Mondo’s Jay Shaw on Turning ‘The Thing’ Into a Board Game
At Toy Fair 2017, Mondo and USAopoly’s Project Raygun division announced an all-new board game set in the universe of John Carpenter’s classic horror film, The Thing. Back in February, we weren’t allowed to talk about what we’d seen. With the official reveal of The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31 yesterday, everybody now knows what Mondo and Project Raygun have in store for gamers.
To learn a bit more about the development of Infection at Outpost 31 and how Mondo was able to turn such a tense film into a table top game, we spoke with Mondo’s creative director Jay Shaw. But was he being honest, or was he just trying to convince us he wasn’t an alien monster?
We got to see the prototype of The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31 at Toy Fair, including some of the player pieces and the game board. One thing that immediately jumped out was the design of the board. How much research went into bringing the outpost to life for this game?
A ton of research went into it. We tried really hard to get a completely accurate layout of Outpost 31. Obviously there are some compromises you have to make so it properly fits a game board, but if you go through the film, this is really close. The relationship between the rec room and the kitchen, one of the labs or where the shed would be, this is pretty close.
I imagine pouring over the film to see where everyone is walking or going about their daily business to arrive at this layout. There are no real blueprints available to look at.
Not that we could find. We did look, but we couldn’t find any kind of blueprint. If you watch the film and really pay attention to where things are, you can tell there are certain areas that would connect unnaturally. That’s the kind of stuff we had to avoid a little bit in order to have it make sense as a game board.
Infection at Outpost 31 is going to be one of the first licensed games, not just for you, but through USAopoly’s Project Raygun partnership too. How has that relationship been working to develop this as board games are a new foray for Mondo?
It’s been excellent. There's no way we could have done this without them. When we first started talking about doing a game, I got excited, everybody got excited, we all wanted to do it. We were all excited about the movie, but when we got to the idea of how you build a game from a mechanical standpoint, that’s where we froze.
I play a lot of games, the rest of the team plays a lot of games, and they feel simple when you’re playing them. The mechanics of good board games are very hard to pull off. It’s a science. In working with an established game company, and a really great game designer in Joe Van Wetering [creative design and game development for Project Raygun], we were able to take a lot of that work off Mondo’s plate. Which is good because we didn't want to do it, we didn't know how to do it. What we ended up being able to do was collaborate with them.
[Project Raygun] would go in and build these great mechanics, and say, “Hey, this plays like this. What do we all think? How does that fit into the narrative of the film?” Then we would go nuts and say, “What would be cool is if you could do this,” or “I don't think MacReady would do that,” or “I don't think this moment happens until later in the movie.” We were able to throw them a ton of thematic feedback from the film, and then they would translate that into game form.
That part of the partnership has been incredible, but that in particular is something we never could have done without them.
Playing as the characters from the film is one of they key design aspects and attractions for longtime fans. What should we expect from The Thing? How will it play?
It truly does play like the movie. In the beginning of the game, you’re this entire crew at Outpost 31. You start at a point where you know there is an alien lifeform inside the base that’s able to imitate anything it wants. The idea is to gather resources as a team to destroy the base and get out of there. That's what you’re wanting to do; you need to get out of this base.
As you’re playing, things are falling apart. The outpost is falling apart, people on your team and on your squad, they’re potentially becoming infected. You’ve got this whole thing where you stop trusting everyone at the table. You don’t know who’s who. You really want to get out of there, but you’re starting to think you don’t know who is human or who is a Thing. People are lying to each other, they’re getting into arguments, they’re fighting. It gets very, very intense.
The way the game is set up is in stages. We’ve seen in playtesting when you start the game, everybody is fairly friendly, playing cooperatively, and the group is doing really well. By the time you get into the second area, and definitely by the time you get to the third — where things have gone terribly, terribly wrong — people are pointing fingers at each other, strangers are calling each other liars. “I know for a fact you are trying to sabotage this. What's wrong with you? You've gotta be a Thing.” It’s just like the movie, and it’s very intense.
Have any friendships been broken up at Mondo over playtests?
[laughs] No, but we have had some surprises though as to who on staff has a great poker face. I have a terrible poker face. I am instantly accused of being the Thing every time, no matter what. I cannot get people to stop tying me up to the couch every damn time.
There are a few people on staff that have these great poker faces, and they’re able to make it through the entire game playing it straight. You feel like they’re human, and they do a good job pretending to be human. Then all of a sudden at the end it’s like, “Oh no, we took you on the helicopter. That's it.” You lose the game because this one person was able to fake their way through it.
You mentioned earlier how much research went into developing Outpost 31. Were there any deep dives into the original production materials from the film? Mondo has a great relationship with Universal and John Carpenter obviously from The Thing projects Mondo has done in the past. Did they have any input or help in making this game a reality?
Absolutely. It’s interesting. What happens with studios when you’re submitting material for approvals, often that’s a “yes” or “no” type of thing. You send it in, they route it internally, and get back to you with an approval or not. That’s just kind of how the system works. We’ve been so lucky with Universal that they would send back notes. They would say, “Okay, we love this. This 3D piece is really good, however the flamethrower is slightly inaccurate. Here's why. Can you revise the model?”
Little stuff like that kept coming back, and I think they were worried about being annoying, but it was great. We want to be perfectly accurate with everything we’re doing, so we wanted Universal to keep telling us all these little things we couldn’t catch. That was really nice.
We kept going in as the Mondo team and Project Raygun team, just watching scenes from the film over and over again, digging into behind the scenes stuff. Luckily Shout Factory put out a really incredible Blu-ray with tons of material on it. That was great timing because we were able to scour that for everything. We could just go in and make sure we got everything 100% accurate and that it made sense.
Then we had to make up stuff. The instruction booklet, for example, is a new recruit manual for Outpost 31. That's not something that really exists, but in our minds it does. They probably would truly have something like that. Then we did a bunch of research into what those kind of materials looked like in Antarctic research stations in 1982. What would a new recruit manual look like for someone going to McMurdo Station or something like that. There was a lot of filling in the gaps, as the film doesn’t necessarily show you certain things.
You don't think about the minutiae as you’re watching. These guys are eventually going to cycle out for the next group, so what does the next group do when they arrive? That’s interesting stuff you have to do on your own.
Yeah, you have to dive in. It’s great though, if you're a nerd for this film — which I think everybody should be— it’s really fun stuff to dive into. When you start paying attention to some of the details in the movie — it moves at such a great, deliberate pace — there’s some real, rich detail inside of everything. It makes perfect sense with all these neat, little touches.
You’ve got that scene where Palmer is playing an old game show on video tape, but it’s touches like that which make it a real thing. Of course they couldn’t get television reception, and it’s such a smart thing to include that three seconds on film to further isolate the characters. They really wouldn’t have any kind of contact with the outside, and it’s a cute example.
Aside from obvious fan-favorite characters like MacReady and Childs, who have been the characters in the game that have been standout playable characters?
Yeah, obviously everybody grabs for MacReady quickly. It just makes sense you're going to want to play that character. A lot of people discount some of the other characters. “I guess I'll play as Gary. I don't really want to but...” What Project Raygun was able to do was give every character special abilities. There’s a nice balance there. Anybody you’re playing as has value. Playing as Blair is just as valuable as playing as MacReady, or playing as Clark or Palmer. Each of the characters has some sort of special ability that makes it worth playing as them.
I like playing as Clark. I always thought he was the coolest character in the movie. He’s such a mellow, almost scary kind of dude. If you remember, Clark was always human. He was murdered, and that’s how we know that, but he was never not a human. I always thought that was a good red herring. He was the one everyone assumed was the Thing instantly because of the interaction with the dogs, and he’s not. Plus his 3D mover is really cool.
That’s another thing we had a bit of an advantage of seeing at Toy Fair. We got an early look at some of the prototyping for the miniatures, including some of the monstrous ones. How did you decide which versions of the Thing needed to be in the game?
That was really important. It follows the narrative of the film. You're not going to have the Blair monster appear before the dog does or the spider. Basically, we went through the movie and picked out the key Thing moments. Then we took a look at what monster was in those moments, and put them in the game for those portions. Luckily it works out really well for gameplay. You’re just cruising through, and realize that yeah, that happened first, that happened second, and that happened third. Each of the Thing monsters is directly from the film.
Has John Carpenter played and does he have any thoughts on it?
We don’t know yet. We’ve been reaching out to John, but he’s been very busy with a ton of projects, including the music stuff. We haven’t been able to get him the game yet, but we’re hoping to get it in his hands as soon as possible, and would love to hear what he things. I think he’ll love it, honestly.
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