Updated: Oct 24
If you have ever watched any Star Trek series, you'll have heard the phrase 'Red Alert!', ordinarily closely followed by 'Shields up!', uttered multiple times each season by most Starfleet captains. Consequently, it makes perfect sense that the next incarnation of Richard Borg’s Command & Colours system set in space should have Red Alert as its title.
There are clearly some reviews of games that pretty much write themselves and this is squarely in that category. Red Alert is Memoir '44 in space, give or take. If you like Memoir '44, or indeed any of the Command & Colours games that Richard Borg has designed then you are almost certainly going to enjoy this version. For those who have yet to dip their toe in such waters, read on...
The system on which this game is based is often referred as a war game system, but I think that this can be misleading. There are hex and chits and dice, but Red Alert and other games using this system are not conventional war games. You still have two sides locked in combat across a hex-based space map, but this looks like a miniatures game with some fairly bulky capital ship miniatures facing off like aggravated heavyweight boxers in opposite corners of the ring. In addition, rather than referring to a raft of decision trees and hit tables when you roll your bucket o’ dice, the custom dice that come with Red Alert effortlessly manage the process of scoring hits and causing units to retreat without having to refer to any paper based charts. This is the silky smooth beauty of the system.
PSC Games have done a fantastic job with the production of this game. The cardboard components are of a good quality and the artwork on them is of a high standard which evokes the theme. Similarly the card art is also of a good standard, although not all cards have art on them (in some cases the cards just employ science fiction styled graphic design to show the player which area they can move ships in and how many of those ships can move). The sculpts of the ships give the feel of large lumbering hulks of metal sliding silently across the battlefield. However, some of the sculpts are very similar in design, which is great from an aesthetic perspective and getting that feel that they were manufactured in the same space dock, although it does make it slightly more difficult to tell certain ship types from one another. Is this a big issue? No, not at all; in most cases the ships can easily be identified and where they are similar, the number of ships of a certain type can often be used as a differentiating factor.
One standout feature of the game is the playing surface. It's made up of hexes but there are no fiddly cardboard hexes to tesselate together. You can't call it a board because it isn't made of board. Rather than go down the route of using a conventional board or a massive and so bulky neoprene mat, PSC have gone with a synthetic cloth: essentially a tablecloth playing surface. Just be warned - you'll need a big table: the hexes are large to accommodate the chunky plastic ships so this tablecloth is around 5ft (150cm) by 3ft (90cm).
So many Command & Colours games have been produced now that the rulebooks should be perfect. That's not quite the case. However, whilst overly lengthy, they do cover their key topics very well and that's true too of Red Alert. The rules are well laid out, have useful examples to reinforce key rules such as Line of Sight and they are set out in a logical, sequential manner that is easy to read and which you can reference when you need to look up the odd exceptions to rules that inevitably arise in these games. However, a glossary with page references would have been a useful addition.
The good news is that PSC hasn’t simply blasted the Memoir '44 game into space, literally or figuratively speaking: there are some interesting tweaks and changes to the game play of Red Alert’s sister games. However, at its heart, Red Alert follows exactly the same turn structure and basic game-play; after all as Scotty might have said in Star Trek: 'If it ain’t broke, you need’nie change the laws of physics!'
The playing area is divided into three sections: centre, left and right flanks. The Command cards tell you which section(s) you can activate and how many units in that section you can move and attack with that turn. So if you have 4 cards saying left flank, do you push your advantage on that side of the battlefield, or hope you get some centre and right flank cards when you redraw? It’s a clever system that feels thematic and doesn’t significantly adversely impact a player if they have poor card draws. Players take turns to play a Command card and activate their units based on the card played. This typically involves moving those units and potentially attacking with them.
The win condition is to gain a number of victory points and these are usually earned by defeating your opponent’s ships, although some scenarios do offer victory points for achieving other objectives; for example, occupying a planet hex at the start of the player’s turn. The core game comes with eight different scenarios, although the victory conditions remain unchanged across these scenarios (ie: gain 21 victory points or eliminate 8 opposition units). This feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to offer some different emergent game play and strategies; for example, asymmetric win conditions with one player defending a target for a set number of turns whilst the attacker has to take and hold the target. The game incorporates Task Force cards, facilitating varied but balanced set-up, and the various expansions do include scenarios with different win conditions.
Combat is also essentially the same as Memoir '44. You roll a number of dice based on the type of ship in the unit activated and the distance of the ship to its target. There are a couple of changes: rather than retreat (flag) icons on one side of the die, they are instead Red Alerts. The Red Alerts essentially act in the same way as retreat flags, causing the player to retreat a unit if it gains one or more Red Alerts and this impacts its future effectiveness in combat. One small but noticeable change relates to rolling stars on the combat dice. These allow the player to take star tokens that can be spent in a number of ways: including to remove Red Alerts from units, allow units to counterattack and to boost certain cards to make their effect more powerful.
In addition to the Command cards, Red Alert incorporates Combat cards that can be used to counter a certain type of attack or to make their own attack more devastating. They have to be played during a particular phase of a round or in response to a specific action taken by the opposing player.
Although primarily a two-player game, Red Alert also comes with the possibility of playing with 4 or 6 players straight out of the core box. To achieve this, it uses the popular 'Overlord' style of play where, in a six-player game you have a fleet admiral controlling the centre section of the board and handing cards to his teammates on the left and right flanks to play.
There are already six expansions available for Red Alert: four add yet more ships and two add some extra space features - meteors and space rifts. Combined, these six expansions take the scenario count from 8 to a chunky 23! In addition, at least one scenario has different victory point objectives and a lose condition for both players.
How does Red Alert compare to other epic space fleet battle games like Star Wars Armada? The two games are actually very different. Star Wars Armada generally uses a smaller capital ship count and those capital ships last longer in fights, plus the manoeuvring means the direction the ship is facing in battle is key in Armada which it isn’t in Red Alert. Red Alert feels more family friendly and accessible than Armada, although they both have their fair share of complex rules when you dig into the detail. They also both need at least some of the copious amounts of expansion content that are offered for either of these games to increase their replay-ability.
Red Alert is pretty much Memoir '44 in two-dimensional space. So should you buy this if you already own everything for Memoir '44? Well that depends on how much the space opera theme excites you and whether there is space in your game collection for two games that utilise very similar game mechanics. Who are we kidding? Of course, you'll want to round off your collection with Red Alert!
(Review by Jason Keeping)