Thursday, February 27, 2020

Space Marine Adventures for Solo or Coop Play

I don’t recall where exactly I first heard of Space Marine Adventures: Labyrinth of the Necrons, but the concept of introductory solitaire and cooperative play grabbed my attention. I’m not a huge fan of Warhammer 40k, though in my distant past I dabbled with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (second edition) and found a used edition of the fantasy miniatures rules, more out of curiosity than any other motive. I have a vague awareness of what Space Marines are and that they apparently spend much of their time fanatically blasting things. So I’m in no way invested in the Warhammer 40k universe, but knowledgeable enough about its basics to enjoy an entertaining solo/coop game experience with high production values and good replay possibilities.

I’ll admit I took a risk given the game’s price point of $40. But I had a decent coupon for Barnes & Noble (which stocks the game along with Target and a few other mainstream stores), so the price dropped to something more reasonable. I also did my research, checking out a few reviews and one play-through video. What initially attracted me to the game? What looked like high-quality components. Multiple game boards. Nice, easy-to-assemble Space Marine miniatures (no glue required). And with a system that seemed to handle the Necron adversaries well enough for solo or cooperative play and I was sorely tempted by this introduction to the Warhammer 40k game universe.

The solid game box holds components with excellent production values. The full-color tokens and double-sided maps come on durable cardstock. Several “labyrinth” decks contain cards for escalating encounters during each of the three levels. Oversized cards include stats for the Space Marines and their necron adversaries, additional equipment or other benefits they can use, and activation cards to randomly determine when each side (and which individual space marine) acts during a round of play. The Space Marine model components snap off the sprues decently enough – I couldn’t help but use a knife to clip them off and smooth the burrs – and they fit together with pegs and holes snugly (though a few of the interchangeable heads were a little loose) thanks to clear visual instructions and numbering. Even after punching and assembling all the components fit into the plastic insert that holds everything in tidy compartments; though the space marine miniatures could have used some molded bits to hold them in more securely than the square space they occupy.

The full-color rulebook walks readers through the game components, then explains the turn sequence, with sections on the actions Space Marine players can take and what happens on a Necron turn. Each rule includes a clear example illustrated by a diagram featuring top-down views of the game components. While the Space Marines use actions to maneuver through the labyrinth and blow away Necrons, the enemies simply spawn at various points on the map, blocking the way to the objective and the exit to the next level. At first this sounds pretty tame; the Necrons don’t get any attack or move, they just stand in the way. But when Space Marines stand on or near a spawning point, they run the risk that cards from the labyrinth decks could spawn a Necron nearby...wounding the Space Marine if he’s on that spawn point or near an occupied one around which other Necrons spawn. It almost seems too simple – avoid the Necron spawn points, find the exit, and advance to the next level – but the card-driven system determining who goes within the round adds a huge level of uncertainty. Can you move marines past the spawn point before a card comes up and spawns more Necrons? If wounded will your card come up so you can use a medkit (or whatever they call it in the Warhammer 40k universe) before more Necrons approach?

The Space Marines have a host of advantages. Each one has a special ability to use any time it’s their turn as a free action, from bonuses to ranged or close attacks to flamethrower effects. Before the game each also gets to select one of a set of randomly drawn benefits, including extra equipment or special devotional powers further modifying their abilities and attacks, though they can only use these once during the game. The Necrons, however, can easily overwhelm the space marines. Labyrinth cards call for one, two, or sometime three Necrons to spawn: if the space still has a Necron, new ones spawn in all available adjacent spaces! Some cards boost their defense for a turn, while others force the next Space Marine to lose a turn.

Although I’ve not yet had a chance to play it cooperatively with my son, I gave the game a test in solitaire play. It’s easy to see how the Necrons pile up, limiting movement in the labyrinth; while Space Marines can move “through” each other, they must have sufficient actions for the two moves necessary for the maneuver, further complicating an already cramped environment. I managed to activate the control panel and reveal the exit, but one of my marines – already wounded and hoping for the chance to use his medkit – strayed too near a spawn point when more Necrons appeared, hence inflicting another wound and knocking him out of the game.

It’s a good little game for solitaire and cooperative play, but one which might lose its appeal after a few games of intense play. The rules provide for a campaign mode for more challenging play, as well as advanced cards to add depth to the labyrinth decks and challenge cards to add extra objectives to each mission. Die-hard players may find the overall mechanics easy to modify by adding new map boards, adjusting the mechanics for more aggressive foes, and integrating other Warhammer 40k opponents with different mechanics for threats (something folks over at have already done).

The game has wonderful potential for modification, expansion, and adaptation to other themes. Apparently there’s a recon mission pack expansion with three new Space Marines and a new mission to play. I’ve heard rumors they might introduce Warhammer 40k orks into the mix. I was surprised they didn’t use Genestealers, an adequate substitute for the xenomorphs of the Aliens film franchise and adversaries of the cult classic Space Hulk game; knowing little about them myself, I suppose fans could easily work them into the game with some adjustments. I’d love for Games Workshop to develop a Warhammer Fantasy version, something like the old HeroQuest game but without the need for another player to run the monsters.

The mechanics seem easily adaptable and expandable. The players’ heroes each have a stat for the range of their attacks and the number of actions they can take during their turn; in more interactive combat they could use a “Resilience” number (the target number an attacker must equal or exceed on a d6 roll to hit, adjusted by modifiers). Adversaries, who already have a Resilience number, could also use a range limit for attacks. Cards still work best to summarize hero and enemy stats and determine which hero takes a turn – or whether the enemy goes – but I could see where a specific table replaces cards for generating random enemy actions (spawn, attack, advance) within the mission parameters. I’m already considering using the base mechanics for a solitaire or cooperative historically themed game for kids and newcomers to the wargaming hobby...I have some Armies in Plastic Rangers and Indians for the French Indian War that might add some visual appeal to such a game.

Some might dismiss Space Marine Adventures: Labyrinth of the Necrons as a one-shot filler game for gatherings when folks seek something light but tactically satisfying. I think it’s a wonderful introduction to wargaming – or at least more complex board gaming – for kids and newcomers, especially with the cooperative play aspect. It’s ideal for official or unofficial expansion and modification or even adaptation to other themes for those willing to invest a little time tinkering with the mechanics. I’d love to see Games Workshop continue producing expansions and even additional games geared toward drawing new people into the hobby; Space Marine Adventures: Labyrinth of the Necrons certainly stands as an admirable foundation in that effort.

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