At the table, 1-5 players can hear you scream.
After being surprised and delighted by the image that greets you when you open the Alien: Fate of the Nostromo box, I found myself furrowing my brow and cluck-clucking as I looked over the components and saw “Weylan-Yutani” all over the place. I mean come on, it’s Weyland with a D. I took to social media and shook my nerd-fist in the direction of the QC department at publisher Ravensburger and also at designer Scott Rogers. Mr. Rogers responded to me almost right away, pointing out that in Alien, it is Weylan. Cameron and his people added that D along with the titular S. I was humbled, but also impressed at the attention to detail.
As I played through the first session – solo, with all five characters and the optional (but my in opinion not optional) rules that add Ash as an additional antagonist – I found myself continually delighted and thrilled by this simple ruleset with minimal components, available at a modest price from big-box retail. What’s more, as a lifelong Alien aficionado, I was doubly excited that this game completely delivered a bona fide sci-fi horror experience true to the film in such a compact package.
You’ve seen the movie, you know mostly what you’ve got to do. Survive. Kane’s Last Supper is over and the Alien is loose on the Nostromo. The remaining crew – Ripley, Dallas, Parker, Brett, and Lambert – are gathered in the Galley while Ash is over in the MedLab. You can probably guess that each of these characters has a special ability, except Dallas who apparently is just a little faster than the others. There are objective cards, because this time everyone not named Ripley has a chance to make it out alive. There’s one more available than there are characters, with each requiring the group to do tasks like take a piece of equipment to a specific room, drop off Coolant Cannisters, or meet back up in the Galley with each Crew Member carrying a piece of Scrap.
There’s a crafting element to the game- you’ve got to gather Scrap from the ship to build Grapple Guns, Incinerators, and Cat Carriers. Ash will wander around the ship, stealing Scrap from rooms or from your characters. It can be pretty tough to get what you need built and taken to where it needs to go, and there’s always a tension between crafting what you need and building something you can use. Each item has a function, some of which are limited to two uses. Sure, the Electric Prod is three Scrap that you could trade to Brett so that he could make a 4-Scrap Incinerator with his discount…but maybe you are at the Bridge with the Alien right outside and you need that Prod like, right now.
At the end of each character’s turn, you flip an Encounter card. The Alien might move, and if it encounters a character, they lose Morale (sort of a group HP value) and have to flee three spaces. Ash might enact Order 937 and proceed to harass the humans by taking their Scrap, thus hampering the effort to craft tools. Or it may be quiet, and the primary effect is that some Scrap and a Concealed encounter token are spawned in a designated room.
The Concealed counters are revealed when a character moves into a room with one. They are either nothing, the Alien, or Jonesy. Jonesy hisses at you and you lose a morale, unless you have the Cat Carrier and catch him. If it’s the Alien, no matter where it is on the board it immediately appears there, does Morale damage, and causes the character to flee three spaces like when it moves into a space with a character. But here’s the really fun part. That fleeing move might trigger other Concealed counters, meaning that the Alien can effectively give chase. I adore this.
There’s an interesting balance built into the design of knowing where the Alien is and where it will predictably move with completely random appearances – there’s even a “Signal Lost” card that resets it all the way back to the nest deep in the bowels of the Nostromo. At first, I felt like this was a little gamey because you can effectively move the Alien out of the way by sacrificing some morale to reveal a Concealed counter but then it dawned on me that Lambert was essentially creating a distraction so that Ripley could move into the nest with an Incinerator and score a goal.
There is also a mechanism with the motion tracker that plays off the Concealed counters that I think is fantastic. Once you build it, the character holding it can ping a Concealed counter to see what it is. If it is the Alien, it moves there automatically. So there again, you have this compelling mix of knowing exactly where it is and not having any idea where it could turn up next.
So if the Crew manages to survive and complete their objectives, this triggers a Final objective that comes from a different stack of large format cards. These task the group with a big, all-in mission to escape, neutralize the Alien, or produce a generally desirable outcome not seen in the film. By the time you get to that last mission, you better bet that your Morale tracker is going to be way low and every Encounter card flip or Concealed token reveal gets tense.
I’m also in love with how the game creates tension over time without a “doom track” or similar device. Over the course of the game, you’ll draw Alien and Order 937 cards that cause cards with those titles to be reshuffled in the deck, but the “Quiet” cards that provide for minimal Alien movement and Scrap spawns never get reshuffled. So as the game goes on, it gets more dangerous even though there is no timer other than dwindling morale, which is never replenished or increased.
I think a common criticism is going to be that there is no elimination. But the design brief was for a co-op game without it, and to that end I think Mr. Rogers has solved for that demand brilliantly. The group morale works exceptionally well as each player has to be mindful of risk. The Alien one room over may not move this turn. But maybe the next it will, and it could be doing 3 Morale damage that time. Moving into Concealed tokens is always a chance but sometimes you’ve got to take it – Parker might be on the lower deck racing to drop off a Coolant Canister with one morale left and it seems worthwhile to take a chance – until Jonesy pops up and ends the game.
This is brilliant stuff in terms of mainstream, mass market game design and as a hobby gaming concern, it is equally magnificent. Games have been trying to capture that Alien feel going back to Awful Green Things From Outer Space and up through recent titles such as Nemesis and Lifeform. While some of those titles have been quite successful, none have been as direct and specific as this game. And there again, I keep coming back to how much this game does with relatively little.
There is a question of longevity and depth that I think deserves to brought up when talking about games like this. Ravensburger has put out quite a few very good to excellent licensed games over the past few years, but really only Jaws and Villainous have remained current in my opinion. Many of these titles have been fun and cool but have failed to maintain interest. But this game is as good as Jaws and Villanous, and I think it has the depth, atmosphere, nuance, and quality of design to keep it fresh for years to come – even without expansions, add-ons, or the kind of cluttered, cruft content that characterizes crowdfunded games.
And it is also a imminently accessible design- anyone can enjoy this and it plays 1-5 smoothly in an hour. The rules are easy (despite a few back-to-the-book questions) and it’s the sort of game where things just make sense. Alien enthusiasts in particular will cherish the excellent character art, details, and even the lovely vintage typography throughout the graphic design. It’s such a good looking game, and the miniatures may be the best I’ve ever seen for a game in this class.
This is a great game, indeed the best I’ve played this year to date. My kids are already getting annoyed that it’s the only board game I want to play with them and I’ve already told my D&D group for this Sunday to plan on spending the first hour playing it. Games that depict their subject matter and themes this efficiently, effortlessly, and modestly are increasingly rare these days, and Alien: Fate of the Nostromo deserves to be listed among the top titles of 2021.