Alien Artifacts: Civilization Game or Ridiculously Stupid TV Show?
Honestly, I was not impressed when I first heard of a civilization (4X) card-based game that plays in about an hour. Plus, there was the name: Alien Artifacts. What kind of a backward ass name is that for a game? Let alone a civilization game? Alien Artifacts sounds like a worthless show on The Learning Channel (TLC) that, despite all attempts, nobody seems to watch but is magically launching its thirteenth season this fall—again, not impressed. Civilization games are grandiose, complex, and take the better part of a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon to play. They emphasize variable player powers, theme, and come with plenty of bits and pieces—that's why players love them. Quite frankly, they look good on the table.
Alien Artifacts is a futuristic space game designed by Marcin Ropka, Viola Kijowska, and published by Portal Games—a game publisher I have enormous respect for. Alien Artifacts plays for two to five players and takes sixty minutes to play. In the game, players take on the role of science fiction factions such as the post-human Clone Clans or the democratic Star Union. The goal—akin to every civilization game in existence—is to take your empire from possessing very meager means of exploration, technology, and combat ships to a flourishing galactic superpower. Have you heard this speech before? I know I have.
The biggest problem with Alien Artifacts—besides its retarded name—is the learning process. When you get down to it, the game is not the most complex beast you'll ever have to wrestle and hog-tie. I would consider the game mechanics to be relatively straightforward. However, Portal Games has an annoying history of being incapable of writing a rulebook that helps players learn the game rather than confuse them. This is not hyperbole. It's bad. It's really, really bad. Portal Games cannot get it together when it comes to rulebooks. To the point where it's grown into an inside joke among the gaming community.
While playing Alien Artifacts, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that, on your turn, you can only do one action. The bad news is there exist a plethora of actions to take. On a player's turn, they can buy a card from the market, build a ship, develop a technology, trade resources, remove blockade tokens, prepare resources, start an offensive (battle another player of NPC), gain revenue (how players get money), and mine extorted planets. Whew. So many actions, and yet, if you've played any 4X/Civilization game before, the actions are basic and understandable.
The game offers lots of choices and strategies—which any gamer, myself included, will tell you that's a good sign. When your faction builds a spaceship, develop technology, or explore new planets, players decide the side of the card they want in play. Typically, one side of the card allows players an ongoing effect but jack-squat regarding points at the end of the game. The converse side will enable points to the player at the end of the game but does jack-squat to help the player further their empire. Alien Artifacts requires a player to restrain themselves—for the love of God—and strive for balance. Development of too much technology, the "logistic" side of the card, will beef your faction prowess but leave you short on the scoreboard. Unfortunately, players will stall out if they focus on building cards' "operational" side. Plus, you have to worry about being attacked by other players. Finding balance is the beauty of the game.
Alien Artifacts promises its players a civilization experience using only cards and a duration of sixty minutes, and, hell's bells, they delivered the goods. Now, truth be told, I have only experienced Alien Artifacts as a two-player experience; however, my gut tells me the game really shines at a lower player count. At the end of the day, the game is not bad. I had a lot of fun exploring the choices and strategies Alien Artifacts presents its players. While I don't foresee the game hitting the table very often after the ninth or tenth play, it sure is great fun getting to that point. Time well spent over watching a TV program, that's for sure!