My first introduction to Portal Games was the 51st State Master Set. It was primarily a resource management and engine building game. Engine building is a mechanic that sees developing combos through your cards of in-game powers.
In 51st State you would produce resources to power other cards for more effects. It was a neat system, if a little fiddly. Alien Artifacts was pushed as a 4x game, but what it does is streamline the fiddliness of 51st State into a very fast playing game with clever resource management.
Opening the box you find a very nice and functional insert full of decks of cards. There are some player sheets for the various factions in the game and score markers. The player sheets are instantly recognisable to veterans of Imperial Settlers and 51st State. They see players placing cards to one of three slots on the left initially, before moving them into their 'empire' on the right.
The left area is called 'under construction' and is basically where you plan your future moves and work out where the gaps in your empire are. Cards cannot be utilised for any powers when they are 'under construction'.
Interestingly the key deck of cards, in my opinion, is the resource deck. Rather than having individual resource pieces, Alien Artifacts uses the resource deck, which also acts as a game timer and resolves a number of other things too! The cards are split into two halves showing 1-3 resource of the same colour on each side, as well as another symbol under the resources and a big number in the middle.
Other decks include defence plans for protecting against attacks, alien artifacts powerful one-off effects, alien systems to attack, faction cards for unique set-ups and powers, alognside the three main decks of Technology, Planets and Ships.These last three decks are double-sided with an operational side and a logistics side.
The logistics side usually gives some sort of ongoing benefit once in your empire, whereas the operational side varies. Operational ships can attack, operational technology allows end game scoring and the potential for in-game scoring, and operational planets give resource cards.
The gameplay of Alien Artifacts is familiar and different all at once. It retains the one action per turn of 51st State. This not only promotes strategic decisions of which actions to choose but also means there is an incredible pace to the game. However, the pace doesn't catch you unawares due to the resource deck also measuring the game length.
Depending on player count you will burn through the deck a certain amount of times before one final round. Of course, most actions require you to discard at least one resource cards. So sly players who think they ahead have options to put pressure on other players.
Resources are colour coded red for ships, green for planets and blue for technologies. The important number to remember is 'five'. Everything starts at a base cost of five. Five coins to buy ships, planets, or tech and place them 'in development', and five of the relevant colour resource to place them in your empire.
Once you have cards in your empire they add to the cost, but five is always the base you are modifying. There is also a gold wild resource which can be paired with another colour but only for basic actions. Another thing to remember is the 'Assembly limit'. This basically states you can only use two resource cards to pay for things, and each assembly limit (ships, planets, tech and trade) must be individually upgraded.
The 'operational actions' cost five of the appropriate resource and basically trigger all your operational cards of said type. All your ships attack, all your planets produce resources and all your operational tech has a chance to score. This makes tech incredibly powerful, as to check if each one scores you flip a resource to match one of those other symbols I mentioned. This means you can burn through the resources incredibly quickly should you choose.
The symbols represent expansion, exploitation, extermination, and exploration. Each planet, tech and ship is tied to one of these, however, that is really the extent of the '4x' nature of the game. More of a nod towards than a fleshed out 4x experience.
Your basic actions are to buy a card (five credits), build a ship/develop a technology/discover a planet (five of the correct resource + one for each already in your empire minus modifiers! Don't forget your assembly limit!), trade resources for credits, remove blockade tokens, or prepare resources. Most of these are straightforward, the preparing of your resources is an interesting action. It allows you to place resources under a card on your 'construction' side of the player board, and use them in a later turn. The sweetener is that they don't count towards your assembly limit. As you grow your empire more you will need to use this action a lot!
Blockades can be placed on cards, effectively neutralising them, by attacks. Attacking is very basic. You refer to the defence plan of who you are attacking which lists the numbers 1-4 and a result for each number. You then turn the resource card at the top of the draw pile using the number in the middle. Simples. Defence plans usually reward you in some way, including the chance of gaining an alien artifact card. It's usually better to attack alien systems rather than other players as the rewards are better, plus it's only a minor annoyance for the player you attack.
Lastly, you can perform your faction action, again usually to gain an artifact or an action from one of your cards. Artifacts are powerful actions that are played in addition to your main action. Some, in my opinion, are too powerful, like the take three more actions card especially when played on the last turn.
Imperial 51st Artifacts
Now, remember that I said the planets, ships and tech were double-sided? Wel, when you pay resources to put them into your empire you choose which side they are played. Planets and ships tend to give you cost reductions should you play them logistically. Ships let you make one attack when you play it operational, whereas planets give resources. The tech is quite different, usually giving a tempting power or modifier on the logistic side or the aforementioned scoring chances on the operational side.
I enjoyed Alien Artifacts a great deal. The game plays very quickly and it is incredibly satisfying building your empire/engine. However, it is not a 4x game, nor does it feel like one. It contains references to 4x elements but that's it. This doesn't make it a bad game but is definitely slightly misleading hype.
The player board system works well and has been well refined by Portal. The resources feel streamlined and the fact that they time the game as well, adds to the feeling of speed the game gives. That's not to say you feel the game is over too quickly. The amount of time left is public knowledge so if you run out of time it's due to your mistakes rather than the game's speed.
It's not all rosy though and there are a few things that hold Alien Artifacts back from being a true, must-have game. Firstly there is very little difference between the various factions. They start with different cards, but the difference is more 51st State levels rather than Imperial Settlers. It would have been nice to see more difference in these.
The planets operational side, paired with the blue operational action feels too powerful. It will score points and rush the timer. Plus if you haven't noticed a player going for this it is hard to counter. This will be somewhat your fault for not spotting it earlier but it's still annoying.
Lastly, I question the balance of the Artifact cards. Yes, they can be hard to earn but getting a card that grants three extra actions to one player who then uses it on their last turn to win, feels cheap.
Do you need it?
The eternal question! If you enjoy the engine building genre or Portal's previous efforts in it, you will like this. Quick, streamlined play with gratifying empire building. However, if you already own one of Portal's previous games of this nature is there room for Alien Artifacts too? This is something I've been going back and forth on.
51st State is one of my favourite games, I love the game and the combos I've been able to create. I think there are slightly more options in it and more chance to fire off combos. But I can't ignore the way Artifacts handles the resources so much more effectively.
If I was to keep just one it would be 51st State but only just. If I was teaching one to new players? Alien Artifacts easily. I hope that helps?!?