Upon learning that Mondo Tees and Project Raygun were teaming up unleash upon us a board game version of John Carpenter’s The Thing, I genuinely lept from my chair and cheered. I’m not ashamed to admit that: the combination of two of my favorite things, board games and The Thing (an article for another time), is cause for celebration in the life of this nerd. I knew my expectations for the game would be irrationally high, but my experiences in the leadup to release (USAopoly losing track of our reservation to play the game at GenCon and the disappointment of learning the limited edition of the game was only going to be sold at MondoCon) tempered those expectations.
Here we are, months later. The wait is over and the game is finally in my hands. Does it deliver? Let’s discuss the gameplay first.
The Thing is a 4-8 player hidden traitor game in the same vein as Werewolf and Room 25 and is steeped in flavor from the film. Each player is given a hidden role, either “Human” or “Imitation.” Human players win the game by escaping Outpost 31 with no Imitations on the helicopter and Imitation players win the game by destroying the outpost, maximizing the level of infection in the outpost, or stowing away with the escaping Humans. The game is split into two parts: the first part, where the players fight each other for the right to play as MacReady’s hat, and the second part, where everyone who didn’t get MacReady’s hat is sad.
Joking aside, players take on the roles of the different team members from the film, each with their own abilities and seperated by department (Maintenance, Science, and Operations). The first player is considered to be the “Captain,” designated by a first player marker that hilariously is a gun (whoever has the gun makes the rules). The captain draws a card off the Mission stack and forms a team to tackle the mission based on the preset needs listed on the card: size of team, department composition, and the mission itself. The players move into an unsearched room in the active sector of the facility and work to complete the mission, which is usually a variation on “everyone secretly give the Captain a specific card type or card value and hopefully everyone gave the right one.” If the mission is a success, the team searches the room for a helpful item to use or a progressively more powerful version of The Thing to fight. Battles with The Thing are another opportunity for players to secretly give the Captain cards, this time to increase the number of dice the Captain rolls in a Yahtzee-like minigame that gets increasingly harder the deeper into the outpost the players have moved. In an anecdotal example, I had one of the most epic board game moments of my life when an Imitation player tried to screw up one of my Captain battles. I was only able to roll four dice four times, instead of the max of six dice four times, to attempt to roll four of a kind and defeat a max-level Thing. I had two sixes going into roll three and rolled two more to complete the four-of-a-kind, eliciting raucous cheering from all players, even Imitations.
If the Imitation players don’t burn the facility down or infect everyone before the Humans complete all their objectives, they have one final opportunity to steal the game during the Escape. Players select the Final Captain, who is saddled with the task of choosing which players escape and which players get left behind. The goal is to bring only the Human players, and to help in this task, the Final Captain has access to blood tests to reveal the identity of whatever players the captain chooses before he decides who to bring on the helicpoter.. Depending on how well the Human players did in the game, the Final Captain will have either two, one, or even zero blood tests. The Captain chooses the players to escape with him and everyone reveals their role, at which time you will either hear victory cheers or victory horrifying diesmbodied wailing.
I’ll admit right off the bat that this review comes with only one complete playthrough of the game, which some may not consider enough of a sampling upon which to base a review. Having said that, the crew of veteran gamers I’d gathered for this playthrough, all of whom have drastically different board game tastes, shared the same opinion on The Thing: we all loved it.
We had a 6 player team, which we all agreed felt like the sweet spot for the game (the most even distribution of departments, some of the tensest missions requiring the whole team to participate, and a pretty even balance between the Imitation and Human players). I’m sure the game is likely just as fun with 7-8 or 4-5 players, but I can see a potential shift in balance in games of those sizes.
The plot of the John Carpenter film is sparse and there’s very little that actually happens beyond scowling men moving from room to room bickering and occasionally encountering The Thing, but it’s the sense of hopeless dread and brutal tension between the characters (as well as the incredible special effects) that make the film a horror masterpiece. The game effortlessly distills these elements into board game form, with the intuitive and simple gameplay serving as a framework for the true driving force of the playthrough, the distrust and uncertainty that will develop naturally between the players. The Imitations have many approaches, from all-out sabotage to quickly derail the Human plans to mindgames and trickery to incite panic and force the Humans to beat themselves. The Humans don’t have many victory options, but they have numbers over the Imitations and can vote to kill another player outright (and remove them from the game entirely) if they have reason to believe that player is an Imitation.
In an interesting stylistic choice, the game’s component design eschews the drabness of the film and instead evokes classic board games of the past. The portraits on each character sheet, while matching their movie counterparts, are slight charicatures that feel like they were lifted straight out of Guess Who. The character pawns are detailed and distinctive, and the bright colors are nearly identical to those of the old Clue pawns (maintenance are yellow, science are lime green, ops are light blue, and Things are red). Card art, in another nod to the film, is straightforward and utilitarian, with no frils or additional info that isn’t vital to the players. The box and the board have a somewhat embossed look in some places that catches the eye, and the box art itself perfectly captures the stark beauty and isolation of the film. This strong art design on the game , spearheaded by Phantom City Creative’s Justin Erickson, is no surprise, given Mondo’s pedigree. The limited edition version artwork by Jock is hauntingly gorgeous in its own way and just makes me cry even harder knowing I wasn’t able to get my hands on a copy.
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If you’re a fan of John Carpenter’s The Thing, Infection at Outpost 31 is the perfect companion piece that the sequel/prequel/remake was not where you and your friends can experience the same dread as the ill-fated crew of Outpost 31. If you’re a fan of board games, and especially of hidden traitor games, this is another very strong entry in the genre that plays fast and has beautiful artwork. If you’re a fan of both of those things, as I am, you should have already cleared space on your shelf for it. This game is a loving gift from Mondo and Project Raygun and I can only hope this is not the last board game collaboration between the two companies. The game released Nov 14.
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