I have to admit I was a bit shocked when I got an email from Bicycle Cards about reviewing a couple of hobby board games. I didn’t know that the largest card game company in the world is now trying to break into the board game market. This is a look at one of their two new light strategy games, The Alpha.
In The Alpha, three to six players take on the role of a wolf pack and have to compete for limited food resources. Packs battle for dominance and food using a prisoner’s dilemma mechanic, but that’s only after a successful chase. Sometimes a hunt turns up nothing.
Disclosure: Some links in this post are affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support this blog and podcast. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases. I was provided a review copy of The Alpha by Bicycle Games, no other compensation was provided.
What comes in a copy of The Alpha a new light strategy board game?
The Alpha was designed by Ralph Rosario and features hyper-realistic art by Andrew Hutchinson. The game is scheduled to be released in mid June 2020 by Bicycle, The United States Playing Card Company.
The biggest shock I had while opening The Alpha for the first time, which you can see in our The Alpha Unboxing Video on YouTube, was that it did not actually contain any cards. I just assumed since these new games were being published by Bicycle that they would be card based games.
Before I get into what you get in the box, I do want to note that this game does not come shrink wrapped. This seems to be a growing trend that I originally saw with Ravensburger games like Horrified. Instead of being shrink wrapped the box is instead held shut by some round pieces of tape. I also want to note that the box is very striking with some great wolf pack artwork featuring a UV coating that really makes the art shine.
In the box, you find the instructions. These are eight pages long, feature a nice large font and a decent amount of examples using the actual game components.
In the box, you will also find a number of punchboards of different sizes each showing off different animals. Some of these are two-sided, with animals on one side and carrion on the other. Again the artwork is really striking, done in a very realistic style, including the carrion, which may turn off some players. There is also a round tracker, an Alpha token, and a number of two-sided tokens in the six player colours that say Fight on one side and Share on the other.
All of the punchboards are well cut and of decent thickness.
The game board is a four-fold mounted board. The main thing on the board is a track going from zero to thirty. There is also a turn track, markers showing where to place the animal tiles (above or below the main board) and a place for wounded and recovering wolves.
Six rather thick player boards are included that have a space to keep your wolf meeples (more about those in a moment) and also list the conflict rules for reference sake.
Next, we have a number of wolf meeple. There are two types in six different player colours. The first type is a “beta wolf” which is a single wolf meeple, the other type is an “Alpha pair” which reminds me of the graphic you often see on t-shirts with two wolves howling.
Last we have a set of rather unique dice. Without knowing the rules these don’t really make any sense. They are all six-sided dice with a mix of Xs, numbers going as high as twenty, and then the letter C with a number.
All of this is in a pretty decent box insert, with a space for all the tiles, the boards and each of the six players’ components. What’s an odd choice is that the board covers over the section containing the player boards and not the loose wolf meeples.
Playing The Alpha from Bicycle.
To start a game of The Alpha each player takes all of the wooden wolf meeple of their colour and a den board to keep them on. A number of potential hunts are placed either above the main board (in the deep forest) or below the main board (in the near forest). Which hunts are in play will depend on the number of players. Players then place one beta wolf on the 5 spot on the board. An alpha is randomly determined and they become the start player.
The game starts with the Stalk phase where players, in turn starting with the alpha player, place out wolf tokens onto the various hunts. There are some special rules here like the fact that only one wolf can hunt livestock each turn and the fact that hunting in the deep forest costs food (points).
Once all wolves are placed you move onto the Chase phase. Each hunt has it’s own unique die assigned to it and that is rolled to see the result of the chase. If an X is rolled then the prey got away. If a number is rolled then the chase was successful and that much food is available. If a C is rolled then the prey was injured and a lesser amount of food is available. In addition on a C roll, the prey will swap to carrion next turn. Carrion awards a set amount of food to the dominant pack. Note: the scavenge spots are an exception to this system, they just give one food to each wolf there, there is no die to roll. There is one final potential outcome and that is the D. This result only happens at the livestock hunt and represents a wolf being shot by a farmer and dying, being removed from the game.
Next is the Resolve phase. At each hunt, you check to see which wolf pack is dominant. This is a pure area majority based system. The player with the most wolf meeple on a hunt is dominant, with the alpha pair meeple counting as two wolves. If there are no wolves at a hunt it is skipped. If carrion was rolled all packs present enter into a conflict over the food, if there is only one pack there they get all the food. If a number was rolled the dominant pack gets all the food and if there is more than one dominant pack (two or more players have the same number of wolves on the hunt) then there will be a conflict. Finally, if an X was rolled, if there happens to be more than one dominant pack present, the other dominant packs can re-roll the die and try to for a more successful hunt.
Conflicts use a prisoner’s dilemma mechanic. All players involved in a conflict secretly choose to fight or share using the token in their player colour. If all packs fight, one wolf from each pack in the conflict is placed on the wounded wolf spot on the board, any packs who choose share will then get the food. If only one pack chooses fight, they get all the food and any other packs go with none. If all packs in the conflict choose share, then the food is divided evenly starting with the player to the left of the alpha.
At the end of each round players take their wolves back from the hunts, any hunts where a C was rolled have their tiles flipped to the carrion side, the player with the most food (points) is assigned as the next alpha and the time track moves up one. When that time track hits zero the game ends, this happens after five rounds.
The player with the most food at the end of the game wins. The alpha wins any tie, and if there is a tie not involving the alpha it is the player nearest the alpha, clockwise, that wins.
What did I think of this new hobby board game from Bicycle, The Alpha?
This box was a box of surprises. First off I was surprised to learn that Bicycle was even making hobby board games. I’ve since learned this is their second attempt to break into the market and they seem to be doing a better job of it this time.
Second I was shocked to learn this wasn’t a card game at all. With the name Bicycle, I just expected a card game. There are plenty of great card games out there, some of my favourite games are card games, to me, it just would have made sense that Bicycle would put out a card game.
Third I was taken by just how nice the production quality and components are in The Alpha. I guess when you are a huge company like Bicycle you can afford to make a very well produced game.
Finally, I have to say I was also shocked by how solid a game this is. When I was first contacted about reviewing this game and The Exchange, Bicycles other new light strategy game, I wasn’t expecting much at all. I thought maybe I would end up with a party game or a light simple game to play with the kids. The Alpha is a step up from that, though not by much.
The Alpha is what I would consider an excellent gateway game. It takes a few rather basic mechanics and presents them in a pretty pure and simple way. First off you have an area control system where players place their wolves onto the various hunts. This is followed up by a very Ameritrash output randomness filled push your luck mechanic of the chase die roll. Then you have what is really a direct multi-player prisoner’s dilemma when it comes to resolving conflicts.
Added to this are some other neat bits like having the livestock as a very high risk, but high reward option that works great as a catch-up mechanic. Actually having to look at risk vs. reward is part of what I think makes The Alpha a great game for kids.
One problem I can see regarding playing with kids, that could be a problem for some families, is the theme. This isn’t a cute little animal game, this is a game about wolves hunting and killing other animals where packs hunt and wolves can die hunting livestock. That’s not going to be for every family, but I will note my kids loved it. They thought it was very cool that everything was presented realistically and that it wasn’t overly cutesy.
While the components are great and the gameplay is decent this isn’t a groundbreaking game in any way. It does some pretty basic hobby board gaming things and does them well but that’s about it. Except for the area control element of the game, there is a lot of randomness here and that precludes the game from really rewarding any long term strategy or even most turn by turn tactics.
The decision points start off as, how much do I push my luck, and then turn into, I need to push my luck more because I’m falling behind or I can start taking things a bit easier since I have the lead. The high risk hunts can also cause huge swings in point differences over a single turn and if someone gets lucky it can be very hard for other players to catch up.
Overly I think this wolf based foray into the deep woods of hobby gaming from Bicycle is a very solid attempt. The Alpha looks great and plays well. I doubt it’s going to win over any hobby gamers but I do think it’s a good gateway game and a great teaching tool for young gamers in regards to teaching risk vs. reward and the brilliance of the prisoner’s dilemma.
Have you played the Alpha? What did you think? What are some other games you’ve enjoyed that feature the prisoner’s dilemma? I would love to hear about them in the comments.