. . . or just let me nibble your soul . . . .
Electra Bellum. Electra Gloriosum.
To Preface . . .
I've been on something of a ravenous hunt lately for a particular slice of the vast pie that is social gaming: Games where players control starships and the action is primarily conducted via card-play.
I've played quite a few of these games, and was planning on playing at least four more incarnations of the space-card-game before doing a series of reviews about the niche . . . and then crowning an emergent, clear victor in the category! Then came Alpha Strike. A review was needed immediately.
I will try to be as objective as I can here so that you may make your own decisions, but, in my case, this was the first game that nearly drove me to self-enucleation. Still! This is likely the only review this game will accrue, so I'll try to be thorough!
Here's What You Get!
I was impressed with the container -- a VHS case -- in comparison with this game's peers. Most starship card games have boxes on the thin side . . . and the too-large side. While a box like Mag-Blast's third edition (same as the small-box version of Citadels) is slightly better-sized, there's something to be said about the single piece design! While with a VHS box there is no good way to produce the tactile and visual professionalism of a designed box like Mag-Blast's third edition, it is very convenient and more than a little clever.
Busting it open, you'll find a deck of smooth cards (laser-printed I am guessing after very close inspection) which are as tall as standard poker cards, but a third thinner.
You'll also find four ship cards about the size of a No. 10 envelope that's had an inch cut off the long end:
This one here's the TIGER'S CLAW, which is totally and absolutely an amazing coincidence, because wasn't that the carrier in those very unpopular Wing Commander games? I wouldn't know. The other three ships have equally nancy, emasculate names: Behemoth! Thor's Hammer! And my favorite, Destiny's Spear! SORRY! I WAS TRYING TO BE OBJECTIVE HERE. Let me put back on my dispassionate mask . . .
Lastly, Alpha Strike comes with a single sheet of paper containing the rules, a black 10-sided dice, and these things:
These things are, apparently, markers with which you indicate your ship's energy levels and hull integrity. However, not only are they lighter than a dead honeybee and prone to movement were you to, say, expel air from your lungs, but they are creepy. They allow for threading with a hole in the middle, and they're star-shaped. Beading? Medical equipment?
I replaced these, instead, some of those smooth transparent stones found in many festive colors for our session.
How to Play
Grab a Destiny's Spear! Have your buddies grab their own dang ship cards, but, DANGIT, you've got Destiny's Spear!
The rules are short and sweet; this game very nearly plays itself (uh oh, can you detect a flaw here?)
When you set up, you put a medical bead (or whatever those things are) on each of the spaces on the LEFT of your ship card, so you've got 0 shield, weapon, and engine energy and a full 10 hull.
You now take turns doing the following:
1) Allocate power by moving ONE stone (but NOT your hull stone!) ONE space to the right.
2) Discard any of your cards from your hand.
3) Draw up to a hand limit of five cards.
4) Play an Action, Craft, or Attack card, provided you can pay the energy cost on the card.
That's your turn! The rules actually stipulate five phases; the fourth phase officially allows you to play either an action or a craft card, while the purported fifth phase allows for an attack card to be played if you did not play a card in phase four.
Oh! Let's get a little gander at those cards:
You'll notice FOUR types of cards there! Action cards have you mostly adjusting and adding energy to your ship's three energy sections. Craft cards are cards that remain on the table until used or destroyed. Attack cards mostly use energy on your ships (mainly from the "weapons" category, if you can imagine). The one we have not yet mentioned are defense cards which are played in response to an opponent's attack. Wheeeee!
Attacks cause a set amount of damage or a narrow range of damage (depending on energy expended), which is optionally countered by the defender with a card (and attendant energy expenditure), and then applied one-for-one first against the target's shield energy (eating it up) and then against the target's hull. If you manage to knock your target down to 0 hull . . . SHE DEAD!
THE LAST BEHEMOTH STANDING WINS THE SLUGFEST!
There are two features of this game which may best help you determine if you'll like it.
The first is that the game, as I said already, nearly plays itself. Turns should go very, very fast (but I'm sure you know how unlikely this is given *your* gaming group!), because there is little else to do but move one of your stones up a level and save for that card you're planning to use somewhere down the line.
The other key feature here is that, at maximum, you may play a single card during your turn.
What we then have is a situation where the players are slowly powering up their ships looking for an opportunity to strike. Should one person strike first, the result is often that the attacker loses weapon energy and the target loses shield energy. But both lose energy and must now continue to spend their next turns powering-up.
What decision-making you do ends up being very nearly academic, as the swings in this game are subtle. It is truly a game of very slow attrition, and this is easily proven by rifling through the cards and internalizing the values of the defense cards versus the attack cards. You see slightly higher damage cards than defense cards, and then you've got to figure some energy is going into shields. . . you can almost predict how games will go just by looking at these numbers.
Essentially, defenders play defense cards against attackers with slightly-more-powerful attack cards until someone fa-FOOMPS first.
Rating, Comparing, Judging
This is the only game I can remember playing poorly simply so that I could stop playing it. I trash-talk certain games like the best of them, but I cannot think of many games where it is preferable to play nothing at all. I had problems with regular respiration while playing this game. My leg bounced up and down. Excruciating.
I can say with absolute certainty that every other space card combat game I have played was preferable to Alpha Strike, so if you're in the market for a space card combat game pick anything but Alpha Strike. I am not happy with this development, as I love supporting small-run producers of games -- particularly ones producing space-themed games.
Additionally, Digital Alchemy has another space combat game driven by cards, Interstellar Warfare, and another space-themed game Firing Solution. Both these games look very interesting to me, but I will probably no longer go out of my way to find them. Of particular interest, Interstellar Warfare seems to have a mechanic whereby you build your ships with card modules. It would have been attractive to try either of these games if Alpha Strike had been at least average!
If you also enjoy this genera of game, I can think of some good uses for Alpha Strike. As an introduction to young minds, this game may have a place to shine. A child interested in this theme might have a grand old time if you can stand to play it with him or her. At a certain age, the illusion of decision-making and budgeting of power would be maintained, and this game may then turn -- in the imagination -- into an epic space battle between star dreadnoughts.
Dreadnoughts named Destiny's Spear and BEHEMOTH!
I give this:
In Geekspeak, that's, "Extremely annoying game, [sic]won't play this ever again."
The game is NOT broken however (which would have earned it a single star rather than two). Understand, though, that, if this game was somehow broken, it might have made it more fun.
Still interested in space card combat games? Check out the fun and simple Mag·Blast (Second Edition) or the deeper Galactic Expanse: Starship Battles.