This series is building momentum, isn’t it? Three posts in four days isn’t bad, by my reckoning. But let’s not hang about – on with number 8!
Space Alert (Czech Games Edition, 2008, Vlaada Chvátil)
In space, no one can hear you flail around in panic, trying to fire an unpowered laser at one of the three alien craft zipping towards your ship at an alarming rate. No one can hear your crewmate one floor below, powering up the laser a few seconds after you’ve abandoned it as useless, then dusting off her hands with the sort of grin that signifies a job well done. No one can hear the cries of alarm as you realise Steve forgot to nudge the mouse, and the ship’s screensaver is now obscuring the main viewscreen.
In Space Alert, you will never feel as cool as the characters depicted on the cover. Yeah, things are going badly for them, but they still look like a bunch of badasses getting a job done in spite of the explosions. Of course, that might just be because the visors hide their wide-eyed panic. Maybe we should get some visors for the next time we play Space Alerrt.
This is a game I haven’t played as much as some others on this list, but every time I have I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself. From the moment you start reading the manual, with its dry humour and unquestionably Soviet Bloc take on space exploration, you know you’re in for a treat. The handbook (designed to teach you the game across seven lessons) opens with the following transcript, which is to be read to the assembled players:
Friends and family, we are gathered here to remember the extraordinary courage and heroism the departed showed in service to their nation… Eh? Oh, sorry. Wrong group. Um… here we are! My brave cadets, welcome to the accelerated learning course on Space Exploration. I admire the extraordinary courage and heroism you show in deciding to serve your nation. And I have no doubt you will be successful. You have volunteered to serve in the crew of a Sitting Duck class exploration ship…
That’s your introduction to the game, and it really does tell you all you need to know about the theme. It goes on to explain that a Sitting Duck class vessel is top of the range (honest), designed to jump into unknown space, perform a scanner sweep, then jump back ten minutes later. It’s all automatic! All the crew need to do is sit back, relax, and maybe take care of any problems that pop up, but that’s hardly likely, is it? Ahem.
The handbook is actually one of my favourite things about the game, actually. It admits up-front that the best way to learn the game is by playing it, and is designed so that you don’t really need someone to read it in advance; you go through it as a group, sat around the table, and it’s written in such a way that this doesn’t feel like a chore. (As an aside, this was one of the things that inspired the way the rulebook in Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower works, but Vlaada did it better!)
The game itself breaks down into two rounds: Action and Resolution. The Action round is ten minutes long, and is set to an audio track that represents the ship’s computer. There’s a CD in the box, but I imagine most people these days will just stream the audio using technology. During those ten minutes, threats pop up along one of three tracks leading to the ship, and you need to deal with them as quickly as possible – the closer they get, the more damage they’re likely to do to you. You’ve got lasers aplenty, and in theory this is an easy task, but there are two problems: first, the ship has been designed with the controls for each laser located directly next to the weapon in question (centralised control panels are for losers), and there aren’t nearly enough crew to man each station.
If it were just the lasers you had to think about, there’s a chance you’d be able to get a handle on things. But oh no, that would be far too easy. As well as having weapons in each of the ship’s locations, you’ve also got shields on the upper floor, which need to be manually recharged each time they take damage. You’ve also got generators on the lower floor. Every time you fire a laser or charge a shield, you remove a power token from the generator in its sector. If there aren’t any tokens to remove, the shield or laser does nothing and the action is wasted. What’s more, the generators only have a limited amount of charge, meaning you need to top up the main reactor with fuel rods every couple of turns. And you’ve only got a limited supply of fuel rods…
Basically, it’s a puzzle. In order to do A, you need to do B, which in turn means you need to do C. If that was all there was to it, you might still just about be able to figure it all out. But no, it gets worse.
If you read the RoboRally post, you’ll know I mentioned that Space Alert uses the same action programming mechanic. This is where it comes in! See, in the Action phase, you don’t actually carry out any of the actions – you just lay down cards to say that you’re going to do them on that step. There are only seven steps in the basic game (twelve in the full one), and just like roborally, you’re planning out your actions from a limited hand of cards that is only replenished a couple of times during the mission. The cards are simple enough – an action on one half, a move on the other – and you can use one action from each, orienting the card so that the action you wish to use is at the top. Of course, as all cards are played face-down, it’s incredibly easy to flip your card the wrong way as you reveal it, causing untold mayhem down the line. (The rules acknowledge this, referring to it as ‘tripping’, and give you an option to sacrifice another action and correct the mistake.)
The best way to describe the joys of the Action round is probably to describe what happens. It’s best to imagine that everyone is talking at the same time, and the soundtrack is making noises that only work to increase the tension in the room.
Time T plus 4, external threat, blue.
CHRIS TURNS OVER A THREAT CARD
Right guys, we’ve got an asteroid appearing on the blue track in step 4.
I can shoot it! James, can you charge the blue generator first?
I’m on it. When are you getting there?
I… yeah, I can get there. Hang on…
Step four if that’s easier?
Shields are down in red, remember. James, you’re there, can you sort it?
…yep, I can get there in step three, it’s all good.
CHRIS AND SOPHIE
So this all happens across a frantic ten minutes, the players talking over each other and each trying to coordinate their movements. At the end of the phase, everyone sits back and worries, because the Resolution phase is where you find out just how badly you messed up. Following an initially cryptic looking step-by-step chart, each of the seven or twelve stages is resolved, one at a time.
Right, so step three. That fighter on red’s becoming a problem.
My action is a move towards blue.
Hang on! Why are you going that way?
He’s charging the laser so I can shoot the asteroid.
I thought you were charging the shields?
Didn’t you say you were charging the shields?
I said they needed charging…
Anyway, I’m firing the laser. Hang on! Oh, cock. The asteroid’s not there yet.
Er, and I’ve not charged the laser either. I thought you were getting there on step three, not firing it.
…and so on. Nine times out of ten, the Resolution phase is not where you find out how well the mission went, but which step you died in.
Space Alert is Star Trek if it was written in the style of a French farce. You go left when you meant to go right. You misunderstand what your fellow players have said. You respond to statements that were made for the benefit of someone else. It’s utterly hilarious. That said, it isn’t a game that you can just bust out for any group. It takes a fair bit of investment to get to the point where you’re actually playing the full game, with its internal threats and security robots and missiles (and the bloody screensaver), and I can imagine some people being turned off by the stress and complexity, especially if they’re the one to drop the ball at a crucial moment.
But still, this game is an absolute blast, and I’m way overdue getting it out again. Maybe we’ll survive for a change?
As ever, if you’ve got any comments, pop them below or find me @lagoon83 on twitter. See you next time for Terra Mystica!