Board Game Mechanics: The Space Alert Screensaver

Board game mechanics is a series which looks at some of the innovative mechanics in modern board games. These are simple rules which add unexpected dimensions to games, which elevate games and turns them into something special. They’re rules which cause you to wonder at the mind behind them. They’re usually simple and elegant and thematic and evocative. Often they’re very funny.

This week, Board Game Mechanics looks at the Space Alert screen saver. Welcome to the future: it’s rubbish.

Science-fiction has a habit of gravitating towards one of two binary depictions of the future: one is clean and sparkly and full of clever gadgets and robots; the other is a dystopian world of grime and muck, of subjugated people and evil ruling overlords. Regardless, science fiction is really an analogy for the world today. Science fiction allows us to use the future as a way of examining today.

Award-winning designer Vlaada Chvátil understands the analogy perhaps as well as any best-selling science fiction author. His depiction of the future — in Space Alert, but also in games like Galaxy Trucker — is definitely not shiny and new, but nor is it really dystopian: Chvátil’s vision of the future is one in which everything is rubbish, in which needless, soul-destroying bureaucracy rules and in which capitalist excess is still rife. In other words, Chvátil’s future is one in which nothing much has changed. The future will be as it is today, says Chvátil. But with spaceships. Rubbish spaceships.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Space Alert’s screen saver.

Space Alert is a co-operative game in which you and your crew protect your rubbish spaceship from pirates and meteors and who-knows-what-else for ten fraught real-time minutes. But perhaps Space Alert’s greatest threat does not come from external sources, it comes from your own computer.

But this is no HAL 9000-type computer. It’s not evil. It doesn’t want to hurt you. But it does have a screen saver. And if the screen saver comes on it’s going to turn off all the lights in the ship. Of course, the company you work for could disable the screen saver, but the screen saver contains a corporate advertisement for your sponsor. So somebody is just going to have to nudge the mouse — somebody in Space Alert will be in charge of mouse-nudging. And so, during a game of Space Alert you might find yourself fending off aliens and pirates, blowing up meteors, feeling unusually competent and organised. And then everything goes wrong: Barry forgot to nudge the mouse and now the lights are off, nobody can see anything and you’re all dead.

You had one job, Barry. One job.

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