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Subject: Space Alert - a different game dimension rss

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Paolo Ciardulli
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Trento
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Space Alert (SA) is a game by Vlaada Chvátil, published by Czech Games Edition, the same team that gave the world of boardgames the much appreciated Through the Ages - A Story of Civilization and Galaxy Trucker.

SA is a cooperative game that can be played by 2 - 5 players (but there are also rules for solo playing). The players play the role of crew members of a spaceship which is sent into an unknown dangerous sector of the galaxy through hyperspace jump. They will stay in the outer sector for 10 minutes, and while the computer collects important data about the threats and the environment, the crew has to defend the spaceship from any possible threat (they seem to be quite angry with us, out there, judging by their fierce attacks). After 10 minutes the computer will activate the hyperspace jump again, bringing the crew safe back home... that is if the spaceship is not destroyed with the crew before that. The core of the game is in those 10 minutes, which as I will show you later (and as you already imagine), may be quite intense, the most intense 10 minutes I have experienced in my game-life. If the team manages to save the spaceship, all win the game, otherwise all lose.


ABOUT THE REVIEWER

I prefer "heavy" resource management games, with no or little luck, strategical more than tactical, with a lot of significant choices. Please give a look at the games I rated, to see if my tastes sync with yours, in which case a review of mine may be more useful to you... but, a warning... SA is not the typical game I like, not at all, actually. There is no difficult resource management, there are no optimal choices: the choices that the players do are far from being optimal, because of the time pressure and the difficulty of communication the players have to face. Honestly I can't tell you if I like this game because of my tastes about games or in spite of my tastes about games.

I have played this game only one day till now, last Saturday, but for five hours. We tried a lot of training games (more about this topic later on) and one real mission. Probably I could have waited more before writing a review. The reasons I am writing this already now are:
1. I am sure about the game, I may have some doubts about how the game will be after more plays, but I will state them clearly in the review.
2. Even if the game will show to be less good with time, the experience of playing it for the first few hours is so good so that even reviewing the effect the game has for the few hours we played it is worth writing.
3. I am hungry for more reviews of the games that appeared in Essen, there are never enough in these days (I don't want one review of a game, I want plenty of them, I want different opinions, different points of view). So I hope I can satisfy a little with this review the same hunger of mine that some fellow geek may experience.
4. (this is a big spoiler, I know). I like the game, a lot. I am so excited about it that I want to share it with you, to make you desire to play this game more than any other (as it is happening to me, right now). Any way I am sorry if this may cause a further depleting of your wallet and I don't take any responsibility for it, neither I want to become an escape goat for your wives or girlfriends if you add one more game to your collection because of this review


MATERIAL

This game is published by a small company, or at least it is supposed to be published by a small company. This is the information I have, but judging by the material of the game and the attention to details it could have been produced by a big company.

The board depicts a spaceship, divided in three zone, left (red), centre (white) and blue (right). The spaceship has two decks, upper and lower. So all together (2 x 3) there are 6 stations on the ship (red-upper, red-lower, white-upper, white-lower, blue-upper and blue-lower).

Image by Filip Murmak

Most of the equipment of the spaceship is drawn on the board, but there is a lot of other (beautiful) material, like cubes to indicate energy, small plastic miniatures for the crew, the battlebots and the rockets, tokens to mark damage on the ship, wooden cubes in different colors (to indicate damage to the threats, and for other bookkeeping), action cards, threat cards. All in all the material is top class: it is both beautiful and functional to the game. When trajectories that the threats will follow are put around the ship, together with all other material, the theme of the game is very well represented. You feel that this is a representation of a spaceship, and when you play you have the feeling that you are doing really what you are supposed to do... much more realism here than in the games I use to play.

Image by Filip Murmak

The rules are divided in two: there is a handbook (the first to be read) and a reference rulebook. Both are of very good quality, both from the graphical point of view and from the usefulness. They explain the rules effectively, leaving no space for ambiguity. The handbook is divided in seven "lessons" that teach you the game little by little. The handbook also puts you inside the theme contributing to the science fiction setting of the game. The handbook is divided in parts that are there to introduce what the game is simulating (there is a tutor teaching to the crew), the rules themselves and some examples. The three parts are divide by color coding. The handbook is very fun to read!

Image by Nick Bos

Finally the box contains 2 CDs. The first is for the training sessions; the second for the missions. Each track of the CD represents a mission. The track lasts 10 minutes and acts like a timer. There is a voice (and some sound effects) that give instructions, like announcing the appearance of a new threat, the direction it appears, if it is internal or external, if it is a serious or normal threat. There are also other announcements, which I will mention briefly further in this review. One can play the game also without a CD, since there are scenario cards that, together with a timer, can be used instead of the CD (but with the CD, of course, the game is much better). The CD adds a lot of realism to the game and also enhances that sense of confusion and panic that the game creates in simulating a spaceship thrown in very hostile environment for 10 minutes (especially if you play it at very high volume as I did ).


RULES

Maybe this game should be considered a "heavy" game. But it doesn't give this feeling, actually. The handbook is tremendously good in teaching the game in stages, introducing new rules and difficulties in steps. And the rules are learned by playing. Some of the "lessons" in the handbook are just to explain the spaceship, others introduce the way players (oh, sorry, the crew) can interact with the spaceship. And then there are training missions (that in the setting represent simulation at computer of the missions that the crew will then experience in the dangerous space out there). In any case it is not a family game, it is a game for gamers, at least I played it with gamers and I am not sure that I would manage to convince recalcitrant non-gamers, grandparents or the like to try it (I don't exclude the possibility, I am just not sure it would work).

I don't want to give you detailed rules here. If you are interested, the rules (and the soundtrack as well), can be downloaded here, together with other material (read the handbook, I strongly suggest this, even if you are not going to play the game, sorry if I insist, but it is really fun).

When I read reviews, I prefer so much more to read the impressions than to read the rules: the impressions, the feelings of the reviewer is what I am hungry for.. so I hope you are like me

In any case an overview of the rules now.

The game is divided in two rounds.

In the Action Round the players plan their actions while the threats and other events are announced by the computer (the CD track). The players decide their action through the use of Action Cards. There is a limited number of cards (5 for each phase in which the Action Round is divided, but one can keep the remaining cards from a phase for the next). Each card is divided in two: one half shows a movement, the other one an action. The player can use the cards either as a movement card or to execute an action. The possible movements are: going left, going right, changing deck (by gravolift). The possible actions are actions A, B, C (plus one special action to make the battleboat squad fight for you). The meaning of the action depends on the station it is used in.

Usually the action A is to fire a weapon, the action B to move energy around the ship, the action C is the most variable (for example taking control of the battlebot squad, firing rockets, etc.). There are a lot of fine details, like for example only one person at a time can use the gravolift; if two persons plan to use it at the same time, only one will, the other will use the ladder, i.e. he/she will be delayed, causing a shifting of all his/her planned actions (and very likely putting all the actions of this player out of sync with the actions of the other players). Or, to make another example, it is possible to go out of the spaceship and fight from there.

In the action round the computer (the CD track) will announce threats. Threats may be external or internal. Each external threat will appear in one of three trajectories (left for red, white for center and blue for right). The computer will also announce the time it will appear. The actual threat is a card that is drawn randomly by a deck (there are threats of variable difficult, and it is possible to plan more difficult scenarios using the advanced threats). Each threat will move and attack, with a certain speed, strength and shield (defense value). There is theoretically almost perfect information, but in the chaos of the battle it is difficult to understand when and how the enemy will attack (some threats can also change speed and/or defense value, during the game). The computer will announce other events too (I will cite some of them below, when I will write about the game play). Something similar happens with internal threats, that can be either a malfunction of some equipment (this can be nasty too, as for example your robots starting fighting against you), or an enemy force materializing inside the spaceship.

Image by Vlaada Chvatil

When the Action Round ends (after ten minutes in the missions, in some initial learning scenarios only 7 minutes) the Resolution Round starts. During the Action Round the players may move pieces around and theoretically precisely follow what is going to happen... except that the actions the players play are hidden from the others, it is possible to speak with each other, but not look at the cards, and, also, simply there is no time to follow step by step what is going to happen. To further complicate matters, the damage taken by the spaceship may put some equipment out of order and so one can plan to receive a damage, but not knowing which damage exactly will happen (this is the only hidden information in the Action Round).

At the start of the Resolution Round all the pieces are put in their start position (usually players moves pieces around trying to analyze better the situation during the Action Round). At this point there is a step by step resolution of what the players planned, how the enemy behaved and so on... At the end the spaceship may be destroyed or, on the contrary, there can be a success and a safe return home.

I really don't want to give more details. Read the rules, if you are interested. They are written in such a good way that it is impossible for me to do a better job.


PLAYING THE GAME

Playing this game is like immersing yourself in pure chaos. The computer (the soundtrack) announces threats and events while players shout at each another, trying to put a bit of order in the chaos. Usually, and quite unexpectedly, the players manage to coordinate, in a way far from perfect, but still good enough to survive,

The 10 minutes are intense. There is time pressure. And the computer disturbs you, telling you of new threats. Sometimes even positive events (as for example Data Transfer, in which each player can give an action card from his hand to the hand of another player) are disturbing because they interrupt the planning stream of thoughts.

It is a good simulation. In other games, usually, very soon, I start speaking of red cubes or green cards.. not here... you are a crew in the middle of a very dangerous situation and you are really in it. Fully absorbed, trying to give your best, trying to coordinate with others. The most important thing is dividing the tasks between the crew members and to have a plan. It is useless to fire a Pulse Cannon if there is no energy to "feed" it.

A lot of adrenaline is produced playing the game, because you know that a mistake in planning can be fatal (this happened to us twice, if there is a single big mistake it could be lethal for the spaceship).

There is also this beautiful feeling of cooperation. The time pressure, the danger, the setting, make the crew work as a team. It is so beautiful and relieving, when shouting "OMG, we forgot that the saboteur is going to hit" and someone says "don't worry, I have already eliminated it"... it is such a completely different experience from the classical everyone-by-himself experience we have in "normal" games. I like this cooperation aspect a lot. SA is not the only cooperation game on the market, but I don't know of any other games that really puts you in a danger situation, and you need to be together with the others - the time pressure, the voice of the soundtrack, the complicate logistic of the spaceship, and a lot of attention to small details that the author has put in this game, make the experience a true cooperative simulation.

The game is also fun, really fun in a way that, again, is quite new for me (reminding of role playing somehow, but funnier).

For example the purpose of the action C when used on the bridge (the upper-white station) is to avoid that the screen saver of the central computer of the spaceships activates. Someone of the crew has to press a button at some times during the mission or the screen saver will start (causing delays in the actions of the entire crew, so a very bad thing). The tutor in the handbook explains that the reason of the screen saver is that there is a sponsor for the spaceship that requires the screen saver (OMG). So one of us, in one of the first missions we lost to the game (it is easy to get very confused in the middle of the mission), pressed the button of the screen saver many times, one after the others, for no reason. Unfortunately this happened when an enormous asteroid was falling on the ship... he should have fired the heavy cannon, instead his character died while probably watching the advertisements for some band-aids, very interesting, but the asteroid destroyed completely the spaceship, so there were no wound any more on which to apply the band-aids. His character died happy at least, pressing that C button over and over.

In a real mission we lost... and something similar happened to my character. He was looking out of the window... in the game it is possible to count the points that you get as a crew (eliminating threats, etc.) and more points are scored if you manage to look out of the window (action C in the lower-white station of the spaceship). The member of the crew is supposed to visual confirm in this way the data that the computer is collecting in the 10 minutes of the mission.... So my character was looking out of the window (in an excess of optimism) exactly at the moment an enemy spaceship gave the final blow to our spaceship. In this case there are no points given to the players, and the spaceship doesn't go back home... but the black box of the spaceship is sent back by hyperspace jump, so the sacrifice of my character was not useless.

Another thing quite funny is that the computer/soundtrack may announce "Communication system down": the team's headphones have stopped working, the CD plays a buzzing sound for some time... well... imagine 5 people shouting around a table (go there, shoot,...no actually do not... we don't need energy to the shield, Paolo go right, no... Paolo go left).. in the middle of all this you hear "Communication system down" and you are not allowed to speak any more... everyone stops speaking and you see the players suffering to keep their mouths closed when there is so much to say, and time is passing by, and they are not doing what I wanted to do, and they are doing the wrong thing.. and the buzzing goes on and on.. and as soon the buzzing finishes, all start speaking again, as if there were no interruption at all, as if that interval of interruption was nothing else but a pause on the loud track we are leaving on the history of the game.


EVALUATION

SA is not a "normal" game. It is a game in a different dimension... By this I mean it is original, it is a road opener. By road opener I mean a game that either uses new mechanics and ideas never used before and/or uses old mechanics and ideas in a new beautiful way. I try to explain what I mean by road opener though an example of a game (likely) known by the reader: Caylus. Caylus is the game of workers (or pawn or meeples) placement. I have read somewhere that there were games before Caylus that had used a similar mechanic. But what makes of Caylus a road opener is that it uses it in a good way, the game is excellent in using this mechanic! So after Caylus a lot of other games used the road that was opened by Caylus (including the famous Agricola), but Caylus is the original game for this mechanic (first good game using that mechanic). SA does something similar, IMHO. I have read people writing that SA takes ideas from other games. Whether the single ideas are original or not, the cooperative game under time pressure, with a soundtrack beating the time of events, all this is integrated in a whole that is much more than the sum of its parts. It is not only original, it is a good game, in which players experiment a new way of playing not even similar to anything else they have tried before. At the moment I am writing there is only one other comment of a fellow geeker that rate this game as a ten besides mine.. and it says: "Finally something different !!!". Yes, yes, yes, our hobby needs to move in different directions, and this game does it very well.

About scalability: I don't have a direct experience here, since all the games I have played so far were with 5 people. What I guess is that the game is at his best with 4 or 5 people. You can play also with 3, 2 or even 1 player (when playing with less than 4, the crew use androids. i.e. they give orders to robots besides to their own character), . But I think that the lower the number of players the more the social interaction will be missed. And it is the social interaction that makes of this game a masterpiece. I think it would be still OK with 3, but I would not go below that threshold to enjoy this game for what it is (a social cooperative game in which the good simulation is the tool and not the aim).

About interaction: this game is pure interaction! No other game I know gives that much interaction between players. Only the interaction is not to damage the other, but to help and be helped by the others. You need the others in this game, you can't win alone, there is no time to make up a perfect plan and make the other follow you sheepishly (as in other cooperative games may happen)... you need to explain and to listen, to care for a little piece of the problems you are facing. A 10+++ for interaction.

Fun factor... well, I think it is clear for the ones who had the patience to read till here, that I consider this game a lot of fun, this game is fun, fun, fun! The question is: what is a gamer who mostly likes fine-tuned-resource-games doing with a game like SA? I don't know why, but I do like this game, for everything, but also because it is fun!

SA offers in any case interesting choices, of the sort I like: optimize the resources we have at our disposal (only usually there is not the time and the calm to choose the best path).

The playing time is less than half an hour, so this game could be even used as a filler.. but what a filler! I can't imagine playing this game only once, it is too absorbing for that! In any case there are advanced rules for a campaign game, using the same spaceship partially damaged over and over (it takes 90 minutes or more, I haven't tried it yet).

Replayability: this is the only topic I can't cover with this review, I have played the game too little to give an opinion on this. I am sure that the missions will vary a lot, there are a lot of soundtracks (and more, I am sure, will be produced), but even using the same track over and over, since the threats are drawn randomly and there are a lot of other variations (trajectories, action cards, damages, etc.), yes, I am confident that each mission will be different from another one. My concern is instead about the playing. A team could start using the same patterns of behaviour, and this could become mechanical after a while, I don't think it will happen, but I want to warn that I have not played the game enough to be sure that this will not happen (I am optimistic it will not). I think, in any case, that even if this happens probably it will be enough to change a team (or part of a team) to make the game fresh again.


FINAL THOUGHT

I like this game a lot! I recommend it to all gamers, missing this is like missing a milestone in gaming. I rate Space Alert with a 10. it may go down to 9, if its replayability will be a problem. But right now... it is the game I most want to play!
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Itai Perez
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Great review. Having played the game for a few hours too, I share completely your point of view (except maybe about Caylus being groundbreaking).
Now, all I want is play this game again, as soon as possible !
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Eduardo Cruz
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Same feeling here...
Impressive review! The game deserves it after all!
Could not agree more with you. Thank you for this brillant review.

Cheers, Dugy
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Randolph Bookman
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DAMN I WANT THIS GAME NOW!!!!

Any chance of english copies becoming available any time soon.
Secret Santa I hope this helps

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James Smith
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Great Review Paolo! Very well written and the section on gameplay is superb, it conveys very well the mechanisms of the game as well as being immersive in the style and character of the game, I would love to see more reviews written like this.
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Doug Adams
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Nice review. I'm on post office watch anguish, waiting for my copy! Can't wait.
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Booker Hooker
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Everything I read about this game has players raving about how much fun it is. This game is at the top of my wishlist. Hope it becomes more accessble soon. I'm dying to give it a try. Oh, and best of all... it has solo play rules!
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Artur Baginski
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I hate those reviews which increase your anticipation towards playing a particular game.

You know how bitter it feels, having the game since Essen right before you, but not chance to play it in the next 2 weeks?

No? Better that way. It feels really bitter.
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Roger Knowles
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To the OP; Can you replay each CD track and it will be different than previous playing,or once you play a track it is the same experience. Just curious. I would think that you play track once and that's it; Same occurances.

Thanx
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Paolo Ciardulli
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May all beings be happy. Whatever beings there may be, whether they are weak or strong, without exception, long, big, medium, short or small, whether visible or invisible, those living near or far, those born or to-be-born, may all beings be happy!
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bikerboy wrote:
To the OP; Can you replay each CD track and it will be different than previous playing,or once you play a track it is the same experience. Just curious. I would think that you play track once and that's it; Same occurances.

Thanx


I would not use the same track immediately one after the other, because then it could be easy to remember when certain events are going to happen (alternating between tracks makes very difficult to remember the sequence of events of a given mission). But I don't see any problem in using the same track over and over, because what is going to happen will change from game to game in any case: there are a lot of things that are going to change, most important the threats (that are drawn randomly), but also the trajectories change and the kind of damage to the ship and the actions cards available to the players.

But even only remembering the sequence of events may be annoying (alternating between tracks makes this case very unlikely, unless you have a very good memory). There is a suggestion in the rules: starting a track randomly (if you have this feature on your CD player, or for example asking your spouse to do that for you): there is no way to recognize a track from the other, provided you don't look at the number of the track on your CD player.


Thanks to all for the kind comments (and for the GeekGold tips )
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Michael H.
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If you replay the CD track, time and zones of the threads will be the same. But, what kind of enemies will engage, you see on drawn cards. And this may vary the gameplay drastic!

We played one cd-track more than once, and the first time, it was easy. Normal enemies, nothing special. Round 2.... devil

We drew an invisible fighter (can't be attacked before his first action) on a very short Trajectory. Besides that, we encountered an enemy (don't know the exact names) that can drain all your shields, and last but noch least a destroyer (double damage that gets through shields)...

Excuse my (for sure) weird english, it's early in the morning and I hadn't breakfast yet...
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Arnold Vincent Canaria
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wonderful review! thanks for pouring in your feelings of the game, this definitely adds to my excitement of getting my own copy :laugh:
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Les Merrills
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Fantastic job - thanks! Just reading your review had me on the edge of my seat. Can't wait to get the game.

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Matt Davis
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Thanks for the review. I'm now really excited about this game.
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Matthias Jaekel
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Very impressive review, its a pleasure to read it! My only suggestion to you: I think it would help, if you dont underline your important phrases, but better write them in bold. I'm always thinking (and maybe others too), that you are providing a Link and you find me desperately clicking on the underlined words .

Greetings

Matja
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Paolo Ciardulli
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May all beings be happy. Whatever beings there may be, whether they are weak or strong, without exception, long, big, medium, short or small, whether visible or invisible, those living near or far, those born or to-be-born, may all beings be happy!
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Matja wrote:
Very impressive review, its a pleasure to read it! My only suggestion to you: I think it would help, if you dont underline your important phrases, but better write them in bold. I'm always thinking (and maybe others too), that you are providing a Link and you find me desperately clicking on the underlined words .

Greetings

Matja


Edited the way you suggested. Thank you!
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Maarten Delforge
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Looks like this is read very often. The people at http://www.czechgames.com/ linked to your review.


I liked your review a lot and am pretty much hyped now. There don't seem to be shops in Belgium that deal with Czech games, though.
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Michael J
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Darn, I just added this to my wish list even though my gaming budget is near empty! Thanks!
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Fel Barros
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I am a little worried about the language barrier.

I suppose the tracks are all spoken in English. How clear/good the English is? How hard would be for a non-native speaker to understand it? Is there any "script" so you can read/follow what each soundtrack says?

Very nice review, btw.
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Dave Wilson
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The soundtracks are available online, on their downloads page. You can give them a listen and judge for yourself. But there are also scenario cards, for use when you can't play the soundtracks, which should work like the scripts you're seeking.

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Franklin Millar
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FakeDutch wrote:
I am a little worried about the language barrier.

I suppose the tracks are all spoken in English. How clear/good the English is? How hard would be for a non-native speaker to understand it? Is there any "script" so you can read/follow what each soundtrack says?

Very nice review, btw.
The spoken track isn't very subtle, I doubt you would have a problem with it. It's stuff like "Communications down/up" or "Time T+1: Threat in Red". If players know colors, can count to 10 and a few more easy words in English it should be fine. More likely that a weak English speaker would have trouble with the more complicated card text, but you can probably judge by the examples shown in the review whether that's a problem.
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Jon
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More importantly, one player is designated as the "Communications Officer". Their job is to listen to the CD, and tell everyone what's going on. As long as they understand the CD, the game will play just fine.
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Wim Leenaerts
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I bought this game over a year ago and although I was really excited about trying it out I have yet to play a full game... The learning curve is just too steep. The first time I played the game I used the teaching manual (in steps) and that went relatively well, we played several short mission to learn to understand the game, but a couple of months later a member from another gaming group wanted to try it... I didn't feel like playing all the test-simulations again and tried to explain the rules from memory and explain the entire game. Went very bad.

So many questions that I couldn't immediately find in the rulebook and the teaching manual is - although really funny - not really handy for looking up specific things.
I have to admit I skipped the 'rules'-part of this review and haven't watched any video-reviews, maybe that could make things clearer.
 
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Martin Lange
Germany
Hannover
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What I usually do when I get a new game is reading the manual completely for myself maybe a day before I will try it out the first time. I have a lot of time to read things cause my way to work by tram takes about 45 min.

Then, I will normally (but not always) playtest it by playing solo, even if it's not a solo game (in that case I simply take the roles of different people, it's just to learn the rules). The good thing with Space Alert is that you actually can play solo.

That helps me a lot when I have to explain the rules to others the first time. Otherwise, I very often miss rules when explaining a game to others.

I think Space Alert is a game where it's really good that the person explaining the rules is used to the game already, otherwise its gets difficult, because you'r right the learning curve is steep, but the tutorials do a nice job by adding not all rules at once. But I also understand you don't want to do the tutorial missions over again when a person new to game is in a group.
 
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Cameron Chien
United States
Rancho Cucamonga
California
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The Iced One wrote:
I bought this game over a year ago and although I was really excited about trying it out I have yet to play a full game... The learning curve is just too steep. The first time I played the game I used the teaching manual (in steps) and that went relatively well, we played several short mission to learn to understand the game, but a couple of months later a member from another gaming group wanted to try it... I didn't feel like playing all the test-simulations again and tried to explain the rules from memory and explain the entire game. Went very bad.

So many questions that I couldn't immediately find in the rulebook and the teaching manual is - although really funny - not really handy for looking up specific things.
I have to admit I skipped the 'rules'-part of this review and haven't watched any video-reviews, maybe that could make things clearer.

I'm sorry, but you skipped doing the very well-done training missions and tried to wing it from memory...and it went badly?

What's the point of this post?

Space Alert has a really great set of tutorial missions, why people skip it and then say the game is hard to learn is really beyond me.

I don't even know why you skip it, three tutorial missions and one real mission is still around an hour to an hour and a half, well within the playtime of most games these days.

Cameron
 
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