Anyone else feel like we’re living in a Golden Age of board games? Or have I just been playing more because of COVID? We’re spoiled. Gone are the days of cutting out your own cardboard counters and coloring in your own dice with a crayon.
What, none of you ever played Metagaming MicroGames? They were pretty great. I think Sticks and Stones was the first time I experienced a point-buy mechanic.
But enough GenX 80s nostalgia.
The latest in my personal quarantine parade of top-notch-in-every-respect board games is The Captain Is Dead from The Game Crafters (J.T. Smith and Joe Price) and AEG. I tried this game, originally developed on Kickstarter, with the kids the other night. Everyone had a raucous and exciting time. It’s one of those games you end up thinking about after the box is closed and put away. As a matter of fact, the kids are still talking about it two days later. It’s designed for 2-7 players, though after a couple sessions it seems to me there would be no effective difference if you wanted to solo play handling 2-7 crew yourself; no mechanics would need to be changed.
The premise is that you’re in a starship and have just suffered a massive, Wrath of Khan-style surprise attack from aliens out for a bit of the old ultra-violence. Multiple systems are down. Aliens are teleporting in to occupy the ship. The crew may be afflicted with strange disorders. But worst of all, the Captain is gone, crisped without so much as a “Kiss me, Hardy.”
You could say this game beings in medias res.
And if you don’t play tight and co-oppy, it’ll end there too.
You maneuver surviving officers and crewmen around the ship trying to restore function, with the overriding goal being getting the jump drive repaired so you can get the heck out of Dodge. And that’s the first of the many wonderful elements to this game, there are 18 characters to choose from, ranging from a fleet admiral down to a janitor (color-coded according to their role in the starship’s sub-systems, because cost-saving 60s TV production measures live on through the ages like military specs), each with unique abilities that I believe would combine to make this game highly replayable. There’s even an ensign, if for some reason you want the rest of your co-opers to constantly yell “Shut up, Wesley!” at you.
This lovingly and obviously derived co-op is designed to make you feel like the “Stressed Riker” meme:
“Why couldn’t I be in the timeline where I’m hot-tubbing with Deanna Troi?”
It’s the classic “micturating on the fire nearest your foot” dilemma. Your shields are falling with every attack, systems are going down, your characters are getting wounded, and you have to triage what you can do without against the ultimate need of getting the ship’s jump drive repaired so you can win the game.
If you’ve ever played the gold-standard demigod of co-op games, Pandemic, you’ll pick up the rules very quickly. Like Pandemic, your characters get a certain number of actions that they can spend moving around, fighting, and repairing. Each player controls a hand that can represent everything from starship equipment to “skill” cards representing something you can commit to the ship’s sub-systems — I didn’t think about what exactly skill cards represented and neither did my kids, we were having too much fun — to get them up and running again. At the end of every player turn you have to draw an alert card of escalating seriousness as the game progresses. There’s a neat mechanic where your ships sensors (if they’re operational) allow you to preview the next alert card that will hit after the next player moves, so you and the co-op crew can prepare to meet or dismiss it with certain actions.
Where this beats Pandemic, at least for us, is in the triumph you feel when you flip one of the ship’s system cards over again. “The ship’s computer is ONLINE!” my eldest called out as he fixed it by spending the right type of skill cards, to general acclaim greater than that brought on by a cure for the red disease cubes being found. But then they all have been exposed to at least some Star Trek.
If the game has a flaw, it’s that once things go truly south on you, the game doesn’t end quickly, you’re in for a grinding, Monopoly-style death by a thousand cuts. I also believe there should be more than one way to win — get the jump drive fixed, or get to the bottom of the alert deck so the enemy gives up, and salutes you like movie Zulus before departing, because with certain characters mixes it could be very hard to get that jump drive repaired. It’s a small quibble with an otherwise excellent game.
E.E. Knight is an author who enjoys music, movies, and gaming. His next book in the Dragoneer Academy series, Daughter of the Serpentine, will be on-shelf in mid-November.