The pitch: you are a bunch of students inexplicably stranded on a deep space education and research facility which is equally inexplicably powered by one enormous nuclear bomb and it’s leaking! Oh and you don’t know any good nuclear plumbers apparently. You thought that was bad? Well that’s not the half of it! You are also being stalked by a malevolent presence known only as the Anomaly. Thus starts your cat-and-mouse hidden movement and deduction game of a phase-shifting cat versus student mice.
Anomaly is a 2-4 player, one-versus-many, hidden movement and deduction game designed by Thomas Dagenais-Lespérance and published by Starling Games. The components, graphic design and artwork by Steven Hamilton, Dann May and Greg May all score very highly. The board has the most gorgeous art with beautiful contrast that just pops! The art for the player screens, player tokens and cards is similarly eye-catching. The graphic design is also well thought out: all the icons you will ever need are handily shown on the back of the player screens and the cards have just a single icon which determines the special action that the card bestows on the player (and the Anomaly). Very simple, very elegant. The component quality is also high: good card stock, a chunky game board and high-quality tokens, including, for each player, their own individual mini version of the game board to track their position.
So what about the game play? After the huge success of Everdell, has Starling games managed to knock it out of the park again? Well I think they may have. I have a few issues with the rule book as it didn’t seem to me to properly explain how the health track works. Another example is the radiation: the rules seem to suggest it spreads to fill the station over time, but the rules and the example are not entirely clear. Some diagrams and fuller explanation please. On a couple of points, the rulebook and player screen texts seem to point to different interpretations; for example, of how whether or not the Possession special action allows the Anomaly to target a student's action or merely direct that the student takes that action (a very significant difference if the action could apply damage).
These resolvable rules issues aside, the gameplay is quite easy to grasp. You take turns (student, Anomaly, student, Anomaly; tho' the Anomaly will very often pass because they can take a total of only three actions per round). Players are moving around their own mini versions of the board and, in the students' case, trying to track the Anomaly by pointing at one of the cards the student played for movement and asking the Anomaly if they are at a location with that symbol. No-one knows for sure where the Anomaly or the other students are, but they will attempt to deduce each other's positions. Plastic avatars can be placed out on the main board as sensor ghosts to indicate possible places where each character might currently be located.
The students have a hand of cards, which thematically feels like they are picking up random gear that’s lying around the research station. In general the cards allow you to fire weapons into adjacent locations or the location you are in, set traps, set sensors or bait the anomaly into moving towards you. You have to discard a card to move or track the Anomaly, but really what you want to do is carry out these special actions. You want to locate the Anomaly and cut it a new hole with your laser gun. However, when you do use a card for its special action you give that card to the Anomaly and now it has a special action it can perform including zapping you with electricity, possessing a student at the Anomaly’s location, sniffing out the students or teleporting around the facility. Worst of all, this Anomaly can evolve and, when it does, it gets a permanent special ability which, in general, makes it an even more bad-ass student-hunting machine. Remember that teacher who almost always turned up in the corridor just as you were in the process of performing some teenage act of mischief? Yes, well that is what the Anomaly will eventually become: the Omniscient Super Teacher! Rinse and repeat round by round until either the Anomaly or the students run out of health points. The Anomaly has to feed on students or handily placed fuel canisters otherwise it slowly loses health points. So this incentivises the Anomaly player to be more aggressive and for the students to play more defence.
Anomaly has all the ingredients of an excellent hidden movement game and is dripping with space theme. It’s an interesting take on the hidden movement genre and has all the hallmarks of feeling like 'Alien - The Board Game' but with an unusual twist. It also has just enough unique elements to spice it up and make it feel different from Fury of Dracula (FFG), Scotland Yard (Ravensburger), Letters of Whitechapel (FFG / Sir Chester Cobblepot), Specter Ops (Plaid Hat) and that ilk. If you had to pick a game this was most like in terms of theme then I would go for Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space (Cranio Creations). However, this game is different enough that you won't regret having both that and Anomaly in your collection.
Anomaly is yet another solid entry into the Starling Games library and it will have you sweating behind your player screen wondering if the Anomaly is where you think it is and whether if you blast at it with your laser gun you might actually hit one of your fellow students instead. The one real Anomaly is why the rulebook quality couldn’t quite match the rest of the game. Oh well, you can’t have everything.
(Review by Jason Keeping)