The Other C&C: Red Alert
“Is that actually a Command & Conquer board game?” my buddy asked, breathless with curiosity.
“Even better,” I replied, breathless because I’d just run up the stairs. “It’s Commands & Colors!”
If you’ve played Battle Cry, Memoir ’44, BattleLore, or any of the many historical flavors of Commands & Colors, Red Alert will seem familiar. Possibly even too familiar. Richard Borg is back, his system of three lanes and copious dice is fully intact, and you can expect at least one person to complain about the luck of the draw, dice, or the other draw. The biggest difference? Borg has finally stamped his name on something adjacent to a Star Trek board game.
More seriously, that’s underselling it a bit. In practice, Red Alert feels like a designer set loose to do two things: play with toys and play in style. Red Alert may be crammed with plastic, but it’s also played surprisingly straight, jettisoning the cruft in favor of a spacecraft that’s aerodynamic even though there’s no need for it to be, because, y’know, outer space. In other words, I was surprised at the game’s restraint, deploying entire fleets of ships that were simple enough that I didn’t need its reference sheet longer than half a play.
The appeal of Red Alert comes down to three hallmarks of the Commands & Colors system: units, commands, and its weaponization of chance. For the sake of organization, let’s look at how it handles all three in turn.
First, the units. It’s no secret that Red Alert is a thin veil for playing with toys, and in that regard it provides plenty to tinker with. The box is pleasantly hefty, boasting both a lovely (and sprawling) playmat and loads of chunky plastic ships. Given a free hand, it’s easy to imagine Borg going overboard. But rather than making his vessels a source of frustration, he confines himself to a small handful of easily differentiated units. There are five in the base game, five more in escalation packs, each with their own personality and abilities, but without so much variance that you’re left squinting at the board trying to work out which vessel does what.
For most scenarios, setup is a breeze. You’re assigned a random “task force,” a predetermined arrangement of squadrons worth 100 points, and then asked to fill in the final 40 points on your own. It’s a nice middle ground between player agency and spending an hour on the pregame, requiring only a few minutes to shore up any deficiencies in your task force or capitalize on any perceived weaknesses in your opponent’s tactical situation.
The easy legibility of your units helps make this process as painless as possible. Your flagship is punchy and helps mitigate “red alerts” on nearby squadrons — imagine space morale and you won’t be far off — but is vulnerable and gives up a ton of points to your opponent when destroyed. Battleships have shields and heavy guns, but leave behind impassable wreckage in their wake. Cruisers are cheap ranged contenders, Destroyers behave like star cavalry by warping directly into slugging range, and Fighters are zippy but fragile. Nicely, one of the most important details is handled simply by which class a unit belongs to, with larger capital and strike vessels blocking spare hits from smaller ships. Easy but impactful.
That same ethos of low overhead but high impact goes for how all these squadrons are commanded. The
battlefield battlespace is divided into three lanes, called sectors. Every turn, you play a command card to determine which ships you’re allowed to activate. Sometimes you’ll be allowed to play something crazy, like a card that permits you to activate two ships from each lane; other times you’ll do some piddly scouting consigned to a single flank. This isn’t to say every card is a simple lane activation. Some offer specialized options, like mirroring your opponent’s most recent command, conducting hit-and-run attacks with your fighters, or the high-risk maneuver of warping an entire wing of ships straight into close combat.
In many ways, this three-lane system is Red Alert at its most emblematic of Commands & Colors, for better and worse. On the one hand, it’s laden with decision points and trade-offs. Burning your best cards early will leave you scrambling later. But maybe those powerful cards would be best spent early on seizing objectives and creating overlapping corridors of hot laser death. It’s also rather intuitive, giving you a good sense for what you can and cannot accomplish in a given turn. Rather than commanding this massive fleet, you’re using a bite-sized chunk.
The downsides are similarly pronounced. There’s the inherent chanciness of the system, of course, but we’ll return to that in a moment. The other issue is that Red Alert’s command deck is slightly weighted toward the right flank for some reason. PSC Games has stated that this is intentional, a way of simulating the historical bias of strong right flanks against weaker left flanks, never mind that such a bias seems a strange fit for a game about space combat. In theory this could lead to a “spiraling” of the battle line as the right flank wheels leftward, and indeed many skirmishes feature such a realignment. But the entire thing seems fishy. At worst it’s a patch job to paper over a production error — which I’m inclined to suspect, since you only see a portion of the command deck in a single play — while at best it’s a decision that could have been handled by asking players to remove some command cards for particular scenarios.
It probably comes as no surprise that Red Alert’s most polarizing aspect is its sheer chanciness. If the game were a spacegoing vessel, every centimeter of its hull, engines, and internal piping would come patched together with duct tape and silicone glue, liable to hold together another century or bust apart in the next hour. We’ve already talked about the command deck, and the implications of discovering yourself with a subpar draw should be obvious. But there’s also a second deck to worry about, this one filled with combat cards, plus the fact that all fights are resolved by throwing handfuls of dice across the table.
We’ll start with the dice. When one of your squadrons unleashes hell, you gauge the usual factors — range and line-of-sight, neither of which are difficult to assess — and then roll the appropriate number of dice. Every ship class has its own face, so a purple square always lands a hit against a squadron of capital ships, a blue triangle hits strike ships, and so forth. The other possible results are more interesting. Blasts are basically wild hits, except bigger ships are shielded against smaller ships, and therefore ignore the first one or two blasts. Red alerts are Red Alert’s way of simulating the dangers of space travel, the warp core breaches, hologram uprisings, and whatever other quackery is caused by getting splashed with a quantum mortar. In practice, they force the afflicted squadron to withdraw back toward your side of the field.
As with all dice games, there’s a considerable likelihood you’ll have bad turns. A full-strength squadron will miss a critical shot only to get picked apart on your opponent’s turn. A one-in-a-million Hail Mary will blow apart your flagship. The last exchange of laser fire will hinge on a single roll. If you can’t handle that, you’d do well to put a few astronomic units between yourself and Red Alert.
Then again, to some degree this is mitigated by combat cards and the final face of the dice, the star. Every turn, and whenever you roll a star in combat, you earn stars that can be spent both on special actions and combat cards. Both are essential. In the case of the former, your squadrons can fly farther, shoot back on enemy aggressors, or ignore red alerts. With the latter… well, pretty much anything can happen. Ambushes, parasites, broadsides, espionage. All the crazy stuff that wasn’t codified into the rules is given its place in the combat cards. As before, it’s a tidy middle ground between keeping the rules compact and injecting a healthy dose of space crazy into every scrap. Even better that it’s a way to massage the odds, provided you properly manage your pool of stars.
Really, though, the game’s chanciness isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.
For one thing, it tends to level out. Between drawing from the command deck, drawing from the combat deck, and chucking dice everywhere, most battles are tight contests. Most of the time I’ve played, either side could have won within a turn. Some of this has to do with the way points are gathered, both from destroying enemy squadrons and squatting on planets. But the rest has to do with how wholeheartedly the game runs with its chanciness. You’ll have misses, yes. But you’ll also have shots that somehow shred an entire enemy squadron in a single volley.
For another, it’s that kind of game in the first place. This isn’t an economic simulation. This isn’t a resource optimization puzzle. It’s about slag being hurled at relativistic speeds toward enemy ships. It’s about torpedoes streaking through vacuum, countermeasures failing to fire, the silence of a ship coming apart. It’s about pushing plastic ships toward other plastic ships and going pew pew pew and laughing at how dumb the dice can be but how cool it’ll be when you’re named the first admiral of Star Force.
For those who’ve played Commands & Colors before, a lingering question remains. The answer is that Red Alert does very little to distinguish itself. Everything I said above will sound familiar, with hardly any wrinkles. Red Alert is one of the purest expressions of Richard Borg’s battle system. No more, no less.
That said, it’s also one of the best times I’ve had with this system, especially with two players on each side. Dividing roles between fleet commander (command card duties) and wing admiral (tactical movement and combat cards) results in a fierce camaraderie, one where you’ll deliberate with your ally over every move, only to insist that they be the one to roll these damn dice. Red Alert eases that transition, providing a (mostly) polished, sleek, and silly expression of the Commands & Colors system.
Or maybe it’s just that I like big gratuitous slugging matches between space ships. Actually, in retrospect, let’s go with that.
A complimentary copy was provided.