Friday, September 30, 2011

“The best diplomat that I know is a fully-loaded phaser bank.” – a review of Star Trek: Fleet Captains

  • Designers: Mike Elliott. Bryan Kinsella & Ethan Pasternack
  • Publisher: WizKids
  • Ages: 14 and up
  • Players: 2 or 4
  • Time: 60-90 minutes
Review by Mark Jackson (review copy provided by WizKids)

Do they just let anybody review Star Trek games? What are your Trekkie credentials?

  • I’ve seen all of the original series as well as the all of the animated series. (Thank you, Saturday afternoon reruns… but why did I have to see the episode about the creepy teenage girl on the all-kid planet so many times?)
  • I’ve seen most of the films, though I’d erase the first Star Trek movie (yawn) and ST V: The Final Frontier (blech) from my memory banks if I could.
  • I gave up on Next Generation after the first crushingly boring season (there’s a Wesley pun hidden in there somewhere), though I did come back & catch the Borg arc (which was excellent). Yes, I know, real Trekkies, I left just when it was getting good.
  • Sadly, I have never watched DS9 or Voyager.
  • I still think the “Get A Life” SNL sketch with William Shatner (“You, you must be almost 30… have you ever kissed a girl?… I didn’t think so!”) is one of his greatest moments.
  • The quote in the title is from Mr. Scott, btw.

Could you summarize the rules… briefly?

Shortest version: read the rules posted on the WizKids website.

Shorter version: score victory points by destroying enemy ships, completing missions, surviving encounters & building starbases.

Long(er) version: players take turns moving their ships, adjusting the power settings (stats) for those ships & taking three actions: attacking, scanning, exerting influence, transporting away parties, building installations, etc.

In summary: the base system is pretty simple, with some fiddly rules for cloaking & use of cards. I think it’s possible for the Federation player to “learn as they go” – the Klingon players will have a little tougher time.

May I have a pithy & quotable comparative description of the game that people can argue about, please?

No problem… in fact, I’ll give you two:

  • it’s Dungeonquest in Space
  • it’s Tales of the Star Trekkian Nights

You need to know that I love both of the games I referenced – so I don’t consider either description to be pejorative.

But I think it’s important that everyone realize going in that Star Trek: Fleet Captains is an “experience” game rather than a strategy game. Yes, there are lots of interesting tactical decisions to be made and your Missions will help you figure out some long-term strategic goals… but you can be smacked around by bad Encounter card draws or abysmal dice rolls. By the same token, you can benefit from streaky card draws. (I managed to score 5 victory points in one turn: 2 due to destroying a Klingon ship that also completed a mission and 3 due to fulfilling the conditions on the next two Mission cards I revealed.)

There’s nothing wrong with building a game that works this way – but you need to know that you’re going to be playing a theme-heavy game with a variety of random elements (which Command cards you draw, the Missions you get & the order you get them in, the Encounters you run into & the layout of the board… and let’s not forget our pesky friend, the d6) rather than a Euro where player decisions comprise the majority of the chaos.

An aside: Frank Branham pointed out to me that there actually is a “Tales of the Star Trekkian Nights” game – Star Trek: The Adventure Game – and cast aspersions on my character for not having played this paragraph-based experience game. The next time we’re together, Frank, bring it along… it can’t be worse than S.P.I.V.’s.

Spock: “Random chance seems to have operated in our favor.”

McCoy: “In plain, non-Vulcan English, we’ve been lucky”

Spock: “I believe I said that, Doctor”

(Original series: The Doomsday Machine)

Can you name some things you really like about the game?

There’s a lot to like here:

  • Although my initial reaction to the random set-up was negative (“I want to pick the ships for my fleet!”), in practice I’ve found that the variable fleet structure and the way it’s tied to the Missions you’re assigned and how you chose your Command deck to make for very different gaming experiences each time Star Trek: Fleet Captains has hit the table.
  • I was also worried about the sheer number of options for a player each turn – moving all your ships, making power adjustments, taking actions, cycling cards, etc. – but now that I’ve got a few games under my belt, turns seem to move along at a nice clip and I really like how many different things your fleet can do.
  • I love the Command decks – having each deck of 100 cards divided into 10 sets of ten cards (connected by theme) and requiring players to pick 4 sets based on their mix of Missions allows for chances to customize your play experience without devolving into the tedium of deck building. (The design of the cards is also nice – very readable.)
  • I know I sound like a broken record – but the theme comes through so strongly from every element of the game. This is especially true for the power adjustment mechanic, which allows you to vary your stats to send power to Sensors, Shields, Weapons or Engines… which makes me feel like I’m sitting in the captain’s chair myself.

How long does it take to play?

I was pleasantly surprised to find that all three teaching games that I played took about 90 minutes (using the recommended 10 victory points for a win and 5×5 board). With experienced players, I can see this coming in at 60-75 minutes.

There is provision in the rules for making the board bigger and/or upping the victory point total needed for a win (which would up the size of your fleet as well)… but I’m concerned that doing so would increase the game length noticeably. (I have the same concerns about the 4 player rules, but I have not played the game that way yet.)

You can also make the game shorter by shrinking the board and/or dropping the victory point total.

Age 14+? Really?

My 10-year-old did just fine with Star Trek: Fleet Captains… of course, he’s a gamer kid who loves Summoner Wars & Heroscape, so your mileage may vary. I would note that his total lack of familiarity with the Star Trek universe didn’t diminish his enjoyment of the game.

Note: one of my fellow OG writers pointed out that the “age 14+”on the box may have something to do with the new child safety rules for toys. I’ll say this – I’m actually more afraid of some adults I’ve played with putting pieces in their mouths than my 6-year-old son doing the same

Is my favorite ship from Star Trek in the box?

How the heck do I know? While I loved the old school series, I didn’t keep up with the later iterations of the show and so I found myself wondering “who is that guy?” and “I know this is a reference to the mythology but I have no idea what it means” when playing the game. And that’s just playing the Federation – on the Klingon side, I’m almost totally clueless.

That said, there’s a wide variety of ships in the game (12 on each side)… they may have missed a ship or two, but I think all the key “wessels” are available.

I’m mad that the miniatures are unpainted. Aren’t you?

Oh for crying out loud, talk about a tempest in a very small & geeky teapot. (Ladies & gentlemen, I give you the lovely lunacy of the BGG forums.)

Pick something reasonable to whine about already. If not having the minis painted keeps you from enjoying the game, either paint ‘em yourself or find another game to play.


Is this better or worse than Star Trek: Expeditions?

Much, much better… while I found Expeditions to be math-y and lacking in the necessary tension to make a cooperative game work, I think that Fleet Captains does what it sets out to do and does it well – the game gives you a great big Star Trek sandbox to play in and fills it with a truckload of thematically appropriate “toys”: ships, encounter, crew, etc.

A note: I don’t hate cooperative games… and I certainly don’t hate Knizia designing them (Lord of the Rings is still a personal favorite) – but Expeditions is not his best work.

Is it bigger than a breadbox?

Well, the MSRP certainly is… $99.99.

But you do get a lot of stuff in the very big box for your hard-earned gaming dollars – the ships alone (24 ships with a good level of detail on Clix bases) would be $60+ if you could get them at retail. And then there’s nearly 300 cards as well as tokens & the 50 hex cards that make up the board…

Want to complain about anything?

Sure. While I understand that WizKids is invested in the Clix base system, it’s not easy for those of us with aging eyesight to figure out the various numbers settings on the bases… and you might as well forget about playing this in a low light situation for the same reason.

I’m also a little iffy about the card quality – it’s the same weird finish on thin cardstock as the cards in Star Trek: Expeditions. I don’t think they’ll tear easily but they do feel like it wouldn’t take much to fold one of them.

And, since I’m being picky, I would have really liked it if the ship cards were larger.

How about a summary of your thoughts on the game?

With three plays under my belt, I can safely say that:

  • I’ve really enjoyed all three plays of the game
  • The one opponent who didn’t like Star Trek: Fleet Captains is not a fan of “experience” games
  • I look forward to playing it more in the near future
  • I am a bit concerned that none of my three games were close – I do wonder if there is a small “runaway leader” problem. (Note: I taught all three of my opponents the game & beat them, so this may well disappear with experience.)
This post originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers blog.

1 comment:

Jason said...

Hey, Mark, can't remember if you're a Netflix-guy, but DS9 is coming to Instant Queue in October or November. Well worth watching. Starts out a bit dodgy, but gets better. Still my favorite of all the series.