Deep Space 51
Portal Games has a thing for tableau building games that occupy three rows. See 51st State, Imperial Settlers, and the other 51st State, all of which were largely defined by how much your economic engine snowballed. If the last round wasn’t ten times longer and slower than the first one, you probably hadn’t adequately snowballed.
At this point, Portal delivering another three-row tableau-builder might feel a smidgen like those games that reappear after a Cthulhu retheme. Slap tentacles on the cards, change some keywords — the draw pile is now Miskatonic University or whatever — and there you have it. No need to come up with new ideas when people will gratefully snap up the latest mind-numbing coat of paint, fumes and all. 51st State in space.
But in spite of appearances, Alien Artifacts isn’t just another three-row tableau-builder. Sure, cards are aligned across three rows, and sure, it’s about assembling a tableau. While it wasn’t designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek, co-designers Marcin Ropka and Viola Kijowska could have fooled me, right down to the factions with ever-so-slightly different advantages. But that’s where the similarities stop and Alien Artifacts steps out from under the shadow of its predecessors. And the most radical aspect of its reinvention? It melts snowballs.
It’s impossible to understand Alien Artifacts without first understanding its resource cards. These are the game’s heart and soul. Also its timer, currency, sound barrier, and everything from combat system to planetary strip-mining.
In essence, each resource card offers two flavors of currency, whether the wintergreen gum commercial blue of science, the angry red of war, the verdant green of colonization, or the wild yellow of, um, wildcards. Nearly every action will require you to match a bunch of these resources. Colonizing a planet, for instance, takes five greens, plus one more for every planet you’ve already conquered. The same goes for science and ship-building, but with blues and reds. Trade, which provides credits for buying cards, requires any matching set of resources. Going to war or mining your planets takes five of a particular color, but without letting those yellow wildcards pitch in.
So things get more expensive as the game progresses. Your first card, no matter how worthless or awesome, will cost five greens, while your tenth planet will cost a staggering fourteen, at least in theory. But your tiny hand size of three resource cards isn’t the only limiting factor, especially since planets eventually spit out extras for you to use. Instead, in the game’s most abstract notion — I guarantee somebody in your group will struggle with this — you’re also limited by an “assembly limit.” In practice, this means that you can only apply two cards to something unless you own something that lets you violate that limitation.
There are a few ways around these assembly limits, and deciding which to use is one of the questions behind Alien Artifacts’ particular engine-building conundrum. The most available option is to simply waste a turn preparing resources. By sliding some resource cards beneath a pending planet, science project, or ship, you can nudge it toward eventual completion. This takes time, which is always at a premium because the resource deck is actually the game’s timer. Reshuffle that deck too many times and it’s game over, so spending resources to prepare a card not only kills time, it accelerates it.
The other path is one of specialization. Every card offers some benefit, and in general these fall into a small handful of categories. Planets offer discounts — some saved blue resources on science, for instance, or a discount when buying cards — while ships are all about increasing your assembly limits, though only on specific actions. Between the two, even an end-game economy can cough up new acquisitions with ease. The trick, though, is that their focus on a single resource or action means it’s likely you’ll find yourself in command of an empire that’s streamlined at some things and completely stunted at others.
In any case, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the time bomb that is the resource deck. Where surplus resources only served to draw 51st State and Imperial Settlers to occasionally ludicrous lengths, in Alien Artifacts more resources just means you’re burning time twice as fast. Whether you’re also burning twice as bright is up to how well you’ve tuned your economy with the right ships, planets, and techs.
But that’s only the first layer of what this game has to offer. Every single planet, technology, and ship is two-sided, with a reverse face that operates completely differently from what’s printed on the front. And this is both where Alien Artifacts shines and stumbles.
Let’s start with ships. Whenever you construct one of these babies, you could use it to increase an assembly limit. But maybe you don’t care to spend more cards on whatever it’s offering. Hell, maybe you’re just bored. So instead, you flip it onto its operational side. Now you’ve got a warship.
Combat falls more into the category of functional than inspiring. When you attack — which happens at the same instant you commission a warship — you can either charge off after the game’s race of independent aliens or pester another player. In either case, you draw a resource card for your combat value, and — well, that’s pretty much it. Whether attacking a fellow explorer or the aliens, you consult a table to see what your assault brought home in spoils. Sometimes you’ll pillage credits, or earn points, or throw down a silly blockade token, or just maybe you’ll draw one of the game’s trumpeted alien artifacts. Sometimes you’ll get blown up.
The other two card flavors offer similar opportunities. The operational side of planets provides a pool of resource cards, and drawing the right ones also translates into points. Research cards, by far the game’s wildest inclusion because each one bends the rules in unique ways, can be transformed into new scoring opportunities.
Perhaps most importantly, assembling a bunch of these operational cards is both a sacrifice — because you don’t gain access to the discounts, assembly limit increases, and tech bonuses on their front side — and an opportunity to earn some points. By spending a pile of resources of the right type, you get to activate all of a row’s face-down cards. Just like that, all your warships can make another attack, or your planets spit out new resources, or your scoring cards might trigger.
Might. Therein lies the rub.
Luck is a sticky topic. Like nakedness on television or profanity in church, everyone has their own level of tolerance for it.
In Alien Artifacts, success or failure teeters on a wire as slender as a resource card. All those opportunities, whether attacks, research boons, or planetary mining, might produce points. For the most part, it’s a coin flip. Draw a card that shows the corresponding resource (or combat number) and you’ll profit. At worst, your ships will explode, or your research teams might not produce anything worthwhile, which is very little to show for all those resources you spent to trigger them. The least painful option is planetary mining. If you don’t find the right resource, at least you still get a card to spend.
Of course, the goal is to maximize your chances. Lots of these face-down cards means lots of opportunities. Lots of coin tosses. But Alien Artifacts isn’t a high-scoring game. Fifty points is a perfectly decent ending. And that means a handful of flubbed coin tosses might easily account for twenty percent of your final score.
Okay, look. Cards on the table. Alien Artifacts has a few problems. One is the totally bland combat system. Another is the fact that it doesn’t feel quite as varied as its three-row tableau-builder predecessors. And yeah, I think the white backgrounds on everything are blah.
The biggest issue is its chanciness. In an engine-building game, there’s something of a silent pact between players and their engines. Like most tableau-builders, ninety-nine percent of your time is spent with your head down, numbers and combos filling your brain, trying to optimize optimize optimize. Maybe you’ll come up for air to hassle somebody, but the rest of the game is optimize optimize optimize. If you spend x, you earn y. If you exchange y, you score z. That’s a tableau-builder’s bread and butter.
Alien Artifacts throws that last exchange out the window. Not all the time, but often enough that it matters. It’s a bold move. It’s a move I happen to enjoy, since I enjoy luck in games. Accounting for and mitigating bad luck can be as as much a part of optimization as counting resources and tallying actions. But it’s also a move that can be absolutely, utterly, devastatingly frustrating.
Know thyself. Either Socrates or Jesus said that. If you’re averse to luck, if you get rashy at the sight of dice, then know that Alien Artifacts is extremely chancy despite never rolling one of the buggers.
For the most part, I dig Alien Artifacts. Its take on the three-row tableau-builder is entirely fresh, possessing a particular momentum where as soon as you’re taking these card-guzzling options the game speeds up rather than hitting the brakes. The more cards you assemble, the faster you’re forced to accomplish your goals before the whole thing comes crashing to a finish. The combos are almost perfect, nearly every card contributing something — here a discount, there a freaky tech that lets even your face-up planets produce resources — without ever smashing the game’s sense of balance and pacing. And in the end, it does its predecessors proud, even while walking its own path.