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Game Preview from BGG.CON 2016: Alien Artifacts

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game: Alien Artifacts
I played a number of forthcoming games at BGG.CON 2016, some of which cannot yet be revealed and others of which have been announced loud and proud by the publishers in question, with one of the latter being Alien Artifacts from Portal Games.

The pitch for Alien Artifacts is crystal clear — a 4X-style gaming experience in sixty minutes or less — and the trick to making that short playing time possible is that everything you do in the game is on cards: planets you explore, technology you exploit, resources you expend, and spaceships you use for attacking. (Extermination is too strong a word for what happens in this game, at least in its current iteration, but Portal Games is still developing this Marcin Senior Ropka and Viola Kijowska design ahead of a planned Gen Con 2017 release, so note that the final game might differ from what's described and depicted below.)

At the start of the game, you can produce (draw) two cards each turn, store two cards, and assemble (use) one. Cards have a number from 1-4 on them as well as 1-3 colored squares on each end. The squares represent currencies, with blue building technology, green exploring planets, red fueling military growth, and yellow (seemingly always a single square) being a joker than can apply toward anything.

Board Game: Alien Artifacts
Approx. seven turns in; storage should be one higher since I explored a planet

Each turn, you take one action. You might store two cards to be used as money to buy something later, or work toward discovering a planet (with each additional planet requiring more effort than earlier ones), or use a special, single-use action acquired on a planet previously discovered, or buy a technology card (with these cards being color-coded for expand, explore, exterminate, and exploit categories), or complete a technology previously purchased. If you spend money from storage or take a planet action, then you keep your cards in hand for use next turn; otherwise you assemble what you can, then throw away the rest.

As you increase your holdings, your abilities increase. More military leads to more production, giving you more cards in hand each turn. More technology allows you to assemble more, letting you tuck more cards each turn to find planets and complete technology faster. More planets gives you more storage, letting you bank more money toward future purchases, such as a dreadnought or a mothership, which will then allow further military growth, which gets you more cards, which lets you buy more technology, etc.

Board Game: Alien Artifacts
Details on the possible actions and their costs

Alternatively, you can use money to buy more production, storage, and assembly, but ideally you want to build tech, military, and planetary holdings since those things will help with everything else you're doing.

You play twice through the giant money stack with two players and three times through with three or four players. (Shades of Bohnanza here, to pull out an unlikely comparison, since the stack shrinks due to cards being in storage or assembly, causing the second and third passes through the deck to go more quickly than the first.) Once the game ends, players tally points for each type of technology, each set of all four tech cards, each planet explored, each maximum reached in production, storage and assembly, and possibly other things as well.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Almost through round one, w/ one planet used up, three techs in place, and zero military

Greg from Portal Games gave me a quick overview, then we dove in, with us completing more than half of a two-player game in fifteen minutes. (I had an appointment to get to, so I didn't experience the humiliation of point-counting.) I kept initially thinking, "I'm not doing very much", but at some point I realized that we were flying through the deck and I had explored three planets and completed one of each technology and was powering up a mothership for future Greg-threatening and was grabbing four cards each turn, which was jetting me through everything else that I was trying to do.

Mind you I'm not saying that I played well, but I felt like I did a lot. Alien Artifacts is one of those designs that I approach with blinders, initially seeing only my own board and not even all of that. I completed multiple technology items, but I don't think I used one of them. I used one planet power without knowing what I was trying to do with it; I ignored another planet power that I should have used. I knew that Greg was doing stuff, but I never once considered what his cards might be or why I might want to take a planet that would help him (if they would have). I bought a mothership before him, without realizing that he had been storing money to buy it.

No, I was just doing stuff to do things, with that first play being all about feeling out the system and seeing how things work — and the short take is that they work amazingly well, with the game having a Splendor-like feel in how the micro actions each turn pile up into exponential growth, but with many more choices for what to do and lots of details that I didn't even begin to examine.

Next time, I can play for real and actually try to think about what I'm doing!

Board Game: Alien Artifacts
Thanks to Grzegorz Polewka for teaching the game at BGG.CON 2016!
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