Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Space Alert (tutorials)

Space Alert is one very unusual game. It is cooperative and real-time. It is by Vlaada Chvatil from the Czech Republic, who designed Through the Ages and Galaxy Trucker (both of which I like a lot), and often has very innovative and interesting ideas for games. In Space Alert, you and your teammates need to defend your spaceship for 10 minutes. If you survive, you win. The "real" part of the game is played in real-time. You listen to a sound track (there are many to choose from to provide some variety) which tells you about enemy attacks, ship malfunctions, communications downtimes, etc. During these 10 minutes, you plan your actions using your hand of cards. It sounds simple - you are just putting cards down onto 12 spaces, but it is actually quite tricky, requiring good coordination among the teammates in real-time. It's very chaotic! Once the soundtrack is over, you do an evaluation round, basically reenacting everything that had happened step by step, to see whether you survived.

I have played six games of this, and I have not even played a real mission yet! I am still playing the tutorials, and still failing them! There are three levels of tutorials - Test Runs, Simulations and Advanced Simulations. They introduce the game to you bit by bit, with new elements and new challenges being added at each new level. For now I have only reached Simulations. And I am not even beating the game yet! In fact, even for my very first Test Run, I (well, we) lost the game. I had thought the Test Run was designed to be impossible to lose.

So what do you do during a game? To summarise, you move and you press buttons. As simple as that. There are 6 rooms on the spaceship, each having 3 buttons performing different functions. The A buttons are for shooting. Each room has a different cannon, with different fire-powers, ranges and power sources, and also pointing in different directions. You often need to coordinate with your teammates to shoot at an approaching enemy at the same time, because it is much more effective in damaging your enemy. B buttons are all related to managing energy - for charging up defensive shields, moving energy cubes to where they are needed, and charging up your energy core. This is a very important aspect, which we learnt the hard way. There was one game when we (Afif, Sui Jye, Jing Yi and I) planned a very well coordinated shooting, only to find that our cannons had run out of energy cubes. Click! Click! We failed to destroy the approaching enemy, and lost the game miserably.

Then there are the C buttons, which do different things. Some allow you to control combat robots, which are needed to fight enemies which are on board. One allows you to fire homing missiles. One simply allows you to score additional victory points, but I think in this game that's the last thing I'm going to care about. I need to learn to survive first. There's even one C button that is for making sure that the computer screensaver doesn't come up to interrupt your actions. Apparently the operating system of the spaceship computer was sponsored, and thus has a screensaver with advertising content.

There are many different types of enemies in the game, which approach at different speeds, attack at different strengths, and have different shield strengths. There are also internal threats - sometimes enemies that board your spaceship, sometimes systems malfunctions. In each mission, these are randomly drawn, and you only see a few of them. This gives the game some replayability. There are some time tracks that vary how quickly enemies approach and how often and how soon they attack. Four time tracks are drawn randomly to be placed at different parts of the ship. This too increases variety.

In the foreground, the 12 time slots where you can place your action cards. The three long tracks leading away from the game board are used for determining how quickly an enemy approaches and when and how frequently it attacks.

Starting set-up of a Simulation game (which I call Level 2 Tutorial). Player characters start at the bridge - the upper white room. Green cubes are energy cubes. Green cylinders are energy capsules, which are used for recharging the central reactor. The cannons are purple, and the boxes next to them tell you the cannon range and fire-power. There are homing missiles in the background too. You only get 3 per mission.

Space Alert is a game that needs a dedicated group of players. It is actually not easy to beat, and requires good cooperation among the players. You need players who are interested enough to play it multiple times and work through the tutorials to get to the real missions. If you only play with casual players, you may never reach the real missions. I wonder whether the game will lose its appeal after you win a few real missions, the way some PC or console adventure games lose their appeal after you beat them. But even if this happens, I think I would have gained a lot of value from the game. I suspect the game will continue to be interesting even after I learn to beat the normal missions, like how Galaxy Trucker (also by Vlaada Chvatil) and Pandemic are.

Space Alert is probably a game that needs 4 or 5 players. With less than four, you need to introduce android characters, which are ordered around by the other human players. This is not very ideal when you are still trying to learn the game. There are enough for you to worry about without androids. You probably want to play with less than four after you are familiar with the game. But I think the game is meant for 4 or 5, because the fun is in overcoming the chaos of many players trying to coordinate their actions to save the spaceship.

There is one thing which I wonder whether I have been doing right. When I play the game, I don't try to move the pieces on the board much. I only sometimes move my character, to remind myself where I am. I don't remove energy cubes spent, I don't move enemy markers, I don't mark the damage done to my spaceship or to the enemies. I think I probably should do that, because that would help a lot in visualising what's happening. That would take some effort from everyone, because you need to synchronise the changes made to the board with your teammates. Else it may cause even more confusion, or worse, cause wrong planning. I should do this next time I play, and let's see whether I will fare better.

So this is just an initial impression of Space Alert. Hopefully the next time I write about this game I will have beaten some normal missions.


Notso said...

This game has always looked really interesting to me. You post here only makes it more interesting. The only problem I have heard is that the finite number of scenarios makes it get too repetitive once you have played it enough. I have noticed, though, that people have uploaded custom scenarios on bgg; so, there are a few new ones to try out there. Even given that issue, though, I still think Space Alert seems like a awesome game. The more I get into cooperative games, the more I like them. We play Pandemic much more than any other game because we like working together and being victorious or losers together.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

There are 8 different soundtracks for real missions, and you can use the shuffle function of randomly pick one when you play. There can be many combinations of internal and external threats, which are determined by the card draws. How quickly they approach and how freqeuntly they attack are also determined by the randomly drawn attack tracks (or whatever those are called, I forget). So I think replayability is not really an issue.

But I do think that the number of enemies seem a bit low. There aren't many different types of enemy cards. This may be the first thing that starts to feel repetitive. I haven't reached that stage yet, so I can't say for sure. Just a hunch.

A bigger challenge I see is the game really needs 4 or 5 players. I don't think the game is as much fun with 2, and especially when learning the game, I think you should have 4 or 5 players.

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I played Space Alert with my neighbors, and it was very difficult to win, but it was very entertaining

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