Who Goes There?

The classic sci-fi/horror movie, The Thing, is one of my all-time favorite movies. I’ve been wanting a board game based on this movie for years, and the collectibles company, Mondo, recently released a game that is exactly what I have been looking for.  It’s called The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31. It’s the first board game that company has ever designed, and they did a phenomenal job.

The premise of game is as follows: a group of people are trying to escape a research base in Antarctica. The players must sweep the base and collect certain supplies before they can take to the helicopter and leave.

There is a big problem which makes a successful escape very difficult, however. The research team at the base has come into contact with an alien which was discovered in the ice after having been frozen for 100,000 years. This alien grows by absorbing other living things, and can split itself into multiple, independent creatures. The alien can also change its shape, transforming itself into unimaginably horrific forms. With no known original form, the alien is only referred to as the Thing.  So, in addition to finding the necessary supplies, the players must also kill every instance of the Thing hiding in the base before they can make their escape.

At the start of the game, each player selects a character from the movie and takes that character’s file card and game token. Each player’s game token starts in a central meeting room within the base. From there, game play is broken up into rounds. Each round, a different player becomes the “captain” who must take on a mission to another room in the base in an effort to find supplies and kill aliens. The captain must select a number of additional players to accompany him on the mission, his choices being affected by the requirements of that particular mission. At the end of a mission, all players return to the central meeting room.

Unfortunately for the players, there is one more complication: the shape-shifting alien can infect, absorb, and perfectly mimic any creature it absorbs…and it has imitated one of them! The players absolutely cannot allow the alien imitation to leave the base and reach the mainland or it’s ‘game over’ for all of humanity.

And here is what makes the game so special: while the players are all trying to destroy the monstrous incarnations of the alien lurking about the base and then make their escape, one of the players is secretly an imitation — a Thing — whose goal is to sabotage their efforts. No one but that player knows who the imitation is.

Who is human and who is an imitation is represented by a “blood sample” card which each player keeps secret. Everyone is dealt one of these cards at the beginning of the game, and one of the cards dealt is guaranteed to be an “Infected” card which denotes that the player is an imitation.

The humans know at least one of their number is an alien imitation, but they don’t know who. Their mission now is to not only successfully sweep the base clean of other alien monstrosities and leave via the helicopter: they must also escape *without* taking along any player who is an imitation. The ‘alien’ side wins if they manage to sabotage things to the point where the base is in shambles and escape is impossible, or if one of them successfully convinces the other players that he is a human and is allowed to join the escape via helicopter at the end.

As the game progresses there are opportunities for one other player (or, in larger games, two players) to become absorbed and imitated by the alien creature also. Who the new imitation is is also kept secret — even from the original imitation.

A brief “Assimilation Phase” occurs at two points in the game: once when the players have swept a third of the base and again when the players have swept two-thirds of the base. At this point a second deck of blood sample cards containing one or two “Infected” cards is distributed among all players. Every player looks at his current blood sample card and the new card he receives, keeps one, and returns the other. If either card is an “Infected” card, the player must keep that card.

The fact that one or two players might have it in their best interest to cause missions to fail makes the captain’s job in selecting a mission team each round much more challenging. The captain needs to select the right players for each mission, avoiding anyone whom he thinks might be an imitation who will attempt to spoil the mission. Furthermore, because team captaincy rotates among all players, it is guaranteed that an imitation will sometimes be in charge of a mission!

At the start of every round in the game, the captain must take a random “mission” card from a deck of such cards and show it to everyone. This card lays out the number of players required for the mission and the requirements for the mission to succeed. Mission requirements take the form of “supplies”, which are also represented by cards. Each player has his own hand of supply cards, and every player selected to go on a mission (including the captain) must provide one of their own supply cards into a pool of cards which represent the team’s collective efforts toward accomplishing the mission’s goal.

Each player must keep his hand of supply cards a secret from every other player. Any cards provided to the mission captain must be given face down. Once the team captain receives a supply card from each member selected for the team, he must then shuffle the pool of supply cards for that mission so that he doesn’t know which player gave what card. After this is done, the captain then reveals some or all of the supply cards (depending on the mission requirements) to see whether or not the mission succeeds.

This may sound pretty straight-forward, but there are some additional details which, while simple, serve to complicate the decisions everyone must make each round.

In addition to having a specific number of players, missions also have an additional requirement which the captain must attempt to fulfill when selecting team members. The characters in the game each belong to one of three “departments”: science, operations, or maintenance. Each mission will require that a certain number characters from one or more department must be included in the mission team. This can sometimes force a captain to choose to bring along a player who might not have the right supplies, or whom he thinks is an imitation who may attempt to sabotage the mission.

Supply cards have both an item type (e.g. flashlight, knife, copper wire) and a dice bonus ranging from +0 to +3. For example, one supply card is the Petri Dish with a dice bonus of +0. The supply card requirements for a mission’s success take on one of three forms:

  1. have a certain number or combination of types of items (e.g. a knife and a fire extinguisher)
  2. have a certain sum or combination of dice bonuses (e.g. two cards with a +2 dice bonus)
  3. have a certain dice roll result (e.g. have a dice result totalling some value or higher)

Because each supply card has two properties — a type of item and a dice bonus — and because a mission’s success depends on one or the other, it can sometimes complicate which supply card a player may choose to offer toward a mission.

There are also some supply cards which are not supplies but “sabotage” cards. These will usually cause a mission to fail unless some difficult condition is met — usually requiring that the captain or team members discard certain high value cards from their hand. While imitations might carefully slip one of these into a mission pool when the time is right, it is also possible for a human player to end up with a hand of nothing but sabotage cards (one of which he will be forced to play if he is chosen for a mission).

It may sometimes be the case that none of the players have the required supplies to guarantee the success of the current mission when the captain is selecting team members. This does not happen very regularly, but it happens enough to be a concern when a player decides which supply card to provide toward a particular mission goal. To help combat this, after looking at the pool of supply cards for a mission the team captain is allowed to swap out one supply card from the mission pool for a new card from the supply card deck.

If the captain elects to swap out one supply card, he must keep the new card secret from even himself, shuffling the mission pool again. This can add an element of danger (the captain could pull a sabotage card which will ensure the failure of the mission) or an additional layer of obfuscation to the game when the mission cards are revealed to all players (i.e. is the captain really telling the truth about which card he swapped out?).

Further complicating the selection of supply cards to play is the fact that certain cards — the flashlight and the fire extinguisher — can be used outside of missions. These particular cards can be used in order to provide access to rooms suffering a power outage or to put out fires which threaten to burn down the base.

Due to the secrecy involved in everyone’s supply cards, every round of play involves a lot of table talk. Players are still allowed to tell others what cards they are holding…but they are not required to tell the truth. Imitations may often lie about what supply cards they can offer, and humans may lie in an attempt to flush out an imitation. The only glimpses of truth are when some or all of the supply cards put toward a mission are revealed at the end of that mission.
When a mission succeeds, one of three things may happen:

  1. the team captain will receive some sort of special object (e.g. rope, dynamite, or a flamethrower)
  2. the entire team will be allowed to discard a supply card from their hand and draw a new one
  3. the team will discover a Thing and will have to fight it

When a Thing is discovered during a mission, each member of the team (including the captain) must provide another supply card for a new pool. The sum of the dice bonuses on these cards determine how many dice the captain can roll in order to fight and defeat the Thing. Defeating a Thing in battle requires rolling three-of-a-kind or four-of-a-kind within a certain number of rolls, the difficulty changing depending on how far along the players are in sweeping the base. The captain can lock dice between rolls, but even this is sometimes not enough.

When a mission fails (or when a team fails to defeat a Thing after successfully completing a mission), the game’s “Infection Tracker” is incremented. As the Infection Tracker progresses, rooms will randomly lose power or start on fire. Furthermore, as the situation deteriorates, the humans gradually lose the option of performing up to two “blood tests” at the end of the game when deciding who gets to escape on the helicopter.

In the “Escape Phase” which occurs at the end of the game if the humans manage to clear the base, a captain is elected among the players. This captain is the one who gets the final say on who gets to escape on the helicopter and who gets left behind. The captain also gets to perform up to two blood tests on other players (assuming the Infection Tracker has not progressed too far due to too many failed missions). A player who is blood-tested must reveal whether he is a human or an imitation by revealing his “blood sample” card.

Several special objects can be found during missions which provide useful effects, but they can only be used once or twice.

The rope allows a player to “tie up” someone for one turn, preventing them from taking part in that round’s mission. If the player ties up the captain, then the captaincy immediately moves to the next player.

The dynamite lets the player increase or decrease any die result by one. This may not sound like much, but it can really come in handy.

The flamethrower is the most powerful item, and is only found in the last third of the base. With the flamethrower the player can add three more rolls to the current mission or fight, apply a blood test to a single player (the tested player shows his blood sample card to the person with the flamethrower only), or outright kill another player. Using a flamethrower to torch someone suspected of being a Thing requires a vote among all players.

I’ve played four games so far: two 4-player games, one 6-player, and one 7-player.

There were four players the first time I played, and the outcome really sold everyone on the game. The humans made it about halfway through the base before it burned down around them, ending the game. What was great is that the three players who turned out to be human were the ones who were all accusing each other of being an imitation throughout most of the game, and the one player that saw the least suspicion ended up being the Thing.

The second 4-player game ended even quicker than the first one with the base being destroyed while the players were still going through the first third of it.

In both the 7- and 6-player games the humans made it to the Escape Phase. Unfortunately for them, an imitation managed to make it onto the helicopter both times resulting in a loss for the humans.

In that 6-player game only five of us made it to the end, however, because I killed one of the players with the flamethrower. I managed to convince enough of the other players that he was an imitation (and he was) in order to torch him. The kicker was that at that point I was also an imitation. My successful killing of one of the other imitation players convinced the other players that I was human…so much so that they elected me to be the captain in charge of the final escape, dooming all of humanity. It was a lot of fun being the only imitation left, being elected the final captain, and listening to all the other players arguing among themselves and trying to convince me to allow them on to the helicopter.

My only beefs with the game at this point are very minor.  There are some rare “edge cases” between rules that can occur and for which the correct resolution is not clear.  The instruction manual actually includes a list of most of these sorts of situations, but we found that there are still one or two other things that could stand to be officially clarified.

Some more optional rules to tweak the game balance between the humans and the imitations would have been nice to have.  Again, the game already does this to a degree by providing two Infection Trackers and having certain mission cards be excluded if there are too few players, but it would have been nice to have just a few more minor optional rules which players can use to keep things balanced if their gaming group is exceptionally good or bad and the whole bluffing and lying aspect of the game.

My last beef is that some of the components are not “color-blind friendly”.  I found it difficult to distinguish between the particular shades of bright yellow and light green used for the plastic player tokens.  This doesn’t really detract from the game in a significant way, however.

The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31 does a fantastic job at capturing the theme of the movie and providing an atmosphere within which paranoia can run high. With every game so far there has been lively debate, accusations, denials, and a surprise or two in the end.  The components for the game are great, and the artwork is superb — everything is pleasing to the eye.  Anyone who is a fan of the movie and/or a fan of “hidden information” games like Werewolf and Secret Hitler should check it out.



I finally got a copy of Joseph Payne Brennan’s short story Slime, one of the earliest “blob creature” stories which influenced many other books and films, such as Paramount Pictures’ The Blob, Stephen King’s The Raft, and Dean Koontz’ Phantoms.  I managed to find it in a monster story anthology, titled Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum, published by Random House in 1982, on AbeBooks.com.

It’s supposed to be a classic story.  I hope it does not disappoint.

Free Audio Books

I’ve recently discovered a great source for free audio books: Librivox.  Librivox is a community of people who record their readings of public-domain books for others to listen to.

From their website:

LibriVox volunteers record chapters of books in the public domain and release the audio files back onto the net. Our goal is to make all public domain books available as free

Their short science fiction collections caught my ear immediately.  I’ve only gone through the first two collections at this point.  There are some really good stories in there.

The quality varies from contributor to contributor, since these are amateur recordings, but most of them are of acceptable quality.  Only once did I skip a story due to a terribly irritating voice, but a couple of other contributors’ voices sound not far from professional quality readings.   There are also sometimes technical issues with the recordings themselves (i.e. hissing, minor background noises, etc.), but they are often easily fixed with a graphic equalizer or just ignored when the story is engrossing.

Definitely check out Librivox if you’re a fan of audio books.

The Wheel of Time

I finished the second book of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series last night. Man, what a good series so far! That guy really knows how to write. The story is epic in scope, but manages not to get dry and dull like the final third of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. If you enjoy fantasy novels, you cannot miss this series.


Marvel Zombies 1st Printing CoverI picked up a hardcover copy of the Marvel Zombies comic book miniseries. I was never a big comic book collector, but the concept of superheroes turning into zombies sounded very interesting.  Zombies with super powers?  They’d be unstoppable!  I’m curious to see how it all turns out.

“It’s about bunnies”

I finished reading Richard Adams’ Watership Down last night. It was definitely a great book. It’s about a group of rabbits who leave their warren on a premonition that something terrible is about to happen to it, and the adventures they have while trying to find a new place to live. On a deeper level, it’s a story about how heroes are created and how different people adapt to survive in a dangerous world.

The author did a great job creating a simple mythology and various cultures for the rabbits. At no point did the story every become tedious or boring. After going through the entire book, the epilogue was especially moving.

I would certainly place this book on that short list of books that everyone should read during their time here on earth.

Oh, and as for the title: Watership Down is a place. A “down” is hill, and “Watership” is its name. It can be a strange title for those of us not born in southern England.