Saturday, 9 January 2010

Space Alert mission

On 3 Jan 2010 I brought out Space Alert again, this time to play with Han, who had not tried it before. In my previous plays I had never reached the real missions, but this time I did. We started with tutorial Level 1 (of 3 levels), which we managed to win, and then moved on to Level 2 (which I had not won before). We managed to beat Level 2 too. Then we decided to be a bit more ambitious - we jumped straight to a full mission, skipping over tutorial Level 3. The Level 3 tutorials add internal threats, battlebots and interceptors. The real missions add heroic actions and visual comfirmation on top of these. Heroic actions are quite simple, and we didn't bother with the visual confirmation aspect of the game, so I thought we might as well go for it. Visual confirmation is a way to earn points. There is a scoring system in the game, but I don't bother with it, because I'm happy to just survive and win. Winning by how much is not important. I do the same with Lord of the Rings.

The real mission was tough. We had 4 external and 1 internal threats. There were only two of us playing, so we had to manage two androids in addition to our own characters. The good thing with 2 players is there is less coordination required. The bad thing is each of us need to manage more things, and this being a real-time game makes it quite tense. As more and more threats started to appear, we split up. I managed one android and the two of us (android and I) handled two threats at the centre and red side of the spaceship, in addition to the android being put in charge of the mouse-wiggling to keep the spaceship computer screensaver off (which would otherwise delay everyone's actions). Han managed the other android, and the two of them went to the blue side of the ship to manage the 1 internal threat and 2 external threats over there. It was quite frantic. We did all we could within the 10 minutes of the soundtrack. We finished placing all our actions with about half a minute to spare. We knew we couldn't do much else with that little time remaining. To try to change anything by then would be too late. So we stopped the soundtrack and proceeded to the execution stage.

It was a good idea to have a dedicated person (well, android) minding the mouse. One less thing to worry about. The android could also shoot the main cannon when we needed it to. There was a cheat-like thing that we did, which I don't think is illegal or against the spirit of the game. Up front we assigned the android to wiggle the mouse in the 1st, 4th and 8th turns. You are supposed to plan actions for turns 1 to 3, 4 to 7 and 8 to 12 in three different stages. The rules explicitly forbid changing your planned actions of a previous stage, but they do not explicitly forbid planning for an upcoming stage. And I do not pick up the cards for that upcoming stage yet. Anyway, if this is disallowed, I would still set aside the Button C cards, to be played in the 2nd and 3rd stages. It's just easier to place them early and not worry about them anymore.

The external threats appeared one after another. We managed to defeat the first few without issue. Then suddenly I realised I had misremembered how the internal threat worked. We had the one where the missiles malfunctioned and would explode if not fixed in time. I had thought that as long as we made sure we fired all the missiles before they exploded, we would be fine. I suddenly realised that when they malfunctioned, we should not have been able to fire them in the first place. Oops. Surprisingly, my mistake in teaching the game probably saved us. I not only misremembered how malfunctions worked, I also forgot to tell Han that every button can only be pressed once per turn. He had himself and his sidekick android press the missile C button at the some time, thinking that they could fire two missiles at the same time. It doesn't work that way. Only one missile can be fired in one turn. However, if there is a malfunction, more than one person can work on fixing it at the some time. If more people work on it at the same time, you can fix the malfunction quicker. So the two C actions that Han had played were not wasted afterall. The missile malfunction was fixed in time. But of course no missiles were fired to target the external enemies.

Our spaceship took some damage. It was then that I realised that taking damage is a major source of uncertainty. No matter how well you have planned, if you take damage, you won't know beforehand what will be spoilt. Your weapons may become less effective, your energy stores too, and your lift may go out of order. You can't plan ahead for these, and these can cost you the game. So, in Space Alert, you really must try to avoid damage as much as possible, to minimise uncertainty.

One threat after another were defeated. We were still alive. It was down to the last one. It was approaching too fast. We couldn't destroy it before it reached the Z point. But! Thank goodness the damage it dealt was not enough to kill our spaceship. We survived! We won our first full mission of Space Alert! We were lucky for sure (the two mistakes ended up helping us), but I think we played pretty well too. I didn't go back to see whether we would have lost if we had played with the wrong rules. We might have survived anyway.

I am pretty happy with this session. Now I can confirm I do like Space Alert. One thing that definitely helped a lot was moving the pieces around when we did the planning. I didn't do this in my previous games. Doing this helped us visualise the situation on board the spaceship. It is especially important for making sure you have managed your energy cubes well. It can also help avoid two people trying to squeeze into the 1-person lift at the same time.

Another thing that I find to be important is you need to specialise. Just like the android being assigned to wiggle the mouse, someone needs to be in charge of remembering to manage the energy transfers, of specific threats, etc. It would be convenient that each character stays in one room, or only moves between two rooms, doing whatever shooting or energy replenishment or sheild charging as required. However the internal threats force you to move. When a character picks up the battlebots, the battlebots stick to him/her, and cannot be reassigned. So that character will have to move about to fight intruders, or to fly the interceptors. Quite tricky, and I like it.

Now I need to think of how to convince my wife to try this again...


wankongyew said...

Even after reading everything you've written about this game, I think I still need to see it in action to understand how it works. Real-time based? Droid assistants? Listening to instructions from a soundtrack? How could all that possibly gel together as a game?

I'm pretty terrible at real-time stuff as I hate stress and pressure, but from a game design perspective, I'm really curious how this setup works in practice.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

You can download the Space Alert mission briefing and rulebook to read to get a better idea how the game works. I didn't really explain in detail how the game works in my posts. The mission briefing (or whatever it's called) is quite entertaining to read. :-)