2020 was the year of digital gaming. Websites, simulators, and apps were in prevalent use, not only from the greater board gaming hobby but by me as well. I can state with full confidence that I was opposed to digital gaming prior to March of last year. But once the world went into lockdown, I and millions of others looked to the alternatives to physical gaming.
This is why I wanted to take a look at the app of the board game The Captain is Dead, the 2014 board game from AEG. Like the name says, the captain of a spaceship from a sci-fi TV show has died from an attack, and the crew is in disarray. In reality, they are running around like headless chickens, while in the game’s reality, they are coming together to fight off all manner of panic and chaos.
Like most games in the cooperative genre, you spend a turn working to improve the terrible situation you are in, while more bad stuff happens between the turns of each member of the crew. In The Captain is Dead, those things are injuries, equipment malfunctions, and alien attacks/invaders. A crew gets an allotted number of action points that they may spend moving about the ship, trading skills with teammates, repairing the broken technology, or punching the baddies in the face. Each crew member has strengths, weaknesses, and a handy special ability that makes choosing the crew before the start important.
Luckily the bad stuff that happens in between turns isn’t entirely random. Two events are revealed, one that will happen when the active player’s turn ends and one following the next player’s actions. These travesties can be planned for and dealt with before they impact the ship, such as firing at a drive-by alien attack with a loaded torpedo. The game ends once the ship’s Jump Core is back online, or when the crew meets the same fate as the captain.
For starters, this is one of the best looking app board games I’ve had the pleasure of playing. The board game features 2D art, which is further emphasized with standees for the crew members. Everything in the app is a stylized 3D look, giving the characters just a little more personality, including giving all of the member’s voices of recognizable board game personalities. The colors of the game have a pop to them, having purples, greens, and oranges I wouldn’t expect on a spaceship that helps players identify the rooms. Even small details like fire in rooms as the ship is damaged is a nice touch.
The music is a heavy synthesizer that would be the perfect score for a Shatner-led sci-fi show in the 70s. And the app/game very much leans into that nostalgia-driven approach, like giving the red-shirt crewman an ability that he’ll take the injuries of others, but dies and is easily replaceable. The tutorial has this in spades, with laugh out loud moments through the use of stopping time to break the fourth wall to talk about what is happening.
Gameplay is the bigger component to the experience, and to me, this is where The Captain is Dead falls flat. Like I mentioned above, the game is entirely focused on balancing small fires and the end objective. But in balancing the two, the game is constantly throwing more and more small embers until they all become a first-degree burn. This doesn’t make for a fun time, as the game pushes constant stress on you without a sense of major accomplishment.
Apps/online implementations are also cited for their automation and taking care of the turn-by-turn management, which The Captain is Dead app does well. When providing you with information, a mini cutscene plays with warning sirens and voices, which is a fun twist that adds to the theme. But when taking a turn, because of the way the ship is zoomed out, it can be hard to see every detail you need. There is a HUD, which surrounds the play area and can give quick hints as to what you are looking for. Even then, it can be hard to decipher all the information.
This could also be the result of the game time. The box of the physical game says 60-90 minutes, and if I’m being honest, I’m not going to an app for 60-90 minutes of my time. When playing something on my phone, I’m looking for a filler that I can knock out in under 15 minutes. The Captain is Dead is not one of those, even on the casual difficulty. And even if I did, the app is a battery hog. In doing a final play before my review, I played for about 20 minutes, and my batter had already dropped 13%. In some of my prior plays where I had been on for close to an hour, my phone had overheated in conjunction with the battery drain.
All in all, The Captain is Dead felt like a letdown, but maybe it’s because I am not the right audience. I’m not looking for this type of game, or a board game app that is a time commitment. But to its credit, The Captain is Dead does a great job of bringing the board game and its theme to life with a graphical facelift, voice acting, a hilarious tutorial (unfortunately the jokes aren’t present in the game like the intro), and cutscenes that almost make the game itself feel like a cartoon/web series with a dedicated fan community.
Final Score: 2.5 Stars – A stylized entry into the coop digital scene that leads to a heightened focus on looks than gameplay.
• Dull gameplay
• 60 minute game time
• Information can be difficult to parse
• Causes battery drain and overheating