Review: Lifeform

by Christopher Jarvis (1,026 words)

Review: Lifeform
March 30, 2020 Christopher Jarvis

One of my favourite things to come out of the 40th anniversary year of Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi horror Alien is, by coincidence, a detailed homage and simulation. I don’t know if it was planned for release on the anniversary, but it’s certainly timely.

Lifeform, published in 2019 by Hall or Nothing Productions, is designer Mark Chaplin’s detailed love letter to Alien. And let me be clear: we’re talking about the first movie. No soldiers, no weapons — only fear and death in the dark. All but one of the players control crew members who are trying to fill an escape shuttle with supplies and leave before the self destruct timer hits zero. The remaining player controls an indestructible creature, which attempts to hunt the crew one by one. Even if the crew make it to the shuttle, a canny hunter can use various tactics to try to stow away with them, prompting a final desperate showdown.

For the crew players, Lifeform is an extremely tense game. The creature player actually moves two figures around the ship. One is the real alien and the other is a sensor ghost — a physical representation of the scanner glitches and strange noises coming from ventilation shafts. They both move the same way, but only the real alien can make a kill; the identity of the true creature is hidden from the crew players. The creature also has the ability to slow crew movement, either by turning off the lights in rooms or deploying ‘terror tokens’: single-card story events which the crew must overcome if they enter a room with a token.

The game moves at a fairly slow pace; the ship is large and most movement is a single room at a time. I’d normally make this as a criticism, but Lifeform‘s primary goal is to create and maintain terror. Movement requires playing a card with a ‘move’ icon. Most of the cards do have the move icon on them somewhere, but do you really want to waste a valuable and rare flamethrower card simply to move? You could pick up more cards in the hope of gaining cheaper movement, but picking up cards advances the self-destruct timer…

The alien usually moves slowly, rather like the original slow-moving Terminator. It may not be fast, but it just never stops coming. And then occasionally, it has a terrifying burst of speed: leaping through two rooms to make an attack or suddenly appearing out of nowhere in a room connected by a vent.

The crew have some survival tools they can use, but none of them are decisive. There are cards which allow crew members to run two rooms, but these are negated by terror or blackout rooms. There are cattle prods and flamethrowers, and while these will drive the alien back, they serve to enrage the creature and unlock extra resources for it. The ultimate indignity is when an attack would be repelled by a cattle prod, only for the lifeform player to reveal a ‘Cancel Cattle Prod’ card. 

Because, much like the 1979 horror masterpiece, crew death is sudden and instant. There are no hit points. If the creature enters a room and that player cannot play a valid counter, that character dies instantly. There’s a good reason every human player is given two crew members to control and optional back-up roles. There’s simply no way of keeping the whole crew alive. Knocked out crew players can take the role of either the ship’s cat or the mainframe computer. They no longer progress the escape, but can mess with the alien and protect the remaining crew members.

Lifeform succeeds where most ‘one versus many’ games fail, in that playing as the alien is just as satisfying as playing as being a crew member. Too often in games of this type, the antagonist player is forced to play either a slightly different game (such as with Fury of Dracula‘s hidden movement cards) or ends up playing a Dungeon Master role, curating the experience for the ‘real’ players. The creature in Lifeform plays the same way the crew do, only with varied abilities and a different victory condition.

In fact, if Lifeform has a flaw, it’s that its love for Alien is such that it eschews some essential streamlining which would be necessary in any other game. It contains various set-pieces which require additional rules to simulate and often come at the expense of flow. For example, once aboard the shuttle prior to launch, a player can spend shuttle resources to electrify the rooms near the shuttle, driving the alien away from the evacuation zone. There’s the shuttle-bound final duel with the creature, which uses symbols on the player cards which have been unused up to this point. And there’s a complex combination of rules needed to work out whether the alien has actually stowed aboard. These are all wonderful moments and highly thematic to the story, but they do require additional rules which (certainly for the first few games) will require you to return to the rule book for clarifications. Lifeform is a game which has deliberately chosen to shun elegance and simplicity in favour of delivering a truly cinematic experience every time.

I thoroughly recommend Lifeform. I am personally glad to have its detailed and loving homage to a classic, in spite of its quirks. If all I wanted was to chase creatures through corridors and rooms, there are a plethora of board games which offer that; but Lifeform is one of very few which give the terrifying experience of escape from a deadly and malevolent hunter. If you’re not particularly a fan of the original Alien movie, it’s still a great and unique game. However, if you are a fan of Alien, you owe it to yourself to get and play a copy of Lifeform.