Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Space Alert

As usual, I made this post way longer than it needed to be, so here's a to-the-point summary:
Space Alert is a fast-paced cooperative boardgame with a sci-fi theme. A single game of it is about 20 minutes, so you can cram in several plays in a night. It has some similarities to roborally, but the short length and real-time pressure means it is more tense and frantic. The short and exciting nature of it has promoted this to the slot of being my favorite cooperative game.
And now for the long winded raving:

My wife and I are semi-quarantined, so we spent the weekend (and last night) playing the new boardgame that I bought just an hour before the doctor said "It might be swine flu, so stay home, sleep as much as possible, and call me if your symptoms worsen".

That new boardgame is Space Alert, and man does it kick interstellar butt!

Space Alert is a cooperative game, where you are the under-trained crew of a "Sitting Duck"-class spaceship. You are exploring a new sector of the galaxy. You'll be attacked by enemy spacecraft and giant space amoeba, discover you're on a collision course with a comet, fight off boarding parties, contract exotic infections, try to manage your power core to keep fuel running to the shields and weapons, etc. It's good zany sci-fi fun.

And it's hectic and tense. The game comes with two CDs of 7 to 10 minute soundtracks. These soundtracks have the ships computer narrating events that happen in real time. You play cards, programming your actions like in Roborally, but instead of being in turns it's as you see fit in response to the events of the soundtrack. When the soundtrack is done, there's a 5-10 minute process of resolving the cards you'd played.

Like Roborally, if you played the wrong card, or a card in the wrong order, it messes up your later actions. That creates all sorts of craziness, where the whole crews plan hinges on the one character that goofed up. Picture the most dire Star Trek scenario, surrounded by an enemy fleet and barely enough power for shields and phasers if Scotty's working his miracles. Now make Scotty drunk and incompetent - that's Space Alert when you played the wrong card.

I've always loved Roborally, but I like Space Alert better. Roborally had problems with the "runaway leader" syndrome, where one player would get way ahead of everyone else. Clever track layouts could mitigate that, but not completely rule it out. If you made your track too hard, one person could be the clear leader for 30 to 45 long anti-climactic minutes. In Space Alert, the game is over in 15 to 20 minutes, the first 10 of which seem to pass in the blink of an eye. And you're so excited at the end of it, that you want to play again. Roborally is hard to teach to new players, as well, because it's a little overwhelming and they're guaranteed to lose the first two or three games. With Space Alert, you're working together, so the experienced players are motivated to coach the newbies, and can pick up the slack if someone's confused or making mistakes.

Speaking of "easier to teach new players", I feel Space Alert also compares very favorably to the Battlestar Galactica boardgame. It's got just as much going on (It feels like more is happening in Space Alert, but that may be an illusion because of the time pressure), but each individual component is a less complicated. You feel like your choices and actions have more impact, and there's less randomness. Space Alert is like the most tense critical moments of BSG, wrapped up into 15 lightning-fast minutes. It lacks BSGs long pregnant hours of sizing up the other players, trying to decide which challenge is worth spending which resource on, and regretting every action. So, if you were buying BSG because you wanted a game about space ships, Space Alert is probably the better choice. If you were buying BSG for the specific Galactica branding/flavor/characters, however, then stick with BSG. If you wanted a long, slow, cerebral puzzle, BSG is your ship. (If you were buying BSG because of the "Who's the Traitor?" element, I'd say get Shadows Over Camelot instead, as it's got that same feel with a lot less arbitrarily fiddly mechanics than BSG.) If you want decisive action and an adrenalin rush, Space Alert is definitely the better game.

And speaking of other cooperative and team games, Space Alert has replaced Pandemic as my favorite (which replaced Shadows Over Camelot, which replaced Lord Of The Rings). In that chain of replacements, there's a noticable theme. Space Alert is shorter than Pandemic which is shorter than Shadows which is shorter than LOTR. So, again, it never gets long or anticlimactic, and you can squeeze in an extra play or two into the evening. As far as complexity, though, Space Alert occupies a place somewhere between Shadows and Lord of the Rings, being much more complicated than Pandemic. If there wasn't the real-time element, you might overthink all the fun out of Space Alert, as every scenario is mathematically solvable - but you just don't have the time to do so, and it maintains its fun as a result.

As my last game comparison, it reminds me of one of my favorite computer games - Weird Worlds: Return To Infinite Space. It has that same goofy feel, and same quality of lasting just 20 minutes to a play. If you liked WW:RTIS, I think you'll get a kick out of Space Alert. Play WW:RTIS when you're alone, and Space Alert with a group.

The one worry I had about Space Alert prior to buying it was the soundtracks. I feared that they might limit the replayability of the game, because I thought they were entire scenarios unto themselves, and that you'd only want to play each one a finite number of times. Instead, the soundtracks don't tell you what's attacking, just what category of threat it is, when it shows up on sensors, and what trajectory it's approaching on. Something like "Alert! Time is T+3. Serious Threat detected in Red Sector." Then you flip over the top card of the Serious Threat deck, and discover it's an enemy stealth fighter, which you can't get a weapons lock on until it reaches the midpoint of it's approach vector. Or it's a giant "Space Octopus", that has to be destroyed from far away or else it will become enraged and rip your ship apart. Or it's a malfunctioning warhead in your missile bay, which has to be jettisoned before it explodes. As you can imagine, those three problems take very different solutions. Thus far we've mostly played soundtracks on the first disk, which typically give you about three such threats to deal with. Judging from our one play on the advanced disk, it gets much more frantic. In this one weekend of being ill, we've more than gotten our $60 value out of Space Alert, and we still haven't played three quarters of the soundtracks or seen half the cards.

One warning, however. My copy came with two production errors.
  • A misprinted card, which they detected at the factory, and tucked a corrected card (and an explanatory note) into the box. Kudos to Rio Grande for catching and solving that problem.
  • The other error was the swapping of labels on the two CDs. This they didn't catch. The Tutorial disc was labeled Mission, and vice-versa. So we played our very first game with the hardest difficulty soundtrack, which referenced all kinds of events that weren't covered in the introductory rules. Man, was that ever confusing. Your very first game should be one of the 7 minute tracks. If it runs 10 minutes or mentions an "Unconfirmed Report" or "Internal Threat", you're on the wrong disk.

1 comment:

Professor Sprinkles said...

I might have to take a look at this game. I do so love Killer Bunnies though! I am not sure I would have time to play other games. I have every expansion pack now. So over $100 later....