I think it's very important to add that some people will be having fun and laughs that whole 2 hours win or lose! If you like Ghost Stories, for example, take this criticism of Space Cadets with a bucket of salt.
I disagree about progression mechanisms, too. Most of my favorite games don’t have progression mechanisms. See, well, Ghost Stories. Space Alert.
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I think Ghost Stories is one of the best co-ops I’ve ever played, and still hated Space Cadets. I think there’s a big difference between a ramping up difficulty and a death spiral: the removal of agency. When you have a death spiral, the very thing you need in order to succeed as difficulty increases is the thing that is removed from you, and there’s little or nothing you can do about it. Ghost Stories might be similar in that regard, but I’d argue that only on the surface. In games like Ghost Stories, the difficulty ramps up and you have options taken from you, but there’s always something you can do about it. You can plan and decide what you’re willing to sacrifice and what is absolutely vital to protect. The haunting system is brilliant exactly for that reason: you can see it coming, you can prepare, and you can act based on that information
Unless you’re psychic, there’s nothing you can do about, say, shapeless evil. Realistically, you can lose a game of Ghost Stories way before you feel like you’re losing. The change, and what make Ghost Stories one of the most brilliantly designed games I own, is not in what you can literally do but what you feel like you can do. Even as the game is raking you over the coals you feel like you have a billion ways out if only you make the right decisions at the right time. I would argue that the ability to always come back form a fall in Ghost Stories is the thing that’s only on the surface. Like any highly tactical game with escalation mechanics, Ghost Stories is a game that can be lost absolutely and mercilessly long before such is apparent.
Remember that unlike in Ghost Stories, in Space Cadets you can physically and mentally overcome your obstacles by simply being damn good at the mini-game. In Ghost Stories you can be in tactically impossible situations. Other than the exorcism dice and the timing of each ghost’s appearance and the identity of Wu Feng (important things!) it is a deterministic game.
You can prepare for it. In Space Cadets, it's literally the flip of a card. You don't know what will hit you and how, you just know it will for sure be something that makes it even easier for the next card to hit you.
This is a really weird comparison. Why are we comparing Wu-Fung to routine enemy and damage cards? In Ghost Stories a normal old ghost can magically haunt a tile, kill you, take your power tokens, prevent you from using power tokens, take your dice … the implementation is very different obviously, but how is this conceptually different from Space Cadets where enemies are randomized and damage (if you take it) can randomly remove things you need to win?
In Ghost Stories, you can’t prepare for losing two of your dice and then being unable to use power tokens. This happened to me once. It’s survivable–severed heads are a one-dot ghost and there are exactly two die-stealing ghosts in the deck for precisely this reason. But you’re entirely at the mercy of a 2-in-6 or more likely you’re going to use the Sorceror–if we hadn’t already been low on chi I would have done that instead of rolling but I figured I had two dice so I should be able to handle a severed head …
And there’s the thing. Ghost Stories does exactly what you’re describing to you all the time. The only thing you could argue is “well, it’s your fault, you could have played better” and … well … so with Space Cadets!
And so on. Sure, there's also the Nemesis track, but there's nothing you can do about it when it reaches you and you have taken some damage.
Er … none of the stations become literally impossible when you have taken damage. I think we need some perspective on damage. You don’t take damage when you personally are bad at a station. You take damage when your team as a whole fails to get themselves into a position to take no damage and maybe that includes you screwing up … but it can’t be you alone screwing up. I think it’s further important to keep in mind that this is a game of less archetypal game skills. In addition to tactics, or if you have a good captain to the exclusion of tactics, you need to be able to perform a specific physical task that has some sort of not-explicitly-tactical cognitive element. If your captain isn’t good or if you feel like it you can embrace the tactical element of that cognitive task. In any case, this is not a game where simply making the right or wrong decision decides your fate. Space Cadets is a game not of doing the right thing but doing the thing right.
That said, I don’t understand how this quote above is a contrast. You have an almost-full Ghost Board. Shapeless Evil shows up. You now have until you run out of Chi, get triple huanted (if there are huanters present), or ten Ghosts–whichever comes first–to clear two Ghost spots at least once and continue clearing at least one Ghost space per turn AND wedge a Bhudda into one of said spaces AND have it stay there until you can get to the Temple of the Winds … and then you have to exorcise the bastard. This is possible in much the same way that literally blind-firing and absorbing two energy per turn on the weapons station is possible. But it’s really, really hard.
All you know is you'll take more damage and be less equipped to do anything about it. In Ghost Stories or Pandemic the challenge is there for you to figure out how to beat; in Space Cadets it's there to beat you up regardless of what you do.
If you’re good at the game, you can weather damage, do good triage on repairs, minimize damage in the first place, and work around your weaker links. Tractor beam kinda shitty but weapons officer is a friggin’ ace? Well, blow the crap out of your enemies to relieve pressure from Tractor.
I think in terms of design, the Nemesis is clearly supposed to be just a timing mechanism. But the game would be SO MUCH LESS FRUSTRATING if it just told you "if you can't beat the mission in X turns, you lose" than with this damn thing creeping on you and beating you up until you're done - one way or the other. It's like that Sasquatch in Ski-Free. You know it's getting you and there's nothing you can do about it but watch it catch you and gobble you up. Now imagine that for half an hour.
As with the sasquatch in Ski-Free … you CAN escape the Nemesis and further you have a chance to finish the game right up until the core-breach explodes your ship. Even hounded by the Nemesis, you can still nab the last crystal and jump out.
I’m still struggling to see how any of this is a contrast with Ghost Stories, too …