Wednesday 10 April 2019

Red Alert: Space Fleet Warfare

One of the most popular two-player board games of the past decade or so is Memoir ’44, Richard Borg’s attempt to combine wargames, board games and those plastic toy army men that kids used to play with. The game was a huge success, shifting millions of copies and spawning numerous expansions (the latest of which, New Flight Plan, drops next month). But if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably sat there at some point and though, "Killing Nazis is fun and all, but what if you could do it in space?"

Memoir '44 is, of course, not the only game (or even the first) to use Borg’s instinctive, card-driven order system. The system, dubbed Command & Colours, has been used to produce versions set in – among many others – the First World War (The Great War), the Napoleonic era (Command & Colours: Napoleonics), the American Civil War (Battle Cry) and in a fantasy land of dragons and elves (BattleLore), the latter of which even spun off a splendid Game of Thrones spin-off version (the hugely underrated Battles of Westeros). So, the system has already show itself to be malleable enough to be applied to numerous different settings. In fact, it may be more surprising that it’s taken so long for a space opera version of the game to appear.

Red Alert: Space Fleet Warfare (Command & Colours: Red Alert was probably avoided out of fear of confusing Electronic Arts’ lawyers) is a game of starship combat. As with most Command & Colours games, it is played on a battle map made up of hexagons. Hexagonal tile pieces supplied with the game (and bolstered in expansions) form scenery, allowing you to quickly change and customise maps to make for numerous scenarios. Most versions of the game have tiles representing hills, forests, lakes etc, but this version instead has planets and asteroids. Your units can hide behind this scenery to avoid being attacked by breaking line of sight, or hide inside it to gain bonuses to defence. Red Alert is the first game to make this somewhat hazardous, with dice rolls determining if your ships can successfully navigate the asteroid field without being hit (insert inevitable Empire Strikes Back references here). 

Each side has a fleet of ships, divided into three broad classes (Fighters, Strike and Capital), each in turn divided into several types: Fighters, Destroyers, Cruisers, Battlecruisers and Flagships. Each type consists of three models (representing the strength of the unit), but can be bolstered to a “Heavy” version with four models. Some scenarios assign you the ships you’ll be using, but most require you to draw a “task force” card at random and then fill up the rest of your fleet through a point-buy system.

Once you’ve assembled your fleet, you assign orders. The map is divided into three sectors, a centre and two flanks. Each side has a certain number of Command Cards, which direct you to order units in certain sectors. For example, a “Probe Right” command allows you to move one unit in the right sector, whilst a “Flanking” card allows you to move 2 units in each of the right and left sectors but not in the middle. Red Alert incorporates the extra card mechanic from BattleLore, with “Combat Cards”. These are special cards which can dramatically bolster your abilities in battle, but have to be activated with “Command Stars” (replacing the “Lore” of the fantasy game). You gain stars at the end of each turn, or through dice results. 

Most commands allow you to move your units can move a certain number of hexes and then attack. Each ship type rolls a different number of dice depending on the range: Fighters roll 3 dice against units in adjacent hexes, 1 dice against units two hexes away and then nothing beyond that; other ships have much longer ranges. The outcome on a die roll tells you what ship type you’ve hit, a generic “blast” symbol (which effects everything, but some ship types can ignore a certain amount of blast damage), a star (which gives you more command points) or a “Red Alert,” which is basically a beefed-up “Retreat” symbol. In a nice twist – and a rule that I must admit I’m considering adding to Memoir ’44 – Red Alert/Retreat only triggers if you simultaneously hit the same unit. No more running away just because reasons, which could get aggravating in some of the other games.

There are some nice additional twists. The Command & Colours system has struggled with the idea of counter-attacking, namely whether units that are attacked should be able to respond immediately. Some versions of the game allow automatic counter-attacking, others simply don’t allow it at all (most notably Memoir ’44) and others have a somewhat confusing system which allows you to counter-attack but only with certain units at certain times. Red Alert’s solution is to allow counter-attacks but only through the use of command stars: if you spend 2 stars, an attacked unit can counter-attack immediately. This adds a nice element of strategy to the game. Do you counter-attack immediately, or hold the stars back to trigger a crafty Combat Card the following turn? 

If you’ve played a Command & Colours game before, you won’t be surprised to hear that Red Alert plays in much the same way. It’s relatively fast, allows a great deal of tactical depth despite fairly straightforward rules and looks fantastic. In fact, the biggest difference between Red Alert and the other games isn’t the rules or theme, but the sheer size of the game.

Red Alert is almost preposterously huge. It’s so huge it doesn’t even have a board, instead having a tablecloth starmap covered in hexes. The game fully expects your average dining room table not to be big enough to hold the game without draping over the edges (and if you want extra space for your cards, tokens and cheat sheets, good luck). In terms of table space, the game takes up at least twice (and possible more) the space of Memoir ’44. The reason for this is simple: the miniatures. 

The miniatures are big, well-designed and very cool. The Commonwealth spaceships are all chunky red cylinders whilst the rebel Confederation ships are sleek green angles. Did I mention big? Fitting four Confederation Battlecruisers into one hex requires some creative manoeuvring. The build quality of the miniatures is exceptional and a long way beyond the “plastic toy army men” feel of Memoir ’44. The stands for the ships could be a bit more robust (and you may want to consider supergluing the stands to the bases), but otherwise the quality is exceptional.

This quality extends to the tokens, which are hard-wearing, colourful and easy to parse, and the cards, which are well-designed, eye-catching and easy to read. I invested in some card holders for the game as it makes life a lot easier, and takes up less room considering how enormous the rest of the game is.


And that’s really it. Red Alert is Richard Borg with the training wheels taken off, allowed to indulge himself with large miniatures, a battle map so big it’s verging on the preposterous and a veritable ton of tokens, cards and dice. But the rules are clear and well-thought-out (which they really should be by now, as the rules system turns twenty next year), allowing for gripping, exciting and fast gameplay (scenarios will typically take about an hour to play, rarely a lot more) and lots of moments you’ll be remembering for years, such as when I triggered three Red Alerts on an enemy Heavy Battlecruiser with a Fighter swarm, which scared it off the map altogether, or braved an asteroid storm that destroyed one of my fighters to deliver the killer blow to a decimated Destroyer the enemy was trying to limp to safety, which allowed me to seize enough victory points to win the battle.

The game does have some negatives. Aside from the “challenging” battle map size, the quality of the stands isn’t quite as good as the miniatures they’re sitting on. In particular, using “long stands” for the Destroyers and Cruisers is a weird choice and makes it more likely that some of the stands will snap. I’d prefer it if they used the “short stands” used by Flagships and Battlecruisers for everything, which are far more robust. 

Another problem is the perennial “I don’t have the card to execute this strategy!” issue. Most Command & Colours games are set in pre-modern times with unreliable communications, in the thick of the fog of war, so it makes sense when your units don’t follow up on a successful attack or don’t come to one another’s aid. In a science fiction game set thousands of years in the future which even notes that your ships have FTL communications and even has cards for disrupting enemy communications, this is far less convincing. It would have been interesting to see a bolder reinterpretation of the rules along the lines of Battles of Westeros, which ditches the three-sector approach altogether for “zones of command” around special leader units on the battlefield, which feels like it could have been translated to this game with ease. As it stands, Red Alert is almost exactly the same, rules-wise, as BattleLore in space, and owners of that game may wish to consider if they want a reskinned version with spaceships but needs a much larger amount of space to play. 

The other issue is cost: Red Alert isn’t particularly outrageous by modern board game standards, clocking in at around £80-£90, which is about the same as say Star Wars: Rebellion but with vastly superior-quality components, from models to cards to tokens. However, that is comfortably twice the cost of Memoir ’44 and the game only comes with eight scenarios (half that in the Memoir ’44 base set), which feels a bit skimpy. Unlike Memoir, this game does have the Task Force system, which effectively allows you generate fresh battle scenarios. In addition, I suspect it won’t be long at all before we see lots more official and fan scenarios appearing online. 

Overall, though, Red Alert (****½) is enormous fun to play. It’s spaceships shooting one another, with great rules and quality components. If you do really like it, you also don’t have to wait for more material: the game has launched with no less than six expansions, adding everything from Carriers to Dreadnoughts to Space Platforms and transport ships. There’s also three larger and more robust expansions already firmly in the planning stages, one of which adds a third, alien side and another that will expand on the idea of planetary landings and ground assaults. You can buy Red Alert through all good board game stores and websites (but shop around, as the price is varying significantly from shop to shop at the moment).


Anonymous said...

Sounds a bit like Star Fleet Battles.

Adam Whitehead said...

They're very different games. Star Fleet Battles is a proper, hardcore wargame with big data sheets for your ships and all their systems and keeping systems operational and weapons operational. Red Alert is much less detailed and more abstracted than that.