Updated: Oct 18, 2019
Published by Hall or Nothing Productions and designed by Mark Chaplin and Toby Farrands, Lifeform is an unashamed homage to the movie Alien - complete with dark, terror-inducing chambers, a rogue android and the eponymous alien lifeform itself, intent on annihilating all humans it encounters.
The base game is for 2–4 players and comes with a beautifully produced board (representing the floor plans of the doomed mining ship Valley Forge), 13 player boards, 5 main decks of cards, cardboard stands for the Lifeform and Android, crew disks and nearly 140 tokens, large and small. Art credits go to Victor Pérez Corbella, Darren Marks, Chechu Nieto, Gary Simpson, Nicoleta Stavarache and Jaroslaw Wajs.
Once you're over the initial hurdle of interpreting which tokens are essential for the game and which are included only for occasional event effects, the game set-up is relatively quick. One player takes the role of the Lifeform, whose sole goal is to kill all human characters (by various diverse and suitably horrific means). The other player(s) are human crew who must work together as a team to gather sufficient resources to load out the ship’s escape shuttle, complete a number of hidden objectives and then ensure they actually make it through the ship to the shuttle in one piece before the ship’s self-destruct timer reaches zero. Each human player will choose two characters (from a range of 10), select their character boards and starting equipment, draw a starting hand of three cards from a shared crew deck and place their character disks in the ship’s galley.
The Lifeform player has their own deck of cards and a board on which to track hostility. The Lifeform is initially depicted on the board by two Lifeform images (cardboard stands), in differing locations. One image is secretly chosen as the real Lifeform, the other image is a sensor glitch used to bluff the human players. This element of partially secret movement can work well, and sows doubt in the opposition. However, at times, the location of the real Lifeform is obvious - tho' no less threatening for that.
A player’s turn is quick, and the game can zip along. The main mechanism is card-driven actions. Each card usually has several rows of action icons. When played, a player selects one row on the card and executes those icons in any order. A human player’s turn normally consists of collecting resources (if possible) for the shuttle, then either playing one card from hand, activating a character’s unique (mainly once per game) skill or drawing more cards. Similarly, the Lifeform player takes one action: play one card from their hand, draw cards up to maximum hand size or possibly enter the ship’s innards and instantaneously appear in one of the many vent chambers on the board. For both sides, the distribution of icons and cards in both decks is important to understand and hand management and planning are essential elements of game play.
The novel timing mechanism in the game is the self-destruct timer. If this ticks all the way down to zero, the humans are killed and the Lifeform wins. The main way the self-destruct timer advances is when human player characters choose (or are forced) to draw cards to replenish their hand. The decision to play on with a diminished hand and limited choice, or simply draw cards and watch as minutes slip away is a well-designed device to further pressurise the crew.
This is truly a survival game for the human players: the Lifeform is invincible and escape is the only route to victory. Combat, such as it is, is quick, easy and unforgiving. It's also rather one-sided, in that it's impossible for the humans to kill the Lifeform. If the Lifeform attacks from an adjacent chamber the human characters have an opportunity to play a reaction card from hand. If they can’t (or if the Lifeform player can play a reaction-cancellation card), the character is killed and removed from the game. That's very likely to happen during the course of a game, so human players should not become too attached to their characters. Happily, it only needs one human to survive in the shuttle for the human team to claim their joint victory.
The Lifeform player has other tools too in their armoury to defeat the crew. These include: activating a malfunctioning android; placement of terror tokens in a chamber (there is a dedicated terror event deck); a once-per-game hull breach ability; and placement of power outage tokens, designed to slow the crew’s progress through the twisting tunnels and chambers of the ship.
Although characters die, there is no player elimination. If both your human characters die, simply reallocate a character from another player that still has two alive. If this is not possible, you then choose to play as the ship’s sentient computer or as the ship’s cat (!); both have their own unique draw decks. This mechanism doesn't just keep everyone engaged in the game till the very end; a new character helps all the surviving crew members because it means more human-side cards without the necessity for a timer-advancing card draw.
The game has three ways to conclude. The human crew can all die – either killed by the Lifeform or engulfed in the explosion if the timer expires. If the shuttle is successfully launched with all surviving crew on board with 10 or more minutes to spare on the timer then it is an instant human victory. The third alternative is that the shuttle launches, but the Lifeform manages to stow away for a final climatic showdown. This occurs if any characters are left behind (or the last character aboard ship is killed) or if the Lifeform player had successfully predicted when the shuttle would launch. The final showdown is a mini-battle in which the surviving crew defend against card attacks from the Lifeform player until either the Lifeform has played through their hand and is then blown from the airlock for a human victory, or the human crew fail to defend successfully and are all eviscerated on the shuttle.
There are a few fiddly rules, which, on a first play, can distract from an otherwise highly immersive game, but the core game design is solid and encourages a variety of strategies and tactics from both sides. It's a tense and engaging experience that often goes down to the wire. It looks impressive on the table and the lack of plastic miniatures doesn't detract from the game.
For those wishing to invest further, an optional neoprene mat offers an alternative playing surface to the included board (tho' note that the neoprene mat and playing board are of identical size). The Dragon's Domain expansion provides the option to play Lifeform as a solitaire game, and a further modular expansion (Thirteenth Passenger) adds more characters, asteroids and a shuttle board for use in the potential endgame showdown.
If you want an immersive science-fiction movie experience in board game form, Lifeform is about as close as to Alien as you can get without your chest exploding!
(Review by Simon Staddon)