A derelict ship adrift in space. Danger around every corner, as aliens prey on defenseless humans. The only clue to their location is the sounds emanating from other parts of the ship. But if you can hear them, they can hear you.
Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space has all the trappings of the cinema classic Alien, right down to the heavy feeling of dread. And yet this tense experience is created without any of the tense music, claustrophobic cinematography or special effects. The game accomplishes this feat with just a hexagonal grid, some erasable markers and cards, but most importantly, its system of hidden movement. You see, in Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space, each player plots their movements on their own hidden map, but outside of the occasional noise clue from other players, they can never be sure where other human players, or more importantly, where other alien players, are hiding.
The basics of the game are simple. Players pick a space on the map, with aliens moving up to two spaces, and humans moving one. If it is a white space, it is safe, and players announce that they have moved into a silent sector. If it is grey, they must draw a card, which can either be white, for silence, green, indicating that they can bluff and state any space as their location, or red, meaning that they must announce the exact space they just moved into. Aliens attempt to kill all human players, while humans try to sneak to the one of the four escape pods on the ship… and hope it doesn’t malfunction.
But let me take a step back. While Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space is a fantastic hidden movement game, it benefits from several games paving the path before it.
The quintessential hidden movement game is the Spiel des Jahres winner Scotland Yard. In the game, one player plays Mr. X plotting their movements across a game board map of London using different types of transportation.
These modes of transportation are the clues that all the other players use to track down Mr. X. It is a fantastic game of cat and mouse as the combination of transportation options used helps the other players deduce where on the map Mr.X is hiding. Once every few rounds Mr. X is forced to surface and show the other players where he is before the chase begins again, giving searching players a fighting chance if they got on the wrong track.
We played this game a ton when I was growing up, and I was always amazed at how fun it was, and how quick it played. However, one thing was for certain, it was always the most fun to play as Mr. X, and slip away from the other players. While hunting was fun, being the hunted was best, and we would fight over who got to be Mr. X from game to game.
Other later games expanded on this conceit of one vs. many and hidden movement. Letters from Whitechapel takes on the much more serious theme of Jack the Ripper, with the chase happening over four rounds where Jack has to get back to his hideout after committing the murder. Here players don’t have the direct clues of transportation method, but instead must split up and search individual spaces for clues, trying to determine the pattern and direction of Jack’s flight, and eventually corner him in later rounds. Jack has a few tricks up his sleeve to help with his escape however as he can use a limited number of stage coaches and alleyways to slip from encircling investigators when things get tense. Here, as in Scotland Yard, the role of Jack is especially fun, although cooperating with the other players during the hunt on can feel like a true crime investigation at times.
Fury of Dracula, another hidden movement game now in its third edition takes the basic skeleton of Scotland Yard but instead has Vampire Hunters tracking Dracula throughout Europe. In addition to this change of theme, the game has a lot more going on underneath the hood, with combat encounters, item cards, and character abilities etc. The result is a very thematic game that truly feels like hunting down Dracula, but also a much more complex and longer game. It does give the hunting players a bit more to do than just deduce the location of Dracula, as now they need to prepare to fight him, and use their unique abilities as best as possible.
Both of these games advance the formula set down by Scotland Yard in compelling ways. However, for my entertainment dollar, I really enjoy what Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space brings to the table. Here is a game that really feels like its theme, and does so much with so little. Most importantly, it puts both the fun of the deduction the other games have for the hunters, and the enjoyment of secret movement into the hands of each player. While it ultimately feels like a very different game from those I’ve listed, it has a lot of the same elements in a smaller timeframe. It also has some aspects of the social deduction games I have written about in the past as at the beginning of the game, just as in The Resistance, nobody knows which side each player is on. So in addition to the hidden movement the early part of the game has a lot of uncertainty about who is a threat, which just adds to the tension even more.
All of these games provide a delightful game of hide and seek in cardboard form, with different themes and gameplay mechanisms providing very different experiences. If you have not tried a hidden movement game, I encourage you to track down one of those above and give it a try. The discussions after the game as to how a player made their daring escape, or the successful hunt are often the best part!