Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month.
Normally, on the last Saturday of every month, I write an extended board game Session Report interwoven with a Critical Take on the game in question, allowing me to dig deep into what makes the game stand out as an interactive creation. This month, though, in the spirit of consumerism, I decided to do things slightly differently. The days leading up to December 25 are some of the biggest sales days for toys and games, and I’d be remiss to withhold my opinion until after that date. Instead, I’ll be doing the 12 Days of Gaming. Each day for the next 12 days, I’ll be playing a different game from my collection, and I’ll write about my experience, blog-style, here.
Day 1: Star Trek Expeditions
I picked this game up in a trade in November and have only gotten the chance to play it once so far, but it’s been calling my name lately. That might be because I used it as the top box in a stack when trying to get an elevated stationary camera position in a recent YouTube video–every time I adjusted the angle, I saw Kirk, Spock, Uhura and McCoy looking up at me with their pleading, puppy-dog eyes. In any case, it seemed a natural place to start for my personal 12 Days of Gaming.
Star Trek Expeditions is a cooperative board game from prolific designer Reiner Knizia. In the board game community, Knizia’s name signals three things: it will be impeccably mathematically balanced, it will be streamlined, and the theme will be as thin as rice paper. A German mathematics PhD (his fans and detractors both call him “Doctor Knizia,” or just “the Doctor”), Knizia made his name with such titles as Ra, Tigris and Euphrates, Medici, Lost Cities, Through the Desert, and Lord of the Rings. This last title is particularly important, for it shares much of its DNA with Star Trek Expeditions–both are cooperative games with more adventuresome themes than the typical Knizia fare, both published to cash in on movie releases (2001’s Fellowship of the Ring and 2009’s “new universe” Star Trek), and both far better than they have any right to be.
Star Trek Expeditions may feature the scowling faces of Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto on the cover, but the story of the game is pure Original Series Trek. On a typical away mission, the Enterprise arrives at the planet Nibia with the expectation of welcoming the planet into the Federation. Instead, they find a government considering an alliance with the Klingon Empire, a global civil war (with weapons supplied by the Klingons), and an energy crisis as the planet’s supply of dilithium mysteriously begins losing its zing. The crew must resolve all three crises as best they can while also fighting an orbital space battle against a Klingon Bird of Prey and dealing with any surprises the planet might throw at them, such as an outbreak of Nibian Leprosy or a spot of Trouble with Tribbles.
Which is all surprisingly narrative-driven for a Knizia game. The primary complaint most people have with the game is that it’s always the same narrative, the same three missions every time you play. However, the main missions branch during the game based on many factors, such as whether you’ve gathered the right items, completed the task before a certain round, or exceed the target value of the challenge by a certain amount. It’s easy to brute force any one mission to get the best outcome, but it’s much harder to do all three at once, and keep the Enterprise from exploding. While your Rebels mission will always start by attempting to rescue the wounded at a motorcade, it can go one of two ways from there, with four potential final challenges. Each game brings a random assortment of side missions, too.
Knizia’s games have never jumped off the shelf at me, but I’ve never failed to enjoy them, either. Ra is the quintessential auction game–it can be taught in two minutes, but the clever scoring mechanisms and fixed-value bidding tokens give it infinite depth. Lord of the Rings was one of the prototypical cooperative games, notable for its elegant, abstract design that doesn’t come at a sacrifice of tension or narrative. Star Trek Expeditions is much more of an American-style game than Lord of the Rings, with its Clix-base prepainted plastic miniatures (the starships are especially neat), its custom dice and its neat blocks of story text, but it never feels like it loses that elegance and balance. For all that chrome, I could teach the game in under 60 seconds.
So, how did it go? Spock and Uhura dealt with the crises on the planet while Kirk and McCoy attended to the Enterprise (i.e. I didn’t use them in this game). In the first few rounds, Spock (with the aid of a medical officer and planetary scientist) helped pimp out the Nibians’ slow-as-molasses Dilithium Transport Vehicle and installed a modernized water purification system in a remote village, for which services the Nibians rewarded him with some proprietary Klingon tech, which he installed aboard the Enterprise. Analyzing a crystal sample at the dilithium mines, he discovered that the rare alloy decalithium had contaminated the supply. Meanwhile, Uhura infiltrated the rebel hideout and learned of a planned Klingon assault on Nibian Military Headquarters. For a few frustrating rounds, Spock was trapped aboard the Enterprise, unable to get the transporters working, while Uhura was quarantined due to Nibian Leprosy and the Enterprise was pummeled by the Klingon Bird of Prey. However, at the last moment, Spock fended off the Klingon attack with a full crew complement, and Uhura completed the sacred trials needed to convince the Nibians of the Federation’s sincerity. Its shields at critical, the Enterprise warped out of the system, mission successfully completed…mostly.
P.S.: Although the publishers initially promised expansions with new missions to encounter, all they’ve delivered so far is a mini-expansion that adds three new characters to the mix: Sulu, Scotty, and Chekov. Pretty disappointing, on the one hand…but on the other hand, this may be your only chance to own a prepainted miniature plastic Simon Pegg!