I'm Morgan McGuire (@CasualEffects). I've been working on computer graphics and games for 20 years at great places including NVIDIA, Williams College, Brown University, and Activision.

See my home page for a full index of my blog posts, books, research, and projects.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

McGuire House Rules for Space Cadets: Dice Duel

Image by Stephen McPherson
Space Cadets: Dice Duel is a team cooperative space ship combat game. Playing it feels like being on the bridge in Star Trek, but with laughter when things don't go your way.

You can think of it as either a hardcore party game or the world's most casual tabletop RPG. The main mechanic is team communication.

SC:DD is designed for 4-8 players, works for 2-12, and unlike most large games, actually gets better as the teams get larger. I've played with children as young as 7 years of age and hardcore adult gamers.

You can play SC:DD in about half an hour, and will probably want to play at least two sessions back to back. The game slows down a bit as you become more experienced because your defense will improve and duration is determined by successful attacks.

There is an excellent expansion called Die Fighter that I recommend for large groups or when your team has become a well-oiled machine.

There are a number of similar previous games that SC:DD builds on. Although I enjoy all of those, I think SC:DD is the current best of the breed. It is much easier to learn and less stressful than Space Alert, doesn't require the extreme commitment of Artemis, and has more strategy than Space Team.

Some actions have the spatial orientation and ridiculous failure modes of RoboRally, but SC:DD game is much easier, faster, and at least for me, fun. There's also the original Space Cadets (i.e., no dice in the name) game, which is a similar concept but too complicated and without the sonic and physical joy of rolling a ridiculous number of dice continuously for half an hour.

Space Cadets: Dice Duel is very well designed. We don't make many changes to the base rules, however, those rules are ambiguous on a few points. There are a few other rules that are confusing, simply under-emphasized, and only one that I think actually detracts from play.

Below are the McGuire house rules. Beyond clarifications, the only intentional changes to the original rules are that time-freezing actions may not be queued and that repairs only take one crystal out of play.
The fighter ship station from the expansion pack


Make sure that you have a big table so that you don't drop dice on the floor or knock other pieces that are in play...you're going to have a large group of people all rolling a lot of dice at the same time!

The goal of the game is to shoot down the opposing team's space ship. Each ship can take four hits before exploding. The game is played in real-time. There are no turns!

It isn't as crazy as you might think because rolling dice...and thinking...inherently take time, so there is a natural pace of progress. Anything complicated also has built-in rules for pausing play, called "freezing time".

To run your ship, your team must operate six stations on the space ship bridge: 
  • weapons (loading torpedoes)
  • sensors (targeting and jamming torpedoes)
  • helm (flying the ship)
  • tractor beam (picking up crystals, moving the enemy ship, and dropping mines)
  • shields (which have to constantly be adjusted!)
  • engineering (generating power for the other stations)
You may divide these up any way that you wish among your players. You can also benefit from having a captain who has no explicit station in a large group. I find that helm and engineering are the most difficult stations to operate.

Helm and tractor should sit right in front of the board to easily reach the ships. It is convenient if engineering can also be near the center, but that is not essential.

The stations each have a card for placing dice and some icons that remind you of key rules. These won't make sense until you already know the rules, but once you do, they are very helpful. There is also a custom, color-coded set of dice for each station. 

Engineering's job is to roll the six white "energy" dice and give them to the five numbered stations corresponding to the die rolls (there is no station number six). As with all dice in this game, you can re-roll any subset as often as you'd like until you obtain the numbers that you want. Engineering can power stations or not at its discretion. It is helpful of teammates call out their station's number when in need, for example, "Give me twos!"

All other stations can roll a number of their own dice equal to the number of energy dice that they have been given. When the station officer likes what has been rolled on a station die, they can return one energy die to engineering and put that station die on the station card. Station dice can be removed at any time for free, but re-rolling and placing them again takes energy.

You can't save a good roll on a station die on the table to avoid committing to it...place it immediately on the station or lose it (this matters when hitting nebulae and asteroids).

Energy dice can be relinquished at any time without using them if they are needed to be rerolled to power other stations, and they can be queued up on a station even if the officer is not currently re-rolling station dice. Both of those are important strategies.

Station officers should tell their teammates when tasks have been accomplished or problems occur, such as "rear torpedo loaded" or "forward shields are completely down."

For your first game, officers only need to know the rules for their own station. This greatly simplifies the learning curve. You can look up the rules for tractoring another ship or handling torpedoes when the need arises because both of those actions pause the game.

Time-Freezing Rules

On a time-freezing action ("fire", "tractor", or "warp"), everyone must immediately put everything down on the table (not on a station card)... It is common to have just rolled a good result and want to record it before you forget which dice are in play, but you must either remember or re-roll in that case. Otherwise, it is too tempting to put that a new die on a station and affect the outcome of the time-freezing action, which would be unfair.

...except for a ship that has been picked up for movement or crystal warp by the helm. If the helm's hand is on the ship, then when time freezes, that movement completes, and then the time-freezing action occurs. This holds even if the ship that triggered the time freezing action is the one moving.

You cannot queue time-freezing actions. When in a time-out to resolve firing, for example, nobody may declare that they are firing until time has resumed.

Tractor Beam Rules

You can activate the tractor beam to pick up a single crystal, move a mine one square in any direction, or move a ship one square in any direction.

You must have twice as many lightning bolt symbols as the distance to the target (round up). Range is computed in the same way as firing, but the tractor beam is omnidirectional. Tractoring an object on the square that your ship occupies costs one lightning bolt (even though the distance is zero).

After tractoring, all tractor dice are removed from the station. This includes the A and B mine dice if they are on the tractor station.

To move an enemy ship, you must shout "tractor," which freezes time.


A mine can be dropped in the same square as the ship when you have the mine attached to the tractor/mine station and one of the orange dice is on the A or B spot. After dropping a mine, remove all station dice from the tractor/mine station.

Placed mines are triggered when a ship moves into the square on which they sit. Moving out of the square or residing in the same square does not activate them. When a mine is triggered, it does one damage to each ship in the square. This cannot be blocked or jammed. It does not affect the shield or sensor dice in any way.

Mines can be moved by tractor beams and destroyed by torpedoes. They are automatically hit when targetted and in range by a torpedo.

Torpedo Rules

The torpedo rules are the most complicated in the game. Fortunately, when you need them, time is paused and you can read through them carefully. They actually are straightforward if you carefully follow the following sequence in order:
  1. The weapons officer calls out "fire" and then immediately afterwards, either "front" or "back" and "1" or "2" (or in a different order). [With the expansion rules, or if there are mines on the board, the weapons officer also names the target immediately.] Nobody else can fire a torpedo. The full set of three words must be said relatively quickly...you can't say "fire" to pause the action and then think about what you want to fire.
  2. Time immediately freezes.
  3. The weapons officer removes the fired torpedo(es) from the weapon station. You can't cancel or undo firing---once you've said "fire", those torpedoes go.
  4. The sensor officer determines if the target is in the cone of fire. The cone is pictured on the weapons station. It begins with the one square that the firing ship is on, expands to three squares on the next row adjacent to the firing ship, and then continues to grow.
  5. If the target is not within the cone of fire, remove all of the attacker's target dice and end the torpedo process. Otherwise, continue...
  6. The sensor officer measures the distance between the ships. This is the larger of the horizontal and vertical distances between the ships, but it must be at least 1. If the ships are on adjacent squares, the distance is 1. If the ships are in the same square, the distance is still 1.
  7. If the distance plus the target's jamming symbols minus the firing ship's target symbols is greater than or equal to zero, then the torpedo(es) all hit.
  8. Remove all of the attacker's target dice and the defender's jammer dice. If there is no hit, end the torpedo process. Otherwise, continue...
  9. The defending shield officer determines the hit side (front, back, left, right) based on the relative positions and orientations of the ships. If the ships are exactly on a diagonal, the defending shield officer chooses which of the two appropriate sides on which to take the hit.
  10. Assign damage based on the number of shields on the hit side:
    • 0 shields: all torpedoes cause damage.
    • 1 shield: roll one weapon die for each torpedo. It causes damage on a 1 or 2 explosion symbol.
    • 2 shields: roll one weapon die for each torpedo. It causes damage on a 2 explosion symbol.
    • 3 shields: no torpedoes cause damage.
  11. Remove all of the defender's shield dice on the hit side
At the end of the torpedo process, restock any used crystals to random crystal locations in space by rolling energy dice, and then restart time.

Crystal Rules

Crystals may be spent at any time on the following: 
  • Emergency activation (1 crystal). Put one crystal in the recycling area. Take any one die (you'll probably want it to be a station die) and put it in any position you want. For example, you can take a shield die, rotate it to face forward, and put it on the forward station.
  • Warp (1 crystal). Say "Warp" to freeze time. Put one crystal in the recycling area. Roll two energy dice. Pick up and move your ship to one of the crystal squares corresponding to a rolled number (you can't cancel the warp if you find that neither of your options is desirable!) 
  • Partial repair (2 crystals). Put one crystal in the recycling area and swap a second for one of your damaged energy dice. That second crystal is out of the game, and the hull damage to your ship remains (and is marked by the crystal).

Optional Ridiculousness

When playing with family and especially fun friends, we add a bit more flavor. We build custom spaceships for the board out of Lego, name our teams, and compose whole victory songs with choreography for successful attacks. This is not part of the rules, but I recommend the practices if you have an appropriate group.

We really love the Space Cadet: Dice Duel mechanics. We're exploring many new options for applying these kinds of rules to other coop, real-time simulation games.

Morgan McGuire (@morgan3d) is a professor at Williams College, a researcher at NVIDIA, and a professional game developer. His most recent games are Project Rocket Golfing for iOS and Skylanders: Superchargers for consoles. He is the author of the Graphics Codex, an essential reference for computer graphics now available in iOS and Web Editions.