Starcade: Preview

Pew! Pew! Pew! Boom!

With a pocket full of tokens, Fairway takes over the joystick and previews the upcoming dice-rolling, micro game, Starcade by designer Derak Morrell. It’s coming to Kickstarter next week.

I introduced my kids this past summer to Galaga. A hotel we were staying at it had it in an old arcade machine with a mostly broken joystick and fading CRT screen. But even they seemed to appreciate the wonder of the tiny little pixel graphics being moved about by a joy stick and blasting button on the machine to fire other little pixels.

Starcade is an attempt to recreate some of that magic in a one- to three- player dice-rolling, microgame by Derak Morrell.

Initial Impressions ^

  1. The pixel art is spot on for an early 1990s space video game.
  2. There are multiple modes of game play, which is nice for a micro game.
  3. Colorful dice!
  4. The basic mechanic is roll dice and compare.
  5. The rules and components were pretty rough around the edges.


Game play ^

There are essentially three modes: solo, player v. player, and cooperative. For this review, I’m going to focus on the solo and cooperative mode. If you’re interested int he Player v. Player, you can see a video play through here.

The gist of the player-versus-player game is not all that different than the other modes except that the enemy (and targets) in these games are the other players’ ships and systems.

Solo ^

In single player, the player takes their spaceship into battle against waves of alien ships in an attempt to reach, and destroy, a mothership.

Players are given a spaceship card (and a targeting token).  Your spaceship has three systems: targeting, engineering, and shields.  The targeting system allows for rerolls of an attack die. The shields represent your life. And engineering is used to manage your systems. The values for these systems are kept using the dice that match the colors of those systems: pink, purple and green. At the start of the game, the targeting system starts with two and engineering and shields each start with six.

Quickly about shields: the game includes a mechanism that the value on the sides of the die facing forward and up and down are used to set the number the attackers must beat to hit that side. This is a dice game, so altering it to something other than lowest value facing backwards is just a shot in the dark.

In front of the player’s ship, three waves of alien ships are lined up, separated by two re-roll tokens.  The mothership card is placed at the end.  Each of the alien ship cards has three alien ships and a defense value (2-4) and some of the ship have a special attack.  Each alien ship has three shields (e.g., three lives).  To destroy the alien ships, you must roll an attack value (plus any modifiers) that is greater than the defense value, three times.

The other tokens and upgrades are set out within reach.  Victory point tokens are awarded for each ship that you destroy: one point for each of the first ships, two points for the second wave, and three points each for the last ships.

The three remaining dice are the “attack” dice: one for you and two for the alien ships.  The two alien dice are divided into “location” (black) and “power” (red).

The game itself is pretty simple:  roll each of the three dice.  For your attack die, compare it to the defense value on the ship card. If it’s greater than the defense value, add a hit token.  If a ship is hit three times, you collect the victory points. If it’s less than or equal to the defense value, you can either spend a reroll to try again or you “miss.”

For the alien’s attack, you look at the location die first to see where it aims.  Then using the shield die on your ship, you compare the value faced toward that  “location” and compare it to the alien’s attack die.  If the alien’s value is greater than the shield value, you’re hit. If not, the aliens miss.

You continue rolling dice until you reach the mothership or your ship is destroyed.  When you get to the mothership, the fight is essentially the same. She has a base shield value that’s also modified by a die roll.  In this mode, the number of victory points for defeating the mothership is determined by what defense value you want to play with.

Cooperative ^

Starcade also includes a cooperative mode. In this mode, up to three players battle the mothership.  Each player gets one of the ship cards and the matching color die.  Players then roll the die to determine their starting number of tokens. The tokens add value to your attack rolls.

The mothership is composed of the mothership card, a control panel, and an engineering die.  The control panel shows her targeting, engineering and shield levels as well as the die roll necessary to “hit” those systems.

In this mode, each round the engineering die is advanced.  As show on the control panel, as the die gets to four, the mothership spawns an attack drone. These drones provide an extra attack, albeit weak. The mothership can have up to two drones out at a time.  When the engineering die reaches six, the mothership drops a bomb doing damage to all the players.

Now, on each turn, players first identify which of the systems to target.  Players are free to attack the same or different ones.  The players then roll their die and compare their attack value with the targeted systems.  The game essentially continues like this until either all of the ships are eliminated or the mothership’s shields are completely lowered.

On the green ^

I love the idea of combining a dice rolling game with classic arcade game theme. So in a few ways, Starcade is neat.

Galaga-style art and theme.  The game looks a lot like a slightly updated version of Galaga, which definitely hits the nostalgia nerve. The art alone was enough to picque are interest and try out all the different game modes. Even the design of the cards, shields and weapons systems reminded us of space-shooter simulation games of the 80s and early 90s.

Number of game modes.  The fact that a microgame provides not just two different game modes, but three is pretty awesome.  We weren’t in love with the player versus player mode, which might as well been: who can roll the highest most often.

The dice.  I do like dice as game components. These are decent sized dice in a nice variety of colors. They’re also color-coded well to make setup and game play easy.  This was very thoughtfully done.  It would have been easy to just include a bunch of white dice.

It’s micro. No doubt part of the appeal is that the designer took a handful of cards and dice to recreate an arcade experience. Packaging it small was a great decision.

Where it comes up short ^

There are places where Starcade didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I love a good dice game (Trainmaker: Review and Roll Player: Review). And, I’d argue, at the core of a good dice game is doing something interesting with the dice.  I’m not sure that Starcade gets there.


Roll and compare. The game is almost all roll and compare. There’s some luck mitigation in the form of the the re-rolls and tokens, but there’s not a ton of strategy. The cooperative mode is perhaps the exception where players are given the choice of which systems to target. Clearly eliminating the non-game ending systems has a value, but isn’t critical to winning. So the game gives players a choice there. That’s not really present in any of the other modes, really. Roll, compare. Roll, compare.

In solo, I think the “shield” alignment idea was an interesting possibility, but I couldn’t figure out how or why you’d ever change it to the optimal.  This might be different if, for example, damage accumulated in various locations rather than having a pool of damage.  In which case, players might have an incentive to increase the defense of the weakest location.

Tokens.  I really didn’t like the card-shard tokens. They’re fidgety and small. The game uses them for lots of varied purposes and sorting them was not a lot of fun.  Also, for the first time set up, the rules didn’t really help me understand what each of the tokens were or what they did. They weren’t clearly labelled.  It added to the setup time sort of needlessly. We did get a pre-production version of the game, so there’s still a chance that some of this will change.

Rules.  For such a simple game, I felt like the rules were simultaneously too short in places and too long in other places.

In the hole ^

Starcade brings classic, joystick space shooter to the table in the form of a micro-sized, dice game. With three modes of play, it offers quite a bit of variety for its size. Starcade is likely to grab the attention of those gamers looking for a little bit of arcade-game nostalgia paired with a simple, light dice game. While it lacks much strategic depth of choice, it’s hard to complain too much about rolling dice and blasting alien ships.

Starcade is in the hole for Par. ^

Fairway received a pre-production copy of Starcade in order to write this preview. He was not otherwise compensated for his opinion.






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