Starship Captains Review, A Star Trek Inspired Sci-Fi Romp

In Starship Captains you get to command your own starship and boldly go where no one has gone before. You will explore the galaxy, manage your crew, engage in diplomacy, go on away missions, invent new technologies, and more.

This medium weight sci-fi board game is a worker placement, engine building, point salad, that is clearly based on Star Trek and features a unique queue system for managing your crew. While it wasn’t quite what we expected, we ended up digging it in the end.

Disclosure: Thanks to CGE for providing us with a review copy of this game. Links below may be affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

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What do you get with Starship Captains?

The box for Starship Captains

Starship Captains was designed by Peter B. Hoffgaard and published by Czech Games Edition in 2022 with disappointingly little fanfare (most likely because of everything else that was going on that year). 

This Star Trek inspired board game plays one to four players with games taking under two hours on average, getting quicker with fewer players. While the game is recommended for ages twelve plus, and has a decent amount of weight, I could see some younger kids also getting into it. 

In Starship Captains you are a newly promoted captain in the Cooperative. You have just been given command of a newly refurbished star cruiser, and are about to set off on your maiden voyage.

You will have to manage your crew of sentient beings, which consists of ensigns split over three different crewmember types, and one cadet. You will use this crew to explore the galaxy, battle pirates, complete missions, and engage in diplomacy with three different factions. You can promote your crew, develop new technologies, upgrade your ship, and seek the help of the ancient Tincan empire with the goal of becoming first among equals. 

The components in Starship Captains

I invite you to check out my Starship Captains unboxing video on YouTube for a look at the very cool components you get with this sci-fi engine builder.

In that video, you will see some of the best-designed two-layered boards I’ve ever seen. What makes them special is that they created the dual layered effect by using a single folding board instead of having two boards glued together. This avoids the very common warping problems we have been seeing in many other games with multi-layered boards.

The game comes with some very cool crew member miniatures. These come in colours that will be instantly recognizable to Star Trek fans. The miniatures come in a variety of random sculpts, which makes it so that no set of Starship Captains will feature exactly the same crew complement.

Showing off the crew member miniatures in Starship Captains from CGE

You also get additional miniatures for the Tincan androids, cards featuring excellent and clear iconography, 3D cardboard ship tokens, pirate and artifact tokens, and more. 

There are a lot of bits in this game, and everything is top of the line quality wise, including a very clearly written rulebook.

The only thing you won’t find in the Starship Captains box is any way to organise all of the various bits. It does come with some plastic baggies, which work, but will end up sending some people looking for a third party insert. 

Starship Captains Overview of Play

Just starting a game of Starship Captains. A Star Trek board game from CGE

You start a game of Starship Captains by seeding the board. The board is two sided and which side you use is based on the player count. One side is designed for one to three players and the other is meant for four.

A random triangle tile is placed onto each planet on the board. Mission tiles are replaced by randomly drawn face up mission cards. Station tiles are flipped and the matching station card is placed underneath. Numbered tiles stay out and will become sites for future missions.

Random pirate ship tokens are placed onto the skulls on the board, between specific planets. The tech market gets filled with five Alpha Tech cards and three Omega Tech cards, and one Alpha Tech card is placed on the Tincan faction board. A random faction card is drawn for each of the other factions and placed on the appropriate faction tracks.

Finally, there are some things that go on the round track at the top of the board, bonuses players earn at the start of each round including medals and additional crew members.

Each player takes a tech-slot board and a ship board. Then they place five promotion rings, two of each crew member type (three of which go in the ready room, while the rest go in the queue), one cadet (in the ready room), a medal and seven damage counters, which go on the spots marked on the two boards.

Here is how your ship will look at the start of a game of Starship Captains.

The tech-slot board is double sided and before starting a game all players agree on which side to use. You can’t mix and match in a single game. Players place a faction counter at the start of each faction track and put their 3D cardboard ship marker on the Cooperative HQ spot on the board.

Each turn in Starship Captains you either pass, complete a mission, or select one crew member to activate a room on your ship and take the associated action. Each room has a colour that matches one of the crew types and those rooms can only be activated by a crew member of that colour, with the exception of grey rooms which can be activated by any crew member. Grey rooms are the only rooms that can be activated by cadets.

Before you complete a mission, or activate a room, you may promote members of your crew. At the cost of one medal, you can promote a cadet to any of the three ensign types, or you can convert an ensign to a different crew type. Later in the game, you can also promote any ensign to a commander by spending three medals. Managing your crew complement through promotion is a very important part of Starship Captains.

Every ship starts with four rooms that you can activate. Additional rooms can be added through tech cards.

Starship Captains gameplay image from CGE

The red room represents the helm and is for movement around the board. Placing a red crewmember there will let you take two movement actions, moving from one planet to an adjacent one for each of these moves. When taking these moves, if you move through a space with a pirate you will take one damage.

If you end your movement on one of the faction’s space stations you get to claim the reward shown on the triangle tile there, if it hasn’t been claimed already. The tile is then placed on the round-counting track so that you remember to re-spawn it next round.

The yellow room represents weapons. Using this room allows you to attack pirates, which damages your ship but gives you the reward shown on the pirate token, and also lets you keep the pirate token itself if you have room in your cargo hold. Pirate tokens in your hold are worth points at the end of the game and have some other uses that may come up during the game through missions and tech cards.

Pirate token rewards include medals and a random artifact or a captured Tincan who joins your crew. If you gain a captured Tincan, you take a Tincan miniature and add it to your ready room. While Tincan won’t activate rooms for you, they can be sent on missions where they count as all three crewmember types. They are also worth points at the end of the game if they stay with your crew until the end.

A players growing tech board from the game Starship Captains

The blue room is for Science. When you use this room you get to draft any one card on the central tech board. Tech cards include permanent bonuses that are always in effect, end-game scoring cards, and new rooms you can send your crew members to in later turns.

When you get one of these tech cards you place it on your tech slot board where you may get a bonus action based on matching symbols on the edges of cards and the board. In general, you don’t get many actions in Starship Captains and getting these cards to line up and give you extra actions is an important part of the game.

The last room is the grey room which allows you to make repairs. Using this room lets you remove one damage counter from your ship, either freeing up more room for tech cards on your tech board or a spot in your cargo hold. Your ship starts off damaged and you will gain additional damage counters from moving past or battling pirates and from many missions.

The other option you have each turn, instead of using a room, is to complete a mission. You can only do this if your ship is on a planet with a face up mission card and you have enough active crew members to complete it.

Sending the appropriate crew members on a mission gets you important bonuses when playing Starship Captains.

Each mission requires one to three crew members and lists specific bonuses that are unlocked if you send the matching coloured crew on that mission. Note that you don’t need to have the right coloured crew to complete a mission, you just need the right number of crew members in your ready room. Having the right crew type(s) just gives you a bonus.

Every completed mission awards points at the end of the game but they also have a huge range of other potential benefits if you send the correct type of crew members to complete them. These can include going up on the various diplomacy tracks, taking damage, repairing damage, gaining Tincan crew members, earning medals, promoting crew members, taking tech cards, and a whole lot more. 

After each mission is completed, you take the highest numbered, face up, triangle tile on the board and place it on the planet where the mission was just completed. You then place a new mission card where the triangle token you just took came from.

If there are no face up numbered triangle tiles, a pirate uprising happens and new pirates are placed on the board, one for each numbered triangle tile. Once all pirate tokens are placed, the tiles are flipped and a new mission is placed.

The queue is a bit part of playing Starship Captains.  Image from the CGE Press kit.

After any crew member is used, either in a room or on a mission, they move to the back of the queue on your player board. At the end of each of the game’s four rounds, the queue will slide forward letting you use a selection of your crew again, though there are always three members left behind. Managing the order of this queue is another big part of this game.

One thing that can mess with the queue system are commanders. As noted earlier, you need three medals to promote an ensign to a commander, but once you do they become extremely useful.

A commander can do double duty. When used to activate a room, after they complete the action, they can activate another room or activate the same room again. Plus when they are sent on a mission of the matching colour they can resolve the reward line twice.

A commander can also command a subordinate. This is one of the ways you can squeak out some extra actions. To do this they take a regular action as an ensign in their colour and then can bump another crew member, of the same colour, out of the queue and into the ready room.

In Starship Captains you can trade in matching artifacts to take extra actions.

Another way to get extra actions is by using artifacts to activate rooms. Artifacts are gained through missions, by defeating pirates, and through some rooms and tech cards. Each artifact token features two colours and takes up a slot in your cargo hold. Any turn, instead of using a crew member to activate a room, you can turn in two artifacts with a matching colour to activate a room of that colour instead. This can be one of the core rooms or one found on a tech card.

The last thing to cover are the three faction boards. There are three of these, one for the Cooperation, one for the Tincan and one for the Ni’an Pirates. Various technologies, room actions, and mission rewards will have you moving your faction counters up on one or more of these diplomacy tracks.

As the counters move you will collect minor rewards when hitting certain spots. In addition, everyone will receive points at the end of the game based on what quadrant they are in on each track. When anyone reaches the top quadrant of any diplomacy track for the first time that faction’s faction card activates. 

For the Tincan this means that the technology card you placed on the faction board at the start of the game is now available for everyone else to use. For other factions, the effect is randomly determined at the start of the game.

The three faction boards from Starship Captains.

The Cooperative faction cards tend to help all of the players whereas the Ni-an Pirate cards tend to do something nasty. To make things interesting only two faction abilities can be in play in a single game. After the activation threshold has been reached on two of the tracks you flip the card on the third face down. That faction ability will never be in play. Thematically this represents that third faction being jealous of the time you spent with the other two, so they refuse to help.

The round continues with players going on missions, or activating rooms, until everyone passes (usually because they are out of crew members and don’t have or don’t want to spend their artifacts).

Once everyone has passed, you get ready for the next round or if it’s the end of the fourth round figure out everyone’s final score.

At the end of each of the first three rounds, everyone gets a bonus from the Cooperative. For the first round, this is a free medal, and in rounds two and three it’s a new recruit in the form of a cadet. There’s also a bit of reseeding done (claimed station tiles are placed back on the board if there is no ship on their spots) and the starting player passes to the left. 

At the start of each new round of Starship Captains, the Cooperative sends you some help.

At the end of a game of Starship Captains players get points for their completed missions, their progress on the faction boards, any omega tech cards they have collected, commanders, androids, pirates, and medals and artifacts on their ship, and finally everyone loses one point per damage counter still on their ship. 

To wrap up this gameplay overview I’m going to quote the rulebook, as it does a great job of showing you the tone of the game overall:

“The captain with the most points should tell the other, less-accomplished captains that they also performed very well under very tough conditions. Try not to sound condescending. It’s hard – you have the best ship and the best crew, and that obviously means you are the best captain in the fleet”

Once the game is done players can look up their scores in the back of the rulebook to get a bit of a closing denouement. We always forget this part.

Starship Captains also includes rules for solo play that I’m not going to get into here.

Starship Captains is a lighter than expected, Star Trek inspired, sci-fi romp.

I first learned about Starship Captains at the Origins Game Fair

So I’m sure it’s obvious but just in case it’s not, Starship Captains is very clearly based heavily on Star Trek, without actually being a licenced game. As soon as you see this game you will recognize its roots, and while the game simply calls them red, yellow, and blue ensigns most sci-fi fans are going to know what those colours represent. While the main theme here is Star Trek, there are plenty of other sci-fi easter eggs and references to be found especially on the various mission cards.

That said, the tone and theme of this game puts it more in the realm of Star Trek Lower Decks than any other Trek series. In Starship Captains you aren’t starting with an experienced crew and a big fancy ship, instead, you’ve got a bunch of rookies and a well used ship that is in need of repairs and improvement.

The tone of the game is very tongue in cheek. While the rule overview and the publisher’s previous track record may make you expect Starship Captains to be a brain burny crew management game, a game about resource allocation, and planning four turns ahead so that the right crew members are ready for that final mission, that’s not what you will find here.

This game is more of a light sci-fi romp, where you will be moving around the board, completing some missions and blowing up some pirates while laughing at the mission names and artwork, and noticing some of the dark humor and easter eggs on the tech cards.  

Sample mission cards from Starship Captains. From the CGE press kit.

Knowing the tone and feel of Starship Captains is key to figuring out if it’s right for you and your group. My first play of Starship Captains came as a total shock to me as it wasn’t at all what I expected. I was expecting a complex euro, something more like Dungeon Lords and less like Galaxy Trucker

While Starship Captains wasn’t what I expected, I do enjoy it for what it is, it just took a second play to figure that out. More so than any other game I’ve played, the second play of this game completely changed my mind. That second game, going in with the right expectations and knowing what was coming, totally changed my enjoyment of the game in a positive way. 

Sean, my podcast co-host, felt the same. In his words: “My second play was night and day from my first and it was just about those expectations being correctly aligned with the game. I knew what was coming, and the game met those expectations with fun game play.”

A good example of something that didn’t play out how I thought was going to is the queue system. When I first heard about this game mechanic, I thought it was going to be a key element of play. I thought I would be forced to plan my moves and the order of those moves way ahead of time. I expected actions taken in turn one to affect what crew I will have in turn four.

Managing your crew through promotions is a big part of the puzzle that is Starship Captains

The reality of the queue system in Starship Captains is that it’s much less constraining. Yes, some members of your crew will get tied up, but not for long and there are many ways to avoid that being a problem. A big part of this is the promotion system.

If you don’t have the crew member you need to do what you want to do in Starship Captains, all you have to do is promote someone to the right colour. Medals are one of the most frequent rewards in the game, and while yes, you could always use more, there seem to consistently be enough that you can make the promotions you need when you need them. The ability to recruit and use Tincan crew members also helps with this as Tincan are wildcards when sent on missions.

Even if you don’t have medals to promote your crew, or some Tincan androids on your board, the variety of mission types and the speed at which they rotate on the board means that there’s always a valid option each turn. Even if the game’s randomness is against you and there are no missions available that match your crew, you can always repair your ship or battle some pirates.

Another aspect I didn’t expect is just how important buying the right tech cards is and getting them to match up when placed. These matches provide you with valuable rewards, but whoever designed these cards was not nice about it. You can expect to grumble and growl about how things are laid out.

Trying to squeeze just one more action out of each turn is a big part of playing Starship Captains

What I discovered is that Starship Captains is a puzzle to be solved. One that’s about squeezing out every last action you can through a combination of what you do and what order you do it in. In that way, it reminds me of Lost Ruins of Arnak where a big part of the game is figuring out that perfect pattern of moves that will let you avoid passing for just one more turn.

In Starship Captains this happens through a combination of completing missions, figuring out ways to move without using the Helm, using androids to complete missions, defeating pirates and collecting matching pairs of artifacts, matching tech card symbols and clever crew promotions.

There are two more things I want to call out before I wrap things up here. First, I want to mention just how much table space Starship Captains takes up. This game features a large main board, three faction tracks, and a central tech-board, all of which you want in reach of everyone at the table. Then every player has their own, rather large, ship board and their own tech board. Plus you will need a place to keep completed missions, and somewhere to put all the tokens and crew member minis. All of this takes up a lot of room.

Starship Captains is a huge table hog!

The other thing I want to call out is the system for replenishing missions. The problem here is that you will forget to do it. Even after more than five plays we still find ourselves about to make a move and noticing an empty space on the board. Which means we then spend a few minutes trying to figure out who forgot to refresh the board after completing a mission. I don’t have a fix for this, other than to remind you to watch for it as it’s easily forgotten.

Overall, I really enjoy Starship Captains, though it took some readjusting of my expectations to get there. This is a very fun, lighter than I expected, puzzle that is all about action optimization and squeezing out everything you possibly can from a limited number of turns.

What this is not, is a bridge simulator. Unlike many other Trek inspired games, Starship Captains features a more zoomed out view. Here you are the Captain of the ship, responsible for all of its crew. This is not a tactical game. There is no starship combat here and you aren’t going to have to worry about managing your energy levels or transferring power from life support to shields. 

If you’ve ever wanted to sit in the Captain’s chair of a starship and order your crew around you will probably dig Starship Captains. It’s a fun, sci-fi point salad, and it has a great flow and plays much more quickly and easily than you might expect.

Playing Starship Captains from CGE

If you’re looking for a serious game with nothing to distract you from the perfect execution of a plan to maximize your points, you are likely going to be disappointed by Starship Captains. It features a high level of randomness and doesn’t take itself seriously.

I also want to mention, you don’t have to be a fan of Star Trek or any other popular sci-fi franchise to enjoy Starship Captains. While it has been a huge hit with my Trekkie friends and family, we’ve also had just as much fun playing with folks who know little to nothing about the final frontier.

My mission is done. I feel I have successfully imparted knowledge of Starship Captains to the people of Earth. Now I can only hope that they take this knowledge and use it for the betterment of humanity, or at least to make their own game nights more fun. 

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