The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

The Space Hulk Saga

Greg Aleknevicus

August, 2003

Every now and then I'll get obsessed with a game-related project. Not necessarily playing the game, but working on some aspect of it. More often than not this will be creating a player aid or a translation (you can see some of the things I've created on my personal webpage: Sometimes it goes further than this and that's been the case with my latest obsession: Space Hulk.

I'm not exactly sure why I decided to acquire a copy of the game, but it's probably the setting—it's essentially a boardgame version of the movie Aliens. Huge derelict spacecraft are infested with malevolent creatures and soldiers in fancy battlesuits are sent in to clean them out.

The game has many fan sites that I was able to investigate. The first thing I discovered is that there are two, somewhat distinct, versions of the game. There are slight rules changes between the two and the first version also had two expansions which are not fully compatible with the second. It appeared that the first edition was more highly thought of, mostly due to the variety that the expansions added. However, the biggest addition was the inclusion of "psychic combat"! This whole concept repelled me so I decided that the expansions were not a priority. The aforementioned fan sites also had a wealth of information about the differences between the two versions including many pictures of the components. Most Games Workshop products tend to be rather attractive and this was the certainly the case with Space Hulk. The "board" is made up of interlocking rooms and sections of hallway. You can mix and match the modular pieces to create a variety of layouts. The first edition boards were very nice looking but the second edition ones were beautiful!

First edition Second edition

I've always been a sucker for great looking bits and Space Hulk had them in spades. The rooms had all sorts of little details that really brought the game to life—ruptured tanks, flashing lights, etc. Very, very nice. My mind was made up, I'd get myself a copy of the second edition. (It's possible to play using the first edition rules if need be.)

So, where to actually acquire a copy? The game was long out of print and so I couldn't just pop down to the local shop and pick one up. (Although I did check my local stores to make sure there wasn't some old stock lying around.) Naturally, I headed back online and started searching. I soon found that they came up on eBay with some regularity but that the second edition was much less common and that they sold for rather hefty prices (around $65US). The great majority of these were being auctioned from England so expensive postage costs would need to be factored in as well. Still, the good news was that if I wanted one, I wouldn't have to wait too long. It was a little frustrating seeing so many copies of the first edition though and I almost got impatient enough to bid on those but ultimately I was able to restrain myself. I bid on every second edition copy I saw and eventually I won one for $60US. This brought me to the next part of my obsession: the waiting and the painting.

Another feature of the game (and one of the reasons it's so popular) is that it contains 30 plastic miniatures depicting "Terminators" (the space marines) and "Genestealers" (the aliens). In the past I've enjoyed painting the little figures used in roleplaying games and every so often I'll get the desire to take on another painting project. This was a further justification for buying the game and I couldn't wait to get started. Of course the biggest problem with purchasing anything online is waiting for it to actually arrive. Being the obsessive type I started to dwell on what sort of paint scheme I'd use on the little fellas. There happens to be a Games Workshop store in Victoria so I paid them a visit and had a look through several of their books. There were lots of different ideas and concepts and so I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do which led to the next problem—acquiring the necessary supplies. I had a few pots of paint lying around but not enough for the job I envisioned. I thought it would be best to wait for the game to arrive before I actually started buying anything else but of course my mind was racing with all sorts of ideas on what colours to use and techniques to achieve the look I wanted. Waiting did not seem to be a reasonable alternative.

So I headed back to the Games Workshop store to take a look around and they had plenty of figures but I had issues with most of them. You see, the primary audience for Games Workshop products appears to be 14-year-old boys and their line reflects this. It's absolutely bewildering the number of skulls that are plastered all over the place. I saw one figure that had skulls on his chest, shoulders, knees and every single knuckle! They also tend to be rather lurid in the amount of detail they possess. While I can admire the work and detail that goes into this molding, I find it a bit overwhelming—both in the prospect of painting the things and how they actually look on the game table. There are many excellent painters in the world and much of their handiwork is featured in the Games Workshop books and publications. (If you've never seen any of these I encourage you to check out an issue of White Dwarf, it really is amazing stuff.) However, oftentimes you need to look really, really close to understand what it is you're looking at. Space MarinesThe most amazingly detailed figure can end up looking like a blob of mismatched colours when viewed from a distance. So, what I really wanted was something very simple which appears to be the anti-thesis of almost everything in the store. Fortunately, not absolutely everything. They did have a starter set of paints that included five simple figures. Even better was the fact that these appeared to somewhat similar to the figures that came with Space Hulk, I could use them for a little visual variety when playing. I'll skip over the details on the painting for now (since I'll be going into much greater detail below) but you can see the finished figures above. I was quite happy with the job that I did on these "test" figures although Games Workshop "purists" would probably be appalled that I left off the "jump packs" (too busy looking) and used non-standard decals.

I had finished painting the smaller figures but had still had not received the game. What to do? Visiting the official Games Workshop website I saw that they had some additional scenarios for the game and also included some extra tiles. I downloaded the graphics and printed them on photo quality paper. I used 3M Super 77 to mount them on thick illustration board and then trimmed the tiles with a rotary cutter and an x-acto knife. (I would need to wait until I received the game before performing the final trim on the "puzzle-cuts" so that they'd fit the originals exactly.)

The Game Arrives...

I just love it when there's a large package waiting on your porch when you arrive home. After much fretting Space Hulk had finally arrived! Opening the box, I had a look at everything in person for the first time and it all appeared very nice. The board tiles were even better looking than they appeared online. There was one problem though and that's that there were only 8 of the 10 "Terminator" figures. I e-mailed the seller who assured me that he'd purchase replacements and forward them to me (he never did). Oh well, it's a good thing I had purchased and painted those space marines.

I've done a fair amount of painting before but it had been a while so I needed to brush up on my skills and techniques a bit. I had to re-acquaint myself with dry-brushing, inking and washing—if you're interested in any of this there are numerous websites devoted to miniature painting, I recommend checking them out. I also had to purchase a couple of files in order to get rid of the mold lines on the figures as well as removing the skulls (what is their obsession with these things?) from each of the helmets. Of course, spray primer, sealant and couple of new brushes added to the growing bill. Oh, and some extra colours that weren't included in the set I purchased. I tried not to think of the fact that most of this would be useless once I had completed the project. (Similarly, I tried not to think of all the supplies I gave away after the last project when I assumed that I'd "never need that stuff again".)

Completed terminators

Next up was painting the Genestealers. One of the problems I had was coming up with a colour scheme that I'd be happy with. I purchased some second hand White Dwarf magazines and borrowed some books from friends to get some ideas. Initially I thought that the "official" blue and purple colour scheme for the Genestealers would look good but after applying the base colours I wasn't at all pleased with the results. It didn't look natural and so I switched to a green and purple scheme that looked far better to my eyes. This is one advantage when painting several identical figures, it's easier to experiment and discover what looks best.

Genestealer with intact armsBefore I got too fully involved I had another realization—I didn't like the extra arms on the Genestealers. While they were very nicely molded with their clutching hands, it looked too busy; I prefer a much "cleaner" design. So I took the plunge, cut off the arms and I think they look quite a bit better. I imagine that some purists are aghast at this but I'm happy with the results. It did require a bit of extra time with a Dremel to cut and polish the "stumps" but it was actually a pretty simple procedure. It helped that the aliens had a sort of exoskeleton look to them so the rough finish did not look out of place.

Now that I had decided how I wanted them to look, the actual work could begin. The first step is in assembling the figures which simply involves gluing the arms together. (It's standard practice to glue the figures to the base prior to painting but I prefer to do that last.) Once the extra arms were removed I could trim and sand the mold lines. This was actually one of the more time consuming aspects as there was a lot of detail and lines throughout the figures. It's tempting to skip this step or just do a quick job but from experience I know that you shouldn't. Tiny little lines might not be very noticeable on an unpainted miniature but they tend to stand out like a sore thumb once you apply a little paint. Better to take the time and prepare the figure properly. Next was applying the base coats of paint and this meant a coating of dark green for the body and then applying purple to the appropriate bits. At this point the figure is almost completely covered but it's far from a finished job. A "wash" of diluted black is then applied over the whole figure and this accomplishes a number of things. First off, it darkens the whole figure making it a little less vibrant. Since it dries somewhat spottily, this makes the underlying colours less uniform and more natural looking. It also enhances the depth and detail of the figure as the wash will tend to collect in the recesses giving the illusion of shadows. It's a very simple procedure and makes everything look a lot better. Once this has dried it's time for drybrushing which is pretty much the exact opposite of washing. For this you'll use very little colour. First fill the brush with paint and then wipe most of it off on a paper towel. In fact, you'll wipe the brush until it appears that there's no paint left at all. You then lightly brush over the figure which will cause very small amounts of paint to appear on the high points. Just as with the wash this tends to bring out details and really makes things stand out, this time you're creating highlights rather than shadows. Again this is a very simple technique that greatly improves the look of a figure. With this finished I then applied small little details—colour for the eyes and the tongue and painting the claws and feet. The claws were a little bit more involved but still pretty straightforward. I applied white to the tips and then used the drybrushing technique to blend it into a light brown colour which I think gives it a more natural look. This pretty much completed the painting and so I would then glue the figure to its base. It's usual for people to paint the base and apply "flocking" (tiny little rocks or simulated grass) but I've always preferred the look of the plain bases. The (near) final step is to spray the entire figure with clear coat. This seals and protects the figure so that you're much less likely to chip and wear the paint as you handle the figures.

At this point I've removed the lower arms and removed all the flash and mold lines on the figure. Now, every painter in the world will tell you that you need to apply primer to the figure before proceeding. Despite this universal truth I rarely do so and have not encountered any problems.
The base coat of green applied. The only real decision I needed to make at this point was whether to paint it purple and then detail the green bits or the other way around. After a couple of attempts I decided that it was easier to paint the green parts first, then the purple.
All the "fleshy bits" are painted purple. There's no real technique for this other than to be careful to make sure you only paint the bits you want to paint. It's very easy to cover up any mistakes at this point though.
This is after applying a thin black ink over most of the figure. The ink will run and collect in the recesses which makes the details really stand out. This creates the illusions of shadows and darkness in the hidden areas.
After drybrushing with light purple. This is the reverse of the above procedure in that you end up applying lighter paint to just the raised parts. This has the effect of simulating light hitting the exposed edges.

(Note: the drybrushing is much more pronounced in this picture than in real life due to the camera flash.)
Claws and other bits painted white.
Drybrushing with a light brown around the base of the claws and other bits gives them a more realistic "bone" like appearance. The tongue is painted black and a dot of red for the eyes.

Now I thought that I had finished the job with these aliens but it turns out that I wasn't quite done. Genestealer base filled with putty You see the little guys are posed leaning forward quite a bit. I found that they had a tendency to fall over as you moved them which simply would not do. Part of the problem is that the bases are hollow and rather light. So, I decided to use some modeling putty as filler which would add to their weight and stability. Fortunately I happened to have some "air dry" putty lying around from a previous project. I filled each base, carefully working the putty into all the nooks and crannies and then left it overnight to dry. The next day I placed the figure upright on a piece of 400 grit sandpaper and smoothed out the rough surface of the putty. This made the figures far more stable and lent them a nice heft; it was now very rare for them to fall over. Occasionally the dried putty would fall out if the figure was handled roughly but a drop of model glue fixed things up pretty easily. I considered filling the bases of the Marines and Terminators but decided against it as they are already quite stable. Finally, after much work I had finished with the figures!

Well, finished with the figures themselves but I still had to have some way of storing them. The easiest way to damage the paint job would be to toss them all in a bag where they would rattle around against each other. After spending so much time and effort I wasn't about to let that happen. There are several manufacturers that sell cases specifically designed to hold miniatures but they have two disadvantages—they're big and they're expensive. I'd already decided that I'd spent enough cash on this project and I also wanted to be able to store the figures in the original box. What I ended up using was a relatively thin jigsaw puzzle box. I trimmed and glued 1/8" thick foam to the inside top and bottom. I could then carefully lay the figures on their sides in bottom half, place the top and wrap the whole thing with a strong elastic band. This kept the figures safely and securely in place and was able to fit in the original Space Hulk box and still leave room for all the other components.

Of course there are still other ways that a game can be improved and what bothered me most about Space Hulk were the "blip" counters. In the game, the Marine player does not actually see the aliens moving until they're in his direct line of sight. Until then, they're represented by "blips", little cardboard tokens meant to evoke the motion detectors shown in Aliens. The Genestealer player moves these on the map and once spotted, they're replaced with 0-6 aliens—an interesting way to implement limited intelligence. The problem is that you're moving these cardboard chits around quite a lot and they're difficult to pick up. So, what to do? Since they're double-sided, I couldn't just glue them to blocks. I have lots of little plastic stands that could work but the counters are round and so this wouldn't be an ideal solution. Eventually I decided that I'd make thick wooden versions of the "blips". I purchased a number of bulk blocks from Columbia Games (the makers of Napoleon, War of 1812, etc.) as these were about the right size and pretty cheap ($0.10 each). They also have the advantage of being pre-painted which saved me some work. I scanned the artwork from the blip counters and printed them on adhesive-backed paper. I cut them apart and applied them to both sides of the blocks and voila! Nice thick wooden counters that are much easier for my sausage-like fingers to pick up. (I would have preferred circular counters but that presented two problems: the only such pieces I could find were much more expensive and it would have required printing on round labels. To date I have not been able to find round labels of an appropriate size, the only ones I've seen are far too small. I've actually written to Avery (the label making people) to request such a product but so far, nothing.)

Now, lest you think that I'm not really all that obsessive (fat chance of that), we come to the final piece of the puzzle—sound. Sound? I mean, you can't really have the full experience unless you've got appropriate mood music can you? The computer game Strange Adventure in Infinite Space has some very cool background sounds in convenient WAV format. It was a simple matter to stitch several together and convert them to an MP3 that I could loop while playing Space Hulk. (You can listen to the original WAV here.)

Space HulkSo, was it all worth it? It depends on your point of view. To be honest, the game is only mediocre at best. The scenarios are generally unbalanced and in some cases it's practically impossible for the Terminators to win. The strategies are pretty straightforward and easy to pick up and there is plenty of die-rolling which may offend some people. So, from a purely game playing standpoint, it was a whole lot of effort for not much payout. Some might regard this as a failure but I don't. I rather enjoy the process of painting and it's purely a bonus that I may actually use the figures every now and again. I suspect the same is true for many painters of miniatures. Creating a full order of battle for Waterloo (for example) is the real point of the hobby, not actually playing it out. Besides the painting, I really enjoy working on crafts such as creating the tiles and blip counters. It's the process, not the end result that's of the most interest. That I now have an attractive game to play every so often is just a bonus. While I won't pull out Space Hulk on a regular basis, I will be pleased with my efforts every time I do.

- Greg Aleknevicus

Horizontal line

About | Link to Archives | Links | Search | Contributors | Home

All content © 2000-2006 the respective authors or The Games Journal unless otherwise noted.