A Howling Review of The Alpha
Growing up in Alberta, Canada, I knew what wolves were from a young age. Not that I’d ever seen one up close or in the wild, but they were common in some parts of the region. They were frighteningly beautiful creatures, full of mystery and majesty. To this day, they’re one of my favorite animals. When The Alpha came out from the good folks at Bicycle (you know, the playing card company), I was more than a little intrigued.
Getting down to it, The Alpha is a game about being the dominant pack. Hunting for food, fighting for a bigger share of food, and ultimately being the very best (like no one ever was). It’s a game that’s easy to learn for all ages, which is a strength, I think. There’s a fair amount of luck to it (i.e. rolling dice to see how much food comes out of the hunt), but it all works together to create a tasty game of dominance.
From first read of the rule book, I could tell it would be an interesting game. It is very thematic in terms of the life of a wolf. Hunt, chase, eat, fight, repeat. (How often do wolves fight? I don’t know.)
At first glance, it looks like a fun, lightweight strategy game. At second glance? Well, let’s just say there’s a bit more than meats meets the eye.
For a bit of background, players take turns placing a wolf on an animal (or berry patch) to hunt. This continues until all wolves have been played, including the two-headed alpha pairs (these count as two, and each player has one in their color). After this, it’s feeding time. The player with the most wolves on a creature rolls the die associated with the animal. The number that comes up is how much food that player gets. Of course, you could get an X, which is nothing. Or you could get killed, in the case of the livestock. But, with greater risk comes the greater reward. And I love a good risk.
But it gets better. If there’s a tie for most wolves, the players secretly decide whether to share the kill or fight for it. If both players share, then they split the food evenly. If only one shares and one fights, the fighter gets it all. If both fight…then each player loses a wolf for a few turns due to injury. And, uh, neither player gets food. (See kids? Sharing is good!)
There’s not a lot more to it than that. Sure, there are a few intricacies, but you get the idea. It’s all about placing wolves, trying to get more of yours on a critter than the other players, while at the same time trying to stop your opponents from getting too many on one beast. It’s a fine balancing act, and there’s usually one or two animals you’ll have to let fall to your opponents. Hopefully, the other players will take care of those. (Hopefully.)
I like how the game plays. Gameplay can (and should) go quickly. I think, perhaps, the most difficult decision you’re going to make is deciding if you should share the food or fight for it. Bluffing (or straight up lying) your way to more food is a key component of winning the game. Of course, many people I’ve played this with always choose to fight anyway, so sharing wasn’t really an option in those games.
I want to also mention that I taught my two kids this game. The youngest is three and the oldest is five. The youngest asked me, during the first round, “I’m done with this game. Did you win yet?” This was, of course, to be expected from one so young (even if he did end up winning). My oldest kid, though, absolutely loved it. It really is quite language independent, so I didn’t have to read things out for him and he could be left to make his own decisions. He caught on very quickly and I didn’t need to help him with his turns. He even recognized the danger of putting his wolf on the Livestock tile—a 1-in-2 chance of killing off that wolf for the rest of the game—but he put it there anyway (he rolled an X, so he survived, albeit without gaining any food).
The game is simple, but it is fun. Now, remember, it is a “light” strategy game, so you’re not going to be hurting your brain with these decisions. This might not be everyone’s go-to at game night, but if you and those you play with prefer lighter fare anyway, The Alpha is a good choice.
Wolves. Hunting. Being the very best (must…resist…temptation…). This is what you’re getting into with The Alpha. The theme comes across strong with art and the little wooden wolves. The dice also play into the theme, allowing for prey to become wounded (to be picked off the next round) or get away. Wolf packs fighting and getting injured, scavenging for leftovers, risking a blast from the farmer’s rifle in the livestock field … all of these aspects of the game contribute to a solid theme.
I like animals, especially those types that stick close to forests and mountains. The art on the animal tiles are really well done. Perhaps that’s one reason I enjoy this game. I wouldn’t put it past me. But while they could have gone for a cheaper look, they went for more realism, and I appreciate that. It’s certainly a fun game to gaze at.
These are the things that stood out to me (in a good way):
- My five-year-old can play it!
- Risk and reward
Things to Consider
While the following aren’t bad, they may be things you might want to consider.
Complexity: The complexity of The Alpha is a little too simple for my tastes. But, that’s just me. It’s still a good game, but you should know your audience when bringing this one out.
Runaway Leader: One issue I’ve found more than a few times is the problem of a runaway leader. Or, if you prefer, an inability for those who have fallen behind to catch up. I’ve lapped other players on the score track (and nearly been lapped myself). It’s not always fun to know you’re destined to lose, even before the last round comes upon you. Of course, some games can be close—perhaps too close for comfort—but having players roll poorly can really hurt their chances of even coming close to winning.
I like The Alpha. It’s a good, solid game. It may have an issue or two, but those can be overlooked—just know they exist and play accordingly. It’s perfect for younger kids wanting to play games with their parents. In fact, during the first round, my eldest son said, “This game is hard.” But not too hard. He still caught on quickly enough. Plus, he enjoyed looking at the pictures (as do I).
You know your preferences of games. If you like some lighter complexity mixed with luck, The Alpha is a great choice. There’s a lot to like about this game, and I’m looking forward to playing it as a family again soon.
About the Author
Benjamin hails from Canada but now lives in Kentucky with his wife and kids. He’s a certified copyeditor through UC San Diego’s Copyediting Extension program. He’s a freelance writer and editor, covering everything from board game rule books to novels. An avid writer of science fiction and fantasy, it comes as no surprise that his favorite board games are those with rich, engaging themes. When he’s not writing or playing games, Benjamin loves to play ultimate Frisbee, watch and play rugby, and read the most epic fantasy books available. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminKocher and Instagram @Benjamin_Kocher. You can also read his board game inspired fiction at BoardGameImmersion.com.