Being an avid tabletop board gamer, I’m always on the hunt for a board game that has a good mix of fun mechanics, is easy to learn, has an engaging theme and most of all, depth and complexity to it that add replay value. A proper balance of these differing board game aspects are the difference between a classic like Settlers of Catan, or an overcomplicated, painfully difficult to learn and teach ordeal like Mansions Of Madness. I’m constantly on the look for new and captivating board games, as for me there’s nothing that quite matches the thrill of learning and mastering the rules of a board game and alternatively decimating your friends through a combination of luck and strategy, or working with them to overcome massive odds for a group victory. Often I find myself gravitating towards cooperative games, simply because I dislike losing, and if I have to lose I prefer everyone else to lose with me. I’m a jerk like that sometimes, but I’ll admit it. It was with excitement when I first read about Space Alert online, hearing from veteran board gamers touting its virtues. Being a fan of Sci-Fi, Star Trek and space in general, I picked it up sight unseen based solely on the enthusiastic outpouring I’d read for it. Typically this is a gamble and you could end up with something amazing or something totally lousy. I’m glad to say that Space Alert falls firmly into the former camp and is by far one of the best board games I’ve played in the last few months.
Space Alert is a game where you and 4 other players are all crewmen on a space ship, paid to map out chunks of the galaxy. It’s fairly simple, as you jump in from hyperspace, wait the 10 minutes for the computer to automatically scan the sector, then jump out. Unfortunately, that 10 minutes is spent trying to dodge or destroy every possible conceivable threat you could imagine, all the while scrambling to work together to make sure the ship doesn’t split apart into pieces and kill all of you.
The actual gameplay is fairly simple once you get the hang of it. The game is broken up into 3 phases, where different threats, external and internal, will attack the ship. The ship’s computer reads aloud the threats, in real time, that you and your crewman must plan your actions around. The threats are actually announced out loud via a CD that is packed with the game and listening to the computer’s “voice” announce threats coming towards the ship is quite enthralling. The ship has 3 colored sections and an upper and lower deck. Moving between the different parts of the ship is done with cards. Each section of the ship has buttons, labeled A, B & C, which do different things like shoot lasers, raise shields or special station specific functions. Pressing one of these buttons is done by playing the same cards, balancing when to move and when to press the right buttons that is key to ensuring you and your crew’s survival. The unique trick to the game is that all of the cards you are given for moving or pressing buttons must all be played in advance, before they’re resolved and you find out what your actions have done.
It sounds confusing, but it’s what makes the game so chaotic and fun. The first part of the game is the “action round”, where the computer announces the incoming threats and your crew collectively decide which of your cards to play, in what order, and when, so all of you can work together to make sure different aspects of the ship are operational. Often this means making sure the lasers have power before another player fires them, or refilling different reactors with power so the ship’s shields don’t go down or any number of repairs. There’s a lot of things to do and all of you WILL have to work together to do all of them.
Proper planning can lead to all 3 phases of the game working like clockwork during the “resolution round” where each player reveals all of their moves in turn and the different consequences of each action are resolved one by one. Sometimes this means everyone was perfectly moved according to plan, everyone charged the lasers so the other players could fire them at the incoming threats. Other times this means somebody forgot what they were doing, misplaced a card (an in game mechanic, where misplacing a card means you “tripped”, and your actions are delayed), and all of your best laid plans blow up in front of your eyes as cannons are fired when uncharged, movement is needlessly wasted, and energy is over expended, resulting in a net loss that benefits nobody.
Again, if it sounds confusing, it can be. Learning the game is a daunting task for anybody who would be new to playing board games, especially a heavily themed game such as this. For those who are experienced with the more complex Ameritrash board games, (Battlestar Galactica and Arkham Horror are two excellent examples), it’s not something that a quick read through of the rules and some patience won’t get you through. I could imagine trying to play with a group of those new to the hobby, or those who are quickly bored, it could be difficult to get them to go through reading the rules and training that the game includes.
On the CD that comes with the game, along with 8 full missions, are a series of test runs and simulations, that are there to slowly teach the different mechanics of the game bit by bit to the gamers. Taking the time to play them all, first understanding the basic action-first, resolve-second mechanic of the game, then adding on all of the bells and whistles is something that can be done relatively quickly once you get the hang of it. Like it said, the CD reads out the threats in real time, which is 10 minutes, and resolving the actions you played afterward takes about 15-20, meaning it’s a quick paced game that a group could play a few times in a row, and quickly get the hang of it.
Space Alert is a game that I would put firmly in the intermediate to lower-advanced level of difficulty in terms of approachability and ease of learning. For those who don’t table top game often, it will be intimidating and possibly turn them off just from the sight of it. For those who are seasoned board gamers looking for a fun, thrilling, challenging game to try out, it’s by far one of the best out there. There are hectic moments of pure chaos as you and your 4 players will be busily talking about how to best play all of your cards, while the computer is barking out orders that will complicate and sometimes override your decisions directly. A perfect example is when the computer will sometimes say “Communications down”, which means none of the players can communicate, in real life, what they’re going to do for the entire duration that communications are down. Since the clock is always ticking, communication is vital, and it can be quite harrowing when you’ve literally got seconds left on the timer before your actions are locked in for the current phase, but you can’t tell your teammate that you’re both going to be firing the laser on the same turn, thus resulting in a wasted action.
All in all it’s a game that I would suggest immediately to any board gamer with any sort of experience board gaming. All of its mechanics are well thought out, and lots of fun to play. Despite its difficulty being quite high, never was losing anything but fun or hilarious. Some of the best games out there are the ones where you fail spectacularly, and this game is a great example of one of those. It may not be the best first board game to get people into the hobby, but as a second, or third, it’s perfect, and I couldn’t recommend it enough.