The red alert alarms are blaring, the aliens are breaking through the hull, and the vessel’s starship captain is too busy being deceased to give heroic orders: this is the premise of The Captain Is Dead, a cooperative tabletop board game and Star Trek parody recently adapted into a multiplayer video game by Thunderbox Entertainment. This board game adaptation studio has nicely augmented the The Captain Is Dead‘s frantic countdown-styled gameplay with surreal polygonal graphics and a gameplay mode similar in style to the spaceship roguelike FTL: Faster Than Light.
As one of the most iconic, genre-defining science fiction tv franchises out there, Star Trek has gotten its fair share of spin-offs and homages, from parody movies like Galaxy Quest and deconstructive novels like John Scalzi’s Redshirts to video games such as Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator which let players take on the roles of officers controlling the bridge stations aboard an Enterprise-like starship. The Captain Is Dead (both board and video game) recreates the climactic sequences in Star Trek episodes where the main characters must use science and teamwork to resolve the crisis at hand without the help of their brave, charismatic starship captain… who is dead.
The original The Captain is Dead is a self-described “Retro Sci-Fi Survival Strategy” board game with cards, plastic tokens, and a board with a map of a starship’s various decks. Each player picks a role card that matches a specific spaceship crew archetype (Science Officer, Telepath, Chief Engineer, Cyborg, Counselor, Hologram, etc.), and races around the map of their damaged spaceship to complete various tasks (with comedic hijinks similar to the antics in Star Trek: Lower Decks).
As a co-operative board game, players of The Captain is Dead are working together against the cards drawn from the game’s Yellow, Orange, and Red Alert Card decks, which contain random scenarios such as alien attackers or spatial anomalies which obstruct the crew’s activities and drain power from the ship’s shields. When the ship’s shield power reaches zero, it explodes. When the Jump Core is fully charged, the starship can make an FTL hop to safety.
The official trailer for the video game adaptation of The Captain Is Dead, released by Thunderbox Entertainment, parodies promotional videos from the 1980s with details such as VCR static, mullet-wearing hackers, and a cheery old British narrator who talks about the game’s “b**ching synth soundtrack,” the company’s “laser-powered but totally harmless board game zapping digitizer” which is probably a shout-out to Tron. The video game itself parodies the various Star Trek installments and the sci-fi stylings of the 1960s/1980s by employing the following design features.
The 3D graphics for The Captain Is Dead can’t exactly be described as “AAA”. The character models, like the boxy-looking starship are crude-looking and polygonal, shaded using eye-popping primary colors. These textures hearken back to the graphics of 1980s/1990s space video games like Battlezone, Elite or Descent, but they also perfectly mimic the art style of the original board game: sharp, angular, cubist, and vaguely reminiscent of the uniforms and spaceship corridors of the original 1960s Star Trek series.
The gameplay of The Captain Is Dead, a close replica of the rules from the original, also bears a strong resemblance to the gameplay of FTL: Faster Than Light, an outer space rogue-like developed by Subset Games. In the top-down view of both games, players watch crewmembers run through the various compartments of their ship like rats in a maze, manning consoles, making repairs and repelling alien boarders. It’s unclear whether The Captain Is Dead took inspiration from FTL: Faster Than Light, or if their similarities are an example of convergent design.
Thematically, these two games have major differences. FTL: Faster Than Light, as a rogue-like game, is centered around survival and endurance, with the ragtag crew of a starship hopping between systems and random encounters, trying to keep ahead of an advancing rebel fleet. The Captain Is Dead, on the other hand, is focused on the single scenario of a spaceship crew trying to escape danger before it’s too late. To flesh said scenario out, The Captain Is Dead video game augments its turn-based board game gameplay with short cutscenes which flesh out the personality of crew-members as they take their actions: the Engineer swears up a storm when she fires torpedos off at enemy ships, the Cyborg talks about “assimilating” Skills, and so on. Small touches like these make the virtual version of The Captain Is Dead feel more like a video game and strengthen the sense that players, through their actions, are creating the narrative of a Star Trek episode.