Death and Probability: A Death Angel Review

Awhile back a good friend of mine gave me his copy of the board game Space Hulk. I wasn't familiar with Warhammer 40K and was totally overwhelmed by how complicated the game appeared to be. But hulking space marines taking on horrifying creatures? I was so there. Sadly, I never got to try it out. While packing up to move from Washington, D.C. to Northern California, Space Hulk ended up being passed on to another person. But I never forgot you, Space Hulk. That's why I snatched up Space Hulk: Death Angel when I learned of its existence.

Death Angel is the card game version of Space Hulk. Even better, it can be played by one person. The setup is still pretty elaborate, but it's a lot more portable, and as it turns out, pretty damn fun.

With Death Angel, you choose a squad of Space Marines and head into the belly of a remote Space Hulk called the Sin of Damnation to purge the evil Genestealer threat. Sounds like the plot of Aliens, no? Well, yeah. It's pretty much the same thing, except these Space Marines are bigger badasses than Hicks and his crew, literally and figuratively. Space Hulk would be an accurate description of the Marines themselves.

Space Marine formation

The game begins with the first of five location cards -- technically the first is called a void lock. You line your Space Marines up in formation and march to your destination. But first, you play an event card, which will bring on the first of the Genestealer hordes.

Every turn consists of different phases:

  • Choose an action card, which results in either an attack, a move in the formation or activation of terrain card, or supporting your fellow Marines.
  • Resolve those actions.
  • Genestealers attack.
  • The event phase, which not only brings an unexpected development but adds more Genestealers to the mix.

The goal becomes clear early on: Don't let those Genestealer swarms build up. The Genestealer attacks are pretty easy to avoid when there is only one or two. But the attack is determined by a roll of a die and any number equal or less to the number Genestealers attacking means certain death. More Genestealers equals greater probability of losing your squad.

In fact, this entire game consists of weighing the probability of one action against another, which is fun if you're the type who will calculate each move in advance. Spoiler alert: That's me.

Here's how my first play-through went down.

My squads are ready to rock. In a one-player game, you command up to 6 Marines, in this case three squads. (Note: I'm also playing with the Space Marine Pack 1 expansion). The first event card is drawn, and a couple of Genestealers have engaged with Marines who are facing the wrong way! I decide to play support and move cards to backup and shift my formation.

When you play a support card, a token can be placed on a Marine. That token can be spent to reroll the die in the case of an attack or defense. If one Genestealer is attacking a Marine, the probability of that Marine being killed is 33% (rolling a zero or one). But the probability of rolling a zero or one two times in a row is (1/3)*(1/3), or 11%. In other words, support tokens are vital.

My gambit pays off because the first attack results in no casualties.

Second event card: Engaged troops are flanked. I move Brother Gideon in position to take advantage of Run and Gun, an action card that allows the Marine to move AND spend a support token to attack. That works: one Genestealer is killed. Brother Leon takes out another one, despite the fact his Full Auto ability allows him to attack three times.

Out of Thin Air event card

In the second Genestealer attack, Gideon is killed. I'm only two rounds in and I've lost one of my six Marines. I'm learning pretty early on how punishing this game can be.

Third event card: more Genestealers on the move. Brother Claudio's Heroic Charge ability is successful, wipes out swarm with no casualties. Let me take a minute to explain how incredibly important Claudio and Heroic Charge are. It allows him to wipe out three Genestealers instantly. The only catch is that you have to roll a die after the attack. If you roll a zero, Claudio is dead. But the probability of that happening is 16%, so it's a pretty good deal.

I take out another Genestealer engaged with Brother Valencio, who then uses a support token to avoid death.

Fourth event card: Gun Jam disables two teams. Basically, if your team didn't use an attack card in the last round, they can't use one in the current round. Translation: Crap.

The Run and Gun card lets me to spend support tokens to attack, but do I keep them to defend instead? This comes up often in the game. The probability of rolling a kill during an attack by the Marines is high (50%), but when you're up against a large number of Genestealers, it gets complicated. Say I have four Genestealers engaged with a Marine. The probability of getting killed (rolling anything lower than five) is 83%. If you kill one of those Genestealers, that goes down to 66%. If you choose to defend, the probability of rolling anything lower than five two times in a row is 69%. That's pretty close, but the first option assumes you rolled a kill. So which one is the safer bet?

I choose to defend. I roll high for the Genestealer attack, so the support tokens aren't even necessary.

Fifth event card: Quick Instincts card allows one marine to attack immediately, but it fails.

Valencio slays another Genestealer, and I use support tokens to attack with two other marines. Both fail. Thankfully, Genestealer attacks also fail.

Sixth event card: Second Wind protects one Marine if he rolls a zero while defending. I plan a major assault with Leon's Full Auto, but it only takes out one Genestealer. Let's talk about Full Auto. It allows you to attack three times in a row. If the probability of rolling a kill is 50%, the probability of doing it three times in a row is 12.5%. I know this, yet I cling to the hope that it will actually work. It never does, though.

Valencio is killed.


To move to the next location in the deck, you have to clear out the blip cards, essentially all the Genestealers stacked to the left and right of the current location. There are no more blip cards left, but if I travel, the five Genestealers currently in play will follow me to the next location. Remember what I said about not letting those guys pile up?

Knowing it's only going to get harder from here, I stay for one more phase.

Seventh event card: Chaos of Battle. All my marines get turned around, which considering how bad things are getting, seems about right. Large swarm engages with Brother Goriel and another engages with Claudio.

HEROIC #$% CHARGE. Claudio takes out the swarm engaged with Goriel, but I roll a zero. Claudio is dead.

When a Marine dies, the formation moves up, including the Genestealers that were engaged with that Marine. A Genestealer moves right next to Goriel. He doesn't survive the attack. Two Space Marines left, and I'm not even out of the void lock.

Eighth event card: The swarm moves four Genestealers back into the blip pile. Remember that decision not to travel? Mistake. Now I have to stay. Space Marines probably never say surrender, but this game is over. No attacks available. A support token saves Leon's life.

The next two event cards, however, turn the tide of the battle: The Full Scan card removes a card from the blip pile. Huzzah! And the Rescue Space Marine event card brings Claudio, who died so heroically, back to life.

A swarm flanks Claudio. Now he's engaged with four Genestealers. You know what that means: HEROIC $#% CHARGE. I take out three of the Genestealers and roll a three. Claudio drops the mic.

Eventually I was able to move from the first location with my three surviving Space Marines. I actually made it all the way to the final destination, the Genestealer Lair, with my squad. But I had to stop playing because it took me several hours to get there.

Like most games, Death Angel has a learning curve, so the first play-through can take a while. There's a lot of consulting with the rule book, but this is true of any game. The most important takeaway is that the game is really engaging. You always feel like your squads are barely hanging on and every decision is incredibly important.

It's no Space Hulk, with its paintable game figures and constantly shifting, tile-based environments. But if you're playing solo or looking for a (relatively) quick setup, it's a fun replacement.

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