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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