Please Take Note: This is a review of the final game, but it might change slightly based on the success of the Kickstarter campaign. The game is being reviewed on the components and the rules provided with the understanding that “what you see is not what you might get” when the game is published. If you like what you read and want to learn more, we encourage you to visit the publisher’s website or visit the Kickstarter campaign. Now that we have all that disclaimer junk out of the way, on with the review.
- For ages 8 and up (publisher suggests 13+)
- For 1 to 5 players
- Approximately 45 minutes to complete
- Counting & Math
- Logical & Critical Decision Making
- Strategy & Tactics
- Risk vs. Reward
- Hand/Resource Management
- Child – Easy
- Adult – Easy
Theme & Narrative:
- Defend the Empire or rob it blind
- Gamer Geek approved!
- Parent Geek approved!
- Child Geek approved!
The difference between good and evil is based on perspective. The Empire views the sky pirates as a plague that threatens life and property. From the sky pirates’ perspective, the Empire is a ruthless dictatorship bent on repressing the people. Only one thing is for certain and mutually agreed upon. The skies above Arkady are worth fighting and dying for.
Aether Captains, designed by Todd Sanders and to be published by MAGE Company, will reportedly be comprised of 2 Arkady boards, 4 War-Captain Player boards, 8 Stat boards, 8 Objective cards, 5 Crew Member cards, 108 Action cards, 6 HMS Dauntless Zeppelin dice, 6 HMS Dominion Zeppelin dice, 2 Double Zeppelin dice, 2 Streamraven dice, 2 Skystinger dice, 2 Zomby Strike dice, 2 Iron Hammer dice, 1 standard black six-sided die, 14 Crew tokens, 16 Occupying Force tokens, 10 Firearm tokens, 10 Fuel tokens, 10 Gold tokens, 10 Repair Gear tokens, 10 Water Unit tokens, 1 Storm token, 1 Wind spinner, 26 Arkady hex tiles, 5 City tiles, 1 Neutral Ground tile, 2 Navy Commander miniature ships, 5 standard twelve sided dice, and 1 cloth bag. As this is a review of a prepublished game, I cannot comment on the game component quality.
Preparing to Launch
To set up the game, first collect the tiles and divide them by border color (yellow, grey, and none which represents a neutral territory). Shuffle the divided piles and form a stack of each.
Second, place the Neutral-Ground board in the middle of the playing area and begin to build the map of Arkady by placing tiles around the Neutral-Ground tile in a circle formation twice. The end result will be a randomized map of the empire that shows different controlled territories and cities.
Third, place the Storm token and the black six-sided die on the Neutral-Ground tile.
Fourth, take the Crew tokens and divide them into 2 stacks based on faction. The backs of the Crew tokens will either show the Navy Commander crest or the War-Captain crest. Set these piles down and to one side.
Fifth, shuffle the 5 City tiles and place them randomly in each of the 5 City hexes. Make sure the number value is face-up.
Sixth, collect the Resource tokens and separate by type. Place the piles next to the hex map and within easy reach of all the players.
Seventh, give the Navy-Commander player 1 or 2 Arkady boards, depending on the number of War-Captains in the game. The Navy-Commander player will then collect the 6 zeppelin dice (or all 12) that belong to their selected airship. The Navy-Captain also gets a miniature ship for each zeppelin they control and 1 Crew card.
Eighth, each War-Captain player is first dealt 2 random Objective cards and must select 1 to keep. The kept Object card is placed face-down by the player while all other Object cards are removed from the game. Then each War-Captain player is given 1 Flagship board, 1 Stats board, 1 Ship-die (representing the player’s flagship and must match the same airship depicted on their Flagship board), 2 additional Ship dice, and 3 miniature ships of their choice.
Ninth, after all War-Captain players have completed their initial collection, the remaining Ship dice are placed in a group and the War-Captains take turns selecting additional Ship dice until none remain.
Tenth, after drafting new ships, each War-Captain is given 1 Crew cards, 1 twelve-sided die (matching the color of their miniature ships), and dealt 6 Action cards (matching the selected Ship dice).
Eleventh, place the rest of the components to one side of the game playing area.
That’s it for game set up. Time to take to the skies!
The Cities of the Empire and Neutral Territories
There area 5 cities in the Arkady Empire that are centers of commerce, culture, and wealth. The War-Captains look upon these cities in the same way a fox stares at a defenseless chicken, while the Empire regards the populace of the cities as helpless children.
Each city offers a specific resource that makes it unique among the others. In game terms, these are resource collection points to be guarded, collected, or controlled.
- The industrial city of Etherton provides the Firearm resource. Firearms allow players to perform attacks.
- The fortress city of Perium is stocked with the Gold resource. Gold is the universal currency of the Empire.
- The agricultural city of Mavery provides the Fuel resource, for both ship and body. Without fuel, the players will not be able to move their airships.
- The trade city of Antara provides the Repair Gear resource. Needed for repairing and completing objectives.
- The water rich city of Easley by the River sends the Water resource across the Empire daily. Mostly used for completing objectives.
At the start of the game, all cities are unoccupied. Which is to say, they are happily going about their business under the rule of the Empire. War-Captains can take over cities, owning their resources. Likewise, Navy-Captains can attempt to liberate a city.
While much is owned and controlled by the Empire, there are also pockets of Neutral-Ground that are not claimed by anyone. Here captains can find crew members to join their ranks for a short-time. Each crew member will give the owning player an action or special ability that can be used at anytime, but not indefinitely. Once used, they become unavailable.
To Fight, Fly, or Die
Aether Captains is played in turns with no set number of turns per game. A player can do a great deal on their turn, but most actions will be influenced by the player’s faction and objective. What needs to be obtained to win is clear. How to go about obtaining it is not.
Before the game begins, each War-Captain player adds their airships on the Arkady hex map in turn order sequence. The entry points are noted on the player’s Objective card. The Navy-Captains place their zeppelins on the northern most hex.
The game now begins with the War-Captains going first followed by the Navy-Commanders. Each faction’s round is summarized here.
Step 1: Select Actions
Each Action card has a number value. The player now selects any number of Action cards (representing the actions the player will take), as long as the total number value of the combined Action cards is 6 or less (but no more than 3 cards). Once selected, they are placed face-down in the order in which the player wants them to be activated for their airships.
Step 2: Reveal Actions
The player then reveals their Action cards in the order in which they were placed. Once revealed, they are immediately activated and resolved for each airship and in any order. Actions include the following.
- Move: This action allows the player to move their airship, but only if they have enough Fuel remaining. If they do, the airship is moved to an adjacent hex tile. The direction of the wind plays a major role here and will force players to spend extra Fuel if they move against the wind’s direction. The wind direction is determined by the Wind spinner, which indicates 2 directions of wind. A player cannot move their airships into a hex tile that is currently occupied by the Storm token. If the player is unfortunate enough to be taken by the storm, they suffer 1 damage. Escaping the storm is only possible if Fuel is used. Otherwise, the player’s turn immediately ends.
- Collect Resources: This action allows the player to take 1 or 2 resources if they occupy a City hex. Taking on more resources means possibly losing an action, so players will need to determine if more is better. But the point might be moot, as a player only has so much storage space. Players will need to determine if they should hold what they need to win or what they need to fly.
- Recruit: This action allows the player to recruit a specialist for 1 Gold. These special crew members give the player access to a special ability or action.
- Repair/Upgrade: This action gives the player the ability to upgrade a single airship or repair a single airship.
- Camouflage: This action gives the player the ability to “hide” for the round and avoid any battles.
- Attack: This action gives the player the ability to engage the Navy-Commander’s zeppelin in combat.
- Bomb-Launch Attack: Similar to a normal attack, but riskier.
After an Action card is played, it’s discarded. When the player has gone through all their Action cards, they shuffle their discard pile to create a new draw deck.
The Navy-Commander player takes the same steps as their opponents with a few exceptions
This action acts just like the Move action, but allows the Navy-Commander to move their zeppelin twice.
I See You
The Telescope action gives the Navy-Commander player the ability to look at a War-Captain’s placed Action cards and rearrange them.
This action forces another player to take their airships and move them to any other adjacent hex.
Long Range Attack
This is just like the Attack action, but allows the Navy-Commander to select a specific gun on their zeppelin and target an airship.
At the end of the Navy-Commander’s turn, they roll the die to determine in which direction the Storm moves, possibly damaging a War-Captain’s airship in the process.
Wind of Destiny
At the end of the round, the Wind spinner is used to determine the new direction of the wind for the next round.
Battles in the Great Blue
Combat only occurs when a player takes an Attack or similar action. In addition to engaging in combat, players can become damaged if they remain in Neutral-Ground territory, travel through hostile territories, or are hit by the storm.
Combat uses the dice that represent the different airships and the very large zeppelins. A single zeppelin is comprised of 6 six-sided dice, representing the entire length of zeppelin. War-Captains travel in smaller airships, which are represented by a single six-sided dice. The dice are placed on the Navy-Commander’s grid, which represents the immediate area around the zeppelin, but are done so randomly by rolling the twelve-sided die.
The dice values indicate the attack and amount of damage the airship or zeppelin section has taken and can inflict. The twelve-sided die is rolled for each airship and the section of the zeppelin being attacked. Players are attempting to roll higher than the values on the die to either successfully attack or defend.
If the airship or a section of the zeppelin is damage, the die is rotated to now show a different number value. In this way, the attack and defense values of airships and zeppelin change in the game. If a War-Captain loses their flagship, they must choose another of their currently flying airships to take its place.
Victory in the Skies
The game ends when a player meets their objective. For the Navy-Commander player, they must destroy 2 to 8 War-Captain ships, depending on the number of players in the game. The War-Captain players win if they complete the task noted on their Objective card. A War-Captain can also win if they destroy a certain number of sections of the Navy-Commander’s zeppelin.
The Child Geeks liked the idea of fighting airships and sky pirates right from the start. The only difficulty we encountered right off the bat was getting Child Geeks to play the Navy-Commander. They all wanted to be pirates, you see. Once the game was taught, the Child Geeks had no problem playing. This is mainly due to the Action cards, I believe, since it helps the Child Geeks plan out their moves. According to one Child Geek, “It’s fun being a pirate and you know exactly what you need to do thanks to your objective.” The Objective cards really helped the Child Geeks stay on target. Another Child Geek said, “I like the War-Captains the best, but flying around in a giant zeppelin is pretty cool, too.” All the Child Geeks warmed up to the Navy-Commander role after they saw how big and bad the zeppelins were. When the games were over, the Child Geeks voted to approve Aether Captains.
The Parent Geeks were also fans, commenting right from the start how much they felt in control of their game play. According to one Parent Geek, “The Action cards really help you focus and the Object card keeps you on track. I guess the only unknown are the other players’ actions.” So very true. Another Parent Geek said, “I felt a bit overwhelmed at first with all you can do and all that you can encounter, but it’s not bad at all. It never stops coming at you, but you only need to deal with each problem one at a time.” Which is to say, the players are continually bombarded with new situations and possible choices, but never to a point where they overwhelm the players. When the airships landed back to the ground, the Parent Geeks all agreed to give the game a big thumbs up.
The Gamer Geeks found it pretty interesting how many different game mechanics were in the game. According to one Gamer Geek, “I have found that games that try to use everything under the sun tend to collapse under their own hubris. This game appears to be doing just fine.” Another Gamer Geek said, “Each War-Captain must think differently about how to go about completing their objective. For the Navy-Commander, they must figure out what the War-Captains are up to. I really like that. Adds a bit of deduction to the game.” The Gamer Geeks enjoyed just about every aspect of the game except for the combat which they felt was a bit too luck-based. Even so, they all agreed that combat was fast and exciting. They also all agreed to fully approve the game.
Aether Captains feels like a hodgepodge of game mechanics that have been hand selected and rearranged. Which is to say, everything in the game feels really familiar and I spent some of my time attempting to identify where the different aspects of game play came from. After I completed that fruitless exercise, I asked myself a more important question: does the game work? The answer was an unwavering “yes“. Everything in the game fits together tightly and makes total sense, from traveling above the land of Arkady to sacking cities as a War-Captain. The only difficult portion of the game is managing your cargo hold, but only because all the resources look so good.
Aether Captains fits nicely between that light game and heavy game slot that I am often looking for. It gives me all that I want and need for a heavy game without taking up all my time. You have to think real hard sometimes when playing and other times the actions you need to complete are obvious at a glance. What never changes is that feeling of being rushed. This is not a game for players who want to take their time to create a deep strategy. This is a the kind of game where decisions need to be made by the seat of your pants.
When you are a War-Captain, you feel like a little fish in a big ocean with giant zeppelin sharks. Make no mistake, you are being hunted and the Navy-Commander is always hungry. When you are the Navy-Commander, the War-Captains are the most annoying little gnats you will ever experience. They are constantly buzzing around, picking fits, and causing problems. I’ve played both side of the Empire and I loved them both. The game play is different, but similar enough to allow players to easily switch back and forth.
The semi-cooperative aspect of the War-Captains is interesting. You are not really enemies, but you are far from friends. You need to team up at times for a mutually beneficial goal. Most of the time you are giving other War-Captains the finger. What War-Captains will struggle with most is making choices that will make things easier not only for them, but for their fellow War-Captains. War-Captains are opportunists, not philanthropists and need to consider how benefiting the competition will hurt the cause.
Combat is simple enough, but I found it to be a bit disappointing at times. I didn’t care for the fact that I didn’t get to select where I was hitting the zeppelins, for example. But the combat system works and works just fine. It’s fast, with the combat being resolved quickly to get back into the game. My complaint comes from a place of wanting more say over how I send an enemy crashing to the ground, but a hit is a hit.
Overall, I am very pleased with Aether Captains. It has a great mix of resource management, card management, strategic combat, and tactical movement to always leave me smiling. If you enjoy games where everything feels a bit risky, but the rewards are well worth the trouble, do play Aether Captains.
This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.