In space no one can hear you scream. Or, as the side panel of the Lifeform box puts it, “in the vast, forbidden seas of space… Terror awaits.” Not quite as catchy, is it? Regardless of its cheesy strapline, Lifeform, from Hall or Nothing games, is quite simply the most immersive, terrifying and intense recreation of Alien that has yet to be captured in board gaming, and while it may lack any official license, it has all the thematic ties that you could wish for.
We’re not talking about the crap Alien 3 or Resurrection here, either. We’re not talking Alien vs Predator. We’re talking pretty strictly about Alien and to a lesser extent Aliens. Yes, there’s a ship’s cat and there’s certainly a flamethrower, but for the most part, the crew of the Valley Forge will be defenceless against the titular lifeform, and their mission is clear – escape the self-destructing ship and defeat this monstrous enemy in a final showdown.
Setting up a concept as complex as Lifeform takes time and effort, and in this board game, that’s also true. Lifeform is materially larger and more complicated than Hall or Nothing’s previous games (1066 and Gloom of Kilforth) and it’s the first that I know of to be designed by someone other than company namesake Tristan Hall. As such, Lifeform feels very different to both of Hall’s own games, but I can see some similarities in structure that means it should appeal to his fans.
Lifeform is a real table hog, with a larger than usual board that folds out across six leaves to provide a detailed schematic of the Valley Forge. Next to it, you’ll need to place crew member cards for each character in the game, plus one larger board for the lifeform itself. There are then a handful of decks of cards and tokens to sort out, shuffle and place, with each player receiving a small personal supply that might differ depending on player count, or which characters they are using.
Part of the setup involves the placement of mission tokens onto predefined spaces on the board, and whilst I initially thought that this might result in a similar experience with every game (I wondered why they weren’t randomised) their placement actually forces the flow of the game and is therefore important when factored against some of the other timed elements. These include a self-destruct countdown and the introduction of a rogue android who hinders the progress of the human players, as well as the cocoon track, which makes the lifeform stronger.
I should note, at this point, that Lifeform is played both competitively and asymmetrically, with one to three players taking control of the crew characters (two characters each, for a maximum of six in play) and the other player taking control of the lifeform. When played with just two players (one lifeform and one human) the human player receives the ship’s cat as a third playable character, which is both really fun and, for Aliens fans, very thematic.
As a side note, in three or four player games, the ship’s cat or the sentient AI that runs the ship can be introduced as playable characters whenever one of the human players has both of their characters killed. This is a really nice way to keep an eliminated player interested, since neither of these characters can themselves be killed, and because each has their own unique skills and playstyle that can be very entertaining.
Once the game begins, the lifeform will have two standees on the board and a further one set aside. These standees represent sensor scans of the creature, but only one of them is real. The lifeform player will also have a facedown token with a symbol on it that matches one of these standees, and only that standee (the real lifeform) will be able to perform certain actions, such as killing a player character.
The players, on the other hand, have little disks with their character pictures on. Each turn, the players will begin by going through a number of possible actions. These include a fair number of situational ones that I won’t go into detail on all of, but for example, a character might be able to pick up a mission token if there is one in the room with them. With some of these actions done, the player will be free to use one of their crew cards, or they can essentially rest, allowing them to draw more cards.
Each card has a number of rows comprised of symbols, and the player must choose one row only to perform the actions associated with those symbols. For example, a row might allow the player to move each of their two characters once, then perform an attack of some kind, then draw cards. Such a card would be quite powerful, and in most cases, the player is choosing from between two and three sequences, and they will really want to take one or more actions from each of them. Such is life.
Bear in mind that when I refer to players I mean, the humans playing the game, but when I refer to characters, I mean the actual character disks running around the Valley Forge. This is important, since the characters don’t actually have decks of cards, but the players do. Hence, the players must use their cards to manage both of their characters (or one, if the other is already dead.) The ship’s cat has its own deck of cards, should it be in play, and can act separately from the characters.
After the players have acted, the lifeform will do the same. Again, the lifeform has some contextual actions available to them depending on location and so on, but they will also be using cards to drive some of their actions. Moving the lifeform standees, advancing the android and cocoon tracks and, hopefully, killing off the human characters. Both human and lifeform players have a limited number of cards with reaction symbols on them, and these can be burnt in response to an action from the opposing player.
For example, if one of the characters uses a flamethrower to expel the lifeform from an adjacent room (and force it to discard its entire hand) then the lifeform player has the chance to use a reaction card to prevent that from happening. Similarly, a character will always be killed (outright, in one hit) if in the same room as the lifeform, unless the player controlling them can use a reaction card like run or hide to negate the attack.
With instant death (subject to luck of the draw) on the cards, and an invincible alien to contend with, you can imagine how much of the focus for the characters is on evasion. For the lifeform, it’s all about whittling down the players and preventing them, initially, from arming their escape craft: the Remora. Once the Remora is primed and ready, the lifeform shifts its attention to preventing the characters from boarding it and once aboard it’s a war of attrition that is usually won by the most prepared side. Let me break this down for you.
During the first phase of the game, the characters will be running around, dodging the lifeform and collecting cards, which they will use as sparingly as possible. They’ll also want to collect those mission tokens, because each one is placed into a space in the Remora, which has five separate tracks. Each of these tracks relate to when the players can trigger the next phase (priming the Remora) and begin their escape, but some of them also give the characters benefits during the showdown phase of the game once everyone is actually aboard the escape craft.
This makes the first phase of the game one of cat and mouse, where the human characters push their luck to gather tokens and cards without being killed. As the self-destruct sequence rolls on (usually due to card play, and not simply because of elapsed time) the need to escape becomes more pressing. Characters might begin the game planning to fill out the chambers that allow them to escape a single attack for free during the final showdown, but these chambers add nothing to the minimum prep level of the Remora.
There are several tracks that must be filled with a certain number of mission tokens in order for the Remora to take off, and if the ship self-destructs before all the characters prime it and reach it, then the lifeform wins. The more human players there are, the more tokens will be needed, making Lifeform a truly cooperative (and incredibly tense) experience. You may decide that someone needs to be a distraction, even if it means that they won’t make it. It might be going really well and then someone dies and the lifeform is in a really tough place to dodge and the self-destruct sequence advances twice in quick succession…
And then you realise that in just a couple of turns you’ll have enough mission tokens to prime the Remora, and perhaps you can even squeeze a couple more in so that you can draw an extra card or two on another track. And then you do prime it and then everyone starts to make their way across the board, and the lifeform suddenly feels out of position, but they really want to take out at least one more character before the next sequence is triggered. And then, through a nearby access tunnel, appears the ship’s cat, with its marvellous deck of slightly odd, generally nonchalant distractions…
Assuming one or more characters do get to the primed Remora, then the final showdown will need to take place, and this is a relatively simple card-pulling exercise. The lifeform player will use the cards gathered during the game to launch attacks, and the player being attacked must use matching symbols to defend against them. The game is weighted in such a way that the players are unlikely to survive if they fail to stock the Remora properly, or if they reach it with the bare minimum of cards remaining, and so in almost every case, the final battle is a real nail-biter that can come down to the very last card.
And now, I’m not sure what else I can say about Lifeform. It just oozes theme, atmosphere and tension from the very beginning. Theme that comes through in the excellent board, the fantastic cards and tokens and most importantly, the very finely balanced asymmetric experience that it offers. Going back to my earlier point about random board setup, sure, Lifeform begins the same way each time you play it, but it never pans out the same way twice.
Much of the potency of the Lifeform system is that heavy setup and complex weight that I mentioned right at the beginning, but most of the heavy lifting is done early on, with the actual gameplay being quite simple. There’s a fair bit to remember as the game goes on – like the cat, or the ship’s computer, or the android, or the secret objective each player has, or the player abilities that come online only under duress — but it’s all kind of drip fed in a way that makes it hard to forget or lose track of.
In summarising, Lifeform is an absolute must buy for any board game fan of the Alien movies, or sci-fi in general. It’s also a must buy for a board game fan who wants a really exciting and quite hardcore asymmetric game with a bit of a twist. Movie lovers who don’t play board games at all will have a decent learning curve to go through if they start here, but my gosh, it will be worth it in the end. You simply must try this game, it is superb.
You can pre-order Lifeform on their Kickstarter.