Tuesday, July 18, 2023

A Tale of Two Alien Games

More often I’m exploring cooperative and solitaire games given their growing prevalence as a subgenre of the adventure gaming hobby and my limited player base. Frequent readers know I’ve discussed solo roleplaying game options before (and I’m still exploring more recent entries), but I’ve not really talked much about solitaire board or wargames beyond the “playing against yourself” variety. The pandemic had me exploring a host of different options, both purely solitaire games as well as cooperative games suitable for a single player. The intersection of these games with themes that interest me has brought a few new titles into my collection. As a fan of the first two Aliens franchise movies, I couldn’t resist picking up their associated games, each designed as a cooperative game suitable for a single player. Both remain true to their cinematic origins, but they offer quite different experiences on several levels.

Alien: Fate of the Nostromo

Alien: Fate of the Nostromo from Ravensburger provides an accessible, affordable, satisfying movie tie-in experience at both the cooperative and solitaire levels. Players take on the role of one of the Nostromo’s crew members – each with a character “dossier” board and plastic figure – move around the ship, collecting scrap to craft items to both assist their individual missions and fend off the xenomorph. The alien wanders around each turn stalking the crew, but can also turn up unexpectedly as they search for equipment. Most locations start with a “conceal token” with a generic hatch artwork on on side. Enter a room with one and turn the token over; if it displays the alien symbol, the xenomorph arrives, the character must flee and the crew loses morale. After each player takes a turn they reveal a card that can move the alien, re-seed locations with scrap or conceal tokens, and occasionally impose other actions on the players. Each crew member has their own special abilities allowing them to bend the rules a little to gain some slight advantage. Once all crew members complete their individual missions, they reveal a final group mission card they must complete to escape the Nostromo. Unlike the movie no character meets a gruesome fate; the players lose if encounters with the alien completely reduce morale. A more challenging option using Science Officer Ash increases the game’s difficulty. At $30 and availability at stores like Target (as well as game shops) it’s a good fit for casual game fans and those who love the original Alien film.

I tried the game in both single-player/solo mode and multi-player cooperative mode. Solitaire I played a game as Captain Dallas and one as Chief Engineer Parker, with me barely winning both times. In cooperative play with two other players we ran two games, the first more so we could all get a sense of the rules and strategy, the second to put in practice what we’d learn to run a more efficient game. Both times we won. That’s not to say on any of these games, solo or coop, we didn’t have moments of panicked surprise as the alien showed up where we least expected it. Gameplay simulated the movie action well: scurrying around the ship to collect things we needed to fight the alien and escape; “jump scares” when the alien suddenly appeared under a conceal token; and, of course, the final mad dash for the escape shuttle to beat the self-destruct countdown while avoiding the alien. It’s just the right fare for today’s board gaming aficionados, providing some challenging teamwork interaction, movement choices, and resource allocation problems.

During play we encountered a few issues but nothing that ruined the experience. Although all the components are high quality and exhibit a suitable design aesthetic from the movie, the board sometimes led to some confusion about access points between the two decks. Repeat play can reveal some issues, but they’re nothing the community over at Board Game Geek hasn’t discussed with potential solutions.

Aliens: Another Glorious Day in the Corps

Where Alien: Fate of the Nostromo emulates the first movie’s tense scramble to gather supplies and escape the ship, Gale Force 9’s Aliens: Another Glorious Day in the Corps immerses players in desperately mowing down seemingly endless swarms of aliens. It, too, easily accommodates cooperative play and solitaire mode. Players run a squad of Colonial Marines and attached civilians (Ellen Ripley and Newt, once they find her) in various missions on the colony on LV-426. Each player controls one character as a hero, with the other characters as grunts (with slightly lower abilities) activated during a hero’s turn by rank or at the end of the player turns until all have acted. An Endurance Deck of cards serves multiple purposes: it provides starting weapons and gear and additional equipment in-game; it has events and hazards that can crop up; players “exhaust” cards from it (without looking at them) to activate attacks; certain special abilities require card reveals that determine if bonuses activate; and they can “recycle” exhausted cards during a character’s rest action. It’s a nice mechanic that forces players to make choices in managing their assets, though it takes a while to learn how everything works together. Because if the Endurance Deck ever depletes without recycled cards to reshuffle, the players lose.

The other Motion Tracker Deck generates aliens, marked by anonymous “blips” if beyond line of sight, at various spawn points on each map. After the Marines take their turn, visible aliens move and attack, blips move, and then new blips spawn. Blip counters have two sides, so when a blip moves into line of sight of a character, players flip it and place the number of aliens indicated on the counter’s other side. The Motion Tracker Deck card backs show three different faces, each with increasingly more blips on the motion tracker graphic, denoting one of the three difficulties of an upcoming spawning. Although players draw several cards each turn (depending on the number of players), they can at least look at the top card to see what kind of a threat they might face.

Large-format mission cards provide set-up instructions, special rules, and victory conditions for various scenarios: finding Newt, escaping the alien hive in the terraforming plant, and surviving in the base until extraction, as well as rescue, supply, and bug hunt missions. Campaign rules allow players to run several scenarios in sequence (and with consequences) along the lines of the film.

Players used to the more popular board games might easily feel overwhelmed by Aliens even before the game begins. The price point immediately indicates this isn’t for most casual gamers who liked the movie; it generally runs around twice the price of Alien, though discounts abound online (and I got a good deal at a regional game store). It certainly caters to a bit more “hardcore” level of gamer. Sure, it comes with the expected plethora of tokens, dials, boards, and two card decks; but “some assembly is required” for all the Marine and alien figures on plastic sprues. This offers a challenge more suitable to the miniature wargaming crowd; each figure has several parts and a base, and the alien tails seem particularly pesky and prone to breaking off. In 2020 the game won the Charles S. Roberts Award for Best SciFi Fantasy Board Wargame; while this testifies to its quality from the perspective of the board wargaming community, it’s no indicator that it’s right for every gamer fan of the movie.

I played three solitaire games, two of the mission to find Newt and one to escape the atmosphere processing plant. My first game the aliens overwhelmed the Marines, but I learned how best to use the Marines, the importance of barricading hatches, and the capabilities and ranges of some of the more powerful weapons (grenades and the flamethrower). Learning the rules was a bit more intensive, even after one figures out the multi-layered mechanics of the Endurance Deck.

I found Aliens a bit finicky at times. Where Alien gives each player only one crew member, each scenario in Aliens requires all the characters, whether in hero or grunt mode. The map boards require careful scrutiny to discern room boundaries, doorways, and equipment through the fine artwork inspired by the movie sets; they also get bumped out of alignment occasionally since they aren’t fastened at all so they can be flipped and rearranged for each scenario. Woe to anyone who plays the campaign mode and loses a team member. I found playing one hero and all others grunts limiting, as I couldn’t draw as many cards and had to operate with lower stats. Like the Alien game, the Board Game Geek page for Aliens offers a host of clarifications, options, and additional resources from an enthusiastic online community.

I like both games: each one has different appeal in play style and complexity. Both boast lots of high production value components. I can pull Alien out for an afternoon of casual board games with friends. Aliens remains solitaire fare for me, as I don’t have any wargamer friends around capable of comprehending and enjoying its nuanced layers. I could fit Alien on the kitchen table with friends, but Aliens required a 3 x 4 foot space on my wargaming table...and even then it felt crowded. On the solitaire side I enjoy each one, though Alien seems to offer a slightly better chance at survival than Aliens, and takes less time, too. Both have good replay value, but Aliens offers several different scenarios and campaign play, well beyond the scope of Alien’s single goal of escaping the Nostromo.

My Experience with Aliens Films

I really enjoy Alien and Aliens, but haven’t really cared much for other sequels or crossovers. This probably relates to my initial experience with the first two films. I saw Alien in the spring of 1986, my senior year in high school, when an English teacher offered a half-year course on science fiction literature. Although I’d already spent the previous summer reading one sci-fi or fantasy novel each week (sometimes more), I hoped to broaden my horizons. Besides reading numerous novels and short stories, we watched and discussed three films in class: The Day the Earth Stood Still, the George Pal War of the Worlds, and Alien (which required a permission slip from my parents). It wasn’t the optimum viewing format of VHS on a tube television screen watched over three or four class periods, but it transfixed me. That summer, of course, Aliens premiered in theaters. I loved how it built on elements from the first movie enhanced with military action and a solid ensemble cast. I’ve seen many of the subsequent films, many in theaters, hoping each might live up to the standards of the first two. I think the release of the Alien and Aliens games testifies to the quality and staying power of the first two films.

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