Star Trek: New Horizons

Here's something that I've never done before: a review of a game mod! I don't play mods very often. When I play games, I usually want to play the game that the creators created in order to get a feel for what their intent might have been. For some of the more sandboxy PC games that I play (like Cities: Skylines or the like), I might try some small mods.

There has yet to be an official game quite like Microprose's 1999 release, Birth of the Federation.

For this one instance, however, I'm making an exception because this particular mod fills a very specific niche desire for me that has gone unfulfilled for around 15 or 20 years. The "New Horizons" mod for Stellaris is finally allowing me to play a full 4-x strategy game set in the Star Trek universe. I haven't been able to do that since Star Trek: Birth of the Federation, developed by Microprose for Windows 98!

The creators seem to have been inspired by BotF.

Yes, there have been other Star Trek mods for other games in the past, and there's even some community projects to create spiritual successors to Birth of the Federation (such as Star Trek: Supremacy). The problem is that I've yet to ever see one of these get finished. "New Horizons" for Stellaris is still a work-in-progress, but it is mostly functionally complete and fairly robust. Since Birth of the Federation holds such a special place in my heart, I'm going to take a stab at reviewing "New Horizons" and see how it compares to my personal favorite [official] Star Trek game of all time.

Built on the back of Stellaris

"New Horizons" is, of course, a mod for the PC game Stellaris (developed and published by Paradox). Because of this, it takes advantage of most of Stellaris' strengths, but it is also hamstrung by many of Stellaris' faults.

"New Horizons" makes excellent use of the massive size and scale of Stellaris' maps by featuring a detailed recreation of the canon Star Trek galaxy, and including a surprisingly exhaustive roster of Star Trek races and factions -- all of whom are playable. Yes, of course, the big players like the Federation, the Romulans, Klingons, Cardassians, Ferengi, Dominion, and Borg are all here. As are all the expected ancillary empires like the Gorn, Tholians, Orions, and so forth.

The playable roster is surprisingly vast and exhaustive.

It doesn't end there, though. This mod also features a crap-ton of "aliens of the week" as fully-featured, playable empires. They aren't "minor races" like what we had in Birth of the Federation or the city states of Civilization V or VI. They don't just have one planet and a handful of ships just waiting for a "major faction" to conquer or absorb them. The obvious choices like the Vulcans, Andorians, Bajorans, are all there. The game also features empires like the Sheliak, Anticans, Selay, Caitian, Cheron, Dosi, Hirogen, Kazon, Krenim, Kelpian, and more! If you have a favorite space-facing civilization from any episode of Star Trek (including Gamma Quadrant aliens from DS9 and Delta Quadrant aliens from Voyager), there is a very good chance that it's a playable faction in "New Horizons"...

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Stellaris - title

Last year, after my initial enthusiasm for Civilization VI began petering out (until the announcement of the expansion), I went on a bit of a space-4x bender. I spent some time with the rebooted Master of Orion. It was good, but I was underwhelmed by its limited scale and casual depth. I also planned on hitting up Endless Space 2. I played the first Endless Space briefly off-and-on, and I liked it, but kept getting diverted to other games and projects and never really allowed myself the time to get comfortable with the game.

But first, before diving into Engless Space 2, I wanted to tackle a game that's been in my library for over a year: Stellaris. This is an epic, space 4x strategy game developed by Paradox Interactive -- the same developer who brought us the infamously complex and detailed Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings series.

A gentler learning curve than Europa Universalis

I was hesitant to try Stellaris because of its relationship to Europa Universalis (and its notorious complexity), but I was surprised to find that Stellaris has a bit of a gentler learning curve. Instead of starting you out "in median res" with a developed European kingdom with armies already mobilized, alliances and rivalries already in place, and wars already in progress, Stellaris starts you out in control of a single planet in a single star system, with just a small fleet of corvettes, a construction ship, and a science ship at your disposal. You send your science ship to explore the other planets in your system, then on to the nearest star, and slowly explore from there at a much more comfortable pace that is akin to a game like Civilization or Master of Orion. Unlike with Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis, I didn't feel like I needed to sit down with a history textbook in order to know what was going on at the start of my game.

You start the game with a single science ship to explore your own star system, and work your way out from there.

Don't let this initial apparent simplicity fool you. Stellaris is still quite deep, quite complex, and the galaxy that you'll explore really does feel vast. While the Master of Orion reboot has galaxies with a mere dozens of stars (very few of which contain more than one or two planets), Stellaris features a default galaxy size consisting of hundreds of stars, most with their own planets, which might (in turn) contain moons.

There's still going to be some trial and error, as you'll make a lot of mistakes and miss a lot of opportunities in your first few games. If you left the "ironman" mode disabled, then you'll at least be free to re-load earlier saves and try to play better if anything goes horribly wrong. However, Paradox throws a bit of a curve ball at players by disabling achievements if you disable ironman mode. You won't stumble into achievements in your learning game(s) or by save-scumming; you'll have to earn them in the Ironman mode!

You also won't be able to manually save while in Ironman mode. You have to wait for the game to perform an auto-save (which I think happens every few in-game months, or maybe every year?). This can be very annoying if you don't notice the "saving game" popup and don't know if the game has saved your most recent actions. It's fine to include a single save file for this mode, but they could at least include a "Save and Exit" option in the pause menu!

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Although the components for Gale Force Nine's Star Trek: Ascendancy are generally pretty exceptional (and the expansion components are also quite high quality), I did have one major disappointment with the package: the game does not include plastic figures to represent the various faction's starbases. Instead, the game uses cardboard tokens to represent starbases. These are functionally fine, but they just don't have the presence on the board to match their strategic importance within the actual game, and it's easy for them to kind of disappear into the background of the game's map. The individual cardboard tokens don't even have art specific to each faction; all five factions have pictures of Federation starbases on the top.

The manufacturer was apparently aware of this, and, in addition to selling "expansions" containing additional ships and control nodes for each faction, they also sell a set of three plastic starbase figures for each faction.

All factions use carboard tokens for starbases, all of which have pictures of Starfleet starbases.

Since I really like the Ascendancy board game, I wanted to support the manufacturer and designers. I had already purchased all three of the game's expansions (the Cardassian faction, Ferengi faction, and Borg: Assimilation expansion), and I'll be playing and reviewing them soon. I also went ahead and bought the starbases. GF9's storefront wants $12 USD for each set of a faction's three starbase figures. That's a pretty steep price for components for a game that already costs $100 without any expansions. $12 times five factions comes to $60 (almost two-thirds the cost of the core game!). The core game's components are all pretty nice, as are the components for the Borg expansion, and the pictures of the bases looked pretty nice (even though they are unpainted). So I went ahead and made a purchase.

I was excited to have the new toys to play with -- I always like getting new games and toys. But when they showed up, a lot of that excitement was dashed. The product that had been delivered was substantially sub-par.

These are definitely not ready to be played with out-of-the-box...

Defects and poor quality

The Ferengi and Klingon bases were attached to plastic frames and had to be torn off, and the remains of the frames had to be cut off of the starbase figures in order for the figures to fit into their bases and stand on their own. One of the Ferengi figures snapped and broke while I was removing it from its plastic frame. I had to super-glue it back together...

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Star Trek Ascendancy 50th anniversary edition

As I had mentioned in my Star Trek: Fleet Captains review, good Star Trek games are few and far between. Perhaps my favorite Trek game of all time is the Windows '98 4-x strategy game Birth of the Federation. BotF, developed my Microprose, was basically a Trek reskin of Master of Orion II. It was buggy, had cheating A.I., suffered from a major memory leak that slowed the game to a crawl after about 100 turns of play, and it didn't include any Original Series ships or technologies. But it did manage to faithfully capture Star Trek's spirit of exploration and discovery by being a game about exploring and colonizing a galaxy.

It wasn't a stripped-down startship combat simulator (Starfleet Command), or a cookie-cutter first-person shooter (Elite Force), or a lazy StarCraft clone (Armada), or an out-of-place dogfighter (Invasion), or a derivative WoW clone (Star Trek: Online). None of those games is terrible. I've played them all, and actually have some rather fond memories with most of them. But none of these games really meshed perfectly with the Star Trek license, and none of them really scratched my Star Trek gaming itch the way that Birth of the Federation did. Apparently, some designers at Gale Force Nine also like Birth of the Federation, because their new board game, Star Trek: Ascendancy, almost feels like a board game version of that classic Trek PC game.

Ascendancy is the first proper 4-x board game using the Star Trek license that I've seen. It certainly blows Fleet Captains out of the water. While Fleet Captains included some token exploration and territory-expansion mechanics as a supplement to the ship-to-ship combat that was the core of the game, Ascendancy is a game that is actually about exploring a procedurally-generated map, colonizing planets, and developing their resources. You can win by conquering other players' home worlds, or by developing your culture up to a specific level.

The final frontier is always in flux

The board of Star Trek: Ascendancy utilizes an interesting and novel modular board. Disk tiles represent planets, systems, and anomalies, each of which is connected by star lanes of varying distances. New systems and star lanes are drawn from a deck as the players explore, and so the board is constantly expanding as you play. It's nothing earth-shatteringly new, but it does have one neat gimmick that I haven't seen in other similar games.

The map will grow and change as the game progresses.

In addition to the board dynamically growing as the game progresses, systems are considered to be "floating" until they become locked in place by being connected to two or more systems via a star lane. This means that leaf systems can be freely rotated around to make room for other tiles to be placed in the play area. I believe this is intended to model the 3-dimensional nature of space. In a more practical sense, it means that the galaxy [map] can (and will) change its shape occasionally, leaving the true distances between locations ambiguous until everything gets locked down.

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Master of Orion (2016) - title

The 2016 reboot of Master of Orion kind of shoots itself in the foot a bit with its own subtitle: "Conquer the Stars". When I play 4x games, I like to feel like I'm really building an empire, managing an economy, and conducting diplomacy. All of those things are present in Master of Orion, but I've gotten a pretty distinct feeling that this is yet another strategy game that falls victim to military rushing being the optimal strategy by far. Master of Orion doesn't really want you to build a civilization and colonize the galaxy; it firmly wants you to do what its subtitle tells you: conquer the stars.

Master of Orion III was kind of shit (it was boring, ugly, and completely lacked personality and substance), but at least it made some effort to be new and interesting. Most noticeably, the galactic map was actually three-dimensional. Sure, this was a navigational and UI nightmare for the human player, but it required players to think differently about how they approached expansion and warfare. At a more fundamental level, MoO3 sought to be a game about macro-management, asking the player to manage a vast galactic empire rather than just a collection of a dozen or so planets. The meat of the game, thus, was intended to be in the mid-to-late stages, as developed empires engaged in epic battles for survival, rather than all the fun and challenge being front-loaded in the early rush to colonize all the nearby planets. It didn't work, but at least it was trying to genuinely innovate the 4x genre.

The new Master of Orion isn't anywhere near that ambitious, and seeks instead to simply bring the original Master of Orion concept (in its simplest form) into the age of high-resolution 3-d graphics. It's a scaled-down, bog-standard space-4x game that borrows heavily from Endless Space and Civilization V. But it is at least a competent one!

Conquer the Stars isn't as big, complex, or ambitious as Master of Orion 3, but at least it's competent.

The galaxy itself isn't very big this time around. Depending on the map's size, there's only a few dozen stars, and most of them only have two or three planets. Unstable star lanes and space monsters can lock you out of exploring certain systems until you research certain technologies or grow your military sufficiently large (respectively). Other than that, exploration is over fairly quickly (especially once you start performing map trades in diplomacy).

Planet-management is also fairly easy. You can assign population meeples between one of three different types of output: food, production, and research. Meeples of different jobs and races have different icons, and unhappy meeples on strike have icons that sit down holding a picket sign. It makes it very easy to see what your population's current status is at a glance. There's just not really much to do with them. You don't have to assign them to work specific buildings, and with only 3 outputs to manage, balancing or specializing isn't that difficult.

All the buildings in the game are also one-time builds that don't serve much function other than to provide flat points of one of the three outputs, or to modify the efficiency of meeples in a particular output category. Buildings that have unique functionality (such as the Spy Center, Gravity Generators, or Interplanetary Administration) are few and far between. The only other thing that you do with your planets is to occasionally terraform them in order to boost your max population and unlock additional slots along each of the output tracks.

Master of Orion - conquered planet
Each point of population is of a specific race, which affects the morale of conquered planets.

The tech tree also feels kind of bland and linear. I would much prefer a tech web along the lines of Civilization: Beyond Earth. Master of Orion kind of goes in this direction a bit by including some techs in which you have to chose which of two different items you want to take when you research certain techs. You can then trade for the other via diplomacy if you want to. It's kind of like the leaf nodes in Beyond Earth, but only some techs have them, and I rarely had to think too hard about which one I wanted...

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