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Board Game Review: Lead the Pack with The Alpha

Being a Wisconsin native, I hear the phrase ‘Leader of the Pack’ and I’m instantly transported to Lambeau Field. Green and gold floods my vision, and I’m absolutely unable to contribute to any non-Green Bay conversation until my palate has been cleansed with a thick slice of cheddar cheese.

Football fandom aside, the idea of the pack is normally associated with wolves. In fact, one of Bicycle’s latest games, The Alpha, is all about leading a pack of wolves to gather as much food as possible.

It’s a wolf-eat-wolf world out there, and it’ll take some strategy to hunt down the most food for your pack.

The Alpha components and game board with wolf meeples of various colors.
Players send their packs to Regions to gather food, but Scavenging is a sure-thing.

The Alpha: Wolf and Dine

The Alpha creates a game based on two main elements: risk/reward and the prisoner’s dilemma. Each of these presents its own interesting challenges to consider when choosing which spaces your wolves inhabit.

Let’s talk about risk/reward first. The majority of the Region tiles yield food based on a roll of the die. Players know the odds of the potential outcomes up front, but there is always the possibility that a location will give nothing at all.

It can be frustrating as a player to place a bunch of wolves to control a Region only to be rewarded with an ‘X’ staring up at you from the die. At the same time, players can also roll high values, which creates a feeling of excitement and tension to see what the outcome might be.

I’m drawn to the game thanks to its employment of the prisoner’s dilemma. I took a game theory course in college where we talked about the idea, and it has many real-world applications.

At its core, the prisoner’s dilemma can be explained as follows:

  • Let’s say two criminals are in holding cells for participating in the same crime. Police are trying to get testimony from each to get them to turn on their partner.
  • Each partner has two options: they can remain silent or they can spill the beans.
  • This creates a matrix of four outcomes, depending on what each prisoner does. Essentially, the best collective outcome is if both prisoners remain silent. However, the best individual outcome is for one of the prisoners to turn. The paradox is that if both prisoner’s turn on the other, they result in the worst individual outcomes for both of them.
Prisoner's Dilemma payoff chart.
Payoff matrix courtesy of GreenFlux

In The Alpha, players can choose whether they want to Share the spoils of a Region, or Fight. If all players Fight, wolves are going to get injured, but if all players Share, they get to split the spoils. By incorporating this concept, The Alpha becomes something of a bluffing game on top of the main worker placement components. How greedy will people get?

Staking Our C.L.A.I.M on The Alpha

Components

If there’s one main thing that The Alpha has going for it, it’s definitely the presentation. The production quality of this game is right up there with the best of them.

We’re talking about two variations of laser-cut wolf meeples, thick cardboard tiles, and elegant artwork. On top of that, I also really love these dice. I don’t know the scientific name of the material that they’re made out of (acrylic?) but they give the game a contemporary style that’s really enjoyable.

The storage insert is also a huge plus; each of the player colors gets its own compartment in the box. At first, I saw this as a downside – no individual baggies to keep pieces from sliding around? But then I realized that the board holds everything in place, so you shouldn’t have problems storing the game on its side, if that’s your fancy.

The Alpha insert allows each player color to be housed in its own compartment.
Quality insert allows for quick setup and takedown between plays

Luck

Players who prefer to let their strategic actions lead the way to victory should temper their expectations before digging into The Alpha. It is entirely possible, due to the outcomes on the food dice, to make great tactical decisions only to go home empty-handed. Similarly, players can get really lucky and hoard obscene amount of food compared to the rest of the table.

The Alpha Dice which are used at each Region to determine food supply.
These dice are game-changing

Since the game is played over five rounds, all of this tends to even out in the long run. There’s also the Carrion mechanic, which can help create guarantees on how much food will be available on a given tile each round.

There’s also an element of strategy to the prisoner’s dilemma aspect of the game, which I alluded to earlier. And I’m not even talking about the discussion for Sharing or Fighting. You can actually try to play on other players’ decisions to swoop in and steal the scraps when they all decide to fight each other. Innocent bystanders can be the silent leaders in this game.

Also, the Livestock Region is literal feast or famine; it’s an interesting tile. Although the Alpha player will generally take this tile at the end of the game, since the risk of losing a wolf for the rest of the game becomes obsolete.

Aesthetics

The Alpha game box
I should get this art spray painted on my van

This ties into the component discussion, but the overall look and feel of the game lends itself nicely to the theme. If you’re trying to introduce someone to the board gaming hobby, this would be a great eye-catching game to put in front of them at the table.

Some people may be turned off by the theme of animals hunting animals, so keep that in mind. There isn’t any violent imagery or anything like that here, just gorgeous depictions of woodland creatures.

I’m also not an expert in this area, but you may run into accessibility issues in regards to color blindness, particularly in the blue/gray spectrum. I ran some images through various color blindness evaluators so you can see the results for yourself.

Interest

The Alpha is very much a gateway game, but also be quite complex. It’s simple worker-placement mechanics are easy to understand; place your wolves every turn, trying to get the majority on certain Regions.

That being said, the prisoner’s dilemma gives a nice twist to elevate the game beyond just placing meeples. Players who like rolling dice will also find their appetite sufficiently sated.

Based on my interests, The Alpha isn’t probably something that I’d bring to the table with my group of gamers that prefers games like Gaia Project, Terraforming Mars, and the like. However, this is perfect for my monthly gaming group that favors games like Sushi Go Party, Monikers, and Skull.

It’s varied enough that you can try many different strategies to cross the finish line. Additionally, you’ll see players form unspoken alliances to bring down the current Alpha pack. Which probably happens out in nature all the time.

Mood

The tension in The Alpha comes from those two main mechanics that we’ve already spoken about. Players are primarily going to be anxious about the reveal of the Fight/Share markers, which plays a huge determination the ultimate outcome of each Region tile.

As wolves get placed, players have to be constantly making decisions about which reasons they prioritize. Maybe, based on how other players are placing their wolves, you may want to go after some of the lesser-populated Regions.

There’s a certain ebb and flow that evolves through the dice rolls and as players try to slow down the leader. There’s no way that the leader can stave off wolves from multiple packs at once, so they need to restrict their focus to select Regions to stay on top. In my opinion, The Alpha would play best with at least four players to get the best feel for the prisoner’s dilemma mechanics.

The Alpha Den Board, which is the player aid for each player.
Players get their own Den mats, which serve as player aids.

The Alpha: Carrion my Wayward Son

Taking all of that into consideration, The Alpha could be labeled as a lightweight strategy game with an additional layer of strategy depending on the players at the table. This is a game that I prefer to have as an accompaniment to enjoying the camaraderie of good friends, or as an entry-level game. And don’t interpret that to be a knock on the game either; it’s just the role that this game fills. As I mentioned above, there’s a great comparison to Skull, which is something I’m always down to play.

All in all, The Alpha offers an interesting conglomeration of tossing dice and hoarding food, with just a dash of psychology. There’s definitely a spot for it on the shelf. And even though this won’t scratch my itch for football, it’ll at least scratch my itch for board gaming.

You can add yourself to be notified of the game’s release or you can wait for it to show up at your Friendly Local Game Shop (FLGS).


[Disclosure: Nerds on Earth received a copy of The Alpha from the United States Playing Card Company (Bicycle) in exchange for an honest review.]