Sometimes a game sounds so incredibly awesome I can’t wait to buy it and play it during board game and burger night. Maybe it has a super cool theme like zombies or a neat game mechanic like sliding wooden pucks across a star map, or a fun new way for collaborative team play.
And then the game is just a big lie and it’s no fun at all and the next thing you know I’m bitching about it on Gibberish.
The theme for Space Alert is awesome. You and your friends are flying a ship from the Galaxy Truckers universe (one of my favorite games) and are attacked by hostile forces. Each player must work together to make sure the engines are working, shields are powered, and guns are firing. You also have to make sure to check the ship’s computer periodically and in some missions have the option to launch fighters and deploy security robots.
Space Alert is entirely cooperative, which we like over here at Fort Gibberish.
There are two parts of the game: the planning part and the action part.
The planning part of the game involves listening to threats and coordinating with other players.
During the planning portion the game is done in real-time. Players collaboratively plan what their characters will do. You will have to work together to keep the ship running. Once the planning portion of the game ends your characters are stuck doing what you planned. This is a similar mechanic to Roborally, if you’ve ever played that game.
Threats are read aloud via the provided CDs. What’s a CD? There’s an app you can download for Android or iOS that does the same thing.
The action part is where you find out how stupid you and your friends are. This is supposed to be “fun” but it’s often just “fucking frustrating.”
The player serving as captain resolves all of the action cards identified in the planning phase. Depending on the scenario, there will be parts of the mission that were unknown during the planning part, which adds extra chaos.
Each player moves their character piece in order. Theoretically, the crew works together, the shields go up, the laser batteries shoot down the bad guys, and the reactor continually recharges the ship. The team wins! Victory for mankind!
The game is stressful as hell and people don’t like playing it.
The game is brutal on new players. One of the reasons we stopped playing Space Alert was that we were reluctant to play it with anyone who hadn’t played before.
No matter how many times we explain it, first- and second-time players don’t understand that the planning for the entire game happens during the first phase, and then action for the entire game happens during the second phase.
Most games are reactionary. The game does this, the player does that, the game responds, the player reacts. Space Alert is less interactive. New players often “wait” for things to happen, and since the action phase doesn’t happen until the entire planning is over they wait for nothing.
By the time new players figure out what’s going on they are completely out of sync with the rest of the group. I think it’s more damaging to have an extra character “piloted” by a new player than to be short a character.
Couple this with the usual “WTF is going on?” with a new game, and beginner players are a real handicap. On one hand, other players want to help the newbies with what’s happening. On the other, the game is unfolding in real-time and no one has time to babysit someone.
We’ve tried having someone shadow a new player and just help them with the mission. This isn’t particularly fun for the “adviser,” despite what we’ve read about the CIA “advising” people in naughty conflicts all over the world.
Space Alert continues to punch you in the groin even after everyone learns how to play.
Real-time planning with a fistful of players is difficult. Everyone is shouting, trying to figure out the best course of action, and remembering what happened in earlier turns. This often leads to mishaps, such as two players getting stuck in an elevator or someone firing an empty laser cannon before it is reloaded it from a reactor.
The game is terribly stressful. Our group hates it so much that our rare victories produce sighs of relief and not peals of joy.
A Whimpering Death
There was never a defining moment that we decided to stop playing Space Alert. It got marginalized by the group to the point no one suggested it any more.
“Do you want to play Space Alert or Quarriors?”
“Space Alert or Castle Panic?”
“Space Alert or – ”
“Not fucking Space Alert.”
And there you have it. A $45 game brought low by tension and apathy.
If you have a regular gaming group made up of Type A personalities who work as engineers, programmers, doctors or build stuff, Space Alert might be okay. This game caters to people who are able to make quick decisions, keep track of multiple things at once, enjoy being stressed out, and don’t mind yelling at each other. Also, none of those people can be butthurt. One of our players got some bad direction one game and he pouted so much I never wanted to play it with him again.
For our group, Space Alert proved to be too much stress and not enough fun, despite its awesome premise.