In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream At Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game

(Welcome to Cardboard Cinema, an ongoing series where we look at the board games inspired by or connected to our favorite media. In this edition: the "Alien" quadrilogy has a deckbuilding adaptation that would make Papa Ridley proud.)

In hindsight, it wasn't exactly love at first sight. When my regular board game group gathered for our first playthrough of Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game, spirits were understandably high. All three of us knew our way around a deckbuilding game, and most of us love at least one — if not more — of the films in the "Alien" franchise. But unpacking the game while learning the game proved a wild miscalculation. What is often described as a simple set-up online took nearly an hour to segment and shuffle out all the various card types. 

Then the arguments about the artwork started. Modern board games are all about the uniformity of their designs. For some members of our group, the disparate artwork and design styles were a headache right out of the gate. While some (me) argued that the designs were reminiscent of both first-generation CCGs and the overall aesthetics of Dark Horse "Alien" comic books from the 1990s, Legendary Encounters is nobody's idea of a sleek game — even if it does offer an almost shocking amount of gore for a mass-market board game made in the 21st Century. Strike two.

But when the cards finally hit the table and players began to panic in the face of the xenomorph hordes, we soon realized that some games are worth a little bit of extra effort. Legendary Encounters may not be my favorite unboxing, but it's made every other deckbuilding game in my collection immediately irrelevant. This is the fast-paced 'Alien' game — video or tabletop — I've been looking for all along.

Build your deck

Designed for up to five players, Legendary Encounters encourages players to relive the events of the original four "Alien" movies. Players choose from 10 available roles — including medics, technicians, mercenaries, and more — and build a custom deck of special and standard character roles. Each turn, you will play upwards of six cards in your hand. These cards will either allow you to reveal and attack enemy cards or purchase a new character card from the shared pool. Once this personal deck is depleted, you will shuffle and re-deal, slowly evolving your power throughout the game.

And standing between our soldiers and salvation was a literal army of xenomorphs. Legendary Encounters divides each game into three objective decks, shuffled and stacked to ensure a progressive storyline and escalating difficulty. This deck — called the Hive deck — slowly progresses across five spaces before being revealed and attacking your party head-on. For most of the game, you will not see the enemies before they are right on top of you. To stay one step ahead of the xenomorphs — and kill them before they get close enough to kill you — players will constantly be scanning the area of the board known as The Colony using the attack points in their hands.

If a xenomorph makes it out of the colony, they will damage you at the end of every turn. In addition, some enemies come with special attack powers — dependent on their location on the board – while others may limit your hand size until they are removed. And if you're truly, grotesquely unlucky, you may reveal a Facehugger card, causing your player to become impregnated with a baby xenomorph. The good news? Enemies now ignore you; they recognize a mobile home when they see one. The bad news? You shuffle a Chestburster card into your deck and die — like, die-die — the moment it is revealed.

Survive the galaxy

While Legendary Encounters may offer players scenarios and characters equally distributed across the first four "Alien" movies, make no mistake: this is an "Aliens" game, and all the better for it. Each scenario sees characters fighting their way through a horde of enemies; whether the action takes place on LV-426 or Fury 161, you will have to kill a dozen or more xenomorphs to safely escape. This may sit poorly with those who prefer their "Alien" movies to lean closer to the horror genre, but it also provides the perfect marriage of mechanics and theme for every level of "Alien" fans.

The genius of James Cameron's "Aliens" was its clever use of escalation. There is no artificial scarcity with the Colonial Marines. They dropped onto LV-426 with enough ammo to start an interstellar war; in the end, none of it mattered. The best "Aliens" games understand that making your players feel powerful is part of the appeal, and there are times during the first and second objectives when you may worry about the balance of the game. But one bad hand turns into two bad turns, and suddenly the complex is crawling with xenomorphs. Things go south in a hurry in Legendary Encounters, and the deck you constructed when you were coasting may not be the one you need to survey the final enemy.

Oh, and like every deckbuilding game — from 'Dominion' to 'Ascension' — removing the lower-level cards from your deck is an essential key to victory. Legendary Encounters gets this right, too. Nothing makes you feel more like a Weyland-Yutani loyalist than killing your own low-level specialists and grunts in the name of progress. Sure, I may be viciously murdering my own soldiers to make room for a few extra Recruit Points in my next shuffle, but don't let that fool you. I'm really an okay guy.

Live. Die. Repeat.

With only four scenarios to choose from, Legendary Encounters initially feels like a game that may soon run out of steam. But dig deep into the rules — and the 600 enclosed cards — and you quickly realize the countless variations available to players. The core box comes with options for xenomorph players and hidden agendas, both of which can turn this from a cooperative game to a competitive game at the drop of a hat. Even better, the characters from each film are designed to be mixed and matched, with the game even encouraging a playthrough with all four versions of Ripley from the movies.

And if that is still not enough, Upper Deck has released two highly rated expansions. The first draws from "Aliens" to introduce new characters and a xenomorph queen role for the players. The second — and most exciting for us David fans out there — is based on "Alien: Covenant" and pulls Ridley Scott's prequels firmly back into the "Alien" deckbuilding universe. There are even instructions on how to match this version of Legendary Encounters with other Upper Deck adaptations. "Alien" versus "Predator"? "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"? "Big Trouble in Little China"?! Talk about everything everywhere, all at once.

That makes Legendary Encounters the tabletop trifecta: a licensed board game that effectively balances mechanics and theme and does not bury us under too much of a good thing. So many strong games — even great games — grow beyond their means, presenting you with expensive add-ons that will just collect dust on your shelf. But with an excellent core game and two manageable expansions, the "Alien" collection offers tremendous bang for your tabletop buck. So go ahead, plan your next bug hunt; just know that our group was thrilled to win with a "mere" 66% fatality rate. In the Legendary Encounters universe, even when you don't lose, the xenomorphs still win.