To quote Douglas Adams: “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.” So it’s appropriate that the gaming mat for Red Alert is so massive that even a decent size kitchen table will struggle to find room for it. This preference for bigness in some ways captures the essence of Red Alert; it’s a title that takes a broad-brush approach to gameplay to capture a suitably epic sense of space combat.
Set millennia in the future, players control the fleets of two rival factions – the Commonwealth Alliance and the Rebel Confederation – as they duke it out for supremacy in the starry void.
The game is an iteration of Richard Borg’s Commands & Colors series, where the board is comprised of a hex grid and split into three sectors. Each of a player’s spaceships occupy one hexagon on the board, and activating them depends on which sector the hex is in (right, centre or left). Players have a small hand of command cards drawn from a communal deck and replenished each turn; unit activation is determined by which card the player chooses to play. For example, a card may allow two units from the left sector to activate, or two from the centre and so on. It’s a wonderfully simple but effective mechanic that adds a sense of uncertainty to the proceedings; not only do players have to prioritise which precious few units they can use on a given turn, but they have to do so within the limits of the cards they’re dealt.
Apart from the look of the miniatures, the factions in the game are identical, so strategising depends largely on choosing which cards to play and how you utilise the different types of ship in each fleet. Some command cards come have special abilities that break up the routine of gameplay, and further tactical choices are afforded from a second deck of combat cards. Each ship type is nicely distinguished from its brethren and fill a variety of combat roles; fighters are fast, short-range ships whilst battleships are more cumbersome but come equipped with longer-range weaponry, for example. The game also has an element of resource management, as certain actions like repairing damaged ships or using combat cards require spending valuable star tokens.
The combat avoids stagnating into a war of attrition because destroying enemy ships is largely secondary to completing objectives and scoring victory points. One feature of the combat dice is the titular ‘red alert’ symbol. Used to represent a malfunction on a ship, it forces that unit to retreat and severly hampers its capability, meaning that outright destruction of a unit isn’t always the only outcome of combat.
The only major niggle with the game is a potential lack of replayability. The rulebook only has six missions, two of which are tutorials, and it would have been nice if there had been more. The game does include an army list-building element for these scenarios, however, and with a little bit of imagination players could try to make up their own missions. It’s also a shame that for a game so accessible, the £100 price tag may put off some players who would otherwise appreciate its approachable nature.
What stands out most about Red Alert is that it manages to strike that balance between creating mechanics that are straightforward and simple but also provide a level of depth that allows for complex strategising and engaging moment-to-moment gameplay. Space warfare is one of those ideas that could easily be mishandled and turned into an obsessively over-detailed game with a novel-length rulebook, but here that temptation has been roundly avoided. What players get instead is a game that’ll clip along at a brisk pace and make them feel like the daring commander of a vast starfleet armada in the process.
PLAY IT? – YES
Simple but not simplistic, Red Alert is a thoroughly enjoyable game that offers both strategy and visual spectacle. Though somewhat pricey, its mechanics are elegant and its gameplay dynamic.
Designer: Richard Borg
Artist: Rhys Pugh
Time: 60-90 minutes
This review originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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