Board Game Gumbo: Spice it up with The Captain is Dead: Lockdown
AEG has been on a roll for me lately, with some knock it out of the park games this summer that I have loved. I’ve played an absolute ton of Instanbul: The Dice Game (one of my wife’s favorite games this year) and really enjoyed our time running through a bunch of the scenarios in Thunderstone Quest. Plus, I finally got introduced to the cool world of card crafting when we played Mystic Vale and its new expansion, Twilight Garden.
So, I was pretty excited whenever The Captain is Dead: Lockdown showed up on my doorstep. A co-op game with a sci-fi theme that’s advertised as being pretty challenging, with lots of cool special powers that can play up to seven players? Sign me up, right? Let’s find out.
The Captain is Dead: Lockdown is a new co-operative game designed by JT Smith and Jamie Vrbsky. Players play as unique crew members each with their own special abilities who have been captured by the alien beings from the original The Captain Is Dead and locked down on the alien planet.
Gather the crew’s strengths, unlock the prison’s systems, and -- without getting the crew killed -- get the heck out of there by jumping in a launch vehicle.
Trust me, it is not. Things will go to pieces pretty quickly in this game. Players will have to stay on their toes, and carefully balance numerous tasks in the game. They will need to unlock the prison’s systems (like the teleporter, storage locker, and communications channel) for their own use, gathering skill cards (the resources in the game) along the way. Skill cards can be exchanged for progress on the launch track or on the stealth track, both which are essential for escaping the planet. Of course, they also have to stay alive!
And you have to do all of that while sneaking around the ship, because every time you make a little noise (by eliminating aliens or hacking into systems), you bring the alert level of the alien prison closer to “set to kill.” When that happens, guards won’t just politely escort you to the holding cell (giving you a few bumps and bruises on the way). Instead, the alien guards will just eliminate you.
So, how does the game play? During each player’s turn, they will use all of the actions available to their player character. Most get four actions, although some characters can have situations where more actions are granted. For instance, if the very useful janitor (in my mind, one of the most important character in the game) has a tool in his hand, he can take five actions instead of only four.
The actions are pretty simple, things like movement, hacking / unlocking systems, trading skill cards and tools with other players, attacking aliens, and utilizing the systems in the prison. Once the actions are done, then the player draws from the alert deck at the end of his turn. Each of the cards in the alert deck will bring out aliens, move the patrols around, and finally, if any of the crew members are caught out of the holding cell and in an area of the ship where an alien(s) is, then that crew member is captured (or worse yet, killed.)
Players start with alert cards that are coded yellow, then proceed to panic mode with code orange cards, and finally it is an all out freak out when the red level three alert cards start pummeling you and your crew in the face.
Okay, that may have have sounded a little bit like hyperbole, but it most certainly is NOT. The alert cards, which are essentially a timer in the game, really ratchet up like nothing I’ve ever seen in other co-op games. The aliens get tougher, more numerous, and the results get worse for your crew. It is especially tough whenever Anomaly cards come out, because those type of alert cards stick around with negative effects that can only be extinguished through research. Spending time and skill cards to research an Anomaly can really get a crew sidetracked from their ultimate goal of leaving the planet.
Another bonus in the game play is the plethora of character cards that come in the game. This is one of the few co-op games that has the player elimination mechanism (and the designers poke fun about it in the rule book), but as many reviewers have noted, players generally do not get eliminated until near the end of the game. Even then, the designers came up with three different versions of each of the different types of crew members, so if one gets knocked out, players will just come right back in the game with one of the other crew members (albeit a little weaker).
Lockdown is chock full of artwork from Gaetano Leonardi. Every card has unique illustrations, all the player characters are drawn uniquely, and there is a lot of diversity in the presentations. Unfortunately, the artwork is not necessarily my favorite style. It seems to me that in the gamep play, the designers were going for a kind of campy, early Star Trek, Will-the-red-shirt-die kind of vibe, which clashes a bit from the jagged edges and blurred images of the artwork. like the artwork better than say what I saw in Space Cadets, which for me was a bit too cartoony, but I guess I was looking for something a bit more serious given the theme.
But, the actual production is top notch. You have a great, functional plastic insert that holds all of the pieces to the game. The cards are made of the durable laminated glossy style, so they are a bit slippery, but they will definitely hold up to repeated usage. Instead of minis, which would be overkill in a game like this, you have individually created artwork for each character and alien on standees, each with unique color bases. If I had one quibble about the standees, it’s that the artwork is pretty small on the alien characters, so it is kind of tough to distinguish the different aliens from each other, especially in low light. Once I got used to the shapes, finding the right alien to plug into the game was a little easier -- especially because I sorted them into piles and kept the chart handy.
The board itself is very bright and laid out well in terms of the rooms that players will sneak their characters around, and there is ample space on the outside edges for most (but not all) of the cards used in the game. The graphic designers tried their best to make the card areas link up to the corresponding system rooms, but the schematic lines get crossed up and confusing sometimes. I almost would have rathered a separate board in colors unique to each room where there would have been plenty of room for the cards used in each system. That would have given the board a little bit more breathing room, because it starts to get crowded especially when the big boss captains make it into the game.
There are no dice in this game, so the only chaos will come from drawing those end of the round hostile event cards, and perhaps a little randomness in the way you draw the skill cards (but even then, there are a lot of ways to mitigate the outcome of those skill card draws.) And there are plenty of ways to personalize the player characters, everything from tools (highly recommended!) in the storeroom to contraband cards (a bonus if you alert the aliens) that can give a one time boost.
BUT IS IT FUN?
The formula seems to be pretty easy. Take a great theme, (Star Trek crew captured on an alien planet) add sci-fi artwork and a quick pace of play, mix in tons of characters each with unique powers, and trick them out with Veteran cards (even more special powers), tools, weapons (grenades and scent bombs) and the ever-so-handy contraband cards, and finally throw in some really tough alert cards to amp the pressure.
What should come out is a masterpiece of fun, but I am sad to say that The Captain Is Dead: Lockdown does not quite hit that level. Sure, I had a blast plotting out my moves, especially feeling clever when I could combo a trade for a card I needed, use the teleporter to blast to a system room, unlock an important system, and then take out a lone alien. Each of the systems is unique and well designed. Trying to decide which system to unlock and utilize makes for some very delicious decisions early and late in the game, especially as the alien hackers try to shut your efforts down.
And there is no doubt that there is plenty of tension in the game, because the story arc and threats are well crafted. At first, moving around the mostly barren prison seems pretty easy, and players will have some early success unlocking the system rooms. As each comes on line, the game seems to get a lot easier. But, of course, the alert cards get harder, the aliens get more numerous, and the powerful patrol aliens and captain aliens can really wreak havoc on the players’ plans.
Here is what hampered the fun factor a bit for me, two small issues in this style of game. First, the rule book is one of my least favorite that I ever come across in a major production game, which is surprising because of all of the review copies I have gotten from AEG, every one has been good to great. This one reads almost like a novel about the experience of the game, and important rules seem to be hidden in sections all over the book.
For instance, how important would it be to know whether you can move through a room filled with aliens to get to the system room on the other side? The only mention I can find is “when you are in a room with a hostile alien, the only activities available to you are killing hostile aliens and using the teleporter.” I translate that to mean that you can enter a room, but you better be ready to kill or teleport, not to move through (which would be movement) or use a system (which would probably take skill cards.) Of course, this makes thematic sense, but shouldn’t that have been mentioned in bold at the start of the rules, near the action section -- not in the back?
I see where they were going with this style, because it is presented as in “here’s what the game is, here’s how to set it up, here’s what’s important next” as if there is a live person walking you through the game. But, what works from a visual and audio standpoint in teaching games does not always work in the written form. I read on a Facebook group recently that reviewers and bloggers should not criticize rule books, and that makes no sense to me. One of the most important parts of our hobby -- maybe the most important? -- is the ability to learn a game. Otherwise, it just sits there on the shelf. A better rule book would have easily made this experience a lot better.
The second part is the length. For some reason, the game *feels* (and I realize that is highly subjective) longer than it should be. In common board gaming parlance, Lockdown overstays its welcome just a bit. It just feels like it ends about 20-30 minutes longer than it should be. Whether that is from a lack of streamlining, or player activity, I cannot say, but it is what it is.
That being said, the puzzle of figuring out what your character does best is the core of this game in my mind. It is a tough puzzle to crack, especially after you have been buffed with veteran cards, tool cards, and the like. How your play your role, and how the role fits in with the rest of the crew and its focus on using the launch bay to power up an escape ship is a lot of fun.
I especially enjoyed the fact that the designers have done a good job streamlining the alien actions in the game. The aliens themselves are pretty easy to operate at the end of each turn. And there is a big satisfaction in cracking open this puzzle, especially when you have a bunch of characters back in the holding area, the alert level is bordering on “set to kill”, and you are digging through the skill cards for that last alien tech card you need to power up the launch vehicle.
If you are looking for a tense game that has a very tough edge to it, with a sci-fi Star Trek theme, then maybe this game is for you. Just be prepared for a lot of rules questions and a slower pace of play as each situation has to be thought through.
If you are worried about the “alpha gamer” syndrome, where one player dictates all the choice, it is a possibility here. But the fact that each character has so many different powers and so many ways of getting buffed -- and that some of the buffs (the contraband cards in particular) are strictly hidden knowledge, in my mind that mitigates the potential effects of a strong willed gamer.
Player elimination is present but has not been a thing in the games I’ve played. One player was eliminated but it was right at the end, so there was no awkward delay.
The fiddly rule book and rule set would probably get a lot easier if you could play this dozens of times, but I think the length of the game and problem in the execution probably makes that scenario unlikely.
I have to give props to AEG on the game production, other than the artwork and the slick cards (I am not a fan of those, but they do make the game’s artwork “pop”.) I liked the standees for the characters and aliens, the systems are all unique and challenging and make decisions that much tougher, and everything feels like quality.
Finally, I do like the theme itself. It definitely feels like you have been thrust into a classic Star Trek episode. The variable player powers, the various systems on board, and the funky art on the alien cards all add to the experience.
So that’s The Captain is Dead: Lockdown, not one I can recommend to all players, but since I did enjoy parts of the game, hopefully I have described groups of gamers that might want to give this a try.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!