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.
Last week I talked about a Vlaada Chvátil game called That’s a Question!, arguing that it was pleasant enough, particularly in family or get-to-know-you settings, but didn’t exactly rock my socks off. In part because it didn’t feel like much of an innovation from one of our hobby’s most renowned innovators.
Well, today I’m going to tell you about Codenames Duet, which right there in its title announces itself as a new take on the living classic Codenames. But here’s the thing — in addition to being a testament to why our hobby thrives on iterative design, it just might be one of my favorite Chvátil games.
Here’s a question for you. Which would you miss more if it ceased to exist: Vlaada Chvátil designing light party-style games or Vlaada Chvátil designing overly complicated games?
If you’re anything like me, there’s no contest between Codenames and Space Alert, though I’d still miss the former if it disappeared from the face of the Earth all the same. If you guessed that would be my answer, you get a point. If not, the guy who asked me the question gets a point.
There you go. I just summed up Chvátil’s latest, That’s a Question!
Space Alert is one of my favorite games ever designed, a hilarious seizure-inducing experience that I’ve never quite been able to write about. Probably because just thinking about it makes me twitchy. In the restless nights that follow those abortive attempts at discussing the past trauma that is a ten-minute round of Space Alert, I dream of stealth fighters uncloaking off the port bow, alien amoebas squirming beneath my eyelids, a giant nebula-lobster shredding the ship’s armor with snapping pincers. Down the corridor someone begins to scream, cut short by explosive decompression.
I don’t know if this will help me finally come to terms with my unseen injuries, but at long last I’ve begun the first tentative steps at working through the pain. My tool of choice is a five-star rating of Space Alert over at the Review Corner. Give it a read.
Just last month, if you were to tell me that Vlaada Chvátil was making a party game, I’d laugh you out of the room. I mean, I’d finish choking on my chocolate milk first, but then I’d laugh you out of the room.
Why? Well, because party games are about simplicity. About getting everyone involved, even when they aren’t particularly into games. They’re about appealing to both your hardcore enthusiast brother-in-law and your grandma who hasn’t played a board game since the winter of ’47 when her little brother froze to death because he wouldn’t stop playing checkers under the porch.
Vlaada Chvátil, on the other hand — and this is what I would have told you a month ago — is about convoluted designs that glow with the uncanny brilliance of an insane person. People don’t play Space Alert, Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends, Mage Knight, or Galaxy Trucker because they’re simple. They play them because they’re bonkers.
But that was the me of a month ago. Today I have been humbled, because I can’t stop playing Vlaada Chvátil’s version of a party game.
Alchemists, also known as The Other Board Game With A Smartphone App, is all about chemistry. Y’know, sort of. Strictly speaking, it’s about alchemy, and I’m sure any self-respecting chemist could speak some stern words about how they’re different, even if those words amounted to so much whiffle and puff to the rest of us.
However, Alchemists is about chemistry in the sense that you take some ingredients, set up an experiment to combine them, get your results, and then still not have much of an idea what’s going on. At least not yet. It’s a game where you’ll complete a long-awaited mixture — say, mandrake root and red scorpions combine to make paralysis potions — then quietly jot down a note and chew on the back of your pencil for a bit, wondering how the hell you’re going to publish a paper about that underwhelming factoid, let alone make a fortune or get famous from it.
Welcome to academia.
Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything, but I’m convinced abstract games are among the toughest to design. Your mechanics and rules have to be razor sharp, you’ll imbue it with whatever scrap of theme you can manage, wrap it up to look pretty even though some will complain about how it’s “just a board and some pieces,” and then sit back to endure the inevitable goofballs wailing about how they don’t get it.
Now and then though, you’ll get something amazing. In this case, that something is Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends, the latest from famed designer Vlaada Chvátil, and it’s a monumental achievement of abstract gaming.