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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.

You have to remain aware of this, as other players can also move systems that you discover or own if it isn't anchored. This can change your access to new systems (each system has a limit to how many star lanes can connect to it), and can change the relative distance between players' respective territory and home worlds. You really want to go out there and keep exploring, if for nothing else than to make sure that you get to influence how the board is configured. If you just sit back and turtle, then the other players will get to layout the board, and it likely won't be very favorable to you. If you're not paying attention, opponents can move a floating system in such a way to expose your flanks to potential attack, or to bypass your own defensive fleets!

Risk is our business

As you explore, you'll uncover colonizable planets, native alien races, anomalies that can be studied to advance your technologies, and hazards that can destroy your ships. Many location tiles also require drawing and resolving an encounter card (which are very similar to the encounter cards of Fleet Captains), each of which basically represents an episode of the show, and which usually provide some bonus or penalty (often depending on the result of a die check).

Planets might have indigenous civilizations, or they might be "virgin" planets, ripe for colonization.

Each planet has a set of nodes that can be developed if you colonize (or conquer) the planet. The nodes generate production, research, or culture tokens that you can spend on building ships, improving your technologies, or "ascending" your culture (respectively), and each planet will have a different amount and combination of these nodes available. Some will also have wildcard nodes that allow you to develop the planet in any way that you see fit.

You can also discover "phenomenon" or hazards which can threaten to destroy any ships that move into the tiles. However, if you "brave the hazard", and your ship(s) survive, you'll be rewarded with a shiny research token. That research token will also refresh every turn, so that you can camp on the site and repeatedly brave the hazard in order to farm extra research. I really like that the game provides players with an opportunity to gain rewards by "studying" natural phenomenon that appear on the board. Remote research (out in the field) is something that I wish more 4-x games (including video games) would do, and it's also one of my favorite features of the Stellaris computer game.

Why didn't they use races from the
show to represent the minor races?

I wish that Ascendancy would allow players to similarly study pre-warp civilizations, but no such luck. I also am disappointed that the non-playable civilizations are generic. It's a huge missed opportunity that Gale Force 9 didn't at the very least name each minor race civ. Like, instead of just stumbling onto a generic "warp capable civilization", it would be nice if we could meet the Vulcans or the Andorians or the Bajorans.

I also wish there were a way to scout ahead and see what planet(s) and/or exploration event(s) are coming up, so that you can have a little bit more control over the random elements of the game. Fleet Captains has some mechanics that allow a player to look at a face-down location card before exploring it, and I wish that Ascendancy had included a similar mechanic. Maybe you have to spend a research token or something?

In general, I really love how the board works and how the galaxy that is created feels like a dynamic, constantly-evolving entity. It adds a lot of character to the board and fits very well with the themes of exploration and discovery. Just when you think the board is set in place, someone might explore a new system and discover something that reshapes how you understand the galaxy.

Your ships can "brave a hazard" to conduct research in the field.

Ships can also be grouped into fleets, and some named fleets have special abilities or effects that come into play. For example, the Federation has a science fleet that automatically passes hazard checks from phenomena, the Klingons have a battle fleet that re-rolls any rolls of 1 in space battles, and so on. Deciding which fleets to use and how to deploy them is a fun extra wrinkle to the game's strategy.

The warp drive rules are a little weird and take some getting used to. They kind of feel more like a Star Wars hyperdrive than a Star Trek warp drive. When a ship or fleet goes into warp, they are removed from the board, and tokens mark the location that they entered warp. The player can spend commands to add additional tokens and increase the ships' speed, or they can wait till next turn and automatically accumulate extra warp tokens. When the ship exits warp, it may pass through as many systems as it has warp tokens.

Warp feels more like Star Wars hyperdrive.

This allows ships to travel across the board surprisingly quickly, especially if the player is able to research technologies that increase their warp speed. Ships in warp can be forced to stop if a phenomenon or hostile ship blocks their path, or if they attempt to explore a previously-undiscovered star system. I don't really love this system, but I also can't really think of a better alternative.

A waiting game...

The biggest gameplay complaints that I have are with the pace of play and balance of combat. This game takes a very long time to play and complete. The box says one hour per player (so 3 hours for the core game), but I think you should probably expect it to take at least 1 hour plus one hour per player (for a total of 4 or more hours). The first few games could take even longer because you'll have to frequently stop and clarify rules. The actual speed of the game will also vary depending on how aggressive the players are. If everybody sits back and turtles, the game could be prolonged. If everybody is fighting back-and-forth across the board, the game could also be extended. But if one player takes the military initiative before the other players are ready, then the game could end prematurely.

Players spend resources bidding for turn order.

Because players take their full turn all at once, there's a lot of down-time for the other two players, especially if combats occur. This sort of thing is common in these sorts of grand-scale games. You'll find the same issue present in Civilization, Eclipse, Axis & Allies, and so on.

I think I would prefer if each player executed their build phase and then each player performed their command phase. Or build phases could be done simultaneously (with turn order deciding any conflicts). That would keep everyone participating a little more frequently, and would also allow players to build based on other players' build actions.

Where'd that fleet come from?

For example, in the core rules, if another player constructs a massive fleet near your borders (which is pretty easy to do because ships are super cheap), you won't have any opportunity to build some defensive ships or research shield / weapon upgrades to defend yourself before that player's action phase begins and he or she gets to start making attacks. Invasions can come almost from nowhere (especially if the invader has upgraded their warp drives), with little-to-no chance for the defender to prepare or respond. This does make the turn-bidding feel more important as the game advances, as trying to execute such a sneak attack may cause you to spend a ransom in resources in order to secure an earlier turn than your target, or you may spend a ransom in order to ensure that you can mobilize to defend your borders before the invader's turn.

Once you're on your heels, lack of resources can spiral into absolute defeat.

The problem is that once you have an opponent on their heels, being able to bid for turn order turns into an overpowering advantage. The player in the stronger position can often afford to bid for superior turn order, build new ships, and steamroll over another player who is on his or her heels. The defending player usually can't afford to bid for turn order because their resources have to go into building replacement ships, building replacement infrastructure, or improving their shields or weapons. Either you have to spend all of your resources to guarantee that you go first, but then you can't afford to build replacement ships, or you go last and don't have an opportunity to build those desperately-needed replacement ships until after your opponent has made another round of attacks and wiped out your remaining ships or captured your planets.

Maybe the designers opted for this design because they wanted such steamrolling to happen? Maybe playtesting revealed that too many games dragged on if wars kept going back and forth. I guess if you put yourself in a position to be easily overwhelmed, then that is your fault for not strategizing correctly. Even if your opponent has highly advanced warp drives, you can still stall them by leaving a trail of ships along starlanes to force the invader to have to stop, attack your ship, and then spend additional commands to continue advancing into your territory. With proper planning, and a little luck, you can maybe stall them enough to allow your own reserve fleets to counter-attack. Of course, the effectiveness of such tactics will depend greatly on the map configuration, and even then, requires that you have already invested in excess ships and deployed them to the necessary positions. Also, the attacking player has to ensure that she doesn't overextend herself and leave herself open to attack from the third player.

I still like the turn bidding in principle, but I do feel that it needs some mechanism to limit the ability for the strongest player to use it to steamroll the others. Maybe players should be able to use the ships that were destroyed in the previous turn as a "resource" towards bidding for a turn. Maybe that's a house-rule that I could experiment with in future games...

A single starship can block an entire fleet, forcing the aggressor to stop and spend extra actions.

Heck, I might even be interested in trying out a house rule in which players alternate between resolving individual commands (similar to Civilization: A New Dawn). That is, player one performs one command, then player two performs one command, then player three performs one command, then back to player one, until everybody has exhausted all their commands. That would almost eliminate down-time, and would emulate events happening closer to simultaneous. I'm not quite sure how that would affect game balance, and it might cause further problems with the warp mechanics (specifically, removing ships at warp from the board, and then not having an opportunity to place them before a rival player can react). It could be worth experimenting with.

The downtime also extended to outside the game. Another frustrating thing that prevented me from being able to play the game for a long time after acquiring it, is that the rules require exactly three players. There were many times when a friend and I wanted to try the game out, but a third friend was not available. There were also other times in which I hosted larger social functions with three or more guests, all of whom wanted to play a game. In both those situations, Ascendancy could not be played because we didn't have the magical requirement of exactly three players.

To kind of rub salt in the wound, the game's box comes packaged with an insert advertising two expansion races: Cardassians and Ferengi. Each expansion [presumably] allows an additional player to participate, for up to five players. The base game also includes ten turn order cards, which seems to imply that Gale Force Nine expects the game to go up to 10 players. So it's frustrating that this content seems to have been carved out of the core game. If you want to play with more than three players, you have to spend extra money. And at an MSRP of a hundred dollars, the core game isn't cheap! At that cost, Gale Force Nine couldn't even be bothered to give us plastic figure starbases instead of cardboard tokens?

The core game only allows for 3 players, but includes inserts for Ferengi and Cardassian player expansions.

Additionally, I honestly don't see why the game wouldn't be able to be played with just two players. The only mechanic that I can really see as not being able to work in a two-player game is the trade agreements, but even that is kind of debatable, especially if one of the two players is the Romulans. I guess if you really want to, you could house rule a two-player game. If anybody finds anything about a two-player game that seems broken or imbalanced, feel free to let me know in the comments.

Inconsequential trade and minor races

Lastly, I have two minor nitpicks with the game's mechanics. First of all, I wish that the game allowed for more robust trade and diplomacy. Aside from the trade agreements, there are no mechanics for making deals or exchanging resources with other players. The trade agreements themselves are also only production agreements; you can't set up a trade agreement for science or culture. There's obviously nothing stopping the actual players from negotiating with each other for non-aggression pacts or alliances against the third player, but the game doesn't explicitly allow for this in the rules.

Trade agreements only exchange production.

Minor races also feel a bit under-developed. They just sit there waiting to be conquered (either through force or hegemony). You can't trade with them or use them to fight proxy wars or anything like that. They don't even have their own ships to place on the board. At the very least, they should be able to build fleets to defend their homeworlds, even if Gale Force Nine didn't go to the trouble of including mechanics for moving those ships around or engaging with other players. The absolute passivity of the minor races just makes them feel pathetically inconsequential. It would also be very helpful for the Klingon player to be able to have some NPC ships to fight because they get bonuses from defeating ships in space combat.

There's a few little areas where I feel the game could maybe have included some additional complexity. I wish there were a wider variety of ships and ship figures. It would have been nice to maybe have 2 or 3 different tiers of ships that you could build, each having different attributes. This could have allowed for ships from the Original Series or classic movies to be included (such as the original Enterprise, Klingon Bird of Prey, and Romulan Bird of Prey). It's not a huge loss though, especially since you can upgrade your weapons, shields, and engines for your entire fleet over the course of the game.

Finally! A game that does justice to Star Trek!

Ascendancy does a pretty good job with its Star Trek theme. Each of the three races does play differently and they feel thematically appropriate. The Federation, for example is bound by the Prime Directive and is prohibited from conquering pre-warp civilizations, but they do get rewards for discovering such civilizations and for discovering phenomenon on the map. The Klingon honor code prevents Klingon ships from ever being able to retreat in battle, but they get bonuses from defeating enemy ships in combat. The Romulans get rewards for researching advanced technologies, but their suspicious nature gives them weaker trade routes.

Each faction plays differently, and is thematically appropriate.

In addition to the core traits, each faction also has a set of unique technology advancement cards that are also themed on the civilization. Each faction starts with one such technology already in play. The Federation has a universal translator that improves their ability to culturally annex worlds. The Klingons always hit on a roll of 6 in combat (which helps compensate for their inability to retreat). And the Romulans get the dreaded cloaking device that allows them to make a free first strike attack in all combats. Other technologies can be researched as the game progresses, but they are very expensive and time-consuming to complete. You really have to put them in play as early as possible, and I've yet to see a player complete more than three technology advancements in a single game.

There is a whole page of optional variant rules that can help streamline certain aspects of the game. These can be used to shorten or lengthen the game by changing what resources and tools the players have access to at the start of the game. They can change the difficulty / challenge of the game by making technological advancements more or less accessible, or by making dangerous phenomena more or less common earlier in the game. In future games, I'll probably start playing around with more of these optional rules to see which ones I like.

In general, Star Trek: Ascendancy is actually on the simpler side of the 4-x complexity scale. It's not as quick and straight-forward as the elegant new Civilization: A New Dawn board game (which is about as simple and abstract as 4-x can get), but it's also way easier to learn and play than something like Eclipse or Twilight Imperium.

There's no ruler for measuring the set-up distance between homeworlds.
Fortunately, I have my own Starfleet Academy ruler!

If you're a Star Trek fan, then I highly recommend checking out the Ascendancy board game. It's a rare Trek game that is designed and focused around exploration, discovery, and colonization. It's a pretty good game in its own right, and in my opinion is the definitive Star Trek board game currently on the market. The high price tag and long play-time will likely be a major hang-up for many players (especially if you want the expansions for the 4 and 5-player games). But I think it's worth it.

WHAT I LIKE

  • A civilization-scale 4x game that makes excellent use of the Star Trek IP!
  • Hits a nice sweet-spot of complexity vs simplicity
  • Star lanes and "floating" planets keep map in flux
  • Ships can do research on the map
  • Each faction has a unique and thematic play style and feel
  • Bidding for turn order is an interesting mechanic
  • Rules are surprisingly simple and mostly straight-forward
  • Optional rules allow players to customize the game length and difficulty

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Long play-time with lots of down-time between turns
  • Turn bidding sometimes kicks players when they're down
  • Minor civilizations are of little consequence
  • No rules for 2-player game?
  • No plastic figures for starbases? Or a ruler for measuring the 18 inches between homeworlds?
  • Very expensive retail price!

FINAL GRADE: B+

Manufacturer: Gale Force 9
Lead Designer(s): Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, Sean Sweigart
Original release: summer 2016
MSRP: $100 USD
Player(s): 3-players
Game Length:
the box says 1 hour per player (3 hours),
but I say 1 hour plus 1 hour per player (4+ hours)
Official site: http://startrek.gf9games.com/home.aspx

Ascendancy is easily my favorite Star Trek board game on the market today!

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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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