Monday, September 22, 2014

The perfect Star Trek game

The designers of the Star Trek Customizable Card Game made a few missteps when it was originally released on the heels of Magic: the Gathering in 1994. They went a little too crazy with the random sorting of the starter decks; it's a game that relies heavily on having the right combination of cards, and frequently a starter deck wouldn't have all the cards one player needed to play. Additionally, they made all the television show's main characters rare cards that were difficult to come by, so you almost never saw Captain Picard or Commander Data unless you were willing to buy a lot of booster packs or pay high prices for single cards (my first games featured Doctor Crusher and Ensign Ro in starring roles).

Even though it was poorly distributed, the game was very well designed, and in spite of their mistakes the designers got two very important things absolutely right. First of all, in a massive wave of imitations, the Star Trek CCG was not really anything like Magic, other than that it was played with trading cards and sold in random booster packs. Second, and most importantly, the game's structure reflected the tone of the source material extremely well. Although there is an element of direct combat, it's not a fighting game. It's a game about assembling crews, flying starships to planets, and undertaking missions beset by plot complications.

Each player (the game is designed for two but can accommodate more with a little tweaking) constructs a deck composed of personnel, ships, equipment, and missions, as well as event and interrupt cards. At the start of the game, a spaceline is created composed of six mission cards from each player, laid out by each player one by one in a line. Missions require personnel to be present with specific combinations of skills (such as Engineering or Leadership), attributes (such as Cunning or Strength), and sometimes other requirements such as particular characters or equipment. Each mission is worth a certain number of points (generally from 20-50), and the first player to reach 100 points wins the game.

Of course, there is a lot more to it than that. Before the game begins, each player gets to place Dilemma cards underneath his opponent's missions in order to make the mission more difficult. Some dilemmas require certain skills to get past, and others will kill or incapacitate members of the crew. They represent unforeseen complications that players must try to be ready for when they send their personnel to attempt a mission.

Initially, the game was based on Star Trek: the Next Generation and offered players the chance to play as the Federation, the Klingons or the Romulans, with a sprinkling of "non-aligned" characters and ships representing the various other races encountered on the show. Later, the license grew to include the original series, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, with expansions adding the Cardassians, Dominion, and even the Borg as playable factions.

The game was very successful and there were a lot of expansions, each one adding more and more complexity. The First Contact expansion added the concept of time travel, which was later expanded upon with a set of cards that allowed players to travel back to 1984 San Francisco and "save the whales" ala Star Trek IV. Just about anything that happened on Star Trek in any of its versions could be re-created in the game. But the real fun was in casting your own Star Trek adventures: suppose Dr. Bashir and Garak were given command of the USS Defiant, or Chakotay's Maquis ship and crew survived to explore the Delta Quadrant on their own? What if the Borg succeeded in assimilating Earth? How about Captains Kirk, Picard and Sisko leading an espionage mission to Romulus? The Star Trek universe is so rich, and so well-represented by the game, that anything seems possible.

As compelling as all this was, unfortunately all these added elements eventually caused the game to became virtually impossible to get new players interested in, despite several repackaged starter products that attempted to make it more accessible. After eight years the publisher chose to "re-set" the game with a Second Edition, offering re-designed cards and streamlined game play, but it never really caught on the way the original game did.

It is a testament to how compelling the Star Trek CCG is that a group of fans have continued to create new "virtual" cards long after the end of the game's official life. However, I think it's an even better testament to how well the game reflects its source material that every time I watch the show I want to play the game, and every time I play the game I want to watch the show.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Despite being on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its own complexity, this is the gold standard for Star Trek games.

Date played: August 17, 2014

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