic powers – but despite their heavy-looking armor, they all die in one hit, so failure is just one bad die roll away.

Meanwhile, the genestealer player usually has an unlimited supply of monsters to throw at the enemy, but no ranged weapons and nothing in the way of special abilities – but up close, they can mow down the space marines. Sometimes, though, just the threat of the genestealers is enough to enough to shut down the marine player’s plans, since if the marines aren’t aggressive enough, the genestealers will eventually clog the corridors, making a marine victory all but impossible.

It’s a great game overall, but despite the shiny coat of paint (literally – the tiles are the shiniest I’ve ever seen), it’s a classic old-school design, with all that entails. It means that while the game is streamlined, straightforward, and brutal, it’s also more puzzly than I’d like and some of the scenarios are poorly balanced. The game could almost be a co-op, since the genestealer player is usually just doing whatever is most obviously damaging to the marines. With nothing to do but either sit tight or run headlong into the guns of the marines, the genestealer player is often reduced to being the hand that cranks the meat grinder. And once the marine player “solves” a given scenario (for those where that’s possible), I’m not sure the genestealers can stop them.

Then again, those imbalances, rough edges, and unforgiving dice rolls are part of Space Hulk’s old-school charm, when the “technology” of board game design wasn’t as refined (or perhaps over-engineered) as it is today.