In the forest, when resources become scarce, predators must work hard to find food and assert their dominance over their hunting grounds. This is not lost on the wolves of the land, who must try to find enough food to feed themselves while not running afoul of or losing their prey to other packs in the region. Because in the end, when hunting for food only one pack can come out on top and be: The Alpha.
In The Alpha, players control competing wolf packs, trying to become the most dominant, “alpha” pack in the area. To set up the game, each player takes a den board and all the wolves of a color: one alpha pair and five beta wolves, with the remaining beta wolf being placed on the food track as a score marker. Each player also gets a conflict token in their color, with a “Share” side and a “Fight” side. Then, based on the player count, a number of large, medium, small, and scavenge regions, each containing a different type of prey, are placed out, with medium and large regions going to the Deep Forest area, while small, scavenge and the special livestock region are in the Near Forest. The player who howls the loudest gets the Alpha token and first player status, and the game begins.
Each round, players will send out the wolves from their packs to hunt the various available prey, such as bison, elk, or beaver. Starting with the holder of the Alpha token, players take turns placing one of their wolves (either a beta wolf or the alpha pair) onto an available region. When sending a wolf to the Deep Forest where the medium and large prey reside, a player must spend one food, moving their wolf on the food track accordingly. There are also two special regions: the scavenge region guarantees one food, but only one wolf per pack can be placed there, and the livestock tile can only contain one wolf total, so the first player to place a wolf there secures it for the round. Once all of the wolves have been placed, it is time to establish dominance in each region. If a player has a majority of wolves in the region (with beta wolves counting as 1 and the alpha pair counting as 2), they are the Dominant Pack. If two are more players are tied for the most wolves, they are all considered dominant and will have a conflict when dividing up the food from the region. Next, the dominant player rolls the die for each region to determine how much food is available there for the current round. Each region has its own die with differing amounts of food as possible results. A numeric result means that the hunt was successful and there is that much food available in the region for the current round. An “X” means that the prey escaped, and there is no food available in that region this round, but if there are multiple dominant packs in the region, another dominant pack may reroll an “X” result. A “C” result means that the prey was wounded and will become carrion for the next round. All packs in the region (not just the dominant pack(s)) will have a conflict (described in more detail below) over the amount of food shown, and the tile is flipped over, showing the carrion side and indicating that it will provide a static amount of food in the next round. Finally, a result of “D”, which only appears in the livestock region, means that the wolf that was hunting in that region is now dead and must be removed from the game.
After determining whether the hunt in each region was successful and the amount of food available, the food is divided up. If there is only one dominant pack in a region, they receive all of the available food, moving their token on the food track accordingly. If there are multiple dominant packs, or if the prey has become carrion, there is a conflict. During a conflict, each participating pack secretly chooses either the “Fight” or “Share” side of their conflict token, and then everyone reveals their choice simultaneously. If all packs choose Share, the food is divided evenly between them. If only one pack chooses Fight and the other(s) choose Share, the pack that chose Fight receives all the food. However, if multiple packs choose Fight, one wolf from each of those packs is injured and won’t be available for the next round. Then, the food is evenly divided between any remaining dominant packs that chose Share, or if there are no more dominant packs, between other (“scavenger”) packs in that region.
After resolving any conflicts and dividing up the food for each region, players take all of their wolves back, except any who were injured in fights, who remain on the “Healing Wolves” space for the next round. The Alpha token goes to the player with the most food, and the next round is ready to begin! The game ends after five rounds, and the player with the most food at the end of the game is declared The Alpha!
While some games have themes just pasted on, making decisions arbitrary, The Alpha’s gameplay recreates the pressure of being a pack animal, making decisions a little more meaningful. The game doesn’t just hand you the material you need; it pits you against other players to fight for your survival. The area control combined with the prisoner’s dilemma and push-your-luck element makes for nail-biting gameplay. Resources are limited; you must split your pack in order to gain enough food to survive. Or should you? With different animals giving different amounts of meat, there is importance in deciding the worth of a smaller animal like the hare over a larger animal like the caribou. Sure, if you place more wolves on the hare, fewer players may fight you for it, but with the hare only being worth a small amount, winning that battle may not get you far. However, with large animals like the caribou, more players may be willing to fight over the larger amount of meat, making the next step of the gameplay even more difficult. With multiple people fighting over the same large animal, are they willing to share? Will they betray you and take it all for their own? With the built-in splitting mechanics, deciding how you will treat your opponent is just as crucial as where to place your wolves. You could end up neck-and-neck with opponents by splitting, lose your lead if you end up tricked, or get ahead if you are the tricker. Even if you can overcome your opponents and control an area, it’s possible not to gain anything from your prey, leaving you stranded, hungry, and alone. Dice can be fickle, as we’ve seen with other games, so even if you best everyone, your prey may just get away. But that’s what it’s like living in the wild.
Bicycle has this labeled as a light strategy game, which I think is exactly right. This game is the next step up from more traditional family games, good for older children who are ready for the next level of strategy or newer gamers who may need easing into the hobby. The Alpha has a well laid-out order of operations, allowing players to know what steps will be happening next in the game. While there are decisions to make (mostly in deciding where to place your wolves), there are few enough where most players shouldn’t experience any sort of Analysis Paralysis when playing. The rules don’t take long to teach, allowing gameplay to start quickly, and the layout of the game is small enough where it is not intimidating. This lends the game to be exactly for the types of players I’ve described above, but that does not mean the game is without its limitations. While the mechanics make for exciting and strategic gameplay, there are no catch up mechanics in the game, which can be frustrating for newer and young gamers. When a player in this game gets behind, the only way to get ahead is by being very aggressive with their strategic choices; when you need to be aggressive in order to catch up, your moves become much more predictable, allowing other players to overcome your strategy and keep you in their dust. There is also the flip side for more experienced players. Although there is fun decision making in The Alpha, more experienced gamers may find it doesn’t have enough substance for the exact reason this game is good for those with somewhat less experience. In the end, each person likes a different level of gaming and The Alpha provided good, light fun. I suggest picking this one up to share with your younger family or newer-to-gaming friends who are looking for the next step in their strategic experience.
I was pretty excited to try out the Alpha, because it definitely has a cool theme. Controlling wolf packs and going out to hunt for prey while trying to establish dominance over other packs is very engaging, and I don’t think there would be any trouble getting children or other family members interested in this game. The best part of the game for me has to be the Prisoner’s Dilemma mechanic of conflict resolution. The Prisoner’s Dilemma has always been a fascinating piece of game theory to me, and I like how it’s implemented here, especially how well it works even with 3 or more participating players. If only one player chooses Fight, they could walk away with a lot of food, but if multiple players Fight, they get nothing (and even lose a wolf for the next round), while more altruistic players will then be rewarded. We unfortunately didn’t have that many conflicts playing with three players, so the game might be more visceral with more players (though there are more different food regions to fight over), but it was fun nonetheless. I also really like the different dice for each food region, differentiating between each type of prey, and making what you choose to hunt matter. I especially like the high-risk, high reward of the livestock region. Only one wolf can be played there, so the first player to go for it locks it up for the round. However, three of the die faces for livestock have a “D”, meaning that the player that goes there has a 50% chance of losing that wolf for the rest of the game. However, one of the die faces provides 12 food, which is quite a good payout for a solitary wolf. Ultimately, while area control isn’t my favorite game mechanic, I like how it’s handled here, coupled with the Prisoner’s Dilemma conflicts and gambling for food results.
Unfortunately, there are a few areas where I think the Alpha is a bit lacking. One thing that bothered me is that the number of wolves in your pack doesn’t have any bearing on standings at the end of the game. Thus, there is no reason for the first player going into the last round to immediately choose to go to the livestock region, because even if they fall to the 50% chance of losing that wolf, it won’t ultimately matter. Likewise, a player doesn’t have to worry as much about choosing Fight in the last round, because even if their wolf is injured they won’t need it anymore, and it prevents another player from being the only one to choose Fight and taking all the food. So, even if it were just a tiebreaker, I wish the size of a player’s pack mattered at all to the endgame. Along the same line, I feel like this game can have a bit of a runaway leader problem. The player with the most food gets the Alpha token and gets to be the first player for the next round, and the player with the Alpha token wins ties, including if there is a tie for most food at the end of the game. So a player could maintain a lead, always getting to go first in the round and winning ties. Conversely, a player who loses a wolf early due to livestock or getting into a Fight is at a pretty big disadvantage, as they have fewer wolves to place out, making it harder for them to establish dominance, and meaning that they will be out of wolves faster, allowing other players to place wolves afterwards, leading to ties or straight up taking over regions. However, I’m sure this is the way the game was designed, and it helps it to be easy to pick up without bogging it down too much with unnecessary bloat. It is a pretty quick game, lasting only five rounds, and is certainly fun enough while it lasts!
The Alpha is billed as a “light strategy game” by Bicycle, and I think that’s pretty accurate. There are definitely some neat concepts in the game, but it is accessible enough that it could be played with children (probably 8 and up) or family members who don’t play many games. It is a pretty quick game, taking about 30-45 minutes, so it should be able to keep everyone’s attention and interest for the duration, and it does involve some strategy and thinking about opponents’ plans, so it’s not too light that more serious gamers would get bored with it. While we only got a chance to play this with three players and it worked fine at that player count, I feel like it might be more interesting with more players, to give more opportunity for conflicts and mind games between the players. That said, if you’re looking for a light and quick game and you like the idea of area control and determining whether to Fight or Share with other players, give The Alpha a try!
Two Board Meeples were provided with a copy of The Alpha from Bicycle in order to review. This has not influenced our decision when writing our review of this game.