Area 51 – A First Look
By Stefan Alexander
Art by Christian Opperer
Publisher – Mücke Spiele
Length: ~15 minutes per player
Players: 2 – 6 players (probably best with 3-4)
First Look by Jonathan Franklin
Have you ever wanted to gain alien technologies for fun and profit?
Of course you have. There are six places I want to teleport to right now.
Have you ever thought about where you would put all that stuff? I hadn’t until I started playing Area 51. It takes security, the right conditions, and space (ha!) to store these goodies.
Area 51 is a clever game about building bunkers and transporting alien technologies around Area 51. Alas, the other players are trying to store those same items are in their bunkers.
This is a game in the Bohrturm series from Mücke Spiele. Bohrturm means oil tower or oil derrick in German. For other winners, see http://www.muecke-spiele.de/english/bohrturm.html The key element of this series is that it uses pieces that were originally designed for Giganten, a 1999 title by Wilko Manz. Harald Mücke has had several games in this series, all chosen from a competition that requires the submitted games use these pieces.
Second, the game is somewhat abstract, so if you are looking for a Flying Frog game about alien artifacts that wake up in the middle of the night and start phoning home, this is not the game for you. If you like straightforward play, clean rules, and some light hidden information elements, you will have fun.
I won’t go into detail about every rule, but let me lay things out to give you a taste.
The goal of the game is to score the most points. Points are scored by having artifacts stored in your bunkers and having the tallest bunkers in the three board regions at the end of the game.
The turns are simple, you take one of four actions – take 3 cards, build or upgrade a bunker, take artifacts from a hangar and store them in that region’s bunkers, or build transportation so bunkers in other regions can accept certain artifacts.
Basically, you spend numbered cards to improve your bunkers while choosing which cards to spend by whether they can then be stored in your bunkers when someone picks them up. This continues until two of the three areas run out of the black upgrade tiles. You then have a few bonuses, but the heart of the scoring is the storing of artifacts in your bunkers.
Entering the weeds
The alien artifacts are represented by cards numbered 1-4 in four colors (suits). Each suit has a different distribution of numbers, which is quite fun and helps the arc of the game. The first of four actions you can take is to draw three cards. So far so good. Need more artifacts, draw them from the tableau or the deck. If you hate the tableau before drawing any cards? You can pay a card for ‘two-buck flush’ (bonus points if you get the reference – explanation: Showmanager reference, Premiere if you are really cool), which flushes the six face up cards and gives you six new ones to choose from.
The second action you can take is to build or upgrade a bunker. Bunkers are built in one of three board section and each section has two or three hangars, places for the artifacts used as payment. For example, to build a new orange bunker, you would play a face up orange card of any number and any one face down card. They can both be in the same hangar, or split between two. You then build an orange level 1 bunker by putting a single black piece under the bunker and your colored cube on top of it to claim it. The bunkers come in four colors and they are NOT player colors. The color of the bunker represents the type of artifacts that can be stored in it. Ownership of the bunker is represented by the cube on top.
At this point, you are probably asking why I built an orange bunker and the answer is that you need an orange bunker to store an orange artifact, but we’ll get to that later. For now, just remember that for each bunker, you can add levels to it by placing one face up card of the bunker’s color and as many face down cards as the next highest level. You then add another black piece underneath the upgraded bunker to show that its security level has increased by 1.
Now the third action, which is the cool one. A player can set their hand down and pick up all the cards in a single hangar. Remember that in most cases there will be some face up and some face down cards. The person who picks up the cards flips them all face up and gets to store them in the bunkers in that part of the gameboard. If I have an orange level 2 bunker, it can store a single alien artifact each turn, which could be an orange 1 or an orange 2. The bunker lacks the security to store a level 3 or level 4 artifact and only orange artifacts can be stored in orange bunkers. The player must place an artifact if they can, even giving points to others by storing artifacts in bunkers owned by others. It is a game of symbiotic relationships. I spend artifacts to upgrade bunkers in board regions where I or someone else might be picking the cards up and storing the artifacts in my bunkers, thereby giving me points. Why would anyone ever pick up cards then? Well, you get to keep all the artifacts that cannot be stored in any bunkers, so it can be a far better deal than just taking three cards and scoring nothing for yourself, even if you give the other players some points in the process.
There is one additional action, there are tracks and roads around the board. You may pay cards to build a train or truck so that an artifact that cannot be stored in one section of the board can be placed in an adjacent section. For more about this action, check out the rules. It is a cool option, but not core to understanding the game.
End of weeds
I liked the central idea that you are spending cards on the basis of whether or not you would be able to score them when someone picks up the cards in that hangar. This led to a few unanticipated ripples.
Since you are paying to build using cards and also want to be the person who controls where the cards go, there is a tension between building more to store better cards and distributing artifacts more to get the best ones into your bunkers. Since you cannot do both, It is hard to decide whether to build or pick up from a hangar. If you do build, where do you build and what cards do you seed there?
People are mean. Remember how I said that the person who picks up the cards chooses where they go? Let’s say there is a blue 4 bunker owned by you and a blue 3 owned by me. I pick up the cards in the hangar and have a blue 1, a blue 3, and a blue 4. I can give you the blue 1 for one point, give myself the blue 3 for three points, and take the blue 4 into my hand. In other words, I can give others the worst cards I possibly could, give myself the best cards I possibly could, and keep the rest. Then I can pay for my blue upgrade to level 4 in part with the face down blue 4, then take that hangar and give myself the blue 4 for four more points. If there are no other blues in that hangar, no soup for you! Whee!
So we have a fun somewhat abstract color/number majorities game. Why should you think twice about this game? For me, it was the playing face down cards and splitting them between the two hangars as I chose, based on what I thought others might do. You are often torn between playing a card in a region where you can consume that card and picking up a pile so that someone else does not. Can you leave that hangar with the juicy face down card for another round, or do you need to take it now, thereby giving up upgrading your other bunkers to store more goodies.
Downsides – The irony here is that the black bits that are the core of the competition, in that they are required for publication in this series, seem somewhat variable, so some are loose and others cling tightly to each other.
The theme works, but is very Euro. I had a hard time injecting theme into this review because it would have made the explanation harder, but once you play the game, you can see how well the game works within the constraints of the contest.
Congratulations to Stefan Alexander for creating a light but crafty game with a push-your-luck element in terms of wondering whether the hangar of cards you want will still be there when it comes back around to you. Come to think of it, how many games could you design with four colors of trains, trucks, oil derricks, and lots of black risers? If you can, you should enter the next contest.