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Warhammer 40,000: Space Wolf Preview – 40K Say You? Not Enough Mechanics Say I!

Apparently, just taking all of the gameplay, rules, mechanics and lore from an incredibly successful table-top miniatures game and porting it straight into a video game isn’t enough for today’s developers.

Unlike in 1992, when Gremlin released Space Crusade – ostensibly the first video game based in Game Workshop’s distant and utterly dystopian future – companies throughout the decades have had to mess with 40K’s format: zooming in to single-player FPSs in Fire Warrior and third-person action titles like Space Marine or bringing it even further out into Epic territory for Battlefleet:Gothic and for one of my favourite RTSs; Dawn of War. In 2014, HeroCraft brought it back to the squad when they released a new take on Warhammer 40K with part turn-based tactical shooter, part CCG Space Wolf. And, now, they’re bringing it to PC.

Space Wolf draws not just from the tactics and turn-based play of regular 40K, oh no, it also – somewhat bizarrely – lumps in a hefty helping of collectible card game too.”

Available via Steam Early Access, Warhammer 40,000: Space Wolf is still technically in beta for the next year or so but, due to this being a port, it’s pretty much ready to roll out and there are no prohibitions (except for the requirement of an always-on internet connection) to jumping right into the game.

Space Wolf really does drop you smack into the middle of the action, albeit with a brief tutorial mission to help you get to grips with some of the basics. While it’s good fun and does a decent enough job of getting across the fundamentals of moving and shooting via a hand of cards and a pair of action points, there’s no way a short tutorial would ever be able to portray the vast depths of stuff going on in Space Wolf.

When it comes to mechanics HeroCraft seem to think that more is more. At first blush, the jumble of ideas can seem a bit daunting, if not somewhat prohibitive for your first few hours, and it’s not always entirely clear how everything works. However, HeroCraft do appear to be addressing some of these issues already: for example, my first time through I had no idea what Effort was all about (as you don’t right now) but, following some player feedback, HeroCraft have added more information on Effort into the tutorial mission, so that’s nice.

As I said in the introduction, Space Wolf draws not just from the tactics and turn-based play of regular 40K, oh no, it also – somewhat bizarrely – lumps in a hefty helping of CCG (that’s ‘collectible card game’) too. Many of the game’s mechanics, and not a little of its strategy, are owed to the hand of cards that you use to dictate the actions of your character each turn. The cards are broken down into three main categories: move, use and equip.

The first, move, seems pretty self-explanatory and for the most part it is – though there are obviously status effects that can affect it, and different types of movement that grant status effects or boosts and movement that, when used in conjunction with another type of card, can generate zero Effort (we’re getting there, hold on).

‘Use’ cards are the bread and butter of Space Wolf and, as well as being used for their intended purpose, can also be spent to move your character if you don’t have any move cards in your hand this turn. Use cards are mostly weapons – though, as any 40K fan knows, weapons are pretty bloody well varied in the 41st millennium. Alongside the standard boltgun you’ve got plasma weapons, meltas, fire-based flamers, grenades, auto-cannons, missile launchers and lasguns – and that’s just for ranged combat. Melee also brings in power swords, power fists, claws, maces, staves and the iconic chainsword (one of which Man At Arms: Reforged made, that one time). Similarly to the move cards and probably somewhat familiar to anyone who’s ever played a CCG, you can find all manner of effects, boosts and buffs on the use cards, too.

See our ‘First Look’ at Warhammer 40,000: Space Wolf below:

Finally, we’ve got equip cards. These are also weapons but instead of a single use these are (wait for it…) equipped on your character, meaning that you can use them any time, and if a card has the ‘Overwatch’ ability, your character can take action out of turn if an enemy drops into range. But there’s a caveat – more than one, actually: each equippable weapon has limited ammo of a certain type, though you can spend a turn and a use card of the right sort to reload it, and you’ve only got two equip slots and some of the bigger (and better) weapons will take up both of them.

Each card costs only a single action point to play so you’re usually able to play at least two cards each turn, but what each card also has is an Effort cost (told you we’d get there) and Effort is absolutely key to playing Space Wolf with any sort of success.

“It’s clear to see that developers HeroCraft have made it their mission to really bring the 40K universe to life in Space Wolf. “

Simply put, whenever you play a card, your character (of which you can control up to three) gains however many points of Effort are stated on the card. The character (friendly or otherwise) with the lowest amount of Effort points will go next, enabling you (or your opponent) to take two turns back-to-back with careful Effort management.

Add in the ability to select which armour type you want your main character to wear for each mission, a raft of unlockable upgrades for each of the three armour types, unlockable cards for the other soldiers that make up your squad and the ability to craft new cards and totally customise your three decks and you’ve got an incredibly involved game that is, at first, overwhelming but is, ultimately, actually quite deep and intelligent.

The biggest problem, though, is also one of Space Wolf’s biggest strengths: the cards. Without them, the game just becomes another turn-based shooting game, prone to severe limitation due, largely, to its setting. But with them – while you get all of the fun of building your deck and unlocking new cards – there’s an overbearing RNG at work that can turn an otherwise fun and entertaining game into one of frustration and anger. I’ve played a fair bit of Space Wolf now and I can honestly say that I’ve never completed a mission without dying at least once, but at the end of those failed missions, I’ve been left not with the feeling that I’ve learned from my mistakes but with the hope that I get better cards next time. It also artificially ramps up the game’s difficulty, resulting in many people on Steam venting their frustrations at the game being too hard when in fact it was probably just bad luck that kept them from progressing.

That aside, though, it’s clear to see that developers HeroCraft have made it their mission to really bring the 40K universe to life in Space Wolf. Everything about it screams Warhammer and it certainly feels more authentic than most other 40K games. It’s good looking to boot, and inserts cinematic moments into the gameplay by changing the camera position to get a better look at a kill now and then. I can’t say how ‘successful’ the port has been, never having played the mobile version, but as a standalone game for PC, Space Wolf has plenty to offer – to fans of Warhammer and newcomers alike – especially when you add in online multiplayer and a variety of other game modes.

Warhammer 40,000: Space Wolf is pretty deep, interesting and rather good fun. So long as you’re not averse to a bit of Hearthstone in the 41st millennium, that is.