Space Cadets: Away Missions is the third release in Stronghold’s Space Cadet line and it’s absolutely nothing like the frantic real-time Engelstein games of past. This Dan Raspler and Al Rose light dungeon crawler bears the Space Cadets setting in theme only, hitting us hard with an approachable yet sophisticated game of ‘50s golden era sci-fi blasters and Martians. The humor in Stronghold’s first board game Kickstarter release featuring a title with the acronym SCAM belies the strength and vitality of this spectacular game.
While Stronghold Games has always featured great production values and attractive components, Stephen Buonocore has outdone himself here. Away Missions brandishes over 100 solid miniatures, mounds of attractive tiles, large player mats, and two huge booklets. It feels lavish and special, fitting the attractive feel of gameplay. How can you not fall in love with a release that boasts little plastic brains-in-a-jar and space leeches? You immediately want to crack some skulls and pew-pew.
This game sits in a comfortable realm just above the Dungeons and Dragons Adventure System in terms of depth and complexity. It’s light yet packs a bit of oomph that helps it stand out and grasp your interest for the long term. Like its peers, you embark on different missions hurdling large packs of enemies, finding interesting loot, and exploring defiled ground.
One of the shining elements of this cooperative design are the scenarios. Mounds and mounds of scenarios. 20 of the suckers form a loose narrative of linked story that explores the alien invasion and always keeps you on your toes. Many games in this genre offer quite repetitive goals that feed a growing sense of similarity which can deflate extended play. Away Missions throws this notion out the window by offering you constantly evolving tactical situations with really divergent narratives. You will break out of fish-head prisons, free human Thralls, snatch up blueprints for alien technology, and seek revenge on the malevolent foreigners.
Moving on from a difficult scenario and flipping those huge pages to see your new opportunity for carnage is truly a treat. I was shocked how the feel could be drastically shifted by re-arranging a collection of random tiles in interesting formations and by throwing in a couple of new specific rule changes. One of the early scenarios allows you to place your deployment hex adjacent to any outside tile as your team of cadets is boarding the enemy craft. These clever little elements are packed into each corner of the design and constantly have you nodding in appreciation.
This strong variety does come at a cost though as setup can be somewhat labored. You have alien tokens, discovery (item) tokens, and tile tokens to mark possible objectives. These pools of chits may have specific mixes required by the scenario so you’ll be removing or adding a defined amount and it can get somewhat fiddly. Thankfully the effort pays off and the game delivers with beauty so this is just the cost of doing business.
Suck it alien scum.
The lush presentation will draw you in but the heart of the design, the Overkill mechanic, will make you stay. It’s such a simple little mechanism but therein lies its genius. Attack rolls are made with pools of 10-siders, requiring a three or below to score a hit. Your first success inflicts a single point of damage (good enough to kill most alien types) but your subsequent hits are dubbed Overkills and may be spent as action currency to trigger special effects.
Many thematic designs feature special powers and abilities scattered across characters and items, but the process in which they’re tied to the action and turn structure is usually pretty stale and predictable. By linking this smattering of special powers to successful combat resolution rolls you fuse one of the most interesting elements of Ameritrash with the most dramatic portion of the game. This results in high tension rolls that produce tremendous opportunity for combos and creative play as you cut down an alien, move into an adjacent space, and command a teammate to give him extra actions. It feels outright empowering because your cast of fate determines the downstream narrative shenanigans. It’s delicious and full of tension while maintaining a solid degree of tactical choice.
This tremendous Overkill mechanism is backed up by an action point system that allows for maximum player control in the face of stalwart danger. The enemies come in thick waves as you reveal more each turn in great numbers. The AI controlling them is relatively simple as they tend to march straight towards you and throw lasers in the direction of human flesh. Yet the enemies manage to feel drastically different due to various types of attacks and the included Overkill effects they can generate against you. Additionally, it’s extraordinarily fun to light up a Saucerman Leader and trigger his Overkill ability that allows you to stun another foe. A sense of personality develops amongst the enemies and there’s a strong mix of variety that allows you to constantly be on your toes and dreading the appearance of a brain-in-a-jar or a ferocious Sentinel.
It’s all about personality. Blood sucking space worm personality.
I alluded to the clever touches abounding the design when discussing the scenarios earlier, but if you take a micro view you will begin to notice all kinds of positive little quirks. For instance some of the alien equipment you discover is actually blueprints as opposed to finished gear. This results in a gentle crafting system where you need to steal alien blood or precious mysterium (no, not the Polish variety) to construct awe-inspiring gifts of forbidden fruit. You’ll also need to take out human Thralls with a non-combat IQ check to remove the implanted brain wire in their skulls. No, not to free the poor muggles but to hoard the wire for your mini death star that’s still under construction. You’re being pulled by all of these disparate elements of awesomeness as you try to clear your head while the air fills with the scent of ozone and burnt green flesh.
Space Cadets: Away Missions carves itself out a niche in the dungeon crawl design space the size of a monstrous saucer. This feels fresh and alive, like a new take on an old favorite. It delivers action and thoughtful presence in a way you wouldn’t expect. This is not only a fantastic design, it’s quite possibly the strongest release Stronghold Games has ever been a part of.