So, then, Star Trek, y’all. I loves me some Star Trek.
And of course, in compliance with the Fandom Accords of 2014, I’m compelled to declare which Trek is my flavor.
(Side Note: I’ve always found this slightly ridiculous. It’s like declaring yourself a vegetarian, but every time it comes up in conversation having to also follow up with which vegetable is your favorite.)
The answer, of course, is all of them. They’ve all got great moments and terrible moments, and an appreciation for the particularly Trek brand of science fiction necessarily means embracing it all as a shared universe.
And really, what’s not to embrace? It’s wildly optimistic, equal parts pensively philosophical and bravely stupid, with characters and technologies and ideas and everything in between on a spectrum that goes all the way from “Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?” to “How Is This Not Mandatory School Curriculum Yet?”
Plus, photon torpedoes and tractor beams and Ricardo Montalbán.
Fleet Captains is not the perfect Star Trek game. No game really can be the perfect Trek game, incorporating everything that makes Trek special. It would be too broad to be playable and too sprawling to be fun. That’s OK. I’ll settle for games that try to focus on one aspect, like galactic exploration or whiz-bang shooty bits, and do them really well.
Fleet Captains does “Galactic Exploration And Whiz-Bang Shooty Bits” really, really well, almost against all odds. It’s made up of systems you arrange during setup that all sort of work together to create a Trek experience unlike any other I’ve played in a board game. And, true to its source material, there are great moments and head-shakingly terrible moments.
What did you expect? It’s Star Trek. And like Trek, I embrace Fleet Captains entirely, both the bad and the good.
To show you what I mean, I need to walk you through how you set up the game.
(Side Note: Wait! Come back! I promise to throw in jokes! Really!)
The overarching premise is that you’re one of the main Trek factions, have an entire fleet at your command, and are attempting to…er…assert your dominance over an uncontrolled area of space that borders everyone’s backyard. I think. First one to howevermany victory points gets…um…sector cred, I guess. It’s not entirely clear, and it in no way matters.
So the first thing you do is throw out a map of unexplored space, by which I mean a bunch of hexagonal tiles, face down in any pattern you want. With as many nooks and crannies as you like, creating roundabouts, choke points, and whatever other kind of cartographic deviltry you can come up with. Sure, they “suggest” you balance the map among all the faction starting points, but you’re perfectly within the rules to tell the Chief Suggestor to bugger off and play with a map that suits your mood.
On the facedown side of all those space tiles are hypergiant stars, planets both habitable and uninhabitable, nebulae, quasars, and all other kinds of terrain that may or may not be needed to complete your missions. Plus, when you reveal a tile by moving into it, you roll for a chance at a random Trek-flavored Encounter, which injects some episodic narrative into the game. These can be awesome, awful, or worthless, again, keeping in spirit with Trek. So far, so good.
And that’s great! Space should be formless, malleable, customizable, random, surprising, and unknown. Well done, FC!
What FC isn’t telling you at this point, though, is that you may have already lost the game. We’ll come back to this in a bit. A bit pants, FC!
Then comes the drafting, where each faction gets to randomly draw their ships for the game. The thing is, you’re limited as to how many points worth of ships you can have to start. That limit? The same number of Victory Points necessary to win the game. So if you’re playing to 13 VP, you only get 13 points worth of ships to start with. Yes, you might want that big bad Klingon battleship, but it’s a 6-pointer, so you’ve just eaten up half your total fleet for the game if you draw it.
(Side Note: That said, battleships? NEVER NOT WORTH IT. Just sayin’.)
But hey, you work with what you’re given, Admiral. The drafting aspect ensures that all sides get a fleet of roughly equal value to play with, and again–randomization at setup here keeps the game fresh and replayable. Well done, FC!
Also, it means that sometimes, you’re going to go to war with 5 relatively tiny ships, which makes for more bookkeeping. And sometimes, you’re going to have more ships than you can actually do anything with each turn, since you only get a limited number of actions per turn. A bit pants, FC!
So you’ve drawn your ship cards, and each one shows the attributes for things like the shields, the pointy end of the phaser, the engines, and the sensors and whatnot. Most ships also come with a special ability or attribute to differentiate them as well, which is good because if you’re not the Federation, then a bunch of your ships are gonna look identical, so you might as well refer to them as Lime Green Ship O’Terror #4 or That One Bird Of Prey Wot Keeps Getting Blown Up.
(Side Note: This will not stop you from playing with That One Bird Of Prey Wot Keeps Getting Blown Up. Oh IKS Ch’tang, some day you’ll survive past turn 3.)
Not that names particularly matter.
What matters is that you get these gorgeous Clix miniatures for each ship, and you get to adjust the weapons/shields/engines/sensors settings along the dial, and have I mentioned that they’re gorgeous? I mean, they’re not painted, but they are just the beans. Some folks have complained about sturdiness, but after a gazillion plays I’ve never had an issue with a miniature unless it was hurled across the room because DAMMIT YOU BLEW UP THE ENTERPRISE AGAIN, I WILL EXTERMINATE YOU, KLINGON FILTH.
Where was I? Right. Ships. Since each ship is designed with a purpose–some have bigger shooty bits, some are science vessels, some are jacks-of-all-trades–they affect the composition of your mission deck for the game. So, if you draw a bunch of combat ships, your missions will correspondingly have a higher number of combat objectives. Same thing for Science, Influence (which is really just a kind of base-building and territory control) and Espionage (which is only available if you’ve got the Romulan or Dominion expansions). So your fleet composition and mission objectives are ideally working together. Well done, FC!
Unless, of course, you actually want to play as the Dominion, in which case you’ll get a pantload of Espionage missions, many of which require the ability to cloak. Which wouldn’t be an issue if, you know, the Dominion ships could cloak.
(Side Note: Yes. Really.)
And remember when I said during the setup that you may have already lost the game without knowing it?
Yeah, if you draw a lot of Science missions that require you to explore a certain kind of terrain, it’s entirely possible those tiles didn’t even make it onto the map, thanks to the random setup. So you won’t be getting those VPs this game, pal. And if you’ve got a potload of Combat missions that require you to defeat a certain size of ship? Welp, let’s hope your opponent(s) actually have that size of a ship in play. And if, in your Influence missions, you’re assigned to take control of a sector with an enemy installation but they’ve no interest in building any? Well, you’re screwed there too.
If missions were the only way to score VPs in the game, it would be a dealbreaker, even with the ability to replace uncompletable missions each turn with a new one from your deck. I should probably point out that “completing missions” is one way to score victory points, but “blowing the crap out of everybody else” is just as valid a path (albeit a sometimes slower one), as is “building outposts” and “winning at random encounters.” Missions are by far, though, the best way–which is what makes it so frustrating when you find out the game was rigged against you from the start. A bit pants, FC!
So! Now you’ve got a fleet, got your marching orders from HQ, and you’ve got a nice big swath of unexplored space, across which is at least one other admiral with the same thing, and missions to complete, which may or may not be actually doable, but hey–there are no guarantees in life or in space opera, right? Bravo.
On its own, a Star Trek game focused on moving starships across a randomized map and discovering new worlds and blowing up other ships would be a pretty good game. A slightly dumber, moderately more narrative, way sexier version of Star Fleet Battles or Federation Commander, if you will.
(Side Note: At some point, I will write a 13,000-word disquisition on the awesomeness of SFB, FedCom, and the PC game Starfleet Command. THIS I VOW.)
Fleet Captains didn’t stop there, though. As man has done since time immemorial, to goose up gameplay, FC added cards. After drawing your ships, you’ll create a Command Deck comprised of 4 subdecks of cards, each with their own theme. So, if you drew a lot of Science-focused ships and will be doing a lot of exploration or science missions, you’ll probably choose a subdeck that has a lot of bonuses to Sensors or crew members that give bonuses to random encounters.
Best of all, Fleet Captains lets you also assume the mantle of Intergalactic Human Resources Officer by assigning particular cards as crew members to individual ships! So, for example, if you’re the Federation, you drew the Enterprise as a ship, and you have an ounce of humanity, you’ll select the Captain Kirk subdeck for a chance to throw Kirk and Spock back onto the bridge, boldly applying their bonuses where no bonus has been applied before.
It adds another layer of customization to your approach, letting you tailor your cards to the way you’re going to play the game. Well done, FC!
There’s also the possibility that you’ll get a bunch of useless cards that don’t fit the situation (there are some in every subdeck, and a lot require awfully specific situations to be played), and since the only way to get new cards is by playing the ones in your hand or spending a valuable Action to cycle them, you might just see the cards as worthless altogether and never play one all game. A bit pants, FC!
So there’s Fleet Captains, all set up and raring to go. You then take turns spending 3 or 4 actions (each ship can only take one action per turn, but they can all move, adjust power levels, etc.) moving across the map, discovering sectors, having encounters, blowing up the other not-yous, and dropping control markers–all in service of acquiring howevermany VPs you’ve agreed is the goal.
It’s an astonishingly great, messy, annoying canvas that doesn’t entirely hang together the way it wants to but that nonetheless, when done properly, provides for some great Star Trek with friends.
And here’s the thing: “done properly” in this case almost certainly means playing with three players, which means buying at least one of the expansions, and since you’re obviously a Star Trek fan, it means buying the Romulan Empire expansion, since the Dominion expansion…well, it kind of sucks.
(Side Note: Yeah, there’s a lot to unpack there. Hang with me just a bit longer.)
After a few months playing it with just the base game, Federation v. Klingons, we put it away. For a long time. We liked the game–but it felt just a bit too deterministic. It was entirely possible for each side to go their own way on their own side of the galaxy, and interaction was sometimes kept to a minimum because it was in both players’ best interests. It became, too many times, solo multiplayer.
The Federation would go about their science-heavy agenda, relying on the random map to make or break their game, avoiding combat, while the Klingons would have to take the battle to them, force the issue, and generally do most of the heavy lifting. It got too stale, too rote.
Enter the Romulan Empire. The Romulan expansion brings Espionage missions into the game, and while the Romulans get the bulk of them, the Feds and Klingons also get a replacement ship to allow them a chance at some good old-fashioned intergalactic skulduggery.
More importantly, the three-player game injects an axis that turns each game from a rote race into a backstabbing, diplomatic, strategic puzzle of scheming, hidden objectives, and temporary alliances. And that’s the missing sauce that the game desperately needed for us, those shifting sands that force you to keep an eye on the leader at all times, combine forces to take them down if they get a bit too big for their space britches, and distance yourself from the pack at just the right moment.
It. Is. Awesome.
Which is also kind of what makes the latest expansion for the Dominion kind of terrible. First off, there are no new missions–they’re just duplicates of the Espionage missions in the Romulan expansion, if for some reason you still hadn’t acquired that. And the Dominion ships themselves are mostly identical, with a lot of featureless Jem’Hadar ships and unremarkable subdecks that don’t really have a lot of unique flavor.
Plus, if you thought a 4-player game was now in the offing, the insert sheet itself warns against it, basically telling you that a 4-faction game is unplayable due to down time. I can’t help but think that maybe a thoughtful reconsideration of the turn structure for 4-faction games might have made them, if not awesome, then at least playable.
(Plus: I’m still boggled over the fact that the Dominion ships provide those Espionage missions without having the ability to cloak and without adding more non-cloaking Espionage missions to the deck. It’s…odd.)
It all feels a bit like WizKids was forced to put out an expansion they didn’t really want to and consequently put as little effort into it as possible. I hope I’m wrong, and that more expansions are forthcoming, but it certainly isn’t promising.
(Side Note: I should point out that we’ve played with the Dominion faction now all of three times, so it’s not like we’ve had nearly as much experience with them as we have with the Romulans. Maybe there are hidden strategic depths we’ve yet to plumb, but…there’s a reason whoever gets stuck with the Dominion immediately gets a look on their face like they just got handed a dead fish. I’m just sayin’.)
But! This in no way diminishes the 3-player game we’ve come to know and love, and which I will wholeheartedly recommend for anyone with a bit of patience, some time to spend getting to grips with the rulebook, and a lot of love for the whole “boldly going” bit.
What I love most about the game–and for all its faults, as a Trek fan and a strategy fan, I do love it, despite the parts that refuse to play nice sometimes–is that it encourages a lateral, thinky approach to your goals. You’ll want to move the right ships in position at the right times to accomplish the right things, and sometimes, that means thinking three or four moves ahead.
You’ll have to react to the way your opponents’ actions make some of your goals suddenly unobtainable, more difficult, or unexpectedly offer an opportunity you hadn’t considered. Even the frustrating parts–having to get rid of missions or cards that are useless–present, um, “strategic” challenges, as you’ll have to decide when to burn a valuable action to get rid of dead wood in your hand.
But I also love things like the random encounters–oh, those random encounters. They don’t happen as often as you’d think, given Trek’s propensity for strange new worlds, but that serves to make them that much more special. They’re alternately terrifying and glorious and boring and can change the complexion of a game entirely if you fail or succeed.
And the combat–you’ll have to manage your ship’s Clix power settings before, during, and after combat and pay attention to the cards in your hand. Know when to trash a crew card for a combat benefit or keep them alive for their ongoing effects. Sweating over the die roll, knowing that the difference between a 3 and a 4 is the difference between Yellow Alert and a counterattack or Red Alert and victory points.
It’s a forehead-slapping and fist-pumping and poker-facing and grin-inducing and episode-quoting and soundtrack-playing and table-turning and fine-if-I’m-that-far-behind-I’m-just-gonna-ruin-everyone-else’s-chances-at-winning and man-that-D7-battlecruiser-looks-terrific and jeez-I-hope-I-don’t-regret-diverting-all-power-to-sensors and is-that-cloak-really-a-ship-or-just-an-echo and oh-great-now-I’m-stuck-with-Tribbles-onboard-the-rest-of-the-game and what-the-hell-do-you-mean-I-just-ran-face-first-into-a-supernova-that-destroyed-all-my-ships good time.
In other words, it’s Star Trek.