Thursday, June 25, 2009

Space Alert - Out Of The Box

I'm a big fan of coop games, at least if they're well done and you don't have too much downtime. Even then, with a game like B-Star G, you can generally be very involved throughout the game trying to convince everyone that you're really "a deputy" (a la Bang!). Sure, since you're playing against a system, there's a fair amount of luck that will determine the outcome, such as having the same card come up repeatedly in Pandemic! when you have an outbreak, but the fun is in the interaction between players as they try to figure things out.

Now, along comes a game that still has a certain amount of luck, but the real enemy in the game is... time.

Understand, I'm a huge fan of B-Star G, largely because it's really not so much a coop as a semi-coop, with some players on one side and some on the other, and the fact that you may not know which side you yourself are on until the halfway point strikes me as particularly brilliant. It will take quite a good game to knock this title off of it's perch as my favorite coop, given the right number of players with the right attitude and enough time.

Here's the thing: Space Alert plays in about 30 minutes, and that includes setting up. But what a 30 minutes it is.

The gist of the game is fairly straightforward. You are a crew of an exploration vessel in space, popping into a system, scanning it in ten minutes, then jumping out. Except that while you're scanning, the bad guys are trying to terminate you with extreme prejudice. Each player has a card track that works a little like RoboRally (we've lost Mike already, here) - you have a set of five action cards that you use to determine what actions your player will take. As you all discuss what you're going to be responsible for during the mission, various threats appear from one of three directions, meaning that the early actions are going to get you to a certain part of the ship, then you'll want to not only start shooting but also managing your energy levels. Throw in the fact that you'll eventually resolve your actions later on in a very specific order, and there's every chance that while you're under the gun things will not go as you thought maybe they would.

The thing driving the action at this point is a series of sound files (on CD, but you can download MP3s or just rip the damned thing) that tell you that various things are happening, from introducing new threats to allowing people to give cards to other players. One player is assigned the role of Comm Officer, and they are the ones who need to be paying attention to the soundtrack. I will admit that I haven't heard the soundtrack yet (I was playing solo to get the system down, not to "compete" against the game), but I can only imagine that it will raise the tension level accordingly.

Once time runs out, you resolve the various actions in sequence. If you manage to get through the round with each of the three sections of the ship intact, you get to jump out and keep score. It is possible to come out with a negative score, apparently, and anything over 10 is very good. I mentioned RoboRally before, but now think of it with five robots trying to cooperate and instead of five actions at a time, you do twelve. And under time pressure.

This is where coop euro meets party game, and I can imagine that it will be a real hoot once it finally hits the table with a group.

The biggest problem, of course, is trying to teach people the game. It's really not terribly difficult, but the time element will screw with your ability to remember what it is you can and can't do, not to mention that the actions come on cards that depend on orientation to work correctly - place the card upside down, and you're suddenly shooting a gun instead of riding the turbolift. Fortunately, the game comes with an astonishingly funny (and lengthy) tutorial system, great for teaching people who've never played before. You can learn the whole thing in about an hour if you have good gamers, which includes actually playing two or three of the special tutorial missions.

Even better, each "real" mission will be different because each threat is different and requires a different approach, and the vectors each come in on as they approach each section of the ship are also different from game to game, not to mention that there are six or so different mission tracks that mix things up. Like most coop games, there's a lot of replayability but at the same time I get the sense that it's a lot harder to end up with a "killer" situation that you have no chance to beat. The reason? The enemy is time, and how well you function under that pressure is the measure of how well you do.

The components are largely of the Galaxy Trucker variety, lots of neon purples and greens, but everything is very functional and color challenged folks shouldn't have a problem as there's always another graphical element that *isn't* color. The only problem will be with the player figures, but you're going to know who's where anyway because if you aren't discussing the situation, and with great urgency, you're going to lose.

The biggest problem is that this will be a hard sell for non-gamers unless they are puzzle nuts. There's a lot going on, and while much of it will be familiar to gamers, the overall process will take non-gamers a little time to latch onto. That's not that they won't pick up the game, just that there are a lot of tiny mechanisms that they need to keep track of.

And there's another entertaining element of the game. You can move the various pieces around the board all you want to during the timed part of the game, but when you resolve all of your actions to see if you survived or not, it all goes back to the starting position and you go from there. I imagine there will be a lot of surprises when a card you thought was in a position (they all go *face-down!*) actually isn't, or you gave it the wrong orientation by mistake, screwing up everyone else. You don't have a lot of room for error in the game.

I only played through the first "guided" tutorial mission, which only uses seven steps and a fixed set of threats and vectors. I was able to easily get through it, although I didn't play under a timer as it's very difficult for a single player to manipulate the various tracks in the kind of time you really need to have. A big part of the game is deciding who has the right cards to do a particular action, so it's really not a solitaire game (and in fact I'd go so far as to suggest at this early stage that you really need at least three, although I can't confirm this at all).

If you like being under time pressure and you like coop and party games, this could be a big winner for you. Time is an element that I really enjoy in games, from Galaxy Trucker to Space Dealer to Merchants of Amsterdam to Tamsk, but it's not employed as often as I'd like to see. Having a coop that features it as a central element is something I'm delighted to see.

I definitely give this a tentative high recommendation, and am looking forward to giving it a full tryout.

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