Saturday, November 26, 2011

Star Trek Deck Building Game- not a big hit

In the years following the release of Dominion I've been on the lookout for a deck building game that was a well crafted and also carried more of a compelling theme. Up to now I've been pretty unimpressed by what's on the market. When the Star Trek Deckbuilding game was released I thought this could be the game to purchase. I got a chance to play it recently and I walked away happy to not own it.

In the Star Trek Deckbuilding Game you start the game with a small starship and a few crew members. Over time you can add functions to your ship, add crew, and eventually replace your ship with a more powerful model. The game has several scenarios- we played a cooperative one in which we had to defeat the Borg. Most of the game mechanics were familiar enough and we started play quickly. I'm going to skip the mechanical details and just move to my impressions.

My chief concern with the game is that I never felt like I was able to steer how my deck was developing. Players have a good assortment of cards to choose from but the abilities of the cards are often so specific as to make them of limited use when they crop up again in the game. Further, the game "currency" ran out midway through our game and on about one third of our turns we found we couldn't buy any cards even if we wanted to. That felt very odd.

The designers certainly tried to add theme to the game. Players can "explore," they can upgrade their ship's crew or engage in space battles. Sadly, little of this is easily directed so it all feels a bit random. I never felt like I was choosing whether to have an "exploring" deck or a "combat" deck. Each turn just seemed to be "well, what can I afford?"

The entire experience reminded me of Ascension. Both games feature "factions" and in both cases cards within a faction will help other cards of the same faction. And in both games I rarely was able to string together useful combinations of cards or use faction abilities in synchronicity.

I was pretty disappointed with the Star Trek Deckbuilding game. I had hoped for a good combination of theme and gameplay and this game does not deliver. Unlike Fleet Captains I can't even imagine Trek fans enjoying this game simply for it's Trekishness. I suppose the one perk to this game is that it makes me want to try Fleet Captains again.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Twilight Imperium- At Last!

No matter what sort of store you like to shop in there are basically cheap items, typical items, and then a few over-the-top and absurdly expensive items. You may buy a six pack of Sam Adams every week and always glance musingly at the $100 bottle of champagne, for example. I've been shopping at gaming store now for thirty years or so and there have always been certain games that fall into the same category. Games so large and expensive that they are only purchased by the elite gamer, the ultra hard core gamer. For me the epitome of that sort of game has been Twilight Imperium. The cover art is superb. The box is gigantic, it seems to weigh fifty pounds. I never met a person who had purchased it or played it or even looked in the box. At the same time it's in its third edition, so Someone must be playing it. Well this weekend that someone was me.

Joking aside, Twilight Imperium (TI) is a game well known for its complexity, number of components and playing time. I got a chance to play it at Vermont's Carnage gaming convention. Suffice it to say that TI actually surpasses its hype. It's a terrific monster of a game. I don't think I could easily describe the game mechanic in any detail. In brief, players manage an alien civilization that is part of a huge galactic organization. They take turns making decisions regarding their race and accumulating victory points for various achievements. The player with the most points wins the game.

The beauty of TI is that there are dozens of ways to rack up victory points, including exploring space, fighting and conquering, trade, technological development, and politics. This game is about as open ended as any boardgame I have ever played. It's a trade boardgame, it's a miniatures space battle game, it's an exploring game and a civilization development game. Each player can direct their race in the way they see fit and play by the style that suits them best. I don't think I can imagine another boardgame with that degree of flexibility- ironically Race for the Galaxy comes close.

That being said, one could imagine that the price you pay for that design is insane complexity but the rules for TI are, well, not insanely complex at least. It's not well suited for rank beginners but people comfortable with boardgames can be playing comfortably fairly quickly. At our recent game I started play sleep deprived and sick and still picked up on play within about a turn.

Finally, everything about this game screams quality of design. The art is fantastic. The alien races are well conceived. The rules and "color" writing is top notch. After three editions the publishers have ironed out this game and produced a fabulous product well worth the price.

The only caveat to TI is really the playing time required. I suspect a full game is a ten hour affair. Certainly not a dull ten hours but ten hours nonetheless. This is not going to be played every month unless you have a certain lifestyle not featuring, say, work and children.

I would whole heartedly recommend Twilight Imperium for gamers who enjoy science fiction and have some time to play. The rules could be managed by interested teens and the victory options allow all sorts of playing styles to lead to success. Truly an epic and amazing game!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Star Trek Fleet Captains- Pricey Nostalgia

I was a Star Trek fan growing up and suffered at the time from feeling like only myself and twenty other people knew how great Trek was. I would search through issues of The Monster Times or Creepy magazine for any mention of the show and once made it in to the Federation Trading Post in Manhattan- the first store dedicated to Trek and one that would fit into my living room today. So let me tell you- Kids These Days just don't know how good they have it. You can barely throw a stone in a game store now and not hit a Trek related product. But how many of these products are worth a look?

Star Trek Fleet Captains (FC) is a new game from Wizkids. I got a chance to give it a go a week ago. In the game the players control Klingon or Federation ships and cruise the galaxy having Trek-esque adventures. For example, you might have to prevent a civil war, add a new race to your stellar empire, or test a new warp drive. Success gets you victory points. You will also have a set of ongoing missions which can be finished at any time during the game for extra victory points. Some missions are combat oriented while others involve exploring a certain number of areas or some other peaceful task. Players can attack other player's ships and that may fulfill a victory condition or simply prevent your opponent from completing one of theirs. The winner player or team is the first to accumulate a set number of victory points.

On the positive side the game manages to include missions and characters from all the Trek series' very well. It's almost like you're playing out lost episodes that were never broadcast but could have been. I think the writers really grasped what makes a Trek adventure and that comes through beautifully in the game.

On the negative side I found the degree of luck in the game to be a bit much. Unless you spend valuable time "scanning" before moving you stand some risk of driving into a black hole while adventuring and losing a ship. Many of the encounters are also so difficult as to be close to impossible and may result in the loss or crippling of one of your ships. Finally, players may have special cards in their hand which can drastically alter an encounter which you may have spent some time in setting up.

This last issues touches on the heart of the problem with FC. The game has miniature spaceships and there are space battles but it's really not a miniatures game. I wouldn't tolerate a minis game with the amount of randomness that FC has. On the other hand, boardgames like Talisman and even Race for the Galaxy have a good amount of chance and are still lots of fun. One approach to FC is to keep on repeating "Not a minis game" to yourself as you play and instead see it as Talisman version of Star Trek.

That being said, the game is quite expensive because it does include lots of plastic miniatures and a modular space playing board. You end up spending a good amount on minis for this non-minis game. And, as with Talisman, you have to decide if you can tolerate lots of chance in a game. The rules could be a bit less ambiguous as well and players may have to make some on the spot decisions regarding gameplay.

Star Trek Fleet Captains has some good things going for it. It's terrific fun as a Trek simulation and fans will recognize the affection and care that went into it's design. The rules are simple and the game is playable by new gamers and teens alike. At the same time it's expensive and minis gamers may want to consider one of the many alternate Trek miniatures games available. I think a player who doesn't love the show will find it a pleasant diversion but this game is clearly aimed towards the fan.