I am, somewhat surprisingly given my pop culture tastes, not someone who plays space-themed board games that often. I’ve certainly tried a good amount, but there’s not been many that have fallen into the heavy strategy category. After all, there’s a lot of focus on grand space fights in these games and they lean toward the thematic quite often. So when a strategy game dips into space, and the designers are of the pedigree that Black Angel has, I take notice. And I especially took notice thanks to the amazing art and design from Ian O’Toole that makes this stand out among the many many brown strategy games that typically line our shelves. I couldn’t wait to dive in.
The premise of Black Angel is all about humanity having absolutely colossally messed up the earth, leading to it being uninhabitable. (Hmm, sound familiar?) Nations work together to create the Black Angel, an intergalactic ship tasked with bringing the remnants of the human race to a new, habitable planet known as Spes. The ship will be run by various factions of robots – controlled by the players – who will be keeping things going, fighting off threats and working with alien species encountered on the journey to foster co-operation (that is, running missions to get the good stuff!). All systems are go.
When I prepped the Black Angel by punching and emptying everything out onto the table, I was so excited by the components and what they promised – decks of bright cards, chunky cardboard tiles, gleaming or colourful piles of bits around the massive board. (Seriously, ridiculously massive table hog.) After hitting the end of the setup in the rule book, with everything looking smashing, I turned to learn how to play. Overall, the gameplay is divided into two clear “sequences” which is helpful. It’s just that within these – and Sequence A in particular – there’s a glut of actions. The rule book does, helpfully, lay each sequence out in a linear fashion with some examples. Sequence B is really a fairly straightforward reset round, players re-rolling dice and the Black Angel moving forward during this. Overall, I wish there’d been more clarity given to certain things among the noise of it all, and that it been made easier to look up specifics of actions quickly by having words/phrases highlighted or bolded.
The facets of the game and the way they interact is quite interesting, and I like the influence that your dice (or others, if you purchase them!) have on said actions. The areas of play consist of your own player board, the interior of the Black Angel, and then the space board that shifts throughout the game. The Black Angel interior consists of the “break room” where each player’s available workforce is stored, stations for the worker robots that will determine how many dice of each colour you roll, and then 6 actions to choose from on your turn to activate with a die. Three of these actions involve moving a ship into and/or through space and potentially placing a mission card where you land. One will allow players to gain new technology tiles to add to their personal board (more on that in a bit!), one is to destroy the Ravagers who are sabotaging and damaging the ship and the last is for repairing said damage. Although it’s covered in the rules, players can also choose to take their dice-placement action on a mission card in space that allows it, if they have a worker on that card. In all of the times I’ve played, this seems to be overlooked in favour of the basic actions – I wish there had been more of an effort to put this more clearly in the breakdown of the second step of “sequence A” as a constant reminder. Again, a simple bolding in a block of text would help these little things stand out on a player aid card or when scanning the rules.
Now to your own board – this consists of technology tiles that can be activated for certain benefits (resources, points, robot workers and the like) or that will provide end-game scoring based on certain parameters. This is a tricky little puzzle, as you want to insert new tiles into the grid to slide others in a way that line up efficiently, meaning you’ll be able to activate multiple of them at the start of your “sequence A” turn. The trickier part of this puzzle is pivoting to advanced technology tiles (the end-game scorers) at a point where you can afford to take up space with them rather than the ones with immediate benefits, and then also trying to bump them off the grid in order to (hopefully!) score more points with them.
Here’s where the interplay of the various aspects of Black Angel show. Those end-game tiles will only score to a maximum amount unless you’ve worked on moving mission cards off the space board (when it shuffles in “sequence B”). These cards can then be tucked under one of three spots where advanced technology tiles are stored once ejected, increasing their ability to score. That is, each advanced tile can score a maximum of 4 victory points, but every card accompanying it boosts that ability by 2 VP. If you work very specifically on this, it can net you some good bonuses! You’ll always have cards available to you, based on the colour of die you use on a turn, or from Ravagers you’ve destroyed – so there’s plenty of options to choose from when either using them to activate technology tiles, as mentioned above, or placing them in space in order to gain benefits as the multipliers as just noted. It’s just using them in the best ways that’s the challenge.
The Ravagers are mostly a nuisance and will turn up in the Black Angel based on how many icons surround a mission card you place on the space board. They’re randomly seeded to the actions on the Black Angel board and will leave damage on actions making them less efficient, and eventually, they’ll start to remove VPs and even damage dice. If you work your way through the Ravager deck, you’ve lost the game – but this seems to be a bit less likely than reaching planet Spes first. Dealing with the Ravagers – their damage and their presence – means that you’ll end up spending what might be a valuable die to handle them, which feels like a wasted turn and then clears up actions for players after you. Even though you’re rewarded with the cards to use for activation of your personal board, and damage cubes to also activate tiles or to modify dice, it still seems like much of a setback – especially when there’s so much that you need to do to end up with a remotely useful game state at the end-game scoring.
As you can see, there’s quite a bit to keep track of in Black Angel. Ensuring the flow of resources, ships and robots are just enough so you can optimize your turns is a lot to focus on. Add to that the puzzle of your technology tiles, seeing where you can place mission cards and how long you’ll get to use them before they fall off for tucking under your personal board… Whew, okay. Wow. I had a tough time with this, friends. After a few plays, I felt like there was simply just too much going on, and no way to ignore any of it without it having an impact on your score. I think the interplay of the actions is super interesting, and the game is clever overall – but I don’t know that it’s grabbed me enough to keep me wanting to play.
A friend of mine has played it about 7 or 8 times and said “I still don’t know if I love it or hate it” and that hit the nail on the head for me. There’s enough about it that is positive and interesting that warranted replaying for me – but at the same time, I don’t know if I’d choose this over some other strategy game when offered. Plenty of other friends have offered up that they’d rather spend their time with Troyes, the original dice & action mix from the same design team. More in the “brown” camp than Black Angel, Troyes feels far more straightforward in comparison.
Now, I don’t often get to the solo play of strategy games but it seems like the one included with Black Angel is not bad! I checked in with our own David for his thoughts: “Black Angel’s solo mode walks a fine line between sophistication/fiddliness and simplicity/unrealism. You’re up against Hal (a fine thematic choice for an AI name), whose purpose in life is to get in your way and, in the process, hoover up goodies and turn them into VP. After your turn, you flip over the next card in Hal’s 12-card deck and do the top action if you just ran Sequence A, and the bottom action if you did Sequence B. Hal’s versions of the game’s actions breaks a lotta the game’s rules, but that’s just Hal being evil.
You don’t have to do much extra work: Hal doesn’t keep damage cubes, Tech tiles, or Ravager cards. Every time he gains something you just convert it into VP and chuck it in the supply/discard pile. So it’s not as sophisticated as Scythe’s Automa or Paladins of the Western Kingdom’s AI but it does the job of giving you a challenging two-player experience which allows you to try out different strategies and hone your efficiency for your next face-to-face game.”
David’s last point is one that stands out to me – you’ve really got to dig in to try strategies and work out how best to optimize your gameplay to perform even remotely well in the game. This in and of itself is a massive hurdle, as a lot of folks will be hesitant to persist with a game that provides barriers to enjoying the gameplay itself. So giving things some test runs would certainly help with this concern – but really you’ll be at the whim of the way the game shakes out (even with ways to mitigate luck) and the actions of other players. Perhaps replaying will lead me to a place where I understand better the specifics of what exactly to focus on, within the overall “you really can’t afford to ignore anything” feel of the game.
I don’t want to give the impression that I hated Black Angel, but it’s only fair that I share my experiences and concerns. I don’t think I would, in the end, turn down playing it again – but it’d need to be with folks who’ve played before and if there was something else on offer it’d be a tough choice. And really, even the theme and story of the game don’t fully connect players to the game, there’s no story to latch onto and instead you’re fumbling your way through the melange of actions to take. The design team have taken their solid beginnings of Troyes and had an interesting and innovative stab at morphing it into something new and challenging. If you’re willing to dig in and give that a try, I’d recommend it! I will certainly be keeping my eye on what other folks think of the game over the next few months, especially to know if others have the same feeling as me with regard to not 100% being sure about it at all. If you’ve already had a chance to play a copy from Gen Con or even Essen Spiele, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
Black Angel is a sci-fi strategy game for 1 – 4 players, taking approximately 90 – 120 minutes. Designed by Sébastien Dujardin, Xavier Georges & Alain Orban with art by Ian O’Toole, it is published by Pearl Games. It is being brought to North America by Asmodee, who I’d like to thank for sending along a copy for review.