Saturday afternoon, Alex, Sarah and I made the trek up from Burlington up to the uppermost reaches of the Northeast Kingdom, right on the US-Canadian border, to the town of Derby Line, specifically. Richard and Bethany Creaser host Border Board Games at the Derby Line Village Hall the third Saturday of every month. The Creasers have put this on since at least September, but this is the first solid opportunity we’ve had to get up there.
I have to admit the prospect of poutine was a strong secondary motivator. I had never had the opportunity to try genuine Canadian poutine before, and Pizzeria Steve is literally two blocks from the border crossing. On learning our destination, the Canadian border guard shrugged and said, “It’s your stomach, not mine,” as he waved us through, but we pressed on, catching up with the Creasers at the restaurant. I am pleased to report that poutine is delicious and cheese curds squeak as you chew.
After an amusingly longer exchange with the American border checkpoint, we got back to the village hall in time to meet new arrivals. Eric and Jessica, new arrivals to the area, came to check things out. I volunteered to teach them Dominion while the others mixed the basic set with Dominion: Intrigue. Every time I teach this game, the people learning it show me what my own assumptions about the game are. This time, while I think I laid out the basic turn better than I have in the past, I occasionally went a little too far into the more advanced choices that come up. I guess I did a good job, though, because Eric and Jessica both kicked my ass, getting thirty-four and thirty-three victory points, respectively, to my twenty-one.
By the time the Dominion games wrapped up, another couple had joined the party. We split up into two different groups. I got into a game of Space Alert with Bethany, Eric and Jessica, while everyone sat down for Power Grid. This was everyone’s first time playing the game, including Bethany, who had just recently acquired it from Le Griffon in Sherbrooke, so by the time we had worked through the preamble, Rob and Angela arrived, giving us a full crew complement of five for our Sitting Duck class starship.
Space Alert pits the players, as crew members on a spaceship assigned to map sectors of the galaxy, against a myriad number of dangers that pop up out of nowhere. A ten minute audio track gives a series of cues of incoming threats, and opportunities to trade or draw more cards. At the same time this track plays, everyone has to work together to plan how to respond to all these problems: moving around the ship to different stations, firing weapons, supplying power to those weapons as well as the shields, jiggling the mouse on the computer so the screen saver doesn’t kick in, and so on.
It’s this weird, but wonderful mix of RoboRally and Pandemic. Players cooperate to solve a blizzard of catastrophes and attacks, like in Pandemic, but the actions any crew man can take depend on the cards one drew beforehand. Most cards have a move — up and down, left or right — and a button to push: A, B or C. Each room on the ship has multiple work stations with corresponding labels on the buttons. A typically fires a weapon at a particular sector of space outside the ship — of which there are three, so it’s always a question of whether someone’s firing the weapon on the correct side of the ship, since threats come from three trajectories — B energizes the shields or draws power from reserves, and C does various other things, depending on the room and difficulty level.
So for the first ten minutes, the audio track plays, alarms blare, incoming threats appear and everyone scrambles to figure out how to supply power to the needed areas of the ship so the right weapons fire and shield function. Action cards are placed in a queue, like in RoboRally, and once the time runs out, are locked in place. Then everyone works through the actions on a master sequence of events: a threat appears, then player actions occur, any damage inflicted on threats is computed, threats move, maybe fire and so on.
Space Alert has the frantic, haphazard feel of a Paranoia role-playing session, with the combination of RoboRally and Pandemic mechanics. As such, it’s an absolute hoot. I don’t think one is so much meant to beat the game as scrape by with the ship barely intact. Unlike Pandemic, where planning out a turn is a leisurely affair, Space Alert‘s planning happens under the gun. There’s only ever ten minutes in which to work out who needs to do what, and the odds are something’s going to be missed no matter how well everyone communicates. And that’s what makes the game really fun for me: running around, pushing buttons not quite at random, but never with a full view of what’s going on because the threats are coming fast and furious.
With three rounds of Space Alert down — all from the tutorial CD, apparently, so I have to wonder how tough the actual missions are — it was 10:00 in the evening. We three from Burlington decided it was time to head back.
Border Board Games is a growing success for gamers in the Northeast Kingdom and southern Quebec. Bethany’s done a great job getting the word out in a region that’s not known for being particularly wired into the online world. She fliers in grocery stores and post offices, which is where about half the people who came last night heard about it, as I understand it. The Derby Line Village Hall is a great venue: plenty of tables and chairs, well-lit and maintained with a solid heating system — which is key in northern Vermont, even in mid-April — and even an impressively sized kitchen. From an event organizing standpoint, I’m supremely jealous that Derby Line has a facility like their village hall available to residents.