Not Just a Rerun: Space Cadets: Dice Duel
You know what we love here at Château de Thurot? The unadulterated thrill of real-time board games. You know what we didn’t love? Space Cadets. In fairness, we only played it once, and had a really grand time for the first hour or so. Then Real-Time Exhaustion Syndrome set in (it’s a real thing, I’ll wait right here while you look it up) and we spent the concluding two hours wondering where the fun and excitement had eloped to. That’s why everyone was suspicious when I plopped Space Cadets: Dice Duel down on the table. “Wasn’t suffering through this once enough?” someone muttered, to a tidal wave of grumbled assent.
But here’s the thing: forty minutes later, after insisting that Dice Duel was an entirely different game, blitzing haphazardly through the rules, and stumbling half-blind through our first game, there wasn’t a person at the table who wasn’t itching to give it another spin. When a game starts out a victim of prejudice and still wins over your heart, you know you’ve got a winner.
[Insert Tired Scotty Catchphrase]
Unlike the cooperative crystal-rescuing venture that was the original Space Cadets, Dice Duel is more akin to that famous hit-and-hide contest between Kirk and Khan. It’s a winner-takes-all duel to the death in the black emptiness of not-quite-empty space, and just like in the Battle of Mutara Nebula, space-clouds mess with your sensors! There’s no flying in 3D though, so you’re trapped at the same tactical level as Khan Noonien Singh, which is a minor shame but—
Pardon my nerd-digression. Dice Duel is also a bit different from its predecessor in how it handles its real-time mechanics. Gone is the start-stop gameplay with its sand timers and ample windows for space-potty breaks. Instead, Dice Duel brings a relentless real-time that doesn’t stop for anybody. Until you die. Cold. Alone. In space. At that point it stops, but not before.
See, other than a couple exceptions, Dice Duel is always in real-time. You don’t merely rush to roll your dice and then pause for a resolution phase — you’re always charging forward, wrecking the galaxy with your warp drive, sucking up crystals with the tractor beam, laying mines, charging shields, assembling torpedoes, locking sensors or jamming enemy signals… and at the center of it all is the humble engineering position.
As the engineer, your job is to roll some dice. Simple, unassuming dice. Not at all like the vibrant colorful dice of the other stations at all. Instead, these are the same six-sided dice you’ve been using ever since your pa pulled out Monopoly Junior and said, “Son, it’s time you learned about your birthright.”
Unlike that moment, these dice aren’t as disappointing as you might think. See, its your job to provide the other stations with power — so your buddy at the helm? He can’t do anything with those fancy yellow dice until you decide he deserves the power. Well, when you decide he deserves the power and you roll some fives, because you need to roll fives to channel energy up to the helm, or twos to power the sensors, or other numbers to charge other stations.
Which means it’s your job to look between the other stations like a chicken who’s just heard a twig snap. Five minutes into the game, you’ll be hearing this:
“Hey, I can suck up that crystal if you’ll give me some energy.”
“Holy shit they’re right on top of us! We need jammers! Roll two roll two roll two—”
“I could fly out of range if you’d roll a five just once this [expletive] night—”
“—roll two roll two roll two roll two—”
“I can charge shields on that side but I don’t have energy…”
“—roll two roll two—”
“Should I lay a mine, since you aren’t giving me any tractor beam energy?”
That? That was the sound of a torpedo blowing through starboard. Congratulations, now you’ve lost one of your dice, and your crew is glaring between you and the airlock.
“Turn Hard to Starboard!”
“WHICH IS THAT?!”
As the helmsman, your job is to roll some dice. Just three of them. Pretty yellow dice with arrows that tell you exactly where your ship will go. Sounds pretty simple, right?
Well, leaving aside the fact that you’re probably also managing a couple other stations as well, helming a starship isn’t as easy as it looked in Battlestar Galactica. For one thing, this supposedly-empty stretch of space is actually chock-full of stuff, from asteroids that will pepper your shields, to nebulae that will make your sensors officer say bad words at you, and sometimes even wormholes that will magically transport you into a totally new sector and leave your head spinning.
The main problem is that you can’t carefully nudge your ship forward — that’s for pussies. Also, it isn’t allowed in the rules or the ship’s engine or something. The goal here is to hurtle through space, flying through every single obstacle and putting yourself right in the line of enemy fire every time. Or, uh, rather, to avoid that. Though you won’t. At the same time your engineer is sweating over who to feed energy to, you’ll be spinning the ship like a one-armed kid on a tricycle, bumping into the edge of the map, and generally boldly going where no man has gone before — mostly because men don’t want to go there, because that place sits at the end of your enemy’s torpedo-tube.
The span between the start of game and your first “I cannae do it captain!” is about three minutes; two seconds later the engineer will insist that’s his line and would you please not overuse it; ten seconds later you’ve been turned into charred space-toast.
The Age-Old Dilemma: Lock vs. Jam
As the sensors officer, your job is to roll some dice. Pretty green dice with reticules and sensor blips.
Only, that’s not really the full extent of your job. See, as the entire goal of Dice Duel is to murder the enemy ship, you’re going to have to fire some space-missiles (colloquially called “torpedoes” because they use… propellers?). Before you can do that, however, you’re going to have to actually lock on.
Since that “Sounds straightforward enough!” quip indicates that you’ve already forgotten the moral of the previous two stories, I’ll spell out the four problems with this.
The first is that you need energy to charge up a sensor lock, and your engineer is already panicked and throwing dice around like parade candy instead of rationally measuring them out to their best destinations. So you’re going to have to coax them out of him. By shouting the word “TWO!” into his ear repeatedly.
Second, your helmsman is a drunk, and he’s been spinning the ship around until everyone on the crew breaks out the sick bags in spite of the inertial dampeners. Meaning your normally-basic equation (one lock per range to the enemy ship) changes every time the ship lurches in a new direction. Recalculate. Recalculate.
Third, you need to keep an eye on the enemy ship, because their sensors officer has been loading up the jammers, and you need one lock for every unit of range to the enemy ship, plus a lock for each jammer that git has equipped.
Fourth, boom. A torpedo just crunched into your ship’s nose. You were spending so much time establishing a lock that you didn’t install any jammers, and now, even though it’s obviously engineering’s and helm’s fault, everyone’s blaming you for not keeping an eye on things.
You feel very misunderstood, down there in the sensors room.
As the weapons officer, your job is to roll some dice. Violent angry red dice. Better yet, you’re one of two stations with the power to pause the game. Is there anything you can’t do?
Yes. Chances are, you can’t hit the enemy ship. Probably because you loaded the torpedoes wrong, assembling their noses, fins, and, uh, propellers (?) in the wrong bay. So when you shouted “FIRE TWO!” at the top of your lungs, forcing everyone to stop rolling their dice, it turns out you just fired two torpedoes out through the back of the ship instead of from the front tubes. Moron.
The weapons station is about as straightforward as it gets, for a slapdash drunken space race. You get energy, roll your red dice to assemble some torpedoes, and then scream that you’re shooting them harmlessly into space because you weren’t paying attention and the sensors station didn’t have enough lock or the helm had rolled the ship out of range again.
Even when everything comes together — meaning you had energy at all, built your torpedoes correctly, and shouted FIRE when you had enough lock to guide that torpedo to the enemy hull — there’s a sizable chance you still haven’t done any damage, because:
Shields Are the Shield That Shield You from Torpedoes
As the shields officer, your job is to roll some dice. Hopeful blue dice that everyone else on your crew will forget about for pretty much the entire game, until that split-second when suddenly shields are the most important thing in the universe. At that point, you’ve either conned enough energy out of engineering to harmlessly deflect that successful torpedo hit… or the shields aren’t charged, or they’re on the wrong side (thanks to the helmsman, usually), or there aren’t enough of them. At which point everyone’s suddenly mad about that magazine you’ve been reading while everyone else was scrambling around.
At the very least, you can often make it harder for torpedoes to get through. Sure, a fully charged shield will block anything that hits that side of the ship (though it will dissipate the shield itself), but even one shield is enough to force the weapons officer to gamble by rolling for the little “burst” symbols that indicate a torpedo penetration.
If you’re laid back, shields are the place to be. Though of course you’re probably also managing the tractor beams too.
Surprisingly, a Lot in Common with Tractors
As the tractor beam officer, your job is to roll some dice. Maybe not as often as the other guys, but there are still plenty of opportunities to move things around. That’s a pun, see, because in addition to moving dice, you’re also moving hearts and minds. And enemy ships into asteroid fields.
This career path is twofold. Starting with the part that isn’t in the job description, you plop down little mines that will deal unblockable damage to anyone who moves into that square. So if you notice the enemy helmsman barreling straight at you in an attempt to ram your ship to death (which isn’t part of the game, but nobody told him that), it’s probably a good idea to put down a mine.
The actual tractor-beam part of the “Tractor Beam Officer” title is the bit where you scoop up crystals. These are useful because they let your crew take special actions, like a “station override” to place a die without using energy or rolling. Or a “warp jump” to blast into the great unknown, though the great unknown happens to be near enough that you’re still stuck in the same dogfight. You can even use a pair of crystals to get one of your engineer’s dice back after taking damage (though the damage itself remains).
Better yet, you can lock onto enemy ships themselves, pushing them all over the place. If both ships have moved alongside each other, hovering outside of each other’s firing arcs, you could snatch up the enemy and put him right in the path of your dual-loaded front torpedo tube. Or push him back into a nebula. Or into a mine. Or slide him around to a side where he doesn’t have adequate shielding and nudge your weapons officer to shout “FIRE ONE!” at the correct time for once.
Now imagine all six stations screaming at each other, clamoring for energy dice, blaming each other when your ship gets rocked by the blast of yet another successful torpedo hit. That’s Space Cadets: Dice Duel, and it’s one of the best real-time games I’ve played in recent memory. It’s simply hilarious, cramming dozens of mistakes and failures and silly maneuvers and all the shouting your lungs can handle into a half-hour of pitch-perfect mayhem. It’s the only game I’ve played where dropping a component off of a table prompts a mad Jefferies Tube-crawl in place of the usual leisurely search.
Best of all, it’s beautifully simple. If you’re only going to get one real-time game this year because your blood pressure can’t handle the strain of two, this is the one I recommend.
Just remember: roll two roll two roll two roll two—