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Game #65 : The Alien (1983)

[Avalon Hill, Apple II]

In space, no one will hear you rip-off licenses.

In 1982, someone at Avalon Hill had a vision. They imagined a world where licenses would not exist, where anyone could just plunder everyone’s else idea. This endearing vision produced, in early 1983, The Alien, a game that managed to plunder two creations at the same time : 20th Century Fox’s “Alien“, but also a 1980 board game called “Intruder” by Task Force Games, itself inspired by Alien, but Task Forces Games presumably had a legal department and thus called its game “Intruder“, and not “Alien“. In a nutshell, The Alien is an unauthorized port of Intruder, using art, names and design additions directly from Alien.

After the Warp Factor, this is (at least) the second time Task Force Games was plundered by video game developers. Task Force Games had fought SSI, and while I could not find any paper trail, in 1985 the Alien mysteriously disappeared from the Avalon Hill catalogue, even though at that point in time it still included almost all of their 1980 releases – so someone must have complained.

Honestly, I can’t exclude that the Fox shot first

As you can expect, The Alien is a single-player game about the struggle of a spaceship crew against an alien whose capabilities are unknown. As the game starts, the crew is spread out in their ship (unnamed in the game) minding its own business. Their mission was to convoy a cargo of 7 specimens to some undisclosed location. Six of those specimens are peaceful animals, the seventh, well, was not even supposed to be here in the first place.

The crew of seven includes :

  • Two officers :
    • Commander (and Captain of the ship) Clark,
    • Flight Lieutenant (and Navigator) Davis
  • Two scientists :
    • Doctor Sutherland
    • Prof. de Vries
  • Three engineers :
    • Chief Dimitrov,
    • Engineer Benson,
    • Technician Ju Tsjan

The crew starts distributed along the ship, as is the equipment :

The dashes I circled indicate lifeforms that may be animals or aliens

Captain Clark is on the bridge [BRI], from where he or any crew member has access to sensors, allowing him to see “beeps” on the map that are either animals or the alien. It is wise to try to cage the animals as fast as possible, so that any remaining “beep” has got to be the alien. The best way to cage the animals is to use the transportable cages in the laboratory [LAB], where Dr Sutherland is at the moment, though you need two people to cage an animal. Once caged, any scientist can transfer the animals into the “labcage” in the laboratory. Prof. de Vries is currently in the (useless in-game) sick room [SIC] but she will come to assist Dr Sutherland as soon as possible.

Any of the “beeps” can be the alien, and the scientists will need weapons if they encounter that thing. Regulations forbid killing non-threatening unknown likeforms, and the alien starts very cute and non-threatening, so the weapon of choice is the dart pistol, currently in the armoury [ARM] along with the way more lethal lasers. Only officers can open the Armoury door to pick up the weapons, and we need someone on the bridge to check the sensor, so Lt. Davis, currently in the recreation room [REC] will move to the bridge while Captain Clark will pick up the weapons and join the scientists.

Finally, the engineers are the only ones able to work on electric prod and flamethrowers from the maintenance room [MNT] – flamethrowers are of course very lethal so less urgent. Chief Dimitrov is already in the maintenance room and will start working start away, Engineer Benson in the Chemical Storage room [CST] where lethal gas canisters are stored. He will pick one up, just in case, and assist Chief Dimitrov. Technician Ju Tsjan, currently in the recreation room as well, will assist the scientists in capturing animals and maybe the alien.

The important rooms at the start of the game in green. The computer room, cold sleep room and armoury room have heavy gates that the alien might not be able to pass, so it can be locked there. Maybe. Who knows how the thing will mutate.

From the laboratory, Dr Sutherland also checks which animals are still caged :

In The Alien, the animals are even less realistic than the alien.

Only one fontema is caged, so 5 animals are loose.

In The Alien, turns are bit weird, and can be split in 4 phases :

  • A first “special action phase” where each character can take one special action : attack the alien, push the auto-destruct button, pick up an animal,
  • A “movement phase” : 3 movement points where the player can move but also pick up, construct or drop items. Picking up an item or moving from one room to another takes one movement point (except the ventilation rooms), dropping an item is free.
  • A second “special action phase”, same as the first one but more special actions are available,
  • The animal & alien turn – they normally can only move by one room during their turn,

During the second turn, Commander Clark drops two dart pistols in the bridge, keeping a laser for himself. Lt. Davis and Technician Ju Tsjan pick a dart pistol each and go for the hold, where a “beep” is still lingering. They are joined by the two scientists.

Meanwhile, Chief Dimitrov and Engineer Benson finish the first electric prod and start working on a flamethrower.

In the hold, the group manages to find a uniped and a thud.

So the “animals” are a wheel with arms, a one-foot goblin and a floating rock. OK. Whatever

Both animals are caught, but before they could be properly put in the portable cages, drama strikes on the bridge : Commander Clark is attacked by the alien ! He is not allowed to use his weapon to defend himself, but the alien is not very dangerous yet and Commander Clark survives the attack !

Lt Davis, Technician Ju Tsjan and Dr Sutherland drop the animals and rush to the bridge. Pf. de Vries goes to fetch a second cage, just in case.

Meanwhile, Commander Clark who survived the attack leaves the bridge in order to pick up the electric prod conveniently dropped by Chief Dimitrov in the central passageway [CP1], before returning to the bridge. This allows the prod to move faster than anyone carrying it. Realistic ? Nah.

The alien attacks Technician Ju Tsjan, but he shoots with his pistol and neutralizes the alien.

The alien is immediately put in the cage.

Easier than expected. Time to bring it to the labcage. Dr Sutherland and Technician Ju Tsjan rush to the lab – the alien is already undergoing a metamorphosis so it may break its cage ! Meanwhile, Captain Clark brings the second laser to the bridge. Just in case. Engineer Benson finishes the flamethrower. Just in case.

It is over. The crew regroups on the bridge to talk about the event :

That was fast, there is still time left for breakfast !

And this concludes our short AAR, let’s do the Rating & Rev…

Uh.

That’s worrying.

Two things may have happened :

  • The alien cloned itself, and there is a second alien somewhere,
  • The alien grew stronger, and destroyed its cage,

The best way to check this is to send a scientist to check the content of the labcage. Said scientist will need some escort – if the alien escapes the lab it will not be far.

Everyone starts from the bridge, with all the equipment at their feet :

If the alien is strong enough to break free, capturing it is no longer an option, so it is time ot use the lethal weapons. The team is divided in two well-equiped groups

  • Lt Davis, Engineer Benson and Dr Sutherland will check the corridor leading to the lab,
  • Captain Clark, Technician Ju TsJan and Pf de Vries will run an inventory in the lab

Meanwhile, Chief Dimitrov will create more weapons in the maintenance room. I no longer have access to the sensor but the bridge is too surrounded for one man alone.

Pf. de Vries does not need to check the labcages (though she does, and they are indeed empty) because Lt. Davis‘s group encounters an alien in the corridor ! Engineer Benson is attacked, but Davis shoots with his laser, killing the alien !

Ah, that was easy. Back to the bridge for lunch !

The crew, probably, with the engineers going all “So, about our bonus ?”

Thanks for reading, time to move to the Rat…

Well, well, well. Looks like the alien is a they as in “they cloned” – AND they are too strong to capture.

Anyway, same teams except instead of wasting time in the lab one group will go to the rear corridor and one group to the starboard corridor.

Initially, the only thing they can find are animals, but by methodically exploring the rooms, the team manages to determine which beep is “safe” (green), which one is probably safe (yellow) and which ones could be the alien.

And indeed they find the alien. This time though, it is stronger than ever, and brave Engineer Benson sacrifices his life to save the Lieutenant.

The crew assembles on the bridge yet another time.

OK, do we get to share Benson’s bonus ?

At least the alien is killed. Is it the end ? Please ?

At this point there is probably a lot the crew would like to talk about, but they keep getting interrupted.

The crew is once again on the bridge, with all the equipment on the floor except the flamethrower that previously belonged to the late Engineer Benson and which no one remembered to pick up – it is still in the vents. There are 4 beeps on the map, so it is time to start caging animals again. One of the “beeps” is in the laboratory anyway.

Prof. de Vries remains behind to check the computer, while the rest of the team, picking all the remaining weapons, moves to the lab. Dr Sutherland brings a cage containing an animal.

The dashes have now disappeared because there is no one on the bridge to check the sensors

In the computer room, Prof. de Vries learns some critical information about the alien :

The electric prod will be totally useless

This knowledge won’t be that useful though, because in the lab the alien attacks the group. The alien is fended off by a laser shot.

Chief Dimitrov is ordered to use a gas canister to kill the thing but …

… he refuses ! He shouts out “I must keep it alive. CREW EXPENDABLE !”

Chief Dimitrov turns out to be the Android, planted in the team to make sure no one kills the alien.

He, or rather it will refuse to kill the alien, but once discovered the android is easy to manage by simply giving it the non-lethal weapons like the prod or the sleep dart pistol – it will happily use them to neutralize the alien, and then the rest of the crew will kill the thing.

As Chief Dimitrov exclaims “It belongs in a museum a bioweapon lab !”, Lt Davis answers “OK LOL whatever” and shoots :

The crew regroups on the bridge again…

… and this time it is really the end.

No, I would very much not like another game.

Rating & Review

The Alien by Hans von Halteren and David Kuijt, published by Avalon Hill,
First release : Early 1983 on Apple II,
Tested on :
AppleWin emulator
Total time tested :
5 hours
Average duration of a session:
30-90 minutes depending on how many clones there are
Complexity:
Simple (1/5)
Would recommend to a modern player :
No
Would recommend to a designer :
No
Final Rating:
Totally obsolete
Ranking at the time of reviewing : 42/59

A. Immersion

A group of unprepared humans who must defeat behind closed doors a dangerous creature growing more powerful over time and whose weaknesses are unknown ? It works ! Immersion is reinforced by the detailed description of the characters in the manual – they are not just names in your game :

Though this atmosphere is a bit weakened by the fact that the first part of the game will be spent optimizing the capture and transport of animals to the lab cage.

Rating : Acceptable

B. UI, Clarity of Rules and Outcome

The UI is quite simply the worst of any game I have played so far – it looks like the game was released without playtest. First, all controls use the paddle : you go through lists of characters, actions, and targets and press the paddle button. Not great, but at least commenter Porkbelly was nice enough to quickly hack a “keyboard” version that I used,

What’s unsalvageable is how stupid the action management is. To do absolutely anything, the player must scroll through a list of every possible character/action/target/room that can exist in the game, including the absent or dead characters, the many unavailable actions (eg “ship self-destruct” in the recreation room), the destroyed items or the inaccessible rooms. With a keyboard, it takes 30 seconds to do something as simple as pick an item in the room and move two rooms. I can’t imagine how frustrating it would have been with a paddle.

The reason I hate investigating the two reactor rooms : they are at the end of the list of 28 rooms.

Final insult to the injury, the game is extremely strict on how to perform some actions. For instance, a scientist cannot transfer an animal from a cage in his or her hands to the labcage : the cage must be dropped before (which is a free action, so it is not like it can be something you could not have done). If you realize you forgot to drop the cage when you have an opportunity to transfer to the labcage, well, too late, you will have to do it next turn.

As for the manual, it is well-written but sometimes unclear. I understood the game much better after reading the rules for Intruder.

Rating : Terrible, the absolute worst, paddle-throwing and keyboard-smashing.

C. Systems

I believe they are clear from the AAR. It is hard to describe how similar this game is to Intruder. The geography of the ship is different from the Starbase of Intruder but for instance the ways to kill the alien are exactly the same :

  • Lock the alien in the labcage,
  • Lock the alien in the armoury,
  • Apparently and according to the manual, you can freeze the alien in the cold room if it is not “cold-resistant”, but I never managed to do it and I wonder if it works,
  • Shoot the alien with a laser,
  • Kill the alien with the gas canister,
  • Burn the alien with the flamethrower,
  • Gas the alien with gas canister,
  • Send the alien into the vacuum,
  • If you are very lucky, whack the alien dead with an “improvised weapon”, which is what your characters use when they don’t have anything else,

In Intruder, the alien becomes immune to more and more of the methods as it mutates according to the following chart, after the player has rolled 2 dice :

And here is the code managing how the Alien evolves after the computer generates two random integers from 0 to 5 :

If you cannot kill the alien, you can autodestruct the ship (same procedure in both games) and run to the escape pods, in which the alien could be waiting for you, forcing you to a final fight to the death.

The only addition of The Alien compared to Intruder is the android, and once identified it is easy to give him useful tasks he accepts to do like using the dart pistol, carrying cages or manning the electric prod. The rest of the differences are minor and can be counted on the fingers of Mickey’s two hands :

  • Intruder has 9 crew members, the Alien 7 including the Android,
  • The ship is actually a space station with 3 wings radiating from the bridge / “command module”,
  • In Intruder, the players know the powers of the intruder when they meet it, instead of having to either discover them the hard way or through the computer,
  • The location of the “beeps” is always known in Intruder, for obvious practical reasons,
  • The weight of items is a bit different between the two games (a flamethrower weights 2, a cage with an alien inside can require several characters to carry)
  • Opening the door of the armoury/computer room/freezer takes one action. Activating the freeze also takes one action,

That’s it. Possibly some hidden chance-to-hit or similar result tables are also different, but I doubt it. I really wish The Alien had done at least something with the animals, for instance making the alien consume them to become more powerful. It would have created another strategic layer : pick-up the animals to starve the alien, or go directly for the beast.

Overall, I find the system pretty weak. The 3 “direct kill” weapons (laser, flamethrower, gas canister) are equivalent from the point of view of a player that would not have read the rules of Intruder, and trying to lock the alien in the freezer is a superior option compared to locking it in either the computer room or the navigation room (due to the freezing effect). Locking the alien in the labcage is a mistake I only did for story purposes, it is not any harder to escape than the 3 “reinforced rooms” and if the alien escapes the labcage it also frees all the other animals. Finally, as neither the alien nor the animals block movement nor can be blocked, there is no “strategic” location to control or to guard. What’s left is a shallow game.

Rating : Very poor

D. Scenario design and balancing

The game has only one scenario, unlike Intruder, who had special scenarios and even a multiplayer mode. Supposedly, the game has a lot of replayability due to the different possible powers of the alien. In my experience, whatever the alien does, there is one superior strategy : grab weapons in the armoury and send the engineers to make a prod and maybe a flamethrower at the beginning, then move in groups to capture animals or shoot/prod the damn thing when you encounter it. If you fail, it will be because you were unlucky.

In defence of the game, the purpose of The Alien is maybe not winning it as much as telling a story. The manual specifies :

There is no scoring algorithm in the game, as your primary goal is mere survival. If you manage to capture and kill the alien(s) with a minimal loss of life, so much the better. Destroying the ship is a very desperate move, usually done when the alien(s) are too powerful and he crew has already been decimated

As a final note, the game has a lot of bugs .

  • The alien sometimes clones itself, but the clones are nowhere to be found so the game cannot end – it happened twice in my tests and is very frustrating.
  • The game sometimes ends due to a bug, with even a message telling you that, well, since the game has bugged, you won :
I don’t know if I want another game. Will there be another bug ?

Once again, the game does not look very playtested.

Rating : Very poor

E. Did I make interesting decisions ?

Only a handful

F. Final Rating

Totally obsolete. It would have been obsolete in itself – a good boardgame does not necessarily become a good video game, but the UI issues and the literally gamebreaking bugs sucked the little fun there was in it. Space Station Zulu is a superior game by far.

Contemporary Reviews

I could find only two reviews for the game, though honestly, any research for “The Alien” on archive.org yields so many entries I could not check them all.

  • Softtalk (May 1983) found the game much more strategic than I did, concluding “if you liked the movie you’ll love the game. Part horror story and part science fiction, Alien combines elements of fantasy role-playing with the challenge of strategy and comes out smelling like total enjoyment.” If don’t think I agree with any of these statements. Later in September, Softalk compared The Alien to Space Station Zulu and prefers the former, finding it more “exciting” and more “playable“. I don’t agree with any of these statements either.
  • Computer Gaming World‘s review (May 1983) is more similar to mine. Johnny Wilson was frustrated by part of the UI but also by the fact that it is impossible to block the alien’s movement. This feature “demands the use of strategies which do not actually make much sense“. Still, Wilson calls it “an interesting strategy game [with] an above-average shelf life”.

We should be back on good old Earth for a while with the future 1983 games with only Cosmic Balance II occurring in space. It is just as well, I have done a lot of alien killing or capturing recently.

15 Comments

  1. I don’t know what it is about Alien knock-offs, but they were really common during the early ’80s, before companies just shifted to including the knock-offs as random enemies. I’m not even joking, at least a dozen games have the name in the title alone, which isn’t including all the ones that merely reference some element of the film.
    As to the controls, I tried playing this last Halloween, and the damn thing was a fiddly, uncontrollable mess. I think the two Japanese computer ports fix the controls, but at the same time, introduces a language issue. I wonder if it was any better on actual hardware? Sometimes those kinds of issues crop up because of it. Was nice to see the game finished, even if my own decision to quit early on turned out to be correct.

    • Ah, I had missed this 1984 Alien game. It may very well be the reason for which they had to remove The Alien from the catalogue by 1985.

      I checked your blog – pretty nice, especially the longer articles/AAR. I am curious about where you found the Japanese version of tThe Alien ?

      I agree with the fact that it is a fiddly, uncontrollable mess. Porkbelly was working to improve the controls, and I should upload the manual within a week on archive.org, once I find the time to PDF a bunch of separated JPEG.

      • Could be, but I generally got the impression from what little I’ve heard of Japanese companies in the early ’80s is that people outside that country really didn’t care what went on inside it, though I admit some considerable ignorance of the board game industry, especially at that time.
        Thanks. Check the Neo Kobe collections on archive.org, just search for Neo Kobe. This is basically emulators for every Japanese computer, plus every single game that could be found on the internet at the time they were made. Not every game on these computers, since there’s a rip of the FM-7 version of The Alien, but not the PC-88 version.
        (and in case you didn’t know, you can get specific files out of these big zipfiles by clicking view all, then open contents of the big zipfile)

  2. Harland Harland

    Sidursky’s Uniped is the medieval monopod.

    Love these Avalon Hill games. Boy, I wish we had an Apple II so I could have played them. What did I get? A Vic-20 with 3.5k of RAM, totally useless. Radar Rat Race woohoo.

    • DIntent DIntent

      Sidursky’s Uniped is a clear reference to “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” by C.S. Lewis.

      • Harland Harland

        And C.S. Lewis, being a Catholic apologist, was well aware of the medieval monopods. How many people here have even heard of them? Exactly.

        • I knew the monopods from Baudolino, the other Umberto Eco masterpiece. Baudolino explains how at some point, in his quest to find Priest John, he had assembled an army of monopods, blemmyes, panotiois and other cynocephalites. By this point, it has been determined that Baudolino is maybe an unreliable narrator.

          Speaking of which, it is sad that fantasy / RPG so often copy the creatures from LoTR instead of drawing for the large pool of Greek and (“real”) medieval references. Recently I bought an indie “picaresque” tabletop RPG that did just a bit of that (Helvéczia), sadly I did not like the ruleset very much and I became too lazy to adapt.

          • Dayyalu Dayyalu

            Wait, you didn’t like Foucault’s Pendulum? I always wonder why no one does…

            I won’t be too harsh with traditional RPG fantasy bestiaries. For example, gnolls are cynocephali – keeping even some of their stereotypical brutality in adaptation – and the Tarasque is well-estabilished…. there’s a little of everything, passed through decades of shared pop-kultur.

            Not everything can be Dominions, sadly!

            • Foucault’s Pendulum is his only novel I did not like. On the other hand, his non-fictions tend to fly waaaayyyy above my head.

              Point taken for the bestiary.

    • Porkbelly Porkbelly

      Ha ha, yeah in 1981 I had a VIC too, and Radar Rat Race was the only game I bought for it. Woohoo, that was actually pretty fun. Fortunately my Dad, a wargamer, thought he also needed an Apple II+ “for work”.

  3. Porkbelly Porkbelly

    Yeah, a shame that this implementation wasn’t done better. Task Force’s Intruder is an old favorite of mine, along with a similar solo game “Boarding Party”. There were a couple of official Intruder variants done in TF’s house magazine Nexus (Space Zombies, Killer Robots) that added replayability and boardgamegeek has other fan variants.

    I am indeed updating the controls to make this much less painful to play. It really needs it. Already replaced the paddle input with simple left/right + enter keyboard controls. Just need to limit choices on character selection and movement, maybe a few others… diminishing returns involved and working within some hard memory limitations. I’ll send the dsk file to the Scribe for upload in a day or two.

  4. Porkbelly Porkbelly

    Fixes done and sending them to the Scribe to upload.
    With the extra checks it does go a bit slow so a little patience, grasshopper. The trade-off is that this one is far more playable now IMO without so many redundant choices.

    On reflection, I agree with our Scribe that this is purely a story-telling game, and I’m coming around to find it quite ok for a quick half-hour experience.
    While testing the changes, I just had a really fun game of this one.

    Something’s Gone Awry!
    — The crew heads out to cage blips and figure out what’s what —
    Sutherland is killed first. The Alien ambushes him the lab while he’s busy caging a Thud.
    The Captain comes charging in with a Laser, it’s ineffective… he’s killed too.

    — The crew meets on the bridge —
    — Plans are made, the crew goes out with weapons and blood in their eyes —
    The alien appears on the bridge, where Ju Tsjan is watching the monitors. JT puts it to sleep with a dart. Yeah, he does.
    Dimitrov has gone to maintenance to construct a flamer, while he’s busy an alien appears and kills him.
    De Vries nipped off to the lab for a cage.. he quickly returns to the bridge for the sleeper. But the Alien wakes up and tears him in half.
    TJ tries to dart it again, the darts are ineffective now, it kills him too.

    — Crew meeting on the bridge —
    Davis & Benson return to find the carnage on the bridge and decide to Self Destruct the ship. Davis activates the Destruct mechanism and heads for the Port Bay shuttle, Benson for the Starboard Bay shuttle. Both shuttles launch.

    Both shuttles have aliens aboard…

    Their screams are not heard…..

    There is no more.

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