The cat among the pidgeons
I think for once, I am going to start a review off with a bit of controversy. Ready? Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then I’ll begin.
Star Wars is better than Star Trek, by a good old fashioned country mile. Even if the prequel movies were awful and we can all agree that George Lucas couldn’t write for toffee. Also, since I’m stirring the hornet’s nest already, I figure it only fair to mention that William Shatner was not a very good captain. He was pretty much a universe trawling, dry humping over-actor. Picard was much better. You know you’ve made it when someone makes a meme from you facepalming…
Given my stance and preference though, I have sat through some Star Trek movies, and some of the TV shows too; I’ve just not enjoyed them like I did the “Holy Trilogy” (because again, those prequels never happened and you can’t prove it. Of course sand is coarse you idiot, it has always been that way!), but it has not made me want to shy away from all things sci-fi and vaguely Trekkie – I’ve even sat through the reboots of Star Trek and found them… alright.
The Captain is Dead?
The subject of my review today, is The Captain is Dead. Credit to the designer where it’s due as The Captain is Dead is not just a clever name, it’s the basis of the game. The Captain is Dead, and you (the crew) are left to pick up the pieces and try and get away from the nastiness that ensues. It’s a game which definitely has the feel of Star Trek about it, but probably in the best kind of way.
The first thing that I feel I should mention is the ingenuity of The Captain is Dead in keeping track of what is going on. When I took the board out of the box, all of the edges of the board have assigned slots to place cards to keep track of in-game happenings. To date, I’ve not seen another game do it so well, as it doesn’t eat up loads of table space and it’s easy to see what is happening at all times, even if you don’t really want to be able to a lot of the time. What I only found out through some research though is that The Captain is Dead is actually a reskin/reprint from another company some time ago, and having seen the original board, they look to have made vast improvements to it.
As far as other components go, they are all of a good quality which, let’s face it you’d really hope would come from a company like AEG. Aside from the piles of cards that you need to play, you also get some transparent standees of all of the in-game characters and enemies, coloured stands for said standees, torpedoes (because, well torpedoes) and a couple of acrylic bars to keep track of your shield capacity and how close you are to completing the game, and one which is used in a specific anomaly.
Let’s get on with it already!
I’ll try and spare you as much as possible from how to set up, as I’m sure you can probably find a how to play video or rulebook online somewhere, so I’ll just nip straight in to choosing a character. In a nutshell, all you need to know about playing The Captain is Dead, is that you’re all working together to get enough engineering resource to fix the warp drive so you can “get outta Dodge”.
Each player needs to choose a character and all of them have a hand limit size, and an action limit. Some have more than others and so which one you choose is a big decision. However, there’s one role in particular that I wanted to mention from The Captain is Dead. He’s called “The Crewman”, but what he really is, is “The Redshirt”. He has a useful ability if you’re trying to complete normal actions insomuch that he has a discount, but the best thing about a redshirt normally? They’re utterly disposable! And this one is no different. Even though the captain is dead, he will lay down his life for anybody he’s in the same room as should something go wrong, and then; just like a true redshirt, he just appears back on the ship like nothing has happened. Board gaming genius!
The Gameplay is dead? Well, no actually.
So how do you go about playing The Captain is Dead? Well, it might start sounding a little bit familiar to some other games from here on out. Once you’re all set up and have chosen your character you each get a hand of skill cards. These can be used to perform actions and as previously mentioned and the engineering ones are necessary for getting the warp core fixed, and that’s how you win the game.
On each players turn, they have the number of actions as assigned by their role (generally 4) and these can be used to move around, kill hostiles, carry another player if they’re injured or give or take a skill card from another player. Sounding familiar yet?
OK, in case it’s not, this is a co-operative game which you all win or lose together. There’s one way to win and several ways to lose… these are: the shields hitting 0% (ship explodes, we all die), running out of hostile aliens to place (we’re overrun and we all die) or you run out of alerts to draw (too much bad stuff happened and we all die). Cheery!
I’m givin’ it all she’s got Cap’n!
At the start of the game you have to draw 5 alert cards, and these all do bad things to the ship and it’s not possible to deflect any of the damage dealt. As such it gives you something to aim for in your first few turns… A little bit like countries being infected with diseases perhaps? At the end of each players turn, you will draw another alert and deal with the listed effects. If your scanners are working then you’re able to see what’s coming in the next 2 turns, but these could be damaged at any point with a deft Alert being drawn against you and leaving you completely blind. From now on you’re called Jordi.
There are 3 colours of Alerts. Yellow, Orange and Red. Yellow are annoyances, Orange are challenges, Red ones are just the vessel trying to work out exactly how you’re going to lose as opposed to whether you’re going to lose. That being said, you can actually override these alerts with 3 command cards (or less if you have discounts) at the end of your turn. It may just save your ship (and backside) for another turn.
Same old, same old?
The Captain is Dead has some things which really make it feel different to other co-op games though. Since it’s set on a spaceship, instead of moving around the ship like lowly earth dwellers you can teleport to anywhere you like in the ship for one action (so long as the teleporter is online of course; otherwise someone will have to employ their best Scotty impressions to get it fixed) and you have shields which can act as a good pace for the game. You also have the “comm system” which means that you can give or take a skill card from anybody, anywhere in the ship – which is a darn sight easier than having to be in the same country… I mean room as them.
Some of the ship’s systems, if damaged you can do without albeit inconvenienced but not crippled. However, others like the computers you cannot function without. The computers are the main way that you get more skill cards which you need to fix everything. If they die, so do your chances of leaving, and living!
So The Captain is Dead is condensed down to use your actions, fix the warp core and get out of there. Nothing is easier!
Plagiarised more than Star Trek?
So, how do I feel about The Captain is Dead?
I have to admit, the theme tickled my curiosity way before anything else. I really liked the idea of a co-operative game set aboard a star ship. My inner sci-fi nerd almost had apoplexy with excitement for it, and the bright and cheery, quasi-futuristic look is visually appealing too. And honestly overall, I’ve not been disappointed.
I suppose I’d best get the elephant in the room comment out of the way right at the beginning. It feels quite a lot like Pandemic. Matt Leacock made a monster of a game when he came up with Pandemic and cloning is the sincerest form of flattery right? With that being said, The Captain is Dead feels a lot more geared towards helping the player instead of spanking them. Thematically, this fits really well too. For example, if you had a teleporter, why would you ever walk anywhere? Same thing with being able to give or take cards without moving is exceptionally useful, but losing these abilities feels all the more bitter when it happens and that’s something I really loved.
Despite the call of plagiarism, there’s definitely a lot of thought which has been put in to the Captain is Dead and making it feel like its own game. There was clearly some fantastic planning put in to the roles and the perks of them, the fact that depending on their rank they have different bonuses, and that this can range from Admiral to Janitor makes it feel as tongue in cheek as perhaps it should.
As with any co-operative game, the odds are generally stacked against you and I think that the win ratio is probably 60/40 in favour of the game at the moment, but the proof is always in the pudding and I do find myself wanting to go back and try it again and that for me makes The Captain is Dead a good game. It can also be played solo for those of you that like to play with yourself and so long as you don’t over-communicate with yourself then generally it works well, and people don’t think you’re completely crazy.
The proof-reader is dead
One thing which is pretty inexcusable though, was how shockingly bad the rulebook was. If you’ve read any of my reviews before then you’ll likely know that I struggle with Rulebooks at the best of times, but the one for The Captain is Dead was awful and I don’t think there’s really any reason it should have been. It just seems to hint at things and then forget to explain them later on. When talking about the Orange bar mentioned earlier on, it says something like “put this aside for now but you’ll need it later on” and it took me 3 games to find out what that actually meant.
That one gripe aside, The Captain is Dead is a genuinely decent game. OK, it is Pandemic in Space, but so long as you know that going in and you don’t mind it, it’s a fantastic game full of humour and thoroughly enjoyable gameplay.
For me, The Captain is Dead is definitely a keeper. I give it a red shirt sacrificing 7.5 out of 10. It would have scored more were the mechanics a little more unique, but a great game all the same.
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