Last week, just in time for the announcement (and release) of a new expansion for Cities: Skylines, I posted a video analysis on YouTube discussing what I perceive as weaknesses in the modular design philosophy behind Skylines' myriad expansion packs. The full video is available on YouTube (and embedded below), but I've also transcribed the text in blog form for those who may prefer reading over watching/listening.

The video is up on YouTube.

I want to start out by saying that I love Cities: Skylines. Skylines is -- without a doubt in my mind -- the single best city-builder since SimCity 4, which released in 2003 (over 15 years ago, as of the time of this recording). When I watched the first trailer for the game, in which the player apparently custom-builds freeway ramps and interchanges from scratch (at about 40 seconds into the trailer), I was sold on this game! After years of having to use boring, pre-fabricated stock on-ramps and interchanges, the little civil engineer withing me practically jizzed in his pants at the idea of being able to build my own highway ramps and interchanges! And there was no looking back.

Cities: Skylines gloriously succeeds where games like SimCity (2013) and Cities XL miserably failed. It picks up the mantle of the great SimCity games of yester-decade, and brings it into the 21st century with deep simulation based on agents, a sleek and modern UI, extensive customizability and moddability, and an attractive 3-D graphics engine. It's made all the more impressive by the fact that the game's developer, Colossal Order, is a small, independent studio that had something like nine people working for it when the game initially launched. And a company with all the manpower and resources of Electronic Arts only managed to produce a flop like SimCity 2013.

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Star Trek Ascendancy Borg expansion

One of the weaknesses of Star Trek: Ascendancy (in my opinion) is the simplicity and irrelevance of the game's "minor races". They just sit there waiting to be invaded or hegemonized. They don't even have ships in orbit to defend themselves from attack (or provide the Klingons with an opportunity for some easy culture). I had hoped that there'd be an expansion pack that would give at least the warp-capable civilizations a little bit of agency. Sadly, that hasn't happened yet, but Gale Force 9 has released an expansion that does add an NPC faction: the Borg.

How do Borg allocate damage between multiple fleets?

The Borg are not a player faction (like the excellent Cardassians or Ferengi expansions). The Borg are a non-player "A.I." entity that use a deck of cards to define their behavior. They act in opposition to every player in the game, and are intended to add some extra player-versus-board challenge. The Borg expansion also adds rules for solo and 2-player games, though I'm not terribly happy with how either of those variants plays.

The big problem is that the rules for the Borg cause a lot of confusion. The non-player element of the Borg creates a lot of strange edge cases that the rulesmakers just didn't seem to think through very thoroughly. Some rules leave the Borg's actions somewhat ambiguous, and there are no rules for determining how to resolve such situations. For example, if a Bog cube is battling multiple fleets belonging to the same player, how does it determine which fleet takes damage? We generally house-rule that the Borg attack the largest fleet first, and that the player who activated the cube decides any ties.

The enemy of all my enemies

The bigger problem, however, is that the Borg movement rules lead to considerable balance issues once the Borg are connected to one player, because that poor player now faces the brunt of the entire Borg Collective. Once the Borg have a path to any one player's systems or homeworld, the Borg will exclusively funnel all of their ships down that one path, since it's the only "connected" route available. The only way this will change is for the targeted player to go out of his or her way to try to create another, shorter path to one of the other players (essentially painting a huge target on that player's head). Or I guess one of the other players could accidentally create a shorter path while they're exploring, if they're dumb or not paying particularly close attention. In any case, the problem is that once the Borg become connected to any one player, the Borg stop exploring and looking for the other players, which randomly puts the single player in a disadvantaged defensive position while the other two players are free to build up without much threat of being targeted by the Borg.

Having the Borg in play gives further reason for players to cooperate.

The game tries to offset this by making it so that the Borg become more powerful if they assimilate any worlds (including warp-capable civilizations), or if they assimilate any one player. If your homeworld is assimilated by the Borg, you even get to take over as a Borg player, taking a whole extra Borg turn in which you get to influence how they behave. This is a fun and thematic way of allowing an eliminated player to continue to participate in the game and seek some degree of "revenge" against the other player.

The idea here is that the players shouldn't let the Borg concentrate on wiping out a single player, and we should all partially co-operate in order to keep the Borg in check. There is no actual co-operative victory, so you're only co-operating with each other to the ends of stalling the Borg long enough for you to achieve a victory, at the expense of the other players. There is no "defeating" the Borg.

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Star Trek Ascendancy - expansions

It took forever for me to get a chance to play Star Trek: Ascendancy, thanks in large part to its hard three-player limit. I had a feeling that I would really enjoy the game when I first opened it up and skimmed through the rules. A good Star Trek-themed 4-x game is something that I've been craving since Birth of the Federation on Windows 98. Sure enough, after playing Ascendancy, it immediately became my favorite Star Trek board game on the market. The friends that I've played it with have also all loved it so far.

The base game included an insert advertising the first two expansions: the Cardassians and Ferengi. After the first play-session, I put the two expansions on my wishlist. Each expansion adds an additional faction and support for an additional player (for up to five, if you have the friends and the time). The Borg expansion came out around the same time, and I picked that one up too, as I was curious to see how the NPC Borg faction would play out. We decided to stick with the more basic expansions first though, as the Borg added extra complexity (and difficulty) that we weren't sure we were ready for. So I'll be reviewing the Borg seperately.

Star Trek: Ascendancy came packaged with an insert for the Cardassian and Ferengi expansions.

I had hoped to get a review of the Ferengi, Cardassians, and Borg out last year. And I don't mean like "in December" last year; I mean I had hoped to have this review out last February! Unfortunately, the difficulty inherent in getting four or five people together to play a six-hour board game, combined with packing up the house and moving last summer, meant that I got a couple early games in with the Cardassians, but never got a chance to play as the Ferengi until this winter. I didn't want to write a review of one faction without playing the other, since they are kind of inversions of each other in many ways.

The core game comes packaged with turn order cards for up to ten players, so I initially guessed that meant that Gale Force 9 was anticipating at least seven expansions. The Vulcans and Andorians will be released imminently, and the Borg rules actually allow the Borg to use up two turn order cards, which means there's only one space left to fill! Judging by the cards present in the base game, it looks like the Tholians are set to be the last expansion. If that's the case, this would leave some significant players on the Star Trek galactic stage out in the cold. The Dominion would be the single, most conspicuous absence from the game's roster. I also had hoped to see the Gorn as a faction, and at least one Delta Quadrant faction (such as the Kazon or Hirogen).

Well, I can take a guess what the next (hopefully not last) planned expansions is...

Though, I guess there's nothing stopping Gale Force 9 from releasing more expansion factions than there are turn order cards. I mean, I doubt anybody's going to be playing this game with nine or ten players anyway. Good luck finding a table big enough to even play such a game to begin with! GF9 could also just package an eleventh or twelfth turn order card in any future expansions if they feel it's necessary. So there's no reason why they would be unable to release the Dominion, Gorn, or other factions.

In any case, the first three expansions complete the Birth of the Federation roster of playable Federation, Klingons, Romulans, Ferengi, and Cardassians, as well as an NPC Borg faction.

There's not much in the way of new rules for either of the new factions. Both come with 10 new system discs (including the faction's respective homeworld), all the faction's ships and control nodes, advancement decks, some extra resource nodes and tokens, and ten new exploration cards. Everything slots pretty seamlessly into the core game. The only new mechanics are associated with some of the new exploration cards in the Ferengi expansion, but the card texts are pretty self-explanatory. There's a tiny rules insert anyway, in case you need more clarification.

I was expecting a Dominion expansion, and had hoped for the Gorn and at least one Delta Quadrant faction.

The seamless integration and lack of new rules does not, however, mean that the new factions feel dull or uninteresting. In fact, both the Cardassians and Ferengi have a very distinct (and very fresh) feel of play. Both have very potent unique boons and banes that separate them tremendously from the three factions included in the core set. In general, they both are dependent on using their ships and fleets to fuel their respective economies, which gives their ships uses beyond just exploration, research, and military action. You have to be very deliberate with your ships and fleets, since proper use is essential to keeping your economy running. As such, I don't recommend that a novice player jump into playing as either the Cardassians or Ferengi. You could probably muddle your way along, but it's better to have a firm grasp of the game mechanics (playing as the Klingons or Romulans) before you try your hand at the expansions.

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Star Trek: Fleet Captains: Romulans and Dominion
Star Trek: Fleet Captains has expansions for the Romulan Empire and Dominion.

Even though it is a kind of mediocre game, my friends and I liked Star Trek: Fleet Captains enough that we were excited to try out the game's expansions. There's a nice, episodic feel to the game that does do a pretty good job of capturing some of the feel of the source material. Fleet Captains has two expansions, which each offer a new playable faction: the Romulan Empire and the Dominion. Both expansions revolve around the same two core mechanics (espionage and saboteurs), but each has its own unique methods and techniques for how they utilize those mechanics. Since both expansions have similar features, I'm going to review both expansions together.

The Romulan Empire connives its way to victory

The Romulans are my favorite race in Star Trek I like Romulan makeup. I like their uniforms. I like their ship designs (especially the warbirds). I like their cunning. And I like the depictions of the Romulans in every era of Star Trek, except for Star Trek: Nemesis and Star Trek: Enterprise, which both managed to ruin a good thing. So opening the Fleet Captains box to find no Romulan ships was - of course - disappointing, and the very first thought that popped into my mind (after "Ooh, plastic space ships!") was "I should check if there's a Romulan expansion to this game". Sadly, it was sold out on Amazon, and eBay sellers wanted upwards of $150 for copies. I didn't want a Romulan expansion that badly... But my girlfriend, being awesome as she is, eventually saw the expansion come back in stock on Amazon and immediately ordered a copy for me to surprise me. So as I was getting ready to organize some game sessions to play the Dominion expansion and resigning myself to the idea that I'd never play the Romulans, a shiny, shrink-wrapped copy of the expansion literally showed up at my door step. She's a keeper!

Star Trek: Fleet Captains: Romulan and Dominion expansion
I don't like the monochrome ships, but at least the Romulan ships are the same color as in the show.

The green plastic of the Romulan ship miniatures fits well with the color schemes of Romulan ships in the shows, and the miniatures don't look as dull as the unpainted miniatures in the base game. The only Romulan ships that wouldn't be green would be Original Series Birds of Prey (or borrowed Klingon battle cruisers), which aren't included in the expansion's ship roster anyway. Instead, they included three Birds of Prey from Enterprise. That's a shame to me, since I really like the Original Series Bird of Prey's design - not as much as I like the TNG Warbird design, but the TOS Bird of Prey is up there in my list of favorite ships. I really would have liked to have seen one of the Enterprise Birds of Prey replaced with a TOS Bird of Prey in the roster, and maybe even a borrowed Klingon Battle Cruiser, but no such luck. Ah well...

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Cities: Skylines: Green Cities - title

Didn't we just have another Cities Skylines expansion this spring or summer? Yep, we sure did. Mass Transit released only five months earlier (May 18th)! Heck, there was also another, tiny DLC pack released later in the summer as well. I didn't pick up the Concerts DLC. At $7 (more than half the price of a full DLC), I just didn't feel like it was a very good value if all it does is add the ability to make an outdoor concert venue. If the Concerts DLC had been a full-fledged expansion that focused on planning and managing city events, that might actually have been pretty cool. I actually would have been totally on board with a full expansion focused around building arenas, stadiums, convention centers, festival spaces, and so forth; then managing the traffic going into and out of them; and inviting concerts, sporting events, music festivals, trade shows, and maybe even political rallies or the Olympic games to your city. Unfortunately, the scope of Concerts is about the same as the Match Day DLC, which Colossal Order were kind enough to give away for free. Maybe I'll pick up Concerts if it goes on sale for $3 or $4.

Mass Transit, on the other hand, was a full expansion, and might very well have been the best expansion for Skylines to date. While the previous expansions were focused on adding additional flavor and customization to your city, Mass Transit actually took a stab at providing more utilitarian solutions to one of the most endemic problems that your burgeoning cities will inevitably face: traffic congestion. It was pretty successful at that mission.

Cities: Skylines: Green Cities - pollution
Green Cities aims to solve any pollution problems your larger cities may be suffering from.

Green Cities tries to follow suit. Except instead of helping to solve your traffic woes, it offers new tools for addressing the second most significant and intractable problem your cities will ever have: pollution.

I never really had a problem with pollution to begin with

I'll admit that I never really had much of a problem with pollution in my Cities: Skylines cities to begin with. Thus, I haven't really found Green Cities to be as useful as it seems to think it should be. I usually only had a few blocks of default industry in my cities. I usually focus on lumber and farming once they become unlocked, and then go strictly with offices once those are unlocked. And even then, I rarely play a single city long enough to get it up into the millions of population. Maybe at that point, pollution is a critical issue, but for me air pollution has rarely been a problem.

Smaller cities can see some benefit from the inclusion of things like the recycling center, which is available as early as the first milestone. It can apparently replace landfills in very small cities and seems to have less of a ground pollution footprint. I'm a bit annoyed that it doesn't seem to have any visual indicator of how full the building is. It would have been nice to have animations of the building filling up with junk and processing it, but whatever. The "Recycling" policy is still its own thing (and is unlocked a couple milestones later), and I'll admit I'm not sure how (or if) the recycling center building and the recycling policy interact with one another. I guess the recycling center actually acts as garbage storage and converts some trash into consumable goods, whereas the policy only reduces the amount of garbage that the city generates. There's also an "Plastic Recycling" policy that simply improves the efficiency of the recycling center.

Cities: Skylines: Green Cities - recycling center
Recycling centers are available very early as a substitute for landfills.

Water pollution, on the other hand, is always a pretty big deal. Maps that have flowing water such as rivers are usually not a problem, but anytime I have to dump sewage into a lake (or even the ocean), it quickly becomes a cesspool. Up until now, there was virtually nothing that you could do about that...

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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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