Monday, December 1, 2008

Review: Space Alert

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I am often rather leery of gimmicky add-ons to games as most are more flash than substance. However, that does not mean that I am not won over from time to time on a bit of extemporaneous shiny flash. Oh, also, I do not mind losing games and often times I am very amused and entertained by a massive train wreck.

The Overview:

Space Alert is team cooperative game set in the future where the players are crewmembers aboard a recon space ship that hyperspaces into an uncharted sector, records data and (hopefully) hyperspaces back. The actual mission is played in "real-time" and the sector scan should only take about 10 minutes before you hyperspace back to safety, at which point you evaluate your actions and find out how well you did (and if you survived). My friend describes the game as a classic "communication and command exercise". That's terminology that he picked up while serving in the military. However, his time in the service has not necessarily helped his Axis and Allies game, so I don't know if it is useful here.

The ship itself is broken into three sections. To make it convenient, each section is color coded. The left section is red, the center section is white and the right section is blue. Each of the three sections has an upper and lower deck as well, giving the ship a total of six areas. Each deck section has its own weapon system, most of which draw energy from the reactors. The top decks control the shields for that section of the ship and the bottom decks house the energy required to power the equipment in that section of the deck.

In the game, the players each choose a crewmember pawn to represent them on the board. Then, the players each decide on roles in the game. There is the Captain, who, in theory, dictates the agenda and order of the crew. If you have someone in your group who uses terminology such as "communication and command exercise", he's probably a good choice for Captain. The Captain also is the first character to resolve their actions each round during the evaluation phase. There is the role of Communications Officer who is in charge of managing and maintaining all of the external ship threats that arrive. They should also let people know important things like if said threat can't be hit by missiles or if it is likely to drain all of the shields or destroy the ship by its next move. You know, the minor details. There is the role of Security Chief, which is a lot like the Communications Officer, but is in charge of managing and maintaining the internal threats. Finally, there is the Tactical Officer, which is really just a fancy title for the person who moves the counter during the evaluation phase.

After roles are assigned, everyone is dealt three random hands of action cards (one for each of the three phases of the Action Round). The action cards each have two actions on them, though when you play a card, you only get to take one of the two actions. There are movement actions (left, right and going either up or down on the gravolift) and the other actions are denoted by A, B, C or attacking with the Battlebots. A actions are used for firing the weapons system in whichever compartment of the ship you are in. B actions are used for powering the shields in the upper decks and recharging the power supplies in the lower decks. C actions vary dependant upon which section you are in and range from firing missiles, to toggling the screen saver off, to activating battlebots, to looking out the window. And, of course, the "Attack with the Battlebots" action lets you attack with the battlebots.

Players should then be ready for the start of the Action Phase. At this time, the CD is played corresponding to whichever mission the players have chosen. The CD represents the ship's computer, which announces threats and timing as well as other things that may occur. The computer will announce threats such as a threat appearing along the red trajectory on turn 3. At that point it is up to the Communications Officer to draw a random threat card and place it on the red trajectory and signify that it will not be there until round three. Each threat has its own movement speed, and damage that it does to the ship, as well it's own hit points and shields to determine how, when and if it is destroyed by the crew. And each subsequent round, the threat moves closer to the ship, possibly triggering one of its attacks.

During this time, the crew will be running around and dealing with the threats by laying out their action cards. Each crew member can take up to twelve actions and timing is important. Threats do not appear until certain rounds and shooting along a trajectory on round 2 when the threat doesn't appear until round 3 is a waste of an action, card and energy. Each player lays their cards face down as well, so you cannot look over at another player's action, you need to be able to communicate exactly what you are doing and when. Also, resource management is key as well. If a section's energy is depleted on round 4 and you try to shoot a weapon or charge the shield on round 5, nothing will happen. Then, insult is usually added to injury as another crewmember then recharges the energy on round 6. That is where communication is very important in this game.

The CD will tell you when the time is up and you hyperspace back. This signifies the start of the Resolution Round. The board is set up as it was when you started and threats are checked to make sure that the Communications Officer and Security Chief set them up right (and along the right trajectory and at the correct time). Then each player goes through and each of their actions are played and resolved in order. The Action Round is kind of the chaotic directing and in-the-moment phase. The Resolution Round is kind of like the movie playback of what really happened. And a lot of the time, what really happened is nothing like what you wanted to happen.

If at any point during the Resolution Round any section of the ship takes 7 points of damage, the ship is destroyed and all of the crew die. If the crew is able to make it back alive, then you award points on how successful you were by determining which threats were defeated and which you survived and so forth.

The Theme:

The theme of this game is communication through pure chaos. The CD and real-time aspect really are immersive as you get a sense of tension and chaos of being a crew in a 10 minute life-or-death situation where every action must be precise and well timed or else you will be responsible for the horrible deaths of yourself and all of your crewmembers.

That being said, those deaths are usually incredibly funny.

It does not matter how well coordinated and what your coolness-under-fire rating was during the Action Round. When you get to the Resolution Round and actually play out your cards and actions, almost invariably, you discover that you or someone else in the crew made even the smallest error which threw everything off. There is nothing better than seeing that a crewmember was in the lower deck looking out the window as their action (to get more points for visual confirmation) when firing the cannons down there would have stopped the threat screaming towards them. Also, I have discovered that I become amnesiac as soon as the Action Round is over. As soon as I flip over my first action on the Resolution Phase, I blink and wonder, "Damn. Did I really mean to do that?" I am surprised every time at what I thought was a well planned round. Even if it ended up being what I had planned to do, that bit of memory is stripped from my mind the second we start the Resolution.

Learning the Game:

The learning curve of the game is not too difficult. However, I would definitely recommend playing through the tutorial missions even if it is a veteran crew with one or two new crewmembers. The tutorials work excellently in keeping the theme while gradually introducing new elements so as not to overwhelm players.

The rulebook is well written and very clear. It is also rather amusing and worth the read on its own. And, for continuity buffs, Space Alert is set in the same game universe as Galaxy Trucker, even though the games could not be further separated in feel.

The Components:

The version that I have is from Essen and has what I believe are limited edition glass translucent colored components. These will be replaced in later editions with standard wooden cubes. They are pretty, but do not really matter much in the long run. It is just cosmetic. I imagine that they will not create anywhere near the same level of desire as limited edition animeeples did.

That being said, the components are good. The board is efficient and the pieces are good. There are a lot of little bits in the game, but I don't have a problem with that.

My only complaints with the components are that the action cards are small and thin and there are a lot of them. This makes shuffling them difficult to do. Also, there are three power markers than are cylinders. The glass ones have rounded, softer edges, so they tend to topple over and roll over the board a lot. I actually think wooden cylinders would have a better edge to stand up better. But those are very minor quibbles on what are otherwise good and very efficient components.

Playing the Game:

The game really is an exercise in trying to control and maintain a chaotic situation. And communication. You need to communicate and be aware of what other players are doing at all times. And it is very, very fun because of that. I happen to enjoy the chaos and destruction and finding out that someone misstepped and threw everything off. It makes the resolution much more entertaining when a player flips over their card and blinks and says, "I move to the lower deck... Wait... Why the hell did I move to the lower deck?!?"

Our group has a good attitude when it comes to losing. None of us mind it as long as the game play is enjoyable, be it a co-op or team or single player losses. However, I could see for win-oriented players how this game would be an exercise in frustration. You will probably lose. A lot. Some times it will be your fault, some times it will be someone else's fault and some times it will be a colossal group cluster-f***. So far my biggest blunder was as Communications Officer, I told everyone that the huge asteroid was coming down the blue sector, when, after the round I reviewed and found out that it was coming down the red. So our crew ran over and diligently fired at nothing on the blue track, while the asteroid hit our red hull and destroyed us. Apparently during that game, I was not a very efficient "Computer Repeater". I could see certain players see someone make a mistake and get angry with the player who made the error. For my group, I giggle when a player inexplicably decides to look out a window or walk into a wall when an interstellar octopus is about to rip through our already damaged hull. For others, it may turn into yelling and harsh feelings. Make sure that you have the right group and attitudes when playing this game!

The game can also play off of those who are perfectionists. Because the missions are short (about 20 minutes for the Action Round and Resolution Round to be completed) you can play a number of games back to back. This may play on those who feel the need to "get things right this time" and play again. And again. And again.


I've decided to add this section to my reviews as a lot of our games get played with just me and the wife, then get played again at our weekend gamer meetings. Anyhow, the game is designed for 2-5 players. I have played it a number of times with with 2, 3 and 4 players so far. When you have less than 4 players, you still play with 4 crewmembers, but the non-player ones are "androids" who are communally controlled, meaning that any player can lay cards on their action spaces.

The game shines with 4 players, as it was designed. There is usually an additional threat or so added in a five-player game (though I have not yet seen how that plays out). Four players seems to be the right amount as well. More players means more chaos and more voices talking over one another (and more people for the Captain to try to manage and maintain), but everything seems to click best with four.

Three people still makes for a very good game, but you have one android player. While it is less to keep track of when it comes to other players, it is actually more confusing since you have three people trying to throw cards onto the android space. While still immensely fun, I think the ordering works out better with four.

Two player games are less chaotic, but still fun and entertaining and worth playing to get used to the rules, but also for fun. We usually have one player each be responsible for one android, so it minimizes the cross-card chaos.

Four definitely is the sweet spot for this game, but it is still very much playable and fun with less.

Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group. Her level of frustration builds quicker than mine and she is not as big of a fan of laughing at our own train wrecks as I am. Since a good portion of my game playing involves her either 2-player or as part of a larger group, her opinion tends to affect how often I get to play a game on my shelf.

Despite her frustration when she loses, she has surprised me by liking this game as much as she does. She's still not as big of a fan of it as I am, but she's actually been the one to suggest playing it a couple of evenings. She doesn't have that bit of perfectionist that some of our core group does, so she does not want to play various missions one after the other like we do. But perhaps this is for the best. If not for her stepping up and saying, "Let's do something else," we probably would have easily played Space Alert well into 5 am trying to get a perfect mission.

The Pros:

*An incredibly innovative and fun game that pulls you into the hectic chaos of it all.
*Immersive and fun.
*A great atmosphere of tension and chaos.
*Enough variation of the random cards and trajectory tracts to make the 8 supplied mission tracks notably different every time you play.
*Well produced and efficient pieces.
*The CD / real time tracks are innovative and an amazing mechanic.
*With the right group, you will be laughing your asses off during the Resolution as you watch and wonder why the hell you took that action.

The Cons:

*With the wrong group, you may have someone angrily shouting at you at you during the Resolution as they watch and wonder why the hell you took that action.
*Reliance on a CD / real time track can be difficult to play at a convention or another area where you would need a player and have to worry about background noise.
*The action cards are small and difficult to shuffle (yeah, I had to reach that far to come up with another con)


I have been very impressed with this game. Reading about it online before it came out, I thought that it might appeal to me and my group, but I had no idea of how good of a game I was going to be getting. It really is an interesting and innovative game and I can see how this mechanic could take games in a different direction. I know that the availability is scarce right now, especially in the U.S., but I would definitely highly recommend this game to anyone who thinks that this kind of communication and chaos would appeal to them and their group.

Even though it is still relatively new, it will take a lot to bring this game down from its position among my favorites.


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