TL:DR: Feck Yeh
I hate pre-ordering things, if for no other reason than I know that I'm taking a $100.00 bet on something based solely on the setting, look, theme, and perhaps a rough draft of the rules. Well, it just so happens that the husband of a principal at Fortress: AT is the co-designer of Space Cadets: Away Missions (SCAM). Because I love the site, it really kind of had to happen, since the aforementioned principal does a shitload of development work on the site, recently updated the look and features, and does it all for love of the hobby and the users.
To not back the game would be the ultimate dick move as far as I'm concerned, since I'm such an active member and huge fan of the site. Luckily, it looked like it might be really cool, and I love that retro ray-gun vibe, so I felt a little better about it anyhow. Well, I'm here to tell you that they did an exceptional job at Stronghold Games, because this game is way better than I was hoping it to be, and to be fair, I had pretty high hopes.
The basic premise of the game is that you're part of a old-timey Lost In Space type "Rocketeer" squad, and you're faced with defeating seven types of alien forces in a huge array of published scenarios, or an unlimited number of your own. There's a bunch of player characters with unique abilities and even some unique gear, and there's about two dozen items and weapons you can equip them with in order to create the best team for any given job. The best part is that the game is fully co-operative, with a very smart and slick AI which controls the actions of your green nemeses.
In addition to all that, the game comes with a shitload of hexagonal room tiles that you use to build each scenario. In short, there's a tremendous amount of variety in the game, and it will take you a good, long time to play every scenario, and if you got it on Kickstarter, it comes with a bad ass, hard bound scenario guide with a ton more scenarios. There has to be at least 50 scenarios in total, although I haven't counted.
The production quality is excellent, with great but sometimes uneven art, about a million counters and chits, great little translucent cubes to track health, oxygen, and energy, and finally, over 100 really great looking, well sculpted models. Yes, it was $100.00 purchase, but honestly, I think I might have underpaid because there is a metric fuck-ton of stuff in the box. When you consider the aforementioned "stretch goal" book on top of it, this is one of the few Kickstarter campaigns that I'm aware of that really are a good value for what you get.
All that said, game play is where the rubber meets the road. Nice shiny bits are fine, but if the game sucks, then it's not a value, is it? Well, there's two things that I'm slightly disappointed by, but beyond those very minor things, the game is stellar. I mean, it is truly remarkable in scope and in the amount of fun you can squeeze from it. I've played it with eleven people now, and I have yet to have a single person not kind of gasp about how well-designed it is, and more importantly, how much fun they had playing it. This may be the best game released in 2015, in my rather valueless and likely biased opinion.
Let's start with what I don't like, because I'd really like to end this game on a good note, because it deserves it. First, and probably most important, there are a ton of scenarios with a ton of variety between most of them, but in the end, the game can feel very "samey" after you've played it a while. It amounts to either finding items and escaping, killing things and escaping, or deactivating tiles and escaping. The scenarios tend to mix up several of those things, and there's even variance between scenarios which are similar, but in the end, playing through the campaign, I can't help but feel like I already did a mission before, albeit with slight changes. Surprisingly, the game play is so tense and fun that it doesn't bother me, but it is something that, in fairness, I should tell our readers about.
The second thing I'm not keen on is kind of weird to describe, because I love it and hate it all at the same time. When attacking or "science-ing" anything, you roll an amount of d10 dice commensurate with the weapon you're using, or your skill level. Each one, two, or three rolled is a success, but only the first one is counted, with the remaining successes used to activate "Overkill" powers, which are either the weapon's power, the character's special power, or the power that the attacked alien provides. It's bad ass, and completely unlike anything that I've ever played, providing a sea of tactical options that are wholly situational and unpredictable. That's what I love about it. What I hate about it is that some enemies have more than one hit point, and even if you roll six successes, which in any other game would be a fatal blow, only the first hit is normally counted, and the rest are relegated to Overkill effects.
That just pisses me off. As I said in a forum, if I shoot a bad guy and score five successes, that represents me blowing a foot-wide, bleedy fucking hole in its chest cavity. That bad guy is dead as Elvis, KIA, not and coming back, even in a re-run. It's imminently irritating to roll a shitload of hits on a bad guy and then the bad guy, who should be a green smear on a wall, come back and kick your ass. That just rustles the fuck out of my jimmies. Worse, sometimes you're in a situation where you roll well and you just don't really have anything truly useful to do with the extra successes. That can be very frustrating, although it doesn't happen often. The best way I can explain it is if you're playing Heroscape and you roll six skulls, you are jumping up and down, hollering, and high-fiving the sky. In this game, if you roll 6 successes against a monster with four hit points, not only did you basically just nick him on the neck, you may end up with not a lot to do with those Overkills. It's anti-climactic as hell sometimes. Most times, however, you're praising Jesus himself for your good fortune, because the player abilities, weapon abilities, and alien effects you gain from Overkill make for massive doses of excitement.
Now, those two small whines should not be taken as a wholesale crucifixion of an otherwise exceptionally well designed, tantalizingly fun game. It's just that we all agreed that sometimes, it sucks to roll really well and not be able to take advantage of it. It is certainly not the norm, but when it happens, expect a collective sigh. On balance, though, SCAM is just straight up fun. It's right up there with Space Hulk in a lot of ways, and that, my friends, is saying some shit. I would drive a half an hour in a snowstorm to play this game, and I am not fond of the snow.
One of the best things about the game is the manner in which exploration is done; on each player's turn, you flip over one of the closest tiles to their miniature, and then load it with the monsters which are described on a random chit laid upon it during setup. There is almost never a time when you don't feel the forces of Mars (or wherever) bearing down upon you, and it goes a long way to giving players the feeling of dread and hopelessness that a great dungeon crawl should provide. In addition, before each round, the players choose which order the players will act in, so you have some level of control regarding the distance from players that baddies will spawn. When you run out of tiles to explore, there's an additional phase where enemies will spawn and events will occur, and worst of all, they generally spawn from your escape route. In short, the whole game is incredibly tense from the beginning to the end, and it is one of the reasons the game is so bad ass.
At the end of the day, I really love this game, and the lowest recorded score it was given by the Circus freaks was an 4 stars. That's saying a lot, because this was played with everyone from 38 year old soccer moms and 11 year old country girls to 14 year old honors students and 40 year old salesmen. Across the board, everyone loved it, and the the only complaint that reared its head, ever, was that they wished Overkill was optional. We just don't see that often at the Circus, so take it from me: this is a über-solid dungeon crawl where the dungeon happens to be set in various sci-fi locales. Great game, and we wholeheartedly recommend playing the living shit out of it.
Why They Call Me The Space Cowboy:
- Terrific components and art make this awesome on the table
- The Overkill mechanic may fail you sometimes, but it's usually epic
- There's so many scenarios that you'll almost never run out
- The AI is a high point because it really does keep things hard but not unfair
Why This Reminds Me Of The Steve Miller Band:
- Overkill may be really slick, but sometimes, it can be the suck
- Many of the scenarios feel similar in scope
- Setup can be overlong the first couple plays
I absolutely adore this game, and I'm not alone. Part of me thought it would be like Ravenloft, where after five plays it would be stale, but SCAM is the game that keeps on giving, despite its unfortunate acronym. I'm just glad it wasn't called "Space Cadets: Away Team". Definitely go try this game out, because I really doubt that you'll be disappointed. Yes, you can get screwed by Overkill sometimes, but it's not often enough to really matter, other than psychologically.
Read more about Space Cadets: Away Missions at Stronghold Games' page: https://strongholdgames.com/store/space-cadets-line/space-cadets-away-missions/