Galaxy Trucker and chaos in games

(image by @ henk.rolleman BGG)
Time to tackle another game element: chaos. Your initial reaction may be to equate chaos to luck but I feel they two are very different things. Luck is when the outcome of an event – a die roll or card draw, for example – has a percent chance to result in a given outcome. When you roll a standard six-sided die you have a 1 in 6 chance of any number rolling up. You may not have control of the outcome but there are set odds going in and a random result coming out.

Chaos, on the other hand, is the lack of control in a game. A chaotic game often has little to no room for strategy, forcing more tactical play as you deal with your turns as they come up rather than planning ahead. Chaos may come from luck but there is often more than just luck at play.

I often refer to chaos when describing how a game feels with varying number of players. Alhambra is a great example. With two to four players you can attempt to make plans based on the tiles up for sale, what you believe the other players will purchase and what may be left on your next turn. With five or six there are just too many players going between your turns, making nearly impossible to plan ahead. You lose control over your fate, forced to play turn by turn rather than planning ahead. One of Alhambra’s core concepts is competing with other players for majority control of different tiles; too much chaos eliminates that strategic element and fewer turns per player gives more impact to lucky turns.

Don’t think that chaos is always bad, though. Galaxy Trucker uses chaos at its core to create a tense and exciting game.

(image by @ henk.rolleman BGG)

Not unlike Space Alert (another Vlaada Chatvil game), Galaxy Trucker has two distinct phases: real-time building of your ship and turn-based resolution of events. Assuming your ship survives you earn points based on your place on the distance track, your cargo and how nice your ship looks. High score after three rounds wins the game.

Building your ship is the bulk of Galaxy Trucker. Each player has a set of identical ship templates that vary from round to round. All of the available ship tiles are set face-down in a pile. One player starts the sand timer and all players simultaneously start building their ship. You grab a tile, bring it over your player mat, look at it and decide if you want to place it on your ship, keep it for later or place it face up back in the pile for others to grab. There’s a wide variety of ship components including engines, lasers, shields, cargo holds, crew cabins and more. At any time after the sand timer has run out a player may turn it over to signal they are done and take the 1st place marker. That player may not make any further changes to their ship and the rest of the players have one full sand timer’s worth of time to finish their own designs.

Each tile has zero to three connectors going out of each edge. Three-pronged connectors are universal and may hook into any other connector while one- and two-pronged connectors may not connect into each other; also, connectors may never connect to an edge with no connectors shown. Once you’ve placed a tile on your ship it may never be moved so there’s a very fun puzzle element when constructing your ship. You need a variety of components but must connect everything properly while other players are possibly taking the very pieces you could use!

(image by
Toynan @ BGG)

Once everyone is done (or time runs out) the ships are complete and are “run through the gauntlet.” First, players are ranked on the distance track in the order they finished their ships. Then a stack of event cards are dealt out and resolved in random order. You may find cargo to fill your cargo holds, space pirates that steal cargo or kill crew members, asteroid storms that tear your ship to pieces and many other crazy things. Most events are resolved in player order on the distance track and their outcome may adjust your position. For example, taking cargo typically moves you backwards on the distance track, meaning your turn order may be adjusted for resolving the next event. Other events – like space pirates – go in turn order and hit each player with some penalty (often losing goods or crew) until one of the players eliminates the threat.

The real excitement comes from attack cards. A meteor swarm, for example, will show a list of asteroids, their size and direction they attack. Your ship has a designated facing and a grid of numbers with sevens on the middle axis. You roll two six-sided dice to determine which tile on your ship will be hit. Some attacks may be defended with shields or lasers. If it isn’t defended (or is unblockable), small attacks will destroy a tile if there’s an exposed connector while large attacks will destroy the tile outright. The real key here is if that tile is the only link back to the core of your ship for other tiles, that entire portion of your ship will break off!

Losing parts of your ship is bad. Not only do you lose whatever was on those tiles (cargo, crew members, guns) you also earn negative points at the end of the round per tile. If you have no crew or no engine power your ship is a derelict and scores no points at the end of the round. Likewise, if your core is hit your ships explodes.

(image by kreten @ BGG)

Given all these dangers, building a solid ship is key to success. Your core is at coordinate 7,7 meaning odds are good attacks will trend towards hitting the middle of your ship. As you build you need to plan your components and connectors to ensure redundant connection paths and plenty of defense for the core of your ship. At the same time you must try to ensure you have enough crew members, cargo space, firepower, engines and shields to survive and avoid having outward-facing connectors. It is a lot to balance – especially given the real-time aspect – but I love the puzzle aspect of building your ship.

Unfortunately I think the game’s strength may also be its weakness. While you may peek at some of the upcoming events to give you a feel for what may be important (lots of room for cargo, more attacks from the left) I feel that you generally must make as balanced of a ship as possible. A well-designed ship should be able to weather most anything thrown at it, especially if you ensure you have a well-defended core and redundant connections. While you’ll never design the exact same ship twice you will always have the same rough idea for what you need: engines in back, shields in all directions, lots of forward guns, one gun on each side and then as much cargo and crew as you can cram in. I could see where many repeat plays of Galaxy Trucker may render the ship-building portion a little dull as it becomes a quick search for the best pieces rather than a fun puzzle-solving exercise.

(image by slith @ BGG)
As chaotic as the event resolution is, I find it also offers up some nice choices to make. Do you take cargo and lose a few days, putting yourself back in turn order? If you looked at what was in the deck, you may want to drop back and let someone else deal with a nasty upcoming event or maybe you want to stay up front for an even better haul. Knowing when to power up your shields and where to store your cargo in case part of your ship tears off also makes for some good fun. These little decisions give you some small control over the madness of running your ship through the gauntlet.

Chaos can be a great element for adding excitement and replay value to a game when it is built in to the game’s design. It can also be a negative when it turns up as an unintended side effect. Not all players are going to enjoy chaos in their games, but Galaxy Trucker proves that solidly-designed chaotic game can be seriously fun. The real-time puzzle element of building your ship offers a unique challenge you don’t find in other games and it is fun watching your ship suffer through waves of attacks. You just have to be willing to accept that your ship’s outcome is not entirely in your hands. I do recommend playing Galaxy Trucker before purchasing if possible. Either you’ll fall in love or never want to see it again! If you do enjoy the game then I highly recommend picking up the expansion as it only makes the game even more chaotic and fun.

Space Alert

(image courtesy karel_danek @ BGG)

In space, nobody can hear you scream. Apparently nobody told that to Vlaada Chvátil (designer of Space Alert) because this game is anything but silent!

Space Alert is the latest in the wave of cooperative games that have been hitting the market lately. I’ve talked about some like Battlestar Galactica, Shadows over Camelot and Pandemic but Space Alert is an entirely different beast. Players are members of a star ship, hopping to new sectors in space and dealing with (read: destroying) whatever they encounter. Space is unforgiving, though, and the crew will struggle to keep their ship in one piece!

The game takes place in two parts. Part one is the planning phase which is played out in real time to a CD soundtrack. Yes, that’s right: a CD soundtrack. Each player has a track with 12 spots where they will play action cards designating what they will be doing on that turn. The catch is that you are planning your actions out in real-time as the soundtrack barks out commands. A single mission lasts seven to ten minutes and is divided into three phases. You may only play cards on the spots that correspond to the current phase you are in, making planning even trickier. The soundtrack is going to give out commands like:

“Phase one ends in 20 seconds.”
“Data transfer.”
“Threat T+3 zone blue.”

(image courtesy fehrmeister @ BGG)

There are a variety of things that may happen but the core of the game are the threats. The ship is divided into three sections (red, white blue) and the soundtrack will announce which turn (T+3 means turn 3) a threat appears. You then draw a random card from the threat deck to see what appears in round three and what you need to do to deal with it. Then players start planning out their actions, turn by turn, to figure out what needs to be done. You are free to move your pieces around on the board to help you visualize but you are not actually doing anything in this phase, only programming your actions for each turn.

Once the mission is done, the game board is reset and the resolution phase of the game begins. You now walk through the actions and events turn-by-turn to see how well the crew’s plans work out!

It may sound simple but the game is anything but. Resource management is key and you’ll be fighting it your entire mission. The ship has a limited amount of energy and firing weapons and powering shields draws from the energy pool so you must make sure there’s enough energy in the right place at the right time. Taking down enemy ships is also often tricky as typically you need to coordinate attacks from multiple guns at once if you want to do any real damage. Threats will also attack back and you also need to plan for when they’ll be firing and what you need to do to prepare for it. Do you try and take it down before it does much damage or raise the shields to absorb the hits? Once you play the full game (there are several introductary scenarios to help you get up to speed) you’ll also have threats on board your ship to deal with, screen savers to keep from kicking in, battle bots to control and windows to look out of.

(image courtesy Meat @ BGG)

If Space Alert sounds crazy, that’s because it is. This is, without a doubt, one of the most insane board games I’ve played and I love every second of it. When you first see two CDs in the box you’ll cringe, afraid of what that could possibly lead to. Thankfully the “soundtracks” are really bare-bones audio files that mostly just have the computer voice barking out commands. There is a lot to coordinate across all players and you’ll scramble to get everything worked out and planned before the next phase begins. Failing to deal with a threat will typically either damage the ship which causes it to perform less efficiently or may cause players to delay a turn. Delaying can be very bad as all of your actions will slide down one spot to the right, meaning everything else you had planned is now one turn off from what you originally expected. Truly devistating when coordination is such an important part of the game.

I can see where some will really not care for Space Alert. It is a stressful game and requires a lot of communication amongst the group. You need to be a very assertive player; you won’t do anything unless you start planning out actions but to succeed you need to coordinate with your fellow players. You also need to be very tolerant of others’ mistakes as all it takes is one person doing the wrong thing on one turn for all your well-made plans to fall apart. Failure is always an option (and a likely one at that) in Space Alert; some may not enjoy seeing themselves or others make mistakes that cost the game for the whole group.

(image courtesy filwi @ BGG)
I love this game. The real-time planning phase is brilliant and is unlike anything else out there. Random encounters mean near-infinite replayability and when you use everything the game has to offer it is pretty much impossible to fully plan out all of your moves correctly. Sometimes you’ll look back and curse one mistimed action that cost you the game while other times nothing clicks for the group and hilarity ensues. The more you play with the same players, though, the better you’ll become at communicating efficiently and the better you will do. Each mission takes 7-10 minutes of real-time play and probably an equal amount of time to resolve. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself playing two, three or more missions back-to-back.

I wish words could do this game justice but it really needs to be experienced to appreciate. Vlaada Chvátil is quickly becoming one of my favorite game designers and I will always be up for some Space Alert.