Category: One vs. Many
Designer: Ghislain Masson
Publisher: Stronghold Games (2017 English edition)
Year Published: 2016
Playing Time: 45 mins.
To Play or Not To Play: Play
Why do people play games? There are a myriad of possible reasons, but I think the most universal is that they provide a way to challenge ourselves in a low-stakes setting. A poor decision in the real world can result in serious consequences, ranging from bankruptcy to jail time or even death. But in a game, the worst thing that can happen is you lose. And then life continues. In other words, games let us train our brains to think strategically in real life. But for that to work, the game needs to offer a sufficient challenge to activate our brains.
There are two main ways to achieve this type of challenge. In a competitive board game the challenge comes from the other players. Whether you are trying to execute a strategy more effectively than the other players, or you are in direct conflict with them, you are facing off against another human brain with all the capacity for creative thought and innovation that you have. In a cooperative game, the players get to pool their brains together to overcome obstacles that the game designer has placed in front of the team. While competitive games have been the most common historically, cooperative games have become quite popular recently.
But it’s unrealistic to just assume that people will always compete or cooperate. Sometimes, one player is just too powerful for the others to withstand. In that case, the other players might band together to overcome the more powerful opponent. That situation occurs organically in a multiplayer competitive game, but imagine what kind of interesting scenarios could crop up in a game designed from the ground up as a one vs. many experience?
Welcome to Not Alone, an asymmetric game for 2-7 players set on the unexplored planet “Artemia.” Most of the players are astronauts (the Hunted) who have crash-landed on Artemia by accident. Their goal is to survive until a rescue party can retrieve from the planet’s surface. One player controls “The Creature,” a being native to Artemia who has discovered alien invaders (the other players) who represent a threat to the planet’s ecosystem. They must be assimilated.
Each turn, the Hunted must each visit one location on the planet. They each begin the game with a hand of five cards representing the five locations they can reach. Simultaneously, they pick a card and place it face down. Naturally, each of the five locations has a different ability. Some let you explore and find additional location cards, others give you a bonus for the next round or let you call for help.
Then after the Hunted have selected their locations, the Creature picks a location to search by placing its Alien token on that card’s display on the table. If the Creature catches an astronaut, that player does not get to use that location’s ability, that player loses one Will counter, and the Creature gets to advance their “Assimilation” counter along the victory track. So if the creature has some extra knowledge, for example because the players discussed their strategy before playing cards, then the creature can use that to win more easily. In other words, the players are free to communicate, but the Creature is always listening. In general, the players won’t give away any specifics and its up to the Creature to guess where the players will go.
So, once the Creature has selected a location, the Hunted reveal their cards and resolve effects. Each Hunted on a location that was not affected by the Creature gets to use the place’s power or draw a card back from their discard pile. Each hunted who is caught loses a will as described above. Once everything has been resolved, the cards the Hunted played go into their discard piles. The discard pile is FACE UP, and each Hunted can only have 1 card for each location, so that means that as the discard pile fills up, the Creature has more and more information about where the Hunted will go next! However, the Hunted’s Rescue counter advances one space forward on the track at the end of each round, so the Creature has a limited amount of time to catch and assimilated the Hunted astronauts.
At the beginning of the next round, each Hunted may “resist” to forfeit one or two will counters to return 2-4 location cards back to their hand from their discard pile. If a Hunted every loses their last will counter (either from being caught by the Creature or by resisting), they “give up,” which means they regain 3 will counters and return their discard pile to their hand. However, this brings the Creature one step closer to victory. Literally: the assimilation counter advances one space forward. Then a new round starts with the astronauts selecting new locations.
At first glance, this game seems rather imbalanced. The Hunted only have five places to go, so it seems realistic that the Creature will catch someone every round. And the Creature’s victory track is shorter than the Hunted’s Rescue track. However, the game has ten locations, not 5, and one of the locations lets the player who played the card draw one card from any of the other five locations. Once a couple players have the option to go to those new locations, it suddenly becomes much harder for the Creature to find them reliably. And those new locations have more powerful abilities than the original five, so it is tempting for the Creature to pick those to block the power, even though there is a much lower chance of catching someone there. In other words, initially the Creature seems like an unbeatable threat, but over time the players find ways to get around it and start reaching their goal.
Once the Hunted get close to their goal, though, their Hunted track starts having an “A” symbol printed on it. This means the Creature gets access to the “Artemia” token. This is a second token that the Creature gets to play to block a location power from activating. And if a player ends up going to the location that has the Artemia token, then they also have to discard a card from their hand, which will make it easier for the Creature to find them next round . . .
The result is a really fun narrative arc for both sides. The Hunted begin under immense pressure from the Creature, then start finding ways to stay away. This puts the Creature under pressure to try harder and catch the Hunted. Ultimately, both sides will find themselves close to the goal and only a few well-chosen moves away from victory.
Honestly, this game would be pretty intense and exciting with just what I’ve described, but this game adds a little extra to sweeten the pot. The Creature gets a special deck of cards: the Hunt deck. Each round, the Creature can play one Hunt card to gain a unique power for that round. But the Hunted also need something to help even the odds, so they get a deck of Survival cards. Each Hunted player starts the game with one Survival card that can help mitigate the Creature’s advantages, such as cancelling the effect of a Hunt card or rescuing a captured Survivor from the Creature’s clutches.
This game’s components are also very well made. The cards feel great, and the various markers and counters are functional and distinct. The best part are the Creature, Artemia, and Target tokens the Creature gets to use, which have the same weight as high quality poker chips. When the Creature places one on the board, you can really feel its presence!
What makes Not Alone feel amazing is that both sides never feel completely at ease. The Creature is powerful and holds several tools to aim for victory, but they still have to play well and think hard to catch their wily opponents. Meanwhile, the Hunted are in constant danger, but there is some safety in numbers. And they have inevitability on their side. If they can just stay away from the Creature long enough, they’ll eventually win. The result is an excellently balanced game. Every game I’ve played has been ridiculously close, with the losing side just one or two steps away from victory when the other side wins. And while there are all these rules and cards to worry about, the core gameplay is actually about deduction. The Hunted will be keeping an eye on each others’ discard piles to try and surmise where their allies are likely to go so they can make alternative plans to mitigate risk. And the Creature has to track every player’s hand and discard pile to figure out where people will be going, and to try and catch as many as possible.
Every time I play, my infatuation for this game grows. The gameplay is intense and exciting, but also fairly simple. The game comes in a delightfully small box that's easy to bring anywhere. And as a one vs. many game, it works great when you’re playing with less experienced players. You can give the Creature to the most experienced player, and then let newer players all gang up on them. It’s a nice way to even the playing field so that everyone can have a fun, challenging experience. And, somewhat topically, Not Alone is a game you can try playing now! www.boardgamearena.com has the game available for all users so you can round up some friends online and try it out! You should absolutely play this game, and there’s really no excuse!