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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Civilization A New Dawn - title

Sid Meier's Civilization computer game seems ripe for conversion into a board game. The PC game is, after all, basically just a computerized board game that plays out on a grander scale. Sid himself was inspired by many classic board games, including Risk and Axis & Allies. Fantasy Flight has already taken a stab at trying to distill the core mechanics of Civ down into a digestible board game when they released Sid Meier's Civilization: the Board Game back in 2010. I really like that game, even though it is a bit bloated and unwieldy. Attempting to directly translate Civ's mechanics down into board game form unsurprisingly results in a fairly complicated game that takes a very long time to learn and play.

Fantasy Flight's approach this time around seems to be to develop an elegant board game, and then apply the Civilization license onto it. The result is a board game that feels much more distant from the computer game, but which plays much more smoothly as a board game.

Civilization, streamlined

Perhaps the biggest problem with the older Civilization board game is the game length and amount of downtime. Games could run for over five hours, and the fact that each player resolved their entire turn phase (city management or army movement) before moving onto the next player meant that you could end up sitting for 20 to 40 minutes, twiddling your thumbs and waiting for other players to resolve their turns. That is one of my biggest peeves with a lot of epic games: too much downtime.

Civilization: A New Dawn -
A New Dawn is a very elegant game.

A New Dawn addresses that problem by having each player take only a single action in each of their turns. There are no phases; just take an action from your focus bar and then move on to the next player. Turns, therefore, are very quick, turnaround time is very short, and the game moves along at a rapid pace. This, ironically, serves to better maintain the "one more turn" addictive nature of the computer game. You might find yourself neglecting bathroom breaks for several turns because things are moving along so swiftly. Your turn is generally quick enough that you want to finish it before you step away or take a break, and other players' turns are so quick that you don't want to step away because you know it'll be back around to your turn in a few minutes.

Longer games with longer turns and more downtime can also often result in players outright forgetting what they were planning on doing by the time the turn gets back around to them. Either that, or the large amounts of moves and actions that the other players take changes the game state so much that, when your turn comes around, the thing you were planning on doing is no longer ideal -- if it's even possible.

That's rarely a problem in A New Dawn because each player does one thing on their turn, so the state of the board isn't radically changing between your turns. It's much more of a gradual change. That doesn't mean that other players can't disrupt your plans; they certainly can, especially when combat between players starts happening. It just means that you aren't going to be sitting there bouncing up and down in your chair waiting to pull off a spectacular move, only to have another player blow up all your plans at the last minute and leave you spending far too long wondering "What the heck do I do now?" when your turn starts...

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Civilization VI: Rise and Fall - title

When Civilization V first launched back in 2010, it was in a pretty ugly, incomplete state. The game was buggy, was very slowly-paced, was completely missing any sort of espionage mechanic, and had other gaping holes in its design. It took about six or eight months' worth of patching and updating from Firaxis before the game reached a state that I would consider "adequate". Its first expansion, Gods & Kings basically came off as a fan wishlist, as it re-added (and re-vamped) many of the features and systems that had been removed between Civ IV and Civ V (religion and espionage). That expansion also addressed a lot of core complaints with the game by dramatically improving combat balance and A.I. intelligence. The second expansion, Brave New World, almost completely re-invented the game and added a considerable amount of innovation in the form of trade routes and the new great works and artifacts systems. It also added an exceptional, robust roster of new civilizations.

Civilization VI launched with most of Brave New World's innovations still in place (though culture seems to have regressed a bit), and also added its own new innovations in city management. It felt like a much more complete game at launch than Civ V was. At the time, I was blown away by Civ VI, but as time has gone by (and I've increased the difficulty level), my enthusiasm for the game has diminished a bit.

I really enjoy the game when I play it on the King difficulty level (the "easiest" of the "hard" difficulty levels, in which A.I.s only get very slight bonuses). As soon as I up the difficulty to Emperor, I start to get frustrated, and the game becomes much less fun. The problem is that on the difficulty that I enjoy (King), the A.I. puts up very little resistance, and the game (though fun) is generally too easy. I can play the game on Emperor (I haven't experimented much on Immortal or higher in VI yet), but the stacking of the deck makes the game less enjoyable because I often feel that I'm blocked out of many early-game strategies that I want to try (such as early religion or wonders). It's all possible to accomplish, but it's prohibitively so, and the game often pushes me too far in the direction of militancy.

Doesn't address core game issues

Nope. Still no build queue...

In summary, while Civilization V's first expansion filled many of the gaping holes and addressed many of the flagrant flaws in vanilla Civ V's design, VI's first expansion mostly just stacks additional mechanics and features onto an already-complete game, while leaving many of VI's annoyances, quirks, and genuine flaws un-resolved. Let's get these complaints out of the way first.

Rise and Fall does little to address complaints with shallow unit upgrade paths. There's still generally only a single unit of a given unit class every other era.

Rise and Fall does very little to improve the combat systems in general. Units still die far too easily (in my opinion) (though this seems to be due in large part to the disparity in unit upgrade levels mentioned above), and imbalances between melee, ranged, and mounted units are still prevalent.

Rise and Fall does nothing to address complaints that I've had with the maps feeling very crowded and claustrophobic.

Civilization VI back-loads most of its culture, tourism, artifact, and great work systems into the second half of the game, and Rise and Fall does very little to make these feel like game-long engagements the way that Brave New World mostly did.

It does very little to make the late-game victory march feel less like a slog, or to make the early-game feel less rushed (especially on higher difficulties).

It does very little to address complaints with how the A.I. agendas can make them very erratic and schizophrenic. A.I.s are still far too willing to agree to joint wars against their own friends, allies, and trade partners, and joint wars in general still feel like a cheap loophole that lets warmongers bypass the casus belli system and warmonger penalties. Further, while the expansion does allow for deeper alliances with mutual benefits for the civs involved, it does not expand alliances to the point of allowing for shared or cooperative victories. So dipomacy in general still feels like a zero-sum-game with every civ acting to the exclusion of all others.

There's still no icon or indication that a unit has experience bonuses from barracks or buffs such as "Spears of Fion", or to indicate which abilities or penalties a given unit has by default.

We still can't assign military units to escort traders, nor can we see the path of any particular trader after it's started a route. And Trade routes themselves still don't generate reciprocal profit by default, meaning there's no reason to want other civs to send routes to you (other than getting a free road out of it, which isn't all that rewarding).

There's also still no build queues for cities!

Religion was overhauled in a patch last year, and religious units occupy their own layer.

Some major game upgrades have already been made available via post-release patches and DLC updates, and I'm grateful for those. New resources and wonders have trickled in since launch. One of the best improvements came in an update last year that allowed religious units to exist on their own layer, so that swarms of missionaries don't block your own units' movement in your territory. And the religious system in general was improved. So the game, overall, has improved a little bit since release. It just hasn't improved as dramatically as Civ V had improved in its first year. Though, to its credit, Civ VI didn't have as much room for obvious improvement.

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Ultimate General: Civil War - title

Colbert: Total War Civil War, give it to me!

I've asked on numerous occasion for Creative Assembly to build a Total War game based on the American Civil War. I thought for sure that Total War: Shogun 2's second expansion Fall of the Samurai -- with its focus on industrialization, trains, telegraphs, gatling guns, and ironclads -- was setting the series up for a Civil War game. Sadly, that wasn't the case. Creative Assembly decided to move onto Rome II, then to Attila, before diving into all-out fantasy with -- not one, but two -- Total War: Warhammer games!

I've heard that the Total War: Warhammer games are actually pretty awesome, but I have zero interest in Warhammer, so I skipped them entirely. I'll admit that part of that was also because I was a bit bitter that I still hadn't gotten the Total War: Civil War game that I had wanted. Maybe Creative Assembly, being a studio based in the U.K. simply isn't that interested in the American Civil War? Or maybe they felt that Empire's American Revolution campaign already focused enough on the United States?

Addressing Gettysburg

But even though Creative Assembly isn't giving my that game [yet], there's no shortage of Civil War games from other developers. A few years ago, a little indie dev studio called Game Labs released one such game on Steam: Ultimate General: Gettysburg. It was a $15 budget title exclusively about the battle of Gettysburg. Not the entire Civil War, not battles surrounding or related to Gettysburg. Just Gettysburg. The game was praised for its simple UI, its historic details, and realistic, competitive, and highly-customizable A.I..

I played the game very briefly last year, but never actually finished the single battle provided, nor felt that the game was substantive enough (or that I had played enough of it) to warrant a full review. I was fairly impressed with the difficulty and challenge that the game provided, as well as the way in which it presented the actual history of the battle, while still leaving many individual tactical decisions up to the player.

If I had any complaints with that game, it probably only would have been that its narrow scope made it feel a bit overpriced at $15. I had bought it during a sale, so I didn't feel cheated, but I could easily see other people being upset by paying $15 for (basically) a tech demo of a single battle. $10 or less probably would have been the sweet spot.

Well, it turns out that Ultimate General: Gettysburg was basically a tech demo (and a financing plan) for Game Labs' larger, more ambitious project: Ultimate General: Civil War. The new game's scope encompasses the entire Civil War and includes a full campaign. It also sports a cleaner interface that clearly displays your objectives, better controls, and other improvements.

Ultimate General: Gettysburg - Seminary Ridge
UG: Gettysburg labeled historical points of interest on the map.
When it says, "Fall back to Seminary Ridge", you know exactly where that place is.

Oddly enough, UG: Civil War isn't a strict upgrade from UG: Gettysburg. There's a few features from UG: Gettysburg that have strangely been removed. The original Gettysburg game had some very pretty battlefield artwork that displayed the names of the various locations on the map. Hills, ridges, forests, and even some individual buildings and roads were all labeled with their real-life names! McPherson's Ranch, Culp Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and more are all here. It was an excellent way of providing a sense of place to the player, as well as some historic context. Sadly that feature has been removed from the full Civil War game. I wonder if the developer just didn't have the time or resources to research that level of detail for every battle included. Or maybe it's just because the smaller skirmish sites of battles like Bull Run, Shiloh, and Antietam aren't as infamous as the sites in Gettysburg? Or maybe there were licensing issues with some of the sites, and they decided that if they couldn't include some names, then they'd rather just not include any?

Ultimate General: Gettysburg

The maps of UG: Gettysburg also had a stylized, polished look to them, the movement arrows were bigger and stood out more (and they stayed on screen to remind you of where the units were headed, and to give the game a textbook-like appearance), elevation and line-of-sight were a bit easier to determine, and so on. This isn't to say that UG: Civil War is a particularly ugly game to look at. If you can get past the simplistic unit sprites, then the game still looks fine. It's just that UG: Gettyburg looked noticeably better!

A House Divided Against Itself...

The campaign of Ultimate General: Civil War will take the player through most of the major battles of the American Civil War. Not just Gettysburg. It also includes some optional smaller skirmishes and situations. In between battles, you'll be tasked with spending money and character prestige to replenish your troops, recruit new and larger regiments, equip your troops with better weapons, and assigning officers to command your corps and divisions. As you win battles, you'll be awarded experience levels that you can spend to upgrade your custom general in several different categories. Upgrading your economy skill will lower the cost of troops and provisions. Increasing your organization skill will increase the size of your army. Increasing your training skill will improve the fighting ability of your regiments. And so on...

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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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