As I look through my collection in the cupboard as I write this, I'm thinking that giving something a theme is maybe one of the easiest things to bestow upon some cardboard. It is all about art and tokens, and representation through the mechanics. And as long as there is enough of a tie in, then you'll just about get away with it. We've all spent time playing games where the theme was there, sitting at the table beside you, steadily getting more embarrassed as it realised that actually, it might have not bothered sitting down, as no one would have missed it if it never bothered its arse turning up. It doesn't effect the fun time had, but you could have still had that time without the need to think you were a pirate.
In other games the theme takes you to a different level, almost making you live in the moment and for that briefest of seconds, the table falls away, and you're standing there. Then the game has clutched you in its hand, and it's slowly squeezing you for every bad decision you've made. But oh my goodness you're forgiving it, because it's cardboard, yet somehow it's making you live in that moment, and these cards shouldn't be making you tense, or thrilled or pissed off within the space of two minutes.
This is how The Captain is Dead makes me feel. You're only there to stop the really bad stuff from happening, there's no sense of control here, no sense that your expertise or your skill set are going to help the fact that you're in the last ten minutes of a popular television show set in space and it's all gone wrong. The Captain is Dead, and now you're not going to be the hero of the piece, you just need to save what you can and get the hell out of there.
It doesn't even start off calm and serene, as you select a character from a collection of different occupations available. You can't have more than one of the same, just like in a real ship, so no team of four science officers that are going to just go around fixing all the science problems you have. Nah, not going to happen. Get yourself an Engineer or a Hologram or the Second in Command who all have different things to bring to the table and you'll need to work together because The Captain is Dead and no one is in charge which means that now everyone is in charge. Then the systems start failing from the offset. So say goodbye to comms and the abilities to share resources when not in the same room. Oh, and cheerio to the transporter, which means you are walking everywhere instead of beaming yourself about the ship. Big hello to the Aliens that have beamed aboard to kill us which means we need to get to sick bay.
It's like vanilla Pandemic, but The Captain is Dead, and so all those lovely things that made life easier for you are just going to break, but now it's space and so now it's ice cold vanilla Pandemic and some git has stolen all the spoons. All you need to do is gather resources and fix the hyperdrive and make sure that the shields don't drop to zero because The Captain is Dead and in that situation without them to save you, you all die.
Panic floods the corridors of the ship as the coolant leaks and the aliens take over rooms. So you can't easily repair the broken comms station unless you were clever enough to hand your cards to the science officer, who already has an engineering bonus so they spend one less card than required, and now it's fixed so we can share resources easily again, and the hyperdrive is fixed one level and why have the lights turned orange? Why are we at orange alert? Why..?
It doesn't get easier. There are no bonuses for hanging back and playing the long game, because The Captain is Dead and everyone is going to die unless you can get to the rocket station and destroy the Alien ship off our starboard side. Or get to the storage and pick up more resources, which means we've added in an extra turn, and we draw the next orange alert card and we've lost 40% of our shields and the game.
You'll lose. You'll lose a lot. But, you'll play again. Because this time, I'll be the Science Officer and you'll be the hologram and we'll do it differently this time and we'll win. This time I won't end the game by shouting out that 'We're Dead!' and knocking over my character so it falls over in it's clear plastic stand, on a board that is almost art deco in design in terms of its looks. All straight lines and sharp angles and bright colours so when it is on the table, it shines out like a siren's song, trapping those caught in it's art direction to play, and play just one more time, because The Captain is Dead but everyone knew you were always better than them.
Play it with people who have never played a modern board game before, just to see them live in the moment of decisions and panic and excitement. Play it with someone who has a million other games, but saw this and never got round to it because you owe them the experience where the theme picks them up in their arms and squeezes them so tight they can't breathe. It's cheaper than you think it should be and definitely has a ton of replayability to offer those who like playing a game more that once.
I backed The Captain is Dead when it was first released, and I gave it to a friend because they liked it when they played it the first time. I then went back recently and bought it again with the shiny component upgrade that Alderac Entertainment Group furnished it with. It's a glorious experience of how games can be, where everyone can lose and walk away smiling, even though The Captain is Dead