With large parts of the world currently either in or heading towards a lockdown situation, board games are set to be hugely popular over the holiday break. It’s not holiday-themed, but one of our current favorites is the Alien RPG from Swedish publisher Free League – a tabletop take on the popular movie franchise that echoes the atmosphere of the original movies.
Though most people always refer to the Alien franchise by pointing to Ridley Scott’s original, my own personal favorite is the James Cameron-directed sequel Aliens. I love the tension and atmosphere of the original film, but the sequel, which combined this atmosphere with tense action sequences, ranks among my absolute favorite movies of all time. Free League’s Alien RPG, depending on how you play it, comfortably sits in between those two films in terms of its narrative.
It captures that sense of uncertainty and dread, and does so because of some excellent writing – although it helps if you’re familiar with the source material. If you have the time, schedule a movie night and a subsequent session of Alien RPG. When you do, you’ll hang on every word the gamemaster (or ‘game mother’, as the Alien lore refers to it) says, as he or she narrates the experience for you.
Because this isn’t a board game but a dice-based RPG, the narrative (and the quality of the delivery) makes all the difference. Alien RPG can be played in two ways, and the gamemaster’s role is especially important in the more condensed ‘cinematic mode’. The regular campaign mode is slower paced and is a more generic trek across space in the Alien universe that plays out over multiple sessions (which can be relatively devoid of drama or involve shocking xenomorph confrontations), but the cinematic mode is what you want for a evening full of sci-fi horror with all the tension that fans of the movies will expect.
During these shorter narratives, you’ll encounter many moments full of peril, where a roll of dice can mean that you escape, lose a team member or something even worse. While the campaign mode ultimately ends with a dramatic finale as well, the cinematic take on the game is more akin to the rollercoaster ride that is Aliens than the slow buildup of Alien. It’s not easy for a tabletop game to capture that sensation, but Free League’s game has done it.
To help draw in the more casual (movie-going) crowd, the rules of Alien RPG are relatively straightforward, and you don’t have to dive into the rulebook at every turn because you’re not sure what to do next. This, quite crucially, keeps the pace of the game flowing nicely, with most conflicts being resolved through simple dice rolls. These can instantly end a situation and move the story along, or you can build up the momentum some more with “stress dice”, which lets you re-roll several times as the stakes get higher with each roll.
As with most role playing games, the character you play as will have certain stats that will grant you smaller or greater chances of success in a given situation – which, combined with the stress dice mechanic, can make for some pretty exciting scenarios where everyone at the table is equally invested in what the next roll will bring. After all, the cinematic mode isn’t built around the premise that you’ll be playing with the same group for several sessions, so the odds of making it out alive always feel stacked against you.
This dynamic isn’t as strong in the regular campaign mode, which also makes use of more characters, more differences in stats, and thus more rule variations. In almost every way – especially time – it requires a more serious investment from the players, and more of a reliance on the rulebook. That’s definitely not a negative, as it’s exactly what seasoned tabletop RPG players want and expect from their games.
And if you haven’t had enough….. Free League has just announced that they’re releasing a Colonial Marines-themed expansion early next year (in March), and you can already play the Destroyer of Worlds expansion. If you have enough people in your household for a game and love Alien, this is one you’ll want to check out for the upcoming holiday period.