Space Cadets Review
Space Cadets aims to be the Star Trek game of your dreams. Sure, there are no shortage of Star Trek games or games inspired by Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi classic, but this one puts you and your friends in charge of operating individual stations on a larger ship. Of course, there’s a captain, but others are required to run engineering, the helm, shields, weapons and sensors among other things. Does its novel approach to simulating a ship like the USS Enterprise work as a quality board game?
When first opening the box, you’ll quickly get buried in an avalanche of player boards, map tiles, tokens and cards. Clearly, a lot goes into running a space ship of this scale, and the sheer amount of components that come with the game reflect that. For me, coming to grips with everything this package contains was daunting. Depending on your learning style, you may want to grasp the big picture stuff first before trying to learn each individual station, or go the other way around.
In either case, it took me a few hours of reading the manual, watching tutorial videos and playing with the bits in order to get a sense of how everything fit. Unless you have a group of like-minded gamers that are willing to workshop it you, I highly recommend taking the time to figure everything out by yourself beforehand. At least that way, you’ll have the knowledge to the game up and running faster.
The end of a successful set up will make your table look like a sci-fi dream. Somewhere in the middle of the table should be your map with your ship token and any applicable cards surrounding it. Bordering your table will be all of the individual stations. While the game does allow you to play with only three players, I prefer larger player counts to minimize the number of people that have to manage multiple jobs. By doing so, each person can better concentrate on doing their jobs really well.
In general, the overarching flow of the game is as follows. You start out somewhere in the galaxy with the objective(s) of collecting crystals and/or defeating enemies. Each player will do their respective jobs in order to complete the task at hand. After getting the job done, the Jump Drive is activated in order to warp the team out and complete the mission.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Enemies will fight back and attempt to kill you. The Nemesis, an infallible beast of an enemy ship, will eventually make its way onto the map and obliterate you if you’re too slow to complete your mission. The biggest challenge though, comes from the activities inside your own ship.
All of the actions required to operate the ship take place in a multi-step process that the Captain will lead. Every job on the ship involves some sort of mini-game that is reflective of their particular job, which makes every job feel unique and important. For instance, the person in charge of the sensors needs to match a block shape on a card by drawing that shape out of a felt bag with only their sense of feel helping them find the right piece. The weapons section requires someone with a good touch, as they need to flick a disc along a track to score damage on enemy ships.
The craziest one to me is the Jump Drive, which is a Yahtzee-style set collection dice game where the end goal is to roll five-of-a-kind. Because this is practically impossible to do, you can instead earn perks with different types of combinations that allow you to manipulate the dice in ways that make it much easier to get five-of-a-kind when it matters most. This role is going to take some time to wrap your head around, so it may be best to have a more experienced gamer on that station first.
As if doing your job wasn’t enough, every job is timed. Outside of the initial strategy discussion and prep time, all of the actions that matter take place in 30-second intervals. With the added pressure of time, people are going to make hilarious mistakes, strategies will be compromised and crews are just going to have to roll with the punches as best as they can. Furthermore, the likelihood of success at any particular job is heavily dependent on the success of everyone else. For instance, in order to hit a damaging shot, an engineer is going to have to give energy to the appropriate areas of the ship, the helm will have to move the ship into the right spot and the sensors will need to be locked on.
The ways in which the team dynamic impacts the game is fascinating. Even though people are heavily focused on getting their individual tasks done, the results of that work ladder up to a team success or fail. Once the team has a grasp on the big picture stuff and what they need to do in order to succeed, the game delivers a cooperative experience unlike any other.
If there’s one oversight, it’s that the game only comes with five missions. A sixth one is mentioned in the manual, though you have to download it off of the Stronghold Games website. At the very least, you can adjust the difficulty for easier or more difficult runs the second time around. Or, you can use the components to create your own missions. Still, a few more missions in the manual would have been greatly appreciated.
I have no affinity for Star Trek, but Space Cadets is the USS Enterprise simulator I never knew I wanted. The way in which the macro and micro elements of the game weave in and out of each other is amazing in a way that really makes you feel like you and your crew are piloting a complex space craft across the galaxy. If you’re looking to boldly go where no board game has gone before, pick up Space Cadets and set your phasers to fun.