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Subject: Space Alert Review - On The Crew's Similarity To Marshmallows rss

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Rob Corn
United States
Columbus
Ohio
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How appropriate. You fight like a cow.
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Overview
Our game group consists of mostly engineers with a tendency for calculating all possible outcomes and min/maxing the game, or at least trying to. One of our favorites is A Game of Thrones (first edition) played by email, which allows a lot of time to analyze each move and figure out the optimum path.

Enter Space Alert, in which "analytical" and "plenty of time" go right out the viewport into the blackness of space, to puff up and explode soundlessly like marshmallows in the microwave (which, incidentally, is what happened to the entire crew in our first real mission, very messy).

The Box
Nice art, and after playing a few missions the cover art fits the game perfectly. The guy who looks like Cyclops from the X-Men is trying to keep his sh*& ship together while everything is falling apart around him.

The box is a nice medium sized box that fits well on a shelf without requiring structural modifications or expansions (try fitting Twilight Imperium (Third Edition) on-end in any shelf!). In what has been a popular trend lately, it's rectangular.

There are lots of words on the back but honestly I hate turning boxes upside down in case the bits are not properly bagged and stored, and reading box text at arm's length overhead is inconvenient. I'll assume they describe the game.

Inside the Box
The bits are nice. Check out the photos in the image archive, but all of the art is very good or excellent, and the ship art is particularly well done. I would call it semi-cartoony, but everything is clear and there are lots of little details. The whole setup would fit just fine on a standard sized table.

Oh, and there are two audio CDs included, or you can download the MP3s from Czech Games Edition's website. With iPods, laptops, portable CD players, etc. in abundance it shouldn't be a problem to get the audio on the table. But CGE thoughtfully included timer cards for their Amish and Luddite customers.

I hate the thought of technological gear in games, and I was prepared to hate the CDs, hate the computer's voice, hate the game mechanic, etc. but (spoiler alert!) it works really, really well for this game. Don't let the thought of lugging around a ginormous 3.5" x 1.5", 1.3 oz iPod Nano turn you off of the game. The computer voice is tolerable (a semi-synthesized male voice, somewhere between HAL and Stephen Hawking), and fits the theme.

Manuals
The manuals are really well done. There are two manuals, a no-nonsense "Rules" and a lots-of-nonsense "Handbook". The How To Be A Space Explorer Handbook (here) is worth a read even if you don't plan to get the game.

The manuals walk you through the setup and tutorial missions, about the only things I found to complain about is the misspelling of "strength" on a summary page and the fact that I couldn't find out how many cards are dealt to the players. The setup picture shows five per phase, but I don't think that's written out anywhere (the tutorial tells you ten cards, five for each tutorial phase, so I assumed the third phase also gets five).

Minor quibbles. The manuals are fantastic.

Rules Summary
So, our group of patient, analytical, take-your-time gamers is about to be faced with ten minutes of chaos. I had some idea of what we were getting into with our first few games, but it didn't matter.

Each player has a deck of cards, separated by phases (the audio CD tells you when each phase is over). The cards each have an action and a movement, and each player can do one or the other on each turn. The actions are basically limited to offense, defense, and other (like resetting the screen saver or staring into space).

The cards are played on a track, face down, depending on how your team chooses to address the threats. The CD tells you when and where threats show up, when to exchange cards, and when to draw new cards.

The audio tracks last about ten minutes. So the computer is rattling off things like "incoming threat, zone red, T+2" which means you turn over the top threat card, put a "2" marker on it and a corresponding "2" marker on the red zone threat trajectory (which tells you in turn 2 that particular bad guy will be making his appearance), and then figure out how to deal with it.

The threat decks are random, and so are the trajectories, so depending on the setup you could get a very easy challenge or a nearly impossible one. The combinations are tremendous, and you can have internal threats like saboteurs or crazed robots in addition to the more routine alien space ships bent on killing you.

Gameplay
The tutorial missions are set up for success. It seems difficult if not impossible to lose, even when you screw up. They will give you a false sense of confidence.

Our first real mission ended in disaster, with the ship destroyed by a giant space jellyfish. Timing is critical in this game! If you try to blast the aliens with your laser cannon, you'd better make sure you have Scotty below-decks giving you the power you'll need. It also helps to shoot the aliens when they actually show up, as opposed to the turn prior (my crew in general seems a little trigger happy).

The key to the game is the need for planning and teamwork combined with accurate predictions on what the enemies will be doing at each phase, but you only have about a minute or two to figure out the solution to each threat.

Given, say, twenty minutes to work out a solution, it would be no problem to deal with each challenge perfectly. Two minutes makes it hilariously chaotic and it is a really nice change of pace from our usual games.

This game does not have the co-op problem of a very skilled or dominating player determining the actions of everybody else. I think more co-op games would benefit from time limits like this (Arkham Horror comes to mind -- that game is tough due to the game itself, but drop the difficulty a little and add in a timer and I would like it much better I think). There just isn't time to plan everything that needs to be planned.

Our group split into teams to handle the various tasks. We tried to have an engineering team in the basement shuttling power around and a combat team up top to shoot the bad guys -- this works well until you add the internal threats or threats on all three trajectories, then things get... complicated.

One complaint: the game is extremely unforgiving. One mistake can doom the ship early on, as the improperly played card will propagate mistakes down the line. It is important to try to plan around screwups, but at the same time some threats require very careful timing. The balance is difficult! But that's the fun of this game.

Also, as the ship takes damage, various systems become less functional. The cannons can become less effective, the shields can lose strength, or the turbolifts can become disabled (a really bad problem because if you need to use it, all subsequent actions are "delayed" -- shifted to the right which will really mess up all of your previous planning!). The answer is obviously don't let the ship get damaged... but good luck with that...

There is a game mechanic called "I tripped!" which allows a mistake to be somewhat corrected, but it's intended for an honest mistake (like playing an action when you meant to play a movement) and not to fix a planning problem. I would like to have some way to adjust maybe one order on-the-fly to account for unforeseeable complications, like ship damage, but I like it well enough as-is.

Final Thoughts
Great game. Lots of laughing as our poor crew members pressed frantically on an out-of-energy laser cannon, or walked into a wall, or very cleverly refueled the reactor right after the previous player filled it up, or had battlebots attacking invading troopers just before the troopers actually showed up...

The replayability should be high until the audio tracks are memorized, but even then the randomness of the cards and trajectories will keep it fresh. I assume new tracks will become available, and fan-created audio should be easy.

This game is designed for four to five players, but can be played with as few as one. My guess is that less than four would be a much different experience, probably worse, but I haven't tried it.

I don't see this being played all night, but it's a good addition to any game night, especially since you can finish three games in under an hour.

I can't wait to play it again.
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"Take That Token And I'll Ram These Dice Right Up Your Nostrils"
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Great review! Thanks a lot, may be forced to get a foreign copy it sounds that good! The non-english robot voice wouldn't really bother me. goo
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