In Pursuit of Human Revival - A Black Angel Review
Prior to release, Black Angel had much to live up to. The newest release from Pearl Games, it has been described as the spiritual successor to modern classic Eurogame Troyes and 2018 family game Solenia. It takes the ideas of buying dice from the opposition and a board that scrolls with a central ship that players use as a hub. And if that wasn’t enough, the art is credited to the man whose work is everywhere, Ian O’Toole. On paper, it’s the perfect storm.
There’s a lot to break down, so we’ll take each as it comes and refrain from describing each and every aspect up front. Let’s start with the strongest aspect of the game: the art. Black Angel’s cover is enough to get any gamer interested, whether their preference is Eurogames or thematic games. Those same colors grace each of the boards used for play. O’Toole has a winner on his hands for the look he’s given Black Angel. This may be the recipient of many people’s “Best Art of 2019” award.
The blues, pinks, and blacks are accompanied by the four alien races, all with different backstories detailed in the rulebook. The cards and space board show off the different ships and appearances of the friendly aliens the players will be working with. There is also the insect-like Ravagers, who are the biggest adversary to the Black Angel. All four are unique and hats off to Ian for making them different in appearance.
But there’s a problem with the aliens in relation to the theme. Even though they all look different, there isn’t a definite feel that makes them stand apart, other than the Ravagers, who are pivotal to gameplay. The other three act as placeholders, and without inspecting each and every card, you can’t tell the difference between Tsoths and the Xhavits. In fact, until reading back for this review, I didn’t even know the names of the three friendly aliens or felt a need to know their names.
This all leads into the theme as a whole. On the surface, it’s all great. The back of the box tells the players about humanity’s recklessness in taking care of planet Earth (familiar…). The largest nations put aside their differences to construct the Black Angel frigate to search out planet Spes, the matching planet to redevelop the human race. Yet, no nations are willing to work together in terms of AI, so they will be evaluated during the Black Angel’s travels, who will then be entrusted with awakening humanity.
So the players themselves are the different artificial intelligence programs controlling robots that do their bidding. The AI are not cooperatively working together. They’re still competing in terms of which AI is best. There isn’t a difference in the four AIs other than color. No different names, no difference in starting powers. It feels like a lost opportunity with all this interesting theme flowing from the box and have the players as uninteresting parts of it.
In some ways, it’s the same feeling for the resources players are managing. The three are ships, debris cubes, and resources. Yes, the translucent gems used to pay other AI for their dice are called “resources.” The ships, I totally understand. They’re essential to gameplay. But just having something called a resource takes one away from the theme. Same with the debris cubes. One receives the cubes and uses them to activate techs or to flip a die to an opposite side. But thematically, there’s little connection to them.
It’s a super concept on paper. But once the game gets going, the theme becomes so forgettable, that players aren’t stating which alien race they're helping (players only say colors), which parts of the ship are under attack (players only say numbers), and saying the color of dice they’re using (which doesn’t have any real connection to the theme and why AI have to pay each other to use them). It feels like a lost opportunity and in some aspects hurts the experience. It’s better to be a themeless Euro and not try to hide it than throw a novel world onto a game and have little care for it once the game gets rolling.
Theme doesn’t make the game. Gameplay ultimately has the final say.
There are three real main areas that players interact with: the Black Angel itself, flying out to other planets on the Space Board, and managing technology on the individual player boards. The ship is where the gist of actions are selected, using the three colors of dice to select from six worker placement spots. Half of those spots (one for each of the die colors) are used to interact with the scrolling space board. These are the most interesting places, due to putting a mission card on a matching planet and opening up options for both you and other players.
The other three spots, while important in their own ways, aren’t nearly as exciting as commanding ships. A player can discover technology, purchasing new tiles that slide into their player board. These tech tiles give the players options that they can do before they select an action, using mission cards that they draw, or using damage/debris cubes. Purchasing a black advanced tech tile provides an opportunity for end game scoring, and more if that tile is pushed off of the player board, where it slots into a new position for the opportunity to score even more.
The two lesser (but necessary) actions to take are repairing the ship and destroying Ravagers. When repairing the ship, the active player scoops up the cubes representing the damage that the Ravagers have inflicted. That player may now use the cubes to activate techs on their board or store them to modify a die they have rolled. As for destroying the Ravagers, it is identical to the repair action, but instead grabbing red cards to add to their hand. They can be used to activate an entire row of technology tiles, even if the colors aren’t matching. If the players aren’t removing damage cubes or claiming Ravagers, then actions become harder and harder to use.
Like Troyes before it, Black Angel’s strongest gameplay aspect is the interaction it has between players. When taking a turn, it’s always a great idea to evaluate what die could be bought from the opponents. A key thing that one does not want to do is to take Sequence B, which is basically clean up and advance closer to the game’s end. So the biggest stalling tactic is to buy from everyone else.
Players are also trying to take advantage of the mission cards played out in space. If one seems like it may be useful, instead of playing a new one out to use, a player might fly on over to that one already in space to save a card that could be used to activate techs. If a player does add a new mission card, it gives opportunities for others to earn some debris cubes or Ravager cards. It’s smart, and the key reason why playing with three or four players seems to be the best way to play Black Angel.
The technology board that Black Angel uses makes for some good long-term planning and helpful actions before using a die. Players are asking which of their three starting technologies will be most useful for their future ideas and cards they’ve drawn, because to better the actions on their player board and have the potential for higher end game scoring, one or two of those starting tiles may have to hit the road at one point or another. The players are also evaluating which cards should be used for the player board or which to use as a mission.
And the scrolling space strips, while not the first time Pearl Games has used something like them, make for really cool ideas when moving robots that pilot ships and placing mission cards. Some cards have abilities that activate when they fall off the scrolling board, so placing them close to where the tile flips can have more benefits. The other cards have abilities that can be triggered, so getting them on a strip that is close to other ships could get them to use that mission card, and giving the owning player a free activation. It’s smart and really cool to see the Black Angel mini crawl closer to Spes.
My biggest gripe I have with Black Angel is the rulebook. While 16 pages shouldn’t be hard to digest (with a separate 4 page appendix), it’s some of the wording that creates confusion. The red cubes that players will be removing and using are called both damage and debris cubes, but different based on when a player interacts with it. Both make for some confusing situations when being taught or clarifying a rule. When playing the solo mode, it says to place activation mission cards on the fifth strip of the space boards. When reading this, I assumed it meant the last strip in relation to the way the Black Angel figure was facing. But it’s the opposite, and there’s only one clarifying place in the rules that explain this orientation.These are all fairly minor things with all things taken into account.
But the biggest blemish in the rules is the section about performing an action on an already-placed mission card. It details the four steps to commanding ships and placing mission cards, but only the the conditions a player must meet to activate missions in space. When first playing, I assumed that one could activate a mission card that is placed with the same die that was used to place it, and the rules do not clarify if this is the case. It’s been posted about on the BoardGameGeek forums, and it appears that to activate a mission, you must use a separate die, basically acting as a seventh worker placement spot. The problem with that interpretation is that it isn’t listed as an action on the player aid, so one doesn’t know if to take the action when moving ships or using an entirely new die.
Speaking of the solo mode, I’m really unsure how good it is. What gives Black Angel a solid amount of decisions is having options through the other players. Should I buy this person’s die, another person’s, or just use my own? Which mission card already out in space would be better for me? In the solo game (and even in the two-player game) you are limited in what you’re choosing from. What amplifies the issue in the solo game is the shortened game length. When playing at any other player count, the rules say to use all seven of the space strips. At one-player, it says to only use five of the seven, making for a shorter game.
All this time, Hal isn’t doing exactly what a normal player is doing. He’ll be taking the same six actions using dice, but he doesn’t have a player board, a hand, or any of the resources. Any time he would earn something, he generates VP immediately. The player, on the contrary, generates most of their VP during the end game scoring, so it’s a weird feeling of watching Hal jump 40-50 points ahead, and work quite hard just to get two or three points until the ship reaches Spes. I posted my highest score in Black Angel (62, if anyone was wondering) and Hal still beat me by 20 points. It’s a nice little puzzle, but incredibly difficult.
There are some aspects of Black Angel that just don’t work as effectively as it wants them to work. The boost side of tiles used in the advanced game are a great way to offer more VP, dice mitigation, and a free way to reserve a die. But when buying a technology tile, a player isn’t getting it for a one-time ability. They’re picking a tile that best works for their strategy, and while on the boost side, the standard ability is not available. So the positive boost side that players will want to use at some point becomes a hindrance in many situations (you may forfeit the one-time action to open the primary action, but that then lessens the luck mitigation).
The actions to repair the damage and defeat Ravagers do not evoke the tension or excitement like they should in theory. If there is a big hole in the ship, shouldn’t there be alerts going off and panic erupting from all angles? If there’s six angry aliens outside the windows of the Black Angel, shouldn’t all hands be on deck to attack? There are times when players look at those threats and think, “I have more important matters to deal with,” so they send another robot out on a mission. Meanwhile, the next player claims half of those Ravager cards, and instead of wiping their brow at the lessened attack, they’re thinking “that was an ok move” or “someone had to do it eventually, I guess it had to be me.” There’s benefit to taking these actions, but they’re not engaging like the space actions.
The main way the game will end is when the ship scrolls its way through space and reaches Spes. The alternate way the game could end is if the Ravager deck is fully depleted, which thematically makes sense. Based on my plays, it seems as if it will be a rare (at best) condition that could happen. Not only that, players will be making certain that Ravagers won’t be overrunning the Black Angel. On the surface, it appears as if one could want the Ravager deck to run out, since part of the end game scoring does not happen it triggers, but have not seen an opportunity where that is optimal.
There’s a Ravager card that causes a die in the general supply to become damaged, meaning that if a player takes Sequence B and must take a die that is damaged, they lose a victory point. But due to the flow of the game, it seems as if the cube is only there to be repaired from the worker placement spot. In all my games I’ve played of Black Angel, I’ve not seen an instance where a damaged die has been the only option, thus it sits in the general supply until someone fixes it. It’s also plagued by the fact that the rules for damaged dice are placed in different parts of the rules.
Personally, I don’t enjoy that the game has a decent amount of luck. Some people can overlook that aspect of Black Angel and still enjoy the experience. But the entirety of the game is dependent on rolling dice, and if someone rolls better, they’ll be spending less cubes, tiles, and overall time mitigating what they have. The dice in Black Angel have a star on one side, which represents zero pips. There is never an instance where a zero is useful, or if there is, it’s as situational as some of the other cases I just listed. Once a star is rolled, that player will be doing whatever they can to get rid of it, even if that just means they take Sequence B early and reroll the die for no penalty.
While it’s luck that is mitigated (particularly in the advanced game), I don’t think it does it correct. Lower numbers just aren’t as good as higher numbers. I can forgive the luck in another dice worker placement game: The Voyages of Marco Polo. Die rolls in that game are much more forgiving, giving compensation to those that roll poorly. And even if their pip count is low, there are many instances where a low-value die can have just as many uses as a high number rolled. The same can be said with The Castles of Burgundy, where the amount doesn’t matter, but matching the number to the spot on the board or the good tile. In Black Angel, a low number on a die is always less valuable and less useful than a three (the highest number on its custom dice).
All this to say, Black Angel has some great ideas, particularly the technology on a player board and the premise of the game. The art is some of the best of the year to be used on a game. But it just seems to be lacking in cohesiveness. It takes some of the aspects players liked about some of the previous hits from Pearl Games and added that all together, as opposed to being its own entity. The sum its parts don’t equate to the thematic Euro it should have been. Combine that with a tough to digest rulebook and you have an underwhelming experience. Some will really enjoy it, but based on my assessment, Black Angel falls short of the greatness it seeks.