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Co-op Case Study: The Captain is Dead — Lockdown

The Captain is Dead, which we studied two weeks ago, has a sequel, “Lockdown”, a standalone game that uses the same core system. However, whereas we thought the design of The Captain is Dead was wildly successfully (in large part due to its great theming), we found Lockdown lacking (in large part due to its difficulty).


Publisher: AEG (2018)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Adventure Game, Card Management

Overview

This sequel to The Captain is Dead (2017) reuses many of its game systems but in a new environment with new challenges. Now, the characters are being held prisoner in an alien prison, and they must steal a ship and escape before the aliens take notice of them and kill them all.

Challenge System

The Captain is Dead: Lockdown reuses the core mechanics of the original game system. After each player-turn, a new alert card causes something bad to happen. These alerts are previewable (if the Surveillance system is online) and they’re overridable (if certain resources are spent). They’re also stacked to create decay — which is to say, Lockdown contains all of the more interesting challenge elements of the original game.

There are also two major additions to the challenge system.

First, the game is full of aliens. In fact, almost every alert adds aliens to the game. This actually tends to make the alerts much less interesting, because they’re so repetitive. There is some variety, with five different sorts of aliens, but they tend to broadly have the same effects. (For a little more variety, one of the alien types also “patrols”, moving around the board in a simple circuit.)

Second, there’s a major new tally threat: concealment. A multitude of actions (but especially killing aliens, getting caught by aliens, and hacking systems to bring them online) cause the concealment to decrease, and if it drops to zero, the aliens start shooting to kill.

Together, the aliens and the concealment effectively expand the original Captain is Dead challenge system into a full simulation, since it now has effects that are removed from the card input by one or two levels of indirection. For example, an alert may summon a patroller alien, which may then move into a room where a character is hiding, causing the concealment level to drop, and this may cause the aliens to go into berserk end-game mode. It’s a nice lesson in how to develop simple card draws into a more complete simulation by a layering of rules.

With that said, the Lockdown variant of the Captain is Dead challenge system also has some issues.

First, it’s quite fiddly. Developing a challenge system always creates potential problems because it’s players who have to play out the simulation. Pandemic (2008) and Flash Point: Fire Rescue (2011) demonstrate how to make simulations easy and playable, in large part because their simulations flow out from obvious starting points. Pandemic: Rising Tide (2017), which has the potential for water suddenly overflowing everywhere at any time, is more challenging. Lockdown is unfortunately in the latter category — not because the simulation is particularly complex, but instead because it’s poorly supported by the components. The board can be filled with aliens of all different sorts, and they mostly look pretty similar, which makes it hard to pick out the patrollers; their patrol path is also not as obvious as it should be.

Second, Lockdown is a much more difficult game than The Captain is Dead, in large parts because of the limitations that it places on actions. Though there are certainly very difficult co-ops games that can be fun, with Orléans: Invasion (2015) being a prime example, Lockdown’s style of difficulty, which not only focuses on limitations, but also makes the impending loss very obvious, isn’t necessarily one of those.

Third, the game is designed so that the difficulty can in part be overcome by relatively simple actions, and this creates preset strategies. For example, the players must immediately do something to halt the decreases of the Concealment track, or they’re doomed. In fact, the randomness of the card draws in Lockdown doesn’t feel that important in balance to the preset strategies that must be conducted, and since unpredictability and uncertainty are two primary requirements of cooperative design, this leaves the game somewhat lacking.

Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Card Trigger (with Preview); Simulation; Decay; Environmental & Removal Consequences; and Tally, Combat & Skill Threats.

Cooperative System

Limitations often make cooperative systems great: they can keep the gameplay from being too easy and they can help to give each player autonomy. Unfortunately, limitations can also be used excessively, as happens in Lockdown, and this can damage a game rather than improve it.

The biggest limitations in Lockdown are the aliens: they leap upon characters who are not in their starting location. The dramatically restricts the strategic play of Lockdown because players now tend to primarily do the things that they can do in their starting locations — a trend that is often amplified by the strong specialization of the characters. The result is that the players have a lot less choice: an admiral might stay in the Mess Hall to draw improvised plans, a Science Officer might stay in the Maintenance Room to research, etc. (This was certainly somewhat the case in The Captain is Dead, bit it’s even moreso in Lockdown.) The excess of aliens also means that players either have to kill aliens or teleport away to do anything at all, another major limitation!

The other big limitation in Lockdown centers on that Concealment system. It penalizes many of the strategic actions that players might want to take, such as killing aliens and hacking systems (and, as noted, moving away from a character’s starting area). If the Concealment level gets too low, then players might no longer feel empowered to take these actions that destroy what’s essentially a cooperative resource.

Overall, the limitations in Lockdown drive players to narrowly defined choices, which are weighted even more heavily due to character specializations, and in the worst cases make players feel like they can do nothing at all. Though limitations are certainly a vital element of cooperative design, when they go too far, they can start negatively impacting both agency and fun, and Lockdown trends quite far in that directions (though different players will likely have different reactions to the tight constraints).

Adventure System

Much like The Captain is Dead, Lockdown has a great adventure system, focused on evocative characters, appropriate system-actions, and a fun story. However, whereas The Captain is Dead was in danger of constraining player actions with character roles, Lockdown makes that possibility much stronger, primarily through its other limitations.

Expansions & Variants

Lockdown is the sequel to The Captain is Dead. It was released in an earlier edition by The Game Crafter (2017) before its publication by AEG.

Final Thoughts

Quite simply, Lockdown feels like it took a well-balanced system and made it too complex. The new challenge elements are intriguing additions that made the game less manageable, but the new limitations constrain the game so tightly that they remove agency.

“[The Captain is Dead] does not have the random exponential escalation effect. Instead, each card in the alert deck has a specific bad thing that happens, and there are a specific number of yellow cards, a specific number of orange cards, and a specific number of red cards. That means that the game will always escalate in a more controlled manner. In Pandemic if you happen to get unlucky with your draw, you can get really bad outbreaks really early in the game.”

—JT Smith, June 2014, “JT Smith on The Captain is Dead”, The Inquisitive Meeple, https://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/31181/jt-smith-captain-dead

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples