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Not Cardboard Children: Space Alert

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JESUS CHRIST! What are you doing? You’ll kill us all! STOP!

Where did you learn to pilot a spacecraft? Asshole College? My God, the cadets they’re sending me these days. Alright, listen up. If you sit right there, don’t touch anything and do precisely what I say then we might just get through this alive.

The board game I want to tell you about today is called Space Alert. It’s designed by Vlaada Chvátil, published Czech Games and it’s both a phenomenal bit of game design and like nothing you’ve ever played. Some of you may have read this article before on my blog. You guys can consider this re-publishing a sort of Director’s Cut.

Here’s what she looks like.

That, right there, is your ship.

In Space Alert you and your friends make up the intrepid (doomed) crew of a “Sitting Duck” class exploration vessel. It is piece of engineering comparable with the 1940 Tacoma Narrows bridge. The way these ships work is that they’ll jump into a comedically hostile sector of space, spend ten minutes scanning their surroundings, and then automatically jump you back out again. A game of Space Alert only ever lasts ten real-life minutes as your ship completes this scan, and it’s the job of the players to listen to the ship’s hateful computer – a CD which comes bundled with the game – as it reels off what threats are approaching and from where. With these threats placed on the board, it’s up to you guys to quickly deal with them in an orderly and professional manner. Dealing with them isn’t always so hard, but the professionalism part? Impossible.

Space Alert is a game of panicking, of screaming at your friends, and asking them where they are and what they’re doing because you’re standing at the main laser and slapping the fire button and nothing is happening because there’s nobody in the engine room to feed it power, and you’re swearing and swearing as a terrifyingly efficient alien bomber zips closer and closer and GOD DAMMIT PAUL GET IN THE FUCKING ENGINE ROOM BEFORE I TURN YOUR ANUS INTO A EARRING. I CAN DO THAT. I’VE BEEN TAKING NIGHT CLASSES.

In short: Space Alert’s genius is in combining its madness-inducing ten minute time limit with a demand for player co-ordination the likes of which I’ve never seen in a game (videogame, boardgame or otherwise).

Right, let’s zoom out, away from the table a bit. Take a deep breath.

You can click on that image to see it a bigger. Now, I’m well aware that with all those numbers and squares Space Alert looks a bit like a fruity attempt at re-inventing the calendar, but just stick with me. If the spaceship in the centre is the heart of Space Alert, then those numbered boards are the frazzled, smoking brain.

While a game of Space Alert is played entirely within the ten minutes of the mission, all you’re actually doing in those ten minutes is placing action cards facedown in your character’s twelve available action slots- programming your crewman, so to speak. If you want to start the game by running your crewman over to the left side of the ship and raising shields, you play a card in slot one that’ll move your character left, and a second card in slot two that’ll cause him to slap the Shields button.

It’s only after those ten minutes when the ship has (theoretically) jumped to safety that you reveal everybody’s action cards and work out whether you survived or not, starting with everybody’s first slot, then moving onto everybody’s second slot, and so on, all the while calculating things like damage and the ship’s energy reserves.

Until then, everything is in your head. While everybody’s free to move all the figures and tokens around the board as they like during the 10 minutes of the mission, if you make a mistake (say, forgetting to slide the energy tokens off the board when you fire a laser) then everybody’s going to be placing their action cards off the basis of an incorrect board. All of this makes it of utmost importance that everybody knows what everybody else is doing, so that they can do something else.

Let me give you an example of play, something I learned the importance of within boardgame journalism from RPS’s own Robert Florence.

***

[Jenny, Rob, Matt and Sanda are half way through a mission. So far, they think their actions will destroy or protect them from everything that’s turned up . The stereo in the corner ship’s computer beeps, informing them of a Serious Threat approaching the blue zone (meaning the right side of the ship). As communications officer, Matt flips over the Serious Threat card on the top of the deck, revealing a Major Asteroid. As he reads the statistics off the cards, Captain Sanda turns pale.]

Sanda: Alright, everybody CALM DOWN.

Rob: I am calm!

Sanda: CALM DOWN, ROB. Alright. Okay. Matt, where are you? Man the blue zone laser cannon and shoot that thing. Rob, fire a missile.

Matt: I’m on the opposite side of the ship! I wouldn’t be at the blue laser until slot 9.

Rob: [Placing a card from his hand] I fire a missile in slot 7!

Jenny: I’m in the blue engine room. I’ll fire the laser. [Starts placing cards] Alright, I go up to blue zone gunnery room in slot 6, and fire the laser in slot 7. Wait. There’s no power in the blue zone. I can’t fire the laser. Somebody get into the blue engine room and draw power from the central reactor.

Rob: Should I fire another missile?

Sanda: SHUT UP, ROB. I can go to blue engineering and have power in the blue zone reactor by slot 8. When did you fire the laser, Jenny?

Jenny: I can’t remember. Uh, slot 7. I’ll delay it to slot 8. Wait, Rob, when did you fire the missile? When will it be hitting the asteroid? We should co-ordinate this.

Rob: The first missile or the second?

Sanda: WHAT? you fired a second missile? That means we only have one left.

Rob: It’ll be fine! Shut up! I hate you!

[The ship’s computer beeps, informing the group that it has detected an Internal Threat. Security Officer Jenny flips the top card of the internal threat deck, revealing that a team of commandos has teleported aboard into the blue engine room. Sanda passes out, Matt screams and Jenny snatches up the captain’s badge token from in front of Sanda.]

Jenny: Keep your heads, people. We’ve trained for this. Rob, take care of the Asteroid. I’m going to activate the Battlebots and go say hi to our guests.

***

Did I not mention that things come at you from inside the ship, too? Oh, they do. As well as your External Threats deck…

…you’ve got Internal Threats, which range from fissues in the hull to saboteurs and overloaded reactors.

Ah, it’s a shit time out there in deep space. You’ve got to love it.

Other things to love about Space Alert include it’s distinctly Eastern European vision of space exploration, which asks the important question of “What if bureaucracy in the future is just as awkward and crap as it is today?” Hence the Sitting Duck being a class of ship where only one person can ride in the elevator at any one time, your shields are never up and the ship’s computer must be nudged three times during a mission to ensure the screensaver advertising your ship’s sponsor doesn’t come on.

This atmosphere is also lovingly conveyed in the “academy” booklet that comes with the game, which is the single best instruction manual I’ve ever read. Sure, Space Alert also comes with an ordinary instruction manual, but the Academy booklet encourages the player who knows the game best to take the role of a chipper instructor who knows he’s sending the other players to their deaths, but laughingly takes them through simulations of increasing complexity anyway.

If I had choose one moment to sell Space Alert to you, it’d be be this. A few weeks back I was playing this game with some friends and ended up as captain. It’s worth pointing out here that you don’t have to play with a captain, and can happily play the game with everybody screaming at one another like the table’s on fire, but you might find that having some kind of authority to defer to helps to smooth play out a bit.

Anyway, I was captain and we were doing alright. Ships had appeared off our bow and (by our calculations) they’d all been blasted apart or performed harmless strafing runs on our shields. Also, a nuclear bomb had been discovered in our reactor, but we’d disarmed that too. With four minutes left on the clock I was lost in a cloud of adrenaline, but it was looking like we’d be emerging from this in one piece.

Then the computer announced a serious threat. We flipped the card, revealing some monstrous alien battleship that got a boost to its shields every time we damaged it, and my eager crew looked up at me for instructions. What did I do? I looked at the board, crunched some numbers in my head and realised… we couldn’t beat it. We were all in the wrong place, and so were our energy reserves. Metaphorically speaking, the game had noticed we were off balance, leapt forward and locked us into a choke hold.

It was such a hopeless moment as to be inspiring. Here was my crew, their lives hanging by a thread, and here was me, too stupid to know what to do and too cowardly to admit it. I stopped breathing, scared that the fact that we wouldn’t be coming home would somehow escape my lips together with all that hot air. I looked across the table at my lieutenant who would, in theory, take over if I resigned. Could he deal with this?

Then I realised that this is what leadership is. What I was experiencing was a shade of what countless leaders have felt throughout history when they realised that they were fucked. When they needed to find a way when there was no way, when they wanted to throw in the towel but that wasn’t an option either. I felt so overwhelmingly privileged that a boardgame was letting me experience this that I decided, in the face of hopelessness, to do my best, and attempted to lock each of the players at my disposal into position, like cogs in a machine. Fire the laser, boost the shields, eject the fuel rod, fire the laser, boost the shields, eject the fuel rod. It was good, but I don’t think it was enough.

Lucky for me, my failure never came to light. After the mission when we were going through our orders we discovered that we’d dicked up the disarming of the nuclear bomb, and it exploded before the nightmare ship ever appeared. Safe! Kind of.

If you’re interested, findyourgamestore.co.uk is ready and waiting to help you find your local board game store, as always. The Space Alert expansion set, New Frontier, is well worth picking up too. On the one hand, it focuses on making the game even harder. On the other hand, it also comes with plenty of new threats and a set of amazing cardboard badges to help you get into the spirit of things.

From left to right- Captain, Lieutenant, Security Officer, Archives guy, some other guy, Chief Engineer and Communications Officer.

You can’t really be doing without those, can you? Of course you can’t. Right, I’m off to get some lunch. Take care, everybody!

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Quintin Smith

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