Area 51: Top Secret* is a family board game with elements of action selection, set collection, area control and hand management.
The wafer-thin theme says players are building bunkers at the legendary Area 51, in which they’ll be trying to store various alien artefacts. But beyond the board and card art the theme is as real as the aliens themselves.
While I’d class it as a family/gateway game – around the complexity level of a game such as Ticket to Ride or Catan – it has an extra level of deviousness and some memory elements that give it an interesting level of emergent strategy.
I was sent a pre-release copy of the game so will not be including my own photos here (except one), as the finished product will have different components. However, in terms of gameplay, it was essentially the finished article.
The game takes two-to-six players about an hour to play and works well across those numbers – although I’ve not yet played two-player (if this changes I will amend the review accordingly). In the box you’ll find a modular board (setup changes depending on player numbers), around 100 artefact cards and a bunch of pieces representing towers/tower caps, security markers and means of transport (trucks, trains and level markers).
As noted above, the basic actions available in Area 51 are very much of the ‘gateway game’ variety and very simple to teach.
On each of your turns you get to choose one of four actions: draw cards, build/improve a tower, move a truck/train, or empty a hangar into the towers.
If you take cards you get three; from the six face up cards or blind from the draw deck. There are four colours of card and these match the colours of the towers and trucks/trains. The cards also range in value between one and four, with the split/amount of cards differing per colour. There’s no hand limit.
If you build a tower you take a coloured tower of your choice and place it in the area of your choice (there will always be three areas, with the size of them varying depending on player count). You pay for it with two cards – one to do the action, which needs to be the same colour as the tower you chose, and any one other (which signifies the level of tower you’re building – they all start as ‘level one’, hence one extra card).
On later turns you can upgrade a tower (you mark them with a cube/tower cap of your player colour) by again playing one card of the tower’s colour, plus one more (any colour) card per level it has become – so to make a level two red tower into a level three, you would pay one red card and any three other cards.
Moving trucks/trains works in the same way. There is a train and truck of each tower colour, all of which start off the board. If you want a vehicle (they’re mechanically identical) to be based in an area, simply pay a face-up card of its colour plus up to eight other cards and place it facing out of the area you choose, pointing towards either of the other areas. The amount of extra cards you pay is denoted by a marker next to the vehicle: if anyone wants to move it later, they’ll have to pay more than you did (so paying the full eight extra cards means that vehicle can never be moved).
Importantly, all the cards you pay to do these actions are placed in the area you build/upgrade your tower or place a vehicle. The card you pay to do the action (matching the tower/vehicle colour) is placed face up – but all the others are placed face down. It’s also important to note here that each area has a number of hangars (two or three) and you can spread your payment between these in an area as you see fit.
The final action is scoring a hangar. Up until now the numbers on the cards have been insignificant – but now they get interesting. The player takes all the cards (face up and down) from any one hangar (not area) and places them face up in front of them – and then works out how best to score them.
This is largely scripted, but can throw up some interesting decisions. Each tower in the area the hangar is in – plus any towers in areas connected by an appropriately coloured vehicle – can take just one artefact of its colour from a hangar when it is scored; as long as the artefact’s level is equal to or lower than the tower (so a level two blue tower can take a level one or two blue artefact, but not a level one red, level three blue etc).
The player scoring chooses which artefacts go where, and in what order; but must place artefacts in towers where possible. Any cards that couldn’t be accommodated then go into the active player’s hand. For example, if there were red towers of level one and four available, and the active player had found both a red level one and level four red artefact in a hangar, they could legitimately place the level one artefact in the level four tower first – meaning there was no room left for the level four red artefact (which would go into their hand). Sneaky. Points are scored by the players owning these towers, so not necessarily the person taking the action, at a simple one point per level of artefact ratio.
When you upgrade a tower you use a security marker, which are limited in each area. When two areas run out of these markers the end game is triggered – with each player getting one more regular turn; and the game then continuing until all the hangars have been scored. Finally, there are end-game bonuses for the biggest towers in each area.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: Area 51 is a really clever game design. The mechanisms are simple, yet the decisions can be fiendishly tricky – especially once you start to forget where you’ve put your cards (which happens to me almost immediately). It’s always nice to score a hangar if you know you’ll get at least three cards excess; but can you really be sure you will? Or maybe it’s better to get a vehicle down to divert a possible score there first; but then the hangers in that area will be made more tempting for other players to score… I love these kinds of decisions.
- The thinker: While this game feels far more tactical than it does strategic, it has clever elements of both. There are elements of area control and you constantly feel at the behest of others; but once you’ve played the game a few times this can become hugely satisfying. However at first it can feel very frustrating – I just hope players give it the few games it deserves to start to see the possibilities. Also, in terms of area control, it’s a shame they didn’t think more about the end-game tower scoring – as in my games to date it has felt largely inconsequential.
- The trasher: Half of me hated Area 51 – it has totally the wrong theme and consequently suffers from a complete lack of personality. But once you get your head around what’s going on (at least half a game) its tactical nature becomes a real treat. Timing and placement are both crucial, but you’re constantly rethinking your position after the moves of others – which keeps you watching their moves. I didn’t find the decision space too big though, but some did – the game seemed to stop some player’s in their tracks and they really took against it, without really being able to pinpoint why. I think it just presses an interesting collection of buttons.
- The dabbler: Sadly I wasn’t really won over by this one. It doesn’t look great and the theme totally doesn’t make sense: why on earth would we be running competing bunkers within Area 51? Stupid. And while it may have a clever modular board there is no attempt to add personality through artwork, player customisation, interesting cards, or the like. It should be illegal to make a game with a sci-fi theme where you’re storing crazy looking artefacts – and simply give them a colour and number! Where’s the fun in that? As arid as the Nevada desert!
Key (Kickstarter) observations
Area 51 is on Kickstarter now (until September 16, 2016) with a backing target of just €6,000 – and from a publisher with a track record of delivering good quality games.
At €35 the base game is well priced, especially if you can collect free from Essen in October – and is still good value with the extra €10-15 shipping to Europe, the US and Canada.
But that is of course dependent on component quality. While the art is fine (if unspectacular), the base pieces we were sent were not fit for purpose and the train/tower pieces were the polar opposite of vibrant. Mechanically though, it’s sound!
My one criticism is that the game lacks a little bit of a personality – and it is frustrating to see that this may be added via stretch goals. The ‘Contraband’, ‘Alien Spaceship’ and ‘Prosperity’ expansions? These sound awesome! No, they’re not 100% necessary and the game will be staying in my collection with or without them – but it would have been great to have a few more things to shout from the rooftops about. But I guess I just have to accept that this is how many game publishers like to use Kickstarter.
For me, Area 51 is a highly enjoyable light-medium euro game with some really clever and devious mechanical twists. It’s packed with interesting decisions and has a fluidity that keeps me glued to the board, while it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
But I can’t promise you it will be a hit with your group! I’ve played it with nine different people to date, all of whom I’d thought could like it – and its actually turned out to be quite the Marmite experience (for the uninitiated – they loved it or hated it).
I think two things work against it – both of which I’d say will turn out to be strengths in the long run. First the in-game scoring takes some getting used to and is unintuitive, so can throw people off and frustrate them early on. Secondly and connected is the lack of card knowledge that can leave players feeling they have little control; which goes against the game’s seemingly euro nature. But I feel these are both mostly ‘first play’ problems.
So if you like euro games I would say this is a game you should definitely try out. There are enough familiar elements to lull you into feeling at home, but enough quirks to then immediately knock you off your comfy perch. I just hope enough people back it to open up those stretch goals – and that they consequently add that little bit of extra character the base mechanisms so richly deserve.
* I would like to thank Mucke Spiel for providing a prototype of the game for review.