Thursday, September 18, 2014

Gaming in the final frontier

Star Trek in most of its forms is an optimistic story about the intrigue and adventure that go along with exploring space. More often than not it is a a character drama, with the vast majority of stories from the various television series concerning the interpersonal problems the characters encounter when they visit new planets. Even the shipbound episodes tend to be concerned with the characters solving problems and interacting with one another, with notable examples from the original series being The Doomsday Machine and Balance of Terror.

Nevertheless, Star Trek presents its characters as part of a decidedly military organization. That military flavor is a fundamental part of the series, so it's really no surprise that the majority of Star Trek games tend to be about combat between starships, taking their cues from naval war games. The most successful and long-lived of these is Star Fleet Battles, a game that is legendary for being hopelessly complicated, yet has a devoted following.

It also has an unusual (and likely relatively inexpensive) licensing deal that allows the publishers to use the starship designs, organizations, and setting from the original Star Trek series, but none of the specific characters. So the game includes Klingons, Romulans and even Tholians, but can make no mention of Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock.

I've always been somewhat interested in Star Fleet Battles, but its reputation for being overly complicated has kept me from ever playing it. This most likely makes me part of the market targeted by Star Fleet Battle Force, a card game based on the same concepts and set in the same universe. It's a game that tries really hard to be simple and accessible, but it occasionally stumbles over what I suspect are various attempts to make it mirror Star Fleet Battles.

Players are dealt a number of ship cards which begin the game in play, either on the front line or in reserve. They are also dealt a hand of action cards from which they mainly play attacks and defenses. The attack cards must be matched up with an attacking ship's weapons, so you can only play a phaser attack if your ship has phaser cannons, a plasma attack if your ship has plasma weapons, and so on.

This core game mechanic is straightforward enough, but for me it causes the game's main thematic flaw. Since all players are drawing from a common deck, you will often have a hand of attack cards that require a wide variety of weapons in order to use. But if your ships are all from the same faction (Federation, Klingon, etc.) they tend to have the same types of weapons, so a lot of the cards you draw aren't going to be usable.

The game compensates for this by having each player's starting ships dealt out randomly, so that all players will most likely have a mix of different ships with different weapons. This is great for game play, but bad for the theme as each player will have a mixed fleet of ships from different factions, which seriously disrupts the theme of galaxy-spanning empires going to war with one another.

Star Fleet Battle Force used to be our laundromat game, since it takes up relatively little table space and doesn't take too long to play, but it suffers when compared to less random and more thematically solid games like Star Trek Fleet Captains or the Star Trek Customizable Card Game.

Rating 2 (out of 5) The core game mechanic isn't bad, but everything about the game is too random to be immersive or strategically interesting.
Date played: August 3, 2014

Star Trek: the Adventure Game is another game from before The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager expanded the Star Trek universe into the vast place it is today. But what it lacks in scope it makes up for in theme, as it is a game about traveling to different planets and having adventures, where each decision is crucial to the welfare of the quadrant (or at least, the score of the player).

While it's great that this game is about exploration and story rather than just being another ship combat game, what it amounts to is a two-player Choose Your Own Adventure. As a player reaches a new planet, their opponent reads from a book that describes the situation for the encounter on that particular planet, and offers several decision points that are influenced by the abilities of the crew tokens present, eventually arriving at an outcome that will move the score tracker in one direction or another.

One thing we noticed with this game was that once a player had a few bad encounters it was really difficult for them to recover, so that by halfway through the game it was pretty clear who the winner was going to be, to the point that it barely seemed worth playing to the finish.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) We enjoyed the novelty of this game when we first tried it a few years ago, but it seems dry and superficial when compared to similar games like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective or Star Trek Expeditions. The relatively poor quality of the components doesn't help mattters any.

Date played: August 16, 2014

Star Trek: the Card Game is something of an anomaly for a licensed collectible card game. It was published during an unusual "break" in the licensing agreement for Decipher, Inc.'s Star Trek Customizable Card Game. While Decipher was renegotiating their Star Trek license, which at the time only covered The Next Generation, Another publisher managed to grab the rights to make a CCG based on the original series.

Whether by design or by accident, Star Trek: the Card Game is as different from Decipher's game as possible, opting for a much more abstract approach to game play. Players compete to construct stories from Mission, Plot and Discovery cards. Crew cards are used to overcome Challenges played by your opponent, and in an unusual twist for a collectible game, the three main characters are common cards played to the center of the table and usable by both players.

It has some interesting ideas, and I like the idea of playing cards to construct episodes of the television show, the game is seriously bogged down by a nearly incomprehensible scoring and payment system involving placing and removing counters, and it suffers from some poor design choices that make many of the cards difficult to read.

Decipher eventually renegotiated their license for their Star Trek Customizable Card Game, and even expanded it to include material from the original series, so this game was largely forgotten.

Rating: 1 (out of 5) Even without comparing it to many much better Star Trek games, and even with a few unusual ideas, this game is mostly an unplayable mess.

Date played: August 16, 2014

I reviewed the Doctor Who version earlier in the list, and I really don't have much more to say about Star Trek SceneIt. It's an enjoyable trivia game, with some fun visual puzzles in addition to the usual tests of knowledge. The Star Trek edition definitely has a lot more source material to work with (Doctor Who SceneIt only covers the first three seasons of the new series), but that can be a down side too, as it has a fair amount of material from Enterprise, which we haven't seen a lot of (we'll debate the relative merits of the different Star Trek series at another time and place).

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Probably the best Star Trek video trivia game out there, limited only by the fact that in the end, it is just a video trivia game.

Date played: September 1, 2014

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