To my friends, this wasn’t simply the winter where it got so cold that they had to pour boiling water on their door handles to leave for work in the morning, so cold frozen pigeons were falling from the fat puddle of the London sky like gory bombs. No, to them this winter was when Quinns got into boardgames. They’d get home after a long day and there I’d be, crouched in a bush in their front garden, heavy clouds of breath curling around a copy of Condottiere I held between my teeth.
The 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 entirely brilliant and like nothing I’ve ever played.
In Space Alert you and your friends make up the intrepid (doomed) crew of a Sitting Duck class exploration vessel. The way these ships work is that they’ll jump into a comedically hostile sector of space, spend 10 minutes scanning their surroundings, and then automatically jump you back out again. A game of Space Alert only ever lasts 10 real-life minutes, and during that time 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, and then prevent these threats from destroying you in an orderly and professional manner. Surviving isn’t necessarily that 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 fucking alien bomber zips closer and closer and GOD DAMNIT 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.
Space Alert’s genius is in combining its madness-inducing 10 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). This is because while Space Alert is played entirely within those 10 minutes, all you’re actually doing is placing action cards in your character’s 12 available action slots- those actions don’t actually take place until after the 10 minutes are over and the ship has, theoretically, jumped to safety. 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 1 that’ll move your character left, and a second card in slot 2 that’ll raise shields.
It’s only after the 10 minutes of the mission are over that you methodically go through everybody’s action cards, 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 you’re free to move all the figures and tokens around the board as you like during the 10 minutes of the mission, if you make a mistake (say, forgetting to slide the energy tokens along when you transfer power) 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.
[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 ship’s computer beeps, informing them of a Serious Threat approaching the Red Zone (meaning the left side of the ship). As communications officer, Matt flips over the Serious Threat card on the top of the deck, revealing a Space Crab. As he reads the statistics off the cards, Captain Sanda begins to turn 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 crab? We need to co-ordinate our damage.
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 shits herself, Matt screams and Jenny passes out at the table.]
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 acts a kind of an extended tutorial. It encourages the player who knows the game 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.
But 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 because my friends are all stinking cowards. It’s worth pointing out 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 cool things down a bit.
Anyway, I was captain and we were doing alright. We were OK. Ships had appeared off our bow and (by our calculations) had all been blasted apart or performed harmless strafing runs on our shields. A nuclear fucking 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 we seemed to be doing alright.
Then the computer announced a serious threat. We flipped the card, revealing some hideous enemy ship 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. We would be destroyed.
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 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. This is a shade of what countless leaders felt throughout history when they realised they were fucked. This need to find a way when there is no way, when all you want to do is throw in the towel but there is no towel to throw in. I felt so overwhelmingly privileged that a boardgame was letting me experience this that I did my best and almost got us past that bastard of a ship in one piece.
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, you can pick up Space Alert from any of these fine retailers. The expansion, New Frontier, is well worth picking up too, although it focuses on making the game even harder. Come to think of it, maybe leave it well alone.
(Images pinched from BoardGameGeek.com)