Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space

 Board and Card Games  Comments Off on Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space
Nov 242016
 

Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space is a minimalist game of bluffing and secrecy set on the damaged research ship — the SELVA. All systems are down and the entire ship is dark. Captain and crew are trying to make their way to escape pods and an unknown, alien virus is transforming the crew into blood-thirsty monsters. If you are human you quietly and swiftly try to make your way to the escape pods and hope they work. If you are an alien, you quietly make your way towards the humans and hope they are tasty. Rather than utilizing a central board like Scotland Yard, Letters from Whitechapel, or Fury of Dracula, Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space has each player marking their movement on a personal map sheet which remains hidden from the other players. Players use a dry erase marker to record their movement, location, and any additional information they can glean from the others in 40 rounds.

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There are several map sheets to choose from, each featuring a specific zone of the SELVA. Each map is made up of different numbered hexagonal sectors. At the start of the game, each player agrees to the same map (since your personal map is secret, it is important that everyone starts on the same page). Each zone has a specific name such as Galilei — The Research Zone — and come in varying sizes, layouts, for recommended player counts and levels of experience. After a map is chosen, a number of character cards equal to the number of players are drawn and secretly dealt to each player. For even numbers of players, half of these should be alien cards and the other half should be human cards. For odd numbers of players, you add an extra alien. Each character card (both alien and human) has a unique ability.

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Characters: Red for Aliens and Blue for Humans

Payers take turns moving from one sector to another and recording their movement on their sheet. Humans start from a different sector than aliens and attempt to move to the escape pod sector[s]. Aliens start moving towards where they think the humans are currently located. Aliens can move one or two sectors (three after an alien successfully devours their first human) and humans can only move one unless aided by certain cards. When players move into a dangerous sector (colored grey on the map) they draw a card. There are different types of dangerous sector cards. Some require a player announce their location, some require you bluff and announce any location, some allow you to remain silent, and some are items that can be used by humans immediately or later in the game. Regardless of species, all cards drawn are kept in front of the players and remain secret. Since aliens can’t use items, only humans should be looking at their cards occasionally. Humans, remember your cards. Aliens, pretend to reference your cards at all times just to blend in.

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Item cards plus a dangerous sector card in red

At the end of their aliens can declare an attack on anyone else in the sector. Players, either human or alien, in that sector must announce their presence and promptly die and reveal their character. When humans are killed they respawn as aliens from the alien starting sector and begin to hunt. When aliens are killed they are eliminated from the game and either start making snacks, mixing drinks, or picking the next game to play. To counteract this, human players can utilize items any time during their turn. Items can help them attack, teleport, defend against attack, or force other players to announce their location.

The game ends after 40 rounds, when all humans escape, all humans are eaten, or some combination of the above. The aliens win if they can kill all the humans remaining on the station. Any human killed by an alien loses and any human who escapes wins.

Escape from the Aliens of Outer Space is a mixed bag of a game. Let’s start with the unsatisfying ending of the game. As an example of a satisfying ending, take the hidden movement game Letters from Whitechapel. Jack can win if he escapes detection for the game and the constables win if they can locate Jack. The endgame rewards cunning and secrecy for Jack and rewards teamwork, communication, and cooperation in the constables. Either way it is certainly satisfying. The ending of Escape from the Aliens of Outer Space is a weird “every person for themselves” for the humans and a secretive game of teamwork for the aliens. However, with no central board to work from it is difficult for the aliens to subtly communicate with each other to determine who is an alien and a lone human survivor can’t really celebrate since what feels like a cooperative (humans surviving versus aliens hunting) game was really a competitive (get outta my way, this is my escape pod!) one.

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A sector map with starting locations for Aliens and Humans and the numbered escape pods in the back.

A better role for dispatched aliens could have been designed. When humans die they are respawned as aliens. But aliens killed by aliens result in having a player potentially removed from the game early on. This is, in my opinion, a design flaw. Granted, Escape from the Aliens of Outer Space should only last 30-45 minutes but if one person is removed early it ruins their experience of the game and then makes it much harder for the Aliens to win. I prefer to have an attacked alien revealed as an alien. This makes the game difficult for these two aliens (now revealed to everyone else — location and identity) without removing one from the game. Any way to keep people playing should be the goal of the design, unless the game is specifically a player elimination game which doesn’t seem to be the intent of Escape from the Aliens of Outer Space.

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Here you record your movements for 40 rounds and a kindly reminder for all to the items

That small design flaw aside, the game is certainly tense and if you place a strict time limit on movement, the game can move quickly (to meet the 30-45 minute time expectation on the box rather than the 45-60 minutes it takes with larger groups) and the experience can be memorable. But, like any hidden role game, it depends on the group. Some games can be horrendously silent and slow. Others can be rousingly thematic and exciting. If you want to play this game and have a positive experience you need to seriously read your game group well. And despite the simplicity of gameplay, it is not a gateway game.

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Hilariously, not all of the escape pods actually are functioning…because everything wasn’t bad enough already.

Bookkeeping can also be a challenge. Unlike Letters from Whitechapel where only Jack is required to keep a careful log of movements, in Escape each player needs to be meticulous in their records and also able to keep an eye on where everyone else is potentially located. In the wrong hands this game looks like a large and boring rendition of Battleship with announced coordinates and a quick jot of a note. To be fair, in the right hands you feel like you’ve been transported to the set of Alien. The game really is only worth a play at higher player counts and thus the downtime can be excruciating. That said, there are eight maps to choose from so you can customize your game experience to your group by using a larger or smaller map. This plus your ability to go online and use the map editor (http://www.eftaios.com/mapeditor.html) provides a ton of variability.

This game could have gone a route to be bigger and more component heavy, especially in a market that rewards miniatures and intense components. It could have had a central board and more planning. However, it minimizes the overhead to maximize the immersive experience — you are alone and in the dark trying to get out or to hunt. This does place the onus solely on the player to provide the atmosphere. My recommendation is that if your group loves Letters from Whitechapel, lives and breathes Battlestar Galactica, and washes it down with The Resistance, then you have a winner here. Escape from the Aliens of Outer Space sits nicely in the realm of hidden movement and hidden role games, providing a large depth of immersion for a game that is so very easy to learn that exceeds at higher player counts for a true experience game.

About John Pappas

I'm John ~ a short, mustachioed Library Director of a small branch library outside of Philly. I'm a father, geek, librarian and zen practitioner. I wear glasses, play board games and tend to read pretty much anything that comes across my desk. I organize and host three gaming groups at my library ~ The Golden Gamers (65+), Tabletop Gaming at the Library, and a Game Design Guild. The name of this column "Roll for Fire" comes from my love of Flash Point: Fire Rescue [ and cooperative games in general] and the desire I have to watch it all burn down.

The Ravens of Thri Sahashri

 Reviews  Comments Off on The Ravens of Thri Sahashri
Oct 082016
 

“Trapped in the prison of her own mind, Ren has only one chance at survival; her psychic friend Feth must reach into her unconscious to help guide her home. One player controls the deck of memories, while the other can communicate only through the placement of cards. Only by working together can they save Ren before the Ravens come to feast on her heartbreak and devour her memories whole.” The Ravens of Thri Sahashri is a tarot-sized, 2 player, cooperative card game with some legacy elements thrown in for added spice. In the game you alternate between playing the psychic Feth and the terminally unconscious Ren. Feth will build a tableau of cards for Ren to choose from and, communicating only through card play, will help guide each other through hidden and relived memories.

The Game

In The Ravens of Thri Sahashri one player takes the role of Ren, young girl in a coma and the other player takes the role of Feth, a young psychic with the ability to reach deep inside her subconscious and bring her back. This interaction between the two players centers around the Feth player setting an array of cards out for the Ren player to have the best chance at completing sets of cards.

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The Atman. Each card has to have at least one shaded area overlapping another shaded area. Shaded always overlays shaded and unshaded always overlays unshaded.

Each game of Ravens is made up of three “dreams.” At the beginning of the first dream, the player taking the role of Ren, will draw four cards and place them face down in a column in front of her. These are her Heart Cards and only she can see them. Each card has a numeric value of 1-5, one of five colors, and shaded areas (meant to represent the hurdles or blocks to Ren’s memories). Then each round of the dream, the player taking the role of Feth will draw cards from the central deck to build an Atman in the center of the play area. This Atman (or True Self) represents the fragments of the Ren’s memories. Ren can then choose one card from the Atman and place it in next to her heart cards. The hearts cards represent a poem (a dodoitsu — or poem with four lines of 7, 7, 7, 5 syllables). Ren can work to complete one line at a time. Only moving to the next line when the previous one is complete by a set of cards adding up to 7 (or in the case of the last line of the dodoitsu, 5). When Ren chooses a card of the same color as her heart card she may reveal the heart card for Feth to see. This is important information as it helps guide Feth in creating an Atman for Ren to choose from.

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Ren’s Four Heart Cards with one completed line of 7 and another partially completed (but revealed because the same color was pulled from the Atman)

As they work towards completing the poem, ravens begin to emerge from the deck. There are five ravens in the deck (one for each of the five colors of cards — red, blue, yellow, purple, green) and each are hungry enough to devour Ren’s hard earned memories. So, instead of discarding unused cards at the end of a round or dream, cards of a corresponding color to a revealed raven will be placed below the raven — a memory to be devoured at the completion of the dream. To counteract this, Feth can attempt to help Ren relive a memory by combining a block of same-colored cards in the Atman whose value equals 7. When this happens, a raven of the corresponding color is chased away, the cards sent to discard, and Ren reveals any of her heart cards that match that color. This provides Feth with important information about which cards he should add to the Atman and allows Ren some additional help at the end of the game. Those Heart Cards revealed due to a relived memory can be used in the third dream, where Ren needs to complete one line per round or lose the game.

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Feth’s drawn memory cards and two reveled ravens.

Play continues like this for the cycle of the dream. Feth will draw memory cards from the deck and add as many as he can (wants) to the Atman in the center of the play area with the rest being discarded or devoured by Ravens. Ren will then choose one card to add to her evolving poem or to discard. The dream ends once all four lines of the poem are completed and the heart cards revealed match the colors of the cards in the Atman.

At the end of the dream any heart cards revealed due to a relived memory are kept aside in Ren’s score pile. All other cards in the poem, heart and Atman are discarded or devoured by ravens. Any cards devoured by ravens are removed from the game, all revealed ravens remain in play and you deal up a new dream.

During the third and final dream, Ren must complete one line of her poem on every turn or lose. However, she can use the relived memories that Feth revealed in previous dreams to add to her poem and help her out.

Then and only then do you consider yourself victorious. I’m not sure if it is immediately obvious from the description but this game is exceedingly difficult. It is meant to be played in silence without any advance planning or discussion so expect a long line of agonizing defeats before claiming victory. As an added bonus, there are three sealed envelopes which add a legacy element to the game. I have not opened any of these envelopes yet but I understand that they make some minor rules changes and (hopefully) some additional story elements.

The Review

In playing “Ravens” two games immediately come to mind — Hanabi and …and then, we held hands. Similar to Hanabi, the core of this game is using your partner’s tells to help guide your actions through the game. So, in this sense, both games provide a puzzle to be worked out through non-verbal communication and empathy.  

In …and then, we held hands, players also were meant to remain silent while they played. However, I’m not a fan of how removing the social element makes any game feel, so I recommend that while all pertinent communication should be through the selection and placement of cards, light conversation and banter is acceptable. The theme of the game is not thick, so don’t worry that talking takes you out of it. In fact, to learn the game, I recommend playing a round (or an entire dream) out loud and allowing your partner to hear how you are planning and thinking and then going into silence. It is like playing a learning game with an open hand.

The card’s artwork is not really my flavor but it is certainly quality and well done. My perfect version of the game would drop the amine style completely and pick up some French surrealism. I feel as if I mention this often but Dixit cards makes every game better. There is a potential story to tell in Ravens and including artwork that allowed for some interpretation could add an extra storytelling element to the game. Imagine if every line in the poem could be interpreted to actually mean something!

The Rub

The Ravens of Thri Sahashri is everything I wanted …and then, we held hands to be, but wasn’t — an experience game which provides an actual experience plus some narrative and story. If you are partnered with a person friendly to gaming or a gamer themselves, then this is an easy purchase. If you are just starting in two-player games or gaming, then perhaps Hanabi is better first step but Ravens should come right after. For a quick 2 player game, it does take up a ridiculous amount of table space.

About John Pappas

I'm John ~ a short, mustachioed Library Director of a small branch library outside of Philly. I'm a father, geek, librarian and zen practitioner. I wear glasses, play board games and tend to read pretty much anything that comes across my desk. I organize and host three gaming groups at my library ~ The Golden Gamers (65+), Tabletop Gaming at the Library, and a Game Design Guild. The name of this column "Roll for Fire" comes from my love of Flash Point: Fire Rescue [ and cooperative games in general] and the desire I have to watch it all burn down.