Board Game Review: Space Alert

In the spirit of my newly expanded blog, I decided to make the last post of 2012 a gaming one.

My husband and I are big gaming fans, both board games and video games.  For Christmas, I tried to get him a couple new board games.  We own way too many at this point, which makes it harder to get new ones, but still doesn’t prevent us from trying.  If any of you are fellow visitors of www.boardgamegeek.com, check out our collection under ‘tyraenna‘.  Anyway, one of the ones I got him this Christmas is called Space Alert.  I decided to purchase this one because it was a co-operative game, where all the players work together against the game board, and because it claimed to take about 30 minutes to play (I don’t have a super long attention span).

That being said, I had pretty low expectations.  The box art was not exciting, which is often a big draw for me.

SpaceAlert

I started to have higher hopes for the game on Christmas day when we decided to learn the game.  I noticed that the name on the box looked similar to the name on one of my favorite games that we already own, so I checked.  Indeed, Space Alert is made by the same game maker  (Vlaada Chvatil) as Dungeon Lords and Dungeon Petz.  Once Jesse started reading the instructions, I could tell it was the same individual – the humor in the instruction manual was also very similar.

If anyone has played Ghost Stories or Robo Rally, this game has elements similar to both.  Like Ghost Stories, it is cooperative and can be randomized so it is different every time you play.  Like Robo Rally, players select their  actions based in cards played in an order they specify.  One slip up can mess up your plan, as can other players.

My husband is super good at reading instructions, learning games, and explaining the game to other people.  So much so that other people we game with comment about how good he is at it.  I am not good at explanations, and leave this to him as much as possible.  As usual, he was charged with learning this one.

There are two booklets that come with the game.  One is a general instructions book, and one is a larger book that teaches you to play the game in phases.  We used the larger instruction book, and I have to say it was an excellent experience.  Jesse read it aloud.  We’d learn some rules.  We’d play a test scenario.  We’d fail miserably.  We’d learn some more.  Rinse and repeat.  If you buy this game, I fully recommend the long drawn out instruction booklet.

Here is the game set out on our table.

GameSetup

The premise is that you are the crew of a spaceship being sent out on a mission.  The mission will take about 10 min from when your ship jumps out of hyperspace to when the ship jumps back into hyperspace.  Your goal is to survive that 10 min.  You plan and play the mission out, and then afterwards, you essentially get to watch a video of how the mission went to determine your team’s score and see if you survived the chaos.

The game is playable for 1-5 players.  It comes with a CD / soundtrack that contains mission files and test scenarios, etc.  When you are setup and ready to begin the game, you start the audio.  During the approximately 10 minute audio file, different things will happen.  Enemies can spawn inside or outside the ship, communications relays can go down, new data can be uploaded to the ship.  All while blaring emergency alarms are going off in your ears.  Below are some example threats that could appear during a mission.

CardExamples

During the 10 minute audio track, players will be instructed to place their action cards, in three phases.  There are 12 total rounds during a mission, so players can place up to 12 cards (you can always choose not to place a card for a round).  Phase 1 is rounds 1-3, Phase 2 is rounds 4-7, and Phase 3 is rounds 8-12.   During setup, prior to the audio beginning, each player is dealt 5 cards for each phase, plus 1 heroic ability card at Phase 1.  Any leftover cards you have from an earlier phase can be used in the later phases.  Players can talk about what they are doing and coordinate, but the cards go face down on the mat.  Once a phase is over (the audio track will inform you when that happens), cards that have been placed down can no longer be changed.

Cards have several possible actions: move left, move right, change decks (move up or down), fire weapons, replenish energy/shields, and activate special ability (the ability changes depending on your location within the space ship).  Special abilities involve performing computer maintenance (yup, even space ships have screen savers), enabling battlebots, sending bots out in fighter ships, firing rockets, and doing visual confirmation of threats.

Timing is the most confusing and important factor in the game.  You can plan to fire a weapon at an enemy, but realize during playback that you did this several rounds before the enemy actually appeared in front of you.  Your teammate can replenish the energy that helps you fire your gun, but you forgot that you go first in the turn order which causes you to fire the gun before the energy is replenished.  The game does a very good job of making you feel like you are in the moment, on the bridge of a space ship, chaos is happening around you and all you can do is react and hope for the best.

I’ve left out some of the details, but hopefully I’ve given you enough information to decide if this game is for you or not.  I highly recommend it.  I honestly haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, and have even considered playing some scenarios by myself a few times.  It is a great cooperative challenge, but also a good individual challenge.  In Ghost Stories, you can wind up with a little bit of group think or too much discussion because you have no time limits on your decisions.  This game adds in that aspect of real time decision making with multiple attention demands.

Often, watching the scenario play out at the end is humorous.  For instance, there was one game that I intended to activate some battlebots, move across the ship, and send the battlebots to pilot some starfighters for a few rounds.  Instead, I forgot to place a “move left” card and wound up standing on the bridge of the ship, activating my robots to no useful effect for several rounds.  Giant robot dance party on the bridge.  I’m sure that would have frightened away some attacking alien life forms, right??

Oh and in terms of time to play, it really does take about 30 minutes to play a scenario or mission out.  I would say that the major time suck for this game is the initial learning curve.  I am hoping that with my husband being as good as he is at teaching people games, we will not have that much of a time suck each time we play it.  Being generous, I would say it would probably take an hour to teach folks, setup the game, and play a mission.

 

 

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