Confessions of a Star Trek fan: Resistance is Futile
I’m a lifelong Trekkie. Indeed, I’ve been a Trekkie so long that I still use the word Trekkie despite more recent converts considering it somehow a term of abuse and adopting instead the word Trekker. Trekker/Trekkie, whatever, I love Star Trek, so with this game they had me with just the title.
I’m not a newcomer to Star Trek games either. I’ve tried Star Trek deck building and dice rolling games. I’ve dabbled with Star Trek role-playing games. Hell, I’ve even tried the various incarnations of Star Trek and Star Trek Next Generation Monopoly. I added a Star Trek variant of Risk to my collection and I bought the Star Trek variant of Catan. I’ve worked my way through all but one of the various Wizkids/Heroclix Star Trek games. Indeed, I still enjoy occasional epic Fleet Captains space battles: a guilty pleasure because, lovely as the Fleet Captain models are, interstellar military conflict isn’t really what Star Trek is all about.
I was an easy mark for Decipher when they published the Star Trek Collectible Card Game: I stuck with it as it staggered under the bloating weight of expansions that befalls all collectible card games. I competed in the National Championships and I still have what I believe is a complete collection of all the STCCG cards – both for the First Edition and the revamped Second Edition revision designed as a doomed attempt to revive the game after it had been fatally incapacitated by expansionitis. It’s my experience with STCCG that helped steer me clear of Star Trek Attack Wing. I know if I ever succumb and buy just one of their beautifully crafted ship models, I will feel the desperate need to collect them all. Attack Wing, I realise, is my crack cocaine. I am happy to report that, so far, resistance has not proved futile.
In the dim and distant past, when, as a young law student, I reviewed games for Games & Puzzles magazine, my fame and my love of Star Trek must have preceded me. I was approached by Palitoy to analyse and write a critique of the rules for a Star Trek game they were about to release. It was quite a flawed roll and move game that I could see would prove a bitter disappointment to Trek fans, but it was obviously already at an advanced stage of production. I suggested therefore a fundamental revision to the rules that would use all the same components but would enable players to play as Kirk, Spock and other bridge crew members rather than have them as mere stand-ups that are encountered en route by the non-descript player pawns. The publishers thanked me for my work, paid me, and then released the game without taking on any of my suggestions.
More recently, panicked by its unavailability in the UK, I’ve personally imported my copy of Star Trek Panic and I’ve struggled to assimilate the complex rules and maintain the focus needed to play Star Trek Frontiers.
I mention all this so you know I bring some history to the table when I sit down to play a Star Trek game. I know the franchise well and I know the heights and depths that have already been reached and plumbed in bringing that franchise to life as a tabletop game. I first saw Star Trek Ascendancy at Essen last year and I’d been itching to give it a try.
Does Ascendancy push Star Trek’s final frontier?
Star Trek Ascendancy is, at its heart, a large-scale slow-build ‘4X’ game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate). In the core game, players play as either the Federation (Earth and its allies), Klingons or Romulans. They start off in their home worlds separated from each other by the expanse of unexplored space. As they explore neighbouring space, they find new worlds and, as the mantra goes, new civilizations. They expand their area of control. They make use of what they find. They develop their technology. And, eventually, they come into conflict with each another.
The game comes with three factions. That means it is really only playable with three. You can try it with two but one of the elements of Star Trek Ascendancy is its facility to set up trade agreements and these would be meaningless with only two players. The publishers, Gale Force 9, have been promising the imminent arrival of expansions to bring in other Star Trek races: the Ferengi and Cardassians were originally scheduled for release as far back as last Autumn. They clearly haven’t been using their warp drives because we are still waiting. Each month, we’ve been told to expect them in the month ahead but, like mañana, tomorrow never comes. When eventually their impulse engines deliver these additional races and home worlds to us, it should not only add further variety but should also make the game playable with more players. Whether that is desirable or not remains to be seen.
I canna’ change the laws of physics
Part of the problem with Star Trek Ascendancy is that it is a long game. The rules suggest an hour per player, but that is predicated on players already being very familiar with the game: it isn’t hard to imagine a game taking twice as long with players coming to it for the first time. So, before you start, you need three people who are prepared to commit themselves to what could potentially be a six hour stint.
If you are playing with other Star Trek fans, you won’t have a problem getting other players to the table. This game looks fabulous. There are plastic models representing each faction’s starbases and fleets and there are cards with images taken from the show. Star Trek Ascendancy is a game that is dripping with theme.
Does this feel like the Star Trek universe? It’s life Jim, but not as we know it
The designers have made an attempt to get the different factions to play differently. That’s as it should be. Part of the success of the Star Trek franchise has been the fact that, in the main, the different races we encounter are not simply interchangeable. To make this work within the game, players really need to throw themselves into character. You’ll get more out of this game if you accentuate the asymmetry through modest role play. If you play the Klingons, you need to lecture the other two players about “honour” as you embark on a programme of raining death on the planets you encounter. Playing as Romulans, you need to be conspiratorial as you pursue your path of relentless conquest. And as the Federation, you need to persuade yourself that it is merely to protect other civilisations that you subject them to your dominion.
You see in order to get a playable 4X game out of Star Trek, you have to end up with the Federation doing things that feel very unTrek. The designers have realised this and help us along the way by using different nomenclature. Whereas the Klingons and Romulans are likely to take over planets through the imposition of military might, the Federation may prefer to do so through ‘cultural hegemony’. Persuade yourself this is different. It will help you sleep at night. The truth is though that Gale Force 9 have simply turned conquest into an irregular verb:
- he/she subjugates
- you control
- I extend my cultural hegemony
Conquered and colonised worlds probably find it hard to distinguish between military and cultural oppressors – but maybe that’s a debate to be had if and when Gale Force 9 come up with a Bajoran expansion.
The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one
Star Trek Ascendancy has suffered from some lukewarm reviews. Reviewers all agree that the game looks great. Those who are Star Trek fans mostly praise the Star Trek look and feel. Where the game has hit most criticism is over its length. This is not just the time it takes to play the game but the amount of downtime while playing.
I have several games that I know are, in effect, day-long plays and I bring them out only when I have a group over who want to play a day-long game. I don’t break out my copy of Twilight Imperium 3 when I just have half a dozen people over with an hour to spare. When I’ve made the time to do so, I’m very happy playing a game that may run up to six hours. If I’m making that time commitment, however, I expect to be engrossed and engaged for most of it. Sadly, therein lies the problem with Star Trek Ascendancy and the key reason why the game has attracted some negative responses. As currently set out in the rules, players in their turn determine all of the actions before the turn moves on to the next player. This means this is a game you should never put anywhere near anyone who suffers from Analysis Paralysis. If a player is spending time agonising over every action, it’ll take even longer to play Star Trek Ascendancy than to wait for the Ferengi and Cardassian expansions. However, even with three players who all plan ahead and none of whom dither over their moves, you can expect a long wait before your next turn comes around: certainly 20 minutes or more. Plenty of time to go to make and drink a mug of Tea, Earl Grey, Hot, if you fancy yourself as Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
Downtime is key defect of the game. You should not, however, dismiss this game as fatally flawed. It does not take very much ingenuity to house-rule a solution whereby turns are broken up, with each player taking a single command action before moving on to the next player. That way, everyone is kept involved and no-one is just sitting idle waiting for the two other players to complete their lengthy turns. Another option for speeding play is for players to take certain actions – particularly builds – simultaneously. I will be surprised if Gale Force 9 don’t themselves revise the rules to reflect changes along these lines, especially with the eventual arrival of the additional factions. Without such a tweak, the addition of a fourth player would increase the downtime to such a level as to make playing the game an impractical proposition. Even the most hardened Trekkie would find it difficult to face playing a day-length game where the wait between turns ran routinely to half an hour.
So is Star Trek Ascendancy ultimately a game of skill? Not entirely…
The other criticism that is made of Star Trek Ascendancy is that it is a game that suffers from a high degree of randomness. Exploration cards mean that what players discover is quite literally the luck of the draw. Some cards will be a lot more beneficial than others. In many respects this is fully in keeping with the theme. We are, after all, exploring the unknown. If you’re not willing to boldly go when no man has gone before then what are you doing playing this game? Nevertheless, in game-play terms, such wide swings of fortune sit uncomfortably with a game that demands quite such a large commitment to play. If you’ve dedicated your entire Saturday to a single game, you are not going to be happy to find that its outcome is determined by the turn of a single card.
So is this a game you should add to your collection? If you’re a Star Trek fan then you’ll definitely get a kick out of Star Trek Ascendancy. You’ll love the components and the artwork. You’ll forgive the flaws and you’ll find an accommodation with the rules to make the game more playable. If you can take or leave Star Trek then this probably isn’t the game for. You will be better off looking at other 4X space games like Eclipse. Overall, this game score 6/10 in my book, but it will be interesting to see how Gale Force 9 develop the game. If the expansions take it in right direction, it has the potential to be a great game.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.