On the table, 2-4 players can hear you scream.
Lifeform, from UK Publisher Hall or Nothing, is one of the most compelling and visceral games of 2019. With its murderous alien hunting a blue-collar crew aboard a mining space craft, it is a full-on homage to Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien executed with an almost fanatical devotion to its inspiration, almost to the point where the dense rules threaten to be rendered untenable under the weight of the kitchen sink detail. And there’s nothing of James Cameron’s Aliens bug-hunting in it at all, which sets it apart from any number of games that have tried to bring this particular setting and its sci-fi survival horror to the table. It is a game rich with suspense, uncertainty, drama, and sudden, sometimes shocking violence. The atmosphere is cold, hopeless, and desperate. The marines aren’t coming, so the crew is left to gather supplies and get aboard an escape shuttle before the Lifeform becomes stronger and kills them all.
I love this all-versus-one game that isn’t all that distant from the classic Awful Green Things from Space, and I think the moment-to-moment gameplay is absolutely excellent. Designers Mark Chaplin and Toby Farrands totally run away with the notion that Alien was really a traditional haunted house movie set on a space ship. Terror lurks around every corner, even when the unreliable sensor images of the Lifeform are on another deck. The power goes out. The ship’s android activates and malfunctions. A risky foray into a ventilation shaft might turn into a surprise attack as the Lifeform emerges from out of nowhere. All the while, you might be sweating because you don’t have any Crew Cards that have the necessary counters to thwart the Lifeform’s attack – running and hiding are usually more effective than fighting back. And each of the characters can only be hit once, with the Lifeform player deciding to make it a silent or loud kill, sending others into a panic.
There’s so much going on in any given game. Security doors can be placed. The ship’s cat can be found and provide the crew with a little help. You might try to go for the Mining Laser way down on Deck C, or you might have special objectives that require you to download the ship’s data before making a run for the shuttle. There is a MUTHER analog, SISTER, that allows an eliminated player to take on the role of the ship’s computer. The Lifeform mutates and changes, and the crew might find themselves in a last ditch battle if it stows away on the shuttle.
In more than a few ways, this game reminds me of how adventure games used to be designed – with an eye toward comprehensive, simulationist detail. It’s true that the core design is pretty modern stuff with all of the attendant abstraction and streamlined process. But there are many corner case situations, counters and rules that may not even come into play in a given session, and the designers have across the board erred on the side of inclusion in order to tell their version of this story.
There is a price to be paid for all of the great stuff this game does – and does differently than anything else out there. Lifeform is an admirably singular design in a sea of medicore repetition. There’s nothing else like this on the market, but it must be emphasized that the rules are difficult and the game is very fussy. Even after several games of both the full multiplayer experience and the solo option (which is a wildly different game, really, with some very cool mechanisms to create suspense through the Lifeform’s proximity), I find that I can’t play this game without the rulebook constantly being referenced. It doesn’t help that it’s one of those with tons of rebus-like symbols, many of which are variations or very similar at a glance. With so many options and possibilities along with multiple card decks, tokens, and options there is almost too much going on. I think casual players might be frustrated.
But this is a hobby game, and a somewhat old fashioned one at that, so expectations should be calibrated accordingly. I think the length is just right (about two hours). The narrative arc is right on the money- the sense of the situation escalating and worsening along with a brilliant time pressure element whereby the timer advances based on player choices rather than on set meter move this design along and if you stay engaged with it, the end result is rewarding- even if everyone gets eaten. The balance is just about right as well – it is satisfyingly difficult for the crew to win, but with smart play and judicious use of one-shot abilities and card management, it can be done.
My biggest disappointment isn’t the rules – they are messy, but that’s fine given the quality and density of the game they frame – it’s the graphic design. I am totally in love with the board, which depicts the layout Valley Forge as if it were a display on a monitor. It looks amazing, but the spaces are too small or awkwardly shaped. But I can deal with that, it’s really the illustrations and those look-alike icons that are the biggest problem. I do not like the character and Lifeform depictions at all, the style does not work for me at all. I would have loved to see this game do something more daring and inventive – a 1970s science fiction look, something influenced more by Giger or Moebius, or even something more stark like the black and white drawings in the Mothership RPG book. I found the illustrations in the game to be gaudy, overwrought, and even ugly. Which can, and does, interfere with the otherwise perfect atmosphere Lifeform creates. There’s no accounting for taste of course and many will find the art style amenable and non-intrusive.
Hall or Nothing was kind enough to support this review with the full range of Lifeform products including its two currently available expansions – Dragon’s Domain and the 13th Passenger. I don’t feel that either are absolutely essential, although Dragon’s Domain is a must for the aforementioned solo game. But again, be advised that although there are some shared concepts, the solo option is more of an adventure game. It’s very good, to be sure, but the multiplayer game is superior on every level. The 13th passenger adds a couple of new characters and some more details – like an imminent asteroid strike – but I kind of feel like it’s more for completionists or for those who are going to play the game enough to need the additional details and variety.
I strongly value designs with clear artistic vision, solid mechanisms, and a passionate drive to do something unique and heartfelt with the tabletop medium. Lifeform accomplishes this, and I’ve enjoyed introducing it to other fans of Alien and similar fiction in that vein- it’s been tremendously satisfying and it’s left friends and family with a “wow, this is a cool game” feeling that transcends some iffy rules-writing and dodgy illustrations. This is an excellent, one-of-a-kind game, if not the best game of 2019 then it is certainly one of the coolest.