Let board games be board games: why I need to see the dice in Space Hulk

Space HulkI got incredibly excited when I heard that Games Workshop’s classic Aliens-a-like board game, Space Hulk, was being brought to my PC.

There actually hasn’t been a proper rendition of the board game (the classic 1993 video game version was more ‘inspired by’ than a direct translation), developers Full Control seemed to truly understand what made Space Hulk great: the tension and the difficulty and the balance of tactical play and the blind luck of the dice. From what they’ve been saying, it sounds like Full Control are in this for the long haul, too, with planned DLC such as new missions and different Space Marine chapter colours and even a free level editor.

I enjoy video game versions of board games, when they’re done well. I don’t have to fork out for an expensive box and I don’t have to round up a group of like-minded friends to play with. I’ve lost track of the amount of time I’ve put into Carcassonne on the Xbox or my phone, and even into Keldon Jones’ wonderful homebrew version of Race for the Galaxy on the PC.

I spent a couple of hours last night playing Full Control’s rendition of Space Hulk, and—while it’s a bit buggy—it’s great. It looks fabulous. The sounds are clompy and loud and reek of atmosphere. The rules are the same as the board game.* I like it.

However, they’ve missed out something crucial to the game: dice.

Dice are a fundamental part of Space Hulk, as they are for so many board games (especially from Games Workshop). The rules of the PC game, as stated, haven’t changed at all, so attacking and defending still revolves around dice rolls, but at no point do we see those dice rolls being made. Instead, a message box at the side of the screen tells us the results in painfully small text. I know it’s a random number generator at work here, but the problem is that this approach feels like a random number generator.

I’ve been working for about a year and a half now in the online gambling industry, and there’s a golden rule when we make a game: player experience is everything. The slowed spin of the fifth reel of a slot game, the final clicks of a roulette wheel… the roll of a dice. Players go mad for it. They rub the screen and yell and pray to the gods of gambling. It’s where the fun of gambling lies. There’s research that suggests that people who are addicted to gambling aren’t addicted to winning. They’re addicted to the near miss.

It’s not like dice are difficult to simulate. Most video game adaptions of dice-based board games show them; even the uber-crap Monopoly games over the years have never skimped on them. They add what we refer to in the gambling world as ‘suspense’. Play the excellent Alien Frontiers on an iPad, and then tell me that it would be better without dice.

There’s a bunch of people on the Steam forum for Space Hulk who are complaining because the game doesn’t have any progression or levelling up for their Terminator marines, because the campaign feels like a series of unconnected maps, because there’s no cover and the narrow corridors all feel a bit identikit. They want XCOM: Enemy Unknown, of course, which has all of this. Space Hulk has made a critical error of borrowing the look of XCOM (especially in the user interface), thus leading to these unrealistic—and unnecessary—expectations. The PC version of Space Hulk looks like a video game, and frankly it can’t compete on that playing field.

I’ve been going along to Paper Jam Game Jam and writing for their blog in recent months. Every week, we pick a different indie video game and pull it apart to see the basic mechanics. We then try to make a board game based on those mechanics. We’ve learned one very important lesson: video games can do a lot more than board games because the player doesn’t have to think about the details. The computer can store a lot of information that the player can’t, and the player gets lost if they have to do too much bookkeeping.

Space Hulk is an example of the reverse. There aren’t as many mechanics as in a thematically-similar video game (such as XCOM), but it still looks like a video game because they’ve hidden the board game elements. It fails under the weight of the wrong expectations. Add dice to the screen, have them roll on every attack. Space Hulk will regain its identity as a solid, if imperfect, rendition of a board game on a computer screen.


* Although they are terribly written, and confusing for anyone who’s never played the game before. There’s a blunderbuss approach to punctuation and spelling that irks me. They don’t explain anything in any detail, so quite aside from not being able to see the dice on the screen I don’t even know which dice are being used. The real shame of this is that it’s not like Full Control had to do very much: they have a fully serviceable set of rules in the original board game that, with some minor tweaks, would have served both to show me how to play and to remind me of those old board game roots. Bit of a wasted opportunity, that.