Space Hulk

SAN FRANCISCO — What’s the best board game of all time?

Thomas Lund, the CEO of tactical, turn-based-game studio Full Control, had an answer ready when someone asked him that question a year ago. “Space Hulk is one of my favorites,” he said, citing the much-loved, squad-based strategy game set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. “I’m making digital board games, and that’s the direction I want to take my company in.”

The guy asking the question? Ian Livingston, the co-founder of Games Workshop, publisher of the Warhammer franchise.

The two met by chance at the Game Developers Conference in 2012 when Lund was waiting for his next meeting in a hotel lobby. “He gave me his card and asked if I wanted an introduction to his head of licensing,” says Lund. “Yeah, that was pure luck.” One year later, at GDC 2013, Lund shows me his isometric, 3D interpretation of Space Hulk. A few video games pulled from the property back in the late ’90s, but none tried to faithfully re-create the classic. Lund’s version does. With a few changes.

Space Hulk

The core setup remains identical. One player runs a rapid-response squad of space marines in two-ton armor — a sergeant, a heavy flamer, and three generic Terminators — sweeping through a gigantic derelict spacecraft, carrying out missions while fending off and/or eliminating hideous Genestealer aliens (a second player or the computer A.I.). You spend a limited number of action points on movement, attack, object manipulation, and so on, plus special emergency command points playable at any time. Lund’s team even re-created the original Space Hulk missions, pieced together in the physical editions with jigsaw-style board pieces that built a variety of maps.

He loads the appropriately named Suicide Mission. His team just has to advance through a few corridors and flame the escape pod bay, trapping the Genestealers aboard the hulk.

Lund opts for his favorite tactic, abandoning two of his Terminators for a risky three-man rush toward the goal, securing key junctions on the way. He sets a rear-guard on overwatch, the stand-and-hold tactic that autofires at anything that advances — manual shooting costs a point. Of course, guns tend to jam on overwatch. Then your Terminator’s lunch.

His heavy flamer unit hoses an intersection, blocking off four or five squares in every direction instead of the traditional one junction tile. “We changed it from the board game,” says Lund. Flaming just one square “felt really weird in a video game.”

Walking animations “just missed a deadline,” says Lund, so his marines float across their squares. Otherwise, Space Hulk itself looks faithful without being slavish. The hulk’s corridors and walls look fleshed out, solid, and — because they float against a black background — isolated. Sound effects offer a nicely heavy atmosphere to the Terminators and the hulk itself. Blips, the radar tracks of unrevealed Genestealers, animate with an eerie green pulse. Lund wants to go for an XCOM: Enemy Unknown feel, complete with cutscene camera angles for fatalities.

And fatalities happen rather quickly. A few poorly timed weapon failures, a few columns of massed Genestealers, and Lund’s Terminators all get chopped, turn by turn. “Avenge me, brothers!” groans one goner. They don’t.

Space Hulk

In every significant way, it looks and feels like the board game I remember from back in the day, fleshed out to match the Warhammer 40K vibe we’ve experienced in other games. Given that Space Hulk is out of print, Lund’s version could become the one that lasts. Both local games and online matchmaking could even expand its appeal beyond simple nostalgia. And if it pans out, it’ll become a living document complete with a map editor for players and a lot of potential for downloadable content. Lund’s team is already chomping at the bit to tackle the original Space Hulk’s expansion packs. “My community manager loves Space Wolves,” says Lund, though he’s also got a Dark Angels fanatic on his payroll. “We’re going to re-create them and make them look really pretty,” says Lund.

And then they’re going to change the game up, introducing elements familiar to Warhammer 40K fans but fundamentally new to Space Hulk. “We want to add more weaponry, more psychic powers, versions of Genestealers that aren’t in the board game,” says Lund. His current build supports two players, but the final will push for three, fielding two Terminator teams against the Genestealer hordes … and they’re experimenting with modes for even more players. “It’s a matter of how fun it is.”

“That’s where we start being creative,” says Lund.

PC and Mac versions of Space Hulk will release sometime this year on Steam and GOG. A console version may follow.