Monday, July 15, 2024

The Alpha is a Survival Game of Chance and Conflict

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Wolves may hunt as a pack, but in The Alpha, you must make hard individual decisions to ensure your own survival. Cooperate with other tribes to ensure no one gets hurt – or fly into combat to dominate the forest.

That’s the premise of The Alpha, a light strategy game designed by Ralph Rosario and published by Bicycle. Though it’s not exactly my cup of tea, I can see the appeal for players who enjoy a push-your-luck game.

What’s in the box?

The Alpha contains a number of well-made, attractive pieces with a muted color scheme reminiscent of classic wildlife illustrations:

  • 36 Beta Wolf pieces.
  • 6 Alpha Pair pieces.
  • 11 Region Tiles
  • 9 Dice, colored according to hunting region.
  • 6 Conflict Tokens
  • 6 Den Boards
  • 1 Food Track
  • 1 Weeks Left Token
  • 1 Alpha Token
  • 1 Instruction Booklet

For a closer look at the pieces and boards check out Dan’s unboxing!

How’s It Play?

The Alpha is, at its core, a gambling game with the veneer of a fight for scarce resources among rival wolf packs. Each player plays as a wolf pack and has one pair of alpha wolves and 5 beta wolves to use as currency. Every round—of which there are five—begins with players placing their wolves, one-at-a-time, on tiles representing prey. Larger prey requires an ante of one food (or point) to attempt to hunt. Once all wolves are placed, each tile is resolved by counting the number of wolves of each color on it.

The player with the most gets to roll a die to see how much food, if any, that player receives. If multiple players have tied on a particular tile a conflict ensues. The conflict follows the format of a typical prisoner’s dilemma: if exactly one person chooses to fight, they receive all of the food; if every player chooses to share, then the available food is divvied up evenly; if multiple players choose to fight, none of them receives anything, and they each remove one wolf temporarily, reducing the amount of wolves they may place in the next round.

The Verdict?

My biggest complaint with the game is how unfair it can feel at times (though that makes the highs seem all the much better). Each die has an opportunity to give no food, rendering a player’s bet effectively worthless. It is possible for a player to fall behind early with seemingly no hope of winning. There is a “Hail Mary” available to a player in just such a predicament: the livestock tile, which may only have one wolf placed on it in a given round.

The player who places their wolf on the livestock tile rolls a die with an opportunity to receive more food than is available from any other tile, but it comes with a risk. Half of all possible rolls result in the death of one of your wolves at the hands of the rancher, removing it from the game permanently.

During my first game, one of my opponents chose to use the livestock tile in the first round and hit the jackpot! In the following rounds I had fallen so far behind that I had no other option than to attempt the livestock. I lost three wolves and got no food at all. The fact that I was forced into that position highlights another issue that I have with the game. It is rated for 3–6 players, but has no business being played with only three players. It is far too easy for two players to gang up on the other, effectively removing them from the game, while they fight for dominance between each other. Don’t forget to visit our sponsor’s website now!

I have only had the opportunity to play The Alpha at a player count of 3 (curse you, COVID!), but I would like to give it one more chance with more players. I can see how the politics between 5 or 6 players could add a new dimension to the game. I’m not sure whether I can recommend The Alpha yet, as it comes down to personal taste, but it is intriguing enough for anyone to play at least once.

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You can grab The Alpha at Bicycle Games for $29.99.

Images courtesy of Bicycle Games

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