"He's Dead Jim!" - The Captain is Dead: Episode III - Lockdown Review
I played the original version of The Captain Is Dead in a bar once, and I’m not sure if it was the poor lighting, the beer, or the general company but I faintly recalled having a good time with it. When I saw a copy of Episode III pop up on a local used site, I jumped at the chance to have my own copy. Unfortunately, just like the bright lights at closing time, after a closer look things weren’t exactly what they seemed.
In The Captain Is Dead Episode 3, you and your crew have been boarded by hostile aliens who’ve taken over your ship, disabled all your systems, and locked you into the infirmary. Each crew member will take 4 actions attempting to restore control of the ship until they’re either eliminated, or have managed to get rid of the alien invaders. The base game differs from Episode 3 in that in the base game you start with full control of your ship and most of your systems functioning, facing a combination of external and internal threats - Episode 3 starts with everything disabled and all threats internal.
It’s not that I think The Captain is Dead is a bad game by any means. It has a really neat theme that invokes past memories of Star Trek (even including their own version of a Redshirt), a unique vector-based character art style, supports up to 7 players, and has Faster Than Light-like attacks, strategy and system failures (a reputable indie video game). All these things at face value seem like a great idea, and if nothing else the game executes on them as promised.
If you peel back all the layers however and analyze the gameplay of this co-operative game, the experience begins to fall apart a bit. At its core, TCID isn’t much more than a “flip and fail” game; where you take your meager 4 actions to do the best you can to keep the ship and its crew together, and then at the end of your turn something terrible happens to undo most of your work. The game does give you some ability to mitigate the bleak future, but more often than not the resources you use to either peek at or completely cancel an “alert” just put you a step further from the victory condition.
“But Chad,” you reply, “isn’t that just like basically any other co-operative game?” To an extent, you’d be correct. Pandemic, the kingpin of the genre, has a very similar playstyle other than the fact that after the first epidemic you can at least have some level of knowledge as to what may be coming your way. Other than that it’s a similar situation; take 4 actions, flip a bad card, hope you survive. So why does TCID rub me the wrong way despite following the classic formula?
I think part of it is that classic formula; the fact that this is the 5th or so time I’ve seen this style of co-operative game (See also Ghost Stories, Eldritch Horror, Legendary Encounters, Forbidden Desert, and countless others) definitely doesn’t help the situation, but The Captain Is Dead can hardly be blamed for that. Yet, I’d gladly go back to any of those games listed, while TCID sits on my “sell” pile.
The thing that sticks out for me is that the game feels like it requires perfect conditions in order for it to be won. I’ve played it about half a dozen times now, and in all but one situation the game was hopeless - we hadn’t moved the “you win” condition even once the entire game. After the first game or two everyone at the table came to realize that most of their characters were straight-up unable to contribute to the win condition simply because they either couldn’t hold the 7 cards needed (average hand size is 5 or 6), or had the skills required. In fact, the one game where we managed to move the win condition 3 of the 5 times required, only one character was in a position to do so, and we assigned them to that role.
As in most games, we played with random character assignment, which has the potential to doom the game from the very beginning - that just doesn’t feel right. The games were fun, we enjoyed moving about the ship trying to stay away from the aliens on board and slowly repairing systems from within, but once that realization of the futility of the situation sinked in it felt like it was all for naught. Sure, you could house rule your way around it and/or make sure you pick the required characters, but there’s something about that that just doesn’t sit well with me. I’m fine with co-operative games being hard, I’m not fine with them being impossible.
That said, this game does have a lot going on in the theme, artwork, and “indie” department (up until recently it was only published through The Game Crafter, and now the base game without the two expansions will be produced by AEG), and if you’re looking for a difficult co-operative game that plays up to 7 players there’s worse games you could pick. That said I would recommend checking out Star Trek Panic (6 player co-op with a 3D Enterprise you pilot to complete 5 missions), Legendary Encounters (5 player Alien-themed co-op deckbuilder), Space Alert (5 player co-op real time game with a similar theme), or XCOM TBG (4 player real-time co-op based on the video game franchise) instead. Let’s give it a 5 out of 10 - Mediocre, take it or leave it.