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

 

Reviews & News — Recap of Gale Force Nine’s GEN CON 2016 Offerings

Gale Force Nine is a company that may be more familiar to fans of Dungeons and Dragons than to board game enthusiasts.  For years they’ve been releasing collector’s edition models from the D&D world along with supplemental items used during roleplaying games.

Two games currently being released by the company should be bringing them quite a bit of attention from board gamers, however.  The Krewe de Gumbo had a chance to get first hand looks and plays at these two offerings.

The first is Tyrants of the Underdark, a game from the designers of Lords of Waterdeep but that plays more like Ascension with some added territory control.  

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Area control + deck builder = winner

 In the game you play as warring houses of Drow using allies and political intrigue to gain control of various territories in the Underdark.  The brain trust at Dice Tower were lukewarm on the game, but also were not big fans of the theme.  I absolutely love the theme, as I am a diehard Dungeons and Dragons fan, so this one is on my must buy list.

The other game currently being released by Gale Force Nine is Star Trek: Ascendancy.  I had a chance to demo this game at Gencon 2016 and really enjoyed it.  This is a 4X game where players take control of entire nations within the Star Trek world and fight to become to dominant species of the universe.

Playing the game with me and forty of my closest friends at Gen Con 2016

The game starts out simply enough, with each player choosing one of the nations to play as and taking control of that faction’s home world.  At release the game will only come with three options:  The Federation, Klingons and Romulans.  Each home world produces one of each resource a turn; the three resources being production, research and culture.  Production is used to build things, research to either advance technologies or upgrade ship weapons or shields, and culture is either used sparingly to found new colonies or advance your faction’s Ascendancy, which is one of the win conditions (if a player ever reaches 5 Ascendancy they win).

Each faction has an additional way to gain culture.  For the Federation it’s exploring and finding either space phenomenon or other civilizations, while the Klingons gain culture for killing enemy ships in combat.  And then each race has a weakness as well.  The Federation, for example, cannot invade planets or colonize any primitive civilizations; they have to follow the Prime Directive.  

The game plays through dual phases, with players first taking a Building Phase.  This is where they can use resources to build more ships, one of the three resource nodes on a colony they control, or they can build additional colonies on unpopulated planets.  They can also assign research to technologies and upgrade their weapons and shields.

The second phase is the Command Phase.  Each nation begins with 6 commands a turn.  They can use these to do things like moving ships, invading systems and starting space battles.  Once a player is done with their command phase you move on to the next player who starts their Building Phase.  This continues around the board until the end of the turn, when players bid with resources for turn order for the next turn.

One of the most thematic aspects of the game is exploration.  Each player begins with only their home world and nothing else on the table.  But by moving ships away from their home world they discover new planets and possible space phenomenon.  To do this you first roll a die to determine how big of a space lane there is from one place to another.  The die will result in a 2, 3 or 4.  You then place that sized space lane, connected to the location you started from, to a new location drawn from a random pile.  Your ship shows up in that new location, which may be a hazardous space nebula that has the potential to destroy your ships, or a habitable world, or a space phenomenon.  You then draw a card from the Exploration deck, which tells you what you encounter at that location.  Maybe you come across another advanced society, or maybe you’re attacked by pirates.  You might even stumble across benevolent species that will help you research one of your technologies or allow you to upgrade your ships for free.

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Close up of some excellent bits

These locations stay on the table for the rest of the game and are usable by anyone who can get to them.  Explore enough and you’re bound to run into the opposing factions.  This is called First Contact, and from that point you have the option to exchange trade agreements with the opposing players.  Each player has three Trade Agreements and can give them freely to any player they have had first contact with.  You can also recall the agreements at any time for any reason.  Trade Agreements cost you nothing, but they give your opponents Production each round that they can potentially use against you.

Fights between players are either space battles or planetary invasions.  In space battles you’re trying to destroy the other player’s ships.  You roll a 6 sided die for each ship you control and they roll one for each ship they control.  Players start with weapons that hit on a 5 or higher, but this can be modified (each time you research better weapons, you hit on one less).  Players can also research Shields, which decrease opponents’ chance to hit their ships.  There’s even the chance that a player researches enough Shields that they are unhittable by an opponent (if you hit on a 5+ and your opponent has Shields of 2 then you need 7+ to hit; there’s no 7 on a 6 sided die).  

In Planetary Invasions you’re trying to take over an opponent’s colony, or possibly a neutral one.  Your ships attack the planet, and if you score more hits than the planet has defenses you overwhelm it and take control of the planet entirely.  If you tie or score fewer hits than the defenses of the planet then you have to destroy a number of resource nodes on that planet equal to your hits.  You may end up taking the planet, but you could destroy everything of value on it first.  Both Space and Planetary battles continue in rounds until one side surrenders or is obliterated.

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Go where no man has gone before…

Star Trek: Ascendancy has just enough complexity to allow for numerous strategies while still being simple enough to grasp in a single playthrough.  In that regard, for me, it joins games like Scythe and Forbidden Stars in terms of complexity (just enough, but not too much).  It also has multiple win conditions; the most common path to victory is by advancing your Ascendancy to 5.  However, you can also win by controlling a total of 3 home worlds, as long as one of those is your own.

I thoroughly enjoyed my demo of Star Trek: Ascendancy, but I’m not certain I’ll be buying the game just yet.  The idea of a game that can only be played with 3 players worries me a little bit.  And then there’s the price; $100 MSRP for a 3 player game is asking a lot.  In the end, although I do enjoy the game, I think I will have to wait until the 4th and 5th player expansions are released before I can convince myself to buy it.  Those expansions are already in the works, so I shouldn’t have to wait long.

— Bradly Billingsley @BradlyBillingsl