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!

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