Review: The Captain Is Dead

I was never going to be anything but a geek.

I have a lot of memories from my childhood of time spent with my parents, absorbing stories set in worlds of fiction and fantasy. I can count on one hand the number of books I checked out from the library that weren’t some sort of speculative fiction; nearly every book I’ve held on to from my younger years, to one day pass on to our kids, features some kind of interstellar travel, fantastical beasts and beings, or the fusing of the magical with the mundane. (If you read our review of Incubation, you may have noticed the book cover for Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher make an appearance.) I’m pretty sure that either The Princess Bride or The Never-Ending Story is one of the first movies I remember watching with my family.

Young Leah thought this was the peak of comedy. Adult Leah…honestly? Doesn’t disagree.
(Gif sourced from Giphy)

(I do differentiate between movies watched as a family, and movies my parents were forced to sit through.)

Star Wars followed soon after, and I still cringe when I think of how smart third-grade Leah thought she was, discussing the narrative significance of Anakin’s Force ghost appearing at the end of Return of the Jedi with friends in the boot room. And I remember my amazement and awe, sitting cross-legged on the shag carpet in our basement family room, watching reruns of The Next Generation with my parents. I watched Star Trek in bits and pieces all throughout my childhood as I grew up, never really following it on a weekly basis but always, always happy to watch an episode whenever it popped up while channel surfing with my dad. And by the time I got old enough to really learn to be invested in serial stories, to ensure I was always plopped on the couch or had the VCR set up in time to record that week’s episode, you had best believe I was watching Enterprise every single week.

Picture this: The Tactical Officer of starship crew who can barely tell one end of a flashlight from the other has made it down to Engineering, limping her way through a ship infested with hostile aliens. She’s been dragging her feet; her ship, drifting in space, has passed through a spatial anomaly, one which increases the gravity and makes it difficult to even lift her boots from the deck. It’s a fascinating phenomenon to be sure, but right now, it’s nothing but an inconvenience. The Teleporters are down—the whole reason she’s even down here in Engineering, instead of manning the Torpedo Tube in the Armoury. The Chief Engineer is occupied with helping to restore access to the Computer systems and Internal Sensors, the Science Officer is trying to work out a way to free the ship from the anomaly, and the First Officer is in the War Room, frantically scanning the digitized pages left behind by the Captain to find a contingency plan. It’s down to her.

She staggers into Engineering, slumping against the wall, and drags herself to the computer. Her hand taps her communications badge. “I’m here,” she says, shining her torch down into the guts of sparking wiring that spill out of a console, collateral damage from bombardment coming from the alien cruiser outside. “What do I do?”

…No response.

She taps the badge again, and is horrified to hear the static crackle of an inactive comm-link. At some point on her way down into the bowels of the ship, the aliens must have knocked out their Comm System. For a few minutes, she frantically presses the badge, over and over, hoping against hope that it’s a temporary situation and that the Comms will be restored, but no such luck. She’ll have to leave Engineering–hopefully the Science Officer is close to solving the anomaly issue!—and hope she can find someone else nearby who has some Engineering skills, because without their onboard Teleporter, the few remaining members of her crew simply won’t be able to keep up with the emergencies that keep springing up around their beleaguered ship.

Giving up on the Comm system, she turns, ready to leave, and at that precise moment, a force field springs into existence in front of her, blocking the door into Engineering. She stares at it, disbelieving, then reaches out a hand and presses it to the shimmering orange field. There’s no pain, but neither is there any give, and even throwing her entire body weight against it, she can’t make any headway. She’s stuck in Engineering, cut off from the rest of the ship, the rest of their crew, with no skills, no abilities, and no way out.

The last time a board game immersed me this thoroughly in the story unfolding on the tabletop was Pandemic Legacy, Season One. Sometime, I’ll relate the story of how the four of us gathered around a picnic table in the Rocky Mountains under a closed-in tarp and the pitch-black mountain night, rain thundering down around us and flashlights jury-rigged to provide us illumination while we—very loudly—debated the proper course of action to keep South America from falling entirely into ruin. But Legacy-style games have an almost unfair advantage over other games when it comes to telling a story and prompting everyone around the table to buy in. When you’ve already committed hours and hours to telling the story thus far, it’s easy to be invested in the characters, the world, and the outcome.

The Captain is Dead accomplished that within an hour and fifteen minutes. 

Note: A copy of The Captain Is Dead was provided to us by Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) in exchange for an honest and comprehensive review.

Overview

The Captain is Dead is a cooperative game from Alderac Entertainment Group that does an admirable job of evoking “Star Trek” without even veering into licensed territory. The idea of the game is that it picks up in the last ten minutes of the season finale of your favourite science fiction television, a tense, climactic scene where hostile aliens are battering your ship, systems are failing all over the place, the Jump Core—their only means of escape–has been disabled, and, of course, the Captain is dead. 2 to 7 players must work together to assemble the necessary skills to repair crucial systems, fight back the alien invaders, and restore their Jump Core, before their shields are reduced to nothing or they are overrun with hostiles.

Each player starts the game as their chosen character, which dictates the number of actions available to the player on their turn, their hand limit, and their turn order, in addition to their Skill discounts—the expertise that character brings to the crew—and Special Ability. Everyone is dealt a starting hand of skill cards, which represent the four different Skills the crew of a starship could be expected to have (to varying degrees): Science, Command, Tactical, and Engineering. The players also start the game with 5 Yellow Alerts, which sets the stage for this eleventh hour battle of wits and desperation. During the course of the game, the Alert cards (which start out at Yellow, before progressing through Orange to game-ending Red Alerts) continuously batter the players by introducing hostile aliens and taking systems offline, hobbling the ability of the crew to solve problems efficiently. Every game will start with the ship in some state of disrepair, with crucial systems offline, the shield power already reduced, and aliens establishing a foothold.

On a turn, a player may spend all of their actions however they please, moving throughout the ship, interacting with systems, and exchanging Skill cards. There are common actions available to all players, like movement and killing aliens, as well as the actions provided by the various systems, which can only be used in the corresponding room, and actions that are individual to the player based on their Special Ability. Once all actions have been exhausted or the player passes their remaining actions, the turn ends. An Alert card is drawn and carried out, and, provided they haven’t just lost, play goes to the next player in order of rank. Turns continue until the players are either victorious, making a sufficient number of repairs to their Jump Core, or defeated—shields taking a final, fatal hit, or becoming overrun by the hostiles.

Some of the various types of alerts that can appear during gameplay.

(The rulebook also makes mention of the fact that, should players make it entirely through the Red Alert cards, the game should still be considered to be lost. This is something of a tongue in cheek remark; considering that one of the brutal Red Alert cards specifically indicates that you lose the game, these Alerts more or less just determine the manner of your demise, rather than representing obstacles you could overcome. Resistance is, after all, futile.)

First Impressions

The first thing anyone is likely to notice about The Captain is Dead when they pull it from the shelf is the eye-catching, stylistic artwork that graces the box. The bright colours pop, splashing across the box front in a flashy mix of oranges and purples and yellows, and the graphic design itself is vaguely reminiscent of the polygon-based design of late-90s to mid-00s video games. It’s an incredibly intriguing direction to take, and something that makes the game stand out among its peers. No matter whether the game is shelved, whether among other cooperative games, space themed games, or games from the same publisher, the graphic design truly ensures that it stands out and catches the eye.

The game itself follows through on the promise of the box art, welcoming you with a board and pieces that are nice, bright, and colour-coded. It is a very busy board, with boxes all around the outside to represent the various ship systems, each of which is connected to its associated location by a triangular block of the same colour. It is a lot to look at, and can be a little intimidating the first time you try to navigate what exactly is going on with the game. The colours are saturated and bright, but it is still sometimes hard to decipher what systems belong in which room, and likely moreso if you’re not overly familiar with science fiction TV tropes. As well, I can’t imagine that the busy board is improved upon much for those who have vision impairments, especially any type of colour-blindness. Once players are relatively familiar with the game, it’s easy enough to parse, but for the first time it can definitely be a lot.

The insert is utilitarian–no bells or whistles besides that little foamy insert, but it serves its purpose.

The size of the box puts it roughly in the same category as our previously reviewed title, Paladins of the West Kingdom–on the smaller side, substantial enough to suggest the weight of the game inside, but not so large as to suggest a massive scale. Unlike Paladins, however, The Captain is Dead doesn’t make maximal use of its cardboard real estate. There are nicely sized compartments that adequately fit all of the cards, and a fun little bit of foam that holds the plastic torpedos (perhaps one of the only over-produced components), and then a deep, wide well into which all of the plastic character standees and assorted plastic bits can be tipped. If the characters of the game were miniatures rather than standees, the size of this compartment would make more sense, but as it is it seems somewhat superfluous. (That being said–it’s not a big box. Sizing it down to more tightly fit the components would likely make it harder, rather than easier, to fit on a game shelf.)

Shuffling through the cards, it’s apparent that The Captain is Dead is a tongue-in-cheek homage to one of the greats of science-fiction pop culture. Although lacking the licensing that would allow overt references or the depiction of fan-favourite characters, the designers have made it very clear what properties they have drawn inspiration from. There are Battle Plan cards that refer to “Grow(ing) the Beard” (a trope in opposition to Jumping the Shark, which derived it’s name from the appearance of Commander Riker’s beard) and “Make It So”, one of Captain Picard’s most iconic oft-uttered lines; the space on the Jump Core repair tract that the players must reach to win the game is labeled “Engage!”; and more than one character have clearly been derived from the cast of the various Star Trek series. This last could be explained away as the game designers creating a cast of nearly 20 different characters and the necessity of relying on reoccurring tropes in the genre as a whole (the Hologram, the Android, the Chief Engineer) if it weren’t for the fact that there are some inclusions that make the intention obvious–like the Crewman, who constantly dies and respawns whenever he is injured in a clear reference to the disposable Red Shirts from the Star Trek Original Series, or the Counselor, who…okay, the Counselor just is Guinan. They’re not even trying to hide it.

Hi there, Whoopi!

Where this loving homage deviates from the source material, as far as characters are concerned, is in the representation depicted on the character cards. Science fiction has a long-held reputation for being something of a boys’ club, with its casts of interesting, diverse, well-written male main characters, often supplemented by The Girl–the single, token representation of the cis-gendered female population, the so-called “rose among the thorns”. Star Trek has typically been a little ahead of the curve in that regard; every series since The Next Generation has had at least two major female cast members, with even more filling out the cast of recurring supporting characters. Yet with the exception of the most recent, Discovery, the casts have still been majority men, reflecting the persistent idea that science fiction, aliens, and space travel are for boys. The Captain is Dead bucks that particular tradition by ensuring gender parity in its playable characters, presenting an almost-equal spread of male and female characters, in addition to a few that are clearly intentioned to be either androgynous or gender-neutral. It is unfortunate, then, that the cast misses the mark somewhat in relation to racial diversity: there are few characters that are clearly denoted as non-white, which is too bad, especially considering Gene Roddenberry’s vision to have the bridge of the original Enterprise represent a microcosm of Earth’s cultures.

(Most of) The cast of The Captain Is Dead.

COMPONENTS

The game’s components aren’t shoddily made. The clutter of the game board, with all the squares and arrows and stylized environments of the rooms of your starship could easily have been made unbearable by solid player pieces, and although I referenced the idea of miniatures just a few paragraphs ago, the elegance and simplicity of the plastic standees that are included in the game feel more in place here. They aren’t flimsy; I don’t have any reservations about the longevity of these pieces, and the inorganic material lends a very on-theme futuristic feel to the game that traditional paper and cardboard may have bypassed. It is nice to have a game that obviously has a very solid idea on where it wants to be, production wise. In this Kickstarter-era of overproduced board games, all competing to be the shiniest and chock-full of the most “stuff”, The Captain is Dead is a refreshingly simplistic design that nonetheless manages not to sacrifice quality.

The plastic character standees are a step up from cardboard and have a neat, futuristic, thematically appropriate feel to them.

The cards that make up most of the gameplay are not flimsy, either. They’re nothing fancy, but the lack of a linen finish here means they’re less prone to wear, and the stock is hardy enough to stand up to a lot of shuffling and moving about. The rulebook states, accurately, that players should expect to cycle the skills deck four times in order to have even a chance of winning, and our game has stood up to a high number of plays without any visible wear on the cards, despite the number of times the deck is shuffled and reshuffled within any one game. As budget-friendly gamers, we tend not to go for card sleeves except on the most well-worn of our collection, and so far that doesn’t seem to be to our detriment.

Funnily enough, the component of the game with the highest production value is actually the torpedoes–tiny plastic models, that we have yet to use more than five times in a game. In our experience, they are very rarely used, and barely manipulated even when they are–certainly not a component that needs to be especially resilient. But they’re fun, and cute, and they add a level of dimension to the board when it’s laid out, a visible tracker for how many times the players have managed to escape a certain loss by the skin of their teeth.

Component-wise, the game doesn’t cross the line from “solid” into “impressive”, but it honestly doesn’t need to. Not every game has to be a masterful work of visual art to be worth playing or deserve a spot on the shelf, and the unique look and feel of the game’s artwork does a lot of the heavy lifting to keep it a standout title, appearance-wise.

Completely unnecessary, but oh, so very fun.

Gameplay

Cooperative board games are interesting beasts; the genre as a whole tends to be extremely polarizing, with many people loving the co-op experience, while others avoid it at all costs. Those who enjoy co-op games tend to like the way it facilities teamwork, the way that you either win or lose as a group. We frequently recommend co-ops to parents who are looking for something that they can play as a family with their pre-teens, when a lot of kids are at that viciously competitive age where they don’t care about winning as long as they wipe the floor with their siblings. They’re also excellent for game groups made up of people with varying levels of experience–or obsession–with modern board games, allowing the more strategic gamers to stretch their problem-solving muscles while ensuring their less experienced friends don’t end up in the dust, and for solo gamers, who can typically make a subtle tweak or two for an excellent single-player experience.

The people who don’t enjoy cooperative games often cite the tendency for a single player to “quarterback”, taking control of not only their own turns but everyone else’s. A lot of our hobbyist friends find that they miss the cutthroat challenge of a competitive game. And while the landscape of board game mechanics is wide, and varied, and growing wider and more varied every month, there are only so many mechanics that typically lend themselves to cooperative games.  It can be tough to find a co-op that feels fresh and innovative while also, you know, working; so for people who are always looking for something to spice up their gaming experience, cooperative games often feel like a step in the wrong direction.

Add to this the difficulty of balancing the game itself in a way that provides enough of a challenge to keep victory from being a foregone conclusion, while also ensuring that players will win at least some of the time, and it is no wonder that cooperative board games by and large follow the well-worn paths of those who have come before. It is simpler to tweak a tried and tested formula with minor strategy changes and rich theme than it is to create something new from whole cloth.

The Hostile Aliens may be responsible for your Captain’s death, but having gotten a taste of blood, it seems now they’re content to merely get in the way.

In this way, The Captain Is Dead is not a trailblazer. It doesn’t do anything particular new or innovative in the wider scope of co-op games, nor even really in the realm of “disaster mitigation”-type titles like Pandemic, Flash Point, and Red November. While it is definitely one of the best implementations of the “starship crew faces insurmountable odds” theme in my opinion, it certainly isn’t the first; and the game mechanics really do feel like re-treading familiar ground. In fact, in teaching the game to our family and to our friends, we found ourselves frequently drawing analogies between Pandemic and The Captain is Dead. “The Alert card deck is essentially the same as the Infection deck in Pandemic,” is a frequent comparison; or, “You can use the torpedo tube kind of like the One Quiet Night event,” or, “Battle Plans work pretty much the same as Event Cards”. It made learning the game really quick for the two of us, and being able to draw on that familiarity also made it more accessible to people who had a lot of experience with Pandemic. (That’s not to say that you need to have played it in order to play The Captain Is Dead. It just makes it faster.)

The game does make a concerted effort to breathe a new sense of life into an experience that could otherwise have run just a bit too far into familiarity. Each character has their own unique ability and combination of skill discounts, which challenge players in every size of group to find the combination that will secure them victory based on their own play style. There is absolutely no sense of “interchangeability” between the characters, which means that, unless your same group is playing the same characters every time, every attempt to repair the Jump Core before you face utter destruction feels fresh. The Anomaly cards–persistent effects that continually impact the players until they are addressed–feel like an amped-up version of the Lingering Effects of Elder Sign’s Mythos cards, something which we hadn’t experienced in a game of this family prior to now. The designers have also implemented resource management of source in the form of the Skills cards, which must be spent to use and repair various systems about the ship–sometimes in significant quantities, more-so than their analogous cousins, the Player cards, in Pandemic.

For the most part, these variations on recognizable core mechanics do their part to keep the game feeling fresh, and absolutely do a significant amount to differentiate it from its cousins–there is absolutely room for both Pandemic and The Captain is Dead on your game shelf. However, the usual pitfalls of these features are still present: necessary evils, the yins to their attribute’s yangs. Much like other games with character abilities, for instance, there will arise circumstances–whether it comes down to the group’s choices, or the random draw of the Alert deck–where a character’s special ability is under-utilized, or not really useful at all. The most careful management of a team’s Skills can be utterly destroyed by a badly shuffled deck, or the destruction of a vital system that players lack the resources to repair. Anomalies can limit a team’s effectiveness to the point of making the game unwinnable, especially when combined with a particularly unlucky run of Skill cards.

The Battle Plan cards are powerful, one-use cards that can be played by any player at any time, don’t contribute to your hand limit, and have saved our bacon on more than one occasion.

The action list that is available to you as players is very straightforward. There are six actions that you can always* take on a turn, no matter where you are, and every room on the ship, with the exception of the hallways, has at least one unique action you can take there. There are no complex or multi-step actions–players must simply spend the action points and skill cards required in order to perform or obtain the listed result, like drawing cards or removing aliens from the board. There are some restrictions on what actions you can take in certain circumstances; for instance, you are extremely limited in what you can do while injured, or while in the same room as hostile aliens, but for the most part these limitations make thematic sense, which keeps it from feeling clunky and doesn’t require players to constantly be checking the rules to make sure they aren’t inadvertently breaking some of them. And a lot of the limitations makes thematic sense, like not being able to take the time to make repairs on your Jump Core or fire torpedoes at hostile ships while alien interlopers are in the room, or allowing injured crew members to still fire at aliens.

There are also very few circumstances in which players feel as though they have to waste actions, or are left at the end of their turn with nothing helpful to do. The impact of some of the alert cards means that even the simplest action, like moving a single space–when the standard move action allows two spaces of movement–can be a strategic decision. (Sometimes, Hostile Aliens beam aboard the ship to wherever the active player is located. Ending a turn in an empty hallway, rather than one of the rooms, can save another player multiple actions eradicating the aliens in order to use a room’s systems.) There is a fine balance struck between the efficacy of the actions, the types and severity of obstacles that the Alert cards can throw at you, and the overall timing of the game. And this really highlights the biggest strength of the game design, because in all ways and in every possible respect, The Captain Is Dead feels balanced.

See, what The Captain is Dead does really, really well–where it is, in my opinion, exceptional–is in the way it still manages to make the whole game feel balanced enough that victory is always tantalizingly within reach. Even games that end in abject failure don’t make you feel as though the game was unwinnable. There is always the sense that victory lay just around the corner; that there is something, some secret, some strategy, that you almost identified before the game wiped the floor with you.

While each character is associated with one of the rooms on board the ship, players aren’t restricted to one specific place, and depending on the way your game plays out, may even be more useful elsewhere!

I frequently draw a comparison to two of the grand-daddies of cooperative board games, Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Island. Forbidden Desert has been utterly punishing, in our experience. We have never won a game, and honestly, have never even come close enough that we felt like a win was possible. We very quickly soured on the experience, because while no one wants a game to be winnable 100% of the time, you want to at least feel that you had a shot. Conversely, Forbidden Island frequently feels too easy. Our win-loss ratio on that title is laughably high, to the point that the game rarely feels like a challenge–more an exercise in inevitable victory. There is a sweet spot right in the middle of those two games that relatively few co-ops have ever managed to land in for me, where victories feel earned and losses feel like they could have been wins, and that is where The Captain Is Dead finds its place.  Immediately after finishing, you want to play again, to test out that strategy that you think you’ve mapped the edges of, to avoid the pitfalls that tripped you up; to prove that you are smarter than the game. The “A.I.” of the game feels more like a teacher than a bully, and it Mr. Miyagis you into coming back again, and again, and again, until you finally achieve your hard-earned win. It took us seven games at the standard level of difficulty to finally pass the game, every one of them feeling utterly unique and different due to the inherent chaotic variability of the gameplay–and when we did, it was utterly satisfying.

Pros

  • Substantial variability makes this a highly replayable game with rich narrative potential
  • Lovingly tongue-in-cheek homage to classic science fiction TV
  • Well-balanced cooperative game that takes tried and tested mechanics and implements them well

Cons

  • Basic game components that, while perfectly adequate, might feel pedestrian in the current production landscape
  • Does not really introduce anything new or fresh to the cooperative game genre
  • Low win-loss ratio* may feel punishing, rather than challenging, depending on play group

*Your mileage may vary; our win-loss thus far has been 1-6. Research in the BoardGameGeek forums indicates this doesn’t seem to be the case with everyone, and some people feel that the game is easily winnable or even “solved” at Normal difficulty

We lost six times at Normal difficulty. As you can see, there are four variations that are even harder. No word yet on when we’ll feel ready to tackle that challenge…

Final Thoughts

Not every board game that is released has to revolutionize gaming as we know it; sometimes, it’s okay for a game to just be good, solid, fun. The Captain Is Dead doesn’t really follow in the footsteps of the iconic starship captains for which the game is named; it does not “boldly go where no [game] has gone before”. True, there is very little here that has or will revolutionize the board gaming landscape (whether you’re considering the smaller category of cooperative games or taking the hobby as a whole), but that doesn’t mean that the game doesn’t have value. It offers some of the highest potential for narrative of any game that doesn’t intrinsically use roleplaying or story-telling as a core mechanic, and has the potential to provide an immersive experience that can delight any fan of the sci-fi genre. It is also an incredibly well-balanced game that provides an immense degree of tension at all times, without making players feel like surrender is their only option–or, to put it another way, that “resistance is futile”–while also ensuring that victories feel earned, not handed out.

We frequently play games with my parents and my sister and future brother-in-law. The six of us are all very similar; we like challenges, we like board games with high degrees of strategy that allow us to really exercise our brains and our skills at problem solving. It can be hard to find games that scratch that itch that we can all play together, and The Captain Is Dead has really handily filled that niche for us. With a player count that ranges from 2 to 7 players, it easily shifts from a game the two of us can play alone at home to one that we can get our whole family around. That’s part of what makes it so special for us, and for me especially; many of the memories I have that are most formative in helping me become the person I am today—the geeky, nerdy, fannish person I am today—circle back to the way my parents nurtured my imagination with speculative fiction as a child. Their interest helped to spark my own, and they supported and loved me even as I sprouted into a weird geeky kid with glasses and braces and too many feelings about the episode of the week. They gave me a sense of adventure, a love for a good story, and an unending adoration for fantasy and science fiction; and it was one of the proudest moments of my board gaming life when Bri and I got to give them back just a tiny piece of that, thanks to The Captain is Dead.

 

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