In space no one can hear you scream so they say… well, that’s not entirely true. The acid saliva dribbling, toothy alien entity stalking me in the shadows certainly heard my cries… and, I suspect, so did my neighbors as I desperately tried to save the cat from the jaws of the alien
(Press play for a derelict ship ambiance to accompany your read)
So What’s All The Fuss About?
I suspect some of the fuss has died down a little since I first played Lifeform, but that should be rekindled as this is a pretty spectacular game of survival… ooops, a major spoiler for my views on the game.
A disabled and somewhat abandoned mining ship, floating in deep space, plays host to our gaming experience. We are the sole survivor (from the solo variant perspective) Just us and the ship’s cat… oh, and some hideous human hating, supreme people killing alien lifeform who has already decimated the crew. We have to scavenge the sip for vital equipment, items and technical information to enable us to launch the escape shuttle, and all before we too succumb to the ship’s auto-destruct or the ever present multiple jaws of the alien creature, relentlessly hunting us .
Immersion or Subversion?
There are many games taking the Alien franchise. Some good, some not so. Lifeform is ambiguously set in a similar world but does not take the franchise, nor does it really focus on encounters with said beastie. This is a game of true survival and in the solo mode, the alien creature doesn’t actually make an appearance on the board. The solo game (and I will touch upon this later) is a far more of a psychological experience than the multiplayer, especially with the absence of the creature’s physical presence on the board. The components, board and overall gameplay have a slightly abstract schematic feel to them, so we are not overwhelmed with multiple Ameritrash images of gruesome aliens. It is the gameplay and encounter card text that drive our horrifying adventure. Having very little idea where the alien creature is, constantly worrying about the ever decreasing self destruct timer all add to the tense feel of play. For me, this really does create a most immersive, mind chilling adventure, from which a great narrative unfolds.
For the soloists amongst us, the principle mechanic revolves around the three decks of alien encounter cards. We move around the corridors and rooms of the mining vessel searching for necessary items to facilitate our escape. As we enter each new location, exploring or stumbling upon inconvenient hazards, all demand us to select a card from the deck (each part of the ship has its own deck which, as we close in on the goal… the escape shuttle, increase in tension and difficulty of choice when decisions are required of us. There is some narrative/circumstance flavour text to introduce each encounter (often including exposure to the lifeform) followed by several choices to be made. Each choice has a payment requirement and usually has an increasing detrimental effect upon us. The easier a decision is to fulfill, the more horrendous the outcome. The payment comes from the playing of cards from our hand, all of which are filled with numerous icons permitting us to take various actions or fulfill task requirements. So together, the encounter deck and the action deck form the bulk of the game mechanic. In addition, a self destruct timer ticks away giving us a finite number of turns… however events can cause this timer to increase, making time very precious to us… and making decisions all the more difficult.
Some locations on the board are more likely to house the alien and this forces us to draw cards from the Terror deck. The outcome of these cards are even more devastating and horrific than the event cards… the game really does throw everything at us, and most successfully replicates the feel of isolation with a dreadful alien entity.
Wood Chits And Cardboard Bits:
From the artwork, through to the components, gameboard box and rule book, all sport luscious illustrations and are of the usual high quality we have come to expect from all Hall or Nothing Productions. Thick, heavy boards, glossy finish, great colour scheme. There is just so much ‘stuff’ in this game and the box is unbelievably heavy as a result.
Meeples and Standees:
Designer: Mark Chaplin & Toby Ferrands
Publisher: Hall or Nothing Productions
Artwork: Victor Perez Corbella, Nicoleta Stavarache, Gary Simpson, Chechu Nieto
Playtime: 60-90 minutes
Age of consent: 14+
I have played the multiplayer game with designer Mark Chaplin and publisher Tristan Hall, but in solo mode… well, this is a different beast altogether. From a player’s point of view, we play in exactly the same manner as the crew of a multiplayer game but the control of the alien is where things are handled differently. There is no AI alien player. As previously mentioned, the encounter decks create situations that emulate our encounters with the alien, throw numerous spanners into the works and add to the terrifying isolation we experience on the mining vessel. In my opinion this actually creates a more tense and sinister game experience.
There is also a proximity board that indicates how close the alien might be at any given time (irrespective of where we move to) which means that we are always aware of its presence but can never alter our movement or actions to second guess its actual position. This creates further tension and realism for such an adept hunter.
The solo game feels similar to the multiplayer but definitely has added pressure, recreating a truly isolating experience as we would expect onboard a derelict ship
Bots and Wotnots:
There are definitely no half measures in this solo variant. There is no true AI. No direct Bot opponent to out wit. The whole alien presence is shrouded in darkness, mystery and terror provided entirely by the encounter decks. It does not feel like we are playing against an opponent, nor does it feel like we are playing against the game itself. The way the alien is represented has the feel of a completely different approach to AI’s. The narrative nature and shroud of mystery create the demons in our mind. We are literally playing against our own fears
The Real Nitty Gritty
- Winners and Losers: This is not an easy game to win… not because it is too difficult to play, but the way it has been designed means that even escaping the derelict vessel may still throw up a final encounter which is always a major challenge. I have escaped many times but almost always face the beast in the final turn
- Rules is Rules is Rules: Game play is not too difficult and the rules do a reasonable job at explaining how to play. The difficulty lies within the large number of actions, icon meanings and situations. The main rule book is a 44 page A4 document with a second 16 page booklet for solo rules
- Lucky Bugger Buggers: There is no potential luck from die rolls. Drawing action cards and event cards are random and there is the luck of the draw, but this merely gives us the opportunity to optimise our strategy to deal with what we are given
- Lows and Highs: It is interesting that with the very slim chance of surviving this game, there is never a dull or depressing moment. The excitement and thrill of the experience always out ways any feeling of loss. I treat each game as a learning experience and try to apply new strategies to subsequent games…. Although the way the game is designed, especially the encounter deck, means that every game is so very different and one old technique may not be applicable to similar situations in new games
- Footprints All Over My Table: This is a pretty huge game. Most components are housed on the game board ( or can be squeezed on it, if not originally intended) 51cm x 102cm for the main board plus space for the Alien proximity board, player sheet and shuttle board add an additional 40cm x 40 cm… so a large table will be important
- Set It Up Just To tear It All Down Again: As the game uses a large number of tokens that require placement at the start of a game, there is a more lengthy set up time. Once familiar with how everything fits together, this time can be cut down to ten minutes or so. The rule book does have a nicely illustrated diagram to accompany the setup requirements that makes life a little easier for us
- In For A Penny: To play solo, we do need to purchase the solo expansion but this is definitely worth the investment as there is such a lot of game for the money, and replayability is very high
Me, Myself and I:
I love both solo and multiplayer variants. The game plays right down to the last turn (if we manage to survive that long) and even if we make it to the escape shuttle, there is no guarantee the cunning alien has not already stowed aboard, awaiting a final showdown. It is tense, thrilling and psychologically disturbing. Such a great survival experience.
As the likelihood of death is high in the multiplayer game, it is a particularly nice touch to have the Ship’s Cat and the Ship’s Mainframe computer as limited participants that players may take over if their character meats a grizzly end. I never like player elimination and this alleviates the situation nicely. For solo play, there is no such luxury. It is us verses the alien and if we cop an unfortunate one, we are done for… but I do like that the cat still features in the game as one of the objectives. We must rescue the pore mite as a condition for escape
Yay or Nay?
Although the solo game is an expansion, I still believe this is definitely worth the investment. With drooling jaws, the alien lifeform chomps away at the BSoMT 1d8 die, sculpting a rudely formed 8
Here kitty, kitty, kitty… bloody stupid cat… of all the times to go awol hunting rats. You’d think with their heightened perception cats would sense the impending terror that awaits us. I am going to have to wast valuable time now emptying its litter tray (and maybe emptying my underpants too…. This is one scary place, that’s for sure)
Something For The Weekend Sir?
Hall or Nothing website: https://hallornothingproductions.co.uk/
Hall or Nothing on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Ninjadorg
Hall or Nothing on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/hallornothinggames/
Game play video
Solo playthrough from Ninjageek Games https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aj29yVyHgRw