Friday, 19 April 2019

Review - AvP: The Hunt Begins

Published by Prodos Games Ltd
Designed by Jarek Ewertowski and Grzegorz Oleksy
For 1 to 3 players, aged 12 to adult

AvP: The Hunt Begins


Recently, I was approached by a website asking if I would write board game reviews for them. It was a huge honour, but I had to decline. You see, although they said they loved my style, they would insist that I make a few changes to adhere to their particular company direction. Namely, they wanted me to break reviews into sections with headers, give standardised ratings for each element of a game (art, components, replayability), give a final overall rating, and then include a list of recommendations for other games the reader might like.

Now, in my day to day job I frequently have to produce content based on different client style guides, and that's no big deal. But board games are my passion. Reviewing games is a chance to do things my way. It isn't something I do to make a living; it is living.

I don't want to break up my stories with sub-headings. It would be like breaking up a Curly Wurly. It might taste the same, but it wouldn't be curly or wurly anymore, and that's kind of the point.

I don't want to give numerical ratings to anything because they're just arbitrary numbers that don't really mean anything. A nine to me might not be a nine to you. Besides, the reason I would rate Space Hulk a nine out of ten isn't the same reason why I would rate Tash-Kalar a nine out of ten. I just don't define games in that way.

But most of all, I don't want to give people recommendations. How could I possibly tell other people what they would like when I can barely figure that out for myself? I mean, I like what I like. Except when I don't. There are countless games in the world that look like they should be exactly my sort of thing, but which I end up disliking anyway. When I do like something, often I'm not really sure why.

Take AvP: The Hunt Begins (Second Edition) for example. It is maddeningly flawed, but I find it deeply engaging. It is overly complicated and fiddly, with a rules book that seems like it wants to actively dissuade you from playing, but I enjoy every second I'm playing it. I honestly don't know whether I could recommend it to anyone; but I love it.

So why is that? Why am I able to look beyond such obvious flaws?

I'd be lying if I said the beautiful miniatures weren't part of it. For this second edition, Prodos Games Ltd employed their relatively new unicast resin production system, and the results are simply breathtaking. You get single piece resin models that are every bit as detailed as the multipart kits you get from companies such as Games Workshop. And I don't mean they're stilted miniatures rendered mainly in two dimensions to allow for simple one-piece casting. These are fluid, dynamic creations, weaving and clambering over intricate (integral) scenic bases. The aliens are leaping and crawling, the marines are ducking behind terrain, the predators are captured beautifully in moments of visceral violence.

Alien stalkers skulk in the corridors in AvP: The Hunt Begins


Every model is packed with character - a miniature masterpiece - and that it's even possible to get this kind of detail and characterisation in single piece miniatures is something of a marvel.

The game includes a squad of five marines, three predators, five stalker aliens (think Alien 3), and 10 infant aliens (think Alien), and I have instantly preordered new unicast miniatures every time Prodos has announced them, including an alien queen, alien eggs, a predalien, alien warriors, alien spitters, berserker predators, female predators, Weyland Yutani commandos, convicts, synthetic humans, and much more. From the towering alien queen squeezing through the wreckage of a tunnel to the ships cat gnawing hungrily (and foolishly) on the carcass of a facehugger, each piece has earned a place in my miniatures collection.

USCM marines prepare for battle in AvP: The Hunt Begins


But miniatures can't be everything. I've always said that while I love good miniatures, I won't collect them for the sake of it. My paint queue is too long, and my time on planet Earth too short, to take on collecting and painting models that won't see table time.

Fortunately, AvP: The Hunt Begins has become a firm favourite, despite of... perhaps because of... its flaws.

Let me try to explain...

The game is, quite honestly, a bit of a mess; and that mess is baked right into the rules book. It's wordy where it doesn't need to be, glosses over important concepts, misses other concepts completely, seems to contradict itself (sometimes within the same paragraph), and scatters information haphazardly across multiple sections making it a real chore to find the answers to your questions; and that's before you even get to the sections that have incorrect information, or the diagrams that use the wrong damned graphics and therefore only serve to confuse. And it's not like there are any included player aids to help, either.

When you finally do figure out what's going on, you realise the game itself is a bit of a shambles. I've said it before and I'll say it again: "It's so clunky, the wheels barely go round."

The basic concept is simple enough: Forces of marines, xenos, and predators meet in the cramped tunnels of a pregenerated space craft comprising interlocking room and corridor tiles, and then all hell breaks loose. First there's a swingy-as-all-heck initiative phase to determine turn order based on the roll of a D20, and then the game is afoot (or a small mouth inside a larger mouth). Each model in a force gets two action points, and when you have initiative you must pick one model to activate. There's a selection of universal basic actions that cost a single action point (move, shoot, make a close combat attack, interact with something) and a list of universal extended actions that cost you both of your action points (running, or going on sentry to gain the ability to act out of sequence later in the turn). On top of that, there are faction-specific abilities and unit-specific abilities you may have access to (welding doors shut, using grenade launchers, or treating wounds).

And that's really the heart of the game. You activate a model, then initiative moves to the next player, who activates a model, and so on. There are 10 missions to play through, each of which forms part of a continuing narrative and sets individual challenges for each team. For example, marines may have to reach the armoury and load up on weapons, fix the ship's engines, or murder passengers in cryosleep who have been impregnated. The aliens may need to destroy certain locations, or capture enemies to take back to the nest. Meanwhile, the predators are enjoying the thrill of the hunt, with missions often involving collecting a certain number of "trophies." Additionally, there are rules for making your own missions, and a "Last Stand" mode that lets you play solo against AI-controlled xenos.

Combat is the main focus, and it's a stat-heavy affair, often involving multiple buffs and debuffs that you have to factor into the calculations. For example, making a basic shooting action involves rolling a D20 and trying to score less than or equal to your Ranged Skill (RS), but your RS may be higher for the attack due to a special ability, or lower due to environmental effects, shooting at engaged enemies, or shooting through tiles where other units are fighting. If you're successful, the target makes an armour test, rolling a D20 and trying to score equal to or less than its armour value. Armour is often reduced based on the Strength of the attack, but some models have impenetrable armour that can't be reduced, or else they have access to special armour buffs. And so it goes on.

The alien stat cards from AvP: The Hunt Begins


The maths involved isn't serious heavy lifting, but expect to run the numbers every time you make an attack; and be prepared to forget a few modifiers until you've got the hang of it all. In my first few games I consistently forgot that shooting at aliens on infested corridors confers a -4 RS modifier and attacking marines on regular corridors confers a -2 modifier, while there are no modifiers involved at all when making attacks in rooms. I suppose it didn't help that this choice bit of information wasn't listed in the rules under faction skills at all.

Predator stat cards from AvP: The Hunt Begins


Overall, the core engine is solid enough, if rather uninspired. It's pretty much the same thing you've seen before in other games. The only possible sidebars to a rather traditional formula are the use of movement by tile rather than by square, and the fact the game is set up to play with three players, which is a somewhat underrepresented player count for this sort of game. The problems come from the extra fiddly details the game introduces as flavour, many of which are overwrought, unnecessary, or just a bit confusing.

For example, there's the ping token system. When you begin a new game, you don't put any miniatures on the board; instead you place one ping token for each miniature. These pings activate in the same way as models, and you only replace them with miniatures if you choose to, or if the ping tokens are seen by an enemy player.

It seems straightforward enough. It seems sensible enough. It seems like a rule you would absolutely expect to find in an Aliens game, where the motion trackers are such an instantly recognised aspect of the franchise.

But...

AvP sort of half-asses the whole thing.

Ping tokens are intended to create uncertainty, but in this game most of the time they just create extra head-scratching and bookkeeping. For a start (and it should be noted this is really only a concern once you start playing with expansion characters), the ping tokens are different sizes. The ping token for a queen is massive; the ping token for a facehugger is not. If you're opponent is marching a massive ping token towards you, it's a fair assumption your day is about to get worse. Then you have to factor in that this is a three-player game. If the predator player spots one of your xeno ping tokens, you have to replace it with a miniature, and then the marine player also gets to see what it is, even though he or she shouldn't be able to.

Of course, you also have to consider that if you want a unit currently represented by a ping to do something specific to that unit, such as using a flamer unit to torch a location, you have to reveal the ping anyway.

Predators are hunting their prey in AvP: The Hunt Begins


And then there are the special predator vocal mimicry pings. You can pay to add them to your force to run interference, making your opponents uncertain where your real predators are hiding... Or, at least, that's the theory. In reality, vocal mimicry pings can only move or run. They can't open doors, and they can't reveal enemy pings they come into line of sight with. Worst of all, the initiative system almost dictates that you're going to move mimicry tokens first, because on your turn you must activate a unit and in many cases you're going to want to activate your real predators last, at the point when you've already seen what some of the enemy units are doing. Ultimately, it's quite common to instantly know in every game which pings you can ignore.

And this is just one aspect of the game.

Another problematic area is the use of the D20. I understand why they implemented it, as it allows for a more granular system where it's possible to layer on the modifiers to create more intricate tactical situations; but it also makes things swingy. It wouldn't be so bad if you were rolling lots of dice at once, but in many cases you roll a single dice for attack. You don't really see partial successes, as you might when rolling buckets of dice. You either succeed, or you fail.

USCM marine stat cards from AvP: The Hunt Begins


I could keep going like this, running through long lists of complaints. Things that make the game a little less smooth to play than it should be; things that make the game feel a little older than it is; things that make the game feel a little bit underdone and in need of at least one more pass by the testers and editors. Yet for all those complaints, I still love the game.

I shouldn't love it. I know I shouldn't. There are so many vague rules. So many incomplete ideas. So many potentially fantastic elements that don't quite hit the mark. And so many fiddly details.

I've said so many times in previous reviews that I dislike games that have too much fiddle. Little tokens, constant bookkeeping, regular rules referencing for edge case scenarios... Those are the things that draw me out of the experience. Those are the things that make me remember that I'm playing a game.

But for this game, I just don't care.

And yes, I think that part of the reason I enjoy the game as much as I do is exactly because of its many weird and wonderful flaws.

It's hard to explain, but struggling with the rules brought me closer to the game. In a strange way I got a sense of ownership. It became my game: My discovery. I'd nurtured it; I'd helped it to achieve its potential. I'd earned the right to enjoy it. Then I started to paint the miniatures, and that brought me closer still. There is something very special about painting game components. It's a way of personalising your experience. It's a way of saying this is a game I care about, and I want to put my own mark on it. Buying new miniatures had a similar result. Having the ability to tailor forces to create my own tactics and narratives helped me to make the game my own.

Furthermore, there's something so joyously retro about the whole thing. It reminds me of old war games, with their densely packed rules books full of cross-references. There's something just a little bit magical about a rules book that asks you to "see section 2.6.1." And the D20 combat system, with it's maths-heavy modifiers on every resolution, feels like something out of another time.

I've been a gamer for over 30 years, and I've often spoken about how important gaming was to me growing up. This is just one of those games that makes me feel like I did then, when I would spend hours making up house rules, painting miniatures, and creating my own scenarios. Playing this game is a little bit like reading a book about dinosaurs.

But even that doesn't fully explain why I like this game as much as I do; because if I'm honest, the main reason - the reason I keep going back to this game again and again - is the meticulous way in which the designers have captured the theme.

There are countless little rules layered into the cake, all of which help to build the reality of the AvP universe. These rules most obviously manifest in the unique skills and actions available to the factions.

The marines are highly trained and have excellent equipment, so they are able to make use of their environment in corridors to gain a tactical edge. They can weld doors and air vents shut, creating choke points or blocking access routes. They can use their military training to take aimed shots or perform rapid fire attacks, burn whole board tiles with their flamethrowers, use their medics to negate the effects of deadly attacks, or bust out some shotguns for close encounters. There are (of course) also rules for securing your perimeter to dissuade aliens from trying to break down doors, or for setting up gun emplacements.

The marines have access to powerful strategies in AvP: The Hunt Begins


The xenos are a horde. They don't have limitless numbers, as you might expect, but they always outnumber their opponents. They're incredibly fast. And they're sneaky. I mean, really sneaky. They have abilities that allows them to scurry along the ceiling to avoid combatants below, they can hide in infested tiles, or use the terrain in infested tiles to make it more difficult for enemies to target them. They have a skulking advance that lets them revert to a ping token and move into an infested tile, blending into the hive terrain. They can dodge attacks and have access to rapid movement skills. Basically, they're incredibly hard to target. And why would you want to anyway? Kill the damned things and they spray acid everywhere, injuring opponents and even damaging the environment.

But the xenos are no slouch in combat either. Some can spit acid, others go into a paroxysm letting them attack with claws and tail in a single deadly flurry. Of course, the facehuggers may latch onto a target, spawning a new alien based on the type of target. So, you could kill a grunt to get a new alien infant, kill a hell hound to get a stalker, kill a marine leader to get an alien warrior, or take down a predator to get a shiny new predalien to swell your ranks. Facehuggers are also tiny, so they can hide in the air vents where larger foes cannot enter.

The alien strategies allow them to create sneaky traps in AvP: The Hunt Begins


Then you have the predators. Sometimes they fight alone, or in small packs of two or three, so they're always outnumbered, but they have so much firepower to bring to bear and can soak so much damage they are rightfully feared. Predators have multiple wounds, and access to field treatments that allow them to recover from damage. If you reveal a predator ping token, you can use the seasoned hunter skill to spawn the predator one tile away from where the ping token was, positioning it so it's still out of sight. They have the most devastating weapons, such as the smart disc that slices through multiple targets and the plasma caster that burns through armour, and their impenetrable armour allows them to take incredible amounts of punishment. Of course, some also pack a self-destruct mechanism. You wouldn't expect anything less.

Powerful predators using cunning strategies in AvP: The Hunt Begins


And these are just the elements from the base game. The Hot Landing Zone expansion introduced a whole host of additional mechanisms, including using a drop ship to achieve your mission objectives or making it easier for predators to conceal themselves in jungle environments.

On top of all that, each faction has access to a deck of strategy cards, and each faction can play up to two cards each turn. These strategies are suitably thematic, such as giving marines the chance to set booby traps, aliens the chance to cause additional acid damage, and predators additional combat bonuses.

And then (phew), on top of all that, there's a deck of environment cards. You draw one each turn to simulate random effects, such as the gravity system shutting down, bulkheads sealing, fires breaking out or lights going off.

It's a hostile environment in AvP: The Hunt Begins; these cards can ruin your best laid plans.


There are so many little details that do such a great job of making sure every engagement with the enemy is thrilling and thematic. Of course, all those little details mean more rules to forget or play incorrectly. Whether it's ultimately a good thing or a bad thing is up to you. And at least you can simply leave out the environmental and strategy cards if you think they're adding too much chaos for too little gain.

Just writing about the many (many, many) ways in which the game seeks to bring the theme to life gets me excited to play again, and I'm still not finished. Because I haven't mentioned the most thematic element yet, and that's just how damned tense this game is. And it's not just tense for the marines. It's tense for everyone because each faction has incredible strengths, yet also very exploitable weaknesses.

The marines are highly trained, and when they work together and keep the enemy at range they are devastating. Their smartgunner should be feared. But they're incredibly squishy and lose combat effectiveness if you can isolate them. Separate a few models, get in close, and watch their perfect military training amount to nothing.

The xenos have weight of numbers, and they're difficult to target. But keep them at range, and you can mow them down leisurely. They don't have infinite numbers, and they do need to get in close, usually in large numbers, to win a fight. Watching as a marine pings them off one by one is real heart-in-the-mouth gaming.

Alien infants spread the infestation through the ship in AvP: The Hunt Begins


Finally, there are the predators. They're murdering machines, but you don't have the numbers for sloppy play. Get caught in the open by a smartgun, and you're probably going down. And because you have to activate a model each time you have initiative during a turn, you usually end up making all your moves before your opponents have finished, and that leaves them with plenty of activations to respond to what you've done. It's surprisingly easy for them to get the jump on you if you aren't thinking ahead.

The tension is highlighted by the sheer brutality of the combat. Most models only have a single wound, and many attacks are powerful enough to cut through armour with ease. And here, the D20 system is as much a blessing as it is a curse, because every roll is dramatic. Every time you pick up that dice you start to sweat. You're either going to cry triumphantly or die pathetically. You'll never know for sure; but you can be sure your heart is pounding when the dice hits the table.

Ultimately, the game's just fun.

And really, that's what it's all about. What any game should be about.

So, having said all that, do I recommend AvP: The Hunt Begins?

How can I?

I can see so much wrong in the game. Perhaps the fact I can overlook all those problems and enjoy it so much is testament to the game's design. Or then again, maybe it says more about me than it ever could about the game.

After all, I like what I like. Except when I don't.

So I'm going to wrap this review up now, with a bit of vague hand-waving. Oh, and just one more thing...

Astute readers may have noticed I haven't mentioned the Kickstarter campaign. That's partly because I'm reviewing the second edition, and it's partly because it's a can of worms that I'm not sure I really want to pop open and deal with. Let's just say, the campaign is something of a blot on the game's history; a stain that remains to this day. I wasn't involved in that Kickstarter or the ensuing fallout; I got to watch from a safe distance. But it did dampen my enthusiasm for the game. I may never have owned it at all if my wife hadn't purchased it for me as a birthday gift; and I only became more enthusiastic for the game over time, after assurances from the company, company insiders, and some backers that efforts were being made to do right by the initial backers (although I understand a few people may still be out of pocket).

And now, from those rather questionable beginnings, the game is going to die in equally dramatic fashion. Prodos Games Ltd have announced that the rug has been pulled out from under them, and they've lost the licence following Disney's acquisition of Fox.

The life cycle of the game has been short, and far from sweet; and in many ways it has mirrored the violent life cycle of the xenomorphs. The original kickstarter campaign was a facehugger, latching on to those brave backers who answered the call for aid. It was those backers who birthed the first edition, and suffered for it. Gradually, the first edition evolved into the second edition, becoming a streamlined, more efficient beast that rapidly expanded, adding more miniatures to the product line and even a big-box expansion. It had survived in a harsh environment. Even thrived in it. It looked like it was only going to get stronger.

And then one day, Disney just blew it out of the god damn airlock.

So that's it. Game over, Man. Game over.

A brave USCM marine makes a last stand in AvP: The Hunt Begins


After several tempestuous years, the game and the miniatures line comes to a sudden and ignoble end. Anybody interested in getting the game (or any of the expansion miniatures) has until the 30th April 2019 to place their order. After that, Prodos Games are shutting down the furnaces. Everything's being closed and sealed. Maybe the remaining refining equipment is going to be sold as scrap.

This is Always Board Never Boring. Signing off.



AvP: The Hunt begins ceases production on 30 April 2019, but you may still be able to find the base game and expansions after that date in games stores and from online retailers. If you would like to learn more about the game, then please consider visiting my AvP play list on YouTube, where I unbox all of the unicast miniatures, the base game, and the Hot Landing Zone expansion.

2 comments:

  1. That's a great review. I love the idea and the miniatures, but it is a shame about the gameplay and the end of the license.

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    1. Thanks for reading. It's certainly a shame to see it coming to an end. I'm planning on picking up Gale Force 9's Another Glorious Day in the Corps, which is supposed to come out this year sometime. Hoping I will be able to continue getting my Alien fix there.

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