In 1982, at least two perfect films were released. One of those was John Carpenter's The Thing. It is astounding, then, to think that it took 35 years for a tabletop game to be produced based on it, especially since its popularity has only increased, it seems, year after year. I realize that's an unscientific statement, but I mean… come on!
While you're wondering what to do with that, I'll move on to the beast at hand. The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31, a co-production from Mondo Games and The Op (formerly USAopoly and originally through their Project Raygun boutique brand), crawled out of the ice in 2017 and was designed by Joe Van Wetering.
According to Pat Marino, Director of Hobby Games for The Op, the idea came to them from Mondo: "Mondo had rights to The Thing. They wanted a game partner, and they would handle the art." Surely Fango readers are familiar with Mondo and their track record of producing fantastic artwork based on beloved genre properties. The Op, too, was experienced with handling licenses for popular IPs, including their games based on Harry Potter, Samurai Jack, and Die Hard, among others.
Dealing with licenses can be a balancing act, trying to satisfy the requirements of the licensee and the demands of the fanbase, while keeping in mind those who might not yet be a fan of the original.
"Somebody might play The Thing," says Marino, "who has never seen the film or read the original short story ('Who Goes There?' by John W. Campbell) and they'll have a great time, blaming their friends for things, throwing accusations around, having that tense moment, but folks who have seen the film or read the story or both, are going to pick up on little things we've put into the game and go, 'Oh, I get why that's there! So, we really want to do that fan service, but without making it a requirement to play."
The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31 is primarily a social deduction game for 4 to 8 players wherein some players begin the game as human and others as an "imitation." More players can become infected as the game progresses, with the ultimate goal for everyone to make it to the chopper at the end and back to civilization. The imitations want to stay hidden, and the humans want to leave them behind. The problem is, no one is really sure everyone is who they say they are, so trust is in short supply.
"What is the core experience you should have if you're in that world?" asks Marino. "With The Thing, it's paranoia. I don't know who to trust, I'm never going to know who to trust, right up until the end. And, even then, it's kind of a gamble, and so social deduction is just perfect for that. I can't think of a mechanic that made any more sense to try or even experiment with for that particular story."
At the beginning of the game, each player is issued a secret "blood sample" card, identifying them as human or an imitation. At the start of the game, there is always exactly one imitation, and everyone keeps their identity a secret. Another blood sample deck is prepared ahead of time, seeding one or two more "imitation" cards, depending on player count. This secondary blood sample deck is used two more times throughout the game, as players reach milestones in their goal to leave the facility. Players must collectively move through the three sectors of the research station, successfully acquiring specific items (rope, dynamite, and a flamethrower) and defeating a certain number of Things, all of which are spread throughout various rooms (six in each sector) on face down tokens, in order to move to each new sector and then to the chopper.
Each turn, a new player adopts the role of captain, whose responsibility it is to draw the mission card, decide which room to investigate, and who will be on the team. The mission cards prescribe a certain number of players that must go on the mission and what the team's makeup should be (player characters are each from one of three departments: MacReady, Childs, Palmer, and Clark are in Maintenance. Blair, Norris, Bennings, and Fuchs are in Science, and Garry, Windows, Nauls, and Copper in Operations.) Missions come from the chosen team members contributing item cards from their hand to the captain. The captain shuffles them and then must either reveal a certain number of items on the cards (Petri dish, copper wire, axe, knife, flashlight, etc.), a certain combined value on the cards, or blindly reveal a certain number of cards to get those results.
Sounds easy, right? Just determine who can contribute the appropriate cards and call it done. While "table talk" is allowed in the game in three structured ways, depending on what your group chooses at the start, there's always the main sticking point of social deduction games: lying. The human players have no reason to lie, and the imitations want to be judicious about when they lie. We need three Petri dishes? No problem. Then why were only two contributed? Or even worse: one of the team threw in a sabotage card, which can add an extra challenge or even cause the mission to fail outright!
Failed missions increase the pressure on the humans as each failure moves the "infection marker" (a miniature plastic chess computer from MacReady's shack) up one spot. As it moves up, fires break out around the facility, and rooms get destroyed, along with those face-down tokens containing needed items and Things to battle. If enough rooms get destroyed, the humans lose. If enough tokens are destroyed, the humans lose.
There are ways to mitigate those threats, however. There are fire extinguisher cards in the item deck, which can be used to put out fires, and flashlights can be used to explore rooms with power outages. Items like the dynamite let you adjust die rolls demanded by mission cards. As you begin to understand who might only be human on the outside, there are also some more extreme options—namely, the flame thrower. You can use it to adjust dice values like the dynamite, but it also allows two "blood tests" in which a player is chosen, and they must secretly reveal their identity to the player holding the flamethrower, who is then free to reveal that information to the rest of the group. But wait… what if the player with the flamethrower is an imitation? Nothing requires them to be truthful about what they saw on that card… and 'round and 'round the suspicion goes!
Marino recalls some tense experiences while running demos of the game at Gen Con, the biggest tabletop game convention in the US: "We had a lab table, like a metal, stainless steel lab table with stools around it and that was our demo space, so people would come up and demo the game and it was very atmospheric, and you get eight people who probably didn't know each other before they sat down for the demo. We'd give out the cards, and we'd explain all the rules, but we wouldn't look at anybody's blood type card. So, as the demoer, we were following along, even though we weren't playing. We had no idea who was a human and who was an imitation. So we're trying to figure it out along with everybody else, and the best part about it was stirring the pot."
There's one more very dramatic moment the flamethrower allows. The entire group may vote (by thumbs up or thumbs down) to "torch" a suspected player. When that happens, their identity is revealed to everyone. If they were, indeed, an imitation, that's one less to worry about getting on the chopper. If they were human, however… it just got a little more lonely, and that infection tracker moves up again!
If the group makes it through all three sectors, the final act is choosing who gets on that chopper. The player count determines the number of players required to get on board… but if a single imitation gets through, humanity is done for. Luckily, up to three additional "blood tests" can occur before the final choice of who goes and who stays. The group elects a final captain who then gets to choose two players who will turn over their blood sample card, revealing to all whether or not they're human or an imitation. Finally, the captain decides who gets on the chopper, and all blood sample cards are revealed. It's a great moment of suspense, no matter what the outcome.
After the release of the original printing of the game, some players complained that it was too easy for the imitation players to simply "stay quiet," not fail any missions, and play the odds of getting on the chopper at the end. I don't know about you, but I like to play in the spirit of the game. After all, where's the fun in that? It's like playing hide-and-seek and just going inside your house. Sure, maybe you weren't found, but after that, I wouldn't be looking for you anymore, either. The second printing made that strategy much less viable by increasing the number of possible blood tests at the end of the game.
The Thing, as I said, is, by now, a beloved genre classic. As the first game out of the gate to bring this film to tabletop, The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31 had a pretty steep hill to climb, but The Op strikes a fair balance here with fanbase expectations and those who want to join the fun, but don't have deep knowledge of the story and the characters. There's enough here, I think, to satisfy both in a package that lasts about an hour or two.
"It's all about invoking the experience of the characters in that world," says Marino, "and how do we make you feel that same experience at the table."
By the way, the other perfect film of 1982 to which I alluded at the beginning of this article was, of course, Conan the Barbarian. But that is another story…
The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31 can be found at TheOp.games and your friendly local and online game stores.