The Alpha Review

It’s been a harsh winter in the mountains where wolves typically live. You are a pack of wolves. No, sorry. You are the head of a pack of wolves, the Alpha Wolf! The only thing that sets you apart from the other packs of identically shaped wolf packs is your cunning, and coloured paint coating. Lead your wolves on hunts in the forest, establish dominance as The Alpha pack, and hoard the most food in order to lead your pack of Wolfeeples to victory!

3-6 Players | 45 Minutes | Designed by Ralph Rosario

Games By Bicycle has recently ventured into the realm of making boardgames! I grew up using Bicycle playing cards and have always admired their quality, so I have expectations set for their new range of boardgames. These games are aimed at family level groups but seem to lean a little more into the world of ‘hobby boardgaming’ than other mass market publishers tend to do. As they are new to the world of hobby boardgame publishing there are a few abnormalities with their new releases (not bad at all, just inconsistent with current industry practices). I found it surprising there is no artist credit given within the game (in fact, no credits apart from a very small designer name on the box). There is an artist listed on the BoardGameGeek page – Andrew Hutchinson. For what appears to be the first game design of Ralph Rosario, The Alpha is a great game for Games By Bicycle to use to break into the world of hobby gaming.

View from the Den

How does it work?

The Alpha is an area control game with worker placement elements and a very light combat mechanic. Over 5 rounds players will try to control food producing tiles in an effort to gather the most food for their pack and thus win the game.

Each round begins with players taking turns to allocate their wolves to the various locations around the board that produce food (animals to be caught). Smaller locations in the near forest have the potential to produce 0-4 food while the bigger locations in the deep forest can produce up to 20 food, but to travel there costs 1 food per wolf. Players try to place their wolves so that they have dominance (most wolves) at locations they are invested in, so that they will gain any food that location produces. Finally, each player has one ‘double wolf’ that counts as two wolves for the purposes of area control, but only uses one turn/food to place.

Once every wolf has been placed, locations generate food by rolling their associated dice. It’s possible a location might make no food, in which case all wolves there go home with empty stomachs. If food is caught, it is awarded to the player with the most wolves at that location. In the event of a tie (very common), players will need to fight to see who gets the catch.

To fight, players involved use their fight/share token, simultaneously choosing what side to use and playing it to the table. If all players share, they split the food evenly between them. If one player fights and the rest share, the fighter gets all the food. If multiple players fight, they each injure one wolf and return home with nothing, the food going to the player(s) that shared or otherwise players at that location with less wolves.

After 5 rounds of hunting and fighting over food, whichever player has the most food wins the game – they are declared The Alpha.

The forest set up and ready to be wolved.

What do I think?

I’ve played The Alpha 5 or so times now at player counts of 3, 4 and 6 players. Most games were relatively quick (30-45 mins) however the game certainly slowed down with 6 players. I do like how the set up takes the number of players into account and the type and number of gather locations are scaled accordingly.

The Good Stuff

  • The Alpha has amazing production quality, and breathtaking artwork to go with it! The graphic design of the game is cohesive with the art direction and the whole thing looks great and fits well with the nature-ey theme of the game. The aesthetic means the game looks great on the table when set up and the box really helps to draw people in, especially with such a unique theme.
  • The rulebook is well written and clear, which makes it easy to learn from. The simple rules are quick to teach via a short example round and play can begin within a few minutes for new players. While some of the subtleties of the gameplay may not come out till after a few rounds, the game is so quick that this isn’t an issue, since you can play another few games after your first.
  • Using the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ mechanic for combat makes this game very interesting! If a player fights, they get everything, but risk getting worse than nothing (injured). If a player shares, they could get half the food but also risk getting none. Because there are additional consequences and other players involved, the solution to the problem is not always so straight forward and so lots of bluffing and negotiation comes into play.
  • Due to the Prisoner’s Dilemma dynamic in the game, scavenging can become a very interesting strategy. If you see two players who are likely to fight for food going for a location it can be very beneficial to go there as well. You will pick up the food once they knock each other out. Of course they will probably notice you there and be more likely to share the food between themselves as a result.
  • The Alpha has very high player interaction and this includes a big element of player moderation of winner. When a player is starting to get ahead on the food track it’s pretty important for other players to work together to try and mitigate the amount of food that player gets in future.
  • The mechanics of ‘the hunt’ integrate really well with the theme of the game. Each location has the potential of being a successful or a failure, and varying amounts of food can be gained. I like the mechanic where a partial carcass can be left behind, guaranteeing the next group that makes the trip out to that area a certain amount of food. Additionally the theming around the Livestock location (big reward, but risk getting shot by a farmer) is really cool.
  • Somewhat caused by the above point, The Alpha is a game with lots of table-talk. Players will be fighting over spots, encouraging people to go to certain places in order to stop the winner from getting even more food, and just generally exclaiming their anger at being out-wolved at locations.
  • The double wolf is a fun mechanic, strategising about when you will deploy it is another interesting decision that the game presents you with and whether you use it early as a deterrence or late as a surprise turn around can make a big difference.
  • Of course, the wolf meeples are super cute.

The Bad Stuff

  • A few small things ‘missing’ that would improve quality of life while playing. There could be a reminder on the board for the cost of going to the deep forest, The ‘X’ sides of dice aren’t shown on the animal boards for reference, the player aid could have had a round overview on it.
  • Unrelated to gameplay, there are a few quirks of this game being a ‘new to the hobby games world’ game. For example, one side of the box is taken up with product information limiting storage and display options. The board never sits flat on the table, which may be related to manufacturing tolerances. The lack of prominent designer and art credits is a bit unusual. These things said, it’s clear the game is destined for mass market (e.g. Target) and these are the complaints of a Boardgame Detective.
  • The Livestock location is maybe a bit broken. It is a high risk high reward location (50% chance of permanently losing one of your wolves, otherwise you might get 12,3 or no food back). In games I’ve played it’s been heavily used, and in games I’ve played the player who got to go there the most generally won the game. I feel this location breaks the game a bit, as it is somewhat self perpetuating (if you get lucky on it you become first player and can go there every round). Of course you could be unlucky and end up with a lot of dead wolves and no food, but I’ve seen it work out a few times, the missing wolves don’t really hamper the player especially later in the game. Additionally, in the last round the first player has no reason not to go to this location. I feel that going all in on this strategy works too well, and there should be some penalty for killing most of your pack members throughout the game in the pursuit of food.
  • The Alpha Wolf meeple (the double wolf) should have been a big wolf meeple, not two wolves. I feel like it just makes so much more sense.
  • The game is quite variable in quality of experience with number of players. 3 players was just ok. While the game functions fine, not much interesting stuff happens. I think 4 and 5 were the sweet spot of fun, lots of good decisions and trade-offs, while at 6 players the game slows down too much and starts to get a bit hard to manage as there are too many things going on.
  • Rolling the ‘X’ is really really annoying. You’ve just spent a tense round adding wolf after wolf to a location trying to hold it against another player, you finally get to roll the dice to see how much food you get to fight over and it’s just nothing. I would prefer significantly reduced food to nothing, it’s just such a deflating let down.
  • The last round of the game can be pointless if a player gets so far ahead. The biggest gambles in the game do occasionally pay off in an earlier round, and a player may gain 30+ food and then just sit tight playing conservatively. Other players need to battle over the locations still and with no way to drag that player down, without king-making there isn’t much you can do to catch up.
Wolves getting ready to go hunting.

The Alpha is a great new innovative design that is an impressive show from Games by Bicycle, and hopefully a good indicator of what’s to come from them. There are many risk vs reward decisions to be made in this game which is what makes it so interesting, and the wild swings and luck based gameplay make it fun and exciting to play, but may not cater to more strategic or competitive tastes. I think the key strength of the game is when it brings players into a conflict, forcing them to bluff and negotiate to try and gain the most food over other players. I think this is a great lightweight game, perfect for any family or group who isn’t likely to hold a grudge if you promise you’ll share the 20 buffalo food with them (because you don’t want the scavenger to get it) only to fight, take it all, and win the game. You can find out more and purchase the game through the Games by Bicycle store.

The copy of The Alpha used for this review was provided to The Boardgame Detective by Games by Bicycle

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