Specimen Game Review (prepublished version)

Please Take Note: This is a review of the game’s final prototype. The art, game bits, and the rules discussed are all subject to change. The game is being reviewed on the components and the rules provided with the understanding that “what you see is not what you might get” when the game is published. If you like what you read and want to learn more, we encourage you to visit the game’s Kickstarter campaign. Now that we have all that disclaimer junk out of the way, on with the review!


The Basics:

  • For ages 12 and up
  • For 2 players
  • Approximately 180 minutes to complete

Geek Skills:

  • Active Listening & Communication
  • Counting & Math
  • Logical & Critical Decision Making
  • Reading
  • Strategy & Tactics
  • Hand/Resource Management
  • Bluffing and Misdirection
  • Worker Placement & Area Control

Learning Curve:

  • Child – Impossible
  • Adult – Hard

Theme & Narrative:

  • In space, no on can hear you scream out of frustration or holler with delight

Endorsements:

  • Gamer Geek approved!
  • Parent Geek rejected!
  • Child Geek rejected!

Overview

Everything was going by the book. All the safety measures were in place, systems were checked and double checked again, and the crew members of the deep space freighter T.C.S Brown were sleeping safely in hibernation on their way back to Earth. Then the unthinkable happened. Something collided with the ship. The emergency systems immediately came online and started reviving the crew. When the crew emerged from hibernation, they found that the damage could be fixed without much effort, but that wasn’t the issue. Something was released when the ship was struck and was now hunting them down, one by one.

Specimen, by Toxic Bag Productions, is comprised of 1 large game board that represents the spaceship (split in two – one side for the Crew Members and one side for the Specimen), 90 strategy cards (45 Crew cards, 45 Specimen cards), 7 Crew Character cards, 25 Specimen Attribute cards, 8 six-sided dice, well over 100 counters and chits that are used to track various conditions and elements in the game, 1 Specimen game screen (splits the game board in half during play), 2 reference cards, and 8 pawns (7 for the crew and 1 for the specimen). Yes, that’s a lot of bits. As this is a review of the game’s prototype, we will not comment on the game component quality.

Ship Prep

To set up the game, first place the game board in the middle of the playing area and have the players sit opposite of each other on either ends. Note that the player who wants to play the creature should sit on the creature side of the game board.

Second, take the Specimen screen and unfold, placing it so if divides the game board into two halves. There is a line down the middle of the game board that identifies where the screen should be placed.

Third, place the 7 Crew pawns in the Hibernation Room (located on the game board) and the 7 matching Crew character cards on their matching spaces. Ensure that the Crew character cards are showing the non-wounded side of the characters.

Fourth, place the Turn and Surviving Crew markers on their matching tracks on the game board. The Crew marker starts in the “7” position and the Turn marker starts on the “1” position.

Fifth, the Pod Status marker is placed in the position that identifies it as “Un-prepped”, located on the Escape Pod section of the game board and the Self-Destruct marker is placed on the “Off” space of the Self-Destruct track.

Sixth, The Supplies Exhausted marker is placed on the Supplies Exhausted space on the Turn track and one Flashlight, Spanner, Power Driver, and Hand Welder Tool chits are placed on each Corridor section of the game board. The two First Aid Kit markers are placed in the Infirmary section of the game board.

Seventh, the Specimen pawn is placed on the Bowels of the Ship space on the Specimen’s side of the game board and the three Junction Closed markers are placed on the Junction Closed boxes on the Air Vent sections.

Eighth, the Specimen player rolls a die to determine the damage dealt to the Cargo Hold Two section of the ship where the meteor struck. A damage marker is placed accordingly based on the results of the die roll.

Ninth, the Crew player takes their Crew cards to create a single deck and the Specimen player takes the Specimen and Specimen Attribute cards to create two separate decks. The players should now look through their Crew and Specimen decks and remove the 15 cards that say “Collision” at the card’s title. These cards are now shuffled and each player draws 5 cards from this deck, putting the rest to one side. This creates each player’s starting hand. The remaining cards will be included in the game later.

Tenth, the Specimen player now looks through their Specimen Attribute cards and selects three. Any three can be selected, but the total attribute points of all three cards cannot exceed 3. The value for each attribute determines two things. The first is the overall strength of the attribute (the higher the value, the more powerful and useful the attribute will be) and the second is when the attribute becomes available to the Specimen player as the creature mutates and evolves (higher valued attributes come into play later in the game). The remaining Attribute cards are set aside.

You are now ready to play!

Of Crew and Creatures

One player will control all 7 of the Crew Members and the other player will control the Specimen creature. Both players have different objectives in the game, but more or less play the game the same way. For the player controlling the Crew Members, they have 7 individuals they must manage and direct throughout the ship, repairing damage, hunting the creature, and if things get really bad, setting the self-destruct sequence and prepping the escape pod. All of the actions the player can take costs Crew Points, however, and there is a limited number available during any round of play. This means the player must consider each move carefully and attempt to spend their Crew Points in the most efficient manner possible to help the crew survive.

The crew are a diverse group of individuals that each bring something special to the table, but are by no means equals. Each Crew Member card is ranked from “1” to “7”. The lower the number, the more skilled and reliable the crew member is. Of course, these will be (and rightly so) the first targets of the Specimen player. The game somewhat encourages the player to split their crew members up (which is, of course, a no-no when it comes to surviving horror movies). This is necessary to control different systems in the ship and maintain area control, but by doing so, each individual crew member is weaker for it. Alternatively, the player can also group up their Crew Members so as to increase their odds of not only success, but of survival. A two person team can fix repairs faster and fight off the creature easier, but take longer to do so and cost more Crew Points.

For the player controlling the Specimen, the game play is more or less the exact same, but the actions they can take are specific to the creature. Running around in the air ducts, hiding, creating a lair, and eating the crew are the primary objects of the Specimen player. Like the Crew Members, the Specimen is limited in what they can do with points, but they are also limited in where they can go in the ship. For the Specimen, Crew Points are called Action Points, but are used in the exact same way as Crew Points. The Specimen creature can be taken down by multiple Crew Members, so it must constantly hide to survive. The Specimen player should remain hidden, destroy vital ship systems when no one is around, and in general make a real nuisance of themselves. Throughout the game, players will be rolling dice to determine if certain actions are successful or not. The Specimen player is highly encouraged to roll the dice when they don’t have to so as to confuse their opponent, but they must always tell the truth.

For both players, the primary objective of all their actions should be survival. Who is fit to survive will depend on each player’s ability to organize, strategize, and tactically make the best moves during the game.

In the Darkness of Space

Note: The game rules are rather involved with many details. We will only summarize them here and encourage you to read the game rules fully by visiting the game’s Kickstarter campaign web page.

Game play is broken down into turns with each turn further broken down into different phases.

Action Phase

During this phase, the players will draw cards and determine if they want to use them to create Events in the game (furthers the story, influences all the rolls, and can be very beneficial) or to provide points to be used for the Crew or the Specimen to take actions. In this way, the cards can be played in a number of different ways, making each card very useful, but only once.

This phase is broken down into 4 rounds of play with the Specimen player always going first. A card is played and the game board pieces are moved accordingly. After the Specimen player completes their turn, their opponent will go and do the same thing with their cards. Again, movement throughout the ship is determined by points, which means a player might spend 2 or more rounds attempting to complete a repair, move from one side of the ship to another, or eating the remains of an unlucky Crew Member. Knowing what to do to survive is made all the more complicated by the game board being split in half. The two players see two different game board and must plan their moves according to what they know and what they think they know.

If a Crew Member and the Specimen creature should find themselves in the same room, either because the Specimen was found while hiding or either player decided to simply confront the other, combat ensues. This is done by both players playing cards to adjust their combat rolls and then engaging in a bloody scuffle. Combat continues until something dies or the player who initiated combat withdrawals. As a result of combat, Crew Members might be lucky enough to walk away from it being only wounded versus the harder to cure condition of being dead. Wounded Crew Members have reduced attributes and are less effective, but the player controlling the Crew Members can send them to the Infirmary to get fixed up. Cross your fingers that the Specimen creature doesn’t meet the wounded crew member in a dark corridor, licking its lips.

End Phase

After each player has had 4 rounds of actions or if both players decide to pass on playing a card during their round, the end phase begins. This phase is more or less focused on game board management, advancing tracks, revealing where the Specimen has wrecked additional parts of the ship, moving that terribly troublesome mascot (that silly monkey caused me so much grief while I was playing…), evolving the Specimen, drawing new cards, and checking to see if the endgame condition has been met. Despite being the last portion of the turn, it is something of the most important. As the game progresses, so will the tension. The longer the Crew Members stay on the ship, the stronger the Specimen will become, resulting in more and more Crew Members dying. A reduced crew makes the surviving crew members’ work harder, forcing the player to take more risks by spreading them out. So much for safety in numbers. Eventually (and only when there are 3 or less Crew Members left alive), it’ll be time to abandon the ship and blow up the Specimen with it.

Of course, the Specimen knows this and will do everything it can to get on the escape pod, too. If the Crew Members and the Specimen find themselves in the escape pod together, the situation becomes exceedingly complicated and violent. Mostly violent. OK, all violent, as there is a final showdown. It’s played out as a normal round of combat, except the players get a few extra cards, and of course, there are no withdrawals (unless you consider jumping out into the vacuum of space as a legit way to survive combat – which it isn’t). Regardless, the endgame will occur at the end of combat in the escape pod.

If the endgame conditions have not been met, another turn is now started.

Game Over, Man!

Eventually, all this running around, playing with weapons, and mutating space monsters is going to lead to nothing but tears. Who ends up crying, though, is based on several different ways the game can end.

The Specimen Wins If…

  • All the crew are killed, the ship isn’t blown-up, and the Specimen is left alive (considered a major victory)
  • All the crew are killed and the Specimen is left alive (considered a minor victory)

The Crew Members Win If…

  • The Specimen is killed, the ship isn’t blown-up, and at least 4 of the Crew Members are left alive (considered a major victory)
  • The Specimen is killed and at least 3 of the Crew Members are left alive (considered a minor victory)

The game is considered a draw if everyone dies (due to the ship blowing up, most of the time). I like to think the mascot somehow survives, however.

We only scratched the surface of this game, folks. Seriously, there is much more detail to be found in the rules. This review is already over 3000 words long and I simply don’t want to give you a tension headache by going over everything you can do in the game. Suffice to say, there’s a lot. Do read the full rules which are available on the game’s Kickstarter campaign web page.

Prediction

Based on the rules of this game, I’m pretty sure my little geek (and any Child Geek we play the game with) is going to be thrilled by the game’s narrative and theme, but downright disappointed and frustrated by the game play. This game is huge. HUGE! After reading the rules, I realized that even a well-seasoned Gamer Geek was going to be somewhat overwhelmed by the game. Yes, this was a “gamers” game, through and through. Still, one does love a challenge, so I read up on the rules, played the game solo a few times, and made sure I knew it in and out. Despite all that, I was still left scratching my head at times when certain situations popped up and I had no real clue how to address them. This, of course, resulted in me going back to the rules to determine the best course of action. I took a lot of notes while testing this game. Lots of notes…

Eventually, I felt I knew the game well enough to teach it. It took a week to teach it to my 8-year-old, which was primarily based on his lack of free time and less about the game’s complexity. Once he was ready to play, I set up the game board and asked him his thoughts on the game so far.

“This is just like the alien movie you told me about, Dad! Let’s play already! I’m tired of just learning how to play!” ~ Liam (age 8)

Yes, he knows about the movie Alien, and no he has never seen it. He’s 8-years-old, people! I had the misfortune of seeing that film when I was 10-years-old and I STILL sleep with the bed sheets covering my mouth. Those facehuggers…messed me up. (*shiver*) What were my parents thinking?!

Let’s play the game and see if it does a great job of resurfacing all my fears as a child thanks to poor parenting or if the game itself is a horrific disaster.

Final Word

This game was very difficult to play with my little geek. Specimen is not a light game and has so many rules and components that it simply overwhelmed him. Even when he played with a Parent Geek and a Gamer Geek as their partner, he had a hard time keeping track of the all the pieces on the game board. It wasn’t until he observed his sixth game that he said, “Oh, now I get it!” But by then, it was too late. He had long-lost interest in the game and all he wanted to do was pat me on the back, say “good luck”, and go play something else.

Parent Geeks really wrestled with this game. Their initial thoughts were very positive, but as the game play continued, they became less and less interested and spent more and more time looking at their watch. The game was just too long, too involved, and too much for them to really enjoy. Parent Geeks yearn for the casual game play experience and Specimen provides nothing of the sort. After playing the game with one Parent Geek, which took close to 3 hours because we were constantly being interrupted, she said, “this is a game that will never see any family game play.” I agreed with her. The game was deigned for 2 players who had a lot of time on their hands and little to no chance of being distracted….ever.

Gamer Geeks jumped all over this game. A 2-player game of strategy and survival really appealed to them and they ate it up. They also thought the game was a bit too long and could deliver a better experience in half the time it took to play it. They did appreciate, however, that the play time length was based somewhat on crafting the game’s theme and narrative. But this, to them, should be in the background and not play such a significant role in the game play itself. The over abundant use of chits and counters started to become something of a joke and a source of frustration as the game would have to pause while both players hunted for the right piece to place on the game board. One Gamer Geek summarized his thoughts perfectly by stating, “This is a game that wants to be a movie played on a game board – that takes time and the game play is suffering for it.”

My little geek shows me how a “creature” sounds when it roars in the game

Gamer Geeks, this game is going to rip you a new one, in a good way! It is very challenging, engaging, and without mercy. The game play is not at all straightforward at first and the game has a steep learning curve. Once you figure out how to play it, however, the game still doesn’t become easy. The many different things a player can do, be they the nasty space creature or the hapless crew, is simply mind-boggling at times. The game does an outstanding job of challenging you and feels very rewarding when the game concludes, although you will feel winded. Indeed, the Gamer Geeks had to walk away several times from the table to just collect their thoughts as the game progressed. For those most elite of Gamer Geeks who enjoy a challenging 2-player experience, this game is sure to please.

Parent Geeks, this game gave you a nosebleed and caused you to whine a lot. This is the very definition of a non-casual game and is exceedingly demanding on your time and your attention. There is nothing in this game that is easy or light, and the general response from most Parent Geeks was something like, “Why would anyone want to play this?!?” Clearly, not the game for you folks and we’d like to thank and apologize to those Parent Geeks who sat down, played the game, and passed out. We couldn’t get a non-gamer to play the game, as they usually excused themselves halfway through the rules explanation.

Child Geeks, run! RUN!  RUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUN!

I found this game very difficult to play and to teach. The rule book, to begin with, is not an easy thing to navigate. Its current structure breaks down the game to a level of component play, going into great detail, but is so finite in its approach that is leaves the reader bewildered and confused about how to play the game at a higher level. Teaching the game was close to impossible with the Child Geeks (as they quickly lost interest), the Parent Geeks wanted to “just play”, and the Gamer Geeks asked a lot of thoughtful questions that I had a hard time answering. Once everyone understood the game well enough to play it, they either immediately loved it or feared it. This is one of those games that only the most experienced players are going to understand quickly and enjoy. Everyone else is going to have to work for it.

The game itself is actually very interesting and does a wonderful job of recreating an experience very reminiscent of the 1979 horror Sci-Fi film, Alien. In fact, individuals familiar with the film will instantly recognize how strong an influence that movie was on the game, right down to the number of crew members, the “creature” that is hunting them in the ship, and the crew’s pet that keeps getting in the way. The narrative of the game, coupled with the theme, does an excellent job of keeping it altogether, but it never gets to a point where the tension in the game is beyond a player’s ability to cope with it. In fact, the game’s length hurts it somewhat in this department as the speed of the game keeps any level adrenaline down to a minimum. This is a game of strategy and that means everything moves a bit slower. You won’t see the creature coming, but when it jumps on you, you have the time to think it through, determine your options, and then make a choice.

I also found this game to be a bit too fiddly. My personal tastes in games gravitate towards designs that have less components, are more streamlined in their turn order, and can be played within an hour. Please do not take my statement to suggest that Specimen is a bad game, however. I like what this game is doing, just not the way it is going about it. I know I would enjoy it more if there were fewer pieces, had a reduced game length, and the game play was a little less heavy. I was really hoping that this was going to be a game I could play with my oldest little geek, but he is far from ready to tackle it and play it well, as are most of my friends and family. There are other 2-player games available, but the idea of playing a space survival game reminiscent of Alien very much appeals to me. It saddens me somewhat that this game didn’t fit my needs, but I’m sure it will fit the needs of others.

If you are looking for a horror Sci-Fi themed game for 2 players, where survival is based on cunning, strategy, and tactics (regardless if you are part of the crew or the creature hunting them), then do get your hands on  Specimen.

This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.

About Cyrus

Editor in Chief, Owner/Operator, Board Game Fanatic, Father of Three, and Nice Guy, Cyrus has always enjoyed board, card, miniature, role playing, and video games, but didn't get back into the hobby seriously until early 2000. Once he did, however, he was hooked. He now plays board games with anyone and everyone he can, but enjoys playing with his children and wife the most. Video games continue to be of real interest, but not as much as dice and little miniatures. As he carefully navigates the ins and outs of parenting, he does his very best to bestow what wisdom he has and help nurture his children's young minds. It is his hope and ambition to raise three strong, honorable men who will one day go on to do great things and buy their Mom and Dad a lobster dinner Cyrus goes by the handle fathergeek on Board Game Geek. You can also check him out on CyrusKirby.com. Yes, he has a URL that is his name. His ego knows no bounds, apparently....
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