I got a copy of this game direct from one of the designers in the Stronghold Games stable, Geoff Engelstein, because I mentioned that it looked really neat in a forum at Fortress: AT. He offered it up and I accepted, primarily because it is so much different than anything out there. It’s a team vs. team experience, which alone is interesting enough, but it’s also a real time game, which is a very underused and what I would call “emergent” mechanic that is just now starting to really see more titles released for it, such as Escape: The Curse of the Temple and Zombie 15′. As it turns out, It’s very much a refinement of the excellent Space Alert formula, and it’s also a lot more fun and exciting. It takes the silliness of the Space Cadets franchise and pairs it with tense, exciting play that keeps you interested and truly engaged until the end.
That said, Space Cadets: Dice Duel is the kind of game that was hard for me to play because without a crowd of people, it’s not really living up to its full potential. My group usually has it’s maximum at four to six players, and you can certainly play this with four or six, and I have played it with four or six, but to really get the maximum amount of “awesome” out of this, you really need four players per side. Luckily, a friend of mine had a birthday party, and despite most of them not being “gamers”, I cajoled 7 of them to play this with me. As it turns out, it was a hit, because the game’s rules are relatively simple, and with the maximum players, it allows two players to be the “Captain”, which is pretty much the Alpha Gamer position, who tells everyone else what to do on their team. This is definitely the kind of game that requires you to have a couple pints of Guinness in you, or if you can find it, some Romulan Ale.
The basis of the game is simple, really: It’s a ship-to-ship tactical battle between two space cruisers, loaded with a helm control, torpedoes, shields, and sensors, all of which have distinct elements which help the ship attack and defend itself. Now, it’s not as simple as just ordering your ship to do something because there is an engineering section which diverts power to each system and that is sort of the “heart” of the game. There’s a lot going on at each station, and there’s a shitload of dice being tossed.
The whole game is a chaotic mess of people rolling dice furiously while uttering quiet prayers to their deity of choice, but it works so damned well that it’s nothing short of brilliant. I never thought it would be as much fun as it turned out to be, but sure as water is wet, we all had a hell of a time. So much so, in fact, that we ended up playing it 3 times in a row and broke out a deck of cards to determine which players would be on which team. We just took the face cards in diamonds and spades, shuffled them, dealt them, and the Ace was the team captain, with each lower rank choosing their position, in order, and the Jack being relegated to whatever was left.
What is surprising is how coordinated each team has to be in order to be successful. The Captain acts almost as a moderator, barking orders out to the different stations, coordinating the disparate sections to ensure a cohesive attack strategy. Each player controls multiple stations no matter how many players are involved, with the “Helmsman” controlling movement, shields, mines, and the tractor beam, the “Weapons Officer” controlling the torpedoes and the sensors, which controls targeting and jams enemy targeting, and the last player controls the engineering section, which is the most crucial role as they essentially hand the dice to the various stations, allowing them to take actions. As I said, it’s a chaotic, wonderful mess of a game that will keep your sphincter puckered from the beginning to the end. Surprisingly, the Captain’s role is both the most critical to success and the least interesting because all that player gets to do is tell other people what to do. It’s the “McDonald’s Manager” situation: you call the shots and are the one who receives all the blame when things go sideways. I guess that’s the burden of power.
On the space map itself are little tokens and plastic crystals that act as choke points, because the tokens cause bad shit to happen, such as losing a die, and the crystals allow you to take an extra die and turn it to any face you want. It’s critically important to remember that these things are on the board, because not only do the crystals play a huge role in your overall strategy, but you can tractor beam enemies into the tokens and rob them of dice, which is nothing short of crippling. It’s quite the adventure, to say the least, and if you’re not paying close attention to what you’re doing, that’s your ass.
In addition to the base game, I was also fortunate enough to get a copy of the expansion, Die Fighter, which adds a pair of these neat little knock-off Battlestar Galactica’s Vipers to the game. We included it the last game I played to see how it was. Well, it was “too much”. I love the idea of fighters, I love the idea of more stuff on the board and more tactical options, but in practice, in my opinion, it’s just too much stuff you have to worry about in such a chaotic game. I mean, who do you give the new capability to? The helmsman is the obvious choice, but then you have him rolling three dice for the ship helm and two dice, identical dice at that, for the fighter. It’s unwieldy. The only way it really works well is if there’s another player, because the Captain tends to neglect his Captainy duties if he has to control the fighter too. So, you really need to have 5 players per side to make it work.
The fighter has no shields, but it does have missiles, which are not as powerful as torpedoes because the enemy gets one free “block” when struck by one, but it also has “pulse bombs” which can be deployed if the fighter is in the same square as the enemy, and are not blocked by shields. Seriously, they are the ship-killer weapon in Dice Duel, but they aren’t exactly easy to use. The fighters are more maneuverable, or rather are easier to move, so getting away from them isn’t easy. Luckily, they’re relatively fragile, which balances things, but unlike the rest of the game, if you have a dedicated pilot and the fighter is blown away, that player is out of the game. Any given match of Dice Duel only lasts about 30 minutes, so it’s no big deal, but for those of you who can’t do “player elimination”, it might be better to forego the fifth player per side and simply assign the fighter duties to one of the other stations, and simply deal with the extra chaos.
The expansion also includes new “Experimental Equipment” cards which are drafted by each team, in order, until each side has two of them. These cards have various powers such as making your ship more maneuverable or, my favorite, allowing torpedoes to negate defenses, and they have a nice impact on the overall game. They really flesh out the ships and make them distinct from one another, which is the one real flaw in the base game. There’s more than 25 of them, so with four being used each game, drawn from a random pool of five, you can play this expansion a ton of times before you have seen them all, let alone used them all.
All things being equal, I really like this game despite knowing that you really only can play it with six at a minimum and, optimally, eight. With the expansion, bump that up to ten players. What it comes down to is your group, and how much Adderall you take to be able to keep it all together. If you can get eight players together sometimes, and six players regularly, this is a must-have filler game, because it’s just so quirky, innovative, and fun that you’ll really be missing out if you don’t have it.
Why I Love To Fire Off My Little Torpedoes:
– Incredibly innovative, furiously fast play keeps you riding the edge of your seat
– It rides the fine line between “party game” and “hobby game” inconceivably well
– This should be considered an Ameritrash Neo-Classic filler game
– Great dice and nice components make this a durable and nice looking game
Why Kirk Would Double Neck Chop Geoff Engelstein:
– Because that’s what Kirk does, obviously
– This might be way too chaotic for some groups, such as fun-murdering cube-pushing types
– You need a crowd to really get the most out of this
If you have six to eight people in your group, this should be a no-brainer. Doubly so if your group doubles as a Spock fan club, because this is so obviously an attempt at simulating Star Trek battles that it, again, is a no-brainer for fans of that license. It’s really fun, really tense, really exciting, and utterly chaotic. It’s definitely not for everyone, but for the people it is for, Dice Duel knocked it out of the park.
Learn more about this game at the Stronghold Games page:
…or the expansion, Die Fighter, here:
…and they even made a training video if you want to see how it plays: