Sunday, May 26, 2024

Balance and Complexity Are No Anomaly Here

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While watching movies like Alien, are you convinced you could do better than the crew? Or are you more apt to want to try your hand at being the monster yourself? Anomaly by Starling Games gives you the opportunity for both. One to three gifted science students find themselves to be the last remaining survivors on a ship plagued by… something. The anomaly is just that; an unexplained entity. One thing is clear though—it wants to eat the students. With a handful of shared gadgets, maneuvers, and a whole lot of stealth, the students must do what they can to survive. 

Anomaly box

Anomaly sets the stage for an epic sci-fi showdown. Not only are our heroes battling a mutating threat, but their ship is slowly being consumed by radiation. There is technically no turn limit in Anomaly, but once the whole board is covered in damaging radiation, it’s only a matter of time. Speaking of the board, players will be roaming a circular ship divided into twelve quadrants. I want to make sure to note here how striking this game is. Each of those twelve quadrants will have three subtypes, denoted by symbols on their spaces but also through the use of gradient hue changes. This design seemed overwhelming at first, but quickly became a useful and intuitive tool for tracking possible movements. 

Tracking is vital as Anomaly is a game of hidden movement. Unlike other hidden movement games, such as Fury of Dracula or Letters from Whitechapel, every single player’s position is kept secret. Even as a student playing on a team with other students, you cannot be sure where your allies truly are unless they openly tell you. All conversation between students must be heard by the anomaly, so it is much safer to keep your whereabouts hidden. If that sounds like far too much to try to deduce, reminder tokens are included that allow players to keep track of where a player was or could be. For the students, there are four each—one for each space of a particular zone type. For tracking the anomaly, well, you get enough for every space on the board. They can teleport, after all. 

For my playthrough, my husband graciously tried to murder me while I sought his destruction; normal date night stuff. Since we had a two-player game, it was a true game of cat and mouse. Sometimes, it felt more like whack a mole, but even without two other students running around the game was balanced. Sure, I couldn’t have him wound his teammates when I possessed him, but I could give myself whatever card I wanted. One of the fun interactions between actions in this game is that every card the student uses is then handed over to the anomaly. Mechanically, there is a lot of strategy here. Do you set this trap if it means the anomaly can set off lightning traps of their own next turn? Is this powerful attack worth it if it allows a powerful mutation like echolocation? It truly feels like the anomaly is an intelligent, adapting lifeform. Oh, and about those mutations? Nothing scared my husband more than realizing they stack.

Not only are actions give and take, but health is a finite resource and a game of tug-of-war. The health tracker has three tokens: student life (all students share the same health bar), anomaly life, and a marker for where zero is. The zero marker will start in the middle, with each side having effectively eight hit points. The anomaly can lose health by not feeding during a round, taking damage from various student abilities, or being caught in radiation. Health can only be gained by feeding on one of the six non-renewable fuel sources on the ship. For the students, things are much bleaker. They can never gain health, and if they are fed on, that zero tracker moves closer to their starting line—they lose health and the anomaly grows stronger. Students also have the misfortune of being susceptible to their own traps, while the anomaly is immune from, or can mutate to be healed by, theirs. 

Anomaly box

Anomaly is a quite successful asymmetric game with massive replay options. The more I analyze the mechanics, the happier I am with the balance and complexity. I am excited to see the chaos that would ensure with a whole host of students, but the drama of a one on one battle was plenty enjoyable. Our game ended with the two of us locked into one of two ⁸non-irradiated zones. I had swooped in to feed the turn prior, leaving my husband one hit from death. With three hit points of my own, I felt confident in my victory. But he did something perfectly human: after dealing two damage in a close hand attack, he triggered the trap he had set turns before; killings us both. The brave science student sacrificed himself to make sure the anomaly would never get a chance to leave escape the ship it was created on. It was a satisfying end to a hard-fought battle.

You can grab Anomaly at the your FLGS or Amazon.

Images via Starling Games

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