Sunday, 6 August 2017

Not Alone

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Not Alone is a one-vs-many game. The many is a team of space explorers stranded on the mysterious planet Artemia, waiting for rescue. The one is a powerful and malicious alien creature which controls all life-forms on Artemia, and which now wants to assimilate these unexpected visitors into the local hive-mind ecosystem. Can the explorers stay sane and away from the creature long enough for their rescuers to arrive?

This is the countdown track. The pawn on the left is the rescue counter. It marks how much longer the humans need to wait before the rescue ship arrives. The pawn on the right is the assimilation counter. It marks how close the creature is in assimilating the humans. This is effectively a race game, whoever manages to get his pawn to the star position first wins.

The three discs at the top belong to the creature. They are the Hunt tokens used for hunting the humans. The disc in the middle is the creature token which represents the physical presence of the creature itself. This token is always in use every round. The other two tokens are available to the creature under specific conditions, e.g. the play of a Hunt card. When playing, we joked that the token with an A looked like an Avengers token, and thus must be super powerful. The A actually stands for Artemia, the name of the planet.

The cards with the green back are the Hunt cards. The creature always has a hand size of three, and normally gets to play one Hunt card per round.

This is how the game is set up. The 10 cards arranged neatly at the bottom form the game board and represent the 10 locations on Artemia, each with a different ability which the humans get to use. At the start of the game, each human player has one each of cards numbered 1 to 5, which means he can only access the first five locations. At the top of the photo you can see a pool of cards numbered 6 to 10. During the course of the game the human players may claim these cards to increase their options.

At the start of a round, each human plays a location card from his hand face-down, committing where he will be for the round. The humans may discuss how they want to play, but the creature is listening, so they can't be too explicit. The humans have to hope that their teammates know what they are thinking and will play in a cohesive manner. After the humans are committed, it is the creature's turn to decide where to hunt. This is done by placing the Hunt tokens on the location cards where it thinks the humans are. Then you check whether any humans are caught. They will suffer penalties. Depending on the Hunt token, they may lose Will counters, they may lose cards, they may be denied the ability of the location, the assimilation counter may advance, etc.

The most crucial part of the game is advancing your counter on the countdown track. The rescue counter automatically advances at the end of every round. The humans can perform certain actions, e.g. using location abilities, to make additional advancements. The assimilation counter advances when the creature catches a human using the creature token, and also when a human loses his last Will counter. Every human starts with three Will counters. Will counters can be spent to return played location cards into your hand, but it is a risky thing to do, because you will get closer to losing them all. When you lose them all, the creature's assimilation counter advances, and you reset your character by taking back all your location cards and your three Will counters. You can use location abilities to return location cards to your hand, thus delaying the usage of Will counters, but in the long run it is a matter of stalling, not completely avoiding.

The locations on Artemia help the humans in different ways. They can speed up the rescue ship. They help you reclaim played location cards. They give you new location cards. They give you Survival cards. Survival cards are usually powerful, similar to the creature's Hunt cards. Each human may play at most one Survival card per round. One key difference between Survival cards and Hunt cards is the humans need to perform an action at a location to draw a Survival card, while the creature automatically draws back to three Hunt cards every round.

These are some of the creature's Hunt cards. Those target icons on two of them mean when you play these cards, you get to use the target Hunt token for the round.

The Play

Ivan taught us to play. He had played before, as the creature, so this time he wanted to try being human. He asked me to take the role of the creature. So I was public enemy in our game. There were five of us in total, thus four human players. At the start of the game, having four human players seemed very beneficial to the creature player. They only had five locations to pick from, and I felt I would have to be very unlucky to miss all four of them. Also one of the five locations, #5, was particularly attractive - it allowed the human player to gain a new location card. This was very useful. It was best to get such additional cards early, so that for the rest of the game you'd have more options. It was natural that the human players would be very tempted to make use of this location in the early game. I missed one consideration though. Location #1 was the creature's lair, and if a human made use of it, it could trigger the location ability of the location of the creature. So if I hunted at location #5, the humans could just go to location #1 and still trigger the ability of location #5.

Playing the creature was all about guessing where the humans were. I could see what location cards they had played to determine what options they had remaining. I had to remember which new location cards they managed to claim. I looked at how many Will counters they had to guess what they would try to do. For me the tension came from the ever ticking countdown clock - the rescue team was on the way. I had to assimilate the humans before time ran out, and the ticking clock often jumped ahead by one or even two extra steps. It was nice being omnipresent and powerful, but that didn't mean assimilating the humans was easy. I had a deadline to meet. The humans were stressed out as well, like mice being stalked by a monstrous cat, occasionally supported by devilish kittens (the extra Hunt tokens). Every round they played location cards, leaving fewer and fewer in hand. They could take cards back but that usually meant spending Will counters. Doom approached from both directions, or in Manglish (Malaysianised English) - turn left die, turn right also die. They struggled to survive and were often torn between lying low and waiting patiently, and being bold and helping the rescue team arrive sooner.

Both the creature's Hunt cards and the humans' Survival cards are powerful cards. They create drama and twists. Without them, I believe the game would be a little staid, because all other information is open - the location cards that have been played, the number of Will counters remaining, the available options of each human. Hunt cards and Survival cards create opportunities and help make impossible saves. I would say they help address a weakness in the core mechanism. They make the overall package better. They are powerful but not so much that you feel you win or lose by the luck of the draw. These cards are a supporting element, not the core.

Despite the difficulty in coordinating their actions due to the ever listening creature, the humans still have many ways to collaborate and help one another. They can choose to apply the ability of a location card or a Survival card on a fellow player who needs it more than themselves. Often a human can take one for the team, suffering injury to protect a teammate. The humans do feel like a team playing a cooperative game.

In this particular round, as the creature, I could use two Hunt tokens. Location #4 comes with a yellow marker. This marker starts the game off-card. When a human player triggers location #4, he may move the marker on- or off-card. Moving it on-card means charging up a beacon, and moving it off-card means activating the beacon, which causes the rescue counter to advance by one step. So it takes two human actions at location #4 to speed up the arrival of the rescue team by one step. It is possible to achieve this within one round if two humans come here (and are not caught by the creature).

The human player on the left had played location cards 1, 2, 3, 5 and 9, which meant it was much easier for me to guess where he was going. But beware the Survival card. There just might be one which could save this player from such a sticky situation.

This was near end game, and it was going to be a close finish. On the rescue team track, some spots have an A. If the rescue counter stops at these spots, in the next round the creature gets to use the Artemis Hunt token. The human players will try to avoid these spots. Most of the time it is ideal to move two steps per round, to completely avoid the A spots. That means moving one extra step on top of the one free step every round. However sometimes it is worthwhile to move three steps, even if it means landing on an A. In fact sometimes it is necessary. This is a race game after all.

Our game was close. The tension built towards a climax, and I think this is how most games will be. As the creature I tried to focus on humans who were already low on Will counters. Every step towards assimilation was precious. In the late game, when the rescue ship was about two rounds away from arriving, we came to a situation where one of the humans had only one Will counter remaining, and also only two location cards in hand. Big Red Target, in my eyes. My assimilation counter was two steps away from victory. If I could catch him in person (i.e. using my creature Hunt token), my assimilation counter would move one step for catching him in person, and another for reducing his Will counters to zero. That meant victory for me. Since he had only two cards left, I had a 50% chance of winning this round, assuming no Survival card upset my plan. Of his two locations, one was very enticing, because it would let the rescue counter advance an extra step. The other one was meh. I could decide to prowl the yummy location, since it was obviously the better location. However the human would know I was thinking this way, and might thus choose the meh location just to stay away from danger. So maybe I should pick the meh location so that I would catch him. He would deduce that I would think this way too, so the most dangerous location might actually be the safest one. Then why not just go for it? This is the kind of double guessing which happens all the time in this game. Eventually I decided the human must be having a do or die mindset by this stage. So I placed my creature Hunt token on the yummy location. I was right! Game over for the humans. Welcome to the warm embrace of Artemia.

The Thoughts

Not Alone is a light-to-medium weight game. It takes 30-45 minutes to play. What makes it attractive is the cat-and-mouse mechanism and how the creature and the humans need to guess one another's intentions. Even among the human players they need to guess what their teammates are thinking. The humans are under constant pressure. Their location cards dwindle, their Will counters dry up, they slowly slide towards the hive mind. They fight to survive till help arrives. The creature is mighty, but also has a heart-pounding urgency to assimilate the humans before they escape its grasp. This game has great atmosphere!