Space Alert Review

Dan

Reviewed by Dan on Sep 24, 2015

To this day, Space Alert remains the only game that I've ever created an accessory for. I'm not talking about Plano boxes for keeping pieces sorted or extra packs of dice so that you don't have to keep passing around the same set. Instead, I'm talking about a custom T-shirt, designed to look like a captain's uniform complete with Space Alert logo and everything.

See, my parents' family was never much into games—

ALERT. ENEMY ACTIVITY DETECTED. PLEASE BEGIN FIRST PHASE.

Ahem. Sorry about that. As I was saying, my family will play games when they don't have anything better to do, but their list of "anything better" is significantly longer than mine. So when Dad and two of my sisters fell in love with Space Alert, it became our default get-together event. After dinner we'd unfold the card table, begin setting up our Sitting Duck-class starship, and Dad would launch into his pre-launch speech.

"Em," he'd say, glaring at her with a seriousness that meant this was no mere game, "this time we need you to be on the spot with the reactor. If you can't get downstairs on round one, let us know. And somebody"—glaring at my wife this time—"needs to make sure she doesn't clog up the elevator."

We all had our roles. Em was in charge of engineering, spending most of each game below decks, dashing back and forth between the main reactor and the lateral stations, keeping our power topped off. Amy was responsible for shields, especially whenever we took a hit and needed a recharge. Somerset was primed for any enemies who might beam aboard the ship, her first task always the awakening of the battle-bots. Dad was in charge of weapons and giving orders.

Me? I was in charge of communications and putting out fires. That meant I had to split my attention between listening to the CD as it barked orders at us and making sure everyone else was doing their jobs. If a malevolent space crustacean appeared off the starboard bow and needed shooting, but Dad was busy battling a stealth fighter over on the port side of the ship, it was my job to magically be in the right place at the right time.

Once everyone had been dressed down, Dad's speech was done. No matter how great our performance had been on the previous expedition, there was always something we could improve. That's what made him such a great captain.

We held our breath and started the track. The CD took a moment to spin up. Then, all too soon, before we felt ready, it was yelling at us again.

TIME T+2. SERIOUS THREAT. ZONE WHITE. REPEAT. TIME T+2. SERIOUS THREAT. ZONE WHITE.

Vlaada Chvátil's Space Alert is one of the best games ever made, but it isn't going to be for everybody. Once the soundtrack starts shouting at you, announcing threat after threat, your missile warheads installed backwards, the Xenomorph XX121 from Alien running rampant belowdecks, and three distinct warships hurling electric death against your hull, it's natural to make mistakes. To play a card upside down and not realize your error until the resolution phase ten minutes later. To enter the elevator when somebody else is already using it, pushing back your moves by a single fateful round. To fail to jiggle the Sitting Duck's computer mouse, allowing the screensaver to pop up and lock everyone out the system. I've seen people buckle under the stress. One time, an old friend's wife broke down in tears because she couldn't handle it.

UNCONFIRMED REPORT. TIME T+5. INTERNAL THREAT. REPEAT. UNCONFIRMED REPORT. TIME T+5. INTERNAL THREAT.

I can't say I blame her. Most games are about winning, or at least giving you positive feedback in some way. About making somebody the star of the table.

Space Alert is about failure. To put it in Cold War terms, the West produced Star Trek, with its peak efficiency, nauseating goodwill, and endless optimism. The East gave us Space Alert, with its starship designed to warp into an alien sector and maybe — only maybe — survive for ten minutes before it automatically warps out again. In space, all your friends can hear you scream. And it isn't very flattering.

INCOMING DATA. REPEAT. INCOMING DATA.

However, that's the joy of Space Alert. Those ten real-time minutes are a hell of adrenaline, blinding panic, and poorly informed decisions. I've never played a game that made me need to use the bathroom so urgently.

Then the CD announces the end of the mission, you reset the board, and one by one everyone flips over their cards, revealing what they did each turn. It's an exercise in what a cruel mistress hindsight makes. During those bowel-upsetting ten minutes, you were boldly leading your battle-bots to victory, sanitizing an alien virus from the missile deck before taking command of your ship's drones and shooting down the galaxy's most improbable comet. During the resolution phase, it's suddenly clear that somebody else had picked up the robots first. You, on the other hand, spent the entire mission hallucinating about being a big damn hero. Space-bends, they call it. Crazy eye. Nitrogen psychosis.

Times like those can seem deflating, and that's precisely why Space Alert won't appeal to everyone. But they're also some of the most naturally funny moments I've ever seen writ in cardboard. You'll laugh when you fail and punch the air when you succeed. Play with the tougher cards and you'll lose nearly every mission. The victories will be sweeter and the defeats ever more ludicrous. And it will be worth every single second.

OPERATION ENDS IN FIVE. FOUR. THREE. TWO. ONE. MISSION COMPLETE. JUMPING TO HYPERSPACE.


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