For most people, indie games begin and end with the latest Kickstarter campaign. However, from self-published titles to hidden Game Crafter gems, there exists a vast wilderness of unique and innovating games to explore that never reach widespread commercial production.
We aim to alleviate this coverage cap. To assist us in this, Rob Cramer takes us into the wilds of Frontier Gaming.
“Computer, status report.”
EXTERNAL SENSORS OFFLINE, TORPEDO BAY DESTROYED, TELEPORTER MALFUNCTIONING, AND THE MEDICAL BAY CONTAINS 5 HOSTILE FOREIGN LIFEFORMS. SHIELDS ARE HOLDING AT 50.
“Blast. Let’s hope those buggers don’t decide to target our torpedo bay or we are done for.”
DID I NOT SAY THAT THE TORPEDO BAY WAS DESTROYED? I’M PRETTY SURE I COVERED THAT ALREADY
“Maybe you did, but I’m under a lot of stress here! You try flying a ship this size through the Guarton Nebula!”
I AM A SHIP FLYING THROUGH THE GUARTON NEBULA
The Captain Is Dead is a cooperative game from The Game Crafter for 1-7 players, set on a starship under siege. Designed by Joe Price and JT Smith and featuring illustration by Gaetano Leonardi, The Captain Is Dead asks the question, “What if Captain Kirk died five minutes into the first episode of Star Trek?” How will the crew survive? Will tribbles kill them all?
Out of the many games I’ve played from The Game Crafter, The Captain Is Dead is one that looks like it could be found on a game store shelf. The box art is bright, blocky, and bleak all at the same time, as a starship is run through with laser fire and a faceless crew member salutes their fallen leader.
The jagged geometric art style continues inside the box with scientists, aliens, and dozens of other characters illustrated with no curved lines. The interior of the ship is covered with technicolor-hued technology alongside clear iconography and text, setting the vibe of the game before the very first turn. This game showcases its visuals in all the right ways, making The Captain Is Dead feel like a professional product instead of a passion project.
This isn’t to say that everything inside the box is perfect. Every pawn, whether for players or aliens, needs specific stickers on each side before playing in order to identify each piece. The game offers a variety of crew members, which is a great selling point – until you undertake the frustratingly difficult task of stickering both sides of 30 different pawns. Each side of these pieces are indented, so the sticker needs to fit into exactly in order to lay flat. Failure to do so can cause them to start slipping due to poor adhesive contact. It’s a minor detraction because the pawns do look nice in the end, but it’s something to be aware of and prepared before playing for the first time.
The Fastest Hunk Of Junk In The Galaxy
The situation The Captain Is Dead drops you into is dire: not only has the crew lost their leader, but the Jump Core is offline and in need of repair if you are to escape the looming alien threat. Fortunately, this starship is outfitted with systems that can shoot down aliens, teleport crew members, or access vital tools to equip officers. Unfortunately, these systems are extremely vulnerable to being disabled by enemy fire and must be repaired constantly. The little Dutch boy can’t plug a hole in the hull of this star cruiser. Instead, you must work together to slow down the attacks enough to repair the Jump Core and blast to safety. Only then will your crew be able to complete their real mission: tip-toeing around the Prime Directive to have wacky space adventures. Now that’s a game or TV show I could immediately get behind. Just think of the possibilities…
The Captain Is Dead focuses on a diverse crew of 18 different characters, ranging from a jack-of-all-trades janitor to a diplomat who tries to negotiate with the aliens currently trying to annihilate your ship. Games like Forbidden Island and Pandemic wish they could pick from 18 different characters with such different skill-sets and abilities as found in this game.
Certain combinations will fit specific gameplay styles, so each game can be played out differently. Do you want to focus on upgrading your ship or fighting aliens? Fixing the shields or researching battle plans? Pick the character that most resembles you, or simply grab your dream job from the pile. This is just the first of many tough decisions awaiting you.
Each character card lists their strengths in the form of skill discounts which can be spent on different actions. Most stations on the ship require specific skill cards to operate or repair. These skill cards come from sending your crew members to the CPU Core in the center of the ship for additional training.
For example, to repair the Jump Core, most characters must spend two actions and 5 Engineering cards to move one step closer to victory. However, the Chief Engineer only needs to spend 3 Engineering cards because they know the Jump Core inside and out. If your character has experience at a station, they are much more efficient than spending a handful of cards.You don’t want the cook firing torpedoes at the enemy, do you? Probably not.
Threats to the ship appear in the form of Alerts of Yellow, Orange, and Red severity. At the end of each player’s turn, an Alert is resolved, dishing out damage in different ways. The shields weaken, enemy aliens flood the ship, and stations go offline. To that end, each turn begins with a status report of sorts. Which systems are still operational? Is anyone injured? It’s at this point that you need to discuss with the rest of your crew what actions need to be taken soon if you want to make it out alive.
Many co-op games can struggle under the harsh leadership of a bossy alpha gamer, and The Captain Is Dead is no exception if left unchecked. Players shouldn’t take their turn in a vacuum since every move make affects the whole group in some way, but players should be mindful to avoid dictating the actions of other players. As long as your group plays with the right balance, however, this game can foster some very interesting discussions on what the crew needs to do next without one person making all of the decisions themselves. .
Luckily, The Captain Is Dead provides a myriad ways the ship can be in disarray, and you constantly have to figure out what is essential for survival. Blowing up enemy ships or drawing up battle plans may fend off an alien attack, but if you don’t fix the Jump Core, you can’t win. Yes, there may be a bunch of aliens pouring onto the bridge, but can we afford to work without our teleporter? The shields have been ripped to shreds, but without external sensors, we’re blind to any other threats out there. These are the kind of tough decisions your team needs to make each turn. Seeing your computer core blow up just after having it fixed can be a huge bummer, but in an alien invasion, you don’t get to pick what happens. Much of what happens in the game is learning how to deal with your unfortunate circumstances in the best way possible.
Yet one of the most notable aspects of The Captain Is Dead is how much it encourages and rewards the idea of mechanical discovery. Many games let players discover for themselves which strategies work and which don’t. They tell you what you can do, not what you should do. In The Captain Is Dead, you are given an end goal: repair the Jump Core. But the rulebook doesn’t fill in the blanks; you have to figure out what to do with the mechanisms that make up the game.
To that end, if The Captain Is Dead proves too challenging, the back of the game’s rulebook provides helpful tips and a strategic walkthrough guide for those having difficulty winning – which can happen at first. It warns players seeking a spoiler-free approach to avoid this section unless necessary, but there are no sealed packets or story points to reveal in The Captain is Dead. Instead, the strategy guide is there to say, “Hey, this game isn’t broken, you just don’t know it well enough. Let me tell you more about it.”
Besides, even after reading, the game is still difficult. It’s just that utilizing it means you now have new information to push you past where you have fallen before.
However, there a few potentially irksome things during gameplay, even if you seemingly have all the answers. For one, the game can be quite unpredictable. Systems will go down, and sometimes entire decks of cards will be discarded. For another, there is a lot of flipping and shuffling of mini cards constantly that gets old fairly quick. Shuffling mini cards is not what I usually look for in games.
Actually, I never look for mini cards in games.
Actually, all mini cards just need to be outlawed.
But I digress.
Once the dust settles, this game certainly offers a worthwhile if not madcap experience. Even though your ship is falling apart around you, The Captain Is Dead manages to keep your spirits up with bright colors, thoughtful decisions, and a touch of luck to keep you thinking, “Maybe next time will be different. Maybe next time we’ll live. Oh well, back to replicating stacks and stacks of donuts that taste like ice cream from this food replicator. The future sure is neat!”
Rob Cramer is a regular contributor to the site and looks forward to exploring the hidden wonders of the indie gaming world.
You can discuss this article and more on our social media!