Review: Space Cadets

Designer: Brian Engelstein, Geoff Engelstein, Sydney Engelstein
Publisher: Stronghold Games
Ages: 8+
Players: 3-6
Time: 90 mins

Reviewed by Matt Carlson
Review copy provided by Stronghold Games

As someone who plays a lot of boardgames with casual gamers, I’m a sucker for cooperative games since I don’t have to worry about unequal competition wrecking the game experience for any of the players.  I also enjoy the thrill of playing on a team, where players can celebrate or commiserate their successes and failures.  Space Cadets is a cooperative game based on commanding missions in a Star Trek like setting.  Each player has a unique, specific task to perform.  Most tasks are performed simultaneously and consist of a time-limited puzzle-like activity.  The group must work together to accomplish the overall mission while avoiding enemy fire, particularly the ever looming Nemesis ship – which serves as the game’s timer.

To start, players are assigned various roles within the ship.  When playing with fewer than a full complement of players, some players will have to pull double-duty (performed in a second time-limited “shift”).  A mission is chosen from scenarios in the book with a few randomizing factors included (such as which enemy ships will be present, and which space-grid sections will be used.)  The mission objectives can vary between exploring space, collecting space rocks, or simply destroying all the enemy ships present.  All this must be performed while taking advantage of (or at least avoiding the worst of) objects and terrain scattered throughout space.

Once the ship is placed on the map, players begin a repeating cycle of preparation and planning, timed simultaneous group work (on their individual specialty), movement and actions of the enemy ships, concluding the round with any repair efforts or attempts to jump back home through hyperspace to conclude the game.  The heart of the game lies in the simultaneous actions performed by each player within their specialty position, so lets take a moment and discuss each one.  I’ve attempted to summarize each job with a game or phrase that most closely resembles what that player will need to be doing during for their core actions.

Captain: (Management/Coaching) One of the first roles to be assigned as a “duplicate” role when playing with fewer than 6 players, the captain role is one of management.  While making few strategic decisions (the captain can select and use a very few limited one-use “special technology” cards to assist the group in a pinch), the captain is primarily a leader, helping to keep everyone organized and manage the game state for many of the “fiddly bits”.   

Engineer: (Dominoes) The engineer plays a game of Mahjong / dominoes with a limited number of square tiles.  Each side has a half-circle (with one full circle in the middle.)  Each full matching circle will grant one unit of energy to a specific role during the next round of play.  While matching circles isn’t too difficult, clever play will balance maximizing energy output with meeting the energy needs of specific roles (occasionally a role will have specific needs, such as extra energy to weapons when making an all out attack, etc…)

Helmsman: (RoboRally) Probably the most important role in the game, the helmsman arranges a small hand of cards to program in ship movement, much like movement in RoboRally.  Ships cruise at a set speed value, and a helmsman gets that same number of cards to program.  Thus a ship moving at a speed of three will need to use all three dealt cards in some way.  Any energy sent to the Helm can be used to change the ship speed by 1 or allow the helmsman to draw an additional card.  If everything looks like it will turn out in failure, the Helmsman also has a few reusable emergency cards that can be used, but they have a chance of damaging the ship.  A good helmsman is critical, as they will determine how close the ship will get to the enemy, which shields will be facing the enemy, and how much terrain damage (from asteroids, nebulae, etc…) will occur on the journey there.  Thus, almost all the other jobs are affected by the helmsman in some way.

Weapons Officer: (Ubongo & Crokinole) The weapons officer draws one shape card for each point of energy assigned to weapons.  Their job is to construct each card shape using tetris-like pieces.  Each card completed within the time limit is another torpedo ready to launch during the combat phase.  In the combat phase, the Weapons officer launches a small wooden disc down a narrow runway to determine the amount of damage done to the enemy.  When enemies are closer, the officer is able to start their discs closer to the target damaging regions.

Shield Officer: (Texas Hold-em) The shield officer is assigned a small pile of numbered tokens (numbered 2 to 8 in orange and blue colors) which must be arranged on the four sides of the ship (3 open spaces per side) or in the center (2 open spaces).  Making pairs, 3 of a kinds, small runs, etc… will earn each side of the ship a corresponding number of shield points.  The (up to) three tokens on each side are combined with the central two tokens when determining the shield value.  For example, a player may need to decide whether to break up run of 3 on one shield in order to place a pair in the central spot in order to have some shielding around the entire ship.  Providing the shield officer with more energy grants them more tokens with which to work, however, there will never be enough tokens to go around so the shield officer needs to coordinate with the Captain and Helmsman in order to put the most powerful shields on the appropriate sides for each turn.

Sensor Officer: (“Tetris Grab Bag”) The sensor officer draws one object card for each point of assigned energy.  These cards are then assigned to a specific target (to a maximum of three targets at any one time.)  During the activity step, the Sensor Officer must extract (by feel alone) the appropriate objects from the bag that match the displayed object cards.  Objects consist of various Tetris-like pieces, and no selections can be “thrown back”.  By correctly filling up cards, the Sensor Officer can perform various sensor options.  A basic target lock on an enemy requires one card.  Three cards grant a Super Lock for a single turn, but a super lock can also be accomplished by “upgrading” a regular lock with just two cards in one turn.  The Sensor Officer may also jamm enemy ships to break their lock or spend one card to “explore” (ie. flip over and reveal) adjacent space map regions.  Locks are very important within the game, as shooting at a ship without a lock on it does very little damage. Super Locks can almost double the damage done to enemy ships.

Tractor Beam: (Memory) Not an official officer position, the Tractor Beam is always combined with another player’s duty (it depends on the number of players).  The tractor beam consists of a small grid of tokens containing colored shapes with overlaid numbers from 1 to 4.  For each point of energy assigned, the officer in charge may select one pair of tokens to reveal.  If they are a perfect match, the specified number of “tractor beam points” are available for use.  These are most often used to capture objects (such as crystals) to complete mission objectives, but can also be used against enemy ships to assist in combat.  Due to the nature of the position, Tractor Beams are best used a bit at a time to explore and memorize the locations of the shapes.  However, as used shapes are removed, the available big-point chips become scarce.  The memory layout may be reshuffled and refreshed at any time but it is best done at non-critical times as otherwise the tractor beam player must start all over with memorizing new token locations.

Jump: (Yahtzee with super powers)  Another non-officer position, the person manning the Jump Engines will also have another primary duty.  When energy is assigned to the Jump engines, the appropriate officer rolls some dice attempting to roll 5 of a kind off of five dice.  Since this is nearly impossible, one’s best bet is to assign extra energy to the Jump Engines which grant additional rerolls.  Most importantly, every time a jump is attempted, the result can be used to gain a Jump Flux card with special die-modification powers useable in future Jump attempts.  The jump position is important, as it is how the game ends.  No mission is complete until all the objectives are accomplished AND the ship successfully uses its jump engines to leave the area.  

My thoughts on the game:

Space Cadets isn’t going to appeal to everyone.  This is more of an group activity than a standard boardgame.  There are a few tactical decisions to be made, but it is primarily a race/puzzle game with everyone cooperating.  There are a few advanced options for each station which can be used to increase flexibility and slightly increase the tactical options available, but I find they’re best used to give the game more flavor and newness once players have become very familiar with their duties.  Many co-op games share a fatal flaw where one player can dominate all the decisions and make it into a solitaire game.  Space Cadets nicely avoids this issue by having players’ primary actions occur simultaneously.  Sure, a rather domineering captain can make most of the tactical decisions (which does fit with the theme) but since most of the “fun” in the game is performing your job simultaneous “action” job, it is far less of an issue in this case.

There are many available missions to attempt.  While this does add some variety, I find the game to be similar in feel from mission to mission.  What the missions do best is to introduce the various rules of the game in easy to digest portions.  Even though the game can be understood in a player’s first game, it is nice to have some development of the rules from game to game.  I even recommend the extra-beginner missions (available on the web site) for groups of almost all new players as they tend to be extremely forgiving while still able to provide a good time for everyone.  

Clearly, this is a group experience where the game will shine or tarnish depending on the dynamics between the players.  Perhaps the game’s greatest weakness lies in the importance of the helmsman (and, to a lesser extent, the weapon officer.)  The ship will generally perform OK if some of the positions are performing poorly, but if you can’t get where you want to go, it is difficult for the other positions to compensate.  Of course, this can also be very entertaining, as perhaps my favorite game was one where where we simply couldn’t get anywhere we wanted to go.  I think we blew up in the end but everyone was laughing so hard no one cared.  The second issue some may have with the game is its length.  For such a lightweight game, some may want more strategic depth for 90+ minutes of time.  However, player actions are nearly simultaneous and while there is some resolution and record-keeping, player interest in the results is high and players tend to stay engaged throughout the entire game.

Not for the strategy gamers, nor even for hyper-competitive players, Space Cadets is still an extremely enjoyable game.  It could easily be considered a cooperative party game with a somewhat complex and nerdy theme.  While the running of the ship as a whole takes a bit of understanding, nearly any gamer can hop into the game since they will only have to worry about their specific position.  The game will be extremely entertaining for any space fans (Star Trek, anyone?) or any group of gamers looking for more of a group experience than a competition.  You may be able to pique players’ interest by describing it as a series of iPhone or Nintendo mini-games linked together to make a starship simulation.  The game can easily be played with a broad age range, it was a huge hit amongst my 10-15 year old nieces and nephews over the holidays.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers

Greg J. Schloesser – This is not my style of game, as it includes numerous mechanisms for which I typically do not care.  As I surmised, I did not care for my one and only playing.  I am sure quite a bit of thought and development went into the design process, but I kept feeling that the game was simply hodge-podge collection of mechanisms used in other games.  Each part felt artificial and completely disjointed from the central theme.  Never once did I feel as though the tasks I was performing were even remotely connected to the actual tasks of a spaceship crewman.   A big thumbs-down.

Ratings Review from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it!  Matt Carlson
I like it.
Not for me…  Greg Schloesser


Special thanks to Geoffrey Engelstein for letting us borrow his BGG photos for this article.

About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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1 Response to Review: Space Cadets

  1. Steve Marano says:

    Curious if either of you have played Space Alerts and could provide a quick comparison.

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