Space Hulk and PC Versions of Board Games

Space Hulk

I own a copy of Space Hulk, the board game. If you know nothing about it, then just imagine something like Aliens with lots of tiles and lots of figures to move around a map made of corridors and rooms. It’s a fun game that mixes a surprising amount of tactics in with a huge amount of luck. Setting it up takes a while but it plays fairly quickly and as each individual turn is short it rattles along at a decent pace.

Yet despite being a fan of the game, the news that Space Hulk was coming to the PC didn’t particularly excite me, and it seems that my lack of interest may be justified in this preview by Rob Florence over at Rock, Paper Shotgun:

Crucially, the Space Hulk board game feels like a distillation of the very best turn-based strategy mechanics. Just the good stuff. All killer, no filler. So why is this PC game so bad? I mean – how can that even happen?

Space Hulk, PC Screenshot

He goes into a great deal of detail about why it doesn’t work, and covers a lot of what sound like really poor implementation decisions and bugs. For example, the fact that it’s an animated game means that each figure on the map spends more time moving around than they ever would in the board game. The summary as I interpret it is that the poor implementation has really let it down, and if it was just for some more thought and polish it could be really good:

It’s about as bad as it could possibly be. I’ve played through half of the campaign missions, missions that are close to my heart, and I’ve hated every one of them. I stopped at exactly halfway, because the game told me I’d lost a mission I’d just won. And that was the final straw. What an achievement that is, to turn magic into soup. To turn a thing of such celebrated greatness into a thing of such grated celeryness. It sickens me to think that some people will play this game and think that this is what Space Hulk is – a leaden, dated bore. That’s not a Space Hulk I recognise.

Sure, you might still want to buy this expensive disaster purely because it’s Space Hulk.

But this is not Space Hulk.

I will not accept it. I just won’t.

But I think the issue is a deeper one, not related to a specific implementation, and that’s just this: a game like Space Hulk doesn’t really work as a digital game. And this quote from the piece gets closer to the heart of the matter for me:

Okay – give me a moment here. Space Hulk is a board game. You know what I mean? It is a board game. It’s a game that demands your opponent is right there with you, shaking dice. You need to be able to laugh at your opponent’s misfortune, in his face, at the exact moment it happens. You need to be within punching distance. There is a LOT of luck in Space Hulk. To make that luck factor palatable, you need that thrill of throwing the old bones down on the table right in front of your opponent. When you’re playing against some slow, unseen stranger, who isn’t even rolling any dice? Those moments of ill fortune just make you angry. That’s all. Angry.

The key here is that the board game experience works because of the physicality of the thing, the build-up of rolling the dice and hoping for the right outcome, and goading your opponent with just how doomed they are in any particular situation. When you just boil it down to mechanics, then you miss out the most important half.

I had a similar experience with Memoir ’44, another heavily luck-based 2-player board game all about direct conflict. In this game you spend time thinking about what your opponent might be able to do, launching an attack and trying to read how worried they might be looking about it, and then building up the tension before rolling the dice.

Memoir '44

The online implementation of Memoir ’44, however, despite being extremely well built, also feels like it’s missing all of the good parts of the game. When it comes down to it, the mechanics are simple and when a game plays out in under ten minutes the huge amount of luck becomes a source of frustration rather than tension.

So it came as not surprise to me that Space Hulk is similarly lacking. There may be implementation issues, but I think it’s going to be a challenge to recreate the feeling of this kind of board game in a digital environment no matter how well made it is. Board games have simple mechanics because they need people to run them; computer games can have complex internal workings because a computer can calculate variables and output the result millions of times faster. Take away the people, but don’t add in the richness of complexity, and the bare bones are going to have a hard time standing up by themselves.

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