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Subject: “688 Attack Sub” and “Twisted Metal”: a review of SPACE ALERT rss

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eryn roston
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Space Alert has become something of an obsession of mine lately and I’ve been trying to figure out just what it is about this title that makes it so compelling. After a little reflection I think I’ve figured it out: Space Alert is the descendant of the games some friends and I made up in high school and college. Sort of. You’ll see.

"We’ve hit a friendly sir!!"


Way back around 1991 or 1992 I was in high school and in possession of a nifty little video game console: the Sega Genesis. On a lark I had decided to rent the game "688 Attack Sub".





I had probably recently seen The Hunt for the Red October and figured submarine combat was really exciting. The video game was pretty cool as I recall and when my buddy Marc came over I fired it up to show him what it was all about.

I showed him how you had to navigate from room to room. Checking up on the sonar for contacts, consulting the navigation center to set waypoints, all while keeping those torpedoes handy in the weapons center. He seemed interested in it but since it was only a single-player game and there was two of us, we were about to just shut it down and actually go outside or something.

Than one of us struck upon an idea that seemed kina silly but was actually totally brilliant. One of us would take the role of "Ensign" and sit in the chair and operate the controller. The other one would take the role of "Captain" and make the decisions and communicate the orders. This turned out to be incredibly fun and it created a lot of moments that were either very tense or very comical (for example: after a long drawn out game of cat and mouse between a shadowy unknown contact and ourselves we finally managed to maneuver into a good firing position only to find out we had blown up someone from the same team.) Anyhow the combination of dealing with the challenges on the screen and coming up with an effective way to communicate how to deal with those challenges remains one of my most memorable game experiences to this day.

"Okay now hit the brakes. Move a little bit to the left...a little more. Now fire your heat seeker"

Fast forward a few more years and I’m in college, once more sitting in front of a TV and video game console. This time it’s a Playstation and the game is Twisted Metal (probably Twisted Metal 2 actually). A couple of us had been bumming around playing the split-screen competitive mode where players drive around in different battle-cars in an apocalyptic playground trying to blow each other up. A couple more friends showed up and suddenly we had twice as many players as the standard game would allow.

My buddy Mike decided we should try something different than just swapping out players in between matches and came up with an off-beat way to include everyone at once. In Mike’s Twisted Metal "Blind" variant, there were two teams competing against one another. Each team has a single car. One player on the team is the "driver" who operates the controls but sits with his back to the television. His partner is the "Navigator" who faces the screen and gives instructions to the driver. It was insane and frustrating and a total blast. Each "navigator" had their own style of play. Myself; I was a bit excitable. With all the fast-action and crazy explosions I was prone to shouting and wild hand gestures. One of my other friends was very calm and collected and could (in a matter-of-fact sort of tone) give you three or four simple instructions on how to disintegrate your opponent.

It was a totally unique approach to a game we were all pretty familiar with and made the experience very memorable. It sort of reminded me of the party game "Telephone" (where you whisper a simple phrase and let it pass between a large number of people and see how the phrase changes when it gets to the end) where the challenge was clear and effective communication.

The main thing I remember about both of these game sessions was all the excitement and laughter that they elicited.

Now after that long trip down memory lane we come to Space Alert (a more detailed explanation of the rules and mechanics can be found here: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/351510 ).

When I first played this game I was initially struck by how well Chvatil had taken several very familiar elements (the programmed actions of RoboRally/Shogun and the basic Co-operative game idea) and somehow created something that felt very fresh. Space Alert manages to construct an environment for the player that is frantic and fun and unlike anything else I’ve ever played.

Even the real-time element, which has been done before (even in Chvatil’s earlier Galaxy Trucker), feels as if it brings out a different quality of game-play compared to previous titles. It’s the combination of all these familiar elements really creates a sort of perfect storm, as they compliment one another so well.

Yes it’s a co-op game so the players have to work well together like any other co-op game. However in most co-op games (even the good ones) there is the feeling that you are really playing a one-person game by committee. The advantage of having multiple people is that you get a wider variety of ideas to use to solve the game.

This is the main way in which Space Alert distinguishes itself from the pack. Space Alert feels impossible to play solo (though I suppose you could do it). In Space Alert you actually need to co-ordinate actions from multiple people with precise timing. You need multiple people keeping track of a myriad of problems and obstacles all while figuring out the best way to accomplish their particular part of a given task so as not to screw up the well-laid plans of everyone else in the game. It requires high levels of organization and communication. Just like my experiences with "Co-op Attack Sub" and "Twisted Metal Blind" it’s frantic, ludicrous, laughter-filled, fun.

One thing to mention before moving on is the soundtrack which is essentially another "game board" element. Some people find the soundtrack to be just a novelty. Me? I think it's perfect. It adds just the right amount of ambiance. It's a great way to keep track of game time. I'll take it any day over a sand timer.

There are a few ways in which Space Alert does fall short for me. I do find the goal of "surviving the mission" to be a tad anti-climactic. It can lead to a sort of, "well what did we go to all that trouble for? Feeling" since at the end of the mission you are basically right back where you started. Sure there is a scoring system where you can rate your performance, but it feels sort of tacked-on and incomplete. Compare this to Pandemic where at the start of the game there are four deadly diseases that need curing and at the end (assuming you win) all the diseases are now cured. It’s very satisfying.

I also worry that the "man-behind-the-curtain" of this game could be the fact that there are few real decisions to be made. Take away the real-time element and this game is probably very easy as it is simply a matter of deciding which threats can and should be destroyed and which ones are survivable. Of course the point of the game might not really be to create a lot of these sort of decisions -- rather it is an exercise in communication and organization. This is fine until you get to the point where you have a "regular routine" with your gaming group. I worry that once you know how to organize your time well, that there’s not enough variety to challenge your thinking. So far this is an unfounded concern, but it’s something in the back of my mind (I wonder if there are some more experienced players out there that can confirm or deny this?)

In the end though, these shortcomings are pretty minor when compared to the quality of experience that awaits you with Space Alert. I highly recommend giving this unique title a go. The initial few games will take a bit of time to go through the rules, but once you’ve stumbled through the first couple of test missions you should be on your way. With each game taking only about 30 minutes it’s a game that should hit the table often.


-B-
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Jeffrey Speer
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baditude wrote:


There are a few ways in which Space Alert does fall short for me. I do find the goal of "surviving the mission" to be a tad anti-climactic. It can lead to a sort of, "well what did we go to all that trouble for? Feeling" since at the end of the mission you are basically right back where you started. Sure there is a scoring system where you can rate your performance, but it feels sort of tacked-on and incomplete. Compare this to Pandemic where at the start of the game there are four deadly diseases that need curing and at the end (assuming you win) all the diseases are now cured. It’s very satisfying.

-B-



I find the end of Pandemic very boring. It just sort of... ends.
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Michael J
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Kaworu17 wrote:
baditude wrote:


There are a few ways in which Space Alert does fall short for me. I do find the goal of "surviving the mission" to be a tad anti-climactic. It can lead to a sort of, "well what did we go to all that trouble for? Feeling" since at the end of the mission you are basically right back where you started. Sure there is a scoring system where you can rate your performance, but it feels sort of tacked-on and incomplete. Compare this to Pandemic where at the start of the game there are four deadly diseases that need curing and at the end (assuming you win) all the diseases are now cured. It’s very satisfying.

-B-



I find the end of Pandemic very boring. It just sort of... ends.


And finding cures for the 4 most deadly diseases on the planet is boring compared to... the end of the 12th turn?... the depletion of the last victory point?... the placement of the 12th card in the player's tableau?

I know there are games that end more exciting, but I think Pandemic ends as exciting as many of the most popular games on BGG.
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Bill H
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baditude wrote:
Space Alert feels impossible to play solo (though I suppose you could do it).

You definitely can, and it's quite fun but very different.

You control 4 "androids" in addition to your character. You have all the cards to choose from (no 5 card phase-hands) but you're in that "Captain" mode you described, making all the decisions and trying to coordinate their actions.

Last week, I had an excellent game going. I was feeding plenty of power at just the right time to the various androids, handling all the threats then bringing everyone together to "observe" (which I pretend is manually following up the results of the automatic scans). I was really on top of it. In fact, the only thing I forgot was the "fire" orders for an android, the one facing the biggest threat. It flew right up to the ship while my android watched for a while, then wandered back to look out the window. We survived but it was much closer than it should have been because of all the things I was juggling in real-time.

So, the solo game lacks the camaraderie of multi-player, but replaces the communication challenges with a timed brain-burning real-time-planning puzzle. Still very fun, even though I prefer the multi-player game.
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Mike
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Nice review. I really liked the backstory you provided and I think it fit in well with the actual review. Plus I used to own 688 Attack Sub back in the day...so you get a thumbs up for that.

I can't wait to get my hands on Space Alert. I'm really hoping that it finds a publisher in the States.
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Matt Smith
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Nice review. I like these reviews that attempt to give a sense of what the game feels like to play.

When I described Space Alert to a friend, he said it sounds like Psi-5 Trading Company, an old Commodore 64 game from Accolade we used to play to death http://www.cerebus.de/psi5/intro.html. In Psi-5, you selected crew members for your space ship, then selected a mission which involved flying through dangerous space. Each crew member had strengths and weaknesses, and was assigned to a station (weapons control, navigation, engineering, etc). As player (and captain), your job was to process messages coming in all the time from the crew members, and give them orders to keep the enemies at bay and keep your ship flying. You could control energy allocation and priority, analyze radar contacts, prioritize targeting of enemies (and choose the type of weapon to use against them), assign engineering bots to repair jobs and prioritize those jobs, choose from navigation routes with varying risk levels, and more. Everything was happening in real time, so it became quite a challenge to manage all this information and keep your crew doing what you want them to do. For a 1985-86 game, it was well ahead of its time.

Space Alert sounds like it provides a very similar experience as Psi-5 Trading Company, with the added bonus of being able to play multi-player. I'm really looking forward to acquiring a copy of this game (which should be in a couple of weeks).
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Jeffrey Speer
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Kaworu17 wrote:
baditude wrote:


I find the end of Pandemic very boring. It just sort of... ends.


And finding cures for the 4 most deadly diseases on the planet is boring compared to... the end of the 12th turn?... the depletion of the last victory point?... the placement of the 12th card in the player's tableau?

I know there are games that end more exciting, but I think Pandemic ends as exciting as many of the most popular games on BGG.


Actually, now that I think about it, the end of Pandemic feels like a movie from the 80s. The bad guy gets captured/killed, and the credits start to roll on a shot of people milling about the crime scene as the camera pulls out. All that's missing is like, a lone saxophone.

Overall, nice review, I didn't mean to disparage Pandemic or Space Alert. I've enjoyed the 9 or so games of Space Alert I've played. I'm thinking about writing my own take on it.

Reading the handbook out loud as you learn the game was the high point of my group.
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Tim Myers
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Kaworu17 wrote:
Actually, now that I think about it, the end of Pandemic feels like a movie from the 80s. The bad guy gets captured/killed, and the credits start to roll on a shot of people milling about the crime scene as the camera pulls out. All that's missing is like, a lone saxophone. ...

... or it ends more like a Steven King book, dark and depressing where everybody dies, from some horrible disease that can't be controlled.


Good review by the way. thumbsup
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Good overall impression review. The back story really helped define what you were writing about.

And Psi-5, wow, that'a blast from the past. And for that matter so is 688 Attack laugh
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Kenneth Bailey
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The PC version of 688 Attack Sub had a mode where you could play over a network (or modem?). One person would command the Los Angeles and the other would command the Alfa. Fun stuff.
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Michael J
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Kaworu17 wrote:
Kaworu17 wrote:
baditude wrote:


I find the end of Pandemic very boring. It just sort of... ends.


And finding cures for the 4 most deadly diseases on the planet is boring compared to... the end of the 12th turn?... the depletion of the last victory point?... the placement of the 12th card in the player's tableau?

I know there are games that end more exciting, but I think Pandemic ends as exciting as many of the most popular games on BGG.


Actually, now that I think about it, the end of Pandemic feels like a movie from the 80s. The bad guy gets captured/killed, and the credits start to roll on a shot of people milling about the crime scene as the camera pulls out. All that's missing is like, a lone saxophone.

Overall, nice review, I didn't mean to disparage Pandemic or Space Alert. I've enjoyed the 9 or so games of Space Alert I've played. I'm thinking about writing my own take on it.

Reading the handbook out loud as you learn the game was the high point of my group.


Maybe you need to end Pandemic more emphatically. When you lay down that last cure at the research station, throw it down HARD, and yell "Booyah! Die disease mother-f***ers!", and then throw the Pandemic board clear off the table, grab your wife/gf/so, and lay a huge kiss on him/her, and say "Baby, I told you I'd save the world before dinner.", and then kiss her again.
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mjacobsca wrote:

"Booyah! Die disease mother-f***ers!", and then throw the Pandemic board clear off the table, grab your wife/gf/so, and lay a huge kiss on him/her, and say "Baby, I told you I'd save the world before dinner.", and then kiss her again.


thumbsup just for that laugh
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Before I bought Space Alert, I asked the BGG members if they thought there was a repetitive issue, too. The answer was a resounding 'No'. After my 25 games played so far, I agree with their assessment. Once you throw in the advanced cards, the higher difficulty play keeps players on their toes enough to make this game keep its replayability for a long time.

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Barry Kendall
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You've done me a favor.

Ever since I got "Space Alert" I've had the nagging sense in the back of my head that I've been in this position before. I couldn't figure it out because I don't play computer games or arcade games and no boardgame memory settled the mystery.

Your description of "688" finally helped me put the pieces together.

Some years ago I visited the "Nauticus" museum in Norfolk, VA. At that time--and I don't know if it's still there or not--there was a submarine simulator. Up to six people actually got in the thing; it had a compartment like something halfway between a movie submarine control room and the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, with six crew positions.

Each position had a display with information and controls on it. There was a Sonar position, a Weapons position, a Maneuvering position, an Engineering/power position, a Command position, and something else I don't recall. It might have been a "salvage controls" position to recover something from the sea floor.

There were actually two of these simulators, which operated against one another, so the other "sub" you saw on your display belonged to that family from Ohio you'd nodded to before you entered your own sub.

Well, I think the experience lasted about fifteen minutes, but I could have stayed in there for about six days, it was so cool (at least for me; I don't get out much except for fires and funerals).

Anyway, "Space Alert" reminds me of that experience at the Nauticus Museum, except, obviously, that you aren't trying to kill a competing sub or survive its attack.

By the way, just when I thought we had him, the torpedoes struck.
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Michael J
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jayquirk wrote:
Before I bought Space Alert, I asked the BGG members if they thought there was a repetitive issue, too. The answer was a resounding 'No'. After my 25 games played so far, I agree with their assessment. Once you throw in the advanced cards, the higher difficulty play keeps players on their toes enough to make this game keep its replayability for a long time.



That's great to hear. I have been worried about replayability, but all the votes of confidence on this issue in this post and others have eased my worries!
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Space Alert IS coming to the United States, I started a thread so those eagering waiting can save up their pennies.

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/380150

BonesJackson wrote:
Nice review. I really liked the backstory you provided and I think it fit in well with the actual review. Plus I used to own 688 Attack Sub back in the day...so you get a thumbs up for that.

I can't wait to get my hands on Space Alert. I'm really hoping that it finds a publisher in the States.

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Kaworu17 wrote:
mjacobsca wrote:

"Booyah! Die disease mother-f***ers!", and then throw the Pandemic board clear off the table, grab your wife/gf/so, and lay a huge kiss on him/her, and say "Baby, I told you I'd save the world before dinner.", and then kiss her again.


thumbsup just for that laugh


Agreed, except without throwing the board. I mean, c'mon man, you gotta protect the actual game at all costs, even if it means that saving the world from certain doom is a bit little less exciting.

Oh, and nice review. I'm looking forward to playing this. Games that bring back nostalgic feelings of joyous youthful innocence always get a plus in my book.
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baditude wrote:
My buddy Mike decided we should try something different than just swapping out players in between matches and came up with an off-beat way to include everyone at once. In Mike’s Twisted Metal "Blind" variant, there were two teams competing against one another. Each team has a single car. One player on the team is the "driver" who operates the controls but sits with his back to the television. His partner is the "Navigator" who faces the screen and gives instructions to the driver. It was insane and frustrating and a total blast. Each "navigator" had their own style of play. Myself; I was a bit excitable. With all the fast-action and crazy explosions I was prone to shouting and wild hand gestures. One of my other friends was very calm and collected and could (in a matter-of-fact sort of tone) give you three or four simple instructions on how to disintegrate your opponent.

Thats a really great story and idea for playing a game. I'll have to remember to see if there are any recent games if I get in a group that we can try that with

baditude wrote:
There are a few ways in which Space Alert does fall short for me. I do find the goal of "surviving the mission" to be a tad anti-climactic. It can lead to a sort of, "well what did we go to all that trouble for? Feeling" since at the end of the mission you are basically right back where you started. Sure there is a scoring system where you can rate your performance, but it feels sort of tacked-on and incomplete.

Perhaps something along the lines of these ideas:
http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/359230
Something to connect missions and give people goals to shoot for beyond just the completion of the current mission.
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eryn roston
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Yargo wrote:

Perhaps something along the lines of these ideas:
http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/359230
Something to connect missions and give people goals to shoot for beyond just the completion of the current mission.


Interesting.

Yea those are some cool ideas. I also think just doing the "extended campaign" of having to survive three straight missions could be cool as well. thanks for the link!
 
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Kaworu17 wrote:
Actually, now that I think about it, the end of Pandemic feels like a movie from the 80s. :D The bad guy gets captured/killed, and the credits start to roll on a shot of people milling about the crime scene as the camera pulls out.

hey, you just described the ending of "Die Hard". which happens to be among the absolute best badass action movies of all time. on the other hand, the ending of "Pandemic" (the one time I played it) felt like the ending of a Tarkovski movie - "What? It already ended? How long did I sleep?".
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