Power up the Warp Core, Set Phasers to stun, and prepare to embark on a voyage of discovery in Star Trek Frontiers, an epic game of space exploration from WizKids games. There are hours and hours of content in this box, but is it any good? Let’s find out.
Star Trek Frontiers: Boldly Going where others have gone before
First, a bit of history: Once upon a time, there was a game called Mage Knight – a huge, epic game of Fantasy exploration and combat. It has a dedicated core of fans, who revel in the open flexibility, and the sheer range of options and depth of gameplay for them to get their teeth into.
However, Mage Knight has a lot of faults: it’s very long, it’s VERY complex, and the whole process can feel a lot like a grind – performing the simplest task is a real struggle.
For this reason, a lot of people were very interested when Star Trek Frontiers was announced – a streamlined, simplified version of Mage Knight, moved to the Star Trek Universe.
What’s in the Box?
Star Trek Frontiers comes in a fairly hefty box, packed with stuff. The space you explore is made up of hexagonal tiles, and you move about them using miniatures to represent ships: The USS Enterprise and the USS Defiant, 2 Klingon Vessels and 4 Borg Cubes. There are decks and decks of cards, tokens to represent planets, ships and star-bases, along with dice and tokens to represent data, abilities, and generally to keep track of things.
Star Trek Frontiers also comes with not one, but two rulebooks. In recent years, Fantasy Flight have made the lives of gamers a lot easier with their 2-book system: an introductory walk-through, and an alphabetised rules reference. Star Trek Frontiers takes a less helpful approach, with 20-odd pages for a walkthrough, followed by an even bigger full rule-book which covers a lot of the same ground again, but without anything helpful like an A-Z.
It seems a shame to spend too much time talking about a rule book, but when a game is as complex as Star Trek Frontiers, it’s a document you’re going to need to spend a lot of time referring to, and these two tomes are decidedly unwelcoming: most pages are just walls of text, in a tiny typeface – make sure you bring your reading glasses, or you can expect a headache!
Not scared off yet – How does it play?
This high barrier to entry continues with the gameplay itself. Broadly speaking, the aim of Star Trek Frontiers is to explore a new sector of space (just beyond a wormhole), with specific objectives that change depending on which of the various scenarios you have opted for.
Players in Star Trek Frontiers will choose from the USS Enterprise, playing as Captain Picard, the USS Defiant, playing as Captain Sisko, or one of two Klingon Birds of prey, playing as General Martok or the Duras Sisters.
At its core, Star Trek Frontiers has an interesting deck-building/hand management aspect, where you can use cards in your hand for attack, defence, movement or diplomacy. Most cards have two different power-levels, the top-half which you can play for free, and the bottom half which requires you to pay a matching type of data to use the more powerful version. You can also play cards sideways as generic value 1 cards of any type, allowing you to get yourself out of a jam, even if it is an inefficient way or doing so.
The hand/deck management is one of the best things about Star Trek Frontiers. Each turn you can take 1 dice from “The Core” to represent a type of data – there are other ways to acquire data, but by and large you’ll only be using the bottom half of 1 or 2 cards per turn, so it really forces you to make tough decisions about how you combine your cards. There’s also no automatic re-shuffling of your discard pile once your deck runs out, so you don’t want to play too aggressively.
Sadly, I found that the fact that you only go through your deck once per round really limited the options of what you could actually do – you’ll only be adding a handful of cards over the course of the game, and most of those cards you’ll probably only see once or twice, so a lot of the time, you’ll just be working with the basic cards you started with.
Power up the Ambient Tetryon Controller!
(Thanks to the Star Trek random Technobabble generator)
Just a few planet tokens
The problem with the basic gameplay experience in Star Trek Frontiers is that there is no basic gameplay experience. True, the introductory walkthrough leaves out player-vs-player combat, but it still assaults you with the full range of encounters, as you come in to contact with Research Stations, Romulan Starbases, Dominion Starbases, K, L and M-class planets, and soforth. Although the introductory scenario will often tell you not to worry about something for the first turn or so, Star Trek Frontiers as a whole has a really disappointing lack of modularity: 95% of the features are always on, all the time, when it would be nice to be able to pick a few, whilst leaving others out for a game or two.
Upgrade tokens for the Enterprise – I’m pretty sure that the second one down on the left lets you choose between 2 phasers or a phaser and a banjo!
I’ve already mentioned how frustrating the Rulebook is, and it’s always worrying when there’s an entire deck of quick-reference cards.
Data (the energy you use, not the Android) feels too complex, coming in too many different varieties, and through Star Trek Frontiers, the iconography is often opaque, if not outright baffling.
When a game has as much going on as Star Trek Frontiers does, it needs to find a way to put all the information at your fingertips. Sadly that’s not the case, and the end result is a lot of head-scratching, and a lot of dead time.
Taking Command: Levelling Up
Enterprise player area at the start of the game
As a player in Star Trek Frontiers you are the Captain of your ship, crewed by hundreds of faceless crew members. As a rookie yourself, you’ll only be doing the most basic things with your ship, performing standard actions. Over the course of the game though, both you and your crew will develop, as you build your own experience, and become capable of commanding exceptional individuals who have distinguished themselves from the herd sufficiently to get their own card.
Many of the actions you complete in a game of Star Trek Frontiers will earn you experience – defeating Romulans, opening up new sectors of space, successfully completely away team missions to new planets. As you gain experience, you will advance to new levels, unlocking extra abilities, being able to command more crew, and adding cards to your deck. At the start of the game, you can only have a single identified crew member, but this capacity will increase every-other time you level up.
Later on, the Enterprise player has levelled up a few times, recruited a crew member, gained some stronger cards, and has acquired a few skill tokens
You can gain your first level for only a handful of experience, but the requirements get bigger at each progressive stage, so even when your ship is capable of doing more, the rewards may not flow any more quickly.
Levelling up as you acquire more experience is one of the real highlights of the game, it helps provide a sense of progression which can otherwise be lacking as you trundle about the galaxy in an aimless fashion and the extra cards, skills or crew that come along with it allow you to do more and more on your turns.
Is it better to be loved? Or feared?
As well as experience, each Captain in Star Trek Frontiers has a reputation, and this can go up and down as the game progresses: you gain reputation by performing good actions, and lose it by resorting to military subjugation: having a negative reputation can cause problems, whilst having a big positive reputation can make it easier to recruit crew.
As a concept, reputation is great: it makes for different styles of play, as you embrace your inner Klingon, using attack as the first and last option and damn the consequences, or take the diplomatic approach, slowly winning people round by force of personality. Sadly though, the implementation lets the idea down. Reputation is one area of the game where things are not just complex, but downright counter-intuitive: Sometimes attacking Romulans helps your reputation, other times it harms it. It’s just one example of many, of where this game tries to add too much nuance, and winds up with a result that is confusing, and a bit of a mess.
If you play as Picard, your signature card allows you to increase your reputation (if you play the data-enhanced version), but playing as Sisko your deck leans you towards a more military strategy, which can give you a negative reputation, even if the only people you have attacked are the Dominion!
The Long Game? It’s the only sort!
Things take time in Star Trek Frontiers. Lots of missions will end when you find, or destroy a Borg cube, and that isn’t a challenge you want to rush into unprepared. Whilst it might only take a few turns to gain your first few levels, gaining the experience to get properly powered up takes time.
The box for Star Trek Frontiers says that it takes 1-4 hours to play – even the simple, “short” missions took us that long! Admittedly, we spent a lot of time going back-and-forth to the rulebook, and if you play often enough to really get this game sussed, you could potentially speed things up, but I wouldn’t rely on that too heavily: for one thing, the complexity of Star Trek Frontiers is such that you’ll need to play it A LOT to become that familiar with the rules and for another thing, if you do manage to get to know the game that well, you’ll probably be getting fairly deep into the strategy of optimising your deck and your turns, which is likely to take just as long.
With the Borg found, the game ends!
There is a massive amount of game in the box for Stark Trek Frontiers – it can be played solo, cooperatively, working in parallel amid suspicious glances, or completely at each other’s throats. Missions have varying levels of focus on exploration, diplomacy and conflict, and even within a given mission, the range of actions available on your turn as you develop your capabilities as a captain is staggering.
Sadly, whilst this should be the strength of Star Trek Frontiers, it’s also the biggest failing, there’s just too much going on, and you’ll need to spend far more of your time than you’d like just flicking back through the rulebook.
If you want to spend four hours playing a deep, strategic Star Trek game, and can commit to doing so at least once every week or so, then Star Trek Frontiers has the potential to really reward that investment of time. For anyone else though, it felt to me like the barriers to entry were just too high – even if you play it once a month (still no mean feat, given the game-time), you’ll spend most of your time trying to keep on top of the rules, and actually getting into the nuanced depths of the strategy is likely to prove too much.
Overall Stark Trek Frontiers probably is a bit more forgiving than Mage Knight, but the promised “streamlining” is minimal at best, and the overall result is a game that just asked way too much for us. 5/10
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.