Wednesday 30 March 2011

Greatest Games I Ever Played: Aliens

If there’s one fact that’s sure to unite men and women, geek and mainstream, gay and straight...from the richest king to the poorest old woman, the rockstar, the newsagent, the blogger, the Field-Marshall, the vicar and the hot-pants wearing Spice Girl tribute’s that the 1986 James Cameron movie, Aliens, is awesome.

Anyway, I saw Aliens when I was about six or seven, and totally fell in love with it for the same reason I enjoy it today: it has lots of monsters and lots of guns. Sure, as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to appreciate it for its more subtle notes (generally regarding the nature of “big business” in the 1980s and Ripley’s surrogate daughter relationship with Newt), but – like all great art – it works on many levels. Big monsters and lots of guns being one of them. Okay? Okay.

Anyway, in 1986, the licence for the Aliens boardgame was given over to Leading Edge. They produced a table-top RPG, which is now a highly sought after piece of arse; and a table-top boardgame, which is now a highly sought after slice of fried awesome.

Movie tie-ins for boardgames actually tend to be of a slightly lower quality than their videogaming counterparts – which, for those in the know, is really saying something. Those picking this up expecting a roll-and-move “You get attacked by an Alien! Miss a turn” game would be in for something of a culture shock.

The base game comes with three scenarios: the initial battle against the Aliens under the reactor, the “Last Stand” (referred to as “Operations/Air-Ducts” in the rulebook) and the battle aboard the Sulaco between Ripley’s Power Loader and the Alien Queen.

The game manages to be a success because it’s exactly what you want from an Aliens game. There are tons of Aliens moving very fast, lots of bullets firing off, and lots of spontaneous killerising and screw-jobs. What’s more, the Aliens are all automated, with a very simple but effective AI. This means there’s no GM, Alien player or referee. It means that it’s you and your friends up against the advancing xenomorph menace.

The first scenario, The Reactor Room, sees nine marines (Apone, Hicks, Vasquez, Drake, Dietrich, Wierbowski, Hudson, Crowe and Frost) having to make their way across the reactor to the waiting APC, whilst each turn several aliens drop from the ceiling to random spaces on the board. Each of the marines has two action points (with the exception of Hicks and Apone, who have three each), with an action point being used to either move one space, or fire one round of ammunition. Multiple points can be spent on firing to either make several attacks at moderate-to-low chance of success, or one shot at a high chance of hitting.

The Aliens cannot fire, but if you’re unlucky enough to find yourself in close combat with one, then chance are you’re fucked. Oh, and you don’t want to be too close to them when you open fire on them, because when they bleed, it can really hurt you. And don’t forget – Gorman issued the order for all pulse rifles to be slung! That’s three flamethrowers, two SMGs, Hicks has a shotgun...and everyone else has pistols.

The scenario runs almost entirely on action, adrenaline and luck – and you and your friends firing off more Aliens movie-quotes that you’d have believed physically possible. It’s surprisingly challenging to complete the mission with more than two or three battered marines surviving (if any get through at all), but it’s a hell of a lot of fun trying. Even when you do fail, it has that “just one more go” factor that makes you positive you can do it this time...

The second scenario is even harder.

This time, Ripley, Gorman, Hicks, Hudson and Vasquez make a desperate last stand as hordes of the Aliens begin dropping from the ceiling. The pulse-rifle fire comes thick and fast until it becomes obvious that the marines are being overrun. Then, when the order to fall back is issued, the marines discover that Burke has shut the door behind them, leading to a tense few turns as one of the marines has to try and cut through the door with his cutting torch. Then, there’s another desperate scramble as Newt tries to guide the marines through the ducting...with yet more of the monsters waiting inside for them.

This level starts off fun, but rapidly develops into what my gaming group (The Dengar Appreciation Society) refer to as “a bit rapey”. The cramped confines of the room mean that every move needs to be calculated quickly but effectively. The final crawl through the ducting is also tense right up until the last move. Truly great stuff.

The final game, the Power Loader versus the Alien Queen is a one-player affair, and feels like something of an afterthought – but this doesn’t stop the main game from being some of the best fun it's possible to have around the gaming table. If your group tends to fire off quotes, make sound effects and live for do-or-die moments, then you’ll have an absolute blast with Aliens.

There is also an expansion pack available, which features four more scenarios (Ripley rescuing Newt from the nest, and Spunkmeyer and Ferro’s battle aboard the dropship; as well as two “what if” scenes).

Aliens is long out of print, and whilst copies do turn up on eBay, they tend to go for very high prices (I paid just over £80 for mine, and that didn’t have the expansion pack in it). There are, however, a few people making up their own copies from various scans and files that have made their way onto the Internet, and there’s also a great Flash version on the Internet over here, if you fancy playing hotseating (do people still do that?), or solo.

Words: Brad Harmer
You can become Brad's "friend" on Facebook, or you can "follow" him on Twitter. Depends how creepy you want to sound really.


It's Indiana, 1818. Moonlight falls through the dense woods that surround a one-room cabin, where a nine-year-old Abraham Lincoln kneels at his suffering mother's bedside. She's been stricken with something the old-timers call 'Milk Sickness'. 'My baby boy...' she whispers before dying.

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Thanks to our friends at Constable and Robinson, we've got five copies of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to give away! For your chance of winning, send your name and full postal address to before midday on Wednesday 6th April, making sure to put "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" as the subject. The first five names out of the electronic hat after the competition closes will receive a free copy!

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Entries limited to one per household. Offer open only to postal addresses in the UK and Ireland.

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