I never wanted to be an astronaut. Jeff Beck and Jeff Krause’s Intrepid provides a detailed explanation why. Trapped in an aluminum can that’s only staying up because it’s falling one direction faster than it’s falling the other, rubbing shoulders with people who smell like old socks, flicking away nuggets that weren’t properly vacuumed up during your last poop — yeah, living the dream. Have at it, Bezos.
While Intrepid doesn’t cover the mundane events of an astronaut’s daily existence, it does emphasize the biggest problem with living aboard the International Space Station. At any given moment, outer space might decide to murder you.
It begins with something going horribly wrong. A toxic leak. Meteorites. The sun explodes. Now you’re begging to repeat the poop nugget debacle of ’99. Being astronauts, your response is to glance at each other, nod curtly, and say something like, “Let’s science the shit out of this.” Not literally, of course. Metaphorically. Not like you had to do back in ’99.
No matter the problem, the solution has everything to do with reactivating modules, rolling dice, and then placing those dice on those modules. It’s both immediately graspable and intensely mathy. Survival hinges on four resources: power (lest the station slip into darkness and ruin), climate (to prevent you from baking to death), oxygen (for obvious reasons), and nutrition (because astronauts require 70,000 calories a day to function and cannot ration their prune paste). There’s little difference between one resource and another. Running low on nutrition won’t leave you anemic. Cutting off climate won’t cause heat stroke. Instead, they share one commonality: if anything dips into the red even for a moment, everybody dies.
Keeping those needles in the green takes elbow grease. Resources are generated whenever a die is placed atop a module. There’s an element of puzzling at play. Sometimes a module will only generate as many resources as your die’s value, prompting you to use up any high rolls. Other times, a module will only take certain digits, or a pair of matching dice, or dice that add up to a particular value. Some modules can be activated twice. Thanks to whatever crisis is besieging the ISS, sometimes a module will be rendered inactive, or else be damaged enough that it requires a particular value lest it incur a resource penalty. Over time, new modules can be activated, adding new options. This is usually necessary, both because the station’s requirements are always on the uptick and because older modules tend to get worn out. Or shredded by meteorites. Same difference.
And then there’s the international part of the International Space Station. Each player is their own astronaut, complete with their own national origin, specialty, and everything else — by which I mean they’re playing entirely different games.
Take the four astronauts from the base game. On the easier end of the spectrum, you have Russia and the United States. The former are all about adding dice to a limited pool. They begin with only two dice, but certain modules will award more. Many of the puzzles in Intrepid are about creating the right sequence. The Russian cosmonaut drives that home, stringing one module into the next unless his pool of dice stalls out. By contrast, the US astronaut needs to hit very specific targets. Her modules let her modify her values up or down. Like her Russian counterpart, she’s making sequences, but the specific way she makes those sequences operates according to its own logic.
Those are the beginners. The others have license to go a little crazier. After rolling, the Canadian astronaut locks all of his odd-numbered dice in storage, where they’re trapped unless he modifies their number. Fortunately, he has unique converter tokens that adapt odds into evens. Meanwhile, the Japanese astronaut requires nimble fingers, because her dice must be rotated and tilted to reach the proper values.
These individual puzzles are the most interesting thing about Intrepid, and they only grow more interesting as the expansion astronauts are brought along on missions. Learning what makes them tick is a joy. Still, it’s hard not to characterize them as double-edged. On the one hand, Intrepid is almost entirely devoid of quarterbacking or alpha players. Because each player is working with their own dice, modules, upgrades, and quotas, it’s a long shot to glance over at somebody else’s table space and determine the best course of action better than they could. Very quickly, you zone into your own problem, only occasionally surfacing to send an errant die to a skint teammate or make sure so-and-so is helping meet a particular resource shortfall. At its best, you feel exactly like a member of a highly specialized team. You’re a pro. Nobody can do your job better.
Except, of course, you aren’t actually a climate engineer who specializes in space radiators, temperature management, and air circulation. You’re Doug, marketing manager at an automotive parts supplier, and you’ve stumbled into a game that’s as persnickety as it is interesting. Asking how a module works means you’re tearing the game’s teacher from their own puzzle. Can’t you see they’re in the middle of growing more pumpkins, or whatever vegetable astronauts devour to fill those 70,000 daily calories? Once you have their attention, they might not have any idea how your character plays. Maybe they have to look it up. Great. Just great. You said you could handle a four-star difficulty, Doug. You said it couldn’t be all that different from sourcing car parts, Doug.
The result is a game that starts complicated, becomes interesting as you get your bearings, and soon loops back around to both complicated and solitary. Because you don’t understand what your friends are up to, the cooperative elements become muted compared to the pressure of solving your own puzzle. Sure, you’re a pro, but even a pro sometimes needs a friend to help lift this bulkhead hatch off this whatchamacallit so you can use a hexawhat wrench on the bonkadoo.
In effect, Intrepid is a paradox. The problem you’re facing is dynamic, pummeling the station and forcing you to activate new modules and think on the fly. But its solutions are largely static, requiring you to undertake the same actions over and over again, often in identical sequences. Once you figure out the best way to activate your modules, it isn’t uncommon to keep plucking at them in the same order. For a game that features such excitement, it sure can feel tedious.
What’s the missing link between Intrepid’s dynamism and its dullness? That’s difficult to determine, in part because its dice puzzling is so well done.
However, I suspect the answer has something to do with the way your astronauts interact. Assistance between players is currently fed through the central habitation and docking modules, where extra dice can be funneled to one another. It’s exactly like being on a team, except rather than helping each other out directly, you’re limited to passing tools through a drawer and asking for assistance by filing a request in triplicate without any knowledge of whether that request can be fulfilled. “I need a die with a 3 or 4,” someone might say. Well, you happen to be holding an extra 2, which you can deliver to the docking module with a +1 bonus. Problem solved. As much as you’re able to solve it, anyway. Back to your own puzzle, your own sequence, your own limited slice of the dynamic problem you inhabit.
It’s generally bad policy for a critic to evaluate the game that might have been rather than the game that actually materialized, but Intrepid’s wide-open puzzle space invites theorizing. So here are some thoughts on how Intrepid might have featured more direct teamwork.
- Adjacency. Currently, it doesn’t matter where you place your modules. Okay, it does a little bit, usually in the Meteor Shower scenario. Those little bastards might ping the row where all your modules are sitting. You really ought to spread them around. Point is, placement doesn’t matter for teamwork. But what if some modules boosted other modules? Even other players’ modules? Instead of stacking everything in the nearest corner, this would encourage you to dig into the guts of other players’ puzzles.
- Spacewalks. Did you know most spacewalks take over six hours? It’s easy to envision a situation where one astronaut has to go outside to retrieve a supply capsule or fix something important. While they’re gone, their teammates have to make up for their absence by covering their modules. Maybe at decreased efficiency or only with certain values. Rather than steadily increasing the station’s resource outputs, this might add the occasional turn where you really have to squeeze the most out of every system.
- Fatigue, Mistrust, Ennui, and the “Space Crazies.” No, I don’t mean hidden agendas. I mean situations where one astronaut is injured, worn out, or rattled, and their teammates have to assist them in some way. Anything that tilts your head up from your puzzle would be a plus.
- Waiting for your shift at the vacuum pooper. Astronauts have scheduled pooping times. I have no gameplay effect for this. I just think it’s an interesting tidbit of cosmic horror.
Like I said before, Intrepid gets many things right. Its many dice puzzles. The vastness of its crises. Even its big spinners that track how severely your resources are being drained.
At the same time, its timbre leaves my head spinning. Over here, you have the solitary sensibilities of a heads-down engine builder. Hey, I love those! But they’re spliced into the heart of a raging crisis teamwork game. Hey, I love those, too! Unfortunately, these are ingredients that don’t fit together. “Poop nuggets in applesauce” is too harsh. Also, I suspect I don’t love poop nuggets. Peanut butter on Brussels sprouts. There we go. Intrepid is like peanut butter on Brussels sprouts.
A complimentary copy was provided.