14 August 2019
Hell to play
Hellboy: The Board Game lands with the punch of the Right Hand of Doom.
Released in time with the new cinematic reboot of the series, but hewing closer tonally and visually to Mike Mignola’s original comics, Sophie Williams and James Hewitt’s rompy dungeon-crawler pits the agents of the B.R.P.D. against evil frogs, eldritch tentacle monsters and, worst, the ticking clock of encroaching doom. Mignola was himself involved in producing the look of the game – and it shows. The cards and player boards are faithful to the comic-book artwork, while the purple, turquoise and blue hues of the garish map tiles that make up each modular layout are a breath of fresh air against the dank dungeons and murky forests of so many bland dungeon-crawlers.
The blending of exploration and combat lands somewhere between the winding Lovecraftian narratives of Mansions of Madness and the room-by-room adventure of Hewitt’s own Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower. The players generally spend the first act of each scenario gathering clues, dispatching minor monsters and clearing room, racing to progress their insight against a creeping doom counter. Whether the players are prepared or not, a final confrontation is eventually triggered, with the team’s efforts to investigate the paranormal goings-on putting them in better or worse stead against a final boss and/or their gribbly minions.
The two-act structure gives a strong backbone to hang the meat of Hellboy’s gameplay on. An intuitive test system combines three dice of varying strength – dictated by the characters’ individual traits – with an effect die that can trigger events both good and bad, from extra damage and rerolls to guns running out of ammo and enemy special abilities. Dice can be upgraded or downgraded as the result of various situations – firing into an area with multiple characters, taking damage, spending additional action points – letting fights feel pleasingly dynamic and strategic without bogging rolls down in endless rulebook-checking. Character abilities and the opportunity to load up with equipment before a mission invite replayability and co-op experimentation as you hurl enemies into scenery, wade into groups to dish out melee blows or pick off baddies across the map. It’s still a dice-chucking dungeon-crawler at heart, but one that manages to feel fresher and more exciting than many of its peers.
Much of this satisfaction comes down to its creators' clear willingness to just let players have a good time. Hellboy can be punishing, but it never punishes the players. There’s no permanent player elimination – as in Silver Tower, characters can rest to recover health and revive knocked out allies – and dice rolls can almost always be boosted or modified to help avoid the frustration of bad luck.
As well as the overarching ‘case file’ scenarios, Hellboy uses decks of exploration and event cards, dubbed the Deck of Doom, to inject semi-randomised situations into each playthrough. While the broader storytelling means that Hellboy’s scenarios lack some of the narrative richness such as Mansions, the peppering of thematic flavour into the moment-to-moment dungeon-crawling experience gives the game an effective feel of the comics and helps colour in each scenario and the characters. The bosses – major archenemy Rasputin joins a giant frog monster and tentacle monster in the core set – similarly feel more than robotic pistol fodder thanks to boss behaviour decks that come into play during the finale.
While its gameplay feels designed to stand up to repeat plays, Hellboy is held back by the lack of enemy variation and small number of case files in the core box. Without picking up one of its expansions, you’ll find yourself facing off against just four frog minion types during each playthrough: something that can become a bit one-note. Given the efforts of the rest of the game to keep its scenarios as fresh as possible, it’s a disappointing sticking point. That accepted, the core box is a strong foundation to build on.
Hellboy is a game that thrums with the energy and attitude of its big, red star. It’s an accomplished dungeon-crawler, a riotous experience and a hell of a time.
PLAY IT? – PROBABLY
Offering up more interesting gameplay and richer scenarios than the typical dungeon-crawler fare, Hellboy is a fitting tabletop tribute to the seminal comic-book character and his world.
Designer: James M. Hewitt, Sophie Williams
Artist: Jose David Lanza Cebrian, Mike Mignola
Time: 60-80 minutes
This review originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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