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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Almost a decade ago, my love of board-gaming was kick-started by a single game. That game was Fantasy Flight's Battlestar Galactica board game. For a period of a couple years, my friends and I were playing that game once or twice almost every month. Even after we started branching out to other games, BSG would regularly grace our tables.

The Battlestar Galactica board game kick-started my tabletop hobby.

Unfortunately, as time went on, members of the regular group(s) that I played with got new jobs, moved, started families, and it became harder and harder to get a large enough group together to play a 4 or 5-hour long board game. Eventually, BSG (along with all my other games) started collecting dust on a shelf.

It wasn't until a few years ago that I finally got back into having semi-regular board game sessions, thanks primarily to my girlfriend taking an interest in X-Wing. Most of our board gaming in the past years has been dominated by either quick group games (such as Dominion, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Resistance, or Cards Against Humanity), or smaller, two-player games (like the aforementioned X-Wing). No one game has dominated in quite the same way that BSG did. I'd like to play it again, and maybe someday I'll even put up a review of it, but we haven't dusted the ol' game off because we rarely have the time for it. When we do have a whole evening cleared for an epic game, we try to play other games that we haven't already played the hell out of.

Well, clearly, I wasn't the only one who loved Battlestar Galactica, but wished it didn't take so bloody long to play, because Evan Derrick's 2011 game Dark Moon is basically a reskin of Battlestar Galactica that only takes an hour and a half to play. Dark Moon accomplishes this by reducing a lot of the mechanical complexity and by making progress in the game a lot more straight-forward. Virtually every mechanic or interaction in Dark Moon is a direct analog to a mechanic or interaction in BSG.

The shape-shifting space monster among us

The core conceit of Dark Moon (and Battlestar Galactica) is that the game is a semi-cooperative game in which most of the players are working together to try to prevent their moon-based mining station from falling apart around them. However, one or more of the players is secretly a shape-shifting alien (an "infected") who is trying to sabotage the station and kill all humans. Players take turns performing a single action to try to stabilize the deteriorating mining station. However, the most efficient action is to "issue an order" to another player to allow that player to take multiple actions. The catch is that the player you give the order to may secretly be a saboteur, so you have to be careful about only giving orders to other players who you trust.

Dark Moon - board
Players cooperate to complete a series of events, but some players are secretly traitors.

At the end of each player's turn, the entire group participates in a group task. Each task card has a pass or fail condition. Passing may result in positive effects for the uninfected players, and failing may result in harmful effects. These group tasks ensure that every player gets to participate in virtually every turn, so you're never sitting around twiddling your thumbs waiting for other players to do things. Even if you weren't participating in the turn, it would still behoove you to pay close attention to what's going on, if for nothing else than to look for any tells or indications that the current player may be an Infected...

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Star Wars Battlefront II - title

Dang, I was really hoping to get this one out before the end of the year...

Thanks to previews, journalists, and complaints from beta users, this is yet another game that I knew better than to buy on launch day at full retail price. Even before the game came out, beta players and gaming websites were already condemning Battlefront II for its pay-to-win multiplayer system. When the media finally got their hands on preview builds of the full game, they were quick to attack the online progression system. Once the game was released, public outcry forced EA to literally neuter the game's online economy.

Slot machines are legally required to disclose
their paytables -- and sometimes their RTP.

EA started damage control by slashing the prices of heroes so that they supposedly weren't as much of a grind to unlock. However, the sneaky bastards also reduced the rewards for various in-game activities (such as completing the campaign), so as to render the cost reduction virtually moot. Then, EA disabled micro-transactions altogether. So by the time I finally started playing the game (over a month after launch), it was a totally different experience than it was intended to be at launch.

Star Wars license-holder Disney was furious with EA for potentially tarnishing the Star Wars brand (especially with the pending release of The Last Jedi). EA's stock prices fell as a result.

Battlefront II has actually caused law-makers and regulatory agencies in the United States and Europe to consider whether loot boxes qualify as "gambling", and whether they should, therefore, be regulated as such, including banning their sale to minors. Corporations are also starting to hop onto the bandwagon of self-regulation. Apple announced that all iOS apps with randomized micro-transactions must disclose the odds associated with rewards. This is the same disclosure that is actually legally required for actual gambling, such as slot machines.

For the record, I do not object to gambling per se. I actually bet every week on college and NFL football. Don't worry, I live in Nevada; it's legal for me. I spent almost three years working as a game developer for a slot machine manufacturer, and the only reason that I'm not still at that job is because the entire department in which I worked got laid off in the wake of a corporate merger (I'm actually very bitter and opposed to corporate mergers, by the way, but that's a discussion for another time). So I don't have a problem with gambling. I just think that it has a time and a place, and I don't want that time or place to be in my video games that I'm already paying $60 just to play. This is why casinos don't generally charge a cover fee.

I personally feel that Shadow of War and Destiny 2 are much more egregious examples of corporate avarice.

Also, for the record, I think that Battlefront II's micro-transaction controversy is a bit overblown. It's an online multiplayer shooter in which there is no win condition or end state. Whether you want the extra hero characters, and whether you're willing to spend time or money to get them is entirely up to the player's own whim. The game is perfectly playable without those heroes, and you can play through the campaign completely without spending an extra penny. It's a bit sleazy that EA markets the game by advertising these characters, and then locks them behind a grind/pay wall, but fighting games have been hiding unlockable characters behind grind-walls for decades.

Battlefront II isn't even the worst micro-transaction / pay-to-win system to come from EA! EA Sports titles like Madden and FIFA have been getting away with much worse pay-to-win systems (via their respective Ultimate Team modes) for years. Personally, I also think that Shadow of War (review coming very soon) has a much more offensive micro-transaction model because Warner Bros actually tied it into that game's campaign. If you want to finish the story, you either have to sit through the grind, or pay to speed it up. Though all of these pale in comparison to Activision and Bungie locking formerly-accessible end-game content behind the pay-wall of a Destiny 2 expansion pack.

In any case, it's sad that a review of a video game has to turn into a political op-ed, but that's the sad state of things right now.

Controversy and public outrage forced EA to completely disable in-game purchases.

So, if I knew that the game was controversially terrible, why did I bother to play it? ...

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Star Wars: X-Wing - wave II expansions

I really enjoy the Star Wars: X-Wing miniatures game, and have been playing it on and off for a few years now. Unfortunately, the core set is very lacking in variety, and so the game really needs to be expanded in order to be fully enjoyed. There's a myriad of expansions available, and they can be pricey. A single fighter ship expansion retails for $15, large ship expansions retail for $30-50, and the huge (epic) ships can cost as much as $90 or $100! If you get into this game, be prepared to spend money.

I never got into much of the Star Wars extended universe, so my interest in expansion ships has been mostly limited to content from the classic trilogy. This allowed me to be at least somewhat frugal in my early expansion purchases, but I still tried to find as much variety as I could. At the time of this review, I own (and have played with) the following expansion: Millennium Falcon, Slave I, Lambda Shuttle, VT-49 Decimator, X-Wing, A-Wing, TIE Fighter, TIE Advance, TIE Interceptor.

I also recently purchased the Corellian Corvette expansion (the foot-long huge ship that stands on two bases), but I've yet to have a chance to play it. I'm also interested in trying out the Imperial Raider, which (as I understand) is a ship that was conceived for the X-Wing miniatures game and then also ported into Armada. I also haven't played the "Most Wanted" expansion, which adds a third faction and could hypothetically allow for three-player games. I don't think that there's an official ruleset for a three-player deathmatch though, so even with a third faction, you'd probably just be playing in teams.

Small ships (fighters)

There's really not much to be said about the small fighter expansions, as they play (mostly) the same as the X-Wings and TIE Fighters that come packaged with the core set. Each ship comes with its own special abilities that add some nuanced differences to how they play, but they still play similarly at fundamental levels.

Star Wars: X-Wing - multi-ship collisions
Be very aware of each ship's Pilot Skill, as the risk of collisions dramatically increases with more ships.

The biggest change (and most obvious ones) is that they allow for larger fleet sizes, which complicates the board and requires more careful management of your ships. With more ships in play, you have to be much more aware of what ships are where, what their respective pilot skills are (e.g. their turn order), and what kind of movements and abilities each possesses. Collisions become much more frequent and harder to avoid as more ships are added, and a careless player will probably also find themself running their own ships into each other -- especially if you're trying to fly tightly-packed formations. Of course, I've never run my own ships into each other ...

Perhaps the most obvious expansion is stand-alone X-Wings and TIE Fighters. These are a little bit more than a simple repackaging of the core game's components...

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Star Wars X-Wing miniatures game

There's two versions of this game available now. The original one was released back in 2012 and was based on the original Star Wars trilogy. With the release of The Force Awakens in 2015, Fantasy Flight released a variant core set based on the new movie. The variant set includes miniatures based on the new Resistance X-Wings and First Order TIE Fighters, as well as some revised rules.

I haven't played the variant set with the revised rules, so this review will focus on the original release of the game. My understanding is that the rule changes in the updated version do not alter mechanics, but rather it makes some clarifications for some circumstantial edge cases. If I ever do get a chance to play the revised rules, and find that they substantially alter the game, then I'll either write a separate review of that, or I'll add to this review (depending on how extensive the changes are).

I've had this game for a few years, but didn't play much of it over that time period. Lately, however, my girlfriend and I have gotten really into it -- trying to play a game every weekend or two -- and have been buying lots of expansion ships. So I decided that it was time for me to finally get around to reviewing the game.

Miniature games are a dangerous thing to get into. The core set for X-Wing contains only three ships: a single X-Wing and two TIE Fighters. Without expansions, this leaves the game with relatively little replay value, as there's only so much you can do with such a small roster of ships. There's a handful of pre-made mission scenarios and character cards that can add a bit more variety. The ships themselves are very high quality models - nearly collectible-quality models. Screw having a box, when you're not playing the game, you can display these miniatures on a shelf or in a curio cabinet somewhere! Other components in the set have good production value, which is one of the trademarks of Fantasy Flight games.

Star Wars X-Wing - play area
The game has no board, but is played on any 3'x3' playing surface. Fantasy Flight does sell optional play mats.

Since this is a miniatures game, there is no actual game board. Instead, you'll need a 3 foot by 3 foot playing surface for the play area, plus some extra room for ship cards and components. Fantasy Flight sells play mats with various patterns, along with numerous other accessories. You can also get away with a solid black sheet of 3'x3' felt or cloth from your local craft store, or a bigger sheet if you want larger play areas (you can fold a sheet of cloth to any size you need). In lieu of such a play surface, the game box includes a set of 4 cardboard "corners" that you can use to delineate the borders of the play area. The play area can also be decorated with asteroids or other cardboard obstacles that come packaged in the game.

Plastic dogfights

The game itself is a four-phase process. In the first phase (Planning Phase), each player secretly selects a maneuver for each of their ships using a cardboard dial. This maneuver will determine the ship's movement during the following phase.

Star Wars X-Wing - maneuver
The maneuver templates make ship
movement simple and intuitive.

The second phase is the Activation Phase, in which each ship executes its planned movement. Each ship has a pilot assigned to it, which has a skill level on that pilot's card. Ships are moved ("activated") one at a time in ascending pilot order (lowest skill pilot goes first). The ship's chosen maneuver is revealed, and ship movement is handled by slotting a cardboard maneuver template into the front of the ship's base, picking up the ship, and finally slotting the back of its base at the far end of the maneuver template. In general, movement is a pretty easy mechanic to execute.

It gets a little more complicated if there's overlap between objects in the play area. In the event of a collision, the ship moves as far along its maneuver template as possible before it collides with the other ship or obstacle...

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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