The Mondo empire has grown well beyond limited-edition prints of cool movie-inspired posters and T-shirts. The Austin-based company has moved into soundtrack LPs, statues, enamel pins—just about anything you can shape into a character from a beloved decades-old film. This fall Mondo even released its first board game, The Thing: Infection At Outpost 31, a tense, friendship-testing re-creation of John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic. When a copy arrived at A.V. Club HQ, a mix of Thing- and board game-loving staffers excitedly jumped at the opportunity to put it through its paces.
Alex McLevy: I know I’m not the only one on staff who got excited when it was first announced they were releasing a tabletop game version of The Thing. As with many horror fans, I consider John Carpenter’s adaptation to be one of the best horror films ever made, something I’ve watched more times than is probably healthy. Ergo, the chance to get caught up in the story myself was unmissable, akin to a secret Bruce Springsteen concert or a nachos bar at a birthday party. The rest of you had much the same idea—our email chain about who was hosting and when we were playing quickly became the top priority item on everyone’s to-do list. When we finally got together and started rolling the dice, I’m pleased to say The Thing: Infection At Outpost 31 met all my expectations.
A quick explainer for those still wondering what the deal is: The game assigns each person a character from the film, along with privately informing one person they are actually the thing, masquerading in human form. All the players have to make their way through the outpost, finding the necessary items to escape the base while also uncovering any additional alien creatures hiding out and killing them. All the while, the person (and then persons) who is secretly the thing is trying to subtly sabotage the group’s efforts. At the end, if any of the faux humans make it to the escape helicopter and leave, everyone has lost the game.
Needless to say, it’s a breeding ground for endless suspicion of your fellow players. I remained human throughout the duration of the game, meaning I spent a good chunk of time trying to suss out which of my teammates I could trust. What makes it work is that the game is pretty entertaining even without the added layer of someone being a hidden alien creature. Working together to achieve the various goals throughout the compound necessitates teamwork, and the spotlight of keeping a close eye on what everyone said and did helped ramp up the tension—and the accusations. Halfway through, I’m pretty sure everyone had accused everyone else of being the thing, and while we eventually had our suspicions confirmed (winning the game by excluding the two people we suspected to be things from the escape chopper), that ongoing worry that maybe you’ve got it all wrong drives a lot of the game’s momentum. But that’s obviously not the case for the people who got infected, and I’m not sure the other humans felt the same way either.
So how about it, Katie? Did you experience the same thrill of paranoia as me?
Katie Rife: I’m not as well versed in board games as the rest of our esteemed company—the last time I played anything more complicated than Monopoly was probably in college—but I’ve been very excited for this game since its initial announcement earlier this year, based on my affection for the movie alone. I was worried that I would be hopelessly confused by a game whose rules went beyond “wait your turn before rolling the dice,” but am proud—or at least not embarrassed—to admit that I was able to keep up just fine, despite my low-level panic at how long it took to explain the rules at the beginning of the game. To build on what you said, Alex, one of the things that made Infection At Outpost 31 successful was that it got progressively more complicated and difficult as it went along. Starting with a straightforward team mission eased me into the game, and by the time it really got cooking, I was familiar enough with the rules to be invested in (and not confused by) the increasing stakes.
I think my favorite part of the game was the same element that everyone seems to take away from it: It’s really fun to try to figure out which of your teammates have been dealt a tainted blood sample card and are therefore aliens to be incinerated at the earliest opportunity. This isn’t something to be done lightly; those blowtorch cards are hard to come by, for one, and as Alex mentioned, the fear of killing a fellow human by mistake hangs over the game as much as it does the movie. It also tests a skill that has nothing to do with the ability to memorize complex game rules: your poker face, or lack thereof. People were literally leaping out of their chairs and yelling by the end of our game, and I was secretly rather pleased with myself that I had called out one of the things in our party early on. (It’s always the quiet ones.)
On an unrelated note, we also queued up Ennio Morricone’s score for the film (it’s available on YouTube) and played it on a loop during our game. I recommend it. It’s very cinematic.
Any tips for success in playing the board game version of The Thing, Caitlin?
Caitlin PenzeyMoog: The poker face is indeed a key element of the game, and playing it with my dramatic, pop culture-obsessed co-workers was ideal for both the cinematic approach they took to the board game and what their theatrics, or lack thereof, gave away about their human status. (Case in point: Erik, who’s never missed a chance to make a pun in his life, usually with a booming voice, seemed oddly subdued for much of the game. It was highly suspicious.)
Everyone but one person started as human, which is a fairly standard mechanic for games like these. If you’ve ever played the game Werewolf, where one person is “it” and can “kill” others by sticking their tongue out, you know the basic parameter at the core of many, many other games. What sets board games with this central function apart are the flourishes put atop someone sabotaging the group, and The Thing does it better than perhaps any other similar game I’ve played. Because each round involves not only trying to figure out who is infected but also taking the steps required to getting off the arctic station, there’s a whole other level of game stacked on top of the “who is it?” baseline. Of course, whoever is it can disrupt the rest of the group putting out a fire or fighting an infected creature. It’s a brilliant way to give purpose to each round, each turn, each little action, all the while feeding into the paranoia at the heart of Carpenter’s movie.
Speaking of paranoia: What really sent our group over the edge was that, a few rounds in, a second infected card was passed out, meaning there was a small chance the already infected member received the card, but it was likelier that someone who was previously human, and trustworthy, was suddenly not. With that clever mechanic, the game adds even more space for trickery and deception, as the infected trying to sabotage the humans were doubled. We turned on each other hard. It was a brilliant way to kick the game into high gear, and it was only by the grace of a certain film editor’s lack of a poker face that we were able to escape at all.
I have an unrelated note of my own: This game’s board and pieces are as well designed as its mechanics. The track that essentially shows how fucked you are is monitored by a computer token that is very nifty, and the miniatures of both the players and the thing creatures are all modeled after their movie counterparts. Sometimes board games with great mechanics and clever concepts are undermined by making the physical parts an afterthought, with poor color schemes or layouts that don’t make sense, or even just shoddy pieces. The Thing is thoughtfully designed, further elevating it as an overall great game.
Erik Adams: I have no idea what Caity is talking about. My behavior during the game was beyond suspicion, as was the fact that when I was elected to join a mission, things would occasionally go wrong. But only occasionally, because I was absolute shit at being the thing and chose a foolhardy strategy of half measures that led to my ultimate defeat. For the time being, humanity is safe, because the alien parasite picked such a non-aggressive host.
As someone who’s played his fair share of tabletop games, but almost always zones out during the “Explanation Of Board Game Rules Peppered With Reassurances That It Will Be Fun” phase, I really appreciate that Infection At Outpost 31 maps its multiple levels of gameplay onto a premise and structure as firm as The Thing’s. If you’ve seen the movie, if you know its beats and themes, it’s one less factor to pay attention to during the typical tabletop preamble. While playing, I likened it to Bang!, the popular card game of hidden identity that’s built on the foundation of spaghetti Westerns. But I’m similarly bad at playing the villain in Bang!, so of course I’d make that comparison.