So, you want to send out your fleets, fill planets with your people, develop new technology, and generally make a name for yourself out there in the universe – but you haven’t got all day. No worries! As long as you don’t mind dropping out on a galactic map and spaceship miniatures, Alien Artifacts will have your space empire up and running in no time at all!
How It Plays
The goal of Alien Artifacts is to create the greatest most powerful space empire. Earn points by building ships, developing technology, and settling planets. Also by attacking other players and alien civilizations, and by scoring operational technology cards which require specific arrangements of elements within your empire. Each player’s civilization also has a unique way of scoring points.
Players take turns resolving one action at a time, then refilling their hand of resource cards before play passes clockwise to the next player.
Actions include spending credits to buy new cards which go under construction, spending resources to Construct/Develop/Settle and move Ships/Technology/Planets from under construction into your active empire, or trading resources to gain credits. Players can also initiate combat with their operational ships, attempt to score their operational technology, or harvest resources for their operational planets.
Each card is double-sided. The white “Logistical” side of any card typically makes your Empire run more efficiently, granting cost discounts for specific actions or awarding bonuses when certain actions are taken. The dark “Operational” side ties to operational actions mentioned above – attacking for ships, scoring points for tech, and storing resources for planets.
Combat itself is a minor detour – the attacking player chooses a target, either an alien civilization or another player. Ships may have attack bonuses, as well as technology, which are added to a random card draw. A player’s Defense Plan or an Alien Civilization card are used to determine the outcome based on the total value. The higher the total, the better the result for the attacker, awarding points, resources, alien artifacts, or blockade tokens.
Alien artifacts are powerful one-time-use cards that can be used on a player’s turn. Blockade tokens are placed on another player’s cards, and cancel the text abilities of that card.
When the resource deck has been reshuffled a certain number of times (based on the number of players), the game ends after each player has taken an equal number of turns.
This space is big enough for the five of us
Alien Artifacts is a complicated game to review. Or maybe it’s just that my feelings about it are complicated. Does it have solid mechanics, interesting decisions, and multi-faceted cardplay? Yeah. Are there elements to it that make me tilt my head and arch an eyebrow? For sure. Are there parts in this engine that are broken?
Unfortunately, also yes. But… it’s not without hope.
While purporting to be a 4X game that plays in an hour, Alien Artifacts would do better to call itself an engine builder. While the four X’s – Explore, Expand, Exterminate, and Exploit – exist in the game, and there are a few mechanical differences between them, it lacks the feel of spreading across a galaxy, conquering worlds and fighting battles. You’ll craft a magnificent empire by the games end, with fleets of ships, a half-dozen planets, and technology to keep you humming along, but there’s no sense of where you exist in the universe – not even relative to the other players.
So we’ll skew away from calling it a 4X game, but for what it is – an engine-building game with multi-use cards and quick turns, it’s got a lot going for it. Also worth noting – while I’ve successfully played a game with 4 players that lasted somewhere between 60-90 minutes, I also experienced games that lasted 2-3 hours. It depends a lot on how long players think on their turn, and if someone is slow the time can really start to stack up. A 60 minute game depends on turns being quick.
The production value here is top notch. The art and graphic design evoke a strong science fiction vibe, with awesome ships, distant planets, and wonky technology. It doesn’t rely on grungy grey and blue, either; everything is rife with color, including the resources which are featured in bright primaries – red, green, and blue for ship, tech, and planets respectively, and gold, the universal resource, is bright yellow. It’s all put together tastefully, so those bright colors don’t feel goofy or childish.
While there is no map to speak of, you do get a sense of your empire expanding. Your ships hang ominously in space, your planets loom ahead, and your rows of cards grow and grow. You can attack other players, although it mostly it feels like popping in from another dimension for a temporary skirmish than a battle for control of territory or resources.
In fact, Alien Artifacts is at its best when you are keeping to yourself, focusing on building your efficient empire the way you choose. If you know me, you know this is an odd sentiment coming from me – I typically prefer games that involve lots of interaction where players can take things from each other, but in this game it just doesn’t fit very well. Since the only real interaction is combat, and combat just slaps arbitrary penalties (usually on the defender) with little recourse, it’s not the most fun. There’s no risk of the galaxy devolving into a destructive war; when someone attacks me it usually just means I have to spend an extra turn or two repairing something. At best it’s a minor annoyance, although I’ll talk more on this in a bit.
There are a ton of ways you can score points, but you can only manage a few of them in a single game. So you might go all out on aggressive fleets (even if not attacking other players, you can score a bunch of points going after Alien civilizations), or build an incredible production engine with a bunch of planets that give you discounts. You may focus on tech that makes your turns more efficient, and then try to score points based on what you’ve built up. You could try and collect as many Alien Artifacts as possible and use them to blast your way to the front of the pack. You can even try making a small, focused empire and start scoring points earlier and as often as possible, or go for a big, bold empire that cashes in right at the end.
All of these options are viable, and more than just different paint jobs for doing the same thing. A planet-heavy efficiency empire plays out much differently than one that focuses on a large fleet, and that’s a great thing. It gives you lots of replay value, and generally ensures that you can likely pursue strategies different from the other players.
It’s worth noting that the game can be harsh. It’s entirely possible to build a wonderful, efficient engine without scoring a lot of points. Yes, every card you build is worth something, but if you don’t find a few ways to get points more efficiently than that, you’ll be left woefully behind. Nothing in the game forces you to build operational technology when the Logistics side is oh so tempting, or pushes you into combat with your operational ships – if indeed you have any. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something to keep in mind when you play. It’s definitely not a game that gives you points just for playing; you’ve got to come up with a strategy all on your own.
Conversely, this is not a game of scarcity. There are hundreds of cards, and I’ve never even seen the game come close to running low on any of the three piles you draw ships, planets, and tech from. And while each ship and planet has its own name, there are only 4 different effects in each pile, so you won’t have much trouble finding what you need if you’re really looking for it. Technology is filled with unique cards on both the logistical and operational side, but with so many cards its impossible to predict what will come up; you may choose between a few different paths to follow based on the technology cards you buy, but you’ll never feel like some other player got the card you really needed in order to win. This in and of itself isn’t a problem; it’s more of a style of gameplay to be aware of.
However, I did encounter a minor issue within the Technology cards: they’re just not perfectly balanced. Some Operational techs are mathematically more valuable than others. As an example, I once had two tech cards to choose from to build into my empire; one required me to build 3 planets, and another required 3 planets and a ship, in order to score the same number of points. It a way, one ship is a minor difference – but it is a difference, and in a game of efficiency that could make or break a strategy, and can be frustrating. It’s one thing of there are more elements to consider – such as, 3 planets of a different type versus any 3 planets plus a ship, which is likely much closer in difficulty level. Every card costs the same, too, so its not a matter of paying more to get the better scoring chart.
But honestly, I could overlook this sort of thing. There’s a much bigger problem with the game, though, which is that it tends to be a bit… well, swingy.
I mentioned above that the game is best when you’re keeping to yourself, focusing on crafting your empire as you see fit, but there are ways to prod the other players, stick your claws in their backs so to speak.
It is perhaps that combat is over-powered when you play aggressively, and defensive options are limited. You always have the option of the Basic Defense Plan, but the only way to improve your odds is to buy a very specific type of logistical ship which grants an additional defense plan. This is a random card draw, so you may get the perfect defense, or you may get something that’s worse for you than the basic plan (which you at least have the option of choosing whenever you are attacked).
Early on, attacks are minor inconveniences. But near the end of the game, if someone stacks up five or six operational ships, a single attack can be devastating because each ship gets to make an attack against the same target. This can result in a huge stack of penalties thrown at you – the basic defense plan itself could cost you points and add a dozen blockade tokens scattered across your cards, with little recourse. And the closer to the end of the game, the worse it is. Imagine on the last turn of the game having some operational technologies you are about to score – only to have another player aggressively cover them in blockade tokens, making it impossible to score them at game’s end and effectively nullifying a significant chunk of your gameplay.
You could argue that, being aware of this possibility should encourage you to plan for such things – carrying enough credits to pay off blockades, and ensuring you get an extra Defense Plan or two to better protect yourself. I say that in a game that otherwise encourages utilizing a rich variety of options, this is bizarrely pidgeonholing everyone into specific actions, and decreases the fun. Also, there are not contingencies for every plan – in one case, another player not only blockaded my tech, but siphoned points from me AND drained my credit pool at the end of the game when I had no chance to do anything about it.
Which brings me to a particular card in the game that exemplifies this strange, out-of-place swingy-ness: Time Looper.
This Alien Artifact card provides a singularly powerful effect: take 3 extra turns at the end of the game. It’s not that everyone gets 3 extra turns; just the one who plays the card. In a game about engine efficiency, this is one of the most absurdly powerful effects that I have ever seen. Ironically, the flavor text on the card seems to acknowledge this (“This might be the most powerful edge we could have today”).
I’ve seen this card used to score 30 extra points after everyone else was done. I’ve seen it used to attack players repeatedly, filling their tech with blockades and draining their points. I have seen massive swings in those three unstoppable turns that quite simply broke the game. It wasn’t fun. It removed the whole concept of racing to build the most efficient engine and just handed the victory to the player with that card.
Fortunately, this is a simple fix; remove the card from the game. The other Alien Artifact cards are powerful, but not game-bendingly so. They’re worth the effort it takes to get them, but don’t guarantee victory.
These powerful effects feel thrown in just to spice things up, I guess? But they tend to derail the focus of the design. What is this game? A take-that smash-em-up? No, not really, so why are there these effects that drastically affect the outcome? It’s frustrating when you’re enjoying the rest of the game, and it begs for house rules. I know I’d have much more fun playing this game just removing inter-player combat, forcing anyone who went the aggressive route to attack Alien Civilizations, which is a perfectly viable option.
It’s just hard to strongly recommend a game that requires a bit of house ruling to fix.
So there you have it. I have a complicated relationship with Alien Artifacts. I enjoy the game, but primarily when I get to focus on crafting an engine the way I see fit. The few moments that cause dramatic swings in points and power cause more frustration than entertainment, but it also feels easy enough to leave those elements out if I truly dislike them. Beyond that, with great art, a colorful design, and a fairly reasonable playtime (once players know what they’re doing), Alien Artifacts actually has a lot going for it.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Portal Games for providing a review copy of Alien Artifacts.
Lots of ways to score points
Multi-use cards provide a variety of strategies
Great production value
Some numerical imbalance
One particularly broken Alien Artifact card
Combat can make things pretty swingy
Lasts longer than advertised, especially with new players
Great article! I’ve only played one game of AA but was hooked as they captured, in my opinion, the 4X game (and yes, there’s much debate about that moniker for the game) in under an hour. I loved the art, the game play, and the different strategies. I agree also, that you do need to remain mindful of the other players at the table. I also agree that you need to remove the one Artifact card from the game. My big surprise with the game is that it’s quite difficult or at least more difficult than I would have imaged to garner an Artifact card, given the games’ title.