It is hard to go into a game of Space Alert without, on some level, comparing it to a computer game. Whether it’s the CD calling out incoming threats, the sense of playing against a system rather than people, or the expansion’s achievement system, it‘s immediately apparent that there are more than a couple digital genes in the game’s DNA. While this is unusual enough to invite both speculation and discussion, in the end it serves to highlight the game’s more physical aspects, rather than overshadow them. Though clearly inspired by digital games, Space Alert is still decidedly a board game, and while this creates some difficulties, it ultimately allows the game to bypass the constraints it could have otherwise faced.
Space Alert feels like a computer game. Players work together, in competition with the game, trying to overcome the challenges it presents them with, a digital voice calls out incoming threats from the included CD, and the expansion even adds achievements. Though it isn’t the only board game that feels this way, Space Alert seems to embrace these similarities, so much so that it works them into the narrative. Players take the role of eager young cadets learning the ropes at the academy. Before piloting an actual ship, they need to complete the training simulations. It is made perfectly clear from the very beginning that players are playing a board game that simulates a computer simulation.
The choice to simulate a digital experience as a board game has some drawbacks. Though it has a tolerable number of fiddly bits to manage, that management is very rarely fun. Compared to something like the imp placement in Dungeon Petz, which involves many more little pieces, but also a fair amount strategic thinking, keeping track of power cells and damage counters feels like busy work.Digital games have the benefit of a computer to handle all of the number crunching, bit moving, and other general bookkeeping for the player, letting them focus on the fun parts. Digital games also totally eliminate the setup/cleanup time, which is the most notable place where Space Alert stumbles. Rounds go so quickly that the setup and cleanup feel extremely lengthy in comparison. I played more than one session where more time was spent setting up or taking down the board than on actual play. This isn’t an issue if the session involves several rounds, especially since resetting the board is easy, but it hurts the ability to play a single quick game. Both of these issues could theoretically be solved by a digital version of the game. In fact, several digital games that are reminiscent of Space Alert seem to have done just that.
FTL and Star Command have a very similar feel, but focus on a single-player experience. Both require the player to combat alien threats, both external and internal, primarily by managing a crew from within the ship, and FTL even provides a similarly randomized experience with every game. Though they seem to be cut from the same cloth as Space Alert, the single player nature of these two games makes them fairly different. At its heart, Space Alert is a game for 4-5 players. Single player is an okay puzzle, but the fun really comes from the group dynamic. 2-3 player games, in my experience, suffer the most.There are too many people to be a contemplative puzzle, not enough to be really fun. Focusing on a single-player experience gives a perfect solution to the quick-round problem. Players not only don’t have to set up or take down the board, they don’t even need to find people to play with.
Spaceteam and Artemis return to a multiplayer approach, but they also add a focus on specialization. Each player selects a role that they are locked into for the rest of the game. The New Frontiers expansion adds this to Space Alert to some extent, but those roles are more fluid.They give players abilities without adding restrictions. A Pulse Gunner might be more effective with the cannons, but a Data Analyst can still fire them. This is extremely important, since there are twice as many possible positions as the max number of players. Not only does this indicate that the roles are intended to be nice but not necessary, it means that, even the last player to pick has a choice of at least six possible positions. Despite their differences, Artemis and Space Team both serve as a proof of concept for minimizing Space Alert‘s setup and bookkeeping through a digital platform.
Even though a digital version would remove some of the game’s more awkward stumbling blocks, I don’t think I would actually want a digital Space Alert. In fact, as frustrating as the bookkeeping and setup can be, they make my favorite part of the game possible. By giving all of the upkeep and rule enforcement to players rather than a computer, Space Alert allows players to customize any and every aspect and tailor it precisely to their needs or liking. Beginners can remove difficult threats, or peek at the deck ahead of time, so that they know exactly what they will be facing, while more experienced players can play with only advanced threats or a stacked deck. I played several games with new players, some of whom had a hard time getting a hang of the rules. In these situations, I loved the fact that I could pause the CD to help with strategy or clarifications. Some of the fun of Space Alert comes from its difficulty, but as fun as it can be to lose a game because it is challenging, losing because you don’t understand the rules, especially when you feel like you’re dragging a team down, is extremely discouraging. It might not be the most authentic Space Alert experience, but it was clear that this tweak made the difference between multiple people giving up in frustration and sticking around long enough for the game to click. It also let me ease people into more advanced rules, like damage to the ship. By ensuring that we always started with structural damage, rather than losing shields or lasers, I was able to make the higher difficulties more accessible to new players. As we played, we came up with more eccentric variants, like inverting the usual talking rules (only speaking during communications breakdowns) or playing with only internal threats. The fact that there is no set of unalterable rules to the game allows players to play any way they want. Plenty of digital games offer gameplay options or modding tools, but there is always a limit to what can be done. With a board game, all players have to do is agree to change the rules and play.
Space Alert is particularly well suited to this kind of modding. The basic rules for moving around the ship and encountering enemies are extremely flexible.The various levels of simulation, from Test Run to Advanced, are all essentially paired down versions of the actual Missions. The structure of the game works regardless of how many or how few of the advanced components are in place. It feels like a set of systems layered on top of each other, rather than one giant web.This lets players peel layers off or add new ones on extremely easily. Want to ensure that you only encounter weak enemies so new players don’t get discouraged? Stack the deck. Think data transfers make the game too easy? Ignore them. The system is modular enough that players can tweak some part of it and leave the rest in tact.
Much like its take on specialized roles, Space Alert gives players abilities, not restrictions. Though it comes at the price of additional busywork and setup/cleanup time, the game creates an environment that can be tailored to the exact preferences of the players.It provides a series of systems which can be tweaked, altered and modded to create new variants on the core game. Though it would be easy to imagine a streamlined digital remake, that would also rob the game of some of its most fun and exciting aspects.
Originally written in Winter 2013 for Vlaada Chvatil and the Modern Strategic Board Game, taught by Jesse Fuchs.