“A 4X experience in only an hour.” That’s a bold claim from Portal Games and it’s made on the box for Alien Artifacts. Does it deliver? Do you really get to eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate across a complete game in just 60 minutes?
Most 4X space games follow a similar format: there is an expanding board (typically a modular board made up of hexagons, like we see in Fantasy Flight’s Twilight Imperium). There are usually plastic minis to represent space fleets, and you can expect to see large piles of tokens and very likely a fistful of dice for use in combat. There will almost always be a ‘tech tree’ as players develop and build on their technology as the game progresses. That mostly makes for a long game: certainly many 4X games run to several hours (a Twilight Imperium game can typically be expected to run for anything from 4 to 8 hours).
Opening up the Alien Artifacts box, you can see that this is a game that eschews the usual 4X formula. There is no board. No tiles to fit together. There are no plastic minis to represent ships. What there is, is a lot of cards. The first surprise is that Alien Artifacts turns out to be a big box card game.
Players (2 to 5) each represent competing factions. Each of the six factions on offer differs mainly in the initial set up and end-game scoring criteria. This means that the choice of faction is likely to affect a player’s priorities and the choices they make - it doesn't mean that players are, in the main, drawing on asymmetric powers or special abilities.
Players draw and play resource cards to develop planets, ships and technology. In the first instance, the planet, ship and technology cards they put into play are considered to be ‘under construction’ (placed to the left of a player’s board) but when sufficient resources have been allocated to them, they move to the right-hand side of the board and form part of the faction’s empire - delivering benefits and bonuses to the player. Planet, ship and technology cards are double-sided, and the player has a choice of which side to use.
In play, Alien Artifacts feels more like Portal’s Imperial Settlers than a 4X game. You are certainly developing an engine, and the eXploit and eXpand elements are strongly in evidence. The eXploration element is a bit of a stretch as it is limited to delving through the deck. Combat is more likely to be directed against the face up ‘alien system’ in order to seize the alien artifacts that provide powerful bonuses. This doesn’t have the same eXtermination feel that most 4X games deliver through player vs player conflict. In Alien Artifacts, you can interact with another player by attacking them but the likely result will be that you place ‘blockade tokens’ on their empire. This is a bit like replacing the galactic combat in Star Wars with a Phantom Menace type trade embargo.
This all may sound a little negative but make no mistake, Alien Artifact is an excellent card game. Just don’t expect it to replace TI or Lautapelit’s Eclipse. Alien Artifacts delivers some triumphant moments – especially when a player successfully sets up a cascade of actions, where the adding of a card to his empire results in other cards being similarly moved from ‘under construction’ to empire, in each case triggering their operational or logistical effect.
It plays quickly - turns come round fast and a game is likely to be completed in around 60 minutes. The engine building is very satisfying rather than an exercise in frustration – which it often can be in other games. In that sense, the use of blockade tokens is well judged: it offers a way of slowing down an opponent without wholly wrecking their carefully constructed machine.
If you like Imperial Settlers, you’ll love Alien Artifacts.