Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at cardboard.arstechnica.com.
Few moments linger in my brain like a particular scene in John Carpenters movie The Thing. In the cold of an Antarctic night, the group corners and confronts a mutated imitation of their pal Bennings, its eyes wide and mouth gaping. They give it the torch and burn it down. The moment is as unsettling as the film is iconic.
Carpenters work was an imaginative take on the novella Who Goes There? by John Campbell. As good as the transition to film was, we now have another interpretation—one made of cardboard and plastic. The new board game from Certifiable Studios means you too can now snuff out an insidious alien life form.
First contact with Who Goes There? is all about flipped expectations. While the Antarctic setting is a barren hellscape devoid of luxury, the box certainly is not. There are miniatures for each character, two boards, dual-layered player mats, hundreds of cards (running the gamut from weapons to literal junk), and even an incorrigible dog miniature that serves as the turn marker. It screams “over the top” as only a Kickstarter release can.
Who Goes There? is a semi-cooperative game where one side represents the unaltered human research team and the other side an infected group of hostile lifeforms. This might sound like a social deduction game, the kind with design principles that favor larger groups (as seen in Mondo's take on the same subject matter). But instead of a game yearning for at least a half-dozen warm bodies, Who Goes There? is perfectly fine with three or four. In fact, to push beyond that number would require expansion sets—and would move the time to play this lengthy three-hour experience into the truly "unbearable" range. So: three or four players it is.
Instead of social deduction, the game straddles a design space similar to Dead of Winter. Its a survival game about fighting the elements amid a team of people whose mental acuity is deteriorating. As you take risks, such as searching outside or foregoing nutrition, you will draw “vulnerable” cards. One such card will eventually infect a squad member and create patient zero. It is up to the players to then spread this infection or to hold it back, depending on their grasp of the games tempo and on strategic concerns.
While paranoia sits uncomfortably in the background, the bulk of your game time will be spent searching. You scrounge new equipment while inside the base, possibly gathering materials to craft your own gear. Maybe youll commit to repairing the boiler-room or the all-important door sealing the elements out. Most importantly, youll explore the exterior of your base, looking for the oddly named “helicopter points” needed to escape back to civilization at games end. At all times, it feels like there is just enough going on to keep your decisions meaningful and your attention focused.
The game runs on an action point system that is relatively straightforward. Player boards list each option available to you, and both environments—inside and out—offer interesting actions on which to spend your points. Your primary goal is amassing those helicopter points, but you will need to increase your effectiveness through crafted gear in order to combat the rising difficulty. Equipment such as knives, fire-axes, and fur coats will increase the pool of dice you roll when battling the elements or the actual Thing. Yes, the Thing appears when searching outdoors, and it will batter you about with its tentacles before slipping back behind a wall of snow.
Part of the brilliance of the games crafting mechanism is that the best gear requires multiple pieces. Often you will struggle to find perfect components for the desired recipe. This means you must trade cards with other players—but this risks infection. When receiving an item from another person, that person has the opportunity to spread their alien disease (should they be infected). This is handled by setting a fantastic plastic clicker to either the “clean” or “infected” side, then passing it alongside your card. A complicated incentive structure means that you don't want to infect haphazardly, but risk is still present and paranoia ramps up with every trade.
Those moments of exposure are threaded throughout the gaming experience. In later turns, you will need to bunk with another mate, again risking infection.
The sense of roleplay and character ownership here dovetails superbly with the games RPG elements. You earn experience while risking your hide outside and facing greater threats. You can then spend your accumulated experience points on unlocking new abilities and traits—or even an asymmetric die that's rolled into your action pool.
With obstacles encountered and foes bested, you eventually prepare for the end. Once the turn marker arrives at the helicopter position, we shift gears. The last 2-3 hours were building to this very moment—and it must deliver. Those precious helicopter points that youve been hoarding are now crucial, but as a new player, you likely dont have a strong understanding of what they mean. This is entirely an artifact of the complicated end game, which takes a couple of explanations (and perhaps even an anti-climactic resolution) before you have it straight.
To put it succinctly, this is the part of our story where things go off the rails a bit.
The complicated end game involves the group leader—determined by character assignment—picking which players to include on the chopper ride back to civilization. For the good guys to win, they want to pick as many fellow humans as possible. The infected imitations, meanwhile, desire a helicopter full of mimics but must include at least one clean team member.
Thematically, this makes sense. The aliens need a clear-headed pilot to get them back to civilization so they can destroy it. It also works from a design perspective because it requires that the infected dont simply spread their disease to every player.
But the problem, which is significant, is that the player in charge must choose which people to include with virtually no information. The traitors in the group have little reason to sabotage or betray during the course of the game, so they play it straight.
As a leader, you likely then play the odds. You choose the players with the least amount of vulnerable cards and hope for the best. Such a situation occurred in my most recent play where I was dealt only a single vulnerability card the entire game. (And you guessed it—I was infected.)
Once the helicopter team is decided, you total up helicopter points from the imitation group, then subtract this from the humans helicopter points. The result must be more than six times the number of good guys in the game. Theres a die roll that adds points to all this, and I haven't even mentioned that players can be eliminated during play, which means they're on the outside looking in and the humans have likely lost. Does this soundfun yet?
I could spin much more yarn dissecting the failure of the ending, but its ultimately very simple. The situation is disheartening because Who Goes There? is a fantastic survival game in all other respects. It simply crashes and burns at the worst possible moment—forgivable, perhaps, in a short game but crippling after three hours at the table.