Captains log: Stardate 16.02.2014 (around lunchtime). I never thought it was going to be this rough. The shields officer had a fit about matching numbers and was promptly replaced. She is now acting helmsman and is happily sending us screaming blindly through space where we’ve hit three swirly things, five plasma barriers and two alien ships. The weapons officer keeps wanting to blow everything up and as such has had his firing disc confiscated. Engineering has nipped away for a pint and Damage Control keeps updating his social network status. All is lost on the USS Incompetent and I feel I’d be better served by a crew of space mogs. My only saving thought is that this is not an actual spaceship but a frantic space themed boardgame called Space Cadets. And why do I keep talking to myself in Patrick Stewart’s voice?
Space Cadets is indeed a cooperative spaceship game for four to six players. It also needs to come with a few provisos before you jump straight in but I’m getting ahead of myself. Space Cadets puts the players behind the controls of their own spaceship as they venture out on a mission involving gathering crystals, blowing up enemies and avoiding their deadly nemesis. Each player is given a task on the ship which must be carried out in order for the mission to succeed. The captain is in charge of the overall mission and has the final say in the decision process. He also controls the flow of the game and is kind of like the Games Master. The Helmsman is in charge of navigating the ship through the maps, Engineering decide how much energy each of the ships functions get each turn, the shields officer turns energy from engineering into shields around the ship, the sensor officer scans space and acquires target locks and the weapons officer is responsible for loading and firing the torpedoes. The twist to this is that each of these stations has to complete a mini game to determine how well they have performed their task. The tasks vary from station to station and are normally puzzle based. Weapons for example have to copy a shape on a card using Tetris style tiles whilst Sensors have to pick a pre-determined shape out of a bag by feel alone. Oh, and you only have thirty seconds to complete the task too! Once all the mini games are completed the results are played onto the game area in relation to the mission and everything starts over again. All of this makes for fast and frantic gameplay that can be a lot of fun.
Now, you may have noticed that I said Space Cadets needs a few provisos. Well here they are: Play in a private place and do not spread the players out. Most of our gaming group days and therefore the place where I playtest the games featured on Cards, Dice & Tabletops take place in our friendly neighbourhood pub on a Sunday afternoon. This is fine for most of our games but Space Cadets has a lot of components and does take up quite a bit of room. As a result of this, we ended up setting the game up over three pub table lengths. The issue this caused was that the captain battled to control such a spread out game over the ambient noise. The game is better played if you can get a wide enough table to fit three stations on one side and three on the opposite side. The other issue with having everyone spread out like we did was that the players furthest away from the captain were left out of the decision making and story parts of the game. Although, this is not any fault of the game, it is good to note that this game is better suited to being played in a quieter place such as a private residence or a gaming clubhouse.
So, you have learnt from our mistakes and now know the perfect conditions for the game, but how does it play you ask. Well, someone once described Space Cadets to me as “the most frantic game I’ve ever played” and I have to agree. Being asked to find the best possible poker hands from ten numbers can be a task at the best of times but asking someone to do it in thirty seconds is nuts. The atmosphere around the table during these thirty second tasks is almost electric and the shouts of “oh bugger” turning into laughter at the end of the time are what makes the game. It is also amazing how quickly the carnival like atmosphere dissipates as you enter the discussion phase to determine the next turns objectives and the distribution of energy. Space Cadets can turn into a serious strategy heavy game at this point and it’s like you are getting two games in one. There are other nice touches to the game such as the shift change cards. Suffer damage from an enemy and one of the consequences could be that two or more crew members have to trade places. This adds to the manic nature of the game as players who have just gotten the hang of their tasks now have to learn new ones and could potentially be the reason the mission fails you are now space dust.
Space Cadets is a game that sits in a rather strange bracket. It requires a lengthy setup, can be challenging to teach to a table of newcomers and can be very slow to start. But whatever you do stick with it as the payoff is well worth the effort. It kind of reminds me of learning to ride a bike – it took me a little while and the right conditions to get the hang of it but now I can’t wait for the next time.