You’ve Got to Run, Run, Run
Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space isn’t a new game, and in some ways it shows. It isn’t as slick as the third edition of Fury of Dracula, for instance, last year’s reimagining of 2005’s reimagining of the 1987 classic. In that case, Fantasy Flight had the experience of multiple decades to draw on, resulting in one of the best sneak-around games ever made. And it certainly isn’t as agile as Specter Ops, which portrays tiptoeing past corporate security guards as not only a question of positioning but also one of velocity.
And yet, the ultimate edition of Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space is still a beast worthy of consideration — though perhaps only after being tamed with a healthy heaping of house rules.
Right up front, I’ve got to say that I love games about stealth. There’s nothing quite like being a crack member of a team and not comprehending how your prey remains two steps ahead of you, or the thrill of sticking to the shadows and rediscovering religion when a pursuer catches your scent. Many games offer tension, but very few approach it with the same intimacy as portrayed in the relationship between hunter and hunted, where the space between characters is stripped away until there’s hardly an inch between them. Hardly room to breathe. To move. To run.
What Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space offers the genre is an extra dose of uncertainty. Set aboard a malfunctioning space station that mirrors with its shaded hexes and oppressive claustrophobia the utilitarian approach to space exploration found in the first two Alien films, players are split into two rough sides, human and alien. The humans want to make their way to the station’s escape pods, hoping that they’ll wash up on some exotic beach where they’ll sip strong drinks out of coconuts and never have to perform experiments on alien parasite samples ever again. The aliens, well, what do aliens ever want? To rip and tear and consume. That’s what aliens do.
Right away, there’s a pair of twists that gives this game a pounding heart of its own. First of all, the humans aren’t working together. Not in the slightest. Cowering in their corner while the aliens shamble closer, they’re uttering silent curses and praying one of the other survivors will trip over a wrench, leading their pursuers in the other direction. Occasionally, the escape pod you were just minutes from boarding will jettison in a flurry of steam and warning bells, another git having boarded it before you. When that happens, there will be swear words. Nobody is here to save you. Worse, you don’t even know who’s human or who’s alien.
The second twist is that the station was damaged when the alien parasite got loose, plunging the whole place into utter darkness. And that means you can’t see a damn thing.
A game in progress might not look in much, everyone hunched over their own booklet. Then someone will announce a coordinate and the table will go wild, everyone speculating whether that person is really where they claim to be. To an onlooker, it’s a baffling sight. But these booklets are the highlight of the ultimate edition, spiral-bound, compact, and made to work with dry-erase markers, and absolutely essential to the experience. See, since the station is completely backed out, you might pass within brushing distance of another player and never realize it, nothing but coordinates on a chart slipping past each other in the night.
This is all handled with incredible simplicity. When you move onto a white space, you announce “silent sector,” while stepping into a shaded space sees you drawing a card that determines whether you’ve stumbled over one of the station’s many loose gratings, forcing you to reveal your coordinates, or if you’ve passed through that sector with the silence of a ventilator breeze. Sometimes one of these cards will even let you make a ruckus elsewhere, announcing the coordinates of your choosing.
What’s so fantastic about this system is that every single one of these options holds real import. Since nobody can be sure who’s who, it behooves the aliens to bear some passing resemblance to humans in order to get up close without sparking any tomfoolery, and humans to behave like aliens to shed any suspicion like last year’s chitinous plating. Stepping on a safe sector might sound like a nice idea in theory, but because they tend to be limited in quantity they soon become a crucial form of information in their own right, with alien players tracing a fleeing astronaut’s route by how often they go dark. Similarly, making noises as distractions is a crucial skill for human players to master, which requires you to keep track of your alternate route to avoid impossible moves that might tip off your pursuers.
To say that Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space captures the thrumming terror of groping your way through the dark only covers the bare essentials, especially when you add in some of the item cards. These allow humans the occasional extra opportunity, like slamming an adrenaline pen into your neck to travel a little farther, or teleporting back to the starting sector when you’re a split second away from being devoured, or releasing a cat to make a bunch of noise. Finding a gun will even allow a human to blast his way out of trouble, at least until he realizes that the batteries were single-use.
The problem with these items is that they tend to reveal their user as human, thus leading all nearby aliens to converge on their location like a bucket of chum tossed into a shark tank. The solution is found in a house rule that humans can use their items as usual, but without announcing them, instead keeping hold of them until the game wraps up and everybody is excitedly showing off the course they took in their (attempted) escape. This means only playing with people you trust, but hey, that’s one of the basic rules for living a healthy life anyway.
The game’s other major problem is that it’s entirely possible for someone to get killed off early, then sit around for half an hour while she waits for everyone else to finish up. Being killed as a human means returning as an alien, so that isn’t where the issue lies, but it isn’t uncommon for an alien to accidentally chew up one of its betentacled brethren, and then it’s bye-bye for that player. In one game, I was able to creep along directly behind two aliens trying to out-gnaw the corridor, stepping into each sector right after they’d attacked it. In the end, one of them killed the other, clearing the way enough that I was able to make it to the escape pod. For that deceased alien player, however, the proceedings weren’t quite as stimulating.
The thing is, both of these problems are considerable, but neither have managed to diminish my appreciation of Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space. This is an excellent stealth game, in part because its rules allow for so much clever play even though there’s hardly anything to them. It occasionally stumbles, but most of the time, its brisk tale of teeth gnashing in the dark and astronauts fumbling their way through the darkened halls of a derelict research station is one worth experiencing. If nothing else, it provides a terrifying good time.