Wolverhampton, May 2019
I’d heard intriguing though slightly contradictory things about Starpoint Alpha, and it was very high on my list of games to try on a West Midlands trip. Set on a space station, you naturally have an hour to get the station back under control before it falls out of space. Actually, that’s not quite true. At the 55 minute mark, whether you’ve managed to sort out the station or not, you’ll need to evacuate via the escape pods. There are therefore two levels of victory, one where you manage to save the station and one where you settle for escaping alive.
Messy is rarely a good look for a game, let alone scrappy or shabby, and that was exactly the impression I got from an early puzzle. However, that impression was only fleeting, almost instantly cured by the way the game progressed. All three of the Clockwork Escapes games I’ve played looked good, but Starpoint was significantly more ambitious than their other two. It was an impressive set with an unapologetically low-budget feel to it, like Red Dwarf or 1970s Doctor Who, which lost polish at the edges but still managed to surprise me with a variety of cool effects. Expect to spend a noticeable amount of time moving around the set – this is one for players who like to be active while they solve.
I played in a team of two, and found that worked well, though with a small team you may find that some of the puzzles go on for longer than they need to – one in particular would have caused problems for our observationally-challenged team had the gamemaster not given us a nudge. Conversely, a large team would find themselves getting in each others’ way in some parts of the game.
Clockwork’s designs seem to take pleasure in bending the rules and playing with player expectations, and Starpoint Alpha has an instance of that which you might find annoying or gloriously clever. That’s perhaps the most memorable moment of the game, but it’s not the only point where the designer’s mischievous sense of humour shows through, and that was the impression that stuck with me: of gameplay that was both fun and funny.
Starpoint Alpha’s puzzles aren’t entirely free of friction points, and a team that gets stuck in too many places could sour on the game. But it’s shot through with flashes of genius, a selection of moments that shone with originality or humour or both. It freely mixes lovely space-age props with recognisably current-day items, and then a moment later with tongue-in-cheek sci-fi pastiche. It has plenty of rough edges but which is also as full of character as its superb host. It’s not a game I’d guarantee you’ll love, but I’d guarantee it’s worth trying.
Starpoint Alpha is an interesting game. It has some really great design, ideas, and story-driven puzzles. We loved scrambling back and forth through the space.
The game has an interesting outcome model: You can save the space station and escape, or if you’re down to the last 5 minutes you can escape by completing the puzzles in the escape pod.
In a few places, implementation holds the experience back. Some parts of the game felt more like we were completing work than puzzles – perhaps because quite a few of the solutions to problems required many iterations of the same task. (For instance, searching for a large number of similar things distributed across the playing area.) If we were to fix this, we’d reduce the number things to find, or iterations in some of the other puzzles – and add an extra puzzle or two to the space.
Our games master was friendly, if a little too ready to give us clues. We’d have preferred to finish trying to figure a puzzle out and then to ask – but your mileage may vary. He had better knowledge than we did about how much there was to do, so perhaps he felt like there wasn’t enough time for that.
Despite these flaws, we had fun playing. The whole experience came with a welcome dose of humour, and a fun twist to the story that felt like it might have had a little inspiration from Red Dwarf. The game works for a team of 2, but because of the iterations involved you’ll probably do a little better in a team of 3 or 4.