Full disclosure: A review copy of Alien Express was provided by Happy Baobab.
Like I said, I’ve been really fortunate to play through a bunch of Happy Baobab titles in the last few weeks! We had Gone Fishing, Magic Fold, and now Alien Express! And more to come! 9 Figure and My Funny Dinos, at least. A few of these were extremely difficult to get played, but I’ve been fortunate to be in a living situation more conducive to getting real-time games played. Plus, I got to see Netters (of Nettersplays) a little while ago and we played a ton of stuff! Alien Express was a highlight, so let’s dive in and check it out!
In Alien Express, you work for the titular company as they strive to bring the latest “human products” to consumers using a special recreational polymer. Unfortunately, you don’t work for the nicest company, so you do have to sculpt the polymer by hand and make sure that it’s recognizable before you ship it out. Your coworkers will approve your package if it’s “close enough”, so, make sure you check with them before you ship it! You’ve got a lot to do and not much time left, so will you be able to become Employee of the Month?
To set up, give each player a Delivery Board:
Then, shuffle the Basic Cards:
Or shuffle the Advanced and Basic Cards together:
Personally, I like to shuffle them separately and have each player draw 3 Basic Cards and 2 Advanced Cards, but that’s me. Either way players need to draw 5 cards, and then return the remaining cards to the box. Next, split the play dough up so that each player has a roughly equal amount:
Give each player 3 Video Tokens:
You should be ready to start!
Gameplay isn’t too challenging either. The game ends as soon as one player has gotten rid of all the cards in their hand. But how do they do that? Let’s find out!
All players simultaneously start playing. To begin, choose a card from your hand and place it face-down in front of you. Then, using the play dough, build it! Use the card as a reference; it doesn’t have to match exactly. Once you’ve finished it, yell “Package!” and place the delivery board with the item in the center of the play area.
When any player places their Delivery Board in the center, other players stop crafting. Now, those other players can try to guess what the item is! If they’re correct, they get the card. Otherwise, you have two options. You can either put the card back in your hand and try to build something else, or you can spend a video token! Spending a video token allows you to mime or make sound effects to try and help the other players guess. If they still don’t succeed, you need to try making another item.
The game ends as soon as any player has completed all of their cards! Then, move to scoring:
- Each completed card that is no longer in your hand is worth 3 points. Your score is just 15 – the number of cards in your hand times 3.
- Each card of an opponent’s that you’ve taken is worth 2 points.
Sum up your points and the player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Not many, honestly, and that kind of makes sense for a game that positions itself as a party game, of sorts. Your best bet with this one is to just get as many people as you can playing at the same time. The more people you have, the more you’ll be able to guess cards and score points that way, even if you’re bad at sculpting. The one minute difference is that you’ll have progressively less clay as you add more players (since the initial block of clay is split equally between all players), but I’m not hideously concerned about that. It’s a small problem. Beyond that, everything is happening in real time, and I think the game benefits from the chaos. With more players, you suddenly need to decide things like “should I prioritize working on my own stuff or just trying to be first to correctly guess other players’ constructions?”. These are fun questions that are improved by having too many options to consider, so I’d recommend this one at higher player counts. That said, I still had a blast at 3.
This is another one of those times that I caution you to not think about this game too strategically. At its core, it’s a party game about quickly building random human objects out of clay and then trying to convince other players that your hastily-constructed clay thing is whatever you believe it to be. That’s exciting and all, but it doesn’t allow for a ton of what players would traditionally refer to as “strategic” play. There’s more “chaotic” play. And that’s fun, too! Just don’t try to overcomplicate a party game by playing it for Hard Strategy.
- I generally try to build whatever cards I think are the easiest to build, first. This gets you the benefit of quickly eliminating cards from your hand, and that’s generally a good thing. Fewer cards, more points.
- Don’t focus so much on construction that you miss out on guessing other players’ cards. That’s also points! You want to keep an eye out for when someone says “Package!”. I guess, an ear out. Keep an ear out so that you can hear it. You get what I’m saying. If you’re too focused on what you’re building, you’re missing out on valuable opportunities to score additional points and leaving them for your opponents. It’s your opponents getting those points that’s the worst part, really.
- Your video tokens are critical, and it’s not like they’re worth bonus points anyways. Don’t leave them on the table! Especially if you’re getting Advanced Cards, use them! Do the gestures or make the noise or whatever needs done for you to get your card guessed. The more cards your opponents guess, the better you all do.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- It’s a very fun conceit, I have to give it that. I mean, sculpting is like drawing, in that many people just aren’t great at it because they’ve had literally zero opportunity to practice it. This makes for a very entertaining game premise. If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to make a game silly and fun, take something that most people aren’t good at and make them do it in real-time. This leads to a need to go quickly, which causes even more hilarity. Plus, it’s themed around aliens creating fancy Earth objects, so of course they’re not going to totally understand what they’ve got.
- I appreciate that there’s points available for players guessing and for players crafting. It makes players a bit less self-conscious if they don’t feel that they’re good at crafting, which is inclusive of a variety of player skill levels. For a party game, that’s a nice touch.
- It’s also smart to reward players for guessing other players’ cards. The major thing I wondered when I first read the rules is how to incentivize players to stop sculpting and start guessing, and having player guesses be worth 2 points (instead of 3) is a great way to do that, especially for players that aren’t quite as good at sculpting. They can get their Basic Cards done and spend the rest of the game guessing, instead.
- I also like that the name of the object isn’t printed on the card, so it eliminates some language-based ambiguity. You can definitely play this game pretty much language-agnostic, as long as all players speak the same language, which is cool. I assume that also cuts down on a lot of translation work (outside of the rulebook, I suppose).
- The art style is very fun. It’s bright and colorful and dynamic, which is perfect for a party game like this. I also really like the orange on the box. It’s striking, especially contrasted with the green. It gives the game a very “alien business” feel, which I like.
- Plays very quickly, even with the Advanced Variant. This game is 20 minutes, tops, but since it’s real-time it feels fast. You’re always doing something! Sculpting, guessing, planning, or some combination of those. I’d call the game frenetic.
- It’s a bit nebulous how long you can let other players guess, and how often players can guess before the player needs to fix their sculpture or use a video token. There’s an issue here that can arise in which one player can just kind of shout words that are all essentially the image to try and drown out other players, and that’s not great. Granted, I don’t think many players do that on purpose, but I think there’s some incentive to do that because the game’s happening in real time and there’s not always a way to easily disambiguate the players. You could have them raise hands, but that may not solve the problem either. We usually ask players to be acknowledged “yes” or “no” before they guess again, and the sculptor kind of needs to acknowledge other players before going back to a player that’s already guessed, if multiple players guess at the same time. That’s usually fine, but this specific tension doesn’t occur all that often, either. It just seems odd that you can functionally just hold up the game and wait for another player to guess your sculpture. One fix for this is to have submitting your item not pause the game, but that causes other weird downstream issues.
- You need to be really careful that the clay doesn’t dry out. If it does, that’s kind of that, for it. Thankfully, I’m pretty sure bright green Play-Doh is cheap enough that you can get plenty more, but it’s just something to watch out for. You don’t want to open up this game at a party and suddenly have it be unplayable. Just check it before game night, so you can go get some replacement Play-Doh or something if you need it.
- Randomizing normal and advanced cards can lead to problematic distributions, especially when players have significantly more advanced cards than other players. The Advanced Cards aren’t across-the-board more difficult to assemble, but they may be more challenging to recognize and guess, so I’d prefer a scenario in which players all have roughly the same number. This mostly works out if you shuffle the decks together, but I tend to adopt a more explicit split where we keep the decks separated and just have players draw a certain number of cards from both decks. It also allows you to adjust difficulty over multiple games by having players draw more Advanced Cards if they won the previous game. I don’t think it’s a perfect system, but I think the current system can lead to imbalances.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, I quite enjoyed Alien Express! I think the core concept is excellent, and I love the clay aspects of the game. Sculpting is fun, the cards are challenging and entertaining, and trying to figure out what is essentially abstract art, courtesy of the player is an absolute riot. The game also smartly aims for being colorful, inviting, and dynamic, showing that it understands its own place as a party game and the kinds of players that such a game will appeal to. Mechanically, the game is pretty sound as well. My major issue is that the rules allow for ambiguity, which is tough in a real-time party game. How many guesses until a player has guessed too many times? How does the player determine which player to recognize? At what point does a player need to withdraw their clay sculpture and try again? These aren’t quite answered, and they end up creating roadbumps in an otherwise smooth gameplay experience. Similarly, mixing Basic and Advanced cards introduces a sloppy element of variability, where players may have significantly more difficult starting hands than other players, reducing them to having to either sculpt challenging items or spend their time jockeying to be the first to guess someone else’s structure. These missteps are annoying, granted, but Alien Express is a party game. Party games are a genre well-kwown for their flexibility and tolerance for players making some adjustments. I have a few adjustments I like; if you play Alien Express, you may find some that you like, as well. If you’re looking for a solid party game and you enjoy something that’s a little artistically outside the box, I would definitely recommend playing Alien Express, if you can! I’ve certainly had a blast with it.