Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Escape From the Aliens in Outer Space, by Mario Porpora

Spoiler alert: You probably won't. 
Darkness. Echoing, terrifying, darkness. Ten minutes ago your bridge was alive with activity, bustling with the ordered chaos that marks a ship in space. Now, only the chaos remains.

Step through the door quickly, close it silently.  

The pod you beamed in wasn't empty, despite assurances to the contrary. For a brief moment there was struggle, and you saw just enough to understand. Now, all you can do is run. 

Eight steps down the hall, step to starboard, then duck into the maintenance shaft.  

You can navigate this ship by memory easily enough, but the darkness cripples you. They seem to prefer it. 

Pass the first three doors, open the fourth, step into the escape pod. 

You could kill one with a weapon, but the rest will overwhelm you. The escape pods are your only hope. 

Slam the hatch. Strap in. Fire up the pod. 

The pods have failed. For you, there is no Escape From the Aliens in Outer Space.


In Escape From the Aliens in Outer Space, players are Aliens or Humans stuck in a dark spaceship drifting through space. Predictably, the Humans are trying to escape the ship by finding a working escape hatch, and the Aliens are hunting the humans. Each Human player can win individually by escaping the ship, or the Aliens can win collectively by killing all of the Humans. 

Each player is given an individual map made of hexagonal grids, called sectors, that represents the ship. Players use the maps to privately mark their movement through the ship, and to keep notes as to the sounds and movements they notice from other players. 

There is no central board, no miniatures, no figures. The entire game is played on each player's individual map of the ship, complete with chicken-scratch notes, connect-the-dot paths, and numbered moves. 


Oddly, nobody ever heads for hatch #1

All Aliens begin on a single grid on the ship, as do all Humans. Each turn, Aliens may move up to two sectors, and Humans may move up to one sector. Some sectors are marked as "dangerous", and any players that end turns on those sectors must draw a card to determine if they've made a sound that could alert the other players to their whereabouts. 

This is the core of the game - silent movement, except when players end in dangerous sectors. The cards drawn in dangerous sectors can cause a player to reveal the sector they occupy, or allow them to lie and report a sound in a far-away sector. Some cards allow the player to report no sounds at all. 

Eventually the Aliens track down the Humans based on the sounds they've made along the way, unless the Humans find a way to an escape hatch that actually works. That's right - once a Human has, against all odds, made it to an escape hatch without being gutted by an Alien, there's still a 50/50 chance the hatch will fail. 

This moment - a single card draw that could offer victory against all odds, preceded by an hour of careful planning and bluffing - is among the most powerful single moments I've ever experienced in a game. A single one of these draws is worth the full retail price of the game, plus whatever you paid for snacks to get your friends over. It's nearly indescribable. 

Escape is TERRIFYING. This is the most evocative hidden-movement game I've ever played. Each game there's been a palpable nervousness in the air, as each of us desperately tries to solve the puzzle of each other player's moves. It's tense. It's contentious. It's absolutely demoralizing to play as a Human - to the point of pronounced hopelessness - and it's intoxicating to play as an Alien. 

Conan was wrong. Hunting down my friends while they limp through the darkness of their broken ship - this is what is best in life. 

I've put together a series of questions for the guys in my game of Escape. Patrick Day, Cody Lewis, and Brian Neff are game designers that I frequently play with, and our games of Escape are among the most memorable we've had. 

1. How did you feel while playing Escape?

Patrick Day: 
Blind when it wasn't going well, like a genius when it was, and terrified if I wasn't sure.

Cody Lewis: 
Well, that certainly depends on whether you were the hunter or the prey. When I was tracking down some supple spaceman meat, I felt either a sense of stealthy empowerment or destructive frustration. The stealthy empowerment came from growing closer and closer to a target that didn't know I was a few sectors away from ruining their escape. The destructive frustration was a product of being led on a space goose hunt and attacking every sector that might be hiding one of those crafty humans, causing an easily traceable ruckus throughout the ship. 

When I was a Human, the biggest thing on my mind was whether the card I pulled when I reached the escape hatch was going to be red or green; fear was the overall experience of my turns. Fear that my bluff as an Alien was starting to lose some traction or that the next sound card would be red and the alien that I had juked a turn before would be on my heels again.

Brian Neff: 
It's tense as hell. I feel like I should be smoking a cigarette while I'm playing, sort of like Michael Ironside in Starship Troopers.

JR: 
Like a liar. The entire game is about bluffing your intentions and trying to keep careful track of what you’ve told the other players. It’s all about crafting and maintaining a believable lie, then striking – or escaping – when they least expect it.

2. In your experience, is playing as a Human different from playing as an Alien?

PD: 
Yes.

CL: 
Oh most definitely. As a Human you are fearful, but driven. You know how to escape, you just have to make it to the escape pod (in one piece) and hope that it works. As an Alien, you are fast, you are dangerous and you are hungry. You can play the Alien as a rampaging force of destruction, tearing apart any sector that creaked the wrong way or as a sinister mimic, luring the Humans into a false sense of security as you move and sound like one of them, only to reveal your tentacles when they appear just a few sectors away. 

BN: 
Yeah, it's much different. The tension is still there as an Alien, but playing as a Human feels much more desperate. The Asymmetry in the mechanics, no matter how small, makes a huge difference.

JR: 
Playing as a human is MUCH more stressful. Aliens get to move twice as far each turn as humans, so it feels like you’re always a sound away from getting trapped and ripped to shreds. It’s really difficult to make decisions with incomplete information, and the suspense of flipping a card to check for sounds is excruciating. 

I’ve never even made it to an escape hatch, but I've seen other players make it, only to have the hatch fail. It's excruciating, even as an observer. Playing as an Alien is really fun! It’s like being a giant puppy in a sandbox full of chew toys. I didn’t care one bit whether I murdered a Human or my teammates. I was a reckless killing machine that stopped for nobody and nothing.

3. What specific decisions in the game were most important?

PD: 
As both factions, the decision to periodically ignore what immediately was apparent as the safest choice was crucial to convincing players of false trails and succeeding. For example, while trying to create the guise of a false-trail and being on the cusp of believability, if the false trail necessitated a dangerous hex, and you have the option for a relatively safe white hex from your actual position, sucking it up and going one more dangerous turn can really help throw your friends on the wrong path. 

A close second would be bluffing with item usage; even Aliens can pretend to use items just by throwing them away, and when they do it can sometimes successfully bluff their humanity to very effective ends.

CL: 
The most important decision that you can make in this game is where you choose your green sound cards to affect (the cards that allow you to lie about where sounds come from). If you can keep a consistent, believable, fake path than your chances of escape are much higher. This holds true for those playing as an Alien as well (less escape, more evisceration), but the Alien can use green cards more offensively, shepherding Humans away from choke points.   

BN: 
As a Human, your initial trajectory is extremely important. Spending the first few turns figuring out an approximate point of entry past the Aliens is hugely important.

JR: 
The really obvious decisions are “where do I move to try to keep away from the Aliens”, but the more subtle nuances of the game require that a victorious Human player lay a false path that’s believable. The Aliens, because of their speed and the distribution of sound cards in the deck, get more information as the game goes on, so it’s really important to create and maintain a bluff for as long as possible. The last decision a Human makes is to throw caution to the solar wind and make a mad dash for an escape hatch.


Don't make a sound

4. Did your strategy change after your first game?

PD: 
Not really, I just had a better idea of what was coming, was not caught by surprise when I needed to bluff etc.

CL: 
Yes. I learned quite quickly that most Human casualties occur within the first 8 turns or so. So, it is better to take your time as a Human and listen. If you can bluff your way out from under the nose of the Aliens, your chance of escape becomes that much higher. As an Alien you need to field your decisions based on the possible movements of your slimy comrades and your two legged entrees. Remember, you are never quite sure who is who until an Alien attacks a zone or a human plays an action card, so picking a target can be tricky. Unless of course you are JR, then everything, Human or not, is a meal. 

BN: 
Yeah, using items is much more important than it first seems.

JR: 
My strategy has been basically the same – as a Human, sneak around until I find an opening to escape. As an Alien, run around at full speed and attack everything that makes a sound, including the people I think could be my teammates. Am I a teamkiller? Sure. But there’s nobody left to complain…


5. What tension did you feel during the game?

PD: 
Two main types: the tension of having to draw cards, which also has the effect of distancing the player somewhat from the outcome of their actions, and the tension of lying constantly to convince other players to get off your back.

CL:
Tension to escape. Tension to feed.

BN: 
Other people's turns. It's the same kind of tension as poker, where you know that other people are calculating moves that depend on your moves, and your moves depend on theirs.

JR:
As a Human every single decision is fraught with tension. Do I move into a space that will make me take a sound card? Oh no, will I have to tell the truth? If I get to lie, what space will I say the sound came from? When I get caught, which direction will I run? The game is ENTIRELY tension for a Human. As an Alien, the only tension is the thrill of the chase, the feeling of slowly gaining on your prey while they shudder in the dark.

6. What about Escape was most interesting?

PD: 
The entire time you play, you're basically on trial. You're presenting evidence that you are a certain thing, and you are travelling in a certain way, but you have a table full of other players who are judging you constantly. You have to keep this ruse up as long as possible, and by the end hope that when you're declared guilty the damage has already been done.

CL: 
I love Escape because of the situations it creates. We all know going in that the odds are stacked against the Humans actually escaping, but losing in this game just adds to the flavor of the experience. Whenever I pull Escape off of the bookshelf to play, the room goes silent. They know the stakes and are hungry to either stick it to the Aliens or create another ghost ship. 

This speaks volumes about the amazing atmosphere that the game creates. Everything from the mechanics of the game to the art let the players know that they are in for a tense ride that will either end in the sound of an escape pod decoupling or the viscous smack of an unseen tentacle.

BN: 
The artifacts you have after the game (the maps) are super interesting to look at and discuss post-game.

JR: 

I love the asymmetry of strategy that’s required as Human or Alien. In many games, asymmetry leads to one player or team getting the short end of the stick, and having a less interesting time (like in Letters to Whitechapel, where being Jack the Ripper is WAY more fun than being the detectives). Escape keeps it even on both sides – instead of “investigating”, I’m HUNTING, and that possibly-semantic difference really kept me going.


7. What other games does Escape remind you of?

PD: Letters from Whitechapel, Mr. Jack, the hidden movement staples.

CL: 
The hidden movement mechanics of Escape automatically remind me of trying to close the net in Letters from Whitechapel or how to kill three samurai in a turn without being seen in Ninja. The bluffing aspect of Escape shares a lot in common with games such as Resistance or Werewolf, but be prepared to back up those bluffs with a well laid trail.

BN: 
Ninja, other hidden movement games, and Call of Cthulhu.

JR:
Escape is a hidden movement game of hunting down prey, or escaping, so it’s like Letters to Whitechapel, Ninja, and other hidden movement games. It also reminds me of Jurassic Park, if we made a game where some of the players controlled Velociraptors (I know they were really Deinonychuses) and other players ran like hell.



8. What advice do you have for a first-time player?
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PD: 
After you understand what all the cards do, flip through the decks before you start playing so you have an idea of how often people will be lying and what types of items are more common.

CL:
My advice for a first-time Alien is to take concise notes on your sheet. Track players movement, pay attention to the paths they take, check to see if they are using items and discern bluffs. When you feel confident that you know who is an Alien and who isn't start having players attack zones to prove their allegiance. Once you have assembled your ragtag Alien band, track the Humans like a pack of wolves. Split up and cut them off or send an alien to watch dog an escape pod. Working together as Aliens is the surest way to turn the ship into a floating tomb. 

My advice for a first-time Human is to take it slow and live under the guise of Alien for as long as possible. It is of the utmost importance that the false trail you create appear plausible, because one slip up and the Aliens will be on you before you know it. Also, use your action cards to your advantage. If the gig is up and the Aliens know that you aren't tentacle-ridden, your action cards will become your greatest asset. 

Finally, remember that the each escape pod only holds one. So, if that means that you have to choose between your buddy making it or spotlighting them so they get eaten, remember to close your eyes, because you will need your night vision when you are punching in the launch codes.

BN:
Don't die.

JR: 
Pay attention to what other players are doing when it’s not your turn. Keep track of their moves as well as you can, and don’t be afraid to toss out casual conversation to bait a response. The game is supposed to feel intense, so breathe it in and focus – be the one who slices through the tension and controls the outcome. 


Escape From the Aliens in Outer Space rulebook (English .pdf)

Spooning Meeples on Escape and other storytelling games

Check out the Escape From the Aliens in Outer Space MAP EDITOR

Shut Up & Sit Down tells you to buy Escape!

Editor's Note: After spending 30 minutes getting images for the article, it's nice to know that ALIENS STILL FREAK ME OUT.

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JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.