Area 51 is a game where players build up secure bunkers and use them to store alien artifacts represented by cards in four different colors of values ranging 1-4. This revolves around card management with an ebb and flow of cards both in hand and on the table.
COMPONENTS IN BRIEF
I played a prototype that used paper as cards and had various molded plastic pieces, so I don't know what the actual components will be. Suffice to say, I hope and expect the components of the finished game will be better.
GAMEPLAY IN BRIEF
Each player is dealt a hand of 5 cards, and the table receives 6 face-up cards. On your turn, you must choose one of the following 4 actions:
1) Draw Cards - Take 3 of the 6 face-up cards on the table into your hand (may first discard a card to sweep the 6 and replace with new 6). Replace the missing cards only after you have taken all 3.
2) Build/Upgrade Bunker - Build a Level 1 bunker by placing a card of the matching color face-up and 1 card face-down, both on a hangar in the region where you are building your bunker. Alternatively, upgrade an existing bunker by one level by placing a card of the appropriate color face-up and X cards face-down where X is the new level (e.g. upgrade your Lv1 green bunker to Lv2 by playing a green card face up and 2 cards face down).
3) Build/Move Transport - Build a truck/train by placing a card of the matching color face-up and X cards face-down on a hangar in the departure region of the transport, placing an X token next to it. For someone else to Move the truck/train, they must increase the token by at least one, playing 1 card of matching color face-up and X+1 cards face-down, to upgrade the number token.
4) Distribute Hangar - This action is the meat of the game. Temporarily lay down your hand, and pick up all the cards in one hangar. Reveal them and arrange them by color. These cards are then distributed to all the bunkers in the region (as well as transport-connected bunkers -- a green train in the distribution region pointing left means all green bunkers in the left region can also be distributed to), with each bunker receiving 1 card if possible but no more than 1 card, and no cards of higher value than the bunker security level. All distributed cards score, all undistributed cards go to hand.
Example: You take the Distribute action and flip up green1, white2, orange3, blue4, blue1 in a region with bunkers Your White1, Adam's Blue4, Zack's Green2 via train, and Your Orange3. o3 must be distributed to your O3, scoring you 3 points. You can distribute a blue card of your choice to B4 - you'll choose the b1 to score only a single point for Adam, putting the b4 in your hand. g1 will score Zack 1 point via train to G2, and w2 can't be distributed, so will end in your hand.
When two regions have no available security levels to add to bunkers, a final round is played, then all remaining hangars are distributed. Bonus points are scored for the highest level bunker in each region, and the highest score wins.
*Single-action turns keep things moving. While the strategy of the game may be far from simple, your turn consists of taking a single action from 4 possible choices. This means both that the pace of the game can be reasonably fast, and that most anyone can play the game (although they may not be able to play it well).
*An ingenious card flow. One action draws cards from the table, adding them to a hand. Two actions move cards from hands to the hangars. And one action picks up swaths of cards from the hangars to remove some from the game and and some back to a hand. While far from intuitive, there is a beauty in this system which underlies the game, especially as you learn how to use it.
*Rewards repeat play. As soon as I played this game, I knew I wanted to play it again because it was just starting to make sense. I felt the same after the second game. Having now played a half-dozen times or so, with everything from 3p to 6p, I am starting to figure out how the game works. I certainly wouldn't say I have a grasp on the best strategy, but I've seen some clever maneuvers (The "lockout robbery", the "instant refund", &c) and my last game I played sufficiently competently to not lose.
The flow of cards between hands and hangars takes a while to get used to, and most players will likely spend their first game doing the boardgame equivalent of button-mashing. This is a game that reveals itself slowly, and as you start to see how the systems work, there are levels upon levels of strategy on which to cut your teeth.
*Difficult decisions. That being said, even in a first game it's clear to see that while a turn may consist of a single simple action, making that decision is far from simple. Drawing 3 cards is always useful, but comes at the opportunity cost of immediate action, and not building/upgrading that bunker/train before the next distribution. Even with only 3 regions, there's the question of where to put the bunker, what color to make the bunker, what face-down cards to pay for it with, and what hanger to put them in.
Distributing the hangers is a whole other kettle of fish. Sometimes it feels a bit like Puerto Rico's Craftsman action, something you do reluctantly knowing others will get points. Other times it's a crucial play to be able to take points for yourself that would otherwise go to opponents, and shank other players with low point cards. And there's an element of push-your-luck as well, between the face-down cards and the raw numbers of cards piling up, such that it's not clear when choosing a hanger to distribute whether you'll end up filling your hand and scoring points, or being forced to distribute every card to give points to others and draw no cards.
*Very opaque. The flip-side of the fact that it rewards repeat play is that the odds of you loving your first game of Area 51 are not stellar. You should accept up front that your first game will be a learning game, as you try to figure out what the heck is going on. Players may feel like they don't know why they are doing anything, have no real control over what happens, and may have trouble "finding the fun", especially for non-gamers. This last point is exacerbated by the...
*Somewhat pasted-on theme with a dry game. The alien theme doesn't really shine through here, and basically you're playing with some cards in 4 colors numbered from 1-4 and stacking up towers. Possibly if the different suits had abilities or something that set them apart it would feel a bit more alien, but at the moment the theme does not feel very strong.
*Prototype components were sub-par. It is my sincere hope that just as the paper prototype cards will be replaced for the final product, that the other pieces will too. Please do keep in mind that what I played was a prototype, and so it is quite possible that this final negative point about the game will fade into irrelevant history once the game is finally released. But I feel the need to mention the components here because they were universally the most disliked aspect of the game by every player in the half-dozen games I played, and seemed designed to maximize the frustration of the user.
The cards being paper instead of card-stock is obviously only a prototype issue. But the pictures and icons on them didn't really conjure up the theme of each color as described in the rules, and the cards were sadly mono-directional so they can be upside-down rather than being playing-card-like and symmetrical.
The colors of the pieces were also sources of confusion, between the "blue" bunkers that looked grey and similar to the "white" bunkers which looked tan, magnified by the fact that blue and white were player colors, so referring to white or blue on a bunker often made things unclear.
And worst of all were the physical connecting pieces. The idea of snapping your cube onto a tower to show ownership and snapping security levels under a bunker to show level works great. But the reality was poorly-formed pieces that were difficult to get to stick together, frequently fell apart or fell over, and all-around exasperating for everyone to try to deal with.
Area 51, like Stefan Alexander's previous game King Chocolate, is a cleverly designed game with simple rules and a high degree of emergent complexity. It's also definitely a hidden depths game, which is why I knew immediately upon playing it that I wanted to play it again, even though I didn't understand it. It's a game that does take some learning, and a few of the other players didn't enjoy the first game enough to be willing to play a second, but those who did play it again certainly enjoyed it more on a replay.
The underlying mechanism of cards going into the hangers to be distributed to bunkers and back to hands is really neat, and between exploring that and the emergent complexity in the game in general, I think it's a really neat game I still want to play more. I'm just hoping the Kickstarter is sufficiently successful to give the game better components, or I don't think it'll catch on.
IS IT FOR YOU?
Do you want a highly thematic game, easy to understand the strategy from your first play? Well, look elsewhere. Area 51 is dry, opaque, and its charms reveal themselves only over time. If you enjoy games with simple rules for what you can do on your turn but an infinity of factors to consider when making your decision, then this clever shrew of a game is certainly worth taming.
*Prototype copy provided by designer
Thanks for the really thoughtful review! I really think you got to the core of what is unique about the gameplay.
To address a few questions about the components, and what will and won't change:
* The board and cards will be top quality in the final version. The board is actually being manufactured by a puzzle maker, so it should fit together beautifully.
* The black markers are final. They do loosen up a bit with continued play and players learn to handle them a bit better. For example, even though they do stick together a bit, always pick up a stack by the bottom marker, never by the tower on top. Also always add new markers to the bottom and don't try to take the tower off.
* I tried full-sized cards and the board is just too big. With mini cards, the board is a reasonable size but there's less room on the cards. I (and the artist) initially tried smaller numbers (which were bi-directional) and larger pictures, but it affected gameplay. It's so important that players can effortlessly see the numbers of the cards on the board from across the table without even thinking, so that evaluating when to pick up a hangar doesn't take too much work. So we needed giant, bold numbers that took up a good chunk of the card, and with mini cards this is the design that worked best. So this was a carefully considered tradeoff between playability and theme, and is unlikely to change for the final version.