Many games claim to offer you the joys of command. Direct legions of soldiers, hordes of tanks or fleets of ships to do your bidding on the tabletop or the screen. But this isn’t real command. Pixels on a screen don’t look to you for inspiration in hopeless situations. Plastic miniatures don’t care if you descend into panicked paralysis. What you need for real command is real people. And this is something that most of us rarely, if ever, experience.
If you want to take your command skills to the next level, here are two games that will show you what it’s all about.
Space Cadets: Dice Duel
Space Cadets: Dice Duel is a game where two teams each fly a spaceship around a board trying to destroy each other. I had the opportunity to play a few games at Nottingham Gamecity this year, and if you can find another seven players it’s amazing. The game is played by rolling dice to move, load torpedoes, drop mines, raise shields and fix target locks, but what makes it so good is that this is a real-time game with no turn taking – just frantic dice rolling and decisions under pressure.
Each player on your ship has a different role, taking control of one or more stations on the bridge. Engineering rolls dice to allocate energy to the other stations, allowing them to roll their own dice. Weapons is in charge of loading torpedoes by building them out of special dice with parts of missile drawn on. Sensors racks up targeting and jamming points which affect the range you can shoot and be shot from. Shields protect just one side of your ship, Tractor Beams let you move the enemy around and pick up crystals (which activate special powers) and finally the Helm rolls arrow dice that move the ship around.
All of this happens at once until someone shouts “Fire Torpedo!”, at which point everyone stops. The distance between the ships, the sensor and jamming points, and the shields are used to see if any damage was caused. Take three points of damage and it’s game over. Otherwise it’s back to rolling dice as quick as you can.
While you can play with six or fewer people, it’s best with eight. This allows one person per team to play as the captain who does nothing but shout orders and tell their crew what to do. Having tried this a couple of times I have to say that it’s one of the most stressful roles ever in a game. Dice Duel is a game of perfect information – you can see where both ships are and exactly what your opponents are doing. But the situation on both sides changes so rapidly that trying to keep on top of it all is nearly impossible.
Nearly, but not quite. Give me forward torpedoes – get closer, get into their left side! – (3, 4, 5 range plus they’ve got how much jamming, damnit just out) – drop our jamming, more sensors – gah they’ve moved, get behind them – (1, 2, 3 plus 3, do we have enough sensors, yes just about) – FIRE TORPEDO!
Commanding a ship in Dice Duel is this constantly for fifteen minutes, and it’s exhausting. If you’re like me and love the challenge of struggling to process information under pressure, and are willing to dive into the deep end and give it a go, then it’s incredibly rewarding. Remember, your crew are counting on you!
Artemis Bridge Simulator
If you prefer your spaceship simulations digital then Artemis Bridge Simulator may be worth checking out. It’s probably the most accurate Star Trek game made, despite not actually being Star Trek.
I played an early alpha version at a LAN some time ago, and the latest version sounds more fully featured. For optimal nerd realism is should be played with six players in the same room, where each player takes control of either Helm, Communications, Weapons, Science, Engineering or the command chair.
Each station can only view their own special display, plus a couple of generic screen such as the map. One cool thing is that the commander has no controls whatsoever, and has to ask other stations to put their displays onto his screen. Missions tend to involve the Comms officer finding out what’s going on (and randomly broadcasting abuse at enemy ships if you’re anything like my wife), before engaging in some tactical combat with lasers, missiles and mines.
Our game session was mostly a comedy experience, a mood enhanced by a pair of Spock ears and handmade tinfoil Star Trek badges being handed out beforehand. Going in blind also meant that the first mission sounded something like:
“Um, not sure how. Ah, there we are. Oh no it’s stopped.”
“Sorry, trying to give you some more power, try that. Huh, where did they go?”
“Whoops, accidentally warped away. I’ll just turn around…”
Before our voyage was cut short by attempting to nuke an enemy ship from point blank range.
After a few missions we got more competent and rather hit the limits of the very early version we were playing, and the game got a bit simple. However, I think the genre of asymmetric co-op is perfect for LAN parties and there is great potential in games like this. Co-op LAN games retain all the social elements that make board games great (but are probably even more niche due to the logistical challenges), and can be combined with the automation and more complicated rules that make computer games great. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what else people come up with in the next couple of years!