Hellboy: The Board Game is something truly special. But can you play it if you aren’t a superfan?
That’s the dilemma facing Mantic’s brilliant, crunchy, stocky little dungeon crawler which pits Big Red and his B.P.R.D. cohorts against all manner of monsters. Is it possible to enjoy a game that is deeply referential, one which plumbs the depths of a body of work so byzantine there’s an online university of sorts that has dedicated itself, in part, to figuring out a coherent reading order for all the comics which populate the Hellboy universe?
About six months before David Harbour’s maligned Hellboy reboot film hit cinemas back in 2019, I was employed as a copywriter to come up with some marketing slogans and ideas for the PR campaign. I came up with an idea for a Hellboy brand hot sauce (which Roadshow used in a Hellboy-themed hot wing eating competition at Oz Comic-Con), a huge red nail file made specifically for horns, a “feeling horny?” valentines day card, and some assorted pun-heavy taglines for movie posters and billboards.
But at that point, I’d not actually read Hellboy. And because I’m a psychotic completionist who has no idea how to behave like a reasonable person in any way… I enrolled at the Mignolaversity. And I read the entirety of the Hellboy saga. It took me a year. And it was utterly glorious.
Hellboy: The Board Game Review
You may have seen Guillermo Del Toro’s mildly iconic Hellboy films, in which Hellboy, Liz Sherman and Abe Sapien battle evil, and in which Ron Pearlman gives the performance of a lifetime as Big Red. But to truly experience what Hellboy actually is, you have to read it. And because Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy, has only just wrapped up the 25-year story which kicked off on page one of Hellboy’s first issue, in order to appreciate every aspect, you need to read it. All of it.
Hellboy, B.P.R.D., Witchfinder, Abe Sapien, Crimson Lotus, Lobster Johnson, and countless other spinoffs. The Hellboy universe is finite, true. But it’s dense, and it rewards those who are obsessive enough to pour over every tiny detail.
Hellboy’s (loose and grossly condensed) story is as follows. At the tail end of World War 2, Rasputin (yes, that Rasputin) and a bunch of Nazi scientists attempt to bring about Ragna Rok, and in doing so, summon a small red child from hell. Well, they actually summon him halfway across the world in an old church in the English countryside, where a bunch of mediums and some soldiers wait to stamp out this impending world-ending creature. But Trevor Bruttenholm, a paranormal academic and founder of the B.P.R.D. (The Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) intervenes and saves the child, convinced he can raise him to do something other than bringing about the apocalypse. Jump forward to the nineties, and Hellboy is a veteran agent of the B.P.R.D., fighting off witches, harpies, trolls and the like.
His offsiders all have their own deep, complex stories and motivations, but in essence, the Mignolaverse is largely one long, frightening, complex, deeply touching ending. A long defeat. But our heroes still have a job to do, a fight to carry on fighting. And that’s what Hellboy: The Board Game is all about!
The adventures. The dungeons. The slaying of dragons.
When you crack open your box, you’re presented with your agents, monsters, a litany of cards, and tiles that make up the maps you’ll be traversing. But each mission is presented as a sealed case file, which you’re meant to crack open once you’re ready to set off. Each time a specific condition is fulfilled during the case, you turn a card and something new happens, often turning the win conditions on their head. Mercifully, Mantic have realized the rules are a little fiddly at first, so there’s a practice mission included which should let you cut your teeth without blowing any impending surprises.
I played Hellboy single player, which was actually a genuinely enjoyable experience! Because the game is a co-op, single-player has you controlling two agents, and because the roster of agents is so varied, you can build a team that fulfils multiple roles. I went with Hellboy (obviously) because Big Red is basically a tank. He can knock enemies back, throw furniture around, and shake off damage far easier. Oh, and he pulls aggro with ease, so I made my second agent Lobster Johnson, whose ranged attacks and evasive abilities paired with Hellboy’s playstyle nicely.
But because the B.P.R.D. is an organization with resources and a budget, before wading in, I got to buy up gear using the company coffers. Every agent has starting gear with unique effects, all doused with lore from the comics, and all making the playing experience of each hero joyously varied. But the B.P.R.D. has all manner of gadgets and goodies at hand, as well as support agents who can aid you from afar. I opted for medkits, a grenade, and the help of Trevor Bruttenholm, who could sit on the radio and offer help whenever checking for clues. Ever had a friend talk you through a cooking emergency in progress, screaming at you to add salt, now, now! Quick reduce the heat! No! DON’T put turmeric directly into your eyes! That’s Trevor Bruttenholm.
So. You assemble your team. You open your case file, build the map, and pop down monster cards and clues. Your objective, in the broadest sense, is to go from room to room, revealing random assortments of monsters, and looking for clues, which will help stack the odds in your favour when the boss appears. Every case ends with a boss fight of some kind, and believe you, you’re going to need every edge you can get. But there’s also a doom counter, which ticks down every turn, and every time you reveal a doom card, something bad happens.
You’re basically dealing with crisis after crisis, fighting off unspeakable horrors, and frantically spraying expletives as you try desperately to make it out alive. That’s it! That’s the game. Punch things in the face until they stop moving. Exchange witticisms. Get gored by a frogman. You know. A typical day at work in the B.P.R.D..
Because the lore of the Hellboy universe is so full of nods to the wider comic book pantheon, and because Mignola has managed to roll the mouthfeel of Indiana Jones, H.P. Lovecraft, The X-Files and The Shadow into a kind of arthouse MCU, it doesn’t really matter if you know anything about Hellboy. The flavour text and story beats which pop up throughout the case files give enough breadcrumbs to lead even the most apathetic player down a proper rabbit hole. I’m even convinced the board game might lead newcomers to give the comic books a shot, although it’s worth noting that as the case files unfold, they begin to slide deeper and deeper into story reveals from later in the saga. I’ll take an in-depth look at the expansions in a future review – they introduce new playable agents, new bosses, and new dungeons which add immeasurable worth to a game already bursting with replayability.
One final note. There was something legitimately joyous about cracking open Hellboy: The Board Game, pulling out the truly gorgeous and detailed miniatures, and fighting a world-ending menace. Actually fighting it. The world right now is brimming with problems that seem unsolvable, and the almost idiotic stubbornness of the B.P.R.D. and their refusal to read the writing on the wall, their insistence on buying us a little time so we can work towards the least shitty iteration of the world collapsing, feels more than a little timely. Hellboy, Abe, Liz, Johan, Roger and the rest are kind of monstrous themselves, and the odds are terrible.
But they fight anyway. They’re scrappers. Which makes Hellboy: The Board Game, on top of being an absolute joy to play, a somewhat cathartic experience in these troubled times.
Hellboy: The Board Game was purchased by the reviewer.