The hidden team games are an interesting adjacent space for co-op design, both for the cooperative mechanics of their team-based play and for the introduction of deduction, something that any traitors game could learn from. So over the rest of October we’ll be looking at a pair of hidden teams games.
Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space by Mario Porpora, Pietro Righi Riva, Luca Francesco Rossi, and Nicolò Tedeschi
Publisher: Santa Ragione (2010, 2016)
Cooperative Style: Hidden Teams
Play Style: Hidden Movement
The humans are trying to escape! The aliens are trying to kill them! And you are secretly either a human or an alien. Your moves are secret too, though you’ll sometimes reveal your true location and sometimes a false location, based on which cards you draw when exploring. Humans win individually if they escape, and aliens win collectively if they eat up all the tasty human morsels.
Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space is obviously reminiscent of Bang! (2003), the first hidden teams game of the modern era, and before it Werewolf (1986, 1997). They’re all about figuring out which team everyone is on, and then killing off your adversaries. However, Escape focuses a lot more on its deduction— though it’s deduction that’s somewhat tangential to the teams themselves.
Deduction tends to be the first cooperative design element of hidden teams games: it traditionally focuses on whether players can mechanically determine which team another character is on. In Escape, a few of the core actions (playing an item and making an attack) largely reveal which team a player is on. Unlucky draws of movement cards can also do so. It’s all quite rote (and very black and white).
So, the role deduction in Escape is somewhat limited on its own, but fortunately there’s another super-star deduction mechanic: Escape’s hidden movement system. The fact that a player can either reveal a real or a fake location, depending on the draw of a card, allows for both bluffing and deduction regarding where a player actually is. This dovetail nicely dovetails with the hidden teams, allowing for some more thoughtful role deduction as a result: a locations might reveal which team a player is on or it might obscure it (depending on how good a job the player is doing with the hidden movement). It’s a combination that’s rarely been used, but fits together well.
The second cooperative design element of a hidden teams game tends to be whether players can work together. Unfortunately, this isn’t as strong as Escape’s two-tier deduction system. As it turns out, the humans have almost no incentive to work together because they win individually. Meanwhile, the aliens can work together once they verify who’s on their team, but the rules are silent on what they’re allowed to say. If the aliens just generally talk about which areas they’re moving to and what they’re going to do, all is well. But, if they’re allowed to state the exact sectors they’re moving to, then the game loses one of its vital balances: the ability for aliens to accidentally kill each other. Escape very much needs a detail limitation in its communication rules, but doesn’t have one.
There’s one last weird quirk to Escape’s cooperative play: a winning condition unlike almost anything in the cooperative world — at least when using its classic “Infection” rules or its standard rules set in the Ultimate Edition (2016). The aliens all win if they kill all the humans … but any humans killed become aliens. That suggests that either everyone wins during any game in which the aliens win, or at worst only the last human loses. Fans of the game have tried to come up with alternatives, like transformed aliens being “lesser winners”, but none of this is supported by the rules. This winning condition is an example both of how victory rules can undercut cooperative gameplay and how victory conditions need to be carefully defined.
No Challenge System Elements. Hidden Teams.
The aliens and humans each have a role that gives them a slight advantage. Unfortunately, these roles aren’t very evocative during the play of the overall game (and thus don’t really constitute an element of an adventure system). That’s in part because they tend to be secret, meaning that most of the table doesn’t see the results, and in part because they’re often one-use, meaning that they don’t have any ongoing effect.
The roles are also unbalanced: some have one-use effects that might never be used, while others have continuous effects that can offer minor but ongoing benefits. This type of unbalance is usually a poor choice in an adventure game, unless it’s a purposeful design element — perhaps one that encourages or molds cooperation in some way. (Escape’s roles don’t.)
Escape is a pretty terrific hidden movement game, but unfortunately that’s where its focus tends to be, not on the hidden teams / cooperative play. A hidden teams and movement game could be a great combo, and in fact Escape’s hidden moves give a little depth to its role deduction, but beyond that Escape’s cooperative elements are relatively weak.
Pietro Righi Riva is the studio director of Santa Ragione, a “micro game design studio” in Italy, while Nicolò Tedeschi is its director. The studio has mostly put out computer games, with Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space being their one tabletop release.