I once terrified a friend after a game of Space Alert. He had never played the game before, but the rest of us had, and we just suffered a frustrating defeat. I may have embellished the memory in my own mind, but I recall slamming my fist down on the table and starting my rant with something like, “we HAVE to communicate better!”
A little while into my rant I looked at everyone’s faces and realized that I was being perceived as a crazy person. Space Alert does that to you.
This masterful design from legendary mythic game designer extraordinaire Vlaada Chvatil undoubtedly has supplied some of the most memorable gaming moments of my life. It’s a cooperative real-time programming game about trying to not die in a space ship.
Dying Is Bad, And Easy
The ship is aptly named the U.S.S. Sitting Duck because you will not be able to do much but sit there and scramble around, trying to fight off enemies coming your way.
The gameplay proper involves managing a hand of cards and trying to program your character’s movement and actions to stop the enemies. At the same time, however, a CD track (also available on an app) shouts out to everyone which enemies are coming.
So if the audio says “4: external threat, blue”, that means that whoever is in charge of managing external threats has to draw the top card of the external threat deck, mark it with a 4 token, and place it near blue (the right-most third of the ship). Then they need to understand the particular traits of that enemy ship and communicate what needs to be done to kill it to the others.
Another person will need to do the same for internal threats, which can do nasty things like destroy systems in the ship or even kill players. On top of that, there are also serious threats in both the external and internal flavors, which are even more dangerous and perilous than the normal threats.
Vlaada does a neat thing here. Cards that communicate relatively complicated bits of information in a game can sometimes be frustrating. Here they’re used as a means of adjusting the difficulty of the game. Higher-difficulty enemies don’t necessarily have more hit points, armor, or attack power (although they can). Sometimes they’re just more difficult to understand and plan around. Consider the phase fighter, which phases in and out of existence every other turn, or a ship that can only take one point of damage each turn, or a ship that can only take damage if it’s hit by a particular gun that turn. It gets complicated quickly.
Compounding these conundrums is the fact that the ships are also on a track with 2-4 trigger points that will usually cause them to attack (or phase into existence, or switch tracks, or gain armor, etc., etc.), and each of these tracks is randomly assigned each game. So whoever is tasked with communicating the external threats not only needs to understand how the ship itself functions, but how it acts on the particular track it’s on. If you very much want to avoid the “Y” trigger on a particular enemy, you need to quickly calculate on what turn that will happen based on the ship’s speed.
Internal threats can be even more tricky. Sometimes a raiding party will board the ship and move to different segments at the trigger points, before killing a player or destroying part of the ship. Sometimes an entire system will overheat, requiring everyone to frantically smash their fists against it to get it working again, wasting precious time.
Also Dying Is Funny
Sounds frantic, and it is, but this game is absolutely hilarious with the single funniest rulebook ever written. It works too–the humor helps you remember some of the complicated and unintuitive bits of rules that Vlaada is known for. And the book guides you through a very well crafted tutorial where rules and complexities are added when you are ready for them. This tutorial model, done very poorly with Vlaada’s Through The Ages, works perfectly here because each step along the way is actually fun. I remember having a blast going through it all in one evening, and being awe-inspired at how difficult and involved the final rule-set appeared. Now I find that base game a bit too easy.
Okay, the funny stuff–not only are you on the spacecraft “Sitting Duck”, but you’re ostensibly on a science mission and told a disconcerting number of times that you should not expect any resistance. But there are no less than 6 sets of guns suspiciously mounted on the ship. Oh, and every once in awhile you have to hit the spacebar on the ship’s computer to stop the sponsor-mandated screensaver from activating and putting all of the systems into sleep mode. Also, you get points for “visual confirmation” i.e. looking out the window. If many people look out the window simultaneously, then you get even more points. Because science?
And in a bit of brilliant humorous condescension, the rulebook informs you that the ship has been helpfully built so that literally everything is operated by giant glowing buttons, so obviously it’s easy to use. This is how you add thematic flavor to your game while teaching it, folks!
Easy As ABC?
The glowing buttons are helpfully labeled “A” “B” and “C” in each of the six segments of the ship. The A button will always fire the guns attached to that bit of the ship, the B button will do something with energy–either moving it around or powering shields, and the C button does miscellaneous tasks, from picking up “battlebots” to help you fight internal threats, to the all-important “pressing the space bar” task.
Other than that, you’re just moving around. But this doesn’t communicate just how frantic, tense, and magnificent the puzzle is here. I already spoke of how the difficulty of the game is adjusted through more complicated to understand enemies, but because this is a programming game, you’re working out actions through time, not only considering the turn you’re trying to do something in, but the order in which the player’s cards will resolve within each turn.
Consider the following situation: You find out that there’s a massive enemy ship coming your way. It requires multiple simultaneous shots from the blue wing of the ship to penetrate its shields, and periodically it’ll fire bursts of damage to all three ship trisections. This means that two people need to rush over to top and bottom levels of blue to man the guns. And we should probably charge the shields everywhere to absorb the fire. But there’s not enough energy to do that AND fire the guns, so we need to use a power capsule to give us more energy to access. So player 3 goes to do that, but they’re the first person in the turn order, so they need to wait until power is extracted before priming a new batch. Meanwhile new threats are emerging, and the external threat manager is trying to double check his damage numbers accounting for new timing information while helping to coordinate this plan.
Then if a new, even more significant threat emerges, this plan may have to be entirely binned and a new one formed. But not everyone can remember which particular movements and actions are being scrapped from each player, so some energy transfer they may see as a given is now not going to happen, which causes a gun to not fire, which keeps a ship alive, which means the heat-seeking missile another player fired is hitting the wrong ship, which screws up the damage calculations on the next ship, and so on.
Further complicating matters: The actions are divided into three phases, and once you pick up your action cards for the next phase everything you’ve placed previously is permanently locked into place. You must place your action cards facedown, even before they’re locked into place, so you can’t see your plans at a glance. If two people try to use the same elevator to change decks on the same turn, one of them has to instead use the “stairs” which delays everything on their board by one turn. Every once in awhile on the audio track there will be a radio malfunction which causes a concentration-melting static noise to hiss out, and during which no one can speak to each other.
I love it, I love it, I LOVE IT! I can’t maintain my composure any more. Space Alert is a gem of a game and a brilliant design. It is the most cooperative cooperative game I’ve ever played. It completely sidetracks the “quarterbacking” problem we see in a lot of co-op games because no one can know enough information in the required amount of time to control everything. It’s the economic “knowledge problem” in board-game form!
The Agony Of Defeat
And because Vlaada is devilishly cruel in the best way, each game concludes with a meticulous progression through everything that actually happens based on the actions played. Will you succeed gloriously or will a single mistake set off a chain reaction of disaster and destruction? Well, you’re going to find out very, very slowly. I think some people might be turned off by half of the game time being spent resolving everything step by step, but for me it’s a glorious bit of dramatic suspense. You think that you accounted for every contingency, but every single time someone flips a card over to reveal their action, there’s a chance that the entire house of cards will come tumbling down. In a slow, agonizing descent.
All of this drama and emotion can make the game mentally draining, and sometimes I find myself not wanting to play only because I don’t want to put my mind through that. But those occasions are rare, and I can confidently say that I have never played a single game of Space Alert that was disappointing or not fun. Each win pumps everybody at the table up, and each loss brings about a spirit of clenched-jawed determination to immediately play again and not be so dumb next time, dammit.
Good thing, too, because for a game that takes under 30 minutes to play, it sure takes a long time to set up. There are many bits and pieces to sort out, tiny cards to shuffle, and enemy decks to arrange. You’ll want to plan time for multiple games, and there’s even a campaign mode where you can string together multiple games with a bit of continuity.
Speaking of continuity, the expansion to Space Alert, called “A New Frontier” is one of the best board game expansions ever made. It does three very important things. First it provides a stack of new ships that are ludicrously difficult. Just stupid hard. My gaming group has played around 20-30 games since getting the expansion and we almost never include the “red” level ships because we like to have a chance at winning.
Second, it provides double-action cards, which on one half have two consecutive actions on them. Alongside this are new audio tracks for use with the double-action cards, which are, of course, more difficult. But double action cards are more complicated to navigate anyway, so until you master them there’s definitely a bit of a difficulty spike.
Third, and most delightfully, are the character sheets. On these sheets you will live out, literally, multiple lives, as you gain experience, build skills which provide you with special skill-oriented cards, and unlock achievements. There are achievements! Dozens of them, listed on a fold-out sheet, just tantalizing you to take risks and be stupid to get those sweet, sweet experience points. I don’t actually have a bucket list, but if I did, unlocking the “Grand Finale” achievement in Space Alert would be on it. “Watch from the window as a rocket you launched destroys the last enemy”. Glorious.
Conspicuously at the top of the character sheet is a box with the words “I consent to be cloned” next to it. See, when you fail in Space Alert you die, and your character dies with it, and you need to start a new one. But if you just innocently check that little box your consciousness is uploaded to a new clone every time you die. Of course, once you do this it slows down your rate of experience gain because you’re not as white-knuckle terrified of dying. Very quickly your gaming group will be split between reasonable pragmatists like myself and naive idealists like my wife. It’s a brilliant bit of meta-game flavor.
I would not recommend this expansion right off the bat because of how difficult it is, even with the easiest enemies, but the absolute moment you find the base game a little bit easy or familiar, A New Frontier will place the defibrillator pads on, dramatically yell “clear”, and jolt the game into majestic new heights.
I could go on and on about Space Alert, and I probably will take a more extensive look at the game at some point on the podcast, but I’ll end with this. If real-time games and the stress they bring are not your cup of tea, I highly doubt Space Alert is going to convert you. If you primarily play with two or three players you’ll need to share one or two “androids”, which can use actions cards from either person, because the game is balanced for exactly 4-5 players without them. I don’t mind playing with androids at all (and I’ve been told by Ben that even the solo rules are actually quite good), but I know some people will be. If you are not one of those people, you absolutely have to take a look at it because it provides some of the best, most exciting, funniest, and most clever cooperative board game experiences I’ve ever had, even when I get frustrated and scare away the house guests.
+Hilarious and packed to the brim with thematic flavor
+Clever in so many ways that enhance the social experience
+Avoids many co-op game problems
-Can be mentally and emotionally draining
-Long set-up time
-Best with exactly 4 players