26 January 2021
In space, no one can hear you scream
Words by Peter Merritt with photography and additional material by The Editor John Treadaway.
A marine prepares to shoot his flamer at the advancing creature, perhaps not realising that another is moving in on his right from an adjacent room.
Back in 1979, director Ridley Scott created one of the major Science-Fiction films of an already classic era. That film was of course Alien, in which the space merchant vessel Nostromo receives an (apparently) unknown transmission as a distress call from a desolate planet LV426. One of the crew (the fab John Hurt) is attacked by a mysterious life form and they soon realize that its parasitic life cycle (based on a real but thankfully rare/tiny wasp) has merely begun. Eventually feisty first officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the sole survivor, destroying the ship and it’s deadly passenger and escaping in a life-pod…
Whilst this film was certainly a success, the horrifying alien lifeform devised by genius – if somewhat weird – Swiss artist and designer H.R.Geiger began to build a cult following of its own! Given that the film had numerous loose ends (the original infected shipwreck was still on-planet, lots more eggs on board and Ripley’s company knew something was there), the idea for some sort of a ‘rematch’ kicked around for some time, eventually appearing in 1986 with Aliens.
Ellen Ripley (still played superbly by Weaver) is rescued by a deep salvage team after being in hypersleep for 57 years! She tries to alert the authorities to the threat during a trial for negligently blowing-up an expensive ship but loses, being demoted to a nothing job (in between nightmares). At the end of the trial she finds that the planet – now called ‘Hadley’s Hope’ – has since been colonized by terra-formers. So no problem? However, a short time later her company enlists her help to find out why contact has been lost. A tiny, tiny relief force of colonial marines is dispatched to investigate – well, it is a film - but will their impressive array of firepower be enough? There were over 130 colonists on the planet – and an awful lot of eggs in that derelict ship…
My regular gaming group have – along with many others –run several games over the years in the ‘Aliens’ genre, but this year we thought it deserved the full, large-scale show treatment.
What a shame that the show scene has been put on hold at the moment? Having said that Mr Merritt put a lot of work into the game and others in the team had built and painted a fair amount of kit so – in this uncertainly future – now seemed a good time to produce an article on the work so far! Ed.
Although there are a lot of other systems and figures out there (more of which later) our game is in 1/32 (or so) scale. Each player runs a number of Marine characters. Now, being who we are, we have, um, quite a lot of figures available, so you can either use the nine ones as per the film, in three teams of three, or you can add-in a few more to vary the level of difficulty. For example, at whatever show we first premier this game at we tend to also add-in three more figures in the shape of Lt Gorman plus Ferro (the pilot) and Spunkmeyer (loading chief).
Each character has a personalised ‘control card’ which not only lists available weapons (Pulse-rifle, flamer etc), but also their abilities at different ranges. To make things easier, on the reverse side of the card are the reduced stats for their ‘wounded’ status – a really neat systemic solution short of full RPG attributes. With only a few +/- adjustments, players soon get the hang of the firing options. The other stats on the card reflect melee options (up close and personal: avoid at all costs…); and the number of actions permitted during their turn (reload, aim, open doors etc). More on that later.
Guarding the base of the lift shaft, the marines beat a hasty retreat as the xenomorphs swarm. They may not have noticed the patch of eggs near the doors...
MORE THAN HARSH LANGUAGE
The Aliens, being more simple souls (whose only interest is propagation and absolute destruction of rivals) are normally operated by the umpires on a standard list of automated objectives (rather like other games we have run in the past with masses of opponents, such as ‘Starship Troopers’ which we first ran in the last millennium...). So, in their phase new aliens under dice rolls for location with some umpire guidance will drop-in (literally) to locations on the table (‘they’re coming through the walls’ etc). As a simple, driving objective, any aliens which are not ‘stunned’ by a previous combat will attempt to capture, carry-off or kill the nearest human.
An additional advantage to the system is that – as their moves are automated – this makes for an excellent ‘solo’ game system.
Once the initial set-up is decided, each game turn consists of two main phases:
Aliens move, new ones arrive; resolve attacks
Marines move in a semi-random order decided by an umpire (just to make it more fun), but they must use all their actions before the next figure moves.
“MARINES, WE ARE LEAVING…”
As you can see from this outline (let alone the original film), it is important that the Marines co-ordinate their actions and firepower, alternating moving (in this case towards the exit) with firing, to keep the critters out of claw’s reach! The main thing is that, whilst it is immense fun to blast loads of these things, time and probability is not the marines’ friend: eventually, you will be ambushed or just plain miss at a critical moment. Shades of ‘Zulu’ vs ‘Zulu Dawn’….
In the scenario we run (the first encounter), ‘all’ the Marines have to do is reach the lifts, get to the top floor, then exit, where (one hopes) Ripley is waiting in a slightly dented APC.
HE’S JUST A GRUNT
What about options? Although based as a system on the now quite ‘elderly’ (but fully licensed) Leading Edge Games Aliens system, we have – of course – ‘tweaked’ the basic rules, but the strength of the original system is such that it can take some fiddling without breaking. Some of the more useful ideas have come from on-line suggestions by other enthusiasts of the system and these include:
- A ‘run’ move for the Marines (so faster, but must be in a straight line).
- ‘Flaming’ an area of floor simply to block/slow alien movement.
- Starting (as per the film) with all primary weapons disabled. The ‘ammo’ is carried in a bag by Frost, so characters must get to him and reload before they can really start the ball rolling…
- Grenades: these feature later in the film, mainly because they make crap hand-to-hand weapons!
- “What do you mean, they cut the power?!” The ‘fog of war’: add in some darkness, clouds of steam etc, then nominate two or three characters with a ‘motion-tracker’ (affects their firing of course). Then use a set of markers to denote the aliens – including some ‘fakes’/mis-readings. The markers move as per the rules but are only revealed when in line-of-sight, within whatever is set as lighting-range….fun, huh?! You can even add a die-roll to determine if (a) fake, (b) on your level, or (c) moving above or below the walkway… (counts as double range).
Stats already exist for Ripley in various modes, but what about the other key characters, all of which can be included in addition to the basic Marines:
- Bishop: normally an unarmed android, but being such is immensely strong – so perhaps could be summoned to help an escape which is, ah, ‘struggling’. Major asset in melee and could easily carry two wounded characters?
- Newt: who, the annoying kid? Yes, and not just as alien-fodder! One scenario twist is for the ‘exit’ to be to be hidden somewhere, and only Newt knows the way… So, apart from beating-off the usual attacks, you have to protect the kid but have her far enough up front to check the route! And yes, you have to take her with you when you get out…
- Burke: ah, yes, the ‘Company Man’ whose stupidity and greed got all this started. One game idea is for Burke to go ahead of the Marine team but in his case he may lock doors as he goes, thus slowing the escape. Should he ever get into line-of-sight, you are all most welcome to save the judicial system some resources…
Other elements include:
- Alien Eggs: hatching seems to be triggered by proximity of a suitable host (i.e. you!), so you could have a rule for a hatch/attack if ending a turn adjacent to an egg marker. If the human loses the melee, they are infected…
- Her Majesty – the very large, very nasty Hive Queen. Again stats exist for that, so depending on budget and available figures, you could have her arrive to gee the escapees on if they’re having an easy time of it. Plus of course there are also models and stats aplenty for dear old Ripley in a power-loader.
Well, the film encounters will generate many interesting games. But the ‘franchise’ has led to several spin-offs which you may want to consider:
The most obvious is ‘Alien Vs Predator’, in which the game can become three-sided, with Marines battling both Alien hordes as well as a handful of well-equipped, tough, hi-tech lizard-things. Opportunities exist for new rules (‘stealth mode’ for Predators comes to mind), as well as weapons etc. This is the basis of the Prodos game.
Another variant involves the nasty Weyland-Yutani mega-corporation which sent the Nostromo to the planet in the first place, then employed a nasty piece of work like Burke. It is implied at the end of the follow-up film that Weyland-Yutani has their own ‘security forces’ to hand for various black-ops jobs. So again, a three-sided game could be in the offing with the corporation trying to collect eggs – escorting a science team – and eliminate witnesses…
There is also a series of graphic novels which have more storylines which would make for yet more games. These include new units of Marines, Ripley’s children, secret ops with Weyland-Yutani, and ‘accidentally’ seeding other locations (even earth) with Aliens, so you can use built-up or ruined terrain to taste. One of the latter earth infestations is actually deliberate, with a group of religious nut-jobs actually worshipping the damned things. Well, right up until they start getting infested. It might be an interesting game to raid the defended cult hide-out with Marines etc, to find (and eliminate) eggs, aliens before they get out…
Just remember to have fun and explore this ‘alternate history of the future’. After all, if it goes wrong…
“I say we take off and nuke the planet from orbit – it’s the only way to be sure…”
A clear view of the flamer armed marine. The 'goo' oozing from the creatures mouth is made with the UV activated resin coloured with tints. The Aliens themselves were drybrushed with metallics and coloured with the same tinted lacquers.
WHAT DID WE USE?
As I mentioned earlier we are using 54mm/1/32nd scale Colonial Marine figures. These are from a long-defunct range of hard plastic models, although – unusually for my ideas – they can still be seen occasionally on eBay in the USA or Australia.
The Alien figures actually come from a children’s toy range(!) by Tree House Kids. This range featured a large box-set based on the first Reactor Room encounter, as well as smaller ‘booster packs’ with more figures etc. Sadly, the Marines use a softer plastic and are somewhat on the thin side. But there is a fair old range of them, and all weapons are featured. Plus, they’re still available on eBay!
The scenery represents the claustrophobic series of basic corridors in the industrial colony buildings. We had already long commented on the similarities to some terrain boards we had built and adapted over the years for a series of highly successful 1/35th scale games of ‘Daleks’ – see later for links – so we have adapted these.
The rules – being an adaption of a fabulously ‘atmospheric’ board game by Leading Edge Games (see below for details) – are not easy to come by now, but they are well worth a look as a general design as well as a means to recreate the film. With the individual character cards I mentioned earlier and ‘stand-up’ markers for the playing pieces (the game is designed for 28mm and figures were produced at the time to complement the system), it was one small step to lift the setup into the big figure world… Our group has played the system several times over the years, with counters then later with figures, and it never fails to give a tense, enjoyable game. Speaking of which…
The base scenery is constructed using almost exclusively Ainsty resin 28mm pieces with a few short run custom pieces. These were mounted on 15mm MDF which – while it makes for robust scenery that has survived for a decade and a half almost unscathed – does make the scenery (wood and resin) quite heavy. We wanted to add a second layer for the game and had enough spare boards from the Dalek scenery to achieve this but we needed a method of getting from one level to the next: the famous lift shaft near the end of the film. Pete ordered some MDF girder bridges (scaled for ‘garden railways’) and we cut, shunted and assembled them into two lift shafts.
We scratch-built some doors and reinforced the structure – plus added detail – with the sort of quarter inch metal grid that you normally build bunny cages from. Most of the assembly – along with extra slime on some of the aliens – was added using UV clear resin as a glue.
Figures were painted (not by me I’m glad to say!) and the Aliens and eggs (being basically black plastic) were converted to get a few more poses and then treated to a drybrushing with metal colours and overbrushed with Tamiya clear tinted lacquers to add some background colour. Ed
CAN I DO IT?
Ours is aimed as a show game and many of our games are in a large scale (1/10th scale Star Trek, and 1/6th scale Jason and the Argonauts being just two obvious examples of ‘bigness) but you don’t have to go that large. So what figures are available?
The various violent encounters which ensue in the film have inspired many games over the years, usually ‘home grown’ with figures appearing in a number of ‘not-Colonial-Marines-honest-judge’ guises:
Denizen Miniatures: some truly beautiful examples in their ‘Mid-Tech’ list which were, in their time, a benchmark of 25mm wargame figure-carving, only equalled in recent years.
Leading Edge Games: still the most comprehensive range ever released, but…
Gripping Beast: chunky 28mms listed as ‘Sci-Fi’, they are still going and well worth a look for the DIY developer. And are very close to the film uniforms…
Mongoose ‘Starship Trooper’ range (and others) are pretty close
Games Workshop: their old ‘Cadian’ forces can, like ‘Starship Troopers’, also make a good fist of passing for Colonial Marines. They have a range of figure-poses and equipment, and can still be had at quite reasonable prices.
Always a more difficult proposition, as they were so distinctive so it was difficult to produce something accurate without a very expensive licence. However, my favourite is actually the HorrorClix range. Better known for the Lord of the Rings and superhero stuff, still this limited range included 5-6 different hard plastic Alien warriors and even a special ‘Queen’ set, with detachable egg-sack. For the AvP heretics in the audience, there was even a complimentary ‘Predator’ set, all pre-painted and oozing detail…
Still, for those not interested in DIY projects or who wish for a coherent approach, there are three complete ‘rules and figures’ commercial efforts which also really stand-out:
Leading Edge Games: This excellent company had a track-record of grabbing film rights to some quite seminal offerings in the mid-80s/90s, including ‘Terminator’, ‘Dracula’, and of course ‘Aliens’. As with all their ranges, apart from the rule sets they actually produced a staggering array of figure-sets, although they are sadly now collectors items and were ‘true’ 25mm to boot, so – like Denizen – are a bit small by modern standards. But apart from an RPG version, they also produced a boxed skirmish game, with scenarios and maps of the settlement drawn from the film. It is this which forms the basis of our game…
Alien Vs Predator (or AVP for short) by Prodos Games – this is set in a ‘spin-off’ universe first mooted in a series of comic books which combined the ‘Aliens’ thread with the equally successful ‘Predator’ franchise. The latter, liking a good day’s hunt, have seeded the universe with the odd batch of alien eggs for a sort of psychotic grouse-shoot. Only, in this case the ‘grouse’ would make a hungry Velociraptor run for the hills…
To be honest, given the fab figures available this is ‘where I would start’ if I were doing it now from scratch. The most faithful renditions of the original characters I’ve ever seen, they are on the ‘big’ side (for 28mm read 33/35+). But being in hard plastic they can do things you simply cannot paint, like clear-plastic ‘cloaked’ predators! And the ‘terrain’ is actually a set of geomorphic tiles, allowing hidden movement and variable set-up.
Aliens: Another Glorious Day in the Corps! by Gale Force Nine. This is a co operative survival board game where you and your team of specialist Colonial Marines will gear up with serious firepower and head into Hadley’s Hope to find survivors and answers. But you’re not alone. To survive, you’ll need to work together, keep your cool, and stay frosty to fight off relentless Xenomorph ambushes and get out of there alive.
Players can play up to six different missions, taking them into different areas from the Hadley’s Hope terraforming facility to the deep, dark recesses of an xenomorph nest. Aliens also offers an exciting campaign mode to play four of the missions linked together, so players will need to fight relentless xenomorph attacks and keep each other alive all the way to the end of the campaign. The remaining two missions are purely about survival, it’s kill or be killed. The players are dropped into the game with nothing more than a pistol. They will need to scavenge weapons and gear while hordes of Xenomorph aliens are trying to get at them. There are two expansions already planned, the first with more Marines (with different attributes etc), and the second with, of course, Queen vs Ripley (plus power-loader).
The Aliens were chopped and changed somewhat to increase the number of poses. Being made from a hard vinyl they could be reassembled with either superglue or UV Resin.
The best laid plans... At some point, we hope to bring this game out to a show somewhere near you. In the meantime, enjoy the shots of our trial run games!
This article originally appeared in issue 450 of Miniature Wargames. You can pick up your issue of the magazine here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
Looking for more Alien?
- We talked to Free League Publishing about the Alien Roleplaying Game
- We have five space soundtracks for the Alien RPG- though equally perfect for this scenario!
- You can also find Alien RPG on Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds
- Plus - we reviewed Alien RPG!