Introduction: Growing up, my friend CC used to love the Alien and Aliens movies! I remember him seeing the theatrical release of Aliens many many times! CC loves cooperative games as much as I do, and he loves Alien/Aliens, so he seemed like the perfect person to review Aliens: Bug Hunt for us! This is one of three cooperative Alien type games out now!
Aliens: Bug Hunt is a cooperative game for 1-4 players which pits the players, as marines, against a growing horde of Xenomorphs as they attempt to enter an infested facility, complete their missions, and escape before they are overrun.
Each player controls a “squad” of three characters, including one named character from the movie (like Ellen Ripley or Bishop) and two unnamed “grunts”. These characters can take wounds and be killed, and they also get “depleted” when they fire on aliens (or other effects cause it), which prevents them from taking some actions. The named characters all have special abilities, and there are more named characters than there are players, so you can “mix and match” teams for different play experiences.
At the start of the game, you randomly draw three missions for the squads to try to accomplish. The marines win if they complete the three missions and escape. The missions are very simple in structure; each mission simply requires finding and claiming three objective tokens on the map. After you have completed each mission, you get three uses of a special ability it affords, so it helps to strategize which mission to complete first. As with the named characters, there are many more than you use in a single game, so randomizing these missions adds some variety to gameplay.
The gameplay itself is fairly straightforward. On your turn, you have three “movement points” to spend to move your squad around the modular tile board, and then you can take one action. It costs one “movement point” to move to an adjacent tile, unless there’s a barrier, in which case it costs two, and you usually can’t move out of a tile with aliens in it. If you move into a new, unexplored tile, you simply reveal the tile, add the aliens and objective markers shown on it, and end your movement.
There are only four actions your squad can take:
- “Breach” a barrier between two tiles so that it only costs one movement point to move between them.
- “Shoot” at aliens in your tile or adjacent tiles, by depleting one or more squad members.
- “Claim” an objective token in your tile and add it to a mission card.
- “Reload”, which refreshes all your depleted squad members.
Combat is exceedingly simple. The Xenomorph aliens are represented as dice placed directly on the tiles as you explore. To shoot at an alien, you just roll its die. Some characters can shoot at more alien dice than others, so you typically only deplete as many squad members as you need to shoot at all the dice. Your baseline unnamed grunt can shoot at two aliens, with named characters deviating from that based on their role (for instance, Bishop cannot shoot at any aliens, but has other capabilities to make up for it). Depending on the outcome of the alien die roll, and whether you are shooting at the alien from the same tile or an adjacent tile, the alien is destroyed, survives, wounds you, or moves.
Gameplay turns are driven by a deck of cards. Each player has several cards in the deck that, when drawn, indicate it is their turn, so you do not know what order your squads will act in. There are also alien cards in the deck; when they are drawn, they increase a counter that causes new aliens to be spawned into the map, causes them to move and attack, and sometimes causes other effects, such as a “facehugger attack” that forces each squad to deplete a character or suffer a wound.
That’s about all there is to the game. You lose if the aliens overrun the complex before you can complete your missions and escape. You win if they don’t.
Pros, Cons, and Tradeoff
* PRO: Interesting onboarding. The way you learn this game is quite well done and evocative. Each of the four players has their own bifold that explains about a fourth of the rules, themed to a command position like Communications Officer. Each player is responsible for teaching and enforcing the rules on their bifold, which distributes the gameplay responsibilities and engages everyone in learning the game. If fewer than four are playing, the game recommends a setup, but of course each player has more overhead then. I played it solo, and it was fine, though, because none of the elements are very difficult. The rules are well-explained and clear. (The only down side to this approach is that when playing solo, you’re having to switch between different bifolds to reference rules, but honestly, the game is simple enough that it’s barely a problem past the first few minutes of the game.)
* PRO: Atmosphere. The art on the cards and tiles was evocative. The modular board that gets revealed as you go felt like you were really exploring a dark, mysterious facility. The minis looked nice (I imagine they’d be worth painting, because there are only four and you could reinforce the color coding by painting them with their relevant colors). The cards that spawn aliens into the complex are themed to the motion tracker devices, which was a particularly evocative design touch. And of course all the named characters are included, so you can play your favorite characters from the movie.
* TRADEOFF: Mission Variety. As mentioned above, there are far more named characters and missions than you use each game, which adds some variety between games. And the game board is a matrix of tiles that get shuffled for each game, so the layout changes with each playthrough. That said, there’s not exactly a LOT of variety here; they are different only by degrees, enough to make a small mechanical difference, but not enough to be particularly memorable or change your playstyle much. For some, it might be too little customization, but for others, they might appreciate different variations without making the game overly complex.
* PRO: Small shelf footprint. There’s a lot of “spread” to this game and yet it has a very small shelf footprint. The game box has custom-molded trays for all the minis, the cards, the tiles, the dice, etc., and it all fits in the box comfortably. (Not sure if it would all fit as well with sleeved cards, but I suspect it would be fine.) I’d say it packs much better-than-average than most games I’ve seen; I’d expect this game to be a larger box from looking at the components. Despite that, setup and tear-down are quite quick. This is a very convenient game to store and play.
* CON: Unnecessarily tedious exploring. Exploring the facility involved moving into a tile to reveal it, and then spawning aliens there. Since you can’t move when there are aliens where you are, you generally have to fight those aliens. If you don’t kill absolutely all of them, you’re stuck there again. This felt a little tiresome, because you never really had strategy for which direction you go. It also meant that you’re always fighting them in close quarters, which made some of the named character abilities seem largely useless (e.g., Vasquez gets to target +2 aliens if there are no aliens in her tile, but that was only rarely useful). I think I would have liked it better if you enter a tile and it reveals the adjacent ones, or if an action could reveal multiple tiles by “calling up complex schematics”, so that there were some strategy to how you proceed through the complex.
* TRADEOFF: Shallow actions. Quite often, you didn’t really have a choice what to do. If an alien is in your location, you can’t move. If your entire squad is depleted, you can’t do much unless you “reload” as your action. The rest of the time, you move into a location, shoot the things there, someone grabs the objective token if it’s there, and repeat. I would have liked to see more variety to the action, but again, this setup keeps the game simple and streamlined. For some users, this might hit the complexity “sweet spot”.
* CON: Tile variety lacking. You build the complex map as you go, but the tiles all look similar except for barriers. Apparently, this entire facility is just a bunch of corrodors leading to other corridors…? It seemed like a missed opportunity to bring in some locations from the movie, like the med lab, atmospheric processors, ventilation ducts, etc.
* CON: Missions are same-y. Every mission is completed the exact same way: find a room with the icon on it, and spend an action there to collect the icon. When you collect three, the mission is done. Whether you are “finding Newt” or “repairing water purifiers”, you’re just doing the same collect-a-token action, which wasn’t very evocative. I would have liked to see some variety here – perhaps hand in hand with variety in the tiles. “Destroy the sample: Find the medical lab, collect a token, and take it to the incinerator.”
* CON: No Alien Queen! That’s right, the star of the show, the Alien Queen, simply is nowhere to be found in the game, despite it being the big image on the outside of the box! That struck me as a bit of false advertising – fans of the Queen specifically might feel bait-and-switched here. It’s a shame, really, because the game also feels like it could benefit from a “boss battle” climax; once you have got your missions done, it’s just a matter of running out the door, and a showdown with the Xenomorph Queen would be a fun way to end the game.
* CON: Also: No egg chambers! No chest-bursters! No cocooned colonists! No duplicity from Burke! Facehuggers and Newt only show up as flavor text on cards, and only if you happen to draw them. While the game does get in a lot of fan-favorite elements from the movie, there are some very notable omissions. This is almost certainly a concession to keeping the game simple, so maybe it was the right call on balance, but if you’re looking for an immersive Aliens experience, it falls down a bit in this area.
* CON: Inaccessible to colorblind players. The game relies on identifying many elements that are distinguished exclusively by color. There’s a “red” squad which you can only distinguish from the “green”, “blue”, and “yellow” squads by looking at the color of the ring on the mini or the color of their board or the color of their action card. Colorblind players might have a difficult time playing this game for that reason.
* TRADEOFF: Small tiles. The tiles are small enough that sometimes they cannot easily accommodate everything on them. One squad can fit comfortably on a tile, but all four squads cannot, especially if you also have several aliens, breach tokens, and an objective token there. (Perhaps the size is why they didn’t attempt to add specific locations.) Larger tiles would be nicer on the table, but the small tiles have one distinct advantage: they kept the shelf footprint small. For me, it’s a tradeoff I’m happy to make. It is seldom a problem during play, and it’s not like the game runs off the rails if a mini overlaps an adjacent tile a bit; it’s easily manageable.
* TRADEOFF: The game seemed easy (but maybe swingy?). My squad got in, completed all three objectives – saving Newt, restarting the water purifiers, and getting detonators – and got out without any casualties on the first try. I did not face significantly more challenge in my second game. I don’t mind cooperative games that are on the easy side if they have a good atmosphere – I’m content to relax a bit and enjoy the story and experience. And for young or inexperienced board gamers, this might be a spot-on difficulty. But I could see other gamers being a little disappointed at the lack of challenge. Also, the tile draws and attack rolls seem like they could drastically affect the overall difficulty of the game; finding your objective tokens near the entrance would make the game much easier than if they’re all bunched up at the far end. The way the game works, the aliens accelerate coming out over time, so I imagine some games end up with aliens overrunning the marines if you have to explore all the way to the back of the facility. So it seems like the game could swing fairly drastically between being easy and difficult. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it might really impact your first impressions of the game, which in turn can dictate how often it gets to your table.
For me, the gold standard “Alien Board Game” experience is Task Force Games’ 1980 classic, “Intruder”. Intruder was a solitaire game that was essentially Alien with the serial numbers filed off. I found it on sale in a game store years after it was released and picked it up on a whim, and instantly loved it.
Despite being over 40 years old, “Intruder” still holds up. The production quality is quite poor compared to “Aliens: Bug Hunt”, with its folded paper board, little square cardboard chits, and a stapled rulebook that all come in a plastic baggie. But this modest game surprisingly manages to get in more story beats than “Aliens: Bug Hunt” does. Intruder has varied locations (like a specific engineering bay, where you can go to jury-rig flamethrowers, a freezer where you can try freezing the alien, etc.). The alien is terrifying and scary – you don’t know how weapons affect it (if they do at all!) until you try them. And it lurks hidden around the station, growing stronger while you hunt for it with your motion trackers. You use the terrain geography of the space station and motion trackers strategically to try to locate and confront the creature, and it is tougher than the aliens in “Aliens: Bug Hunt”. Etc.
So “Aliens: Bug Hunt” had an uphill battle for my affection. Sadly, it doesn’t quite live up to “Intruder” and failed to unseat it as the king of Alien games in my collection.
But it’s still a nice little game, and I will give it props for the things it does right. It’s far prettier on the table, easier to teach, more streamlined to play, and easier to win. And though I love “Intruder”, I can’t pull it out to play with friends on game night because it’s a solitaire experience.
The bottom line is that I would be happy to play “Aliens: Bug Hunt” with friends, which ultimately means it’s a thumbs-up from me; it evokes enough of the movie to be fun, is simple enough to get set up and playing quickly, and creeping through corridors fighting Xenomorphs with your smartguns is almost never a theme I’m going to decline. It’s not going to give the full “Aliens” experience, but it’s more than enough to scratch the itch. And it all fits snugly on your shelf.