Imagine you and four friends are in a giant hamster ball. Now imagine that you have all been eating Snickers and drinking Red Bull for the last 48 hours. Now imagine that the hamster ball is careening down the Alps, bouncing off trees and skiers and dogs with whiskey barrels on their collars. Almost done - just one more thing - now imagine that you have to control this insane spherical avalanche of chaos, and that's Space Alert.
Since you probably need more than that to call this a game review, I'll discuss a little of how this game works. The theory is that you're all manning an explorer craft in space, and while you're out there, stuff comes flying at you like crazy. And you have to shoot cannons, fire rockets, order robots, charge reactors, power shields, and just in case you're not too busy already, you also have to hit the mouse every now and then to keep the screensaver from coming on (I am not making this up).
As if that wasn't enough crap going on, you're on a serious time limit. The timer is accomplished with a CD, and each 10-minute recording will spout off now and then to tell you that there are bad guys coming in, or that you get more cards, or that you need to lie down and put a cool rag on your forehead after you play three or four times (OK, now that part I made up).
Every game is basically split into two segments. The first part is where you plan what you're going to do. You don't actually have to resolve anything, you just put out cards. The problem is that while you're putting down cards that do stuff like move, use the elevator, or fire yourself into space, the clock is ticking. And every so often, the recording will announce a new threat, one that could quite possibly blow you directly to Hell (unless, of course, you have made other arrangements, like praying a lot and avoiding strong drink - but either way, you're dead).
The chaos that ensues while the soundtrack is playing is amazing. It's unlike anything I've ever played. It might actually make you wish you were doing something a little less stressful, like driving the wrong way in traffic while you check your voice mail and light a cigarette with your kids screaming in the back seat because frankly, you're going the wrong way and you're probably about to kill them (and may I add that if you smoke in the car while your kids are in the back seat, you are probably the same kind of dirtbag asscrack who wears his seatbelt while he lets his children bounce around like super balls in a paint mixer).
After ten minutes, the soundtrack ends, and then you see how you actually did. A very useful turn tracker walks you through every step, and you use the board to keep track of how well you managed to shoot down the space octopus, battle the slime, and deactivate the nuclear device, all while trying to remember if you turned off the iron.
What generally happens is that you probably get through the first three or four turns pretty well, and maybe even manage to get another third of the way through the game before everyone starts turning up cards and going, 'why am I looking out the window right now instead of launching rockets, and how come you fired the cannon when we haven't had anything on that side of the ship for five minutes?' It sort of unravels at the end, with people shooting at targets that aren't there, activating robots willy-nilly, and mostly just hoping that the last few threats aren't big enough to blow your doors off.
However, if everyone stays sharp, and someone plans really, really well, you can come through alive. It's not impossible to win the game, just really hard. This is a completely cooperative game, but sometimes it doesn't feel like it, especially when your cohorts play the wrong cards, or fail to pay attention, or just completely don't get how to play and wind up using up all the energy to charge the shields on the wrong side of the ship so that you don't have any power left to shoot the kamikaze fighter that ends up crashing into you like a wrecking ball full of high explosives.
In fact, to give yourself the best chance of success, you'll want to play several games with the same group. After a while, everyone will start to understand the various actions and how things work, and hopefully figure out how to work together as a team. If you've ever played a cooperative game and been totally irritated by that one mouthy know-it-all who tells everyone what they ought to do on their turns, this game should be the cure. That guy might still try to dominate, but now you can make him the captain, and if you all die, you can blame it all on him.
One final note here - I hated Space Alert the first time I played. I mean, I was so irritated and confused that I actually said, 'I don't care if I ever play this again.' But we tried it again, and then one more time, and I started to see how this could actually be a really fun game. Then I tried it solo, and it was a completely different game, and it was still fun. Heck, at this point, I want to make it a regular mainstay with my family, because I think it would be a blast once we get it down.
Of course, knowing my kids, they'll probably drive the hamster ball into a ski lodge and blame it all on each other, but what the hell. We'll bond.
The CD could have been a total gimmick, but turns out to be a critical game component
Cooperative game that really forces teamwork
You're really proud of yourselves when you win
Hilarious rulebook is funny and informative at the same time
Should never be played with people who don't get it
Painful learning curve may stop people from learning the game
Matt is a staff writer for Fortress: Ameritrash and the author of the Drake's Flames blog, where you can read more of his ass-crack reviews.