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Review: Space Cadets: Dice Duels

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SpaceCadetsDD_boxcover

Arm torpedoes and lock in targeting systems! You and your friends are captain and crew of a ship locked in deadly combat, and it’s time to bring on the pain. You’ll face off team against team as you try to outwit your enemy by maneuvering, tractor-beaming, and firing torpedoes in this insane, fast-paced real time dice-rolling game of space combat!

How It Plays

Dice Duels is a real time dice-rolling game, and the goal is to destroy the opposing team’s ship by scoring 4 hits against them. The ships are identical in ability and the battle takes place on a square, gridded board with randomly placed obstacles in the form of nebulas and asteroid fields.

Each team takes control of a ship, with each player controlling a subset of systems.  During the game, players will roll dice frantically as much as they can until they roll what they want in order to activate their system.

Lock and load, teammates!
Lock and load, teammates!

The core system is Engineering, which is used to power other systems. When the engineer rolls a number corresponding to the system they want to power, they can pass that die over to that system.  Each die they pass allows the player controlling that system to roll one die for that system.  Once they’ve rolled what they want, they can “lock” the die and pass the engineering die back, allowing the engineer to roll again and power more systems.

There are 5 other systems – Shields, Sensors, Torpedoes, Tractor Beam, and Navigation.

Shields obviously help protect the ship when a torpedo actually hits – there are 3 available dice and the roll determines which side of the ship the shields are placed. More shields on a particular side offers better protection, but leaves the other sides of the ship vulnerable.

Sensors are both offensive and defensive – the more Targeting sensors that are activated, the longer range you can score a hit. But Sensor Jammers decrease the effectiveness of the opponent’s Targeting Sensors, which can cause a miss.

Torpedoes must be loaded in order to fire – each torpedo has 3 parts, and up to 2 torpedoes can be armed and loaded either forward or astern.

The Tractor Beam can be used to place mines, pick up Crystals, or even to forcibly move the enemy ship.

Engineering is POWER
Engineering is POWER. You’re gonna need it.

Finally, Navigation is what moves the ships around.  Navigation has 3 dice, and all 3 must be set before movement is resolved.

The goal is to work together with all these systems to load weapons, target them, and get in range so you can shout “Fire!”

For the most part, the game continues in live action with players frantically rolling to get their systems set correctly.  A few actions cause the real-time rolling to pause – firing, warping, and tractoring an enemy.  When you’re ready to fire, you shout “FIRE 1” or “FIRE 2”.  Everyone stops rolling, so you can check range and firing angle, compare sensors, and then check for shields if there is a hit. If there are shields, dice are rolled for each torpedo fired. A hit does 1 damage, which  is tracked by moving an engineering die to the damage track on the board.  Regardless of a successful hit, all targeting sensors of the attacker and jamming sensors of the defender are removed, as well as the torpedoes fired and any shields from the side of the ship that was hit.

FIRE EVERYTHING oh wait that torpedo isn't assembled yet
FIRE EVERYTHING oh wait that torpedo isn’t assembled yet

Tractoring an enemy ship is similar except you just check range, and if you’re close enough you can move the ship to an adjacent space. Which is very useful for, y’know, pushing them into a mine or something.

Finally, those crystals I mentioned – the ones you can pick up with a tractor beam – have a few special uses.  You can use one to warp across the map instantaneously, or to assign an engineering die instead of rolling it.  You can also use 2 crystals to replace an engineering die lost due to damage – you still have the damage, but at least you can roll that precious white die again.

The game ends when one ship gets its 4th point of damage and is destroyed.

Fire Everything!

There are people out there who won’t enjoy Space Cadets: Dice Duels. Those people are wrong.

There’s something here for everybody, and for those who don’t see that, well, they’re missing out.

Dice Duels captures the excitement of a tense, dramatic space battle without any sort of complex war system.  It is fast paced, energetic, chaotic, and rewarding.  It is team play at its finest.

WHO'S FLYING THIS SHIP?
WHO’S FLYING THIS SHIP?

I love the whole concept from the cement foundation to the penthouse suite and it is brilliantly executed.

I love working together as a team, each with their own roles (pun intended) united by the captain.

The different stations are each so simple in and of themselves but the way they combine results in a great, interactive, team-building game.  For someone who likes to keep it casual, they can be assigned weapons, or even engineering.  For someone who likes the more frantic pace of rolling dice, navigation is ripe for them. The captain can be someone who prefers taking a more strategic approach without worrying about rolling the dice.

The captain role is my favorite to play, although I don’t always have 8 players, so I usually end up rolling the engineering dice and captaining at the same time.  There are recommended configurations in the rulebook for what systems should be with one person, but it’s easy enough to reassign things as fits your group or play style. Anyways, it’s very fun to me to look at this crazy battlefield, come up with a plan, and try to execute it in real time by telling the other players what they should set up in their systems.

Just grabbing some crystals and avoiding asteroid fields and nebulas
Just grabbing some crystals and avoiding asteroid fields and nebulas

Complexity can be scaled up and down per player.  A more gaming-oriented person can handle more to think about at once.  Someone less inclined towards the insanity can be given simpler systems, or even just one system to handle. Even my 7 year old nephew wanted to play so I let him roll up the torpedoes – it was simple enough for him to do, he didn’t have to worry about making higher-level complex decisions in real time, and he still had a blast.

Teams can engage with each other as much as they like – someone like my wife can sit back and take orders because she just enjoys doing the thing without worrying about making tactical decisions, whereas my gamer friends can participate in discussing strategy and coming up with a plan.

The dice are put to perfect use here, abstracting these ship systems so that they are accessible but you still feel like you’re doing something.  Sure it may not be a direct simulation of arming a weapon system on a computer and aiming for your target, but the abstraction works so well it feels thematic. It feels like you’re arming a weapons system, it feels like you are a crew on a starship.

Lets hit 'em hard. But don't let them hit us. We need more dice here!
Lets hit ’em hard. But don’t let them hit us. We need more dice here!

There’s definitely a learning curve – all new players will be overwhelmed with the frantic dice action and will really need help to know what to do with their systems.  They’ll likely fall into patterns that can easily be taken advantage of.  But, as players learn their systems and can spend more time focusing on what’s happening on the board, the game really expands into its true potential. You start out your first game just trying to get your torpedoes loaded and getting in range with a boatload of targeting sensors.  After a game or two, you start thinking about strategy – how can you position yourself on the side to avoid shields, how can you draw the enemy into your trap so you can tractor them into the mine you just dropped, how can you keep your shielded sides towards them.  You start to balance defense and offence and think several steps ahead, and it’s a whole load of fun.

Fortunately, when most of the players are experienced it becomes easier to include new players – you can give them an easier system to manage so they can learn what they need to do quickly, and as they experience a game themselves and watch what other experienced players do, they’ll acclimate. Just make sure to make balanced teams, something I haven’t always been the best at.

Dice Duels can get a little stressful for some.  For the most part I’ve seen adults handle it just fine, but some younger players – even those above the age limit on the box – have gotten overwhelmed by the action and angry at their teammates when mistakes are made. This is perhaps a maturity level thing; mistakes will happen.  You will think you have a great plan and then suddenly out of nowhere take 2 torpedoes to your unshielded side of the ship, which can be frustrating.  But it’s just part of the game and if you don’t hold people to their mistakes, it’s all part of the fun.

All power to shields. ALL POWER TO SHIELDS!
All power to shields. ALL POWER TO SHIELDS!

Once players know what they’re doing, a game will only last 20-30 minutes.  This could mean you play Dice Duels as a quick in-between game to loosen up between thoughtful heavy strategy games, or it could mean you play several games in a row – after all, if you had just gotten that last die in place YOUR team would have won so face up to a rematch already, ya chicken!

If I had my druthers, whatever that means, I’d play Dice Duels at the start of every gaming session.  The biggest roadblock is having enough players – I really don’t recommend it with 4, although it is possible. 6 works fine and 8 is ideal.  You can play with an odd number – the rulebook recommends a hotseat approach where you just switch out every round since the game is so short – but you could easily just split up the stations differently so that one side can have an additional player without having much of an advantage. You can also go beyond the 8-player limit just by splitting up the stations more.

I actually disagree with how the rulebook assigns stations – Navigation by itself requires constant focus since moving around the board is very important, whereas weapons and sensors often get locked in and then sit around waiting for the ship to get in position for firing. The rules give navigation, tractor, and shields control to one player. I think it makes way more sense to give the tractor beam to the weapons officer, and you could easily assign shields over there as well, although it at least makes some sense that the person in charge of orienting/positioning the ship is also in charge of assigning shields.

Quick, move into range! Behind them! No, from the side! Dodge, dip, dive, duck, and dodge!
Quick, move into range! Behind them! No, from the side! Dodge, dip, dive, duck, and dodge!

But, like I said, you can assign stations how you like and it works.  The point is, the game is exciting and fun and you really get a great team experience with a large group of players. Everyone should learn how to play this game so we can all play it in any given group we have; I know that I’ll keep bringing it out for game nights with a larger goup.

I guess I should mention components – they’re great.  The system boards are clear and uncluttered with some icons to help remind players of extra details, and obvious placements for the dice with plenty of space. The board itself is large enough so that players can move their ships in the midst of the frantic action without getting in the way of each other TOO much, and the ships are easy to handle and pick up.

The dice themselves are fantastic, with excellent icon design, bright and distinguishable colors, and engraved surfaces that so far have not faded in the slightest. They’re small enough to hold and roll a fistful but large enough to feel substantial.  Overall what’s in the box is quality stuff.

I'm givin' it all she's got, captain!
I’m givin’ it all she’s got, captain!

The only real negative I can think of for this game is that there are a few mildly confusing rules.  I think the dice rolling and the system rules are pretty easy to get used to quickly, but there are a few specific situations – namely, when ships move into the same space – that are just slightly clumsy and take some getting used to. But, if you have enough experienced players, it’s easy enough to resolve all the action when it matters, so it’s not that huge of an issue.  My first game was definitely pretty rough as I had to check and re-check rules for movement, resolving combat, and tractor beams, but now it all just flows in my head and everything is resolved very quickly.

I guess I have one other issue – I find it difficult to get a large enough group to really get the most out of playing.  I think the game is best when you have 8 – with the captain roles tying everyone’s actions together, you get a much better sense of teamwork and strategy.  With fewer players there is a higher level of chaos, which is fine, I just prefer it maxed out.  4 just seems like the worst way to play, although I suppose 4 gamers could get some mileage out of it, gamers who can get a solid handle on the dice-rolling and work together.  I just prefer 8 but I rarely have that many – usually 6 or 7.  Fortunately, due to the fact that you can arrange systems as you please, it is possible to work with odd numbers.

If I leave you with one thing after this review, let it be this: go buy this game. Learn it. Love it. Play it with me. Seriously.

Summary

  • Rating 9
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Summary

Pros

  • Frantic, exciting,
  • Feels like you're a starship crew in an action-packed battle
  • Teamwork
  • Easy to re-arrange systems based on player count and experience
  • Fast paced game ends quickly so you can play multiple rounds
  • Fantastic components

Cons:

  • Some minorly clumsy rules
  • Can be stressful
9 Excellent

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You’ll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. Alright, I’ll admit that I haven’t actually read the whole review yet. But I did want to comment on those being some really nice pictures Wolfie. My crummy old cheap digital camera and lack of photography skills can’t match those focus effects of yours. I’m sure the review is good too, I’ll get around to reading it soon. I promise.

  2. Pingback: “Space Cadets Dice Duel” Review – iSlaytheDragon | Roll For Crit

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