Friday, June 14, 2013

Kobayashi Maru - The Board Game : "Space Alert"


Game designer Vlaada Chvátil may not be as prolific as Reiner Knizia, but when inspiration hits, look out.  Within the span of three short years he created some of the most innovative and wildly fun board games ever produced.  After producing the empire-building classic Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization in 2006, Vlaada was back one year later with the frantic starship-builder Galaxy Trucker.  He then served up the brilliant co-operative game Space Alert in 2008, which successfully married the frantic action planning of RoboRally with an intense Star Trek-style alien encounter.

Thanks to a two-week vacation I've been on a gaming hiatus for awhile so when Space Alert was proposed for this week's turn I was totally onboard.  We all loved the game when we played it during Cabin Con and everyone was anxious to revisit the experience.

So what makes Space Alert so special?  This brief transmission from the Czech Games website might give you some idea:

Space Alert is a team survival game.  Players take on the role of a crew of space explorers sent out through hyperspace to survey a dangerous sector of the Galaxy.  The pace of the game is set by 10-minute soundtracks on included CDs (or by scenario cards, if you don’t have a CD player).  During these 10 minutes, the crew must defend the ship while it scans the enemy sector.  If they succeed, the ship brings back valuable data.  If they fail… it is time to train a new crew.

Players do not compete against each other.  Instead, they work together against the challenge presented by the game.  The difficulty of this  challenge can be chosen by the players themselves. Completing the most difficult missions requires close teamwork.

Looking to scan the game's computer banks for a full technical readout?  Do yourself a favor and check out the hilarious Paranoia-inspired rule book right here.

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COLOR ASSIGNMENT AND ROLES
Andrew...Red
Me...Purple
Dean...Yellow (Captain)
Mike...Blue (Communications Officer)



FIRST TEST RUN

Our first test run was a true comedy of errors.  Cap'n Dean took the Gravolift below deck and tried to do some resource management, but he only succeeded in diverting the Energy that had already been converted.  In fact, all three Fuel Capsules were still untapped by the end of the scenario.  

Terrified by the prospect of actually moving around, I stayed in the Upper White Station and blazed away at the looming threat.  Unfortunately, with ship-board energy at a premium, my attacks soon became the equivalent of tapping the 'Fire' button on an unplugged Galaga console.  

In the Upper Blue Station, Mike got a few smacks in on the Pulse Ball before he also ran out of juice.  This threat's across-the-board counter-attack effectively wiped out our Shields, leaving us wide open for a left-flank coup de grace.  

Andrew did his best to safeguard the Upper Red Station.  Unfortunately he started firing at the Stealth Fighter before it actually appeared on the board.  Whoopsie!  After our Shields were battered into oblivion by a Destroyer / Pulse Ball tag-team effort, the Stealth Fighter sheared off our portside section and we exploded in a simulated ball of fire und screams.  


Result: loss.  


SECOND TEST RUN

Dean did a better job managing the energy flow this time out, converting one of the three Fuel Capsules in the process.  This gave us an extra bump in power which keep the Shields up and the guns a-blazin'.  Unfortunately it still wasn't enough and by the end of the run, we were all mashing comically impotent buttons.    

Via the powerful Heavy Laser Cannon, I plastered the Energy Cloud on my very first shot.  Unfortunately, after diverting power to the Shields, the bonus energy I was counting on for my follow-up never materialized.  After my pre-programmed move whisked me away to the Upper Red Station,  a wounded and very pissed-off Energy Cloud completely drained our Shields in an act of revenge.  

Seeing that we were now completely defenseless, Mike tried to keep Andrew's weapons fueled in the Lower Blue Station.  But once those few spare Green Energy Blocks were allocated, all he could do was sit around and polish his nacelle.        

Andrew did get a shot off with his Laser Cannon but the Cryoshield Fighter shrugged it off thanks to its annoying initial hit immunity.  The enemy ships returned fire, battering the Blue Station's weapons, rendering the Gravolift Tube inoperable and causing significant cosmetic damage.  Mercifully my boosted Shields kept the center section of the ship free from harm.    

The same couldn't be said for the Red Station.  Although Dean and I accumulated four damage on the Gunship, our inability to eliminate a single target resulted in a corona of cross-fire.  A combined, short-range attack by all three enemy ships blew our precious ship into a million sparkly bits.  


Result: loss.  

SIMULATION ONE

By now our fictional instructor was having some serious concerns about his new cadets.  After all, we'd just been annihilated in the two most basic training scenarios and our adversaries were only going to get stronger.  As such, our immediate goal for the first advanced simulation was pretty humble: destroy at least one enemy ship.     

Dean, clearly a hands-on kind of Captain, rolled up his sleeves, went down below deck and tried to keep the ship powered up.  He managed to convert two out of the three Fuel Capsules, ensuring that  energy wouldn't be an issue this time out.  But if his crew actions were scattered and disorganized, would his efforts be in vain? 

We were flushed with success early on.  I winged the Pulse Satellite with my forward-mounted Heavy Laser Cannon and Andrew polished it off a well-placed Rocket.  After tending to the needy computer and grazing the Stealth Fighter with a barely-operating Heavy Laser Cannon, a jumbled set of actions led me to the Lower Red Station where I found myself staring awkwardly at Captain Dean.  This gave the virtually-unopposed Stealth Fighter an opportunity to obliterate four port-side systems.  

Believe it or not, that wasn't the biggest threat to the ship.  That would be the ginormous Asteroid bearing down on us like the Armageddon rock.  Mike managed to take a two-point potshot at it with his Pulse Cannons but this was like trying to stop a charging rhino with an ice cube tray.  Meanwhile, Andrew tried to multi-task as best he could, succeeding in the virtually-impossible task of keeping the Shields aloft in the Upper Blue Station.

With a giant chunk of space rock hurtling toward his face, Andrew got behind the controls of the Heavy Laser Cannon.  Although Mike succeeded in diverting power from the main engine room to the Lower Blue Station, Andrew didn't have enough time to charge the Cannon.  With only two points of damage chipped off the Asteroid, it collided with our ship like a Winnebago running into a mailbox.  

   
Result: loss.  


SIMULATION TWO

Seeing that it was actually possible to destroy an enemy ship, we dusted ourselves off, got back in the saddle and charged headlong into the next scenario.  

After babysitting the ship's needy computer, Mike sped off to the Upper Red Station intent on confronting a marauding (and decidedly Lovecraftian) Interstellar Octopus.  Unfortunately the cross-ship combined damage inflicted by the Space Cephalopod and the Pulse Ball knocked out that section's Shields and caused considerable structural damage.  

Although Andrew's first strike on the Cryoshield Frigate was ineffectual, his sacrifice allowed both of us to pile on the damage.  Unfortunately we were so obsessed with bringing the pain that we neglected to keep the Shields powered up and when the Frigate returned fire, it knocked out several key systems.  We finally managed to destroy the damned thing with a combination of Heavy Cannon fire and Rockets.

This allowed me to move back to the White Upper Station and jiggle the mouse.  Unfortunately I'd programmed this a round too late.  My computer maintenance was a wasted move and, even worse, all of our actions were delayed.  To add insult to injury, my last two Fire attempts were useless since I couldn't pull any power.  Meanwhile, Andrew drilled the Pulse Ball with his Rocket.  Wow, that sounds filthy.

Meanwhile, Dean ran around like a decapitated chicken, trying to keep the systems fueled whilst blasting away at the Stellar Squid for two points of damage.  Unfortunately it was all for naught.  By the time the two remaining enemy ships closed to within short range, our Shields were in tatters.  After the damned Pulse Ball inflicted two hits on every zone of our ship, the Interstellar Octopus went all Japanese tentacle porn on the U.S.S. Incompetence, causing two points of damage for every remaining hit point.  That's twelve points of damage for those of you keeping score at home, BTW.  

Indeed, we paid dearly this time out for our all-offense strategy.  Next time we'd learn from our mistakes and strive for a more balanced effort.  

   

Result: loss.  


SIMULATION THREE

This time out Dean converted two Fuel Rods in quick succession and the resulting surplus of ship-wide energy became a real boon.  After kicking ass in the engine room and ensuring that all the peripheral systems were powered up, our intrepid skipper went top-side to aid in a port-side defense of the ship.

Off in the Blue Station, Andrew and I did our patented Heavy Laser / Homing Rocket combo, blowing the inbound Stealth Fighter into atoms.  Assuming that Mike had the center quadrant covered I rushed over to the Red Station to help Dean ward off the two inbound bogeys.  Of particular concern was the looming Energy Cloud which threatened to drain our shields when it crossed into "X" range.

Fortunately Dean had the weapons perfectly primed and we blasted away at the Energy Cloud and the Gunship.  Andrew's Rocket added to the fray and pretty soon both ships had been vaporized.  Noticing that Dean had abandoned the engine room, Andrew ran in and converted the last Fuel Capsule.  This was great since it allowed us to get some of the Shields back up.

Poor Mike got stuck with all the crappy utilitarian duties like computer maintenance and energy transferral.  Although we'd the port and starboard sides of the ship had been successfully defended, the central region was still being menaced by a massive Leviathan Tanker.  Mercifully, we managed to keep the Shields up long enough to block one of the Tanker's long-range strikes.

But when the Energy Cloud siphoned away the ship's last line of defense, the Tanker went on to obliterate the White Station's Shield generator and Pulse Cannon!  We all collectively held our breath, knowing that the Tanker was going to have its way with us in one final close-range strike.  It kept piling on the hurt without mercy, causing significant structural damage and turning the Heavy Laser Cannons into a pile of smoking wreckage!

As the dust settled we tentatively peeked out from behind our covered eyes to realize that we weren't dead!  By destroying all of the other enemy ships, the threat of additional damage had been nullified.  We'd survived, just one point of damage away from defeat!

Things really came together for us in this final scenario.  Our communication was impeccable and we moved around the ship with confidence, never lingering too long in one place and multi-tasking on several stations.  A timely balance of resource management, defensive Shielding and co-ordinated attacks allowed us to eke out a close win!  



Result: VICTORY!

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PROS
  • Although wins tend to be fleeting in any co-operative game, surviving a scenario of Space Alert is particularly gratifying.  Why?  Because you really get the sense that victory here is directly linked to practice and experience.  As an individual you're constantly testing the limit of your actions and as a group you're always trying to figure out better ways to communicate and collaborate.  Honestly, I can't think of a better co-operative game in that regard.
  • Space Alert easily avoids the dreaded Bossy Veteran Syndrome which tends to hobble so many co-operative titles.  Although it makes sense to heed the orders of a competent Captain, how you go about doing it is entirely up to you.  I highly suggest that you play every scenario with your Action Cards face down.  It really ramps up the theme as well as the challenge.  
  • If you thought the time-limited action programming in RoboRally was intense, wait 'til you get a load of Space Alert!  In this game you've got a bunch of ship-mates relying on you to get it right!  Although some people might consider the game stressful, I think it's brilliantly immersive.         
  • Some folks also might grouse about all of the humorous asides in the rule book, but, hey, at least it ain't boring.  In fact, I wish more game designers had a sense of humor.  I appreciate any manual that doesn't read like a protracted legal document.  
  • I love how each new Test Run and Simulation adds just a bit more chrome.  Hell, we haven't even done an actual mission yet!  When new scenario rules appear they never seem to contradict what's come before, making for a programmed method of learning that's actually intuitive and effective.     
  • The rules themselves are clear and straightforward.  Gameplay only takes about ten minutes and the Mission Step Board makes follow-through a breeze.  Once you get the hang of it you can easily play five or six scenarios in one sitting.
CONS
  • I have to confess: I'm not a big fan of the board.  Yeah, I know it's in the same style as Galaxy Trucker, but I'm not exactly crazy about that game's graphic design either.  The space ships look like something in a crappy 1930's Flash Gordon serial.  I know it's in step with the game's goofy tone, but if I'm gonna stare at artwork for several hours I want it to easy on the eyes.  Although the riot of color and hackneyed graphics were done for gameplay clarity I think it comes off as cluttered and garish.  In the grand scheme of things, though, this is a pretty minor quibble.    
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Honestly, I can't think of very many games that are this exciting, engaging, rewarding and fun.  We had such a good time playing through the "simulations" we're hoping to demo our first real mission this Saturday for our significant others.  Either we'll have a bunch of potential new recruits or they'll wonder why we're voluntarily subjecting ourselves to such a stressful experience.

Space Alert gets a perfect score: six pips out of six.  


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Wanna stare out the space window as your ship goes down in a blaze of glory?  Click on the image below to procure a copy of Space Alert and help support this blog!   


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