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Co-op Case Study: The Captain is Dead

One of the more notable traditional co-ops of recent years was The Captain is Dead, a bright and evocative science-fiction game that followed in traditional design patterns. It’s since been followed by Lockdown (2018), which will be the topic of the next case study.

This article originally appeared on the Meeples Together blog.

Publisher: AEG (2017)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Adventure Game, Card Management


In The Captain is Dead, aliens are attacking. They’ve killed the captain and knocked the Jump Drive offline. Players take the roles of the surviving crew members. They must repair the Jump Drive so that they can make their escape before the constant waves of alien threats destroys them.

Challenge System

The challenge system of The Captain is Dead is very traditional: each turn the active player turns up a card from the alert deck. If she can’t override the alert, then something bad happens: usually characters are hurt and/or ship systems are damaged. The losing conditions are also the sort of mélange common in co-op games: if the shields are destroyed, the alert deck is expended, or the aliens are all placed on the ship, then the players lose.

With that said, there are several unique features in how The Captain is Dead manages its challenges.

  1. The alert deck is stacked into yellow, orange, and red alerts. This creates a very simple system of decay: not only are systems breaking down, but they break down worse as the game goes on.
  2. The ability to override cards from the alert deck creates real resource dilemmas, as players must constantly decide whether it’s worth scrambling for the right cards to override, or if it’s better to let systems break, planning to fix with them later.
  3. The players can preview alert cards (and thus the challenge system). As long as the external sensors are running, the players get to see the next two alerts, which increases their ability to strategically plan.

These abilities — to decay, cancel, and preview challenge events — could all be easily incorporated into other co-op designs, particularly those built around a card trigger. They’re great examples of how traditional challenge system mechanics could be expanded to improve player agency.

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

Cooperative System

The cooperative system of The Captain is Dead is almost entirely strategic. This is based on the layout of the board: players can take different actions in different places. This means that players in different locations must work together to maximize their efficiency: though one player could move around to do different sorts of things, that costs valuable actions.

This is an interesting design because it creates tactical specialization: though certain characters are encouraged to stay in certain spaces (more on which, momentarily), players can dynamically move to different locations and accrue the specialization of that location. This is very different from a standard specialization design, where specializations are inherent to the characters, and so can’t be dynamically swapped.

The Captain is Dead also contains some tactical ability to dynamically exchange skills (in the form of cards). Thanks to the Comm System, players can do this anywhere in the ship, which keeps anyone from feeling isolated even while they’re working strategically — an important element for cooperative play. Further, some player ability may improve tactical interactivity, such as the Telepath, who can borrow skills from other players at his location.

Adventure System

The best element of The Captain is Dead is almost certainly its adventure system: there are 18 different character roles and the designers did a great job of giving each one special abilities that simultaneously fit into the framework of the game’s play and still feel appropriate and evocative for the character. These abilities will often drive play and help determine where each character goes and what they do (though the abilities sometimes walk the line of giving a player too much guidance in what she should do, and thus predetermining her gameplay).

Similarly, all of the ship systems have been carefully developed so that their mechanics reflect their theming. These action-based ship systems are another of the major innovations of the game. They’re particularly strong for how they reflect the science fiction theming of the game.

There’s nothing magical or innovative in the adventure design of The Captain is Dead, but it nonetheless offers an excellent example of how to create evocative adventure systems just by carefully linking object names and object powers so that they feel “real”.

Expansions & Variants

The Captain is Dead was previously available as a self-published game through The Game Crafter (2014), alongside a few expansions. The AEG version (2017) was the first professional publication. It’s since been followed by a standalone second game, The Captain is Dead: Lockdown (2018), which was originally “episode three” on The Game Crafter.

Final Thoughts

Design-wise, The Captain is Dead feels like another member of the Pandemic (2008) family. Characters with unique specializations use action points to fight against a constant onslaught of problems. With that said, it adds depth to the classic play structure through considerable complexity in its actions while simultaneously adding color with well-themed actions and characters.

JT Smith & Joe Price

JT Smith is the co-founder of The Game Crafter, an online web site that allows designers to create prototypes or amateur productions of their games. He has released a number of small-press games through his service. This is the first professional design for both Smith and his co-designer, Joe Price.

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