Aliens (not yet) Among Us — A Preview of Alien Artifacts from Portal Games

One of the scheduled releases for Gen Con 2017 is ‘Alien Artifacts’ from Portal Games, a 4X card game of interplanetary domination designed by Marcin Senior Ropka and Viola Kijowska. I got my hands on this beauty at BGGCON 2016 and thought I’d share how the game works and my initial impressions.  Please bear in mind that this is still a prototype and although it seems that the core mechanics are fully developed, there is sure to be some alteration to the game by the time it releases next year.

Alien Artifacts primarily runs off of a single deck of cards.  Each player will draw multiple cards a round, and each card will have a number from 1 to 4 on them.  These numbers are only used during combat or when other special effects require them.  Mostly the cards are used for the symbols on them.  There are four colored symbols; blue, red, green, and yellow, and each card will have two sets of symbols of up to 3 symbols each.  For instance, a card might have 2 green symbols and 3 red symbols.  Each run through of the deck constitutes a single year of the game; for the demo we played through 2 years but there were tiles for Years 1-5 available, so I’m assuming a full play of the game would be a full 5 years.

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Players begin Alien Artifacts by selecting one of the galactic corporations.  Each corporation plays similarly except for their starting technology (this may have just been for demo purposes).  Corporations have several statistics that they can raise throughout the course of the game.  They are: Assembly (green), Production (blue), and Storage (yellow).  Assembly is how many cards you can assign a turn, Production is how many cards you draw a turn, and Storage is how many cards you can bank total.  You can upgrade each statistic in two different ways.  One, all statistics can be upgraded by paying a certain number of credits.  Each statistic can also be upgraded by completing certain milestones.  For Assembly, you automatically upgrade it for completing a certain number of technologies, while Production upgrades based on your combat power and Storage upgrades when you explore planets.

The game essentially runs off of a single deck of cards (some 200 of them for the purposes of the demo).  Each turn, a player either draws as many cards as his/her Production allows, or takes another action available.  The additional actions include claiming a planet, beginning a new technology, upgrading one of the three statistics with stored credits, or buying a ship.  If you decide to draw cards from the deck, you then have to assign them.  Cards have 2 sets of symbols each, either being Blue (used for research), Red (used for Combat), Green (used for Exploring), or Yellow (wild cards that can be used for anything).  You can assign these cards to those purposes, remembering that you are limited in the number of cards you can place by your current Assembly and you can only place to one effect a round (for instance, if you had an Assembly of 2 you couldn’t place one card for technology and another for exploring.  They would both have to be placed to the same effect).  

You also have the option of storing the cards as credit, selecting one color and storing the cards as credits, one for one, based on the number of icons that match that color (so if you stored a card with 2 green symbols and another card with 3 green symbols, you would have a total of 5 credits scored).  Stashing cards for credits in this way is not limited by your Assembly score.

image02Cards assigned for combat (red) must be placed under a ship that you control.  Each player begins with a single Freighter that can have a total of one card placed under it.  Additional ships can be bought from a shared pile of 4 different types of ships.  Each player may own only one ship of each type and the ships get more expensive the longer you wait to buy them.  The first player to buy the Mothership pays only 10 credits for it, while the next player must spend 12.  The Mothership can hold an impressive 4 combat cards under it while also granting an innate 3 combat power, and grants additional victory points is fully equipped at the end of the game.

Cards assigned for technology (blue) go under a specific technology, and technologies are completed once you have a specific number of symbols assigned to them.  Technologies come in 4 different types; Blue (Expand), Green (Explore), Red (Exterminate), and Yellow (Exploit).  Expand technologies typically either make your technologies stronger or easier to complete.  Explore is the same for planets (one green technology might give you the ability to assign both green and red symbols to exploring planets).  Red technologies affect combat, while Yellow technologies change fundamental rules of the game for you alone.  For instance, one of the yellow technology cards that I got let me copy one of my opponents’ technologies.

image05As well as the decks of ships you can buy, there is also a deck of planets.  There are always two planets showing from this deck, and a player can, as their turn, claim one of those planets instead of drawing from the main deck on their turn.  Planets require Green (explore) symbols to complete, but once you do they grant you a one-use power.  Some may allow you to buy ships at a discounted rate, and some let you search for Alien Artifacts (which consists of drawing the top card of the main deck and gaining a number of Victory Points equal to the card’s numerical value).

Attacking other players is also a possibility in Alien Artifacts.  To do so you first have to draw one of the combat cards from the deck during your draw phase.  Drawing these cards is the only way to attack other players during the game and they are fairly limited in number.  Once you attack an opponent both he and you draw a card from the top of the main deck and add it to your combat power (your combat power being a total of the red symbols assigned to your ships).  If you have the most combat power after drawing, you steal a victory point from your opponent.  If they have the most, they effectively fight off your attack and your turn is over.

I enjoyed the games I played of Alien Artifacts, but by no means do I think it’s perfect.  The game is so far along already, however, that I have high hopes for it when it releases at next year’s Gencon.  Personally I would like to see something done with the combat system to make it more interactive.  As it stands now all you do when you attack is draw a card from the main deck and compare combat strength.  Since the cards in the main deck only go from 1 to 4 that means if you attack someone with fewer than 4 combat strength than you have it’s an automatic win.  I’m also not a huge fan of the Alien Artifacts powers of the planet deck.  Again, when activating these powers all you do is draw a card from the main deck and gain Victory Points from it.  I’d much rather see a separate deck for the Alien Artifacts that include unique bonuses as well as negative effects such as aliens assaulting your company.  That would add a sense of uncertainty to completing a planet that grants an Alien Artifact, and would allow for the artifacts to be slightly more powerful than their current state.

Ultimately ‘Alien Artifacts’ provides a 4X experience, similar to Eclipse, in a card game that takes less than an hour to play.  If they’re able to add a little more flair to the game in the next few months, then I foresee it being a massive success for Portal Games.

— Bradly @BradlyBillingsl

 

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