Review: Deathwatch Overkill

Review: Deathwatch Overkill

A new board game set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe pits a crack team of Space Marines against an unspeakable alien horror. It's tense and cinematic, but it comes with a hefty price tag.

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Deathwatch Overkill board game
Deathwatch Overkill pits a team of Space Marines against a horrific alien menace. (Image: Games Workshop)

Deathwatch Overkill is a board game from Games Workshop, and it costs £100.

Take a moment. Let that figure sink in, and allow your initial gut reaction to subside. If you have to, go and get a dishcloth and wipe up the coffee you’ve just sprayed across your monitor. We’re going to have a chat about this game, we’re going to keep an open mind, and we’re going to ask ourselves whether anything can justify shelling out three figures for a box full of cardboard and plastic.

In 1989, British publisher Games Workshop released a game that would come to be regarded as a classic. Set in the iconic Warhammer 40,000 dark sci-fi universe, Space Hulk pitted a team of genetically-engineered Space Marines against a horde of alien horrors known as the Tyranids – clawed, hideous, flesh-shredding beasties with more than a passing resemblance to the monsters developed by artist H.R. Giger for the Alien film franchise.

Space Hulk inspired a level of devotion bordering on fanaticism among players. Over the decades it’s spawned multiple video game adaptations, and even though it remained unavailable in shops for years, copies changed hands for hundreds of pounds online until the release of a revised edition in 2014. So when news broke that Deathwatch Overkill, a new game based on desperate combat between elite Space Marines and rampaging Tyranids was in the works, it was inevitable that the upstart release would be compared to its revered predecessor.

On first inspection, there are plenty of similarities. Like Space Hulk, the game sees its human protagonists horribly outnumbered by their alien adversaries. The action takes place on a modular board, allowing for a multitude of different game scenarios. And while the Space Marine player deploys his or her troops before the game begins, Tyranids enter the game continuously and unpredictably with every passing turn.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that in many ways Deathwatch departs dramatically from Space Hulk’s script.

Related: Review: The Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth

Rather than a massive derelict spacecraft infested by extraterrestrial horrors, the new game takes players to a mining planet whose population has been ensnared by the Tyranid hive-mind. Where Space Hulk deposited players in a warren of claustrophobic corridors, Deathwatch’s story plays out on a world of rusted platforms, creaking gangways and yawning black gulfs that drop away into nothing.

SOME OF YOUR MOST IMPORTANT STRATEGIC DECISIONS COME BEFORE THE GAME EVEN BEGINS.

Then there are the characters. Where Space Hulk revolved around the heavily-armoured Terminators of the Blood Angels Space Marine chapter, Deathwatch tells the story of the, er, Deathwatch – a sort of Space Marine super-team that amalgamates the strongest, toughest and most capable warriors from across mankind’s galactic empire. Fueled by religious zeal and utterly ruthless in combat, they’re a bit like a combination of the Justice League and the Spanish Inquisition.

The game comes with 11 Deathwatch marines to play with, and each boasts their own set of weapons, equipment and special abilities. There’s a jetpack-wearing super-soldier with razor-sharp mechanical claws who swoops down to tear enemies into tiny chunks before they know what’s hit them. There’s a deadly marksman who unleashes a hail of explosive shells with uncanny accuracy. There’s a motorbike-mounted speed freak accompanied by a cyborg eagle that swoops around the battlefield gathering information on enemy positions.

Warhammer 40,000 Deathwatch Overkill miniatures
Deathwatch Overkill comes with 50 gorgeous plastic minis representing the Space Marine and Tyranid forces. (Image: Games Workshop)

As the Deathwatch commander, you’ll deploy a varying number of marines for each of the game’s nine scenarios, and the characters you field will have a huge impact on the way the game unfolds. There are some powerful synergies between different characters, and the process of selecting your team, weighing up their merits and their suitability for the current mission feels a lot like Nintendo’s Fire Emblem tactical RPGs. Some of your most important strategic decisions come before the game even begins.

Once it does, though, it quickly becomes clear that you’re in command of some serious badasses. Your marines may be severely outnumbered, but they’re far from helpless. Where the Tyranid forces consist largely of lightly armed alien-human hybrids, the Deathwatch come equipped with devastating bolt guns, flame throwers and damn-near-impenetrable power armour. Their superior training means they can attack twice on every turn, and if, by some miracle, the aliens manage to inflict damage on them, they can opt to skip one of their attacks in order to fully recover. They’re gleefully, unrepentantly over-powered, and it’s common to see a marine bogged down in a five-on-one fight not only surviving, but cutting down swathes of enemies before they even have a chance to take a swing at him. It’s like watching Muhammad Ali at the height of his powers fighting an entire bar full of mediocre pub-brawlers.

This means that if you’re controlling the Tyranids, you’re playing a very different game. Each turn begins with a brood mind phase that sees you draw a hand of cards, each of which can be used in one of two ways. Lay it face-down at the edge the board, and it’ll spawn new creatures to add to your ranks. These range from clusters of cannon-fodder hybrids to the deadly Genestealer Patriarch, and because they aren’t revealed until later in the game round, they force the marines to react to threats before they can be certain what they are. You can even play some cards as decoys, luring the Deathwatch to certain spots on the board, deceiving them into splitting up their troops and blindsiding them with an ambush that strikes at their weakest point.

This is a game that feels remarkably different depending on which side you’re on

Any cards you don’t use to bring new troops to the board remain in your hand, and you can play them during your turn for a number of powerful effects. Some make your forces’ attacks more accurate, others boost their movement speed, and some exploit the perils of the game’s environment, cutting the lighting in one area of the board to make shooting impossible, or restricting your opponent’s movement with unstable walkways that threaten to collapse underfoot.

This is a game that feels remarkably different depending on which side you’re on. For the Deathwatch, it’s about storming through each stage, mowing down enemies with minimal subtlety. For the Tyranids, it’s about biding your time, baiting your traps and slowing your human adversaries with weak, expendable troops until you’re able to unleash your deadliest threats. In fact, in a lot of ways, controlling the Tyranids feels like playing the antagonistic overlord in a dungeon-crawl adventure game like Descent or HeroQuest, and Deathwatch Overkill often seems like a combination of those games and full-on Warhammer 40,000.

The results can be incredibly cinematic, and Deathwatch is built around big, dramatic moments. You’ll face down overwhelming mobs of mind-controlled drones, only to reduce them to a molten puddle with your flamethrower. You’ll perform death-defying leaps across gaping chasms on your armoured motorbike, machine guns blazing all the while. You’ll fight heroic last-stand battles as your stalwart marines finally succumb to the overwhelming weight of numbers, disappearing under a sea of teeth, claws and crude weapons improvised from mining equipment.

But is it really worth £100?

Deathwatch Overkill packs a hell of a lot of plastic: 50 multi-part miniatures that you’ll have to assemble and paint before you play. That might be offputting if you’re not into model-making, but if you don’t mind putting in the required hours with superglue and tiny paintbrushes, these are some gorgeous, detailed, characterful figures. Games Workshop will be publishing rules allowing you to use them in standard games of Warhammer 40,000, and the idea of paying £2 per miniature and getting a standalone game as an added bonus might be an appealing one.

If you’re not an existing 40K player, though, you’ll want to think carefully about whether you’ll get enough out of this game to justify dropping such a substantial wad of cash on it, and it does come with a couple of downsides.

One is the introductory scenario – a straight-up battle between the Deathwatch and the weakest of the Tyranid forces. In theory, the Tyranid player wins if they can kill two Space Marines, but in our review session they didn’t manage to inflict a single wound. While the mission serves as a straightforward introduction to the rules of the game, we found it completely lopsided, and that’s just not fun.

WHERE CALTH FELT LIKE A REFINED VERSION OF EVERYTHING GREAT ABOUT WARHAMMER 40,000DEATHWATCH FEELS LIKE A GAME THAT COULD USE A LITTLE MORE MEAT ON ITS BONES.

The game’s turn structure can also feel a little plodding and ponderous, particularly in the opening phase of every round where the Tyranid player draws a handful of cards and selects which to use to generate troops and which to keep in-hand for their bonus effects. It’s reasonably absorbing for the player actually making the decisions, but it leaves their opponent twiddling their thumbs while they wait for something to do.

This stop-start pace stands in contrast to Games Workshop’s last 40K-themed board game, The Horus Heresy: Betrayal at Calth, which had players alternate actions to create a tense, fast-paced tactical skirmish, and in a straight contest between the two, the consensus among our review players was that we’d opt for Calth every time. Where Calth felt like a refined, streamlined, stripped-down version of everything that was great about Warhammer 40,000Deathwatch feels like a game that could use a little more meat on its bones. It would have been good to see a Dominion-style deck building element to the Tyranid player’s turn, or permanent upgrades and injuries that follow characters from one mission to the next to give a sense of narrative continuity. While you’ll pick up bonuses for winning games in the campaign, they feel arbitrary and only tangentially connected to the story.

If you’re a die-hard 40K fan, immersed in the lore of the game’s dark and gritty universe, then this game may well be worth its hefty price tag. This isn’t a Warhammer blog, though, and for more general-interest gamers, there just isn’t enough here to justify a three-figure splurge, especially when £65 buys you a copy of Star Wars: Imperial Assault.