Fairway boldly goes where a whole bunch of other people have already gone. However, since AEG recently released a mass produced version of The Captain is Dead, Fairway thought he’d take the time and review The Captain is Dead: TOPOD version. That is “The Original Print on Demand” version he picked up from The Game Crafter.
The Captain is Dead is a one- to seven-player, cooperative game set in a pseudo-Star Trek universe. Players take on roles of a ship’s crew shortly after their captain dies. The mission: survive.
- The art direction, theme, and graphic design elicit exactly what you want: the feeling of being aboard an ill-fated Star Trek ship.
- There are so many roles for players to choose from the lowly janitor to an Admiral. There’s pretty good balance in the roles, but clearly some combinations are better than others.
- The game is on the longer side for a cooperative, but it flies by. Everyone has a lot of fun.
- Luck and card order for the events play a significant role in the difficulty of any particular play through, but that also works to defeat using the same strategy each time.
In The Captain is Dead, players select (or are given) one of a variety of roles aboard a space ship whose captain just died. The players need to defend the ship from hostile aliens and repair the jump core in order to win the game.
At the start of the game, each player’s role has a rank, a hand size, an action count, a unique skills discount and special ability, and a matching player pawn. The player’s rank determine their turn order (starting with the lowest rank value). In addition, players are dealt a starting hand of skill cards. There are four different types of skills: tactical, engineering, science and command. Players will use these skill cards plus any skill discounts to take actions on their turn. The hand size represents how many skill cards (and eventually items) a player can have at any given time. The action count represents the number of individual things a player can do on their turn: take actions, move around, etc. Finally, each player’s special skill reflects a perk available to that player during their turn.
To play, the players pawn is placed on the the game board which represents the ship. The ship is divided into rooms and hallways. Each room enables a player in that room to take the available action so long as they have the skills to do so. At the start, players place their pawns in the rooms of matching color (e.g., officers are blue and would be placed in the war room, also red).
The ship also has shields and systems (like a transporter and comm systems). During initial setup, these are all active and at full strength. However, as the theme would indicate, the player’s ship starts with an initial amount of damage. This initial damage, and all future events, are resolved from a deck of Alerts cards. There are three levels of alerts: red (worst), orange, and yellow. These alerts are separately shuffled than then stacked with red on the bottom and yellow on the top. At the start the initial damage is done by revealing the top five, yellow alert cards and resolving them. This will inevitably cause systems to go offline, shields to decrease, and potentially alien ships to firing lasers at you.
In addition, the “jump core” is lowered to some repair state equal to the difficulty of the game. The more “repairs” necessary to fix the jump core, the harder the game.
After the initial setup, the game progresses very quickly. On a turn a player spends their actions and, once complete, draws a new alert card and resolves it. A non-injured player can spend actions in a number of ways: moving two spaces, killing aliens, using systems, carrying injured players, and giving or taking a skill or tool from another player. Much of the game is spent getting to and then trying to use or trying to repair the various systems.
To use (or repair) most of the main systems requires that players to use their skills. To use those systems, and in the case of the jump core to repair it, players must discard skill cards equal to the cost minus any of the player’s skill bonuses. For example, to fire a torpedo and destroy an alien ship, requires that the player spend two actions, one command and one tactical skill. If you’re the First Officer role, so long as you’re in the weapons room and have two actions remaining, you can fire a torpedo without needing any skill cards (he or she has a one command and one tactical discount).
Once a player has used all the actions they want, they draw one of the alert cards. How alerts are drawn depends on whether the long range sensors system is active. If so, players see the upcoming two alerts and the active player draws the first face up alert. If the long range sensors are down, the active player draws from the top of the alert deck. In either case, the alert must be resolved unless the player can override it. To override, the active player (or the Diplomat) must have at lest command skill indicated on the alert. Overriding an alert doesn’t cost an action.
As the game progresses, the alerts become increasingly difficult and include things like boarding aliens and anomalies. The aliens are hostile, of course, and while they don’t attack, they prevent players from using rooms until they’re killed. Anomalies alter the game play until they’re removed by spending enough research skill to remove them.
There are also a whole host of other things going on in the game that bare mentioning like addressing injuries, using tools, and researching ship upgrades. These all have their place in the game, just not in a short overview.
In any case, the game continues in role-rank order until either the jump core is repair or the ship is destroyed. Repairing the jump core requires that players repeatedly raise the repair level which requires a lot of engineering skill cards.
While there’s only one way to win, there are a whole host of ways to lose: there are too many aliens on your ship, your shields drop below zero, a red alert does you in, or you reach the end of the red alerts and haven’t won, yet.
On the green
The Captain is Dead is a criminally underrated game. I attribute this largely to its limited availability through The Game Crafter outside it’s original 2014 Kickstarter. This game has so many great things going for it:
Theme. There are licensed Star Trek games that fail to capture the spirit of Star Trek series as well as The Captain is Dead. And mind you, the game doesn’t actually “use” anything Star Trek at all. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek cooperative, survival game feels a lot like playing your way through an episode of the TV show. Complete with drama and corny humor.
Art and Graphic Design. The character and ship art are very well done. Each feels a bit like a low-polygon video game with hard edges. The game also has a bright, high-energy design.
Game play. There are so many “meaningful” things to do in the game. TCID largely avoids the pitfalls of other cooperative games where players feel useless. There’s almost always a system that needs repairs, or skills that need to be gathered, or aliens that need to be killed, or an anomaly that needs to be researched. It’s pretty rare for a player to have “nothing” to do unless they’re intentionally passing for a strategic reason.
Diversity. One of the particularly interesting thing about TCID is that for each role there’s a male and female option.
Balance. I’m actually putting balance in both the comes-up-short and on-the-green. For this, the game does an amazing job giving all the players roles meaningful, yet distinct and asymmetric abilities. There are clearly some roles that are “easier” to understand and some roles whose benefits are easily recognized, but that doesn’t make them the “best” roles.
Ease of learning and playtime. While there’s quite a bit going on in the game, there isn’t a lot to learn and the objective is clear: fix the jump core and don’t die. The various systems roughly make sense and the limited sorts of action points makes it easy to know what you can do and you need to do it. It’s also a pretty easy game to just teach as you play with new players helping them understand.
While it has a higher play time, the game isn’t “long” and it certainly doesn’t drag. There’s a good amount tension that persists for the entirety of the game. That tends to make the game feel shorter than it really is.
Player count. This game plays anywhere from solo to seven players. And, generally, scales very well. One concern is that low player counts (especially, if you’re only playing one role each) suffer from a lack of access to relevant skills. But this is mostly balanced out by getting to take more turns in a game. That said, fewer roles means that you might have a gap in engineering or tactical or command skills requiring you to spend more turns just trying to gather skills rather than using them. All in all, the game scales well in both high and low numbers.
Where it comes up short.
The Captain is Dead does have a few points worth noting.
Balance. Here it is again. While the game correctly notes that there’s no “bad role,” I’d argue there are some particularly bad combination of roles. So, if you’re playing for the first few times, it makes sense to have complimentary roles and, most helpfully, a role or two that have either engineering and command discounts.
Initial Damage. I’ll also note that that initial flurry of damage can be devastating to a game. Fortunately it didn’t happen our first games, but I could imagine the frustration a new player might have if the initial damage essentially crippled the ship. I wondered, but haven’t looked, whether there’s a combination of five unmitigated yellow alert cards that could essentially end the game before it began. Seems like it’s possible.
Alpha gamer. It sort of goes without saying, but like so many cooperative games, a single player can dominate the decision making and barking marching orders to the rest. Just don’t be that guy or gal.
In the hole
The Captain is Dead is a must have for fans of sci-fi games, cooperatives, or Star Trek. If it weren’t for the commitment in setup and initial explanation time, I’d think this would even be a good introductory game for new gamers to the table. The game requires a good amount of strategy and tactics to survive, but a strong gut and reasonable amount of risk taking to achieve victory. I highly recommend this game for its quirky take on the sci-fi genre.
You can still buy the original on The Game Crafter or pick up the AEG version all over the place now.
The Captain is Dead is in the hole for a Birdie.