Welcome to The Game Shelf!

After getting into the board game hobby at the end of 2014, we've decided to share our thoughts on the games we're collecting on our shelves. The collection has certainly expanded over the last few years and we've been making up for lost time!

Sometimes our opinions differ, so Amy will be posting reviews every Tuesday and Fi will post on Thursdays. We hope you enjoy reading some of our opinions on board games - especially those for two players.

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Sunday 27 October 2019

The Game Shelf Reviews:- Lifeform

Game: Lifeform

Publisher: Hall or Nothing Productions

Designer:  Mark Chaplin, Toby Farrands

Year: 2019

Hall or Nothing Productions are a UK-based publisher whose first few published games have been based on historial themes - an obvious passion for designer Tristan Hall. Lifeform if their first game from external designers and so it takes on a very different theme.

Lifeform is a sprawling survival horror game with a theme that might seem a little familiar for the movie Aliens. Your are the crew aboard a mining ship - a warren of interconnected rooms that is now infested by an alien Lifeform. You must evade and make your way to the cargo shuttle before you become lunch!


In Lifeform, one player will play as the titular lifeform while the rest of the players will take up the mantle of two members of crew. It is the job of the crew to scurry around and collect the tokens which are needed to supply the cargo shuttle with enough resources for them to make planetfall. In addition each player has their own secret objective which may require them to do something counter productive, but they must do it before boarding the shuttle! It is the job of the lifeform to eat crew -  just to chow down on the human buffet laid before it.

The rules are complex as each player has a ton of potential actions on their turn. But in essence it largely boils down to either drawing cards, or playing a card to do one of the row of actions on the card. Drawing cards for crew takes time, advancing the self-destruct timer. The good news is of that timer runs out then the lifeform is killed in a nuclear explosion. Unfortunately nuclear explosions aren't known to be picky with who they kill, so the crew are on a literal time limit to escape. Cards tend to have multiple rows of actions that they can take, letting players move through the ship, seal bulkheads, fire a flamethrower at the lifeform (don't worry, it's invincible).

Of course this wouldn't be a retro-futuristic space-horror cliché if the players had working scanners. Due to their faulty movement detectors there isn't just one lifeform on board, but multiple. Well, sort of. At the start of the game the lifeform player chooses which of their standees is the real creature and which is a fake radar-blip. These two (or later three) creatures function identically, except only one of them can actually attack. Of course there are cards in the deck which are able to swap the location of 2 standees, so you never know which is the real thing.

If one player loses both of their crew members then they aren't removed form the game. Instead they get the chance to continue playing as the ship's cat or the onboard computer, letting them frustrate the lifeform player in several ways. However even if the remaining survivors make it to the ship and escape the game isn't over. At a certain point the lifeform player can place a bet on when the players will use the shuttle. If they are right the alien has managed to sneak on board, which begins a second phase to the game. This phase is more one of direct combat as the players attempt to eject the creature out the airlock.

Amy’s Final Thoughts

If Lifeform was oozing with any more theme then it would have burnt a hole through decks 1 and 2 and ruined my favourite pen. Prepare to feel hunted by the creature as the blips close in. You ma know one of them is fake, but when the lifeform player is doing things right you can never be too sure. Running around gathering the vital resources you need to survive you'll have to wander through parts of the deck that are less than safe, navigating power cuts, horror events and the rogue android. It all does a wonderful job of evoking Alien. Heck when you die you even get to play as the ships cat! for lovers of sci-fi Horror there's a lot of love and care put into Lifeform.

Unfortunately this is all wrapped up in a game that is a touch too complex for its own good. The rulebook is more of a tome than I would like and isn't the easiest to navigate when you need to check how one little rule works. There are player aids which helpfully describe each action in brief. But when the player aide has to be printer on A4 you know you are in for a wild ride! I can't help but feel that the game could have been improved by a little simplifying. Sure the malfunctioning android is thematic, and it does have in-game effect, but it really felt like the kind of thing that could have been added as a expansion. The same can be said for the second phase of the game which plays completely differently. I'll admit in a course of a game night I'll play several different games, but with Lifeform I do so without opening a second box!

This is juxtaposed by the core gameplay being rather simple. Whichever side you are playing as you'll spend 80% of the game playing a card to move 1/2 rooms or taking a break to pick up cards. There are moments of tension when the lifeform attacks or bursts out of grates. These combats are, again, relatively simple with the defender playing one of 3 types of card to try to survive. The lifeform has a couple of rare cards that are able to counter these defensive abilities, meaning you can never feel safe.

Ultimately, if you want to play a board game that makes you feel like you are going to be extra-terrestrial snackfood at any moment then Lifeform is the game for you. Is it perfect? No. It has many flaws, but it does recreate the horror genre in (perhaps too much) detail. Turn the lights up bright to read the rule book, then give the FAQ a good once-over. Finally turn the lights down low and invite your friends over to fight for their lives! Lifeform is one of the games where theme can overcome complexity and if you know a group of people who love the Alien franchise then they are likely to be the audience this game!

Fi’s Final Thoughts

I'm very lucky to have Amy in my life who will read a rulebook for 1.5 hours only to teach me the game in 5 minutes. It's perhaps not a good sign that so much written rules can be condensed into such a short teach, and a huge player aid that fills in the rest of the gaps. The game boils down to hand management with multi-use cards and some planning and strategy as to how you'll move around the labyrinth of rooms. While it's very assymetric, the two sides play in much the same way, so we were happy to switch between the two. Whilst I initially thought that being the lifeform was easier, it turns out that Amy was just better at the game - breezing to victory in her game as the crew.

The theme of the game comes through really well, and if players play at a decent pace, then you can really get into the action, shooting at the lifeform, running away, setting traps etc. Even the ship's cat is a really nice addition, especially to the two-player game experience. There's many different things you can do, like bringing the android into play, but overall, it did feel like a few to many concepts had been thrown in. With a player aid of approximately 15 symbols, I used around 5 of them because the other concepts didn't appear in our games.

Sadly, Lifeform just made me grumpy. I am unquestionably awful at this game and it's a game that it's not fun to be bad at. Once one side gets ahead there's simply no way to catch up to them. You need to outwit your opponent early on, else you'll be caught in a really slow chase, moving one or two rooms at a time, unless one player gets really lucky or unlucky with card draws, for example having no movement at a critical moment. Of course it's no the game's fault that I'm bad at it, but it's not enjoyable to know you're going to lose. The most useful caution I can give is that if you always lose at chess-like games, such as Onitama, or other two-player abstract games, you might get stuck in the same losing rut that I did.

You Might Like...
  • The game is dripping with theme.
  • Once you get into it the gameplay is surprisingly simple.
You Might Not Like...
  • The rules are hard to digest.
  • The game board can be a little confusing, with large numbers of symbols which might not even be used in your game.
  • The 'cat and mouse' can be frustrating if you always feel like you're on the back foot.

The Verdict
5.5/10 Lifeform is an extremely thematic survival game. The game really rewards planning and cunning, whether you're playing as the crew or the aliens. It feels as though it could be further streamlined though - the way to play is so simple, but there is way too much fiddliness and complex little rules. Ultimately, for us, the chase really seems to reward Amy's dominance at chess-like games and no matter what, her win is a foregone conclusion, making the heavy investment in a 90 minute game too much to withstand.

Lifeform was a review copy kindly provided to us by Hall or Nothing Productions.

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