Until Alien Artifacts arrived on my table-o-many-games there was a 4X shaped hole in my collection. Long have I gazed longingly at such behemoths as Twilight Imperium and Forbidden Stars dreaming that one day, I would take two days just to play a single game. Vast, shelf-bending boxes filled with a hundred teeny plastic spaceships to be moved around the infinite cosmos of an entire dining room table. Legions of laser wielding soldiers, planetary bombardments, ruthless enslaving of primitive races and a billion tokens all define this brevity-denying genre.
“Phwoom, pew-pew, crackle, kerboom, Argh!!!”
Alien Artifacts looks to replicate this space-based operatic experience, this sink of time and money in just a single hour with naught but a few stacks of cards and a couple of wooden discs… brave move.
But Sane, what is a 4X game?
Glad you asked that, bold heading. It stands for Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate which I suppose should make them 4E games but that wouldn’t sound as cool. You must be cautious when researching 4X games online as typing “XXXX Games” into your search engine of choice may produce a surprising outcome, a challenging conversation with HR and loss of work internet privileges.
Alien Artifacts is a 2-5 player, card-based, 4X game by Marcin Senior Ropka and Viola Kijowska published by Portal Games. The players take on the roles of High Commander / Emperor / Chief Duderino of an (essentially human) faction and through careful application of resources and ruthless expansion, looks to dominate the victory point table once the resource deck has been drawn and shuffled once per player. Victory points are tracked throughout the game with a number of bonuses at the end along with faction specific bonus points for having the right cards in play.
The Freaky Hand-Feets vs Please Don’t Sue Us Microsoft
Because we currently live in the future, reading is hard and Rodney Smith is an amazing human being you can have the entire game demonstrated to you here. I watched the video before even cracking open the box so can’t be sure that the rulebook is perfect to fresh eyes but the “Watch It Played” logo is even printed on the side of the box. It’s nice to see that Portal has correctly identified illiterate gamers like myself.
So give me the headlines, that video is 26 minutes long!
Rounds move quickly in Alien Artifacts. In fact probably the most notable part of the gameplay is just how fast a full turn is completed. You do a single action then draw your hand of resource cards back up before nudging the player to your left (or your right if you’re a heathen) to play their cards. I’ve managed to get Alien Artifacts to the table with up to 4 players and even then the game maintains pace. Since you draw resource cards back up at the end of each turn there’s no reason not to spend as many as you can at each opportunity so cautious analysis is kept to a minimum. Even if you have nothing else to do, dumping cards for extra credits (used to buy more cards) is useful so there’s never really a wasted turn.
The ships, tech and planets that you buy and then develop into usable cards are all double sided with logistics on one, operations on the other. The logistics side tends to help build your resource engine by giving bonus actions, discounts or special abilities. Operations does stuff. As an example, operational ships are mighty battlecruisers with which you can encourage the extinction of alien species and loot their corpses. You can also use them to attack other players but (and I really like this about Alien Artifacts) it’s usually not really worth it.
When I first laid this game out in front of The Destroyer (youngest son) I expected him to play in his usually brutal, face-smashing manner. Instead he quickly identified that you get far more from blasting alien systems than you do from just inconveniencing another player. This boy plays full contact “Hey That’s My Fish” and yet he leaves his fellow human(ish) starfarers in peace and THAT is impressive game design.
Bwahaha, now I have a battleship too!
Alien Artifacts is a clever game. Your turns can be hugely complex but only after you’ve played for 45 minutes and have built that complexity in with your choices of cards. The first half hour of play is relatively simple and you can easily find yourself totally engrossed in your own progress with almost no interaction with other players.
Alien Artifacts does take up a surprising amount of table real-estate by the late game
The different factions are mostly window dressing but with some variance in bonus victory points. Your early decisions are more indicative of your strategy and you don’t feel channelled down a single route because of the faction you drew during setup. The balancing act between improving your engine so that life becomes easier versus scoring victory points is generous and never feels forced. With Alien Artifacts if another player is suddenly flipping all their tech to operational to score some sweet victory points whilst you’re still playing “pew-pew spaceships” that’s OK. Just go blow up another neutral planet and get some victory points for yourself.
There are certainly optimal choices each turn but you’ll never find yourself so far behind that the journey ceases to be enjoyable. Most of my Alien Artifacts plays have also ended with narrow victories and near losses which I like in a game. Points on the scoreboard give a reasonable indication of player progress but there is a glut of points coming at the final tally which keeps things tense. That is, once you remember to start playing for victory points instead of buying new toys and tricks for your faction.
Good storage system EXCEPT my fingertips are too fat to extract the second disc. Thanks Portal.
The components of Alien Artifacts are well designed. The resource cards are used as currency with two options on each card, random number generators (dice are sooo last season) and coin-flips on whether an operational tech scores or not. That’s pretty cool when you think that resource cards usually just have a picture of some wheat and maybe a number. The faction boards are all double-sided with a male/female avatar as per the players preference with a stylishly glossy finish. The artwork, although criticised by some as not being exciting enough, is clean and thematic. Alien Artifacts is a good looking game when compared with other card games but I can appreciate that the spectacle will never rival a table full of space lanes and piles o’ plastic.
Resource cards: Font selected by hipsters
Alien Artifacts plays well and I’ve not had a bad experience with it. The complexity ramps up throughout the playtime as your engine becomes more interesting but starts simply enough that even my 8 year old can play it well. The lack of intense player-on-player action allows you to focus on your own goals without worrying that you need to spend actions on defence (which is limited to just a few opportunities to purchase “Defence Plan” cards anyway).
Final thoughts? You’re running long here.
Sure, without a recognisable IP to hang its hat on the story you tell whilst playing Alien Artifacts relies more on your own imagination than a licensed product. Could the whole game have been re-skinned onto another setting without losing anything? Sure it could. Planets could have been newly conquered lands, ships could have been armies, tech could have been magic. But the mechanics of the game are sound and enjoyable. There’s always a goal you are focused on, a card you’re desperate to get into action and something worth doing.
His Imperial Majesty, Sanus the 4th of His Name endorses this message
If you’re drawn to empire building sci-fi but don’t have the time or budget for one of the true 4X games, Alien Artifacts can scratch that itch for you. No, it won’t ever compete on depth of gameplay or spectacle. But Alien Artifacts is mechanically a good game and I can’t ask for much more than that. 8/10 and available from you FOGS here.
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The failed genetic combination betwixt a wooden cube and a rage infected monkey, Sane must seek out the perfect board, card or digital distraction to control the raging spirit that dwells within him. Or beat Pandemic in heroic mode, whatever.
His most regular games group consists almost exclusively of his spawn; The Cherub, The Heir, The Destroyer, The Bounce and his shiny pink mascot, The Star. These diminutive devils delight in Dad's disastrous duels, dicing with death as they defiantly defeat him... doo-doo, doooo. Meh