Together Is Better

If only there were a solo mode, this could have won Most Ironic of 2017.

Dutch knew it while deep in the jungles of Val Verde in Predator. Ellen Ripley knew it down on LV-426 in Aliens. And most importantly, Richard B. Riddick knew it in sci-fi classic Pitch Black, and also in Riddick, which had the same plot.

Being stranded in a remote location teeming with alien life blows.

I'd say that puts Not Alone in good company, but that would only be 50% true.

Did you know that both Borderlands and Avatar are set on colorful planets called Pandora?

At least that’s the central idea behind Not Alone, Ghislain Masson’s one-versus-many game of survival and horror for one to six perceptive humans and a single relentless monster.

The whole thing is surprisingly simple. There are ten locations, half of them “known” and the others just a little farther out of reach. Each round the survivors select one card apiece, then the alien lays down a plastic chip or three to determine where it will hunt or fire off some special abilities. Cue a bunch of tearing noises, screams that are suddenly cut short, and maybe some swears.

That’s a reductive explanation, of course, and doesn’t quite cut to the heart of what makes Not Alone go from a compact filler game to a rather good bluffs-and-stealth romp. That’s because a lot of this game’s magic comes down to the locations themselves. At the outset, the survivors almost have free reign of the nearby destinations. There’s the beach where you can (slowly) boost your signal to call down a rescue ship a little earlier, the rover that lets you branch out and take one of the more distant locales into your hand, or exotic spots like the versatile river and alien’s lair, which can help out when you’re feeling cornered.

Not only are the locations varied, they’re also carefully tuned. The beach seems powerful until you realize it takes two full turns to do anything there. The monster might love camping the rover, but taking a risk on the lair will let you use an occupied card anyway, albeit with a steep penalty for getting caught. And that’s before we even branch into the other destinations. Then the game opens up, doling out survival cards at the shelter or source, letting you send a distress call from the wreck, or bend time at the artefact.

Though that's good life advice too.

Be choosy.

The alien has plenty of say in the matter, of course. For one thing, all communication is public, so you can chat about beachfront vacations all you like as long as you’re cool with a carnivorous monster eavesdropping. More than that, Not Alone pulls the gamey but worthwhile trick of using up your location cards until you restock them, whether by exerting some of your precious will tokens or visiting a spot like the jungle or swamp. Why? In thematic terms there’s scant explanation. In mechanical terms, because it works like a charm, increasing the alien’s knowledge as everybody else’s options wane. It lends a sense of paranoia to every play, wondering if your pursuer has caught your scent and is closing in that very turn.

Not that getting caught will kill you off, thankfully. The hardiness of your crew is somewhat abstracted, with each trapped survivor nudging the alien’s “I Ate Everything” token toward the finish line a little faster than your distress signal can break through. You’ll lose some time, will, and help a horrifying creature hybridize you and everyone you love into its alien ecosystem, but otherwise getting caught is merely a setback. Which is frankly a relief, because sometimes Not Alone descends into the he-knows-that-I-know-that-he-knows routine that far too often dominates games featuring this sort of guesswork. Outmaneuvering a pesky survivor or sidestepping the creature feels great; making random guesses feels more like playing the first dozen rounds of a children’s tile-matching game.

Then again, both sides sport a multitude of ways to manipulate the proceedings, and this can sandpaper some of the game’s rougher moments. The alien employs toxins that force extra cards out of survivors’ hands, temporarily wrecks locations, and tosses extra chips onto the board. Occasionally, the survivors will fight back with cards of their own, whether by amplifying the signal on the beach or sending the monster down the wrong path entirely. It’s enough to rob every move of its last tatter of certainty without really adding any rules overhead. Double the paranoia for half the fuss.

Oh, sorry. There are many sides to this. "Get eaten" is a biased way of saying, "Happily surrender your individuality and become transformed into a part of our ecosystem, perhaps a bug or a fern."

Escape or get eaten.

Which is fantastic, because despite its occasional clueless nature Not Alone is a formidable filler. Clocking in at maybe half an hour at most, it’s exactly the sort of game that wraps up — probably with the survivors suffering a gory death and the alien going into a sugar coma — only for someone to chime in that, hey, it’s their turn for a snack.

A snack. That’s the phrase that encapsulates Not Alone. It’s quick, simple, and not too filling. It just also happens to be a snack that might cause hypertension.

Posted on August 12, 2017, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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