The Alpha is the kind of game you pull out at the end of the night, when your capability to play something more complex has long gone, and you feel like a bit of trash talking. It’s a chaotic game, but one that contains most of its chaos in the actions of the players.
The premise couldn’t be simpler: each player controls a pack of wolves and in the main phase of the game you’ll send out your wolves to hunt various food sources. This is a straightforward area control/bidding game. If you have more wolf tokens in a particular area you win the food there. Of course, since each person places one token at a time it’s easy to ensure that few people ever win a location outright. The Alpha wants this to happen, for ties bring more chaos.
If two wolf packs tie they play a straightforward prisoner’s dilemma game. In secret, each party chooses to either fight or share. If they both share, they split the food. If one fights and the other shares, the fighting pack wins all of the food. If they both fight, one wolf from each pack is injured (removed from play for one round). In this case, the pack with the next most wolves in the space wins the food. Such food counts the same for scoring purposes but we all know it’s extra delicious.
This game of outmaneuvering and psychological trickery serves as a sort of primer for the form. Both the area control and prisoner’s dilemma decisions are about as pure as can be, though there are a couple of wrinkles. First are the dice, which add perhaps a bit too much unnecessary uncertainty. In each space, before the fighting occurs, the “alpha pack” rolls a die to see how much food will be rewarded on that space. There’s always at least a 1-in-6 chance of no food at all, and a couple of dud rolls above odds expectations can throw you out of contention. They also serve as fodder for mockery.
The second wrinkle is the fact that placing each wolf token in the “deep forest” (where the high-yield prey resides) costs a food. This is where the sunk cost fallacy rears its seductive head and wriggles its eyebrows about. It’s particularly pernicious in this game where you only start with five food. Go broke in the first round chasing big game and you’re now stuck trying to catch the odd rabbit to claw your way back into contention. Is going into the deep forest worth it? Entirely depends on what the other players do. It always depends on what the other players do.
The Alpha doesn’t hide its systems. All of the incentives–the costs and potential benefits–are right there in front of you. Decisions are simple. Sometimes too simple. This is a tight line to walk because simplicity can often lead to non-decisions, where choice is an illusion in the face of an obviously correct path. The Alpha traverses this tightrope fairly well, with most decisions at least requiring some thought and some genuinely perplexing.
Still, the experience is fragile, requiring a healthy amount of buy-in from the players that this is a game where you might just get screwed over no matter what you do. The livestock space is the perfect example of this. Only one wolf may attempt to take down a juicy sheep each round, and it’s an exceptionally high-risk, high-reward play. 50/50 odds the wolf straight up dies and is removed from the game. 1-in-6 odds of gathering a large amount of food. Two of the three games of The Alpha I’ve played have been won by a player who scored on a livestock roll. If you can accept that outcome you’re in the correct headspace for this game.
I’ve got to mention that the production quality here is top-notch. This is one of a couple of games from Bicycle (famous for producing playing cards). I reviewed Exchange a few months ago and found it limp with a cynical corporate veneer. Ralph Rosario’s design with The Alpha is worthy of flashy art. It’s not necessarily my cup of tea but it’s given life by the game.
That said, The Alpha is still a minor amusement in a crowded field. On my shelves it’s up against titans like For Sale, Downforce, and Modern Art. Can it hold its own against such competition? I’m willing to give it a shot.
Review copy provided by the publisher.