Hellboy: The Board Game Review
2019 has been a big year for the Hellboy franchise, already hitting a number of milestones within the first quarter. Hellboy returned to the big screen after eleven years, bringing it back into relevant pop culture just before flopping. But more significantly, the comic series came to a wonderfully conclusive end after twenty-five years giving Abe, Liz, Johann, and the titular Hellboy a well deserved rest.
So far the Hellboy franchise has come in with a 50% success rate in 2019. But fans have been receiving their Kickstarter editions of Hellboy: The Board Game which was on our most anticipated board games list and it’s just one more chance to leave a mark this year.
The Kickstarter project from Mantic Games was successfully funded late May 2018 with an insane amount of stretch goals adding component upgrades, new playable characters, and additional missions. The box for the Kickstarter edition is roughly 40% larger than the retail version of the game and it really impressed us. For readers who might be kicking themselves about missing out on the big box, a decent amount of the added content will be included in upcoming expansions such as the Conqueror Worm and B.P.R.D Archives.
But let’s talk about what’s in the box: miniatures, minis, and more plastic figures. There are trays upon trays of playable characters, baddies, and big ugly bosses. In fact, just to fit them all in the box, Mantic has had to layer the trays in such a way that it appears that some (i.e Baba Yaga) are actually missing because they are neatly tucked underneath larger villains.
It comes across as a bit excessive and enemies could have absolutely been represented by smaller standees, but it’s an excellent representation of the spirit of Hellboy: widely varied and entirely over-the-top. And Mike Mignola’s involvement in the game’s development only strengthens the aesthetic.
From minis and map tiles to Requsition (item) and character cards, Mignola’s unique art style is slathered over every corner of the game. Each of the mini Requisition cards have recognizable illustrations, like Iron Boots, pulled straight from iconic moments from the comics. The character cards are no different, featuring classic artwork of the series’ heroes, Hellboy, Liz Sherman, and Abe Sapien, as well as a variety of supporting characters.
But as great as that all sounds, I have a few gripes.
The crowdfunding campaign featured some impressive map tile artwork, all of which were highly stylized illustrations with lots of shadow play. However, the tiles that were included in the game all look a bit flat. There were far fewer map tiles than I would have expected which limited how unique the artwork could be as they have to be as thematically cohesive as possible with the case files. It makes sense that Mantic Games would want to reduce the number of tiles they need to produce for the sake of both manufacturing and box size, so I’ve grown to appreciate the versatility of the small selection of location tiles. I simply wish that it did not come at the cost of the art quality.
Mantic Games was able to raise enough funds to start including a plethora of additional playable characters and it added a great deal of value to the overall experience. But on the other hand, it ultimately created a lot more work for them to accomplish in a strict production timeline that experienced very few delays, an increasing rarity. The trade-off for adding and play-testing all of those additional characters was losing time to properly provided illustrated assets for the new characters. Instead of the wonderfully illustrated portraits of the main protagonists, the portraits are simply photos of the miniature models.
While I can understand the logistics side of this, it leaves the finished product looking inconsistent. The character cards are some of the first components that you see as you unbox the game for the first time are the character cards. As excited as I was to begin playing Hellboy: The Board Game, I quickly found myself worrying about the consistency of the rest of the game. Thankfully, as soon as I unpacked the next layer of box, I uncovered the trays upon trays of detailed miniatures below and my momentary concern faded.
I’m impressed by both the quantity and quality of the miniatures, but these too have a just a few hiccups that keep Mantic from masterfully reaching the lofty goals they set for themselves.
The villain, Herman von Klempt, is a Nazi scientist whose body was destroyed in an explosion, but thanks to one of his allies, his head was recovered, reanimated, and placed into a jar transported around by Toy Story style mechanical legs via comic book science. Mantic tried to recreate this design and even has a clearly defined circular indentation around the Klempt’s head where a transparent plastic lid might have been. It appears that the process of manufacturing and adhering such a component might have been too costly but evidence of the attempt remains visible. An attempt at disguising Lobster Johnson’s features behind his trademark scarf, but ultimately his face ended up looking fairly featureless as a result. But these are all minor nitpicky complaints and the game’s adventures more than make up for them.
The beauty of Hellboy is how easy it is to setup.
To begin, you’ll need only to pull out the board, Impending Doom and Clue tokens, choose your playable character and desired case file. The rest of the setup is described as players go through each of the roughly eight case file cards per scenario. The first card will always set the scene, providing flavor text and context for your agents’ mission. Once you’ve read the first card and are properly hyped, flipping the case file card over will reveal instructions on how to set up the board, Encounter and Doom (event) decks, and starting Agent position on the board, all of which only takes a few minutes to set up. Your goal is to follow the objectives detailed by the case file deck until they lead you to a final confrontation against one of Hellboy’s famous villains.
At the start of each mission you get a few requisition points to spend on items that your agents can take with them at the start of the mission. Until you’re more familiar with the game, all of the items seem fairly underwhelming, but when you’re cornered by enemies, the least impressive stun grenade will save your hide.
During the agent phase, every B.P.R.D agent will have three actions to spend represented by cubes on their character card. The most common actions such as moving, investigating, melee attacks, and firing a projectile weapon all cost a single action cube. Using the action point system, players will coordinate with one another to effectively explore and investigate their environment while mitigating the threat from frog monsters and Nazis.
Each playable character has four stats on their character card: Projectile attack, Melee attack, Investigation, and defense. Their skill level in that area is indicated by a color coded system associated with the die that should be rolled when testing said skill. The color system starts at yellow as the worst, up to orange, then red, and finally black as the best. The lower the value of the dice well rolling to attack or investigate, the lower the values on the die and the more likely it is to fail the roll.
For each skill test, players will roll three test die of the correct skill level, and one blue modifier die that adds an element of luck to the roll. The effect die is a d6 with outcomes that affect the value of the rest of the roll. Those effects are, Catastrophe, Plus One, Plus Two, Re-roll, Double, and B.P.R.D. Most of the results are fairly self explanatory. Plus results allow you to add to the total value of the roll, and re-roll let’s you do just that. But the Catastrophe result, indicated by a skull, forces you to discard the highest-scoring die from your roll, often crippling your action.
As players progress through their mission, the HQ board will be the hub for all relevant information from objectives and mission progress to enemy details. Two tracks at the top, Impending Doom and Information Gathered, display your teams progress through the mission.
Impending Doom will advance any time your team chooses to rest and has a high likelihood of doing so during the Doom phase. Once the Doom token reaches a certain point on the track, it will trigger the final confrontation whether you’re ready or not. The Information Gathered track makes note of how many clues your team of agents has been able to uncover. During the setup phase of each case file, B.P.R.D Insight tokens are placed along the information track. Should you have move your information token onto a space that has insight on it, you can claim it.
What these do is different for each scenario and won’t be revealed until the final confrontation. In one scenario our agents gained attack bonuses for each insight token in our possession. In another it reduced the number of items we had to collect to seal away an evil force. Information Gathered and insight are arguably the biggest advantages players can gain in the endgame so it’s worth spending more time focusing on clues than it is beating up the bad guys.
I love asymmetric character powers. Any game that features stark differences between character classes tends to hold my attention for longer than anything else on my shelf. I don’t just want to try each one, I want to experiment with different compositions of two, three, and four character parties and see how those abilities can feed off one another. It’s part of the reason why I’m still playing Gloomhaven a year and a half after hauling the beast home through New York City subways after bringing it to pubs or friend’s apartments. But I’ve experienced far more joy discovering how the B.P.R.D. agent powers combine to crate effective teams that depend on one another to boost one another.
My personal favorite combination so far has been any party containing Abe Sapien and Roger, a homunculus character included in the Kickstarter edition. Roger is a tank character who will deal out incredible damage at the cost of decreasing his own strength, and sometimes even his health. On the other hand, Abe is a proficient ranged character who is able to heal himself and easily slip away from enemies. Using the two together allowed us to reserve all healing items for Roger and ensure to keep his strength up while he was exchanging blows with frog monsters as Abe supported from afar.
With so many characters, there are options for players of all experience levels and play styles. The primary characters alone offer a fair amount of options to begin with. Abe Sapien is the agile ranged character with light healing, sitting opposite of Big Red who is a fist and tooth brawler capable of tossing enemies and furniture around. Their counterparts, Liz Sherman and Johann Kraus are more complex by comparison. Liz’s power, Living Flame, grows in power over time and is a force to be reckoned with but should it grow too much, it will backfire on Liz and anyone nearby.
However, Johann is very different. For those unfamiliar with his character, Johann Kraus was a spiritualist who was permanently separated from his body during a seance gone wrong. His ectoplasmic spirit is now contained in a suit that he can leave freely. Without a corporeal form Johann makes for the perfect spy/investigator ally. Taking advantage of Johann’s abilities will allow the team of agents to advance the Information Gathered track faster while minimizing risk.
I’ve played through a number of different case files with varying success and if I’ve learned anything, it’s to pay very close attention to the case file text. I managed to miss a single line of text and I completely ruined the experience. Somehow I managed to skip right to the final confrontation and fumbled around what I thought was just an odd rule set until an hour later I finished the scenario and realized I had managed to skip over all of the best parts of that story.
Naturally, we cleared the table and began again. In this case file, there were odd power fluctuations coming from and old facility that should have otherwise been abandoned. What better dynamic duo to investigate than the classic Big Red and Blue team up of Hellboy and Abe Sapien?
For reasons unknown, this facility was flooded with Nazis conducting strange experiments, as they are known to do. We were lucky at first and were able to sneak through the halls undetected until Hellboy carelessly wandered into an active laboratory and drew the attention of every living Nazi.
We had no choice but to fight our way through. It was at this point that we learned the incredible rule of die upgrades. Should you have an ally in your space while attacking an enemy, you can upgrade a die (roll one die of a higher tier) for your attack.
This became our main strategy. We were so outnumbered by Nazis as we ran from room to room that we were entirely dependent on one another for successful attacks. Hellboy would attack a Nazi, run toward Abe to protect the ranged character, and attack a different Nazi to gain the die upgrade and do even more damage. On Abe’s turn, we would attack the first Nazi and get the die bonus to finish him off, take a step back, and attack the second Nazi to finish off that one. Round after round we would do this, occasionally throwing a stun grenade to buy us a bit of extra time.
Eventually we came across a secret door way that we had the option to investigate, and why wouldn’t you? Surely there was something useful like a few clues, or maybe some bandages.
It was a big ugly boss that we were incredibly ill equipped for. This particular boss (I won’t spoil anything) would chase after us each round forcing us farther and farther from that secret room where the key to victory was resting. It wasn’t until that moment that we realized Abe’s ability to slip away and disappear from enemy sight. Of course, the coward that he is, Abe did just that as Hellboy acted as baiting, luring away to boss, while simultaneously running head-first into the remaining Nazis.
With a few clever plays and a few unnecessary beatings to the big guy, our B.P.R.D agents walked right out of the facility after leaving a mess of the “superior race” scattered across the walls.
Hellboy: The Board Game is a great way to introduce new players to the dungeon crawler genre. The artwork and components are stylistic and engaging, the stories are fun and quirky, and there’s plenty of variety amongst the characters to choose from. However, Hellboy was designed for randomness and replay value above most other factors. As a result, the the rules and design choices that keep the game so random are the same ones that are likely to overwhelm new players.
Even when placing new minions, players will have check back and forth between cards and boards frequently to recall which baddie to place where when a new encounter card lists “Minions A, B, and C” as in a new room. Each minion has it’s own stats and unique abilities which will leave players regularly referring back to minion cards for the nuances of combat.
Similarly, there are a lot of nuanced rules about when to upgrade and downgrade die and it’s important to get these right or otherwise risk making the game harder or easier than intended. It’s great dungeon crawler gateway game, but new players will have to depend on someone far more familiar with the rules to guide the group through the minutiae of the rules. Even as a fan of the game, I have to keep the rulebook by my side far more than most of the games in my library.
In fact, I find myself returning to the rules regularly, even after five case files. Depending on your chosen characters and case files, there are sets of rules that you won’t encounter for a few plays at a time. It feels a little fiddly, but I feel that it’s a fair price to pay for a game as modular and randomized as this one.
If you missed out on the Kickstarter edition of Hellboy, you’ll be happy to know that many of the additional miniatures and Case Files will be made available in retail. Conquerer Worm and B.P.R.D Archives will likely be the first ones to hit shelves, shortly followed by Hellboy in Mexico and Darkness Calls. But even before those four expansions from the crowdfunding campaign see their retail release, Mantic Games has already announced a new expansion: The Wild Hunt, which will follow Hellboy through a bit of classic Arthurian lore.
Hellboy: The Board Game looked like it was going to be just another underwhelming dungeon crawler funded by the Kickstarter masses, but it’s a solid game that’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. We recommend going through the rules thoroughly on this one because there’s a lot of nuanced rules that tend to favor the player and you’ll want to be familiar with them or risk making the game far harder on yourself than necessary.
It’s a great experience with a lot of combinations that are worth returning to. If there’s anything missing from Hellboy: The Board Game, it’s a storyline that connects the existing case files turning it into an even better adventure than it already is.
Depending on the case file and player count, one mission can run anywhere from 60-150 minutes.
Easy to grasp but nuanced rules can make it difficult for new players. Either keep the rule book or an experienced player handy.
For the most part the aesthetics are solid, but there are a few noticeable inconsistencies.
With a range of case files, minions, and playable characters, there’s enough variety to keep each mission feeling fresh.