John Carpenter’s classic horror film has a troubled history. It took nearly a decade to get made, going from initial concept of adapting the 1951 film “The Thing from Another World” to a theatrical release that is best described as utterly disappointing. It ultimately found its identity as a cult classic by making its way to the small screen, and arguably stands as one of the best horror films ever made.
But its early days were grim. The original script received revisions from numerous writers. Several directors flirted with the project, projecting their own ideas onto the production which did not align with Universal Pictures’ vision. The studio discussed the concept with Carpenter in 1974 but decided to instead hand it to Tobe Hooper (Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist) who they already had under contract. Difficulties ensued and the film did not materialize. Several other directors pitched ideas. Finally, they went back to Carpenter in ’81.
Everything wasn’t rosy. Rob Bottin was the genius responsible for the film’s stunning special effects. During filming, the 21-year-old was hospitalized after collapsing from exhaustion. He would develop double-pneumonia and an ulcer, all due to his work on the feature.
And much of that back-breaking effort was for naught. The film would go on to gross only $20 million worldwide and become regarded as a critical failure at the box office.
The Thing has seen a similar troubled history on the tabletop.
Mark Chaplin, designer of Lifeform, is responsible for taking the first crack at it. He designed an indie card game of the same title as the film, managing to win the 2011 Board Game Geek award for best print and play. This is a solid game that’s full of love for the source material. But it was a small experience, constrained by the lack of a publisher and its smaller footprint. The self-published status makes it feel all the more a fan production as opposed to a full-blown release.
David Ausloos took the next crack. This quirky Belgian is responsible for interesting titles such as Dark Darker Darkest, and Rogue Agent. Both of those are underrated thematic titles. 2011’s Panic Station was his attempt to capture the spirit of The Thing. However, this White Goblin/Stronghold Games production struggled. There were some very intriguing and forward-thinking concepts – such as the traitor being able to infect other characters during play – but it was ultimately a fragile design that possessed too many narrative inconsistencies. It’s been almost entirely forgotten at this point.
The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31 had promise. This game from Mondo Productions takes the obvious route of parroting the concepts introduced in Fantasy Flight’s Battlestar Galactica board game to present a cooperative survival experience with social deduction elements. This felt a more modern effort, arriving in 2017 just as boardgames were beginning to turn the corner into their current state of overproduced artifacts. The presentation here was fantastic for the time, and the game had promise. It ultimately failed, however, due to poor calibration around imitation incentives. It quickly became obvious that the strongest strategy for an infected player is to help the group and refrain from sabotage, hoping to get pulled onto the helicopter at game’s end. This led to an unsatisfying arc and unimaginative play.
Next up is 2018’s Who Goes There? This title presents a strong first impression. The bits are lovely, and the atmosphere is exceptional. I was in love with this game, that is, until the finale hit. It’s simply too hard to detect imitation players in this design, resulting in a climax that feels like Russian Roulette with fate taking charge. It’s entirely deflating to see such a gripping experience fall apart when it matters most.
This brings us to 2022. The Thing: The Board Game is the first adaptation of this cherished film to offer the holistic experience. This is the mood, atmosphere, and tension of The Thing, at least when encountered within the confines of its narrow optimal parameters.
My intention is not to fluff it too much. This recent work has some issues. It’s best we deal with those straight-away.
Firstly, the rulebook is a bit of a mess. It’s more G.I. Joe the Deck-building Game than 303 Squadron at least. Small victories. But it’s missing an important rule which you can only find in the FAQ. Stuff like this can’t keep happening.
Setup is also a sentence of community service. That’s what it feels like. It’s lengthy and sometimes difficult to be exactly sure you’re doing it right. It’s easy for instance to confuse which spaces the cool little plastic fuel cannisters go on. They go almost everywhere.
Then you have to sort tokens, assign multiple components per player, setup blood-bags, fix the weather reference, and on and on.
The Thing: The Board Game also suffers from a very procedural turn structure. There are many phases, too many to adequately remember without looking at the less-than-useful player aid. It feels as though the game is bloated and could have been tidied up tremendously.
The next challenge is the player count. It’s simply not up to snuff with a modest sized crew. The four-participant experience is tepid and prone to disintegrating quickly. Five is slightly better. You really want to bring six or more people to the table.
The tension is also unsteady. It can fall apart unexpectedly if the imitation gets cornered before infecting anyone else. It can also go off the rails with poor play on behalf of the survivors, everyone succumbing to assimilation quickly.
There’s a sweet spot there in the middle, let’s call it 98 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s where this sinister bastard likes to live.
See, what made the film so special was the unsettling visual effects work. It’s a terrible spectacle, the alien menace brought to life in surreal yet vivid fashion.
That awe is found at the core of this board game, nestled up in the mechanisms of infection and sabotage. Its trick is both in forcing the collision of players, as well as allowing the breathing room to misdirect and commit treason.
The first occurs through the exceptional infection mechanism. Players decide which rooms they will visit to perform actions. This includes searching for gear, repairing vital base functions, preparing food, and scrounging up blood bags. There are more useful things to do than there are players. This is a significant improvement on games of this ilk, as many suffer from protracted lulls and characters sitting on their hands with nothing useful to contribute.
As a group, you must triage all of the flashing lights and devise a plan for the round. There is lots of talking. Often players will work together in order to perform their activity more effectively. The game incentivizes this.
But it does so with immense risk.
Whenever two or more players go to the same room, they have an encounter. If you’re pushed into an encounter with an alien player, there is a 50% chance you will become infected. This foments constant doubt.
Infection can also spread via the huskies that wander the base. Each round the dogs will move about to random rooms. This creates more bottlenecks as players will avoid certain rooms in order to evade the possibility of infection. You can corner the dogs and return them to the kennel, but this requires at least two characters round them up. That of course causes more players brushing together and possibly sharing DNA.
Everything is not for naught. One common activity is harvesting blood bags from the medical room. These can be used to test players each round. There is no averting this test. A Thing must hope they’re not chosen, or that they’ve already created further imitations.
There is a neat sub-system for an outed antagonist. They get to program certain rooms they will head to each round, locking in their selection(s) before the players strategize and move about the board. The tension in the reveal is lovely. This can result in outright character death a player is cornered and assimilated. It’s brutal.
Elimination is avoided, however, if players stick together. Which causes more encounters and more finger pointing.
Beyond encounters and the spread of infection, the second really strong element is the action cards. After players choose which room to move to, they slip a card from their hand into a combined deck. In addition to all of the player submitted actions, one random card is added to sow confusion. This is the design’s answer to the crisis check in Battlestar Galactica.
There’s a clever twist.
Instead of simply resolving a check against a target number, the cards in this shuffled action pile dictate whether players can activate the rooms they’re in. It’s a defined layer where the tension seethes below the surface, extricated from the players’ social and psychological sparring above the table and focused within the gears of the game to produce a central activity susceptible to debate.
There are “use” cards which activate the room. There are “repair” cards which remove damage tokens and get things working properly again. Then there are the delightful “sabotage” cards which cause havoc.
The leader for the round flips the top card and then must assign it. How this plays out is that the seemingly honest and god-fearing occupants of Outpost 31 must make difficult decisions. Chalmers may have slipped in the sabotage, but Mcready is the one who reveals it off the deck, and he then decides to foist it onto Blair. But Blair was hoping to repair the radio room so that the group can call for help. Instead, another damage token is assigned, and everything swirls more fiercely ’round the drain.
The leader can choose to stop drawing action cards at any time and end the round. This is most obviously done to mitigate further damage, but it can also be utilized to prohibit additional positive actions as well. There is significant power in the hands of the leader. Every move is scrutinized.
There are many neat little inflections. A suspicion meter which tracks whose had the most encounters. You can even hold public votes to push someone farther along the track and manipulate their ability to play cards into the action stack.
There are clever options such as the entire base freezing if the boiler room is broken. But you can stave off the cold by burning rooms with the flamethrower. Unfortunately, those rooms set afire can’t be used again the rest of the game. However, if you manage to find the flamethrower and the copper wire you can start testing people’s blood this way. Just like that memorable scene in the film.
Even the helicopter escape mechanism functions more tightly than similar systems in Who Goes There? and Infection at Outpost 31.
As I pointed out earlier, much is wobbly, and an unfortunate series of events can lead to underwhelming sessions. Yet, with a proper group the spectacle lands more often than not, those scenes with Norris’ head sprouting legs and scuttling off becoming fully realized in cardboard adaptation.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.