Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Designer Diary: ALIEN: Fate of the Nostromo

 Happy ALIEN day! For this special day, I thought I'd share how the ALIEN: Fate of the Nostromo board game was created!

In spring of 2020, I was contacted by Ravensburger about their available licenses. I'm fortunate to be on a list of game creators that are offered the opportunity to pitch game ideas to the publisher. ALIEN was on the list and as I'm a big fan of the sci-fi thriller, I knew I had to give it my best shot!

I ended up pitching two concepts - one based on the 1979 movie and an original idea set in the ALIEN universe around the time of the original movie. Ravensburger's response to both concepts were positive - and they asked me if I could combine the two ideas: Take the game mechanics from the original idea's pitch but base the game on the setting of the original film. When I said that I could, I was asked for a more detailed example of the game. Grabbing some components from other games I had in my collection, I set to work putting together a prototype!

Ravensburger had a few requests for the design: they were excited about the "Jump scare" deck mentioned in the pitch, so I had to explain how that worked...

...and I was asked to not have player elimination or a traitor mechanic in the game design. I said "you do realize this is a movie with player elimination and a traitor mechanic, right?" They replied "You'll figure something out." So instead, I came up with a fear mechanic - the more frightened you got, the less you could do. If you were ever "too scared" to do anything, the game was over.

And of course, Jonesy had to make an appearance in the game. However, I didn't want him to be a player character or a first-player token. Instead, I wanted him to act as he did in the film - causing jump scares to the player and even being a source of frustration until the player could capture him in the cat-carrier.

Once all of the pieces were in place, my family playtested the game over and over and over again. This was one of the happy side-effects of the global pandemic - a captive playtesting group!
My family was a great help and my kids dubbed the ALIEN miniature "Alan" - enjoying making him "grab" the astronaut miniatures that were stand-in for the player characters. Note the "Ash" miniature stand-in that became a standee in the final game.

Meanwhile, Ravensburger's Steve Warner was leading the remote playtesting efforts on the game. They came up with some of the game's better improvements - turning the jump scare deck into tokens, and splitting the board into two "levels" of the ship.
This prototype image shows several ideas that were discarded including individual "fear" for each character, a die used to determine the Alien's location (which was meant to be in the shape of the classic egg) and a meter that increased the Alien's speed and lethal-ness as it increased. This is all part of the iterative design process - you try ideas, they either don't work or don't improve the game, so you come up with something else.

Another funny moment during development: I'm friends with sculptor Brian Dugas and we were DMing each other about what projects we were working on - without telling each other what projects we were working on. I deduced that he was working on the minis for ALIEN and said "Hey! I'm designing that game!" We both had a good laugh and I'm glad that Brian was on the project - he's super-talented and it's always great to work with friends.

Like I mentioned, the board was constantly changing as the game developed. These are just a few of the configurations we played with over the course of development. But, I'm pleased with what we ended up with - it follows the structure of the ship as seen in the movie but still allows for interesting movement and gameplay. Also, I love the little details - especially the "acid drip" that is on both levels of the ship map.

Another happy moment was when we learned we could use the likenesses of the actors. This isn't always the case - but having portraits and the other components painted by Stefen Koidl, Studio Hive and Vlad Rodriguez really made the game come alive.

The icing on the cake was the Jonesy "jump scare" that greets you when you open the box. I give full credit to Steve and Ravensburger for that one. It was a highlight of the production and a memorable moment for those who bought the game.

ALIEN: Fate of the Nostromo came out in the summer of 2021 and I couldn't be more proud to have designed the game!


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