Welcome to This Is Not A Review. In these articles we discuss general impressions, ideas and thoughts on any given game, but as the title implies, it’s not a review. Instead, it’s an exercise in offering a quick recommendation (or dismissal) after spending enough time to grasp the ideas and gameplay of a thing without necessarily playing it from A to Z.
The subject of this installment: The Captain is Dead developed and published by Thunderbox Entertainment.
In the vast reaches of space, the plucky crew of a starship is under siege from the vicious, evil aliens. When all seems lost, the heroic Captain executes a daring plan to save ship and compliment…
Unfortunately, the Captain is burnt to a crisp. Oh, no! The Captain is Dead! It’s now up to the remaining crew to repair their battered ship, repel the alien invaders, and escape to fight another day.
Realistically, though? They’re gonna get obliterated over and over again. But it’s enjoyable!
Thunderbox Entertainment has done an admirable job of converting real-life board game The Captain is Dead to a digital format, but it’s missing a few elements that would catapult it from being a cool diversion to a must-play masterpiece.
The basic flow of play is that each crew member takes his or her turn attempting to put out various fires on board the ship while trying to reach the overall goal of reactivating the damaged Jump Core, which provides an escape and ends the episode.
Characters’ unique abilities mean some are better-suited for certain tasks than others. The Engineer should be focusing on collecting tech points to repair the Jump Core, while the Security Officer can handle any aliens rampaging around. A party cannot include all character types, so the team has to prepare for every eventuality without necessarily having the optimal folks for every potential situation. This talent/resource management creates most of the tension during a playthrough, as characters must move about the ship trying to take care of more than they’re actually capable of handling, and a new problem always springs up after each character’s turn.
Let’s talk about the good first.
The Captain is Dead is a great-looking title. It nails the cheesy-retro sci-fi aesthetic with a vibrant color palette and excitingly angular and chunky model designs. The crew members exude personality despite being made up of a few polygons — the nerdy Ensign slouches about, the Chief Engineer studies problems with her spanner at the ready, and the otherworldly Counselor observes the proceedings in detached manner. These little touches make the characters leap to life in a way their cardboard counterparts cannot. Also, the sound is appropriately atmospheric, helping to create the feeling of being in an early-’60s sci-fi melodrama.
The game also excels at creating a sense of impending danger. During every turn something is breaking down, an anomaly is scrambling sensors, or invaders are trying to take the bridge. The stakes are high, but TCID is also pleasantly tongue-in-cheek.
Now, the bad…
I love the idea of The Captain is Dead more than I enjoyed playing. The tension is clever, but even on the easiest difficulty it was common to get hopelessly overwhelmed. I understand that throwing a lot at the player is a core mechanic, but it’s often more frustrating than fun because of the randomized nature of the alerts. It’s also worth noting that the tutorial trades information for snark, which fits with the overall atmosphere but fails to explain as much as I felt was necessary.
Also, The Captain is Dead isn’t complete. It’s fully-featured and playable, but the roster is thin. Only nine of the board game’s 18 playable characters are currently available, although the developers are adding new members on a near-monthly basis. Players can absolutely finish a session with the current roster, but since I don’t know what the remaining characters can do, I still don’t know if there’s a team that better fits my playstyle.
I enjoy the humor and there’s no shortage of challenge, but The Captain is Dead is a bit of a tough sell at the moment. However, it’s definitely one to keep an eye on, especially as the roster continues to fill out.