Yesteryear: Enemy Activity Detected
Today on my monthly-ish feature about the games that still have a spot on my shelf despite the passage of years, we’re talking about Space Alert, the most stressful game that I’ll argue against playing before somehow acquiescing and playing anyway, blood pressure be damned. This is Yesteryear.
To this day, Vlaada Chvátil’s Space Alert remains the only game I’ve ever created an accessory for. I’m not talking a Plano box for keeping pieces sorted or an extra pack of dice so you don’t have to share the same set. Instead, I’m talking about a custom T-shirt, designed to look like a captain’s uniform complete with Space Alert logo and everything.
See, my family growing up was never much into games—
ALERT. ENEMY ACTIVITY DETECTED. PLEASE BEGIN FIRST PHASE.
Sorry about that. As I was saying, my family plays games when they don’t have anything better to do, though their list of “anything better” is significantly longer than mine. But when Dad and two of my sisters fell in love with Space Alert, it became our default get-together event. After dinner we’d unfold the card table, begin setting up our Sitting Duck-class starship, and then — and only then — Dad would launch into his pre-launch speech.
“Em,” he’d say, glaring at her with a seriousness that meant this was no mere game, “this time we need you to be on the spot with the reactor. If you can’t get downstairs on round one, let us know. And somebody…” (his glare now reserved for my wife) “…needs to make sure she doesn’t clog up the elevator.”
We all had our roles. Em was in charge of engineering, spending most of the game belowdecks, dashing back and forth between the main reactor and the lateral stations, keeping our power topped off. Amy was responsible for shields, especially whenever we took a hit and needed a recharge. Somerset was primed for any enemies who might beam aboard the ship, her first task always the awakening of the battle-bots. Dad was in charge of weapons and giving orders.
Me? I was in charge of communications and putting out fires. That meant I had to split my attention between listening to the CD — and a year later, the app — as it barked orders at us, and making sure everyone else was doing their jobs. If a malevolent space crustacean appeared to starboard and needed shooting, but Dad was busy battling a stealth fighter over on the port side, it was my job to magically be in the right place at the right time.
Once everyone had been dressed down, Dad’s speech was done. No matter how great our performance had been on the previous expedition, there was always something we could improve. That’s what made him such a great captain. It’s why we made him that Space Alert T-shirt, so there would be no confusion about the esteem we held him in.
We held our breath and started the track. The CD took a moment to spin up. Then, all too soon, before we felt ready, it was yelling at us again.
TIME T+2. SERIOUS THREAT. ZONE WHITE. REPEAT. TIME T+2. SERIOUS THREAT. ZONE WHITE.
Once, Space Alert made the wife of an old friend cry.
She’d had a long day — setting up their apartment for our visit, burning her finger on the stove — and then this thing dropped out of orbit and onto the table. This alien thing. This thing that defied all reason, all logic. The first game she’d ever played that wanted to confuse its players rather than enlighten them. Within four minutes, the apartment was drowned in noise. The CD barking at us, us barking at each other, somebody spilling something on the carpet. And then someone forgot to wiggle the mouse.
That’s no euphemism. In Space Alert, you literally have to wiggle the shipboard computer’s mouse or the screensaver will lock you out. Failing to do so is catastrophic, delaying everybody’s programmed actions and very possibly spelling doom for the entire voyage. But in terms of catastrophe, it’s just one more disaster in a string of them. Once the soundtrack starts shouting at you, announcing threat after threat, it’s natural to slip up. Your missiles were installed backwards. Xenomorph XX121 is running rampant downstars. Three distinct warships are hurling electric death against your hull. The elevator is broken. Hell, the elevator isn’t broken, and still only one person can use it in a single round. To forget to wiggle the mouse is the most natural thing in the world.
So when I say that it made a friend cry, I can’t say I blame her. Most games are about winning, or at least rewarding you with some sort of positive feedback. Space Alert, on the other hand—
COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEM DOWN
Zzzzzz zzzz zzzzz zzz zz zzzzz zzzzz zzz zzzz—
UNCONFIRMED REPORT. TIME T+5. INTERNAL THREAT. REPEAT. UNCONFIRMED REPORT. TIME T+5. INTERNAL THREAT.
Space Alert is about failure. To put it in Cold War terms, the West produced Star Trek, with its peak efficiency, nauseating goodwill, and endless optimism. The old Soviet bloc’s victory in the space race gave us a starship designed to warp into an alien sector and maybe — only maybe — survive for ten minutes before it automatically warps out again. In space, all your friends can hear you scream. And it isn’t very flattering.
INCOMING DATA. REPEAT. INCOMING DATA.
But that’s the joy of Space Alert. Those ten real-time minutes are a rush of adrenaline, blinding panic, and poorly informed decisions. I’ve never played a game that made me need to use the bathroom with such urgency. For six hundred seconds, everything is done blindly. The board is a mess, nobody’s sure where their friends are, maybe the power cells need recharging or maybe they don’t. And did somebody wiggle the mouse?
Then the CD announces the end of the mission, you reset the board, and one by one everyone flips over their cards, revealing what they did each turn. It’s an exercise in what a cruel mistress hindsight makes. During those bowel-upsetting ten minutes, you were boldly leading your battle-bots to victory, sanitizing an alien virus from the missile deck before taking command of your ship’s drones and shooting down the galaxy’s most improbable comet. During the resolution phase, it’s suddenly clear that somebody else picked up the robots first. You, on the other hand, spent the entire mission hallucinating about being a big damn hero. Space-bends, they call it. Crazy eye. Nitrogen psychosis.
Times like these can seem deflating, and that’s precisely why Space Alert will never appeal to everyone. All the information you need to succeed is right there in front of you, but the time needed to read it, parse it, disseminate it among your crewmates, to coordinate your response — that’s what’s missing.
But in between the moments of panic are found some of the most naturally hilarious moments ever formed in cardboard. When somebody flips a card to reveal that their very first move was in the wrong direction, or when two people pile into the elevator and wind up getting stuck, or when you keep refilling the central reactor even though it’s already full — sure, you could get upset. You could roll your eyes. You could say their name with the poisonous edge of a curse. Geoff.
Or you could accept that this is the game, that winning is never as funny as losing, and that you aren’t meant to win all that often anyway. That’s when Space Alert comes to life. You’ll laugh when you fail and punch the air when you succeed. Introduce the tougher cards and you’ll lose nearly every mission. The victories will be sweeter and the defeats ever more ludicrous. And it will be worth every single second.
OPERATION ENDS IN FIVE. FOUR. THREE. TWO. ONE. MISSION COMPLETE. JUMPING TO HYPERSPACE.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. Space Alert and Space-Biff! both start with “space,” which is how you know they’re worthy of your time and attention.)