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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.

The Cardassians' worst enemy is their own workers

I'll start with the Cardassians because they were released first. At a first glance, the Cardassians appear to be very similar to the Klingons. At superficial levels, both empires are highly aggressive and are geared towards near constant combat, and both use their warships as a means of generating resources. While the Klingons are focused around space battles (which generate culture and may also generate production if the Marauder fleet is used), the Cardassians are geared towards invading and occupying alien planets. This creates a more divergent playstyle than you might initially anticipate. You see, in order to effectively utilize their occupied conquests, the Cardassians must leave ships in orbit (presumably to administer martial law).

The Cardassian's bane is that the people that they conquer aren't too cooperative. Without a Cardassian ship in orbit to administer the occupation, the planet does not generate any production. This applies to every Cardassian system (even the homeworld -- apparently the Cardassian people aren't cooperative with the government either). Just to be clear, this only applies to the red production nodes; research and culture are generated normally, even without a Cardassian ship in orbit. So if you're not leaving a trail of ships in orbit everywhere you go, you will not be generating the resources you need to continue expanding. The Cardassians, therefore, are forced to spread themselves relatively thin. This differs tremendously from the Klingons, who are able to consolidate their fleets wherever they are needed (assuming that you have the commands available to get your ships there).

Cardassians are forced to spread their ships very thin in order to keep productivity up.

To help with all these single ships hovering around, the Cardassian starting advancement grants them an extra (sixth) command from the start of the game. Of course, you still need to get the production capacity up to a point where you can actually build ships in order to use those actions. You're stuck having to keep one of your starting ships hovering over Cardassia, and that ship isn't available for exploring, colonizing, or fighting.

This makes the Cardassians quite challenging to play. They're spread thin, and their ships are tied up generating production.

Low-level minor civs can be easy pickings
(and free culture) for the Cardassians.

Accidental genocide

One small advantage that the Cardassians have over the Klingons is that they gain culture from successful planetary invasions. Unlike the Klingons, this means that the Cardassians have the potential to acquire some early culture from conquering warp-capable civilizations, without having to instigate conflict with the other players. Finding a couple level-one or level-two warp-capable civs early in the game can be easy pickings for a Cardassian assault fleet. You can't rely on this as a strategy though, since it's entirely possible that you simply won't draw any warp-capable civs from the Encounter deck.

Cardassians also have to contend with the sometimes-frustrating total annihilation rule for invasions. If you raze a planet on accident, then the invasion is considered to be a failure, and Cardassia doesn't get the culture. This can be a real bane to the Cardassian player. I had a game in which I had to give up a planet with a culture node to the Federation due to drawing a Cardassian Armistice Accord Encounter (one of the new encounters added by the Cardassian expansion). At first, I was excited because the Federation couldn't possible defend that planet, so I figured I'd get an easy invasion and some free culture. The problem is that I accidentally razed the planet, had to spend culture to re-colonize it, and didn't get the culture node back. This crippled my culture generation, and effectively took me out of the game, since I couldn't acquire the Ascendancy needed to build additional fleets or starbases.

I lost a culture-generating planet because of Cardassian Armistice Accords,
then accidentally razed it trying to re-conquer it.

Profit is life for the Ferengi

The Ferengi have to spread their forces even thinner. Unlike the Cardassians, the Ferengi don't have to keep their ships at home to administer their own worlds. Instead, the Ferengi have to send their ships out to other players' worlds in order to earn trade income. The Ferengi starting advancement allows Ferengi ships to generate production when orbiting other players' planets, whether you have a trade agreement from them or not. This does not apply to minor races, so the Ferengi are highly incentivized to beeline out towards the other players in order to establish contact and park their ships over the rivals' systems.

Ferengi trade routes also provide the other player with production based on the number of systems with a Ferengi ship in orbit. Whereas the Cardassians keep their ships close to home and can easily mobilize them for defense, the Ferengi have to spread themselves out into rival territory. This makes Ferengi trade ships easy pickings for an aggressive rival. When they eventually decide that they've had enough of you leeching production from them, your ships will be isolated and vulnerable.

Ferengi merchant ships must stay in orbit of rival systems in order to generate trade production.

However, it also means that you'll have lots of ships parked over rival planets, in prime positions to strike. With a couple weapon and/or shield enhancements, even a single ship could do a lot of damage behind a rival's defensive lines. If you time your surprise betrayal attack correctly, you can potentially cripple a rival's economy, or knock out their culture generation before they can get to that fourth or fifth ascendancy.

Ferengi can't build culture nodes.

The Ferengi also can't build culture nodes. Instead, they must trade five production to buy a single culture token, so the Ferengi need to generate massive amounts of production. Their fleets aren't likely to be winning many battles, so Ascendancy seems to be their preferred path to victory. It just happens that this victory is considerably more expensive than it is for other players. While the other empires essentially need to spend twenty culture to get their fifth Ascendancy token, the Ferengi need to spend a hundred production! To offset this, the Ferengi are allowed to build production nodes on any resource slot in a system.

In general, the Ferengi seem to be a very difficult faction to play. They have much stricter limitations placed on them than other factions. The lack of culture nodes and inability to add their Ascendancy to hegemony attempts means that they are unable to annex warp-capable civilizations early in the game, which can severely limit their expansion potential. The Ferengi are also specialized to a fault. They are completely reliant on trade to generate massive amounts of production in order to compete.

Ferengi will be spread thin, but will be in prime position to make devastating surprise attacks.

The Ferengi player, thus, needs to be a pretty slick talker, because most other players are probably not going to feel comfortable letting the Ferengi stockpile such huge reserves of production. For most factions in the game, production is mostly spent on ships, which are mostly spent on fighting. Seeing the Ferengi player raking in dozens of production per turn can be very intimidating and threatening for many players -- especially those who are unfamiliar with how the Ferengi work. So the Ferengi player needs to be able to convince these other players that their massive stockpiles of production are not a threat.

Seeing the Ferengi raking in dozens of
production per turn can be intimidating.

Highlighting rules issues

The Ferengi also highlight an unresolved question from the core game: how are battles resolved when multiple players' ships are in the same sector? The rules don't clarify if the attacker gets to chose who is being targeted by an attack, or if all ships in the sector (regardless of owner) are attacked when a sector is attacked. If the attacker chooses to attack only a single player's ships, then can the third player choose to join the battle and defend his or her trade partner? And if you don't attack the third player, then can you use your tactical move to enter the system without permission from the third player?

My instinct (based on how I understand the rules) would say the following: if you do not have a trade agreement with either rival on the sector, then you must attack both, because two factions cannot have ships on the same sector unless they have a trade agreement. If you have a trade agreement with one rival or the other (or both), then you would have to ask the non-target rival for permission to enter the sector. If they refuse, then you'd have to attack them as well. If they accept, then you can attack the target rival's ships without attacking the non-target's ships.

There are open questions regarding resolving battles with more than one potential target in the sector.

That's my guess, but the rules aren't entirely clear, because the rules state that combat happens between adjacent sectors. If the attacking ships don't technically enter the sector until they make their tactical move after the combat, then they wouldn't need to ask for permission before entering. So the issue is still debatable, and it's likely to cause a lot of argument and headaches for you and your group the first time it comes up.

These outstanding questions are more likely to come up when the Ferengi are in play, because Ferengi ships often hang around in orbit of other players' systems. This increases the chances of combat happening in systems containing ships from multiple players. If the Cardassians, for example, are attacking a Federation system that has Federation and Ferengi ships in orbit, are the Ferengi dragged into battle too? What if the Cardassians are at war with the Ferengi, and are attacking Ferengi merchant ships that are orbiting other players' worlds? Does that other player get dragged into those conflicts too? Can that other player choose to defend the Ferengi if they want?

Ferengi fleets, and the Klingon Marauder fleet have a misprint
that implies the fleet can be sustained with fewer than 3 ships.

There's also a misprint on all the Ferengi fleet cards, which do not have highlights for the first 3 ships in the fleet. Without an FAQ handy, it's unclear if these fleets are supposed to be allowed to have less than 3 ships. The Klingon Marauder fleet was like this too, so hopefully you've already looked up an FAQ for this issue and found that it's a misprint.

Seamless integration; not-so-seamless separation

Having one or both expansions also opens the game up to four or five-player games, which can completely change the power dynamics and diplomacy. In a four-player game, you actually have the potential to use all three of your trade routes. In a five-player game, you won't have enough trade agreements to give to every other player, which means that you'll always be in a defacto state of "hostility" with at least one other player. Players can also pair off into teams rather than necessarily grouping up to take out the single player in the lead. And since ties are, technically possible, players could even form full-on alliances and attempt to win the game together. Diplomacy isn't strictly a zero-sum game. This was true in the core game with three players, but it feels more viable in a four-player game.

Expansions open up the possibility of four or five-player games.

Lastly, the turn bidding process can be a lot more intense with more than three players. With more players wanting to bid for turn order, the cost of the desired turn(s) can escalate much more quickly. This can have the additional effect of further slowing down the game if players are spending too much of their resources bidding on turns rather than on expansion, research, infrastructure, or ships.

This can compound the fact that adding additional players will increase the length of the game by at least an hour or two per player. For my group, the three-player games often clock in between four and five hours. With a fourth or fifth player, a game can easily stretch out into the six, seven, or even eight hour mark! Be sure to allocate extra time for more players.

Perhaps my biggest complaint with the expansions is that they don't bother to mark or label which cards and system discs came with the expansion. There isn't enough room in the core box for the new systems and exploration cards (let alone the additional ships, advancement decks, and other faction-specific components). So I either have to find an alternative storage method, or separate the components after each game. Without markings on the cards and discs indicating which expansion they came from (or that they even came from an expansion), this is problematic. I have to separate them based on pictures that I took of each box's components. Pain in the ass. The expansions may seamlessly integrate into the game, but it's much less seamless to separate them.

Systems and exploration cards are not, in any way, labeled as being from the expansions.

Overall though, these expansions add a lot to Ascendancy. The two expansion factions are fun and interesting in their own right, and having a fourth or fifth player adds more intrigue and diplomatic options to a session. I highly recommend trying these expansions out!

PROS

  • Allows additional players and factions
  • New factions slot pretty easily into core rules
  • Ferengi and Cardassians have very unique (and challenging) play-style
  • Ferengi and Cardassian ships have roles beyond exploration and military action
  • New encounter cards can force earlier player interaction and tension
  • New encounter cards introduce opportunities for "trade" with NPCs
  • Expansions maintain the high component quality of the core game

CONS

  • Exploration cards and system discs are not labeled as being from the expansions
  • Not enough room in core box for storing extra system disks and exploration cards
  • Some rule ambiguities are made more apparent by the expansions
  • More players extends game length

FINAL GRADE: A-

Note: This is a review of expansion content only.
Please click here for my review of the base game.

Manufacturer: Gale Force 9
Lead Designer(s): Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, Sean Sweigart
Original release: summer 2017
MSRP: $35 USD
Player(s): 3-5 players
Game Length:
at least 1 hour plus 1 hour per player (4+ hours)
Official site: http://startrek.gf9games.com/home.aspx

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