Star Trek: Fleet Captains is an exploration and combat board game by WizKids.
Good Star Trek games are few and far between. That goes for both video games and board games. Part of the reason for this is that it's often difficult to capture the spirit of Star Trek when trying to adapt it into en existing game genre. This is why Trek-themed games end up turning into dull shooters or tactical combat games. Games about exploration or scientific discovery, or role-play are sadly uncommon in video game formats (which is what makes 1999's PC game Birth of the Federation stand out to me as an underrated Trek classic). Sure it was just a reskin of Master of Orion II, and it had lots of technical and A.I. flaws, but in a market dominated by cookie-cutter games like Star Trek: Armada, Elite Force, and Invasion, Birth of the Federation was a rare game in which "exploring strange new worlds" and "seeking out new life and new civilizations" was a primary game mechanic.
Board games and table-top games have maybe fared a bit better than video game adaptations. We have our Dungeons & Dragons-inspired role playing games, our tactical starship simulators, and then countless board game reskins (ranging from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan, and virtually everything in between). Most of these games are pretty old, but there's also a handful of newer Star Trek games that run the gamut. One such game is WizKids' Star Trek: Fleet Captains.
WizKids is probably best known for its Mage Knight and Hero Clix miniatures games based on fantasy, video game, and comic book characters. The bases for these figures include a rotating dial that allows the player to change the attributes of the character to one of several pre-set values. This can include altering their combat attack power, hit points, mana, or any other value that the specific game might require. Fleet Captains uses a similar clix system as the backbone of its starship management mechanics.
My first impressions upon opening the box was a bit disappointing. I'm not a big fan of the ship miniatures. They're fairly well-detailed and made out of a sturdy plastic and seem like they should stand up to a lot of play, but that's the only thing that I like about them. They take up a lot of space, making it difficult to cram more than two or three ships on any single hex. There seems to have been some effort made to scale the size of the Federation ships with one another, but it isn't consistent. Voyager, for example, is almost as large as the Enterprise E, but the Enterprise A and Reliant are noticeably smaller and appear decently-scaled against the Galaxy class Venture. Klingon ships, however, seem to have no effort put into trying to appropriately scale them. Birds of Prey and classic cruisers look huge compared to most Federation ships and to other Klingon ships. The Negh'var, despite being one of the largest ships in the game, just doesn't seem as massive and intimidating as it should be.
Despite the manual showing painted miniatures in its components list [LEFT],
the actual miniatures [RIGHT] are unpainted and not to-scale with one another.
The ships are also all are made of the same mono-chrome plastic and are un-painted (even though the instructions appear to show painted miniatures in the components list). These ships are different enough in design that it's really not hard to tell them apart, and so I see no reason why they couldn't have been painted (as opposed to being the same color for ease of recognition). This is especially true because the same company manufactures the Star Trek: Attack Wing miniatures game (which is a Star Trek reskin of Wings of Glory / Star Wars: X-Wing), which does have painted miniatures. Fleet Captains is an expensive, big-box game, so it seems it would have been easy enough to paint the miniatures at relatively no additional expense, especially since they already make a similar game with painted miniatures. But then again, I think Attack Wing was released several years later. Maybe if Fleet Captains gets a reprint, it will include painted miniatures, which would definitely add some quality points in my book. Wouldn't help me much, though, since I already own the (unpainted) game.
The same company (WizKids) also makes
Attack Wing, which has painted miniatures.
I'm also not a big fan of the Hero Clix bases either. They are sometimes difficult to turn, especially if the game starts to get tense and your hands start to get even remotely sweaty. They are also kind of ugly (in my opinion), and I've found them somewhat difficult to read due to the small fonts used. This game's font makes numbers particularly hard to read. 8's look like 9's which look like 6's which look like 5's. This complaint applies to cards and other game components as well.
The final frontier ... more or less
Perhaps my favorite feature of the game is that it tries to incorporate exploration and colonization into the game - that is, if the missions dealt encourage you to do those things. The developers get points for trying, at least! The game starts out with a matrix of face-down hex cards for each of the possible locations that a starship can explore. As the ships move across the table and enter each hex, they can "explore" these tiles (which flips them over), or they can "scan" adjacent tiles (which allows the scanning player to look at the card and then put it back face down). He hexes will each have different features, ranging from empty space, to nebulae that interfere with weapons or sensors, to habitable planets that can be colonized.
Colonies and influence seem to be under-utilized mechanics however. Unless my friends and I are playing the game utterly wrong, it seems like building outposts / colonies / starbases and spreading your influence is usually too expensive of a process to be worth doing unless you have missions and cards that provide victory points or bonuses (respectively) for performing those tasks. Aside from being able to repair your damaged ships at outposts, these installations provide no other utility, and influence doesn't provide any utility at all except acting as a prereq to building outposts and upgrading them to better installations.
Influence and installations feel like an under-utilized mechanic that are only necessary for relevant missions.
I really feel like installations should have provided more useful passive abilities, such as being able to attack enemy ships, detect nearby cloaked ships, grant extra actions, increase your command card hand size, let you draw extra cards and chose four to keep, or something. Because of the under-developed nature of influence and installations, the colonization mechanics of the game feel kind of moot, and combat between ships seems to be an overwhelming priority.
Encounters seem similarly under-utilized. They are only drawn when a tile is initially explored, and even then, only if a die roll requires it. So only a handful of encounters are drawn in any given game. This means that encounters that produce large swings in power one way or another can be very damaging to one player without being able to be counter-acted by similarly unlucky draws for the other player. For example, I had one game in which the Federation player drew, on their first turn, the Supernova encounter that replaced the location tile and all adjacent location tiles and sent the Federation ship back to its base. This not only wiped out two habitable planets near the Federation base, but it also effectively neutralized the Federation player's entire first turn. The Klingons, on the other hand, drew an encounter that granted a permanent engine buff on one of its ships, and another encounter that granted a free starbase. Without more frequent opportunities to draw encounters that could offset the penalties applied to the Federation, or the bonuses applied to the Klingons, this became a game-deciding set of early-game randomness, and the Klingons won by four VPs.
Only a handful of encounters are drawn in any given game, and they can swing the outcome wildly!
Operating starships with Clix bases
Missions do have a decent variety. Some can be as simply as damaging or destroying an enemy ship. Others can require you to perform a system test at a particular location. Yet others may require you to complete simple actions such as beaming down an away team to a planet and them beaming them back up. System tests and combat checks make up a large bulk of the game. These involve rolling a six-sided die and then adding your ship's relevant system stat plus any modifying cards from your hand. If the combined value meets or exceeds the written number, you pass. These can include weapon tests to destroy something, sensor tests to scan an anomaly, engine tests to escape a hazard, or shield tests to withstand a hazard. The base attribute for each system is determined by the current setting of the ship's Clix dial, so properly managing and balancing your ships' systems is important. This is, in fact, the source of much of the game's strategy.
The system isn't super deep though. Most power configurations boil down to two flavors: combat and non-combat. Combat configurations put the most power into weapons and shields, and non-combat configurations put most power into sensors and engines. So the strategy feels a bit simplistic in many cases, since you start in non-combat configurations while doing your initial exploration, then shift to combat configurations once you get close to enemy ships.
The Prometheus is a powerful ship that can damage multiple weaker ships.
In combat, players compare attacking ships' weapon stats against the defending ships' shield stats. There's also a die roll and modifier cards to add randomness and strategy elements. If the attacker's weapons rating meets or exceeds the defender's shield rating, the defender is damaged. Damaged ships are stuck using only a few Clix power configurations with lower values than the undamaged versions. Another hit puts the ship in critical condition, which further decreases its power settings. A third hit destroys the ship, providing a victory point to the attacker and forcing the defender to have to recruit a replacement ship. Damaged ships can be repaired at friendly installations (which is the only non-mission-based use for installations).
Command cards save the day
Perhaps the game's saving grace is its command cards. Each player has a pool of ten sets of command cards, from which he or she can chose four to shuffle into their command deck. Each card has specific in-game abilities, and each set is themed around a certain strategy or character. The Federation's Picard deck, for instance includes the "Picard Maneuver" card that allows that player to turn the tables and put the attacking player on the defensive. The Klingon's "Hidden Enemy" deck has a bunch of cards that buff cloaked ships. Selecting these cards at the start of the game gives the players a chance to tailor their abilities towards a specific strategy or to focus the game around a specific theme or scenario.
These cards offer fun abilities that can really sway combat and which helps to nullify some of the randomness of the board and the die rolls. It's fun to play a card that sways a battle in your favor or which foils your opponent's otherwise perfect play.
Good effort, lackluster implementation
All the games that I've played so far have actually ended up being surprisingly close. That being said, the conclusion of the game always feels a bit rushed, as if the victory points required to win aren't high enough. There is little time for building up bases or going back and forth across the board. If any encounters provide early victory points, then the games tend to wrap up even sooner. Of course, there's nothing stopping us from just agreeing to play to a higher victory point total (maybe 15) if we want to play a longer game.
The game's rule book is also a bit of a can of worms. The game isn't particularly hard to play (once you understand the basic concepts and actions), but the rules contain a lot of ambiguities. The official FAQ for the base game alone is thirteen pages long! And that still didn't answer a few of the questions that came up in the games I've played. For example, what happens to the "Defectors" mission if the ship containing the defectors is destroyed? The card's text implies that the mission fails, but since the rule book doesn't clarify the rules for a "failed" mission, does this mean the mission card is automatically discarded, or do I have to manually cycle it during the normal turn process? Another example: when the "Supernova" encounter is drawn, and ships are forced to move towards their home bases, do they "explore" the spaces that they travel through or land on? Both of these questions (and many others) came up in the first three or four games that I played. They're both edge cases, but the complexities of the game means that these sorts of edge cases come up alarmingly frequently.
My friends and I have so far liked Fleet Captains and have given it multiple plays.
There are some missions and other effects that require you to meet some conditions over the course of multiple turns, but these have no way to mark or indicate how many turns the effect has been active. In fact, some of these are secret cards, which you don't reveal until after the condition has been met. So there needs to be a certain degree of trust between the players, and everybody playing needs to have a good enough memory to remember details from earlier in the game.
Despite the game's many weaknesses, it's still a slid enough game that my friends and I have played it on multiple occasions, and we're all willing to play it again in the future. I have the Dominion expansion, but haven't had a chance to play it yet. We're all excited to give that a try. I'd also like to get the Romulan expansion if I can ever find it anywhere. Both expansions add rules for 3-player (and maybe 4-player) deathmatch games, as well as new mechanics for espionage and sabotage, and I hope they add mechanics that make influence and installations feel a bit more relevant. If you're a Star Trek fan, then Fleet Captains is one of the better Trek board games out there, and it has the added benefit of not being a reskin of simple Milton-Bradley or Hasbro-esque games.
- Includes exploration and colonization mechanics.
- Command cards offer strategic variety and counter randomness.
- Scores are always close at the end.
- Ambiguous rule book, with no player aides.
- Influence, installations, and encounters seem to be under-utilized mechanics.
- Ship models are unpainted and bulky.
- Games feel like they end prematurely.
FINAL GRADE: C-
Lead Designers: Mike Elliot and Ethan Pasternack
Original release: August 2011
Player(s): 2-players, with 4-player team variant
Game Length: about 2 hours
Official site: wizkidsgames.com/startrek/star-trek-fleet-captains/