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Warhammer 40K games are a dime a dozen, but Space Hulk: Tactics shines

A surprisingly full-featured tribute to the classic tabletop game

Key art for Space Hulk Tactics shows a squad of Blood Angels terminators defending a crossing from wave after wave of purple tyrannids. Cyanide Studio/Focus Home Interactive
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

At times it feels like video games based on Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 universe are a dime a dozen. This year there have been around half a dozen Steam releases alone, and not all of them have been worthwhile. But the latest offering, Cyanide Studio’s Space Hulk: Tactics, is more than competent. It’s a faithful interpretation of the classic standalone tabletop game, and one that’s absolutely jam packed with extras.

Space Hulk originated back in 1989 as a spinoff miniatures skirmish game pitting the most heavily armed Space Marines, known as Terminators, against the vicious alien threat called the Tyranids. In that game’s lore, Terminators are forced to plod down long corridors, often in single-file lines, as wave after wave of fast-moving Tyranids bear down on them from all directions. It’s a tense, asymmetrical affair that can take hours to set up and play. Space Hulk: Tactics can get you up and running in seconds.

Fans of turn-based tactical games will be pleased to find that Cyanide isn’t just ripping off Firaxis’ mechanics from the XCOM reboot. Instead, they’re taking the best parts of the classic tabletop game, including randomized dice rolls, and using them as the engine to drive a narrative experience.

The gameplay itself is excellent. Space Marines must move carefully and purposefully with their objective clearly in mind at all times. Even with their powerful equipment, they’re no match for the Tyranids in close-quarters combat. Facing plays a key role as their ungainly armor provides limited visibility and maneuverability. The key to success is unlocking a steady stream of upgrades for your Space Marine’s weapons which will slowly even the playing field against the Tyranids. Success in battle rewards you with more resources, with key missions clearly visible as a kind of goal post at the end of a long string of smaller engagements.

On the opposing side, playing as the Tyranids requires using dozens of expendable units to exploit weaknesses in the enemy formation. Tyranids are placed on the map as “blips,” radar signatures that contain between zero and three melee-focused units. That means even the best-laid plans can be undone if you’re not able to concentrate enough units in the right place at the right time.

What differentiates the game from its tabletop forebear is a novel set of tactics cards. These can be redeemed to add additional actions points to the available pool or played on a specific unit, granting them powerful buffs on their turn. Cards can be upgraded over time, adding potent new combinations to your hand.

While the card system has been touted as the big, new improvement over the tabletop game, my favorite feature so far are the game’s intertwined campaigns. They’re much more robust than anything that’s come from Games Workshop itself.

Space Hulk: Tactics contains two campaigns, one for each side. The Space Marine campaign tells the story of the Blood Angels chapter and their journey through a massive wreck infested with deadly Tyranids. Meanwhile, the Tyranid campaign rolls back the clock at least a thousand years to tell the story of the Ultramarines’ efforts aboard that same wreck. The two plotlines aren’t parallel necessarily, but playing them simultaneously will enrich your understanding of the lore as well as the game’s asymmetrical mechanics.

There’s a robust multiplayer component to the game as well, although the scene is pretty anemic right now as people play through the single-player campaigns. What’s surprising is how much customization is included out of the box. Space Hulk: Tactics comes with four Tyranid factions as well as four different chapters of the Space Marines, including the Blood Angels, Dark Angels, Space Wolves and Ultramarines. Players are let loose to build their squad in any way they want. That includes dozens of ways to personalize each unit. Fans of tabletop 40K pride themselves on making their minis look unique at the table, and that’s a feature of this fandom that Cyanide clearly understands.

With a budget price of $39.99, there’s a tremendous amount of value in this package. You can download it now for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.

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