When you think about savage, ravenous aliens trying to rend you limb from limb, or disciples of chaos crusading to literally turn the galaxy into a living hell, it’s pretty unlikely you’d associate any of that with a game of cards. However, Space Wolf banks on being able to transmute the life or death struggles of the Warhammer 40k universe through playing rectangular strips of cardboard. Believe it or not, it’s rather entertaining.
Space Wolf casts the player in the role of a valiant space marine of the Space Wolf chapter; a sect as ferocious as their namesake. Sent down to some godforsaken planet, it’s up to you to politely take turns and defeat your devil-worshipping foes through cardcraft. Every turn, you’re given a hand of cards. Weapon cards will allow you to shoot/melt/conflagurate your enemies whilst movement cards (in a shocking twist) allow you to move a few tiles. When you find yourself out of movement cards, you can spend any other card on movement. However, every card has an “effort” score, which affects the order in which everyone acts, so spending some effort intensive card on a simple move action means you’ll be getting pelted by bolter fire while you wait for your next turn to come around. Here Space Wolf teaches us an important real life lesson: spend as little effort as possible on everything you do! It also gives a satisfying amount of depth to things as it encourages you to build a balanced deck of cards between games, assuring you draw a versatile hand for every situation.
What makes things more complex is how you can chain cards in your deck. For example, if you have a movement card in your deck that gives you +8% to hit your chaos tainted foes, you’ll get a chain link bonus when shooting. However, there might be a crucial moment when you need to hustle away from a firefight quickly and need to use that movement card. This means it’s a careful balance of whether you want to leave a chain card in the deck for its passive benefits or play it when you need a quick action. There was one particularly cool mission I played where a badass Rune Preist was holding out for re-enforcements by keeping a lightning card in his hand, which struck the chaos troopers with bolts of electricity every time they attacked him.
Between levels you can equip different cards into your deck and upgrade them by combining identical cards together into a more powerful iteration. You can also choose some from some simple binary upgrade trees for the Marines in your party (but thankfully you’ll only have to build a deck for the main character). You can also forge new cards entirely, and this gave me the greatest degree of hand-rubbing glee. The more forge points you spend, the greater the chance you’ll create a rare or legendary card. The random element does make things much more exciting as you watch with joy when your new card materializes as a chaingun/flamethrower/rocket launcher of ultimate doom. The chance that it’s just as likely to be a bog-standard rusty stub pistol means forging a new card is always a nail-biter.
I really enjoyed my time with Space Wolf. This isn’t a faithful but woefully dull 40k board game adaptation like Space Hulk. Instead, there’s an effort to create an interesting mix of X-com style turn-based strategy with the sort of colorful novelty card game you might find down your local Games Workshop. Space Wolf helped steel my resolve to cover literally every Warhammer game ever made. Keep your cogitators primed for when we test if Space Wolf is truly worthy of the Emperor’s blessing in a full review.