As promised, the good folks at Mondo brought their first-ever board game, The Thing: Infection At Outpost 31, to this year's SDCC. On display in the Mondo booth (#835, if you happen to be in the area), the game looks highly-detailed, extremely film-accurate, and like a whole bunch of fun to play.
I was lucky enough to sit down with Mondo's Jay Shaw and Project Raygun's Luke Byers and Joe Van Wetering to discuss how The Thing: Infection At Outpost 31 came to be, what challenges the Mondo/Project Raygun team encountered while putting it together, and what we can expect when we get our hands on a copy of the game when it drops in October. Here's how that went:
Joe, I’m really excited to talk to you because I’m really fascinated with the idea of how you even go about writing a game like this. Like, where do you even start?
Joe Van Wetering (Lead Designer, Project Raygun): Oh, boy. I’m bad at this.
Well, start at the beginning. Who came to you first?
Joe: Jay contacted me, kinda like, “Hey, you guys do games. Would you be interested in working together?” And I just passed him off to Tony and Luke and they started talking and figuring out what property we wanted to work with, how the deal would work, all that kind of stuff. So I probably didn’t come onto the project until maybe, like, a month later, maybe a little more.
Luke Byers (Project Raygun, Creative Director): Yeah, that’s about right.
So you didn’t start with The Thing as a concept? It was just, can we do a game at all?
Jay Shaw (Mondo, Brand Director): Initially, The Thing was the first one I thought of, because I was like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if The Thing was a game? We should do The Thing!” But I was using it as an example. Not that this would be the real one, but “Imagine this.” That was my big pitch to what would our game look like. But we had other ideas, like, “What if we did The Warriors and you had to bop back Coney Island? Like, that’s cool.” This was more, "What do movies look like as games?” You know, how does that play narratively? And The Thing was just a great idea, but we kept coming back to it when we were looking at all the licenses and what we could do. We kept saying, “Yeah, yeah, those are all great, but The Thing would be really cool.” Eventually it turned into “We should just do it. Why do we keep saying that The Thing is the perfect example and not actually just making The Thing?” But that was a tougher license to get.
You’ve done The Thing posters and whatnot. Is it a different kind of license?
Jay: It’s a very different kind of license, yeah. It’s not something where the studio says, “Oh, great, yeah. Board games are part of this, too.” Because they license out properties, but they also license out different categories. So, toys are different than posters or different than soundtracks or apparel. And board games...Universal isn’t known for making board games. I mean, I guess they’ve made some, they have some stuff like that.
Luke: And it’s a bit harder, too, where unlike potential prints or things that you can have variants or different takes on it, doing a board game, especially when it’s based off of a movie, there’s only one real direction. So to have five or six different board games out there of the same property doesn’t make a lot of sense. We were really trying to make sure that we found something - which The Thing was great, that we were able to do it - that didn’t have games already existing in the marketplace for it. There was nobody on deck and it was exactly what we wanted to do.
And so did you have to have a Bible, for lack of a better term, to turn into Universal and say, “This is what we want to do” before they agreed to it?
Jay: No, in the very beginning, they just agreed and let us do it, but it comes with a cost, of course. You have to turn in things like sales projections. Like, how much money might this make and they say, “This is going to cost you X based on that.” So, it became that kind of a deal. But, no, they didn’t need to see proof of concept or anything like that yet. That was later during us actually making the game.
And it's the characters from the movie, right?
Joe: It is.
Jay: It’s the entire crew of Outpost 31.
Luke: It’s twelve of them and it plays up to eight.
Jay: Including our friend, the dead Norwegian.
What was the first, big challenge you encountered trying to put this together?
Joe: Well, it’s my first game that’s come to market. I’ve done support on a ton of other games and I’ve done a couple of prototypes that never really made it outside the office. They were all playable, but nothing that made it to that next step. So Luke put me in charge of this. You know, he told me this is all me and I just kind of got to work. Started very simple, like it’s just straight-up Werewolf--where we have an x amount of imitations, x amount of humans, pass/fail. And that’s what it was. And we just slowly started building off of that. We just made a huge game and just kept scaling it back. Make it a little bigger; scale it back. It’s just a ton of play-testing, a ton of collaboration within the office.
Luke: The cool thing about licensed board games is you have a very clear narrative on how the game should be played. You know what the beats of the movie are, the book or comic or whatever, TV show. You know how the game should be played out. It’s just figuring out how the mechanics can facilitate that. Like, having Joe watch the movie a shit-ton. Figuring out --
Joe: A hundred times.
Really? A hundred times?
Joe: Probably close to that. Not all the way through. I’d pull up an hour and be like, “How does this scene play out?” Because the thing with halving the movie and the story is that also kind of limits you, too. ‘Cause you’re saying, “I could do this, but it doesn’t really make sense within the confines of the movie.” But having some limitations is always good, though, because it really helps drive things forward and have a clear vision for that. But, yeah, I’d just go through certain scenes. Have it on in the background not really watching it, more listening to it. It was definitely a lot.
How does it play in practice? You said it’s kind of like Werewolf?
Joe: Well, that’s kind of how we started, like the base trader mechanic and then we kind of built on top of that. So we have a game board and it’s broken out into three sectors and six rooms in each sector. So you start with sector one and you’re trying to find a Thing, level one and a rope. And when you go on a mission in a room and you pass the mission, you flip over the tile that’s in there and then you go back to the rec room. So you’re just kind of going through these rooms, trying to find the items in the different rooms to fulfil the requirement for the sector. And, as you’re going, you might start getting some sabotage cards that fail the missions. Maybe people aren’t being honest with what they’re putting in. So you have this hand of cards that are things like the copper wire, axe, petri dish--stuff that we just tried to pull directly from the movie that you’re actually playing with and turning in for these missions. So you’re just going through and just trying to get as much information on every mission. Like he got left behind this time and we got a fail, so I know it can’t be this person, right? And every time you move onto a new sector, you have to do another round of what’s called a blood test, where more people could be potentially getting infected as the game goes on.
So more than one person could conceivably be infected.
Jay: Oh, absolutely.
Jay: There’s a high probability that as you progress through the game and you get to the end-game, you could have three imitations in your group now. Where you started with one, all of a sudden now you’ve got more people. So, somebody could have started just fine, playing it heads up, doing great, you’re sure they’re human. By the end, you don’t know. You have no idea. They maybe aren’t human anymore.
Luke: And the infections don’t know that the other ones are infections and that was a really cool thing that is different, that evolved. The thing about identity games is that all the bad guys know who the bad guys are.
Joe: That was one of the things we really wanted to avoid. The “Everyone put your heads down. Look up. Heads back down.” I’ve never really been a big fan of that and I love these types of games, so that was something we tried to really integrate.
Luke: And we also wanted to insure that, being that it was a hidden identity game, that it wasn’t confined to where it wasn’t just a bunch of cards. Where most hidden identity games, you look at the thing and go on a mission, but it’s either--
Joe: Either pass or fail.
Luke: Yeah, and then what was the mission? Like Resistance is a great game that is that style of hidden identity and you go on a mission. But after that there’s nothing to really do, except for pass or fail. And we kept saying to ourselves, “How can we define what that mission is?” And then once that mission is there, that opened up a whole other ton of mechanics, things that you could do after that point.
It seems like the sort of thing that could very easily get away from you. Like you could try to implement something that’s too ambitious. If that’s the case, and if you go up one of those blind alleys...like how long do you work at it before you just say, “Alright, fuck it. It’s not working. I’m just not gonna have it in there”?
Joe: It's kinda tough, right? Especially since I haven’t really done this before, so I just kinda have to go off of how it feels. And time spent and playing it so many times and it just doesn’t feel right, eventually you just gotta say, “No, I just gotta change something here.” There was one point, about six months in, where Luke was off at a meeting with one of our other game designers and on the drive back I guess they were talking about the come back. He said, “We wanna change half the game. Here’s these ideas.” He just gave me all these ideas and I’m like, “Okay, I’ll try.” I was so pissed that night.
Luke: Six months in. It was a week before Jay and Tim (League) were gonna come out and test play. It was a week before the came out.
Joe: I was pissed because I hadn’t gotten him to test play it in a while. And I was like, “Yeah, this would have been great feedback, you know, a month ago.” But I slept on it and I said, “Yeah, that’s absolutely some of the right stuff and I’ll take everyone’s suggestions and just filter it out,” right? Not everyone is gonna give a good suggestion, but I like working very collaboratively. And I can maybe take a piece of that and turn it and maybe that part doesn’t work, but you could do something similar. I was very lucky to have a team of people to just constantly play-test this.
Luke: And a variety of different people, so it wasn’t just the same voices coming back saying the same things over and over again. It was a fresh perspective. Somebody who’s never seen The Thing; somebody who’s seen The Thing, but doesn’t really like board games. You get those two perspective and it gives you a lot of good feedback as to how to tweak, how to make it as broad of a product as you possibly can. Joel did a great job of taking that feedback and filtering it like he said, but also making sure that really good stuff was implemented that maybe none of us would have come up with.
Jay: And then all of a sudden we played it again without that and it became, “Hey, everybody! Here’s a different thing.” We played it and “Oh! At this point, it’s way better. It’s way cooler. You just pass the handgun around and we don’t have to vote on people.
Luke: And we all just kind of said, “Okay, this is part of the game.” At one point, a vote came in from Joe that said, “Yeah, that’s out. The captain thing just goes around the table and that was slowing down the game too much. That’s not a good mechanic. So it’s gone forever. Don’t ask twice about it.”
And you’re only discovering that through play-testing?
That must be satisfying
Jay: Yeah, it’s so cool.
Joe: The hardest part about this game specifically is I can’t play-test a hidden identity by myself. I need to co-opt as many people as I can. I can sit there and play through the game in my head a million times every single night in the shower. That’s 100% the best place to come up with ideas, but I need to go implement it, you know? I can do some stuff a little bit, see how it feels by myself, but I can’t feel like, “What’s his motivation knowing what I have in my hand?”
Luke: It’s a hidden identity game, but it is an equally social game, so it’s not necessarily a strategy game. It is all about the basic people at the table. And that’s my favorite thing about the game, is that you’re going to play with eight very specific people in one game and you’re going to play with six very different people the next time. And that game and the experiences that you get with that game with those two different groups are going to be vastly different. And so the game drives as much on people--how they play the game, to Joe’s point--that you can’t test-play out. All you’re trying to do is create something tight enough that can morph to the group of people that are playing. I think Jay and the Mondo Team on a whole, probably four different games. Each time they were playing with the same crew, each and every time. Whereas we were trying to adjust that, so that when we gave them the updated, they could still play with the same group of people and it feel fresh.
Jay: And I would find people from my neighborhood to come to my house to play. People who don’t play board games, and I'd say, “Would you just please come over and play with me, because I’m very curious as to how you interact with it? Are you going to understand it? Is this gonna be easy enough for you to play? But challenging enough to be fun and actually make any sense?” And it was crazy. It was great. I mean, it was neighbors who straight-up only play Monopoly. We’d sit down, and midway through the game, we’d be yelling at each other and they’re looking at me going, “I don’t want to say this in your house, but I think you’re a liar.”
You said something a minute ago - and it hadn’t even occurred to me - but the idea of playing the game having not seen the movie. I’ve seen the movie so many times I kind of take it for granted. Everyone knows The Thing. But were any of your neighbors anybody who’d never seen it before?
Jay: Yeah, there was one of them who’d never seen the film.
And they absorbed the plot?
Jay: Well, that’s the great thing about it, is that you don’t have to have seen it. But if you’ve seen the movie it’s great because you’re inside the movie and you feel--
Joe: It’s a lot easier to explain.
Jay: But if you’ve never seen the movie, the scenario is easy enough to explain. “Listen: you are trapped in an arctic research base and an alien that imitates humans has gotten out and he’s imitating your crew. You need to get these resources to get the hell out of here or you die. Go.”
Joe: “Someone is going to straight-up lie to your face and you cannot know for sure who it is.”
Jay: There you have it. There are a few little elements that are really specific to the film. So when you do blood tests on people, they’re gonna go, “Well, why am I doing a blood test?” And you almost have to get into the movie mode and, “Well, listen, if every part of this thing is it’s own little organism then I’m sure it’ll crawl away from a hot needle. Understand?” And then they’ll go, “I guess that’s true. Why a not needle? Why are we talking about this?” “You should watch this movie.”
Luke: And from a licensed perspective that’s what we love the most about licensed board games is it creates a narrative you can build off of right away. And it’s an experience that is not equal to but the movie as whole is what it’s meant to be. But you can take that away and it’s more than just a T-shirt. It’s more than a figure. It is an interactive portion where people are actually invested in the decision that are being made on the table. Thus they are involved in the film. For film lovers, this is the best way to extend that experience beyond the film, but more importantly, for people that aren’t necessarily film lovers who love board games it gives us a built-in narrative that we’re not just sitting there explaining mechanics--why to do this, why to do that. There’s reasons and rationales that have been crafted for us by brilliant filmmakers and actors and all of that gets to be distilled into a table-top board game.
Obviously the game hinges on a lot of deception. What would you say to a player who isn’t naturally deceptive or isn’t very good at bullshitting? Like, will they be at a disadvantage?
Jay: They’re going to be at a disadvantage if they’re an imitation. They’re gonna play shifty. They’ll play shifty. So play it straight. Always play it straight. That’s the thing. Like I like to say I’m good at bullshitting, but nobody ever thinks I’m good at it. So you don’t have to--You can be quiet. Just be quiet. Omission works fine. You don’t have to say a word.
Luke: If you’re an imitation, you don’t want to tell people you’re not an imitation. Just play the game. The quiet one isn’t necessarily…
Joe: There’s usually plenty of other people talking.
I would imagine it gets heated.
All three: Ohhhh yes (everyone laughs).
Jay: Really heated.
Luke: Very heated.
Jay: What happens is the flow of the game is pretty quick in the beginning. You’re thinking, “Man, this is gonna be a twenty minute game.” And then oh, no. By sector two, it’s so much table talk, just everyone, “Okay, hold on a minute. I know who I am and I know who he is, but she’s lying, she’s 100% lying and he might be lying. Let’s talk about this right now so that we don’t fail another mission because if we do, we’re really screwed, guys.”
Joe: When you’re pointing a finger at people, they can’t help but feel that finger being pointed.
Jay: “Why are you accusing me of lying?! I’m your wife, you can’t just do that.” And then it turns out that she was lying the whole time. And then after the game you’re like, “Who are you, you know? We need to go to counselling.”
Haha, yeah - "Do I need to start wondering about anything else?"
Jay: Yeah, like, “You were really good. Maybe a little too convincing.”
Luke: And replayability is a really important thing, too. You don’t want to play a game and you play once and you’re like, “Eh”. You’ve done it, everything’s been done. And the thing about this game is that you can also play piss-poorly the first game the next game you learned a little something. So it’s almost the more you play it the more the more that side of the hesitation, of that “I just don’t want to be shifty” and you learn the nuances of what you need to do to survive, get off the island, scuttle the entire team so they get burned up in the fire.
Joe: After a year of play-testing with four or five of the same people, there was so much deep-level strategy that you just couldn’t read anyone. Everyone knew every little nook and cranny of this game. It’s just like, “I have no idea. That’s so clever. Like I kinda think it’s you, but it could be you over here.” I think at first, your first couple game through, it’s just kind of figuring it out and then once you really start to get into it, it’s got some depth.
How long does a round last? Couple hours?
Joe: The whole game? Yeah, the first time you play it, it’d probably be about two hours. And after that you could probably play it in an hour, hour and a half.
And what’s the smallest number of people you can play with?
Joe: Four. It’s probably best from six to eight. It’s kind of hard for people to get six to eight people together for a game night, but if you can? I’m telling you, six, seven, or eight people is a good place.
Jay: I remember when we first started talking about the game and I was saying things like, “Oh, we gotta make sure we have three players. We gotta have a three-player version of this.” But it was decided early on that this isn’t a three person crew at Outpost 31. It never was, it was never meant to be. We have to be true to this.
Luke: If you really want to get where you don’t know who to trust, trying to form alliances and a weird little - you know, just like in the movie, you need that many people. In games we’ll do later, we’ll have games you can play one to eight players or something. But this one needed to be pretty specific.
Joe: To Jay’s point, the narrative is true. Anytime you start moving away it becomes something more complicated, more convoluted, you go back to “What’s happening? Why are we doing it? And what happened in the film?” It answers a lot of those questions. It answered the reason we really should be voting on [a captain]. It was just someone, the next person takes the lead and they’re the captain. And that was really easy to do the more you look at the movie. It’s right, we need to fix it.
My final question, and if all of y’all could take a crack at answering it: what’s your elevator pitch on this to someone who’s not into games, maybe. Or maybe it’s been years since they actually played a board game. How would you sell them on it?
Jay: That is tough, because board games these days, people know about tabletop gaming, they know there’s this world of tabletop gaming. But I can say this: for all the complex games that are out there, for all the incredibly deep, beautiful games that us game nerds love to pieces, this one is one of the most accessible I’ve ever played. You’re going to want one person to really be good with rules. You dive in there. Get that one nerd friend to figure it out, but once you start playing, you understand what you’re doing. But the gameplay itself isn’t difficult. It’s the strategy that’s tough. So if you’re not into games, you’ll probably still like this. If you like movies-- especially if you like this movie, if you dig the suspense, if you watch The Thing once a year, this game’s for you. This game’s 100% for you. There’s no way it isn’t. I’m sure of it.
Do you guys have a different response?
Luke: I wouldn’t say it’s so much different. I’d say that everything Jay’s saying is absolutely right. If you needed me to distill it down into something, I would say that this game is 100% about suspicion, deception, and claustrophobia. And everything that we were trying to build on the game--forget all the hardcore mechanics and everything-- at the very essence of it, it is a bunch of people sitting at a table that feel like they need to get out. Whatever that means, they’re trying to do it by deceiving one another. And everybody’s sitting there, just like we said earlier, just calling people out. “You are a liar.” Like, all three of those touch points are hitting on a near-perfect tone throughout.
Joe: Yeah, for me, it’s just the way the game makes me feel like I am in the latter half of the movie. The tension, the lack of trust, that’s really from the start what I was going for. And I think we got it to a pretty good place that towards the end of the game you are straight up paranoid. I think it really got to that place.
Mondo and Project Raygun's The Thing: Infection At Outpost 31 arrives this October. We cannot wait for it, how 'bout you folks?