Full disclosure: A review copy of The Captain Is Dead was provided by Alderac Entertainment Group.
I … think this is it. The last of the games I got from Gen Con, reviewed, finally. … just in time for Gen Con 2019, but oh well I did it. I learned some valuable lessons about time / space planning from last year and I look forward to bringing those lessons forward into future Gen Con planning. Either way, let’s jump right into the first game in Alderac’s cooperative space board game series: The Captain Is Dead!
In The Captain Is Dead, well, the title kind of says it all: your captain died and hostile aliens are on their way to finish the rest of you. Your Jump Core has been taken offline and the only way you can get out alive is to repair it as quickly as possible. Make your way through your ship, dodge enemy fire, and come up with a plan if you want to get out alive. Will you be able to restore functionality to your warp drive? Or will you see your captain again sooner than you thought?
First thing to do is to lay out the board:
Now, add the six System Cards to their spots on the game board:
Those go “Online” side up, for now. The System Upgrade Cards go next; they should be placed near the Science Lab:
Set them to “Inactive”, also for now (that’s the other side). Place five of the Torpedoes on the red icons near the Armory:
Place the rest aside, for now. Continuing clockwise around the board, Shuffle the three Alert Decks:
There are Red 3s, Orange 2s, and Yellow 1s. Once they’re shuffled, stack the decks 1-2-3, where 1 is on top. Flip the top two cards and place them face-up in the spaces above the deck; these are a benefit from the External Scanners. Weirdly, the card furthest from the board is the first card you should use in the game, but more on that later.
Continuing to the War Room, shuffle the Battle Plans and place them face-down on the space:
Now, near the Computers / Cargo Pod, shuffle the Skill Deck:
Place it face-down on the indicated space. Draw three cards and place them face-up on the space next to the Internal Sensors. Give each player five cards and have them each discard one to the Cargo Pod, and then add the Tools to the Cargo Pod, as well:
Take the yellow status bars and place them on the Shields at 100% and the Jump Core at the desired difficulty. You can ignore the orange Blocker for now:
Place the Hostile Aliens nearby:
And now you can assign players! Each player should get a color, and then choose a role from within that color (or let them choose, whatever). Give them a card:
And then give them a standee:
You may have players who are both the same color at higher player counts. Place your pawn in the room that matches your color. Also, organize your players by their rank (the value in the top-left of their cards). You should be ready to go! The player with the lowest rank starts.
So, your Captain is dead, your ship is burning, and you need to restart the Jump Core in order to survive. Do so, and you win! What’s that, you say? The ship’s fine? Well, that just won’t do.
To start the game, immediately draw 5 cards from the top of the Alert Deck and resolve them in order. That’ll teach you for asking about that.
Now, you basically need to repair the ship. You’ll have a certain number of Actions each turn determined by your character. You can spend one action to move between two spaces of the board (Hallways count as spaces) or one action to Transport somewhere. Certain rooms will let you perform their actions:
- Engineering: You can repair / rebuild the Teleporter or repair the Jump Core. Repair the Jump Core enough and you win!
- Science: You can research anomalies (long-term nasty effects) or upgrades, here. Thankfully, while you’re in here, Anomalies don’t affect you.
- Infirmary: You can heal up, here.
- Armory: Fix Shields, build Torpedoes, or launch Torpedoes here. The Security Station will also let you target aliens elsewhere on the ship.
- Bridge: A decent place to fix Scanners and Comms, if they go down. I eventually just shunt a lot of aliens here.
- War Room: You can’t fight in here, but it’s a good place to draw up Battle Plans. You’ll usually need these to win.
- Computer Core: Draw Skills here.
- Cargo Hold: Find leftover Skills and Tools here.
Note that if you are injured, you cannot perform certain actions, and you cannot perform other actions if Hostile Aliens are in the room with you.
Also note that your hand size isn’t an “end of turn” thing; at any point if you have more Skills / Tools in your hand than your hand size, discard down to your hand size.
After you’ve used up all your actions, draw the first available Alert and resolve it (or ignore it if you can discard 3 Command Skills). Some will damage shields, some will destroy or damage systems, and others will cause Anomalies (long-term nasty effects). Try to mitigate these as much as possible.
The game ends if you repair the Jump Core, or if you:
- need to draw more aliens than you have left;
- take a hit at 0% shields;
- you manage to get through the Red Alerts and cannot draw another Alert.
In the latter three cases, you lose. If you can repair the Jump Core, however, you win!
Player Count Differences
This is sort of a weird statement, since “player count” doesn’t matter as much as “active roles in play” does. At higher numbers, you’re going to start with a lot more Skills in players’ hands and need to spend more time getting them to anyone with an Engineering Skill Discount. There’s also going to be more injuries, as players will have more turns between their turns, so there’s a higher chance the room they’re in will blow up from round to round.
The one nice thing about two players is that you don’t have to deal with anomalies, but you will have to busy yourself rifling through the deck and dealing with very few special powers, so, your mileage may vary on whether or not that’s worth it. Personally, I still wouldn’t play with seven people; that’s too many cooks on the spaceship, as the old saying goes. I don’t care about having seven roles in play, though; it would likely be fine if we did it via pseudo-committee.
- Every role has a specialty; lean on it. I find that the Telepath is super useful for getting a bunch of things done, for instance, since they can leverage other characters’ skill discounts when they’re doing things. Unfortunately, they lack skills of their own, so, you may not find them always useful. The Admiral, on the other hand, should really just be cycling through the Battle Plans. The Chief Engineer is a really good teammate for the Telepath, since they can share knowledge when fixing the Jump Core (which is incredibly useful). Think about how your current role can best impact your situation and then act on it. Even the Hologram can be a huge help at the right time!
- You’ll want a few characters getting Skills. You need them for things like repairing the Jump Core, which I cannot emphasize enough is crucial to winning the game. It’s also helpful for the occasional Science Upgrade or tactical repair. There are a few things you really can’t have offline for too long; make sure you have the ability to fix them.
- Don’t lose the Computers or the Teleporter. Things get very annoying if you can’t teleport, and if you lose the Computers you can’t draw Skills. Losing other stuff isn’t the worst (External Sensors just make it difficult for you to plan since you can’t see those events). Honestly, once I let External Sensors go just so that I could discard the visible events and skip the Anomaly. Weird way to go about it, but it saved me a huge hassle.
- Don’t let Anomalies linger. Some of them are fine (the door to Engineering is unusable!) as long as you have the right systems working (in this case, the Teleporter), but things that reduce your available actions or other noise are not going to increase your long-term odds of survival.
- Use the Torpedoes! You get five for free; blow up some ships! Get rid of Alerts you don’t like! Et cetera!
- Don’t let it get to the Red Alerts. One of them destroys the Jump Core. When that happens, you die. The game ends immediately; you lose. And that’s just one of the available alerts. I don’t even think that’s the worst one! Maybe don’t linger to find out which is.
- Honestly, sometimes you have to bum rush it. Doesn’t matter if the ship is on fire and has 0% shields and 11 aliens and every system is broken. If you’re locked in Engineering and all you can do is repair the Jump Core, do it. If you can get it fixed, you win. It’s very similar to repairing the last disease in Pandemic; sometimes your best move is just to sprint towards the finish line and hope for the best. Sometimes that even works!
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The art style is super cool! It’s a very like, bright and colorful and distinct future; I love it. It reminds me a lot of Samurai Jack, in that it also eschews outlines and goes for that kinda-polygonal look. The core takeway is that I am very into it and would like to see more of it.
- It’s definitely frantic. It does a good job of capturing all the wacky things that can happen on a spaceship if your captain dies, in fiction. Things are pretty constantly on fire and it’s a nice feeling of tension and “oh no” and “someone’s got to fix this” for a game.
- So many characters! And diverse ones, too; that’s always super nice to see. I’m glad the game is being very inclusive and it makes me enthused about the series as a whole.
- The system isn’t too complicated to learn, which is nice. The actions are decently straightforward and the board is pretty easy to read, which is solid. The whole thing kinda works.
- It’s kind of annoying if your characters get injured before the game starts. We started with Increased Gravity and an injury, which meant that we had to basically pass one player’s turn, which wasn’t particularly exciting.
- In general, I’m not a huge fan of movement penalties. The Anomalies are just … annoying, at best. That’s actually why I slightly prefer the two-player version, just because you can skip them. A fair number of Anomalies just block a room or reduce actions or movement and it’s … irritating.
- It’s a smidge long for my taste. It helps if you turn down (or up) the difficulty, a bit, but the 90m games are tough to get played, which is part of why this took so long to review.
- Rulebook isn’t quite my cup of tea. I generally like a more ordered book with like, what happens on my turn, whereas this is more of a “what are all the things going on in this game?”. It’s less of a guide and more of a reference, which is fine for some but not gonna be for everyone.
- I think I prefer cooperative game with more independent action. The problem I have with a lot of these is that it’s easy for one player to take over and just manage everyone’s turns (and indeed, a solo player can play a 7-role game, if they so desire). In cooperative games I tend to prefer hidden information (a la The Shipwreck Arcana) or games where it’s impossible for one person to manage all the information (like Spirit Island).
- I’d love to move away from “Insane” as a difficulty. Just go with “Overwhelming” or “Terrifying” or something.
Overall: 7 / 10
Overall, The Captain is Dead is pretty fun! It’s a nice mix of all the Star Treks, if you’re into that sort of thing, but even if you’re not it’s a solid sci-fi cooperative romp through impossible odds and a spaceship that’s woefully incapable of not being mostly-blown-up. For me, it tracks pretty well as a cooperative game; it doesn’t particularly thematically enthrall me (as opposed to, say, Ocean Crisis, which is a super-novel theme), but it’s perfectly fun (and funny within its own right). That said, it’s also the launching point for a pretty popular series of the-captain-can’t-stop-dying games, so I’m also a bit impressed by that. If you’re looking to break into that series, though, this is a pretty solid starting point for it. Either way, if you want a highly chaotic cooperative experience or you want to live out your dream of being anyone except the captain of your own Star Trek-esque starship, The Captain Is Dead may be exactly the game you should check out! I’ve had fun playing it.