Reviving John Carpenter's The Thing... as a board game

Celebrated as one of the best horror films of all time, The Thing has no shortage of adaptations, including a videogame. But Mondo wants to try something different.

There is a long and complicated history of attempting to adapt John Carpenter’s The Thing into videogame form. Most notably, there was a semi-official sequel on the Playstation 2 and original Xbox which featured team management/trust mechanics, but which struggled to get its pre-scripted events to gel together. Most recently, we’ve encountered Distrust, which features an Antarctic research station battling an alien menace, but that game is still a work in progress; as of this writing, it’s still horrifically unbalanced to the point where it is nearly unplayable. Then there’s the entire world of board and card games flooded with titles inspired by the film, all of them trying to (with varying success) recreate the paranoia of what went down at that remote Antarctic outpost.

That’s why we’ve got such high hopes for The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31. This is the first board game to be released by Mondo, who you mostly know from their work in high-end movie posters, super-collectibles, and limited run vinyl soundtracks. Why get into the board game space now, and why kick things off by attempting John Carpenter’s nearly impossible-to-translate? What would it even play like? We had to know. That’s why we got in touch with Mondo’s Senior Creative Director Jay Shaw to get the full story behind Outpost 31 and the future of Mondo board games.

So, what is The Thing: Infection at Outpost at 31? This tabletop board game features the famous Antarctic research station and all of the characters from the Carpenter film, as well as a series of cards and situations that mimic the events of the film. It is one of the most visually stunning packaged tabletop products we’ve ever seen -- and we should have expected nothing less from Mondo. There’s blood tests and terrible monsters and even some weird jokes. “When we decided to get into board games, it was from a fan perspective,” Shaw says.  “We have access to all these licenses and artists -- if we married them together in a board game space it’s perfect.”

But Mondo is not in the business of making games, so the company partnered with game designer Joe Van Wetering and the Project Raygun company (Court of the Dead), who began teaching a gauntlet of game design philosophy.

“There are a lot of great game companies out there,” Shaw said, “but we have this unique roster of artists who haven’t had exposure in this space. Universal [the rights-owner to the film] was very cool. They really pay attention to details. They don’t just give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. They point out ’Well, the flamethrower in the movie actually had two barrels, so I don’t know if you want to update that to make it more screen accurate?’”

As gigantic fans of the film, Shaw and his team were shocked that even they had missed some details. “With the layout of the base, our licensing rep at Universal said. ’I just want to be 100% accurate about this, and you’re real close to being a true Outpost 31. However, there should be a doorway from the kitchen into the rec room.’ And we said ’We couldn’t put a doorway there because it isn’t a natural path of movement for the game.’ They would laugh about these notes, in only the way that people that have sunk competitive amounts of time into a property could. But they also watched interviews with John Carpenter being interrogated about the film over the years, and knew that he never put this level of concern into the original film because he was just trying to make a good thriller. [They told me,] ’No one was thinking this hard about the details. We are.’”

The Mondo-exclusive version of The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31 is limited to 1,982 copies and features unique artwork by Mondo go-to artist Jock. There’s a translucent screen-printed sleeve, a letterpress print, enamel pin, two additional “movers,” and slightly expanded gameplay. But don’t worry; if you don’t get the special edition you’re only really missing out on one super cute joke.

“It was a joke at first,” Shaw says, “that maybe if you draw the character of the poor dead Norwegian scientist at the beginning you’re not allowed to play. So we made a sculpt for the poor dead Norwegian. That seemed too cruel, so [instead] one of the missions you can draw is to go investigate him out in the snow now. It doesn’t change the game, but the special edition has something a little bit extra. No one who doesn’t get the special edition is being excluded from anything.”

Shaw admits that he entered production on the game with a lot of grand ideas about what The Thing could be, but that his scale was unreasonably high. As a fan of gigantic Euro-investment level games, he envisioned a Twilight Imperium level game that only four people in the world would want to play and that would suck up eight hours of your time. Game designer Joe Van Wetering had a much different set of ideas.

“Downtime and player interactions have to have very limited time between turns,” Van Wetering taught the team. “By the second round of play, you should never reference the rule book again. Most of it should be people yelling at each other and it should be extremely social. We didn’t want people breaking out of the game to look up archaic rule verification. The Thing is very social, after all.”

There’s also a lot Shaw and the Mondo team learned about making a story happen organically on a chaotic tabletop space. “Most of your ideas about board games are wrong,” Shaw explains. “These are the moments from the film we have to hit and these are the elements of the game that have to be included. The moments have to happen without being forced, but it has to happen in sequence because that’s how you design a story. This is something I’m mesmerized by.”

We ask Shaw if the dream Mondo game for him would be Parks & Recreation’s Cones of Dunshire. He gives a knowing laugh. Maybe that’s up next.

“We cannot discuss what comes next,” Shaw tells us. “And maybe that’s a bit of a giveaway. But in 2018 we’re not going to [get ahead of ourselves], but we are going to make a few games. We’re open to a lot of different opportunities for partnership but we also now have an in-house games division with a team and we’re making things that bridge my world of hardcore game players with Mondo fan non-gamers to make things that appeal to everyone.”

There are also elements and mistakes that Mondo and Shaw have learned from by watching other board game companies over the years. One lesson they’ve learned: don’t force a ton of expansions on a cash-strapped audience. “We have one expansion planned [for Outpost 31],” Shaw says. “We had this really cool casting for Blair’s ship but it didn’t really belong in the game, so we have an expansion for 2018 which slightly extends the ending of the story and actually leads to a gigantic final battle.” Shaw says he isn’t interested in putting out any expansions beyond that. “We’d have to write a totally new scenario or, like, do the prequel? No one wants that. So we’re just going to move on to some new games.”

Infection at Outpost 31 isn’t the only The Thing based board game hitting right now. Since the original short story is now in the public domain, there’s a Kickstarter running for Who Goes There? which does the same idea with the same characters. Shaw is excited by the competition. “It’s totally cool,” he says. “There’s space for more than one game about anything and as a game fan I know I’m going to buy every game that appeals to me. We have a unique story to tell on the board, and honestly, how many secret identity games do we all own?”

The Mondo game has been out at conferences, getting player feedback all year. “We obviously started with Project Raygun’s extensive testing team, so by the time we had this at cons we felt very confident in the game,” Shaw says. “Feedback has been great, but I also know the pressure we’re under. People are suspicious about a new game company. But we’re Mondo, so there’s both an expectation [and] a question about why we got into this space.”

And that’s why Mondo can’t just mimic someone else. Infection has to be the real deal.

The game is for sale through Mondo on October 31, 2017.