Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Guild Ball: An Unboxing (...sort of)

Those of you with more impressive memories may remember us mentioning last year that we were backing a new tabletop game called Guild Ball.  Games & Tea always has been and always will be a card and board game blog first and foremost, but we are still tabletop hobbyists as well and couldn't resist sharing our enthusiasm about the whole thing when it first hit Kickstarter.

At the time we backed it we had the feeling it was going to be something special - everything from the overall aesthetic to the gameplay seemed beautiful - but we didn't realise just how much it was going to attract the attention of the hobby community.  Now, with the retail release date just weeks away (April 27th) and introduction days cropping up all over the country, our Kickstarter pledge has arrived and we just felt compelled to show you all some photos of our shiney new toys!

Guild Ball is primarily a sportsball game with a bit of combat thrown in, and is based very much on grass-roots medieval English football.  For our pledge level we went in for two teams (6 miniatures per team) all in metal, and resin base inserts were included for both teams.  Once the game passed its funding goal and stretch goals became unlocked, we were also eligible for two additional "Union" models, which are affiliated with a couple of teams, so can hop around and give a bit of flexibility to the rosters.
We also threw in a little extra for some additional bits and pieces - a printed rulebook (the standard pledge just came with a PDF), some Guild Ball dice, and templates and markers.

The rulebook was at the top of the box when we opened it up, so it was the first thing we noticed.  On the original Kickstarter page it was listed as an A5 rulebook, so it was a very pleasant surprise to see a full A4 landscape-oriented book.  Opening it up it's got gorgeous full colour artwork on almost every page, is clearly printed and laid out, and is just basically done to an excellent and professional standard.

Your eyes do not deceive you - this is an otter.

Oh balls...

Once the rulebook had been salivated over it was time to rummage through the packing chips and fish out the miniatures (fairly appropriate, as one of our teams is the Fisherman's Guild).  We had the option of going with metal miniatures or resin, and we ended up going for metal.  Throughout our hobby years we've simply had overall bad experiences with resin, whereas we've always been comfortable working with metal, so it seemed the logical option.  Now the advantage of resin is that it does allow for finer detail, which left us wondering if we'd slightly regret our metal decision, but after having a look at the models today we can assure you we don't in the slightest!  Obviously as with all miniatures of any material there is some flash to trim back and some mold lines to remove, but the casting quality is absolutely amazing, the detailing is going to be a painter's dream, and the dynamic poses of the miniatures will give them pride of place in the display cabinet.

It's all about the base.

The goals and the base inserts for the models were only available in resin, so we had to bite the bullet and hope for the best with these, and we weren't disappointed.  Normally we make our own bases, but the inserts are cast to a great quality, and it'll be nice to have consistency across both teams.

A lot of tabletop systems these days utilise character cards, both as a quick-reference of their abilites and to keep track of their health.  Guild Ball is the latest system to take this approach, and the character cards are printed onto good quality card stock, with nice clear print and more beautiful character illustrations throughout.

And then that just leaves those last few odds and ends.  The dice - embossed with the Guild Ball logo - and templates keep up with the manufacturing quality evident throughout the rest of the components.

To sum things up, there isn't a damn thing in this box which we've found fault with.  Now we just need to assemble our pretty toys and play a few games!
We probably won't be putting up a gameplay review, simply because there starts the slippery slope away from being a board/card game review blog, but if any of our readers were thinking about giving Guild Ball a closer look then we hope this unboxing has helped!  And once we've got some painting on the go then we'll upload some completed models into our miniatures gallery as well for your enjoyment.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Podcast: CLASH! Dawn of Steam - First Impressions

With International Tabletop Day having been just yesterday we had a great day of playing games, drinking tea, and just having general fun.  As part of the day's hijinks we recorded another 'First Impressions' podcast for a recently received Kickstarter game: CLASH! Dawn of Steam from Mad Ape Games.  We'll hopefully have a full review up and running within a few weeks, but in the meantime we hope you enjoy listening to our first impressions of the game quality, as well as our photos of some of the card which caught our attention for one reason or another!

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Happy Tabletop Day!

Happy Tabletop Day, fellow gamers!  That's right, it's that time of year again when people all around the world get together to celebrate their love of board games, card games, miniatures and roleplay, and we'll be no different.  Now whilst you might expect a slew of content on such a prestigious day, the fact is this will be our only update.  Why?  Well because we're gamers too, and we'll be enjoying our hobby on Tabletop Day just as much as the rest of you!  We do have quite the roster of playtesters at Games & Tea, but we're having a mini-reunion of the intrepid piratical trio from last September's trip to Amsterdam for the release of Pirates! Card Game.

That said, we aren't going to let this massive gaming opportunity go to waste, so we just want to give you some idea of what's to come from us off the back of this...


A couple of weeks ago we uploaded our first ever "First Impressions" podcast, opening up our newly arrived Kickstarter game 404: Law Not Found.  Well we have just received another Kickstarter game in CLASH: Dawn of Steam, so we'll be recording a First Impressions podcast of that today, which will be up for your listening pleasure soon.  Being just a card game, the CLASH unboxing is going to be much shorter than 404, but still we'll be taking a look at the quality of the materials, print quality, artwork and so on, and seeing if the physical game lives up to our donation.


As you've hopefully realised by now, we've got our review mojo well and truly back, with three new reviews uploaded within the last two weeks; Space Alert, Pirate Fluxx and Love Letter: Batman Edition.  Well we'll be playing a whole host of unreviewed games throughout the day, with Coup, Firefly: The Board Game404: Law Not Found and Small World all already being looked at as potentials, so off the back of Tabletop Day we'll inevitably be bringing you our thoughts on something new.


We've been listening to YogsQuest on Youtube quite a lot recently, and if it's taught us one thing it's that some games can be almost as much to listen to as they are to play.  Obviously this isn't going to be applicable to all games - Arkham Horror, for example, would make quite a dreary 3 hour listen.  Something along the lines of Gloom, on the other hand, might make for a nice bit of entertainment, so we're going to record ourselves playing a few games, and if we think they end up interesting enough then we might just release them to the general population.


We'll be drinking tea today - we are Games & Tea, after all.  This won't have any effect on our upcoming content, but we thought this still deserved a mention.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Love Letter: Batman Edition Review

Good day to you, ladies and gentlegamers! As we've mentioned in the past, we thoroughly enjoy every review we bring to our readers, but we get an extra bit of joy from reviewing a new release - purely because of the fact that it allows us to feel as though we're on the ball for once!  So, brace yourselves for probably the shortest gameplay walkthrough we've ever brought you, as we take a look at Love Letter: Batman Edition by Seiji Kanai, from Alderac Enterainment.

Love Letter itself is a very popular and well-established casual card game, and has been a staple of many gamers' collections for quite some time.  Even with comic book heroes very much ascendant in recent years, this is probably one of the most surprising games to receive a superhero paint job!
To date we haven't actually played the original Love Letter so will be unable to draw direct comparisons, but we're chalking this up as an advantage as it leaves us able to dissect the Batman Edition on its own merits, and give it an unbiased score.

Love Letter: Batman Edition is a competitive card game for 2-4 players, in which each player takes on the role of the Dark Knight, and has to outshine the other Batmonei (we established this as the plural of "Batman" on a Hobbynomicon podcast!) in recapturing the escaped inmates of Arkham Asylum.
At the beginning of the review we mentioned that this would probably be our shortest gameplay explanation to date, and this is entirely down to the fact that Love Letter: Batman Edition is a mind-bogglingly simple game to play - to such an extent that we were left wondering why we never picked up a copy of the original version.  Before you click away though, we like to think our Cards Against Humanity review proved that simple mechanics do not a bad game make, and similarly our Arkham Horror review went to show that complex mechanics don't necessarily pave the road to a good gaming experience.  So stick with us as we go through Love Letter: Batman Edition and see how it plays out...

Contents-wise, Love Letter: Batman Edition is a very light game.  There are 16 Game Cards, each printed with lavish artwork depicting either Batman, Robin, or one of the many major supervillains from the Batman universe (for those DC fans interested, with the exception of The Joker they're all New 52-based).  Each of these cards contains a nice, plain-English explanation of how that card functions, which we'll go through shortly, and a number in the top-left corner which dictates the card's value (the higher, the better).

As an extra little assist for players, there are also four card lists included in the box, explaining the value of each character, the card's abilities, as well as a reminder of how many of each card are in the deck (there may be five Batmonei, but there is only one Mr J!).

"I'm Batman!" "No, I'm Batman!" "I'm Batman, and so's my wife!"

This just leaves a bag of small wooden Batman tokens, which are used to keep track of the scores across each round, and the rulebook.

And that's it!  Not a great deal to look at (although certainly very pretty), but let's put them all together and see what happens...

The aim of Love Letter: Batman Edition is to gain 7 Batman tokens before any of the other players, through rounding up the highest-valued Arkham escapees.
To start the game the Game Cards are shuffled and then one card is randomly discarded face-down, not to be used throughout the rest of the game.  Lover Letter: Batman Edition is a game of bluffing and deduction, so having one unknown card missing from the deck adds an extra challenge to the latter.
Each player draws a single card to create their starting hand, and then the round begins.  During each players (very quick) turn, they draw one card off the top of the deck, and then have to discard one from their hand,  Some of the cards have positive effects, some have negative effects, either of which can be used to try and misdirect the other players about the remaining card.  Some can be used to eliminate other players from the round, whilst some eliminate the player who discarded it, and one way to win the Batman token for the round is to be the last Batman standing.
If the deck is depleted then the round finishes, and the player with the highest value card in their hand wins the Batman token, or - in the event of a tie - the player with the highest value of discarded cards wins.

Confused?  That's fair, it's a far simpler game in practice than on paper!

For example...

Going back to Batman himself from the earlier photo, his discard ability allows a player to guess at the card in another player's hand.  At the beginning of the game this could be an outright guess, but as more cards are discarded deduction can start to creep in.  Of course players do have to rely on complete honesty from one-another, but frankly anyone who can't be trusted through a casual game has no place in any gaming group, in our opinion!  Batman is the lowest value card in the deck, so keeping him in hand serves very little purpose in the long-run, so he will usually get discarded/activated a lot.

Harley Quinn is a high-value escapee, with a value of 7 (second highest only to her puddin' - The Joker - himself), so keeping her in hand is usually going to be a good play.  However, her ability forces her to be discarded if Two-Face or Poison Ivy are drawn.  In the example above the player has just drawn Bane, who allows players to basically play a quick game of Top Trumps!  Now whilst the obvious play would be to discard Bane and hope Harley's 7 is enough to knock out an opponent, a sneakier play might be to discard Harley, leading the other players to believe either Two-Face or Ivy is in your hand.  Throwing the other players off the scent for a turn like this can be a devastating move, especially with such high card turnover and fast deck-depletion.

Each character in Love Letter: Batman Edition serves a different purpose, and learning how and when to use them most effectively is the key to victory... that, and a good poker face.  Catwoman, for example, allows a player to look at an opponent's hand.  Two-Face allows a player to trade hands with an opponent altogether.  Robin allows a player to ignore the effects of other cards for a full turn.  And The Joker (a personal favourite) puts the player who discarded him out of the round - you are playing as Batman, after all, so allowing Gotham's most notorious criminal to slip through your grasp is grounds for immediate dismissal.

As mentioned above (although now with a bit of context!) being the only non-eliminated player wins a Batman point, or after the deck is depleted, having the highest-value inmate in your clutches snags you that little wooden bat-symbol.  At the end of each round the deck is shuffled and the process is repeated until one player has 7 of those coveted points.

So that's Love Letter: Batman Edition.  With a learning time of roughly 90 seconds (no kidding, that's actually how long it took us to get a game going!) it's one of the quickest and easiest games to pick up on the market, but with some light-hearted theatricality and deception, it's still incredibly fun to play.
The physical components of the game are manufactured to a high standard, and the artwork - as mentioned earlier - is very nice to look at.  Being a quick game to play, it makes an excellent warm-up, wind-down, or intermission game to any games night, and the turns rotate so quickly that it feels more like a party game, as you always seem to be taking an action of some sort.  It's simplicity and short play-time make it an excellent game for younger gamers with shorter attention spans as well, so if you have a young Bat-fan in the family and you want to draw them into your gaming hobby, this might be a good place to start!
Criticisms of the game come very few and far between, however we've always prided ourselves on our impartiality, and so will work to find any negative points we can.  First of all it's not so great with just 2 players.  Even with the mystery card removed at the beginning of the game, the deductive side of Love Letter: Batman Edition falls a little short when you only have one opponent to outfox.  The only other criticism (and ye gods we're having to scrape the nitpicking barrel here!) is that there will inevitably be people getting upset over the choice of villains in the deck.  With a limited-sized deck and so many Arkham alumni to choose from, some people will end up having their favourites missed out.  (On a personal note, the inclusion of The Joker, Harley Quinn and Catwoman was enough to keep me happy, anyone else is purely a bonus!)

The Good Points
  • Quick to play.
  • Even quicker to learn!
  • An excellent entry-level game for younger gamers, or those new to the specialist game scene.
  • Nicely tactical, in spite of the simple mechanics.
  • Very well presented, with nice artwork throughout.
  • "I'M BATMAN!"
The Bad Points
  • Limited appeal with only 2 players.
  • No Riddler or Penguin, to name but two, so Nigma and Cobblepot fans will be disappointed.
  • Very difficult to resist the urge to growl "I'M BATMAN!" with the Batman card in hand.  Anyone?  Oh, maybe that's just me then.
Recommended Number of Players: 3-4
As mentioned, Love Letter: Batman Edition struggles a little with 2 players, but it comes to life with 3 and excels with 4.

Average Game Time: 20 minutes
Each round of Love Letter: Batman Edition only lasts a couple of minutes, but with a target of 7 Batman points a full 4 player game has the potential to cap at 25 rounds!  However, this is unlikely to happen, and 20 minutes is a good average game time, which can even be shortened if needed by reducing the number of required points.

Replay Value: High
With its short play-time, this is a good game for filling gaps, whether a lunch break, or a pause between bigger games on a game night.  As a result, it's likely to be a game which is played little and often, and so will be very easy to keep coming back to.

The Future: Darkest just before the dawn...
Okay we have to admit that comment wasn't really relevant, but we just thought it'd look really good there!  Love Letter: Batman Edition is a standalone game, so really doesn't have anywhere further to go.

Price: £14
The RRP on Love Letter: Batman Edition is £14, and there are two versions available.  We've shown you the boxed version (as we like having pretty boxed games filling our shelves), but there is also a bagged version, which doesn't come with the box, but includes a Batman-embroidered canvas bag for ease of transportation.  Both retail for the same price, and with both Love Letter and Batman being very popular, we imagine it will be readily available on the shelves of most gaming stores before long!

 Tea consumed during this review: Typhoo, milk and 2 sweeteners.  Brew Rating: 7.5/10

If you enjoyed this article and want to see more of the same, come and like us on our Facebook page to keep up to date with our reviews, as well as our general day-to-day ramblings!

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Pirate Fluxx: The Ever-Changing Pirate Card Game

If you ask any gamer to reel off a handful of quick, casual games, there's a very good chance that Fluxx will be on the list.  Love it or loathe it, Fluxx has become one of the staples of the gaming world since the release of the original version of the game way back in 1997, and has spawned a number of themed sets (14, at the latest count!).
In this article we'll be swashing our buckles, hoisting the colours, and dunking the ship's biscuits, as we take a look at Pirate Fluxx from Looney Labs.

As with all Fluxx games, Pirate Fluxx is a casual, competitive card game for 2-6 players.  In the same way as we did with our reviews of Zombie Fluxx and Star Fluxx, we won't be going into the basic Fluxx ruleset here, as it's identical in every version of the game.  If you haven't played any version of Fluxx before then we'd highly recommend starting by reading our Monty Python Fluxx review, as we detailed the full rules here.
Instead, we'll be looking at some of the additions to this version of the game, and how well the pirate theme is brought to life.

If you've played Star Fluxx or read our review (and if you haven't, then why not? Seriously, we gave you a link just above, you have no excuse!) then you'll know that version of Fluxx tipped it's hat to a lot of franchises, from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, to Star Wars via 2001: A Space Odyssey.  We might as well start by pointing out that Pirate Fluxx is not franchise-based, so you'll find no Jack Sparrow, no Dread Pirate Roberts, and no Guybrush Threepwood here.  In fact it's not even historically-based, so don't expect to see Blackbeard or Calico Jack showing their faces either.

Sorry, Guybrush, you and your woodchuck have no place here.

It's not all doom and gloom though.  Even without some of popular cultures greatest piratical personalities, Pirate Fluxx still takes players across the seven seas, with ships, rum, gunpowder, treasure and citrus fruits!

As with all themed Fluxx decks, the chosen theme comes through strongest with the Keepers (and, subsequently, the Goals).  Whilst there are pirate-specific New Rules and Actions, the majority of these two card types are still the same as the other Fluxx decks, but the Keepers are all piratical.  Amongst the Keepers in Pirate Fluxx, players will find a wide selection of 'booty' cards, such as doubloons, emeralds and pearls, and a range of fine sea-faring vessels, from mighty frigates to humble dinghies.  They'll find rum, they'll find parrots and monkeys, the king's colours and pirate flags... basically if it's a part of pirate lore, it's probably represented in the Keepers somewhere (except for the governor's daughter, but Pirates! Card Game called dibs on her already).
As with StarZombie and - to a lesser extent - Monty Python, some of the Keepers in Pirate Fluxx have special rules, and the way Looney Labs have written these really does make the pirate theme stand out nicely.  For example, there is a New Rule card called Plunder, which allows players to steal a Keeper from an opponent once during their turn.  However, if a player has the Cutlass Keeper then they're (almost) safe from plundering.  They can still be plundered from if the plundering player has the Flintlock Pistol, as flintlock>cutlass.  To trump everything, however, if a player has the Captain's Hat then they can plunder from anyone, and similarly cannot be plundered by anyone (it's important to respect the chain of command).  This makes the Captain's Hat a highly valued commodity in Pirate Fluxx (in no small part due to the fact that the other players are required in the rules to refer to its owner as 'Captain'), and we've been involved in games which have gone on for far longer than they should have, with the Goal being completely forgotten about in favour of fighting over the coveted hat!  One of the most heart-breaking moments as the reigning captain is seeing the malicious look of joy in an opponent's face as they play the Mutiny! card.

Other piratical cards are interspersed throughout the deck.  Whilst Fluxx staples such as Draw 3, Play 2 and Steal a Keeper are still part and parcel of the game, cards like Mutiny! and Walk the Plank! continue to keep the pirate theme running.  But our favourite card in Pirate Fluxx (possibly second favourite - that Captain's Hat is pretty darn cool), and the one which most heavily brings a pirate atmosphere to the gaming table is a New Rule...

In a similar fashion to Monty Python Fluxx's Outragous Accent New Rule, Talk Like a Pirate rewards players for, well, talking like a pirate!  Whether slurring their way through their best Jack Sparrow impression, or "Y'arr!"-ing their way through a turn, players get to draw additional cards for putting on a pirate voice, and for keeping it going uninterrupted.  In our very first game of Pirate Fluxx, one player's phone rang and - unwilling to lose the +1 bonus for maintaining their pirate voice - they answered the phone in pirate character and confused the hell out of the sales caller on the other end of the line.

As with most variations on the game, Pirate Fluxx is not without its Creepers; cards which prevent players from winning the game.  However, it's very Creeper-light, with the two above being the only ones in the deck.  Not only that, but they're actually incredibly easy to get rid of compared to most Fluxx Creepers, with Scurvy being removed by the mere presence of citrus fruit Keepers, and Shackles having the option of being bought off with a booty Keeper.  Not only does this quicken the pace of the game, but it also makes it a lot more accessible to the younger gamers in the family, who may otherwise get frustrated with the unshakable Creepers in other Fluxx games.

So that's Pirate Fluxx!  We've always been very open about the fact that we fall into the pro-Fluxx camp, and Pirate certainly doesn't fail to disappoint.  The light-hearted nature of the classic game still shines through the piratical paint-job, but at the same time the pirate theme isn't lost - this still feels like a piratey game, as opposed to just a game with some pirate words on the cards.

The Good Points
  • Each card tells the player exactly what they have to do with it, and so it's a very fast game to pick up.
  • It's a nice compact game, and can easily be taken to a park or pub to play with friends.  Nothing is needed except for the cards in the deck.
  • Pirate Fluxx manages to keep both the feel of Fluxx and the feel of a pirate game, so you'll get precisely the game you hope for out of this.
  • The low number of Creepers and the ease of discarding them makes this a good version of Fluxx for younger players as well as adults.
  • With the right number of players it's quite a quick game to play, and is good to wrap up a heavy gaming session.
The Bad Points
  • As with other Fluxxes, Pirate Fluxx is largely a game of chance, and this luck-based system will not appeal to all.
Recommended Number of Players: 3
Fluxx decks are always good wind-up or wind-down games on any gaming nights.  Pirate Fluxx loses a little of the fun with just 2 players, but with 4 or more (the box advertises 2-6) it can start to drag on as players forget their own Goals and desperately vie to just keep eachother from winning.

Average Game Time: 20 minutes
Pirate Fluxx is difficult to put an average game time on due to its random and unpredictable nature.  We've played games which have been over in a matter of minutes, and some which have gone on for over an hour.  20 minutes is a good, solid, average time though.
...unless everyone is squabbling over the Captain's Hat, then you should steel yourselves for a 3 hour epic!

Replay Value: High
Pirate Fluxx is an excellent wind-down game, and with it being an enjoyable yet generic theme, it's a lot of fun to keep returning to.

The Future: n/a
Each version of Fluxx is its own game, and as such the contents of the box are all you'll ever get of Pirate Fluxx.  However if you've enjoyed the mechanic then there are several other themed Fluxx sets to choose from, including Zombie Fluxx, Oz Fluzz, Martian Fluxx, Cthulhu Fluxx and Stoner Fluxx.

Price: £12
Pirate Fluxx will set you back roughly £12, which is a thoroughly decent price for a stand-alone card game.  The various Fluxx sets seem to be standard fare in most specialist game shops, so even if they don't have the set you're after then they should be able to get their hands on it quickly.

 Tea consumed during this review: Tetley Redbush, 2 sweeteners and a dash of lemon.  Brew Rating: 8/10

If you enjoyed this article and want to see more of the same, come and like us on our Facebook page to keep up to date with our reviews, as well as our general day-to-day ramblings!

Friday, 3 April 2015

Space Alert, Part 2: Gameplay & Verdict

In our last article we took our first step back into the world of regular reviewing, by taking a look at the box contents for Vlaada Chvatil's Space Alert, published by Rio Grande Games.  Space Alert is a co-operative game for 1-5 players (side note: we'd love to know how a competitive game for 1 player would work... answers on a postcard), in which the players take on the roles of expendable crew members on a short-range interstellar vessel.  Here we'll be taking a look at how the game plays, and giving it our coveted* final score (*Games & Tea final score may not actually be coveted).

Before the game can begin, players must first of all squabble amongst themselves over their roles in the crew.  As mentioned in the box contents article, the pace of the action is dictated by the ship's computer - relayed either via the accompanying CD or the smartphone app.  This means that one crew member must be designated as the communications officer.  Whilst all hell is breaking loose on board the ship, robots are malfunctioning, and aliens are attacking, it's the duty of the communications officer to closely listen to the ship's computer and ensure that no updates are missed.  Obviously all crew members can hear these updates, but the comms officer is the expendable man or woman responsible for none of them slipping through.
The other role to be assigned is that of the ship's captain.  Space Alert is a co-operative game, but it's also a real-time one, which means that there is rarely enough time to sit around and discuss various options to a newly revealed threat.  The ship's captain serves two purposes: firstly, to have the final say on any conflicting courses of action from the other crew members, and the other we'll come to shortly.

"Captain's log, stardate Tuesday... point two."

Once the crew roles are have handed out, it's time to set up the board.

As the first part of this review showed, there are a fair few components to Space Alert.  In spite of this, however, the setup process of the game is actually very quick and straightforward.  Threat Vectors are randomly drawn and assigned to the four sections of the ship previously mentioned (left, right, center, and internal), the jelly cubes representing the power to the ship's systems are assigned to their starting points, the threat decks are shuffled (internal and external still kept separate), the combat robots sent to their charging stations, and the crew members placed on the bridge.  If all has been done properly, you'll be left staring at something like this...

Then it's time to hand out the Action Cards and start the game!  You may have noticed in Part 1 of the review that the Action Boards are split into three sections, containing the numbers 1-3, 4-7, and then 8-12 respectively...

These are the three mission sections, and the individual numbers represent the turns of the game (we know, we said this was a real-time game, but all will make sense as you read on!).  Before the game starts, each player is dealt 5 Action Cards for each section of the board, which are placed on those sections face-down.  The computer will call out the beginning and end of each mission section - during the active section, each player may assign Action Cards to any turns they wish, and rearrange them as many times as necessary to adapt to changing circumstances.  Once the mission section is over, however, and the next section begins, those Action Cards are then locked in place and cannot be changed.

Each room of the ship has contains three different buttons; A, B and C (easy to remember!).  Button A fires the weapons system in whichever room the player is standing at the time, button B is used for raising the shields or charging the reactor, depending on location, and button C is a bit more specialist, being used to fire missiles, maintain the computer, launch fighters, activate robots, or just look out the window (no, we're not even joking about that final one!). Each Action Card includes a movement arrow and one of those three actions, so players can choose to use them to either move around the ship or activate one of the ship's systems.
The trick in Space Alert is to make sure that the crew are accounting for all of the ship's systems.  Firing the lasers and charging the shields both draw energy from the ship's reactor, and that reactor must be periodically refilled.

Now pay attention, crew, for this is where the second role of the captain comes into effect!

Actions are resolved in order, starting from the captain and working clockwise around the board, so it's important for players to keep this in mind when planning their moves.  It's great to charge the reactor in preparation for a full-on laser bombardment, but if the person charging the reactor is taking their turn after those firing the weapons, then all you'll be left with is a crew member hammering on an innefective 'fire' button whilst a colossal alien warship descends upon you!

Let's have a look at an example below...

In this scenario, the blue player has locked their choices in for the first two mission sections, but the third has not yet begun.  When deciding whether to move or activate a system, the top half of the Action Card is the one to go by.  In this run here the player fired the ship's lasers (A), moved to the room on the left, charged the shields (B), took the elevator down, refilled the reactor (B), went back up in the elevator, and then fired the lasers (A).

Obviously players may not always have the cards in their hands for the actions they'd like to take, and this is where it becomes important to organise amongst eachother.  It's not all doom and gloom though, as the computer will occasionally call out "incoming data" or "data transfer", which allow players to draw new cards or exchange between eachother respectively.

The most important thing which the computer will call out are threats.  Only one threat can appear during each turn, so if the computer calls out "Time T-1, threat blue", it means that a threat will start approaching in turn 1 on the right hand section of the ship (the blue section)...

Here a sneaky Stealth Fighter has just appeared.  It begins at the top of the Threat Vector and advances each turn.  Every time it passes a letter on the Vector, it carries out the action marked on the card - for example, the Stealth Fighter cannot be attacked until it hits the X.  Once it hits the Y it deals 2 damage to the ship, and then another 2 when it hits Z, so it's in the best interests of the crew to blow it out of the stars before that can happen.

The mission continues for 12 minutes, as the crew tries to keep everything in working order and the ship in one piece, up until the computer mercifully calls out "hyperspace jump in 3, 2, 1... *whoosh*", and you all live to fight another day.

...or do you?

At the end of the box contents article there was a board we skipped over, so this comes into effect now.  It turns out that during the 12 minutes of real-time action the players are basically just planning out which actions they're going to take in each of the 12 turns.  This card is effectively the black box recording for the crew's (probably) ill-fated mission, and only once the CD/app track has finished do the players finally play through the actions and see how everything actually panned out.
This part of the game can prove absolutely hilarious, and it's fun for the players to now imagine themselves as a board of directors, face-palming their way through a 12-minute recording of the most inept crew in existence.
Indeed, in one of the USS Games & Tea's first outings, our illustrious communications officer was convinced he'd saved the day against that pesky Stealth Fighter.  In reality, he hadn't realised the targeting restriction on it, spent two turns firing the laser at empty space until the reactor was empty, and then watched in absent-minded glory as the Stealth Fighter proceeded to tear the ship to pieces.  We can only imagine the letter which must have been handed over to his next of kin.  

Now it might seem fairly straightforward from this description, but it's the little things which make Space Alert special.  For example, as the "How to..." manual states, there is no video link between the rooms on the ship, only audio, so players must place their Action Cards face-down on the Action Boards.  This means that all players MUST communicate with eachother, as they can't simply sneak a peek over at their shipmates' boards to see what they're up to.  One of the problems with this is that there will occasionally be a communications malfunction replacing the CD track with static, during which period the crew must continue without speaking to eachother until it's resolved.
Other little touches can involve tripping over, being delayed in the elevators, running into bulkheads... if an incompetent crew of space-wannabes can do it, it's probably in Space Alert somewhere (one of our captains still tells heroic tales of the time he spent 3 turns staring out of the window as the ship disintegrated around him).

In terms of mechanics, there's not much more to tell really.  We've skimmed over some of the finer points, but those are for you discover on your own!  What did we think of it as a game though?

In a nutshell, this might be the finest co-operative game we've ever played.  It's intensive for those 12 real-time minutes, but that's a short-enough time to be fun rather than stressful.  Once the real-time section ends and the turn-based resolution begins, then it just becomes a very light hearted and humour-based game, and is terrific fun to have with friends.
One of the greatest things about Space Alert is that each player still very much feels like they're part of the game.  A big problem with many co-op games (Pandemic being a perfect example), is that the turns often devolve into 'turns by committee'.  Rather than each player taking their own actions, their turns end up being weighed up and discussed based on the actions of the preceeding and following players, and so individuality becomes lost entirely.  The fact that Space Alert is a real-time game eliminates this entirely, as there is simply not time to weigh up every option.  Players call out their planned actions, and have to work around eachother as they go, but their decisions and actions still feel very much their own, and this is an unbelievably rare thing in co-op games.
There are a lot of random elements to the game, especially with the addition of the smartphone app - the encounters are randomised, threats are randomised, Action Cards are randomised, damage to the shop is randomised... basically, there's enough to make sure that you'll never play the same game of Space Alert twice.
The short play time is also a massive bonus.  It's difficult to get bored when you're playing a game which only takes around half an hour, and is keeping you on your toes for every minute!  Whilst it's possible to customise the app with various difficulty settings, the default setting for Space Alert is incredibly challenging, and so it's very easy to fall into the "one more round" mentality, in an attempt to finally beat the game.  It's worth noting that here at Games & Tea we've never managed to win a game on the default setting yet, but the fact we'll still shout the game's praises from the rooftops shows that we consider it an enjoyable challenge, rather than a frustrating one.

As we've mentioned in previous reviews though, no game is perfect.  Space Alert comes pretty darn close, but we strongly doubt we'll ever see the unicorn that is the perfect game.  We stated above that there are a lot of random elements, and one criticism of the game is that there are perhaps too many.  The real-time section of the game is all about planning out your course of action, so when virtually every facet of the game is unpredictable, this can be a monumental challenge.  The counter argument to this would be that it makes for a more authentic gaming experience, but this is perhaps one of those times were authenticity and playability should perhaps be weighed against eachother.
The next downside is the learning curve.  The 'training program' is an inspired decision, and is a fool-proof way of teaching the complexities of Space Alert to new players.  The problem with this is that every time another new player joins the group, the experienced players have to sit through the comparatively slow-paced training missions again until everyone's up to speed.  In fact the first few weeks with the game at our FLGS seemed to be mired in training missions, as there was always someone new who wanted to try it out, taking us all back to square one.
The other negative point to Space Alert is that it doens't work quite as well with fewer players.  It's impossible to play the game with fewer than four crew members, so if there are three players or less then the extra crew members are controlled by everyone, and each player received extra Action Cards in each section to make up for this.  While this is probably the best way to resolve the issue of fewer players, it still doesn't work particularly well, and a single-player game of Space Alert is pretty much unplayable.

The Good Points
  • Space Alert is the first truly co-operative game we've played, as opposed to a 'turn by committee' game.
  • 4 and 5 players are accommodated nicely, making it a good game for slightly larger groups.
  • The real-time element makes it a fun and frantic game, and the 'black box' resolution card brings the game to a very entertaining conclusion.
  • There are enough random elements to make every single playthrough different.
  • Excellent tutorial mode.
  • Extremely challenging.
  • The computer soundtrack makes the game very immersive.
The Bad Points
  • Perhaps too many random elements, leaving little room for planning.
  • The game fails to deliver with only 1 or 2 players.
  • Constantly repeating the training missions for new players can be frustrating.

Recommended Number of Players: 4-5
As mentioned above, Space Alert doesn't really work with 1 or 2 players.  3 should be considered the minimum for a decent game, but it plays best with 4 or 5, as this eliminates the need for a collectively-controlled extra crew member.

Average Game Time: 30 minutues
The playthrough time on Space Alert is pretty standard.  The real-time section is always around 12 minutes (once the training missions have been passed), and the resolution stage usually takes a little longer, so a single sitting clocks in around the half-hour mark.

Replay Value: Very High
With a relatively short play time, high number of randomly-generated elements, and challenging gameplay, Space Alert has all of the right ingredients for a highly replayable game.  With expansions available to enhance the game further, this is one which we can't imagine gathering dust for a very long time.

The Future: Lost to the Depths of Space...
Space Alert is a fantastic game, and the The New Frontier expansion adds even more to this, but as far as we can tell this is the extend of the Space Alert story.

Price: £40
Space Alert will set you back £40, meaning it's not one of the cheapest games out there, but not one of the most expensive either.  We'd certainly say that we've got our money's worth out of it.  In terms of availability, we rarely see it on the shelves in gaming stores, but being from a large manufacturer it should be easy enough to order in.

Tea consumed during this review: Twinings English Afternoon, 3 minutes brew time, 2 sweeteners, dash of milk. Brew rating: 10/10

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Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Space Alert, Part 1: Box Contents

Well at this point we certainly can't be accused of keeping on top of our game reviews!  For many and varied reasons we've dropped off the face of the gaming earth for the last several months, but just because we haven't been reviewing doesn't mean we haven't been playing!  Obviously the downside is that our readership numbers have dropped off, and we can't blame anyone for that, but on the plus side it now means we have a bunch of games which we have well and truly played to death, which we're ready to approach with a reviewers mindset now!
So to end our reviewing drought, we're going to be taking a look at Space Alert by Vlaada Chvatil, from Rio Grande Games.

Space Alert is a co-operative board game for 1-5 players, set on a short-range interstellar exploration vessel which is apparently entirely crewed by people dressed like Cyclops from X-Men.  The role of the ship is a simple one: execute a hyperspace jump to a nearby sector of space, spend 12 minutes scanning the area, and then hyperspace jump back to Earth to report the findings.  The ship is pre-programmed to carry out its mission.  The ship knows what it's doing.  The ship is valuable.

The crew are not.

That's right, Nostromo-wannabes, you're expendable (not to be confused with The Expendables, although if you're the captain I suppose you can order everyone else to call you 'Stallone').  The job of the crew on this noble voyage is to make sure that the ship stays in one piece for long enough to make that return jump, although with giant space jellyfish, malfunctioning robots, saboteurs and nuclear warheads, that's not going to be an easy task!

But we'll be getting into the real gritty details of the gameplay in the second part of the review.  For now, as always, we're going to be taking a look at the box contents so you know what to expect when you... well... examine the contents of the box.

Now just to be a bit different we're not going to start with the board, but with the rulebook.  Or, more accurately, the rulebooks.  As any self-respecting game should do, it comes with an in-depth (though, mercifully, not lengthy) rulebook with all of the gameplay mechanics clearly explained.  It also includes a second rulebook, entitled "How to be a Space Explorer in Seven Lessons".
Seeing as Space Alert is quite a complex game, it has a fantastic method of teaching new players how to play.  The "How to..." book is laid out and annotated like a training manual for space cadets, and slowly introduces players to the rules over a series of short training missions, by the end of which they'll have absorbed the full set of rules and are ready to play the game in full.  In fact the "How to..." book encourages new players to put the full rulebook to one side and start with just the guide, and everyone at Games & Tea has found it to explain the game perfectly, and trained us all up into fully expendable space explorers in no time.

Next up: the board.  The board in Space Alert gives an overview of the ship's layout, with the various ships systems, access doors/elevators, and so forth.  We were unsure earlier about whether to class Space Alert as a board game, as typically a gaming board features some kind of goal or endgame.  Here, the board is basically there just to keep a visual track on the chaos, as your crew desperately fights to keep the precious company property in spaceworthy condition.

We then come to the Threat Vectors.  Whenever an obstacle appears to threaten the ship, from within or without, its progress is tracked on an appropriate Threat Vector.  The threat vectors determine how quickly the threat reaches a catastrophic state, and how many times it deals slightly less catastrophic damage to the ship in the process.  One is assigned to the left-hand (red) side of the ship, one to the center (white), one to the right (blue), and one to the ship's interior.  There are seven of these in the game, but only a maximum of four are ever used, which allows for an element of randomisation.

If you're going to have Threat Vectors then you'd better damn well have some threats!  There are two Threat Decks in Space Alert, which are shuffled to add further randomisation.  The green deck consists of internal threats, so you'll find things like boarding parties, robot malfunctions, hacked shields and so on within this deck.  The purple deck consists of external threats, so this is where you'll be faced with stealth fighters, juggernauts, meteors, and the previously-mentioned giant space jellyfish.  The threats have various strengths and weaknesses, so it's up to the crew to work together to combat these before they tear the precious ship apart, and the bill for damages gets sent on to their next of kin.

So if you're going to combat these threats then I guess you're going to need to be able to move around the ship?  And push buttons?  And generally just do space-ship-type things?  Throughout the mission, each player can take 12 actions - these are determined using the Action Cards, and are planned out using each player's Action Track.

Generally it's a good idea to physically represent the players on the board.  Space Alert features 5 colourful crew tokens, which correspond to the colours of the Action Tracks.  Those grey-looking fellows at the back are the ship's combat robots, and can be led around the ship to fight off invaders... at least until they malfunction and start killing the crew.  Swings and roundabouts, eh?

No board game is complete without tokens, it seems, and Space Alert has them in spades.  The various tokens are used to keep track of internal threats as they move throughout the ship, the progress of external threats, and the damage dealt to the ship itself - that's right, the ship takes damage!  So if you don't work hard to keep it up and running, then that mega-laser you were counting on to save your skin at the last minute might not actually work so well.

And there are some assorted jelly cubes.  Okay, we were a little disappointed to discover they weren't actually jelly cubes.  These translucent plastic cubes and cylinders are used for various purposes in the game, but usually for keeping track of the ship's energy, which can be transferred between reactors, and assigned to weapons and shields.

We were thinking of leaving this out of Part 1 of the review, but seeing as this is a box contents article and this was in the box, we feel we should include it, but feel free to ignore it for now.  This overly-complicated-looking track is effectively the ship's black box recording, and all will make sense in Part 2!

At this point you may be thinking "Okay, you're keeping the ship in-tact, things are attacking you, I get that... but how do you know when/where the threats come from?"  This is one of our favourite parts of the game, and one that makes it quite immersive...

The CD!  Now we've played games with CD soundtracks before (most notably Last Night on Earth), and the soundtrack has done little to enhance the gameplay - in fact, if anything, it's detracted from the experience.  With Space Alert, however, things are different.  This is not a CD of cheesy music, but the audio track of the ship's computer.  Once you've selected a track and pressed play, the designated communications officer has to listen closely to know when and where the threats are approaching from, when players are allowed to exchange or draw new Action Cards, or can even cause a communications blackout, wherein players have to continue without communicating until the blackout resolves.
This makes Space Alert a real-time game, as opposed to turn-based, which adds to the chaos and tension of fending off attacks from all sides!  The CD only contains around 10 tracks, not including the training mission, but a free Mission Generator app can be downloaded for smartphones, which randomly generates missions and is a highly recommended addition to the game.

Well, that's quite a lot of content, isn't it?  Come back shortly to see how the gameplay breaks down and find out our final score on the game!  Until then, drink up, and game on!