It’s time for another edition of Tabletop Co-Op! In this column, we take a look at cooperative games that don’t require a controller, keyboard, or tablet. Today, we trek to the stars, taking on the role of a team of trainees on their first mission. Space Cadets puts you and your friends in the captain’s chair, the engineering deck, or even at the weapons console in a way that is highly thematic.
Space Cadets is designed by the Engelstein family: Goeff, Brian, and Sidney. Geoff, the father, is a contributor to the well known Dice Tower board game podcast, as well as co-host of the Ludology podcast. It is the second game design from the family, following 2011’s The Ares Project, a competitive sci-fi card game. The Engelsteins must be fans of Star Trek, as the game is clearly inspired by the hallowed franchise. Kirk and Spock would feel right at home in Space Cadets, and I am sure that was the designers’ intent.
In Star Trek, teamwork is very important, with every member of the crew having a specific role in any given mission or circumstance. Similarly, the players in Space Cadets take on roles with various responsibilities. Stations include Captain, Engineer, Weapons Officer, Sensors, Shields Officer, and a few others. The game is mission based, so it feels different each time you play. Missions feel almost episodic in nature, enhancing the theme even more.
The Captain’s job is to keep the game progressing smoothly by keeping turn order moving along and making sure the varied stations work together. The first major phase is the action phase, where Engineering, Helm, Weapons, and most of the other crew perform their tasks. Each of these crew members play what is basically a timed subgame in this phase. Engineering has to match symbols on tiles, while Weapons covers a grid in with Tetris-like pieces. Sensors has to identify shapes from a bag without looking, and Shields places numbered chits on a diagram with strength determined like hands in poker. If it sounds a bit complicated, well… it is. But no one ever said being a Space Cadet was easy!
After the action phase comes resolution. The Helmsman’s flight plan is carried out, shields are distributed, sensor locks are made. Weapons are then fired by flicking a wooden disk shuffleboard style. Success here is dependent on how each member did in the action phase. If the Sensors officer did her job and got a lock on the enemy ship, Weapons has a much higher chance of doing high damage. But if the flick goes poorly, the lock is wasted for that turn. Similarly, if Shields planned to encounter an obstacle on the starboard side, and placed extra shields there to prepare, but the Helm couldn’t get turned around properly, the ship might be exposed to damage. One one hand, the sense of teamwork when things work right is extremely positive, but on the other, when things doesn’t go to according plan because one person made an error, it’s hard to keep from being frustrated.
After the ship full of Space Cadets has moved and fired weapons, the enemies get to take their turn. Each of them follows an AI checklist, similar to that of the monsters in the D&D Adventure System games like Castle Ravenloft. Bad guys will first attempt a sensor lock, then move, and finally fire if the good guys are within range. In some missions, a unique ship, the Nemesis, will show up, and it harasses the Cadets for the entirety of the mission, impeding their progress all the way.
Inevitably, the ship will take damage, whether from environmental hazards or enemy fire. When this happens, the Damage and Repairs officer takes control. Each quadrant of the ship is represented by a deck of cards. Damage requires a card draw from the appropriate deck, which can sometimes cause structural damage(no effect) but will sometimes put effects into play that make the game more difficult. Thankfully, repairs can be attempted, but as any Star Trek fan knows, sometimes, in the heat of battle, trying to fix something makes bad things even worse. Once the damage decks are exhausted, a Core Breach can occur. This is bad news for the Space Cadets, for sure!
As you can imagine, the cooperative aspects of Space Cadets are a big part of the experience. Engineering powers up all the rest of the stations, while the Captain can play Experimental Equipment cards to provide extra assistance where needed. Helm and Shields have to collaborate to maximize chances for survival. Sensors and Weapons work hand in hand with one another as well. It is one of the most cooperative board games I’ve ever played. Each player feels tightly connected to the rest, instead of just playing the same game at the same time.
Another strength of Space Cadets is the theme. You and your friends will truly feel like a spaceship crew. The look and feel of the components, the obvious ties to TV shows and movies, and the clearly defined roles for each player combine quite effectively. It almost feels more like a role-playing game than a traditional board game. We found ourselves speaking in Scottish accents and saying “engage” or “make it so” quite a bit. The heavy theme will truly appeal to sci-fi fans, but could be off-putting to people who don’t know a Klingon from a Stormtrooper.
There are a few missteps in Space Cadets that prevent it from being one of my go-to boxes for game night. It feels too long for what it is, for one. A thematic minigame collection should not take upwards of two hours to play. It’s not ideal to invest that much time in a game that might come down to a single flick of a wooden disk. A second problem is the strictly timed nature of the action phase, which can really upset some players. Perhaps the biggest issue is the difficulty of learning the game; while the rules for each station are fairly simple, there are so many different stations that making sense of it all can be daunting. The best games are easy to learn, hard to master; Space Cadets is, in many ways, the opposite, with many different rules to learn, but not much depth to reward you when you do.
Overall, Space Cadets is a well designed game, with one of the greatest implementations of a theme that I have ever seen. Your experience with the game will be directly related to the appeal of that theme. If you can get past the learning curve, tighten up your play, and have the right group to play it with, a session of Space Cadets can be fantastic. Armchair Kirks and Picards can boldly take this one to the gaming table and have a ball with it.