Space Alert is a collaborative board game, where the players crew a spaceship, defending it against incoming aliens, asteroids and so on, in real time.
Each player is a crew member and together you're responsible for the fate of a Sitting Duck-class explorer ship. The ship comes under attack for ten (real-time) minutes, during which a CD announces various threats attacking the ship.
The players each have limited resources and you have to work together, planning how each player should act so that together you protect the ship. For example, one player might take responsibility for stoking the engines, while another player is firing the main laser cannon.
Key to the game is that you're under time pressure. There isn't enough time to comfortably plan the optimal strategy. Gameplay is characterised by slightly panicked chaos, as everyone tries to talk at once and figure out what everyone should do.
Space Alert isn't too stuff-heavy. It comes with a board, showing your spaceship, some very ordinary plastic figures to represent the players, a number of tokens, and so on.
Much more unusually, it also comes with two audio CDs. Each mission requires a CD accompaniment. One CD contains training missions, and the the other contains "full" missions. The CDs have a number of tracks, so the missions can be chosen randomly and not become predictable.
The manual is worth a special mention. It comes divided into two booklets - a reference booklet, and a training booklet.
The training booklet goes well beyond the kind of instruction you'd normally get. It leads you by the hand through a series of training missions. The training missions start by introducing a simplified version of the game, which you are encouraged to play through. It then discusses what you should have learned from the training mission, and introduces some more rules for the next mission, and so on, until after three or four missions you are ready for the full game.
The training booklet is steeped in silly and slightly morbid humour, mostly on the topic of your near-inevitable deaths. There are other comical details, too: the enemies include a space squid and an interstellar octopus. Your ship, as mentioned earlier, is of the "sitting duck" class, and the internal security battle-robots have a distinctly beaky look about their helmets. The ship computer requires someone to nudge the mouse every so often, or the screensaver will engage, all the ship lights will go out, and you'll all lose a turn. You can, the manual suggests, call this "computer maintenance", if you prefer. The unwritten suggestion is that anyone who'd prefer that is slightly boring.
The reference booklet is a straightforward rules reference, so that you can look up the rule that you want without having to wade through the jokes and introductory text in the training booklet. The separation of the manual into these two separate booklets is highly practical and commendable.
Gameplay is divided into two phases. The main phase is the "planning" phase. Each player has a number of cards indicating various actions they might choose to take. The CD announces different threats approaching the spaceship. While the CD is playing, the players have to decide how to use their actions to defeat the threat. The CD announcements are made in a gloriously hokey robotic voice.
For example, one player may have the necessary cards to, firstly, move to the engine room, and, secondly, recharge the engines. Meanwhile, another player is moving to the main gun, planning to fire it once the first player has charged the power source.
Each player has twelve actions they can perform, and before the CD time runs out, each player must commit to the twelve action cards that represent their actions during the mission. This typically involves everyone talking at once and arguing with each other. Periodically the mission computer will interrupt with new threats, or other mechanisms to further complicate the planning. For example:
Computer: THREAT DETECTED, T+3, ZONE WHITE.
Alice: Okay there's a threat coming on the third turn, can someone shoot it?
Bob: I can shoot it! Wait, I can't shoot it, I can't get to the gun by the third turn.
Charlie: I'll shoot it, I'm already at the gun, but I'm firing the gun on turn two, can someone charge the gun before then?
Bob: I can't charge the gun, I haven't got the right cards.
Computer: DATA TRANSFER IN 5, 4...
Bob: Data transfer! Quick someone give me a charging card!
Computer: 3... 2...
Charlie: I've got one! No wait I need it! No wait I don't, here it is!
Computer: 1... DATA TRANSFER COMPLETE.
Bob: Okay good, I'm charging the gun. Who's dealing with the boarding party?
When the CD stops, this concludes the planning phase. Everyone's actions are now fixed. However, the planning phase doesn't actually accomplish anything! No asteroids are destroyed, no shields are charged, no evil space squids are vanquished. In order to see what actually went down, we proceed to the resolution phase.
During the resolution phase, the players don't get to make any more decisions, since all the decisions were made in the planning phase. However, this is when all the decisions are actually played out. The players reveal their action cards in turn, and move figures and counters around the board.
Ideally, this is the point where everyone's brilliant plans come together. One player charges the guns just in time for another player to fire them. The shields are recharged just before the asteroid strikes. The internal security robots are despatched to the hull breach and the enemy boarding party is destroyed. Everyone rejoices.
However, it tends not to work out quite like that. Typically, in the chaos of trying to plan the mission, somebody makes a mistake. On a crucial turn, where Bob had intended to charge the main shields, he has instead... gone downstairs to stare out of the window. Alice and Charlie both agree that one of them will charge the main gun, and the other will fire it, but in the confusion, nobody charges it, and both try to fire it. Rather than the intended lethal barrage of laser-fire, the enemy capital ship is met with a faint "click-click" sound, and our heroes are destroyed.
Space Alert is tremendous fun. The excellent training missions make it easy to learn. The time pressure makes the gameplay taut and interesting, and makes it impossible to get caught in analysis paralysis. Each round takes only twenty or so minutes, so however horrifically your ship is destroyed, it's easy to have another go straight away.
You might expect that the CD soundtrack would limit the game's long-term appeal by making the game predictable. However, there are a number of other mechanisms that randomise the gameplay. For example, the CD will announce only that a "threat" has appeared, and players draw from the shuffled "threat deck" to see which threat is attacking. The CD only really controls the timing of the approaching threats.
If that's not enough: keen computer-savvy Space Alert players have built a free Flash application which generates random missions.
There is a little bit of a learning curve to this game, and you have to learn to play as a team, and so it's most fun if you can play it with the same people several times. The rounds are so short that it's quite practical to play it several times in a row. However, it's a bit intense, so some players may find they don't want to play it too much in one session.
Overall: an unusual and polished collaborative game. Highly recommended.
The Flash Space Alert player is here, but be assured that it will be utterly baffling and useless if you don't have the board game.