In each turn of the game, the players move and shoot with their forces in turn. This is achieved by spending action points, with each action - moving, shooting, turning around - coming at a fixed cost. Each terminator has four action points per turn, while the genestealers' greater speed gives them six. However, this doesn’t tell the full story as the cost and type of actions vary on each side.
The genestealers can move and turn rapidly, and their objective is always to get into close combat - where the rules give them a terrifying 3-to-1 statistical advantage. The terminators are far less manoeuvrable, but can shoot while advancing for a single action point and set themselves in ‘overwatch’ for two points, which provides covering fire during the ‘stealer players turn.
Objectives vary hugely across the 12 missions included in the scenario book - with a plot running through them all should you wish to play them as a campaign. One feature that practically all the missions have in common, though, is that the terminators are the protagonists. They have the objectives, while playing as the genestealers is a largely negative affair, centred around destroying the Terminators before they can achieve those aims.
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Gameplay is tense, and a single wrong decision can quickly prove disastrous. The terminators must move forward to achieve their objectives, while at the same time retaining a defensive posture - the ideal result being a carefully planned game of leapfrog with interlocking fields of fire.
This manoeuvre has to be executed quickly, though, in two differing respects. Firstly, the ‘stealer player is getting 2-6 new troops every turn (courtesy of those blips) and so their forces become stronger as the game progresses. Proceed too cautiously and the terminators will certainly be overwhelmed. Secondly, the terminator player is literally on a timer, with each of their turns timed by a supplied three minute hourglass. Thinking time is in short supply then, and errors inevitably creep in as the game becomes heated. Those of a more technical persuasion may also want to download the Android Hulk Timer.
The genestealer player, by comparison, has all the time they like to plan their moves. In some respects, it appears the easier job, but you can never be sure how many ‘stealers you’ll receive next turn.
All that prevents the marines from being quickly overwhelmed is a small supply of additional action points, randomly numbering one to six per turn. These can be spent freely by the marines on any terminator or terminators. This gives them the ability to take extra actions where critically needed, and left-over points can even be spent during the genestealer player’s turn - to react to attacks or clear a jammed weapon.
Thankfully Space Hulk is quick to set up, even for novices. Putting together the modular board pieces for any of the missions takes around ten minutes, and with few figures on the board initially, you can get it all in place sharpish. The rules, on the other hand, are less straightforward, and while presented in a clear and well printed way, it can take up to an hour to get to grips with them and actually start rolling.
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Once you’re in, though, the game excels at creating film-like moments, with many memorable last stands or against-the-odds recoveries springing from the games we’ve played. Clive imperiously standing his ground with one marine and mercilessly shooting down an entire genestealer assault springs to mind, as does an against-the-odds defensive action by the marine sergeant armed with the thunder hammer and storm shield.
Though Space Hulk is billed as strictly a two-player game, we did also experiment with having two people play as the marines, each in charge of one of the five-man units. This worked to a degree, although the time limit placed on the marine players means that there's little time for discussing tactics or debating the finer points of probability mathematics - something that Clive and Paul found out all too quickly.
The game still remained fun, though, even through the furious bickering that came as a result of cramming too many people onto one of the teams, thanks to the tense, knife-edge atmosphere that the game seems to effortlessly create. We’d argue that even people not currently familiar with the 40K world would find the game fun, although in truth they’d probably baulk at the high cost of tracking down a copy of this limited edition release.