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The Alpha

We're used to seeing wolves in games as the existential threat confronting players but The Alpha is unusual in that you're playing as the wolves. This is a new game from Bicycle - best known for their playing cards - but the surprise here is that this is not in any sense a card game - indeed, there are no cards at all in the box.

The 3–6 players each control their own pack of wolves: 6 beta wolves and 1 'alpha' (the term used to denote the male and female who together rule the pack). These are all represented by wooden meeples in the player's colour. The playing board is really little more than an oversized scoring track that records each pack's food supply. The action takes place not on the central board but on the small satellite tiles representing different prey. The precise mix of each type of prey is determined according to the number of players. Each round, players take turns to place out one of their wolves to stalk a particular prey. You have to spend one food every time you place out a wolf meeple to stalk a larger animal, where the potential reward in food is likely to be greater.

The different stalking locations are treated as in an area control game. The player with the most wolves at that location (alphas count as two) are considered to be the dominant pack. The player with the dominant pack rolls the die for that prey and takes the reward. Each prey type has its own discrete custom six-sided die, so each has different prospective rewards (amounts of food) and chance of failure. Helpfully the location tiles display the possible die faces (tho' not the X misses). If X comes up on the die, then the prey gets away and none of the wolves at that location bring back any food. If C comes up, then all the packs at the location compete for the food number shown on the die, and the location tile is flipped to represent carrion on the next round (a guaranteed reward for the dominant pack there that round). D is on the die only for the Livestock region. When you roll a D (a 50% chance at that region), the lone wolf at that location is killed (removed from the game).

There's strategy, bluffing and and push your luck tactics in deciding where to place out your wolves but the game comes to life when two or more packs find themselves competing for dominance at a location. Resolution here uses a prisoner's dilemma mechanic. Each player has a token that shows Fight on one side and Share on the other. If all the dominant packs at that location choose Share, then the food rolled for is shared between those players. If just one player chooses Fight and the others choose Share, the player who chose Fight takes all the food. However, if two or more players choose Fight, then they each lose a wolf to injury and get no food. In that instance, a third dominant pack player choosing Share would take all the food. If all dominant packs take an injury (ie: if all chose Fight), then the food is shared among the other non-dominant packs. This can make it worthwhile placing a lone wolf at a location where others are competing for dominance... Injured wolves take two rounds to heal and return to the player's den (supply).

As we saw in Gangs of Britannia, prisoner's dilemma mechanics can prove especially interesting where they involve more than two players. And here the various custom dice inject an additional thrill to the push your luck conflict. In The Alpha, designer Ralph Rosario has come up with an appealing game that can build to quite tense moments - especially when played with a higher player count. Play mostly takes no more than 30 minutes so even if you're left lolloping behind everyone else, this isn't a game where you'll be howling for the game to finish.

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