++++ Received: 24/09/2195+++
+++Source: Antares binary system 876/ 978+++
”ID: Industrial Salvage and Mining Vessel Valley Forge
Crew: 12 Human
Androids: 1 Andromech 580-A “Demigod” class
Engines: Hagfish Twin FTL J-3000 Tachyon Shunters
Navigation: SIS-TER 6000 Mainframe
Cargo: 2,000,000 tons of Mineral Ore; 3 tons of Trimonite
Logged Flight Plan: Thedus to Earth
Mayday, Mayday! This is the ISMV Valley Forge – comms systems failing, scanners malfunctioning… one of us is missing. Several of the crew are also claiming to have seen an alien lifeform.
Ore-payload canister M-CXC-3790 ruptured when taken for processing. Doctor Chandra claimed it cracked like an egg before she vanished (possible space psychosis). Request advice, and rescue boat. Comms out.
Message Appended- Received 24/09/2195
Oh god! Two of us are dead, and two are still missing. We’ve got to get out of here! The captain has ordered Palmer to prime the auto-destruct. It mustn’t get back! Save our souls.
Coming to wreak its dastedly, nay, horrific homocidal tendancies all over Kickstarter on 29th March 2018, LIFEFORM by Mark Chaplin, is the latest game to come from the Hall or Nothing stable. Mark was kind enough to take time out of a ver busy schedule to tell BSoMT how the game of LIFEFORM came to be…
A quick and mostly pinched outline of what LIFEFORM is about from the BGG page blurb before I fire up the question machine…
Lifeform was initially a game of survival horror for two to four players in which one player takes on the role of an almost invincible, utterly hostile alien, while all other players take on the roles of the crew of commercial mining starship, Valley Forge. A one verses all kind of affair, if you like. During each game, the crew, outfitted with glitchy handheld sensors disrupted by a proximate nebula, search their labyrinthine vessel for equipment, weaponry, and supplies to load onboard escape shuttlecraft Remora. Along the way, the alien lifeform will ruthlessly attempt to stop the crew from carrying out this plan.
The crew and alien lifeform both have a unique deck of cards, and each card has symbols on it to indicate possible actions. The alien can move around the starship, attack, cocoon, activate a malfunctioning android, sabotage equipment and the vessel’s wiring, scurry into vents, and more; while the starship crew can fire flamethrowers, search, move or run, protect themselves with shock-prods, hide, shut security doors, and other actions.
Lifeform is a standalone, dice-less game that tells of twelve commercial astronauts working on a battered mining starship, far away in space and time, who encounter an awesome galactic horror. Featuring an innovative self-destruct game mechanism, and alternate playable endings, depending on crew success, Lifeform presents a tense, suspenseful adventure with each and every game.
B…U….T….Now Mark has designed and playtested that all important (to me, for one) solitaire variant …
I was most interested to discover what went on in a designers mind when creating a solo-mode to a multiplayer game. Here is what Mark had to say on the matter…
Creating a Solitary LIFEFORM
Solo playthrough video
Q1. I feel compelled to kick things off, especially after chatting with Tristan at Airecon a few weeks ago about LIFEFORM, by asking why you initially felt LIFEFORM didn’t need a solo variant?
That’s not strictly true. At least a year or more before Tristan approached me about teaming up with Hall or Nothing productions, Toby (main game co-designer) and I tried out a couple of solo systems. I’ve kept all the tokens and whatnot, obviously, but they just didn’t work to a level that satisfied me. Its chassis was a kind of minefield-like operation, spread out over the starship’s chambers. The alien creature was even more heavily abstracted than it is now, and the whole shebang didn’t inject much extra theme into the game – it felt too mechanical and soulless. I shelved that aspect of the project. Tristan just re-lit the fire in me for a solo option. I’m glad he did!
Q2: When the decision to make the game solitaire friendly was taken, where on Earth, or more accurately, between Thedus and Earth does a designer of a game that already has a slick, well tested gameplay even start to think about implimenting changes?
As time went on, my brain kept going back to how to create a thematic, immersive solo LIFEFORM experience. I kept asking myself, what would I want to see in a solo version. And, what would disappoint me if it wasn’t part of a solo package. But I also knew what the game couldn’t do – without an app, it couldn’t fully automate the creature’s movement. Pondering these questions and game restrictions, I found myself going back to two things: the “Battlefields” expansion boards for Knizia’s Lord of the Rings co-operative game, and the Fighting Fantasy solo book paragraph system. Could I combine the two? And could I use most of the elements of the main game in the process? Additionally, I made a mission statement that included a rule that I wouldn’t stray too far from the main game’s mechanisms – each change had to make thematic sense, even when solving a tricky solo game problem.
Q3: When toying with solitarianism, which methods of automating game play did you consider?
Basically, the game’s all about the alien creature, in any mode, and so automating that facet was my key priority. The main stumbling block was that there is always situations where the monster needs to move aggressively, and the solo gamer would need to decide which chamber to move it into to. And a directive like “always move to the most advantageous chamber” gets murky really fast. Clearly a flowchart AI system could have been integrated, but I’m not a big fan of chart-checking during play.
Q4: During this solo design/illimination process, what whas deemed to be ‘pants’ and discarded…and, perhaps more importantly, why were these ideas not applicable/functional for LIFEFORM?
One method of automating threat movement I considered, is where you have arrows in every chamber of the starship, indicating direction of travel, like the real-time game, PROJECT: ELITE. But it would have made a mess of the board, so I discarded that avenue mainly for aesthetic reasons, but also because arrows only direct the monster toward a waypoint, not the sole survivor of the doomed mining starship. And you’re straight back at the many-caveat movement rule chart again. I briefly entertained a card-driven system, and a dice system, but none ‘felt’ right. These only kicked in when the alien was at close range, and directed movement between nearby chambers on the board. I trashed these because the monster would end up making wonky moves, which you could put down to its nature being “alien” and “unknowable”, but ultimately you could game the beast due to this random element, and that drained the game of tension.
Q5: In this design process, what considerations did you feel important to take into account when mapping the game from a co-op 1 vs all style to a solo game?
I wanted the solo game to be a completely different experience than playing the 2-4 player game. Intense, exciting, swift playing – with good, meaningful decisions every turn. And even though it’s a survival horror game, I wanted the solo player to feel empowered and in control of their destiny, but also simultaneously on the ropes! I knew the base game action cards alone could never achieve this. I also wanted it to have elements that were not featured in the main game, memorable narrative moments. You can’t force open an equipment locker and pull out a harpoon gun, or weld shut a bulkhead door, in the main game, but you can in solo. I suppose most of my considerations were thematic when retrofitting the main game, and I wanted an iron-clad engine on which to run the solo experience.
Q6: What were your concearns when looking at automating the game with regards to maintaining continuity of play between the 2 variants?
My main concern has always been in how you approach the automation of the alien creature. In the 2-4 player game, one player always plays the homicidal lifeform, and their actions are driven by the cards they play from the alien action deck. I knew that this element of the game wouldn’t work solo. I wanted a robust system that didn’t rely on a “choose the worst option” from the cards presented. So that factor of the main game (the alien’s action deck) is not included in the solo game. I also knew that no system for moving the star-beast physically around the starship gameboard would satisfy me – any AI movement system would always be overly complex. That’s how I settled on a range-zone motion tracker board, separate and distinct from the main game. Instead of the game deciding where the creature is, YOU decide where the creature is – governed by your decisions on each Crisis card that you draw, and by what actions you partake as you move about the mining starship. To be clear, the solo player isn’t making decisions for the monster – the system automates the star-beast each time you take too long performing a task, or it hears you clanking about, from a thematic PoV.
Q7: How important to the design was the production cost consideration?…(in other words, ideas such as need for keeping additional components to a minimal to make a game solo friendly)
As LIFEFORM had already punched my savings in the gut, adding extra content was something I was very wary of doing. When Tristan played the solo version himself, he said “why don’t we include a solo version of the mining laser card?”, for example – he was much less concerned than I was about retrofitting the base game’s cards and tokens.
Q8: I wonder how production costs (size of components/number of cards per print sheet etc) had any significant impact from the off, on the whole solo design process?
I always wanted to use almost everything from the main game. I approached the design as if LIFEFORM wasn’t my game. This is a useful trick, I think. I tricked my brain, and said to myself: “someone’s given you a multiplayer ALIEN-homage board game – make a solo version out of what is in the box.” This is much easier to do if you haven’t played the game in a while. As the design took shape, it became quickly apparent that more cards and tokens would be needed, if this mode of play was to be done justice. And if something occurred to me that would make the solo game more boutique and awesome, like finding a one-off blowtorch, a token was included, and to hell with the increased cost of the art and production!
Q9: …and to follow on from that question, how important to you as a designer was finding the best solo mechanic ‘fit’ for the game first then look at stramlining it?
I came up with the card-driven Crisis card deck, and initially it had 4 decisions on each card. I chopped that down to 3. Rather than paralyze the player with options, I felt a good, medium, and bad choice for each crisis, would help players get into a rhythm faster. But I never stripped out any componentry, as the solo option didn’t use that much extra stuff (other than cards). My friend Leigh (we designed REVOLVER 2 together, and SORCERY! THE CROWN OF KINGS) suggested a different turn structure for the solo game, and after we tried it, I knew it was the best solution. He spread the payload throughout the player’s turn, because there’s more operational busywork to do as a solo player, and my initial structure front-loaded the work. You complete the same actions and operations, but it feels cleaner and breezier his way! The other main section of the main game that got chopped was the climactic fight on the emergency shuttlecraft. When fighting a human opponent, the game uses bluff and the lifeform’s hand of cards to represent its attacks – so this also had to be jettisoned. The solo has a conflict board. So the game’s climax can play out using similar mechanics to the main game, but implemented in a different fashion.
Q10: I realise it is always good practice when interviewing to avoide closed questions but did you…
A) try to keep the solo game true to the original or were you more concearned with developing a solo systam that fit the game?
-I was only interested in making a bespoke system. This is because I wanted people to play the most thematic version of the game that could be done. Especially as a well-known BoardGameGeek figure said there are no good solo modes for multiplayer games. I’m not going to wade into that row here, but I do feel that nothing quite like LIFEFORM’s solo game has ever been done before, and I hope gamers think it a worthy project, and a good fit, theme-wise.
B) feel pressured by the gaming community to produce a solo variant?
–Pressure is good! Totally this is a system born from the desire of the gaming community, but I saw it as an interesting puzzle to solve. Especially as my earlier efforts were below the standard I had set in my brain. I’m showing my younger self there’s a better way to solve the solo game experience.
C) realise the size and demand of the solo community?
–Tristan convinced me of this. Though one of the main early questions posted on all game forums is “can the game be played solo?” It’s difficult to gauge the demand purely from a small group of persistent online forum posters. But once my engine was set on creating the damned thing, the number of gamers who might play it evaporated from my thoughts. I wanted to play it!
D) are you pleased that a solitaire variant now exists?
- Yes! Probably because it’s the last big thing I designed for the game, it’s my favourite aspect. I can’t wait for people to post about their solo playthrough sessions. I hope they enjoy it as much as I enjoyed creating it. It’s been in my brain for so long, and not a day has gone by these last few months where I’ve not thought about it – I’m sure every designer is like this. Every time I play the solo game, I want it to set me on fire, as it were, and have as many thematic narrative beats as possible, considering the limitations of cards and tokens.
Q11: Where did you take indpiration from to create the solo mechanics? (Were other solitaire mechanisms inspirational…or even at all appropriate for this quite unique style of play?)
NAVAJO WARS was a big inspiration, but there’s virtually nothing in LIFEFORM that is similar – the inspiration came from how polished that solo game is, and how neatly it solved some of its obstacles. And solo gamebooks were an inspiration. The Crisis cards that form the backbone of the solo game, have 4 sections: the first is the flavour text (and if you don’t read this on the cards while playing, why are you even playing the game?!), which leads directly into 3 decision sections. The first two sections are flavoursome with real consequences and a direct connection to the card’s text; the final section on each Crisis card is a “DO YOU hesitate” option, that is always bad for the player. The other influence was, of course, Ridder’s movie – the final hour is tense, heart pounding, and scary. How do you convey any of that into a solo boardgame?
Q12: Obviously I have a particular interest in solo variants of multiplayer games but I’d like to know on a more general basis, where did you draw inspiration from when creating the game? (not so much the theme and avoiding franchise infringements, but more about the way the coop game builds tension, sets various mission objectives and avoids the dice-fest lick rolling genre of games)
I looked into how tough do you make the solo game, and trawled for inspiration through endless forums, for players’ general feeling of acceptable difficulty, tempered by my own feelings on the matter. I came down firmly on pretty tough, because that’s what I would expect, and most players said they desired in other games. Not impossible to beat, but hard to pull off. I want players to have a good time, experience memorable moments, make interesting decisions, and feel as if they have a chance at winning – I’d rather they lost, but by a hair’s breadth!
Many games have objectives, and both LIFEFORM’s main game and the solo have them. The 2-4 player game has randomised secondary objectives, dealt out of a small deck at the game’s start. The solo game couldn’t use those same objectives. To make the solo game function in a consistent manner, the secondary objectives are set – you have three, and you won’t complete them in the same way or order each game. One of the objectives is partially geography based, and all three are featured throughout the three Crisis decks. One of the objectives is thematic, and purely from a filmic inspiration.
NAVAJO WARS and WAR OF THE RING inspired the chit-pulling conflict resolution system. In the main game, the beast from another world is played by another player who tries to kill you with their hand of action cards. With the solo, I wanted a structure that didn’t use dice (it couldn’t use the cards, obviously), was fairly lethal, and got progressively more difficult to survive as the game progressed. Chit-pulling was the answer. The great thing with drawing tokens, is you can add or take from the cup/bag as the game dictates.
I can’t say I drew inspiration from any one game when it came it keeping the tension high. Both modes of play in the game utilise the starship’s self-destruct tracker. An always-approaching game endpoint. In the main game, when crew players decide to draw cards the timer advances, to simulate the time it takes to search for equipment, etc – the timer never moves automatically. But it does in the solo game, AND when the solo gamer completes certain activities or draws more cards. I found this gives players the feeling of control (in both modes). And it’s a natural tension meter!
Q13: On a more personal note, do you find yourself playing many games solitaire and do you have any particular multiplayer games that have impressed you with their handling of solitaire modes?
The solo games that I currently find most interesting, but the play-through times are long, are NEMO’S WAR and NAVAJO WARS. I’ve also quite enjoyed playing the LORD OF THE RINGS LCG game solo (we didn’t find the multiplayer that satisfying). As a kid, I played RISK solo uncountable times, and as a teenager I played many of the SPACE HULK missions on my own. I own CHAINSAW WARRIOR, and have fond memories, but I haven’t played it through in 30 years.
Q14: I understand that working with Hall or Nothing Productions gave you far more freedom to create the game you really wanted to than with other previos publishers (without unessesary commercial pressure) but what difficulties does this gift of carte-blanche have on you as a designer, knowing that potentially the sky is the limit…(well…just beyond the sky, as it happens)?
Well, Hall or Nothing came onboard near to the end of the game’s development. I wanted to create a game and present it to a publisher as a “fait accompli” – everything done, and nobody telling you to remove the blood splatters from the art, or telling you to change keywords or flavour text, removing the word Satan, etc, so as not to offend any potential religious customers, as an example. And most crucially, no one rushing you to complete the game to a deadline. LIFEFORM could have been published years ago, traditionally, but it just wouldn’t have been as good as it is now. Not because of those things I mentioned, but because it’s had much longer in the slow cooker. Now while it’s true that extra time working on a project might not yield better results, extra playtesting (using the almost-finished art) can help finesse the game to a very high standard. During the last 5-6 years this game has been on my anvil, I didn’t hardly look at the game for a whole year stretch. This was crucial, I feel, to come back with fresh eyes, and strip away rules or exceptions that you originally thought indispensable, but with experience now look overwrought and unnecessary.
And while this game might appear to have a gazillion tokens and stuff, I think it’s fairly tight on that element. It’s true that I could have had dozens of extra decks of cards and the like (because of no real oversight), but all you’re adding is bloat and complexity. Coming from a background of Print and Play games, forces you to be frugal with your components. And, let me tell you straight, having to pay artists for every token design and card from your own pocket, makes you think twice before adding anything!
As a final note, my main aim for the solo package has been to create a straightforward-playing, eventful adventure, filled with unforgettable moments that give you a thematic high in under an hour. Others will soon be the judge of whether I have succeeded.
Q15. Obviously the current solo variant is a system to artificially drive the alien element of the game (allowing a solo player to face the devilishly cunning homicidal killing machine) but have there been any thoughts to play from the Alien’s perspecte? (Perhaps as a future expansion)
I ruminated on Twitter about this weeks ago, and Tristan and I briefly discussed this yesterday, if interest was high we could make this happen in the future. The possibilities for a bloodthirsty, fun, slaughter experience – with detailed descriptions on the cards of every hideous action – could be amusing. I think it would also be unique.
A solo lifeform character board with branching stages of evolution/life stages, chosen during your slasher-like exploration of the starship, makes me excited.
Thanks Mark for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to talk about LIFEFORM from a solo gamers perspective. It is very much appreciated.
Dragon’s Domain – the solo mode for LIFEFORM – is a totally unique, bespoke experience for the solo player with extra rules, components and thematic card decks. This expansion sees the player take on the unstoppable Lifeform single-handedly in a desperate battle for escape and survival. You can addd this unmissable solo expansion to your pledge by selecting pledge.
- LIFEFORM Kickstarter campaign page: http://kck.st/2uxmzop
- LIFEFORM BGG page: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/155065/lifeform
- Solo replay-ability thread on BGG https://boardgamegeek.com/article/28661013#28661013
- Interview with Mark Chaplin & Tristan Hall on The Carboard Herald podcast about LIFEFORM: http://www.cardboardherald.com/podcasts/2018/3/28/episode-73-tristan-hall-of-hall-or-nothing-productions-mark-chaplin-co-designer-of-lifeform
- Interview with Mark & Tristan on the Unlucky Frog podcast https://t.co/mzbu58c4Hn
A Lifeform solo play-test report by Mark Chaplin
Sunday afternoon, I recruited playtester extraordinaire Mark Lowe to be the lone survivor aboard the doomed mining starship, Valley Forge – this was a solo expansion (Dragon’s Domain) playtest of upcoming survival horror boardgame, LIFEFORM.
I thought some of you might like to read a brief summary of what transpired!
Mark avoided entering darkened areas of the starship, or vent-connected chambers, and took a route that mainly kept to the “southern” area of the ship. He used up all 3 “trait” powers without much hesitation, and avoided placing ‘stowaway’ tokens on the emergency escape shuttlecraft Remora, when possible. His ‘fear’ track didn’t completely fill, due to him avoiding terror tokens. This was a cautious playthrough! The 3 secondary objectives weren’t a major difficulty for him, as they can be on occasion (he found a mainframe substation to uncouple the shuttle’s umbilicus – lucky draw). He seemed intent on only collecting just enough equipment to launch the shuttle, and not a token more! After only a few minutes searching, he found the ship’s cat on A-deck.
At one point on B-deck, Mark bust open a supply locker and fetched out a harpoon gun – this saved his life within the next 5 minutes
NOTE: I did notice he only used the flamethrower on the alien once (maybe twice), to send it squealing back down a corridor. He used his survival skills and quick decisions to overcome chambers containing dangerous, fizzing electrical cabling, and another with an out-of-control fire.
After finding the mangled dead bodies of two crewmates, at T-minus 8 mins, the homicidal star-beast confronted Mark: he survived the initial chit-pull (which also means the alien was now even more dangerous than before), and then forced it back with the harpoon gun.
At T-minus 3 mins, Mark ran onto the shuttle and launched.
As the mining starship exploded in his rear view, and Mark prepared to enter his sleep-pod, the alien unfolded multiple hideous limbs from its hiding spot. It was onboard!
(Mark only placed 2 stowaway tokens on the shuttle: one was “safe” the last one flipped said “danger!”)
A climactic battle ensued. Among his cards and tokens, I think he had of note:
1x harpoon gun
(no halon gas blasts!)
The alien’s attack filled 4 of the 5 conflict boxes with various strength aggressions – due to decisions he’d made during his time onboard the Valley Forge. Mark’s flamethrower made short work of the largest ‘conflict zone’. The monster retreated a few feet, shrieking from the superheated blast.
A mixture of improvisation and good planning thwarted another attack. Then he used the airlock to distract the creature (emptying another conflict zone). After analyzing his hand and options, Mark said gloomily, “it’s got me”, but then remembered he still had the opportunity to desperately search the shuttle’s walk-in supply locker. This is very risky, as at this point the alien had cocooned/evolved enough that the attack chit cup was heavily weighted in favour of drawing a “killed” chit.
With things looking bleak, Mark leapt “Ripley-like” into the locker. Against the odds, he pulled a “still alive” chit (and drew 2 fresh crew cards). Emerging from the locker, shock-prod in hand, with teeth gritted, Mark stood firm against the alien menace.
Next, he almost emptied his hand of cards (and fired the harpoon gun one last time), to void another conflict zone on the lifeform’s final confrontation conflict board (say that three times fast). With a couple of cards left, Mark faced off against the intergalactic horror – he’d played a good game, but not quite good enough…
… the horror opened its jaws wide. Wider still, its gaping maw right in front of the last surviving crew member of the Valley Forge’s face. Grabbing his head, the star-beast lifted him off the deck…
*As the camera panned to peer out of the shuttle’s ventral viewport, a single scream rang out.
Roll end titles.
pub. BSoMT 26/03/2018