Starship Captains: Prepare to Launch
Space exploration is a popular theme in board games, but many of them are either sterile – you’re exploring an empty universe – or depict planets as something to be fought over and conquered.
Starship Captains, by Peter B. Hoffgaard, is neither. Instead, up to four players can test their prowess to explore colorful, alien-filled planets in this game from Czech Games Edition. Will you guide your inexperienced crew to glory and fame? Slink back home in disgrace? Or will you, er, go boldly, where other board games have gone before?
There are a lot of pieces to put together before you can start exploring the sector.
Each player gets their own spaceship player board, a starting crew, and a tech-slot board to hold future upgrades.
There’s a central board representing a sector of the galaxy. Across the myriad planets, you’ll randomly distribute mission cards, two space stations, and “countdown” chips. Put all the player ships on Home Station (which never changes). Don’t forget to place pirates on their starting routes between planets – your ship has weapons for a reason.
But wait, there’s more! You also need to set up the three faction tracks (with a marker for each player) and a tech market.
There’s a lot of detail in how to set up Starship Captains that we’re leaving out, but you get the idea.
How to Play
On your turn, you can Complete a Mission, Activate a Room, or pass.
At the beginning of your turn, you may discard a single medal to upgrade a “cadet” (gray) into a specialized ensign (red, yellow, or blue), or to change an ensign’s specialty.
Or you can use three medals to promote an ensign to a commander. Commanders can either perform an action twice, or call in a matching ensign to your ready room at the end of the turn.
Complete a Mission
If your ship is currently at a planet with a mission card, you can choose to complete the mission as your action for this turn.
You must commit available crew members to every line on the mission card, even if they don’t match the color icon on that line.
For every crew member that DOES match, resolve the effect on that line – usually this is good stuff, but not always!
Then, slide all the crew you used up into your ship queue, and keep the mission card. It will award points at the end of the game.
Activate a Room
Every other action you can take in the game requires activating a “room”. Your ship comes with four default rooms, allowing you to move your ship, fight pirates, add tech upgrades, or repair your ship.
Moving around the board (Red) lets you access missions and stations.
When fighting pirates (Yellow), you take a damage, but you get the pirate token and the reward shown on it. These both go in any empty slots in your ship’s cargo hold.
Tech upgrades give you either immediate bonuses or new “rooms” that do more; to add an upgrade, you activate the engineering room (Blue) and then simply pick any available tech card and put it in an open slot on your tech board.
The repair room (Gray) is pretty self-explanatory: it removes a damage from your ship. Unlike the other rooms, any crew member can activate for repair – even cadets!
Normally, you activate a room with a crew member of the corresponding color. Remove them from your ready room and place them on the room, then move them to the queue at the end of your turn. But you can also activate a room by discarding two artifacts that both contain the room color. This is a great way to save your crew to do more missions.
Passing and Round End
Once you pass you won’t take any more actions that round. When everyone has passed, the round is over. Everyone pushes their crew queue forward into their “ready room”, keeping back exactly three in the queue. Players get a little bit of new stuff (medals to help with upgrades or a new cadet) and station bonuses are reset. Go forth and explore further!
After four rounds, the game ends. Players tally up their points for completed mission cards, faction tracks, special tech, and all the commanders, androids, pirates, medals, artifacts, etc, they’ve collected. Subtract one point for each damage on your ship.
The captain with the best score can brag about their excellent crew.
I’ve loved optimistic, people-focused science fiction ever since I was a little girl watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my mom. I’ve tried other space-exploration games, but they never capture the same wonder, excitement, and humanity that I really wanted. Starship Captains pays homage to my favorite sci-fi and makes exploring the universe interesting.
Too Long? Too Short?
Starship Captains also reminds me of the original Star Trek‘s “five-year mission”: it feels both too long and too short, at the same time.
There is a lot of setup in Starship Captains: five common boards, each with their own starting setup. The main board setup requires placing tokens and then replacing most of them with cards while flipping the rest over. This allows for a lot of variation, but it takes a while.
The game itself is only four rounds, and you’ll have 3-6 turns in each round, depending on how you allocate your crew members.
She’ll Hold Together!
Every time a player completes a mission, you search for the highest numbered token on the board and flip it onto the new spot, then move a new mission card to the planet you took the number token from. This provides a countdown for a new set of pirates to appear, but is another fiddly thing that slows down the game.
Speaking of the pirates; they’re supposed to be picked randomly out of a face-down pile. But the tokens are small; we found that putting them in a draw bag was much easier. The same is true of the artifact tokens.
The whole game could really benefit from an organized insert, with room for player “starter kits”, to make everything flow more smoothly.
There are a lot of options to choose from in the game – moving to different planets and space stations, collecting rewards from pirates, collecting bonuses from tech, and completing missions. Even when your only crew member left is a cadet, you can always repair your ship!
The gameplay encourages you to try a variety of things – that’s why your crew has different specialties – and there’s tech and missions that will give you even more options. You’ll be looking for ways to promote crew members to “commander” and collect artifacts, to increase the number of actions you can take in a round.
This could lead to a slow down as players work through every option available – but needing specific colors limits your immediate options, while encouraging long-term planning. Remember, some of your crew will slide down the queue and be available again in the next round – which do you want it to be? Those are the ones you should use first.
I was pleasantly surprised to see a solo mode in the box. Your goal here is to score as high as you can, while “Captain Shadow” provides some randomness with a random action deck. Unlike many other solo games I’ve played, this automata is not competing with you. In fact, you are allowed (encouraged!) to choose paths for it that help you. This was so unusual that it took me a while to wrap my head around it.
Starship Captains captures the type of space exploration I enjoy, including some goofy humor. But it’s hard to get through this much setup and tear down, when the game itself takes less than 90 minutes. This might be why its rated 12+ (not a “conventional” family game). However, the core gameplay of Starship Captains is really satisfying.
Ideally, I’d love setup to be easier, because my kids lose interest when I’m moving pieces around for twenty minutes before they can play. But if that’s not a problem in your house, or if you always set up games for your family (or game group!), then it’s Warp 9 to your friendly local game store, or you can transport a copy from Amazon right now.
The Family Gamers received a copy of Starship Captains from CGE for this review.
This post contains affiliate links, which do not change your price, but help support The Family Gamers.
Starship Captains: Prepare to Launch
Age Range: 12+
Number of Players: 1-4
Playtime: 25 minutes/player (not including setup time)