Shut Up & Sit Down

So, yeah. I left the boys at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, bless ’em, and am now a free boy once again.

Free as a bird. Or, perhaps, free as a board.

Shut Up & Sit Down is one of the new projects I’m working on. Inspired by both RPS and the DIY video work of comedian Robert Florence, whose shows Consolevania and Downtime Town probably represent my favourite games journalism since Tim Rogers dropped off the circuit.

It’s a blog and a TV show about board games. Over the last eight months my love of board games has developed into a love almost as thick and cloying as my love for video games, meaning I have to write about them. I just have to do it. Also, I have to be sent them for free. It is Necessary.

The video work involved in SU&SD is turning out to be quite a thing. Making lengthy video shows demands a ridiculous amount of skills from a person ranging from “Being able to talk” to learning about audio composition and file compression. I’m having amazing fun developing those skills and basically gaining experience points.

Anyway, I hope you’ll be reading! I expect I’ll still be doing the odd post here from time to time, but who knows? Who knows.

Van: Among Black Machines

[The travel writing continues! I know I ended the Dubai piece saying I found some better places eventually, but I think I’ll be getting to them much further down the line. For now we’ve got the city of Van, in Turkey.]

“No bus”, said the bus driver, leaning against his bus.

“…what?” was all I could come up with. I could see the bus right there, looking like something that had been dug up rather than built. I gestured meaningfully at the driver with my ticket while he took a short drag on his cigarette.

“No bus. No bus two days. Thursday, there might be bus… maybe” he said.

I looked at him while readjusting my backpack. These things have a tendency to get heavy all of a sudden. Had the driver forgotten how this worked? Planes and ships get delayed. Buses don’t. Some force was penning them in. Wondering if I was missing something, I looked around.

The city of Van didn’t have a bus terminal. Instead, the buses, minibuses and coaches of the town all lined up on one side of one of the main street, choking and spitting amongst themselves. What else was there to see? This was a still town, with flat buildings that made canyons of the streets. The only other structures I’d seen on the way here had been shattered stone castles and crumbling monasteries that lay like shipwrecks throughout the rolling, dark grasslands of Eastern Turkey. Ancient constructs built to last, long since twisted apart by wind and war.

The bus driver finished his cigarette and clambered back into the vehicle, and I wandered down the street to more idle drivers. Between them they had enough English to tell me how all public transport in this part of the country had been grounded for the country’s election, which was happening that night. Whatever was going to happen next, the government wanted it contained.

But I’d find a way out, and onwards, I told myself. There’s always a way.

I had the true extent of my shit situation outlined for me in the overwhelming beige and battered surroundings of a nearby travel agent. The man who worked there didn’t look like he knew anything about moving, let alone travelling, and was dressed like he hadn’t even seen someone wearing a suit properly in a movie.

“These are serious times,” he said. I heard from him that the radical Kurdistan Workers Party, aka the PKK, had that week issued death threats to some of the political candidates in Van. The PKK opposed EU membership and Turkey’s reform, and weren’t to be fucked with. They had training camps in countries across the region, followed a Maoist ideal that cities should be seized by force, had a long history of taking hostages and back in the 90s had even managed to get cyanide into the water tanks used by the Turkish air force. Would I like a hotel? He knew many fine hotels.

Leaving the travel agent I heard a distant rumbling, which turned out to be coming from a very different kind of bus.

Down the street from me was a monster that spanned the entire street. It was a riot bus, a black hole of a vehicle that could barely manoeuvre through Van’s boxy streets. About half of the synapses I’d built in my brain from years of playing videogames fired at once. The thing had tight metal grating over its tiny windows, a carapace of armour plating, a massive black snowplough, remote-controlled machine guns and a crown of three-pronged tubes that could be used to throw grenades. Destroy it! went my brain. Hide! Stand your ground! Run away! Look for a weak spot!

In response, the loudspeakers on the machine barked out a warning, the syllables hitting the street like hailstones. Astonishingly, no-one else was paying any attention to it. The few pedestrians I could see were all crammed against the glass walls of Börek shops and cafés, craning to try and see the coverage of the election on TV.

I went over and joined them, but it was pointless. The newscast was all in Turkish, punctuated with numbers and initialisms that meant nothing to me. This wasn’t my world. I heard the riot bus rumble past behind me and I felt its dark gravity.

As much as we might associate danger with the doomsday scarlet of blood and sirens, danger is not red, and it’s not loud. Danger is quiet, and it’s the same colour as ignorance and boredom; it is no colour at all. Danger is a void, or at most a hormonal uneasiness.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with those hairy men, trying to glean anything at all from the television, I felt that the sirens in the distance were a little too close together and that the distant shouts you can always hear in a city were carrying a different urgency. Then I noticed that the dusky guys around me seemed completely unaware of my presence, the attention a tourist usually draws now absent. I felt unimportant and unprotected, and began pacing back to my hotel.

Five minutes later I was walking down a smaller road, picking my way over roadblocks constructed from barrels and signs that hadn’t been there two hours ago. Were the sirens and shouts around me getting louder, or was I blindingly walking towards them? Towards the epicentre of.. whatever it was. My foggy comprehension of this scene had me picturing packs of furious men whose political ideals began and ended at blood, and lots of it. I pictured the government forces priming their menacing engines of pacification, eager to send any number of teeth rolling down the roads like dice.

Two men, bold in bomber jackets, emerged from around the corner. For all of my evil daydreams I only spared them a glance, so it was only when I got closer that I saw their lazy poses included the couching of black guns against their shoulders. They asked if I spoke English. I said yes. They were barely twenty feet away, which I calculated was a good murderin’ distance.

“You don’t go this way” said the shorter of the two, the taller one casually glancing back the way they came. “It’s dangerous.”

“Why? I need to go back to my hotel.”

“Go another way,” he said, pointing back the way I came with the barrel of his gun. I turned away from them and walked back the way I’d came. Where had they come from? Where do any of the men who grow up to wear bomber jackets and carry guns come from? I imagined thousands of them, squatting professionally under the manholes of Van.

So I went looking for another way. The streets I’d come down were even more empty now, lending themselves to Hollywood disaster movie level despondency. Loose newspaper pages blew back and forth between those tightly packed concrete buildings, the only colour coming from faded posters and peeling billboards, the only noise the distant orchestra of urban unrest.

By this point all curiosity in me was gone. If I was going to get the shit kicked into or out of me by a mob advocating national isolationism, or taken hostage by a terrorist organization in the excitement their finest hour, it was always going to be in a crap town on an uninteresting night like this.

I was half expecting to find said mob directly outside my hotel’s front door when I turned the corner, but there was nothing there. In the distance the roar of a crowd persisted, tinted with victory and zeal, and the sirens were multiplying. I scuttled through the door into my hotel, up the stairs to my room, and dumped my pack and myself on the bed with equal carelessness.

The springs squeaked their own protest as I rolled onto my back. Then I looked up at the ceiling, and I waited.

Dubai: Tower of Arabia

[I’m going through some of the travel journalism I wrote back in 2008. This week, I’m going to be touching these pieces up and posting them here.

Let’s start with Dubai. I used to work in Dubai. Let me tell you about it.]

And then it was Monday, and it was half nine in the morning and I was running late for work. Which isn’t to say I was actually running. That would have been crazy. The hot summers that Dubai seems to spend all year incubating will squeeze the moisture from you like mannish hands twisting a grubby dishcloth. Lest ye forget, this land is a desert, and it has killed more people than you will ever meet.

I was walking, slow and steady, trying to delay the onset of sweat through will alone while I searched my neighborhood for a taxi. This was making me stressed, which was making me sweat.

I bumped into James in the sandy alleyway between two tall, bleached hotels. One was lemony yellow, the other was sickly pink. Someone had laid down planks of wood here to make traversing the sand easier, and our shiny black work shoes made nice clomping noises as we made our way towards each other. James usually got up early to catch our company bus, so it was strange seeing him here.

“Missed the bus”, said James.

“Right” I said. “Want to get a taxi?”

“No, I’m going back to my room to get my camera. There’s a huge fucking fire over towards the city.”

“…Right” I said again, my brain dancing around a few Middle Eastern worst case scenarios. “A fire, huh? I’m gonna go take a look.”

Sure enough, the moment I emerged from the alleyway I spotted the huge spear of black smoke. I brought a flattened hand to my forehead and squinted through the sun. At this distance the smoke was moving slowly enough to seem like a giant beanstalk, curling once or twice and dwarfing the skyscrapers at its base.

I was still trying to figure out how far my office was from the site of the fire when a taxi pulled up next to me. As Dubai mornings go, that’s the jackpot. The driver rolled the window down and asked where I was going, a question I cooly ignored until I’d scrambled into the passenger seat. Traffic in Dubai is often so bad that cabs will drive off instead of taking you to an unprofitable location, and there are two ways around this. You can tell the driver you want to go somewhere way out in the desert, then abruptly change your mind a minute into the journey, or you can climb inside the cab before you announce your destination and then flail your arms over their legal obligation to satisfy a customer once you’re physically inside the cab.

This is just one problem the Dubai cab-surfer has to deal with. Other problems include the lack these cabs, the lack of spoken English among the drivers and the lack of local knowledge among the drivers (“You want to go where? The bank?”). If you’re being whiny, there’s also the problem that most cab drivers will have gone from passing their driving test at age thirty to being inserted straight into their cab like a battery into an RC car, so you’re probably in for a bumpy ride.

And so it is that riding these cabs often transcends into an art form.

“Chilli’s restaurant in Garhoud,” I told the driver as I dropped into his sexy-filthy air-conditioned vehicle. Employees of my company learned to navigate to work through use of the Chilli’s quickly, since taxi drivers might not know road names, office buildings or even districts but they could read a huge neon sign as well as anybody. “Take Garhoud bridge.”

I liked Garhoud bridge not only because I reckoned it was a faster route but because it was a toll bridge, and toll gates are the funnest part of the Dubai taxi dance. There’s a button on the cab fare ticker that puts 3 extra dirhams on the fare to account for tolls, and if you’re not careful your driver might employ some legerdemain to hit that button twice. But if you feign distraction and then catch them doing this, you can threaten to call the company number on their dashboard and get a discounted fare or maybe even ride for free.

But there was no trickery that day, and soon I was pacing up the hot stone steps to my company, to my desk and my job.

I was working as a scavenger. That’s what I called it. The website I worked for was a regional technology and business news portal, but regional PR left a lot to be desired and our company’s budget left us with a staggeringly tiny staff. So my job was to scour the internet for relevant stories and rewrite them so we could give as little credit to the original source as possible. Most of the time I’d steal a picture too, and finally all of the magazines that our company also produced would visit our site and steal the content I’d already stolen, occasionally letting us steal an article in return.

I was positive this larceny would get to a point where all of the region’s news sources would be slyly bootlegging news off one another to create a perfect closed cycle of aging information, but despite me accidentally coming close to stealing my own stolen articles on several occasions (news which had been stolen from our site by other sites, after I’d stolen it) this never actually came to pass. Not while I was there, at least.

On that morning my job did at least give me a nice excuse to find out more about the apocalyptic fire that was still raging a few miles away. The story developed over the course of the morning across a few Dubai news sites, and eventually the truth came out. The fire had been caused by an accidental explosion in an illegal fireworks factory. I wrote an email to James asking him to send me a photo of the smoke stack, edited together what everyone else had written and got it all uploaded in record time. This was more than cause for a victory cappuccino, which is like a regular cappuccino plus enough sugar to stop everything from mattering.

The rest of the day passed slowly. My boss disappeared to a Samsung press conference in the afternoon, came back with a shiny new mobile phone and threw up a story on the exciting new range of Samsung TVs that would be hitting the region later that summer. Soon it was time for the taxi dance again, and then I was back in my hotel room with the kitchenette and the generic art and the trippy TV that only ever showed anything in lime green and purple. I cooked a boil-in-the-bag curry, and I ate it. And that was Monday.

You can wash, rinse and repeat that stuff for Tuesday through Friday. Weekends I spent hanging out at the Mall of the Emirates, where I’d enjoy movies, books and fast food franchises that had been dreamed up elsewhere. It was either that or getting some friends together to partake of a world famous (not world famous) Dubai brunch, which is offered by every one of the hundreds of swank hotels in the city. It’s like a regular brunch, except it costs around $50, lasts until four in the afternoon and features all-you-can-drink champagne. These are your choices. Shopping mall, or oblivion in a meal.

Before I’d come out here, back when I was wondering whether or not to apply for the job, a friend of mine had told me it was “like the Wild West out there” in Dubai. This had pushed all kinds of buttons for me. I imagined Dubai as a frontier town, dusty and dangerous, where good men with brass balls could carve a life for themselves by bringing civilisation to the wilderness. Even if a young hack like me couldn’t get involved in a strange scene like that, I could at least observe it.

It wasn’t until after I’d gotten out there that I understood what my friend had meant. He hadn’t meant the buzz-word, all-American, Hollywood Wild West. He’d meant the actual real-life Wild West that existed in America 200 years ago. Dubai is predominantly sweaty men, most of whom live in terrible conditions, trying to build a city without ever having done it before. While in America this resulted in two dozen different flavours of the same city, Dubai doesn’t even have a template to work from. It has no idea what it’s trying to build, and it shows.

But I was surrounded by people who loved the city. Or rather, people who loved the abundant pools and private beaches, the sun, the cheap labour and their own tax-free status. But while I was making more money than I knew what to do with, and had even made a few friends, I was also a part of the city. This was starting to feel overwhelmingly pointless.

More than anything, Dubai wants respect. But it doesn’t know how to get this beyond spending money to make bits and pieces of the city that much bigger and more ostentatious. Think about what Dubai’s famous for. The billion dollar bridges, the trillion dollar hotels and the unfathomably costly Burj Dubai, which is one of several buildings under construction around the world that has a shot at one day being the world’s tallest building. Nobody actually knows which will be tallest because – and I love this – while precisely how many floors each of these buildings will have is well know, the pointless spikes that sit atop them are constructed in secret, in an aircraft hanger in Germany or someplace, to later be transported to the building.

Back to the point- these projects Dubai is famous for are vulgarities, prestige projects for rich architects that more often than not have been turned down by other, more prestigious cities for being too expensive or too dangerous prior to being accepted by the government of Dubai.

The Burj Dubai has been behind schedule for a while now. Its problems include (but are by no means limited to) the company that was contracted to provide the windows going bust, the construction workers rioting and destroying all of the Mercedes and Porsches in the Managers’ car park with sledgehammers and the entire half-finished structure physically sinking into the ground because the thing is literally built on sand.

I spent Saturday at my favourite mall. Dubai has lots of malls. More per capita than anywhere else on the planet, in fact. Then I spent Sunday sunbathing, although the warnings of modern medicine had driven me to a protective sunblock so strong that my efforts to get a tan on the roof of my hotel were equivalent to holding a piece of bread up towards the sun and hoping it toasts.

And then it was Monday again. Statistically the city would have received 5,740 new immigrants since that Monday before, the Monday with the fire. I hadn’t met any of them.

That next Monday when I got home after work I figured I’d go swimming. This was a sneaky process that involved paying a visit to the classy Dhow Palace Hotel next door to my own hotel, then riding the elevator to the top floor, changing in a toilet and finally making my way to the beautiful rooftop pool. That day as a warmup I decided to take the stairs up to the Dhow Palace roof instead of the elevator, and was only just starting my climb when a frosted glass window caught my eye.

Now, this stairwell was located in the dead centre of the building, and the Dhow Palace didn’t have anything resembling a courtyard. There was no reason for a window to be here. Stranger still, it was pitch black behind the glass despite the sun not having set.

I checked to see I was alone. I was. I tested the window’s handle. It was unlocked.

The second I tugged the window open the air in the stairwell turned violent. A blast of desert dust exploded in from the window with such force that, for some eight seconds, I was blind. Eventually the dust eased and a low howl began. I had opened a window to hell, I was sure of it.

Creeping forward, I peered through the window to find a dark, narrow, vertical shaft, some four feet by three feet, containing nothing but a ladder and some pipes. My portal to hell theory was still holding steady. It was only by sticking my head through the window and peering in both directions that I saw the ladder did, in fact, have a beginning and end. The shaft ran from a tiny patch of sand at ground level, all the way up fourteen stories to the roof of the Dhow palace. You could just see a tiny, fingernail-sized rectangle of orange sky through the gloom.

About two months before this I’d heard a rumour that to keep up Dubai’s phenomenal rate of construction, buildings were often built around the cranes erected in the centre of the building site. When the job was done these cranes would supposedly either be dismantled or pulled out of place by an even bigger crane, and the purposeless hole would be left behind. It was just easier that way. This was what I’d found. This dirty little architectural secret, this grotty dead space, was evidence of that procedure.

It was, all told, an extremely bad moment for that uniquely male impulse of needing to climb what’s in front of you to strike. But that’s what happened. After a couple of seconds spent tugging at the ladder to test its sturdiness I hoisted myself up and through the hole and onto the ladder, shut the window behind me and began to climb.

I emerged at the top a few minutes and fourteen stories later, hot, dusty, achy and scared. The section of the roof I was on was separated from the pool by a hive of nonsensical machinery, a mess of gratings and fans and satellite dishes all painted the same flaky beige and connected by humming conduits. I wiped some sweat from my eyes and saw, to my surprise, that from up here and with the sun behind me I had a perfect view of the city. Most of Dubai’s skyscrapers are lined up on either side of Sheik Zayed road, the city’s main highway, formerly known as Defence Road back when the Emirates had a less friends. This arrangement means that if you catch Dubai from exactly the wrong side (looking down the Sheik Zayed road) the city’s fabled skyline is made up of only two buildings. But from the West side of the Dhow Palace Hotel’s roof, it was the other way around. A perfect row of glittering superstructures, lit up by LEDs and spotlights and money.

Yet what I was seeing was also hopeless. I had the best possible view of the city’s proudest achievement. There was nothing else.

The way the city insisted on growing made it seem positively cancerous to me then. The urban sprawl in front of me was continuing to bulk up as if the problems the city faced, the upward spiral of living costs, the non-existent public transport, the horrific violation of the immigrant working class, the various damaging aspects of a theocratic plutocracy, as if all of it would be somehow solved with the arrival of another half a million young men. Dubai was growing like it was going out of style. Joke is, growing actually was going out of style and Dubai didn’t know it.

And I was contributing to it all, to this parody of a city. This wasn’t what anybody was meant for. This was no destiny. It was a wrong turn that had to be corrected as soon as possible.

I handed in my notice at my job that week, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t anything, really, except an embarrassing confirmation that I’d failed to work for my minimum employment period and would therefore get charged by the company for the flight tickets they’d paid for, the visa fees, hotel subsidies, medical test fees (Dubai sends any HIV-positive immigrants home) and mobile phone rental. I spent the last ten minutes of my last day at the office working out how much I’d actually been paid for my final month after these damages. It came to 28 American cents an hour, or $13 a week, which I figured was more than generous considering the service I was actually providing the world. $13 a week is also a figure in the same ballpark as what the South Asian immigrants who make up most of Dubai get paid to this day.

Awesomely, the guys and girls at Human Resources shut down my company network account the very second the clock hit 6pm on that final day, causing Windows to cut away from the goodbye email I was writing to demand a login request. Five minutes later when I was writing the same email again on a friend’s computer, a member of security arrived to escort me out of the building. Dubai officially didn’t want me anymore.

Four hours later I was perched in the departure lounge of Dubai International Airport and looking up at the massive golden palm tree that dominates the hall. I’d seen it before but it was only then that I spotted with a deep kind of terror that this palm tree was, in fact, built out of hundreds of bars of gold bullion, which due to the structure of the thing couldn’t have been anything other than painted plastic. It was like a clumsy metaphor for the entire city and made me desperately happy I was leaving. As a departure lounge objet d’art it had succeeded in that, at least.

I had no idea where I was going, but ‘away’ was good enough for me then. In Dubai I’d found a place which was doing everything wrong, which meant there was a chance a place might exist that did everything right, which in turn meant that by traveling I wasn’t just circling a drain. There was hope for our species after all.

Have You Heard of Space Alert

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.

Let me give you an example of play, something I learned the importance of within boardgame journalism from the mighty Robert Florence (whose old boardgame site, Downtime Town, is here).

***

[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)