Any regular reader of Board Game Quest probably knows by now my love for cooperative board games. Much likes playing the game of Craps in the casino, it’s a lot of fun to have a group of people working together towards a common goal. You win together, you lose together. Thus, enter the newest cooperative board game to get reviewed here: Space Alert.
It also has the honor of being, spoiler alert, my absolute favorite cooperative board game on the market today. Space Alert combines chaotic real time game mechanics with cooperative game play for what amounts to a really fun experience.
Space Alert takes about 10 minutes to play. You are all crew members on a survey space ship trying to keep the ship safe for the ten minutes while it completes its mission. One of the interesting things is that the game is actually played in reverse order. You plan ahead of time what you will be doing in round 1 and then in round 2, you see how you actually did as the events unfold. Sound confusing? It’s not that bad, I promise.
I’m sure everyone has played a cooperative board game where one of the players has taken it upon themselves to be the game dictator. Since you are all working together, it’s easy for someone to tell others what to do, thus making the game some kind of super-solitare where one person controls the group. Well, in Space Alert, that will never happen.
The key is, the first part is played over 10 minutes of real time. And you ONLY have 10 minutes. There is an audio recording (the game comes with a CD) that announces things as the action round unfolds. Everyone has to plan out all of their 12 actions before the 10 minutes expire. During the planning, the computer (audio) will make important announcements to the players. Such as: new threats, card trades and communication disruptions (no talking). You have to plan carefully, as once your cards are down, you’re committed. You will get a countdown as the round is about to end, leaving some people dropping actions cards haphazardly at the last second, just to get something done. After the 10 minutes are up, you move into the resolution round and see how you actually did.
The designer of the game really focused on making sure there were plenty of high quality components. There are many wooden tokens representing various consumable parts of your ship. The cards are high quality with original, thematic artwork. Each threat card has scifi themed illustrations to go along with the functional aspects. The game comes with a large, central game board which depicts the interior of your ship. There is also a large turn tracking board and each player gets their own board to plan out their actions.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the 2 CDs that come with the game. This provides the audio for your game. While you don’t have to use the audio CDs, it’s highly recommended. Using a sand timer is a completely different experience and almost not even worth it. The audio CD has a number of tracks that act as the mission timer and help keep the missions variable. All-in-all, you get a pretty heavy box with Space Alert and feel like you are getting your moneys worth.
How To Play:
While the actual game play of Space Alert is quite unique, it does borrow some elements from other games. Fans of the old game, Roborally, will find some similarities. Space Alert is broken up into two rounds, with the first being the action round. Here you will be planning all your moves for when the game actually happens.
Each player has a hand of cards that are half arrows and half letters. Everyone has 10 minutes to play their cards, on their action board, in the order they want them to happen. For example, if a player wanted to move to the red side of the ship and fire the laser, they’d play a red arrow and the “A” card, in that order. They will do this throughout the action round until all 12 slots are filled up on their action board. The action round is actually broken up into 3 phases where you progressive plan more and more actions, so plan carefully. Once you’ve moved on to phase 2, you can’t change your phase 1 actions. As mentioned earlier, fans of the game RoboRally will see some similarities here in the card planning.
While this may seem fairly easy, it can actually get quite chaotic. Players don’t get to wait until they are ready to move on to the next phase. The CD will tell you when the phase is about to end with a countdown, followed by a “phase complete” message. This reminded me of the old “pencils down” saying from my grade school teachers.
The game audio will even throw things at you during the action round. As the computer calls out new threats, data transfers and communication disruptions, and you have to react accordingly. It’s vital for your team to listen and work together here. Taking the wrong action at the wrong time can have ripple effect throughout the later turns.
The second round is the resolution round. At this point, all your actions are planned out and it’s time to see if things went according to plan. Starting with the captain, you go around the table, revealing your actions one at a time. The resolution board steps you through this process as you go. This round is fairly simple and goes by quite quickly. If your ship is still alive at the end of the round, you win!
The Game Experience:
So you know the game now, you are probably wondering, how much fun is it? In my opinion, a ton! The concept intrigued me from the start, as I’ve never played a real time board game before. Our first game actually ended up in a complete disaster. Players ran about the ship, doing their own thing. Our ship exploded about halfway through the mission and we quickly realized this wasn’t going to work. Yet even failing so completely, everyone still had a blast. There was a collective, “let’s play again” from the group.
More than any game I’ve played before, Space Alert demands team work. As we quickly learned, doing your own thing, will lead to disaster. On multiple occasions, a player went to fire a laser, only to realize the reactor had long since depleted because they never checked to see if anyone was keeping it running. Yet, by our 4th game or so, things started to click. We started to use the board while we were planning our actions and we communicated our actions to the other players. The first time our ship made it back home, it was incredibly satisfying. We had realized the hard way that cooperation was the key and made things so much easier.
When it’s time for the resolution round to start, there is a quiet sense of anticipation. Everyone knows the cards they have played. You will know if you hastily threw down an card as time was about to expire. The only question is, did that extra activation of the shields I did in haste, screw up another players action.
As you go around revealing your actions, one-at-a-time, there is an almost foreboding sense of dread once the first mistake shows up. If a player fills that reactor a round too late, it will ripple through other players actions, causing chaos. Suddenly, the laser you were going to fire that round is out of energy. Click-click-click instead of zap! Which in turn, does not destroy that attacking ship everyone thought would be dead this round. Since all your actions are planned in advance, there is no going back to fix that mistake. The attacking ship gets to continue on its merry way, turning your ship into Swiss cheese.
And that’s what keeps the game tense and exciting. The audio timer in the first round will keep things moving and frantic. The slow revealing of cards in the resolution round will keep everyone focused. When that first mistake turns up, everyone immediately begins to think how that will have long term affects on their actions. With its unique mechanics, Space Alert does an amazing job of keeping you focused on the game, from beginning to end.
So, by now you know, I loved this game. It will be making its way to our game table often, I’m sure. Space Alert is a very unique and there is no other game out there quite like it. As an added bonus, if you have a friend who always takes a long time on his turns (analysis paralysis), this will help cure him of that. During the chaos of the action round, things can get crazy as people are planning and the computer is announcing new instructions.
Now, I must say, that the rule book can be somewhat intimidating. It’s thick and there is a lot to absorb. Fortunately, the designer includes a tutorial book that is one of the best out there. If you just dive into the rule book, you may get lost or overwhelmed. But if you play through the tutorial book (which in itself, is quite fun), it will walk you through playing the game, adding levels of complexity as it goes. By the end of the tutorial missions, everyone should feel like you have a good feel for the rules and be ready for the option ones.
In truth though, the game is really not that complicated. There are just a lot of options for you to think about. Once you are playing the full game, you will have many different options to take on your turn. But, once you get the game mechanics down, the actual game play is quite simple.
In Space Alert, there is something about those crazy, 10 minutes of chaos, that is just so enjoyable. It’s not sunrise that Space Alert won quite a few awards the year it debuted. If you are looking for a new experience and are fan of cooperative games, go out and buy Space Alert today. I guarantee you haven’t played anything like it and will love it.
If you are interested in getting a copy for yourself, it’s about $45
Final Score: 8.5/10 – It’s rare when a game does this many things right with brand new mechanics. There is nothing out there like it and it’s an amazing amount of fun.
• Cooperative game play that really works
• Real time game play mechanics are new and unique
• High quality components and thematic elements are top notch
• Fantastic tutorial book that walks you through the game
• Non-stop fun, the chaos and randomness provide a great experience
• Rulebook size can be hard to get through for those that skip the tutorial
• Not for groups that don’t like to work together