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The Base Game
Few games have left a better first impression with me than Space Hulk: Death Angel - The Card Game (henceforth referred to simply as Death Angel because the full title, much like Star Wars: Episode 4 - A New Hope, is fucking stupid).
There were three of us in that first game, controlling twelve Blood Angels on a fool's errand of clearing a derelict Space Hulk of wave after wave of Genestealers. Most of our twelve fell before reaching the final location, and only one remained for a last desperate attempt at survival. It came down to one roll of a di: get a skull (50/50 chance) on a control panel activation and he would clear the room of the otherwise insurmountable swarms of Genestealers. No skull and we were pooched. The di was shaken and nervously released. Bounce. Spin. Topple. Skull!
The three of us simultaneously shot our loads arms up in the air and cheered for our sole surviving hero. We then spent ten minutes discussing this surprisingly thematic game -- surprising, because it comes in such a little box, is almost entirely made up of cards, and had a very reasonable price tag adhered to its shrink wrap.
Still, despite that memorable finish, I wondered how often the game could provide me with such a moment. Did it have enough variety to give it legs? Well, let's see:
- There are event cards that have one-time or round-lasting effects, though of the thirty there are several duplicates.
- There are various locations, each with four terrain cards, that the Blood Angels will need to traverse, though, for terrain, expect to see plenty of corridors, dark corners, vents, and doors.
- The six Blood Angels pairings, due to their distinct Support, Attack. and Move + Activate actions, do add nice variety, but it doesn't take long to see everything the Blood Angels have to offer, especially since you and five (or two) friends would be using them all in a six (or three) player game.
- The Genestealers, apart from when movement is triggered, all pretty much behave the same.
After a few plays, the limited variety was becoming apparent (it's surely an unfair comparison, but I couldn't help but compare it to its older co-op cousin, Arkham Horror). Great game but, as it was, it would probably end up as a shelf toad once the trek through the Hulk began feeling repetitive.
Enter The Expansions
I was surprised when Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) announced that Death Angel would be receiving expansions since I couldn't recall any other recent FFG Silver Line games getting a similar treatment. The first expansions were the excitingly titled Space Hulk: Death Angel - The Card Game: Space Marine Pack I and Space Hulk: Death Angel - The Card Game: Mission Pack I. I believe these were the maiden voyage of FFG's Print on Demand (POD) distribution model. Less than a year after these were released, Death Angel fans can now also get the Tyranid Enemy Pack and the Deathwing Space Marine Pack.
I've played several games with these expansions. I like the content of all four to varying degrees, though each of them also seems lacking in some respects. I rank them below, not only in terms of how much they positively impact the Death Angel experience, but also in terms of how much bang you get for your buck.
#1 - Deathwing Space Marine Pack (MSRP = $11.95)
If you were to only get one expansion for Death Angel, this should be it. It includes six pairs of space marines that can be used instead of the base game's Blood Angels (it's one group or the other -- no mixing). And this is no "Coy and Vance" to the Blood Angels' " Bo and Luke" -- Deathwing's Librarian Menelauis, for example, is probably the most kick-ass character of the twenty-eight available.
The new squad isn't a game-changer or anything, but it's a lot of fun to use new characters with new actions cards. Too bad the two squads can't be mixed, though. And I do find it odd that there weren't eight Deathwing pairs, though, to equal the number of Blood Angels available. (Perhaps they will be added in Space Hulk: Death Angel - The Card Game: Deathwing Space Marine Pack - Marine Pack I... The Card Game.)
#2 - Mission Pack I (MSRP = $4.95)
This expansion adds an alternate location deck. Like with the space marines, it's either this deck or the original locations. Also included are one new terrain card and four Adrenal Genestealers (whose swarm will move and attack on a "0" roll), both of which can only be activated by these new locations.
Overall, I think the new locations are more interesting than those in the base game. For some, the effects feel more connected to the narrative they're to convey. For others, there are both "Upon entering..." and "Activate control panel..." effects. A drawback to the expansion is that there are only two random location possibilities at each stage of travel as opposed to three each in the base game. (Are you picking up on the common theme of "I wish there was more?")
#3 - Tyranid Enemy Pack (MSRP = $11.95)
This expansion adds an alternate deck of enemies to encounter that, once again, is not to be mixed with the original. A new enemy deck is welcome since the Genestealers were overly samey. However, half the Tyranids behave exactly the same as the original Genestealers, anyways. The other half are more interesting breeds, with four possible effects that can occur when a new Tyranid is spawned, when a marine moves, or following a Tyranid attack.
The expansion also includes four Hive Lord cards (one of which triggers a new enemy that looks oddly like a terrifying version of Babar), which can stand in for the final location of the location deck. Really, they're just "Location 4" cards by another name. Some nice variety, but nothing groundbreaking.
#4 - Space Marine Pack I (MSRP = $4.95)
This expansion is relatively weak, especially in comparison to Deathwing. Adding two new pairs to the Blood Angels squad is nice, especially since it adds variety in that it's no longer a given which space marines would be included in six and three player games (something that the six pairs included in Deathwing does not ensure). But the content doesn't justify the price, considering half the expansion is nothing more than cards that replace some tokens from the base game. You could pass on this one and not miss much, especially if you have Deathwing.
Anything Left to Expand?
Event cards. That's the one thing the game could still use more of, so I assume Event Card Pack I is an inevitability. After that, I believe I'm done. Fool me one, two, three, four, and five times, shame one you...
And speaking of "shame on you..."
POD = POS
I like -- nay, love -- Death Angel. It's rocketed up to being among my favourite games. It is because of my love that I've been able to convince myself to buy the expansions despite the Print on Demand distribution model, because (and I hope I'm clear on this) I FUCKING HATE THE PRINT ON DEMAND DISTRIBUTION MODEL. And it's actually not the quality of the cards that's the problem. They lack the linen finish, but otherwise they're just fine. No, it's the "pay more by paying less for less but way more often" bullshit that the model has so quickly become that I have a problem with.
FFG's justification for POD is that it allows them to make expansions that would otherwise not be commercially viable. This comes off more as empty marketing rhetoric, though, because that's not the way it's being used; at least not in all cases. In some cases, POD is being used as a way to sell customers whole expansions in piecemeal -- multiple skimpy expansions at an overall inflated price tag.
To be fair to FFG, I'm sure it's true that it wouldn't have been commercially viable to have produced traditional expansions for Death Angel, so their stated justification in this case holds water. But the bottom of that soggy paper bag gives out when you consider a game like Mansions of Madness, which to date has three POD expansions and one traditional expansion. The traditional expansion, Forbidden Alchemy, speaks to FFG's faith in the commercial viability of that line. So why the three POD expansions? Why not include some or all of their content in Forbidden Alchemy and increase its MSRP accordingly? Or why aren't some of the POD bundled together? Are they sold as separate expansions simply because they had different release dates? No, wait, that can't be it, because then why the fuck were Death Angel's Mission Pack I and Space Marine I sold separately when they were both released the same day? I may be a sucker, but I'm not stupid. That's why you'll hear me say "I'm on to you and your snake oil" while I hand over my credit card.
Wrapping It Up
Thinking back to when I first picked Death Angel off the shelf, still with a very reasonable price tag adhered to its shrink wrap, I could never have predicted then how much I'd end up spending on this game. Hell, at this point, I've spent as much on Death Angel as it would have cost me to buy Earth Reborn. And even with all four expansions, everything still fits inside its cute little Silver Line box. I wouldn't even be able to fit Earth Reborn's mech mini in this thing. How could so little have cost me so much? I know, I know. That question could easily be turned around on me into, "How could you have spent so much on so little?" Valid point. All I can say is, I love Death Angel. It's great fun, especially now that its variety has been ramped up via these tiny, tiny expansions. And, frankly, I want to support FFG's efforts to support such a great game. I just don't appreciate being soaked for it. I hope FFG considers their POD model to come up with a better balance between expanding their less commercially viable games and competitive pricing. Because even a sucker like me won't be fooled six times.