Quinns:We didn’t provide the most glowing of reviews in our recent Halloween Special, which raises a question. What would we actually choose to play on Halloween here at SU&SD?
Absolute no brainer. Say hello to Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space. Not only is it much smaller and cheaper than Arkham Horror, while Arkham has a grim setting, this game is genuinely horrible.
All you’ll find in the box is a thin handful of cards, a handful of black and white paper maps and a second handful of pencils, but what the game achieves with them… it’s just alchemy.
Paul:Imagine you and all the other players are stuck on a poorly-lit spaceship where an experiment has gone horribly wrong. Some people were mutated into alien monsters. Others weren’t. Everyone around the table is either a merciless alien predator or a helpless human, desperately trying to escape. But nobody knows who is who. It’s just too dark to tell what’s going on.
But you can hear. You can hear movement. The sound of a footstep, a distant cough, the thud of a… body? As soon as the game starts, everybody’s picking their way through the darkness towards the escape pods. The humans, because it’s the only way to out of here. The aliens, because it’s best place to ambush your dinner. But because nobody knows where anyone else is in this lightless labyrinth, the game is played with everyone marking their location, and any noises, on their own individual map. It’s sort of like Battleships with biting.
Quinns:Ooh, it’s clever. Every player gets their own hex map of the ship. On your turn you secretly write down the co-ordinates of the hex you’re moving to, with a little fold-up bit at the end of the map keeping this information a secret from everyone else. Different hexes are either dark or white to denote whether moving there will be silent, or whether you’ll have to draw a card from a deck, telling you whether you slipped, tripped, burped or otherwise gave yourself away.
Half the cards tell you that you made a noise, at which point you have to announce to your fellow players that they hear a noise from the hex you’re on. The other half of the cards give you the opportunity to lie. If this happens, you tell the table that they hear a noise coming from any hex of your choosing. Nobody reveals the card they’ve drawn, so nobody else knows if you’re telling the truth or lying about where the noise came from, only that there WAS a noise. The only thing they know for certain is that you just moved onto a darkened hex, which can be telling in itself.
All the players do this all the time, whether they’re aliens or humans. The aliens don’t know who the other aliens are. The humans don’t know who their companions are. The only thing everyone around the table knows are the starting hexes for humans and aliens, where the escape pods are, which hexes are potentially noisy ones and that aliens can move two hexes a turn, if they want, not one.
And from out of these simple rules comes a tangible, choking, paralysing terror.
Paul: Yes. The game quickly becomes very tense and very worrying. There might be noises coming from right behind you, or worse- the area where you want to go. Noises might even be coming from the hex you’re on- something’s out there in the darkness beside you, maybe it’s your friend, maybe it’s not, but you daren’t even breathe out all the same.
The aliens, meanwhile, might be trying to behave as if they were humans, as if they were fleeing rather than stalking. Once they feel sure they’ve landed on the same hex as a human, they can finally reveal their hungry, hungry identity by announcing that, if anyone is on that hex, they’ve just been eaten. In doing so they reveal to the table both their status as a cannibal as well as the spot they’re standing on at that very moment, but regardless of whether their attempt at feeding succeeded or failed, after this brief, illuminating flicker of information, the lights go back out.
Quinns:Humans can’t kill their predators, they can only avoid them through guesswork and bluffing as they pick their way to an escape pod. Once they get there, they make a similar announcement that they’re trying to activate it that allows the aliens to identify both their dinner and its present location. The best bit is, there’s no guarantee that the escape pods will even work. The human players might well need to rush to the next one over and try that instead. Providing another human hasn’t just launched it and left.
The humans, then, have to deal with contradictory needs to both creep about in strange, indirect patterns, while moving faster than their former friends. What was that sound?! Is someone going for the same escape pod as you? Run! RUN!
The aliens can be their own worst enemy, too. There is, after all, nothing to stop one hungry xenomorph accidentally tracking and killing one of their own kind, someone who did all too good a job of pretending to be human. Such things happen in space all the time.
Paul:Some friend that would be, eh?
Quinns: I said I was sorr—
Paul:SHUT UP. So, we’ve got this whole, brilliant, achingly balanced mind game going on here. Can we just remind you it’s all happening on just a few cards and some floppy maps? This is a triumph of design. An honest-to-god antithesis the big, expensive, glossy and fundamentally unfair monsterpiece that is Arkham Horror.
Escape from the Aliens’ simple rules act like an onion. Each layer you peel away reveals another layer of tactics. Don’t forget that the aliens can move faster. This is both a great hunting advantage, but also a potential giveaway. Instead, it’s better they creep coolly about the darkness until they find their moment. Meanwhile, using those cards that let them make noises anywhere, the humans can give the impression they’re moving faster than should be possible. And then you get into double bluffs, where the humans act like humans, and, and, and all this is before we’ve gotten into the territory of mind games, where you might act scared or fall silent at the table to fool others into thinking that they’re zeroing in on your tender little takeaway of a character.
This, bless it, is a game where a lapse in your poker face can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Quinns: But the game isn’t entirely minimalist. Included in the box is a variant where you play with a second deck of item cards that players can draw from every so often, granting human players one-shot abilities such as teleporting back to the human start location, dropping a spotlight on a hex of their choosing or – yes – attacking someone in the same hex as them. Course, although aliens can’t use these, they can and will draw them into their hand to keep up the pretense of being a human. Sneaky.
This game is a diamond. Pure, hard and glorious. Unlike the Resistance (which we reviewed back in Episode 3) where only the spies will be bluffing, here EVERYONE will be bluffing ALL THE TIME because everyone has everything to lose on every single turn. It’s a splendid, glorious liar’s convention where you do your very best to hide the sweat that’s massing on your brow.
About the only flaw is that it doesn’t exactly foster laughter or friendly chatter around the gaming table. You’re all far too engrossed for that.
Paul: Agreed. This game is a must-play just for what it manages with so little, just for being a dark little reminder that ideas, and not theme, and certainly not production values, are the heart and soul of any game.
Escape from the Aliens in Outer Spaces, ladies and gentlemen. Buy it.