19 November 2019
We can’t lie to you about your chances, but you have our sympathies
Ridley Scott’s Alien is having a bit of a tabletop moment. In the past year, the 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece has been adapted into three different board game experiences, like some kind of triple whammy 40th birthday present. First to hatch was Awaken Realms’ minifestooned Nemesis. Coming soon is Wonderdice’s fully licensed Alien: USCSS Nostromo. And this month we have Lifeform, from Hall or Nothing, the same indie outfit that gave us the excellent Gloom of Kilforth and 1066, Tears to Many Mothers.
Like Nemesis, Lifeform is not an official adaptation. But designers Mark Chaplin and Toby Farrands are huge fans of the movie, whose creators (Scott, writer Dan O’Bannon, designer H.R. Giger, et al) are thanked in the credits. Their game – which sets one player as the ‘Star Beast’ against two to three others, who each control a pair of crew members – is a beat-by-beat tribute. There is a self-destruct countdown.
There is an escape shuttle that, under certain game conditions, becomes the location for a desperate final showdown. There is a ship’s cat. And there is an android that malfunctions and works against the crew.
The most impressive thing about Lifeform, however, is the way it so effectively weaves its deep-space survival-horror atmosphere. Each crew member starts with a hand of only three cards, each card typically offering a limited menu of action options. Adding to that hand is a dangerous business. You have to use up your whole turn to equip two or three cards, with the consequence that the self-destruct tracker will move up one or two places, respectively. (If the ship goes boom, the alien player wins.) Otherwise, you’ll most likely use your turn to play a card, which may allow you to move your two characters one chamber each around the hulking, labyrinthine ship. Or maybe activate one of their skills (most of which are, rather meanly, one use only). Or perhaps attack the encroaching spacebeastie with a flamethrower – which doesn’t kill it, but merely forces it back a few chambers.
The crew’s aim is to stock the escape shuttle by picking up mission tokens dotted around the board and loading them onboard, then getting everyone on the shuttle and launching it before the ship explodes – or before the nasty stowaway kills them all. It is very to ugh, but appropriately so, in a fun, nail-biting way.
Meanwhile, playing the alien is also enjoyable, especially if you have a feline, mouse-toying sadistic streak. You get a more easily-replenishable hand, far more flexibility with your action selection and you can kill a human character outright just by executing an attack action (assuming they don’t play a life-saving reaction card).
In truth, it is rather unbalanced if you’re playing in a head-to-head duel. More often than not, the crew doesn’t stand a chance. With three or four players, however, it’s more evenly weighted, with the lifeform needing to divide its murderous attention among the scrabbling space-miners and the human players getting to stay in the game as either the ship’s cat or its rebooted computer if they lose both their characters.
Like its toothy antagonist, Lifeform is not the most attractive game – the artwork and board design are an acquired taste – while the heavyweight, sprawling rules are difficult to absorb, to quite a frustrating degree during the first few plays. But once
everyone is settled in, human and monster alike, it evolves into an absorbing and thrilling experience.
PLAY IT? YES
Designer: Mark Chaplin, Toby Farrands
This review originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.