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Game Probe: Space Cadets, Dungeon Command
© Various artists
March 29, 2013

Game Probe: Finding games you will like and making you buy them since 2001.

Space Cadets

When you were a child how many hours, on average, did you spend pretending that you were a member of the bridge crew of a starship? Lying in bed at night and pretending that you were just a normal kid by day, but that at night you would be beamed up into the stars to fight unknown aliens. Potentially, you would have to kiss their grateful green ladies, but you could handle that if you had too. Hundreds of hours? Thousands? Just me, then?

What if I told you that you (and 2-5 of your friends) could do exactly that? In Space Cadets (released by Stronghold Games each player is in charge of bridge stations of a starship as it flies through space, fighting enemies, tractoring things into cargo holds and jumping out of the system, all to the sounds of a John Williams score (at least, I hear it in my head). Itís a beautiful cooperative game in which all players are scheming together against the game to come out ahead and not get dashed on the rocks and anomalies so often found in space. Or get blown up. And you will get blown up.

Letís talk about how exactly the game plays. Each player will be given control of some stations. These stations are your standard science fiction fare: Sensors, Engineering, Damage Control, Weapons, Shields, Helm, Jump, Tractor Beam, and Captain. Each is based around a different mini games. Weapons will have you playing cardboard Tetris (loading torpedoes) to make certain shapes and then flicking little wooden disks down a track to determine the damage done (firing those torpedoes). The Jump Drive can only be activated by playing a complicated version of Yahtzee, but activating it earlier in the game allows you to prime the drive and get special abilities.

Those abilities will allow you change the dice you roll, so when your team's life is really on the line, you can jump the heck out of there and save the ship.

Sensors, the one I am the worst at, has you reaching into a felt bag, and trying to find a specific shape as determined by a random card draw (you are literally SENSING! GET IT? Stupid clumsy hands!) Thatís only 3 of the 9 systems, and each is different, but each has a direct effect on the game you all are playing together.

What makes it truly difficult is you only have 30 seconds each turn to work your station. One flip of the sand timer. After that, everyone sits back, has a sip of their libation of choice and watches as you discover who messed up, and who just pulled the Hail Mary play that is going to save the ship.

The amazing thing about Space Cadets is how easily players become their roles; they don't just learn their minigames, they become like the sci-fi tropes they represent. Someone sits down behind the Engineering console and in no time, they begin to resemble an engineer. A quick flurry of activity, suddenly they freeze and just stare for a moment, into the void, and then they bang the last couple of tiles in place, seemingly holding the entire fate of the universe in their hands. The Weapons Officer will assume the easy calm and self-assurance of the hotshot, until they miss and then they curse and yell up a good-natured storm. Helm will twist and turn in their chair, like a tourist navigating a subway map, as they chart your course.

I swear to you by the end of the game, you will see the jump officer turn into a real life version of the hybrids from Battlestar Galactica. It totally happens.

All this speaks to why the game is fun. Not because you all are a well-oiled machine, but because you will all mess up in equal measure. Engineer didnít make enough energy this turn? No worries. Sensors couldnít get a lock on the enemy anyways, so Weapons is firing blind. The Captain is insisting on being called Captain and everyone is ribbing each other as the ship falls apart around their ears.

You wonít care, because you will be laughing and having a good time. Itís not really a game about getting from point A to point B, but a game that is about the journey. Itís about losing sometimes and winning sometimes (either way it will be spectacular). Itís about doing it all as a crew of space misfits just proud to have made it onto a ship.

I highly encourage you to purchase this game at your local game shop (roughly $50), I promise they do special orders if itís not in stock and they need your love.

Have fun and try not to mutiny.

John Shields is a freelance writer, director, editor and overall funny guy based in Austin, TX. He can be heard on his monthly podcast, It's Made of People, and firmly believes that you can solve any problem by jettisoning the warp core.

Dungeon Command

Hey! You got a miniatures wargame in my card game!

Dungeon Command is Wizards of the Coast's new foray into the world of fantasy miniature wargaming. Previous attempts from the venerable Chainmail through Battlesystem used the common ďbuy and paint your armies and stomp your enemiesĒ mode. They then tried a collectible miniatures game featuring pre-painted plastic miniatures called, unremarkably, the Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures Game. From 2003 to 2011, WOTC put out a wide variety of figures for players to build armies with and clobber each other on battlegrounds wherever they could get together.

In 2011, WOTC's new idea was a small squad combat game that also leveraged their Magic the Gathering card games' production and skills. This hybrid is Dungeon Command. Each set features one small themed war-band of painted plastic figures, two leader cards to represent the player of the war-band in the skirmish, and randomized cards that are used for powers and abilities.

Chits represent treasures in the form of bonuses to the leader's morale and map tiles make up the battlefield. Here are the two big changes from all the other fantasy wargames Wizards (and TSR before them) did. The war-bands are premade and not randomized. All sets are identical. There are no dice. The only randomizing elements are order cards and the random treasures scattered around the board.

Each player picks one war-band. The sets are: Sting of Lolth (dark elves), Heart of Cormyr (humans), Tyranny of Goblins (Goblins), Curse of Undeath (Undead) and the Heart of Gruumsh (Orcs). Individual monsters and heroes make each war-band unique. Players decide if the battle is in the dungeon or above ground and pick one large and one small tile each. The tiles lock together to present the battleground for the fight with two starting areas and a variety of hazards, obstacles and blocked ways in between.

Commander cards have Leadership and Morale stats. Leadership tells you how many creatures you can have deployed, If Morale drops to zero, that side loses. If one player has no creatures on the board the side with the highest Morale wins. Play then goes back and forth with each player calling up, moving creatures to gain terrain advantage, round up treasure tokens (to build Morale) and support other creatures. Orders are drawn into the player's hand. As creatures are played their statistic cards are tapped, ending their turn.

Dungeon Command is a straightforward, quick moving game. It relies on control of the board and smart movement to achieve victory. Alternate rules allow one war-band split into two smaller teams, or multiple war-bands of up to four players. Online instructions allow making up unique war-bands combining creatures and orders from the different sets. All war-bands have a unique flavor in creatures and powers. This makes for variation from game to game as different strategies work better for different war-bands, head to head charges vs. long distance ranged fighters, for example.

The miniatures tie with the cards nicely and are sturdy and attractive. The map tiles have nice enough art work and are sturdy but have a tendency to warp. This is unnoticeable once they are locked together, but worth noting.

Cards for orders and creatures included with the game are of cheap stock, which is surprising considering Wizards also makes a plethora of card games. The art on them is consistent with the quite good quality elsewhere in the game. One nice final touch is that the war-bands from Dungeon Command can be used with other Dungeons and Dragons Adventure Series games, such as Legend of Drizzt or Castle Ravenloft.

The game is worth checking out for the miniatures alone, which can serve double duty. The war-band sets are priced reasonably. As more war-bands are added, complexity will only get more wild. Dungeon Command is a fun, fast moving and easily learned game for people tired of the usual miniature battle games.

Matt Cowger can be found at @mattcowger. He is also fast moving and easily learned.

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