I’d love to post about mysteries and puzzles today, but honestly all I can seem to think about is Space Alert, a real-time collaborative board game by Vlaada Chvátil. Last weekend, a friend of ours brought over Space Alert with the sales pitch “It only takes about 30 minutes to play.” Fast forward three hours later, and we had only decided to stop playing because it was 3 a.m. and our engineer was falling asleep at the terminal. This game is addictive.
Here’s the basic concept: You and your teammates are recruits for a space research initiative. A ship aptly named the “Sitting Duck” is sent via warp drive to different sectors of space where it makes observations for ten minutes before warping back home. The size of the warp drive engine necessitates a large ship, and that’s where you come in. There is a slight chance that hostile entities or ship malfunctions will compromise the mission. It’s your job to ward off attacks and keep everything functioning for the full ten minutes, allowing the ship (and hopefully your crew) to warp back home in one piece.
The “hook” for this game is that those ten minutes occur in real time. The game comes with a set of CDs where each track is a different mission. An emergency alarm blares while a computerized voice announces the current time and any incoming threats (space amoeba, asteroids, malfunctioning wires, etc.) that you and your crew must handle. It will be the most stressful, intense, out-of-control ten minutes you will experience in any board game.
The gameplay itself consists of using action cards to move your character about the ship, taking necessary actions like firing lasers, activating shields, and charging energy reactors. You have to work with your teammates to make sure everything is timed just so, and that no actions are interfering with each other. And when I say “work with,” I mean “yell at.” This game is a frenzied experiment in communication and delegation. I’m firing the lasers at 6, can someone charge the central reactor at 7? Wait, you’re using the lift at 5? I’M using the lift at 5! Who is dealing with the saboteur on board? This is a serious level threat, people!! And for God’s sake, is anyone jiggling the mouse?! (And then static suddenly plays over the speakers — radio silence, nobody is allowed to talk. Excruciating.)
You use the ten minutes to set up your plan of action, which includes 12 turns of action cards split into 3 phases. You keep your cards face down until the ten minutes are up, then you run through a simulation of what just happened, turn by turn, to see if you actually managed to survive. This can lead to some truly hilarious results, as, in the heat of the moment, you don’t always do what you mean to do and often find that the communication ball has not only been dropped, but stomped on, swept up, and tossed out as space debris. Many of our missions opened up with our captain turning over his first card only to have the color drain from his face as he muttered something like “I moved to the blue zone. Oh no…” Our mission doomed from moment one.
Like many European entries in this current board game renaissance we seem to be experiencing, Space Alert is a complex game with lots of pieces, parts, rules, and conditions. It takes a little while to get started, and can be a little overwhelming at first (I say “at first” as if the game ever stops being overwhelming. Ha!), but the payoff is huge. In a sea of 2-3 hour board games, a round of Space Alert really can be knocked out within 20-30 minutes, depending how well-oiled of a machine your crew has become. The experience is different every time and there is an incredible amount of potential for added difficulty including more advanced threat tiers, extended 90 minute missions, and expansion packs (none of which we even considered touching in our two encounters with the game).
There are a number of factors that make this game so appealing, to me at least. First is the fact that it’s a collaborative game. Out of all the board games I’ve played over the past few years, this is the only one that is truly collaborative (Betrayal at House on the Hill is a bit collaborative in the second round, but it’s a very light version of collaboration compared to Space Alert). I’ve never been a very competitive person, and I really enjoy teamwork situations in real life, so it’s a perfect fit for me there. (I’d like to say the collaboration leads to less potential for fighting or grumpiness in a gaming session, but it seems that dropping the baton in a team setting is possibly a worse offense than sabotaging a rival in a competitive game.)
That brings me to a second feature I love about this game — role-play. There are two roles necessary for the game: Captain and Communications Officer. The Captain’s only official responsibility is to go first. The Communications Officer is responsible for listening closely to the audio alerts and drawing threat cards accordingly. That’s all that is officially required, but there is so much room for more. The Captain is the leader, with the authority to make final decisions (and all sorts of other activities of questionable prudence, depending on your play style). Our Communications Officer wore a headset which really added to the experience. A Security Chief can relieve the Communications Officer of his responsibility for Internal Threats, making both parties more efficient. The Chief Engineer makes sure all energy is properly maintained and accounted for (nothing like attempting to fire a laser that turns out to have no energy!). And the Tactical Officer updates the board in real time to help teammates visualize what’s happening and avoid mix-ups.
I’ve never done much role-playing, and I haven’t seen a single episode of Star Trek, Stargate, or Battlestar Galactica, but I’ll be damned if I don’t want to wear a uniform and headset and call our captain “sir” while playing this game. I want my teammates to step fully into their roles and responsibilities. I want us to learn to work together more effectively. I want us to practice. I WANT TO PRACTICE A BOARD GAME.
That brings me to point three: learning. Every game has a learning curve, but with Space Alert that curve is one of the most enjoyable parts of the game, and probably the single factor most responsible for making this game so addictive. We lost most of our first 10 games or so, but we always felt that with a little more effort we could win the next one. And so we would play again, and again, and again. We started having a short list at the end of each play-through of the specific areas upon which we would try to improve (we need to make sure serious threats are treated as such, we need to announce any time we are using energy, we need to say red/blue instead of left/right). We felt good when we did something better. It was a satisfying sequence of learning experiences.
The game has an option for playing solo where you control the other members of the crew. Something deep down inside of me desperately wants to buy this game and spend hours a day training and learning. I want to learn how to be a better Security Chief and Tactical Officer. I want to move closer to stepping into the Captain’s role someday. I want to develop a strong team and get my fix of having a leadership role, wielding my crew like a finely-forged weapon against the horrors of space. Perhaps it’s just a sad reflection of needs that should be, but aren’t, fulfilled in my real life and work, but this game has had quite an effect on me.
Finally, the one aspect that might serve as a small thread to tie this post back to topics I usually discuss on this blog, is presence. All board games utilize presence to some extent, but with Space Alert it really feels necessary to the heart of the game. It’s the frantic yelling over the blare of the alarm, it’s watching your captain “transfer” cards from one player to another without their knowledge or consent, and it’s seeing the fear in your crewmates’ eyes as the mission ends and you all know you screwed up.
I gave you my most highly recommended anime series last week, and after just two play sessions with Space Alert, I’m about ready to call it my most highly recommended board game. At $70, Space Alert is a bit out of our board games budget right now, but that’s probably for the best. I might need to calm down a bit about this game before I feel safe buying it.
And for someday in the future, I’ve got my eye on Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator. Artemis looks something like Space Alert‘s video game big brother, ramping up the presence and role-play factors for a really unique experience. But that’s, hopefully, a story for another day.