Star Trek Ascendancy 50th anniversary edition

Star Trek: Ascendancy must be a more popular game than I thought. Usually I think of Star Trek games as being pretty niche and unlikely to find widespread success. But Ascendancy must be doing well because 8 years later, Gale Force 9 is still pumping out expansion packs and new accessories. Ascendancy deserves it. It's a fantastic game! In fact, it might very well be my favorite tabletop game at the moment.

The Vulcan and Andorian expansions were both released a few years ago, in 2019. But I couldn't review them near their release because I hadn't had an opportunity to play either of them until this past year or so. That's partly due to the fact that Gale Force 9's distribution isn't the best. The expansions were delayed several times, and my pre-orders were also late arriving. By the time I finally had them both, schedules just weren't favorable for playing. I had an opportunity to play with either faction within a few months of purchasing them, but we ended up sticking with the Ferengi and Cardassians.

We expected to play again soon and break in the Andorian and Vulcan sets, but then COVID happened. Ascendancy wasn't the only victim, as several other games (including Bloodborne, Tapestry, and U-Boot) have also sat un-opened or un-played since the summer of 2019.

Several games (or expansions) have sat un-opened or un-played since 2019 and 2021 thanks to COVID.

Now, GF9 has released another pair of expansions in 2022, with the Dominion War and Breen. This time, I didn't want to wait and risk letting them sit un-played for another 2 or 3 years, so we made sure to find time to play. Though reviews were still very late because I had 4 expansions to play and review instead of just 2. Which means it took quite a few play sessions to play everything and get a decent feel for it all.

It certainly helped that I introduced the game to some new players in the year or 2 following COVID, and they all loved it. I've now played with all the new factions and have impressions on all of them. I'll discuss the Dominion in a separate post, since the Dominion is a lot more complicated than simply being a new faction. It includes new rules for the Bajoran wormhole, Gamma Quadrant systems, and also includes a team variant game mode based on the Dominion War of Deep Space Nine. So for now, I'm going to cover the Andorians, Vulcans, and Breen.

Pre-Federation factions

The pair of 2019 expansions were both themed around Star Trek: Enterprise, offering versions of Federation-member cultures that represent their pre-Federation empires. I have to say, I was very surprised to see these factions be announced. Partly because they are both members of the Federation, and so don't seem like "big enough" galactic powers to warrant their own factions. To me, it seemed comparable to seeing the Virginia Commonwealth or Republic of Texas show up as a playable civilization in Sid Meier's Civilization.

But it was also a confounding release because I was expecting to see the Tholian faction that was promised by the base game's "Crystalline Entity" exploration card. I would have expected to see factions like the Dominion, Tholian, Gorn, or maybe even a Delta Quadrant faction like the Hirogen or Kazon, before seeing the Vulcans and Andorians show up as factions. Nevertheless, both introduce novel new gameplay mechanics and concepts, and show the development team at Gale Force 9 is getting quite creative with its faction concepts.

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Star Wars Armada wave II

I might have been a bit unfair to X-Wing when I originally reviewed the Star Wars: Armada core set. I gave Armada a pretty glowing recommendation and praised it for giving the player more meaningful decisions and for fixing a handful of complaints that I had with X-Wing. But I kind of neglected the fact that the Armada core set has pretty much the same fundamental problem that stopped me from giving a similarly high grade to X-Wing: the limited content of the package.

X-Wing had three small ships, and a handful of alternate pilots and upgrades to add some replayability. But the game really needed some expansions to really come into its own. And I pointed that out in my review of X-Wing's core set, and docked its final score.

Don't get me wrong, Armada does offer more content in its core set than X-Wing did! It also has three ships, along with alternate ship cards and upgrades. But those three ships are different sizes and strengths, and there's ten fighter squadrons to go along with them. Armada's core set also includes the objective cards that helped to give that game more structured play, while X-Wing only had a couple of scenarios. So I still think that the Armada core set offers more value than the X-Wing core set.

However, I also knew that having a roster of expansion ships would improve the game, and I baked that assumption into my review for Armada. This may have been unfair to X-Wing, especially considering that the Armada core set has other problems that X-Wing doesn't have.

The core learning scenario doesn't do the game justice

It's been difficult for me to get friends into playing Armada. X-Wing has always seemed to be the more popular game. It took me a very long time to finally figure out why. During the past couple years of the COVID pandemic, it hasn't been viable to get together large groups for bigger board games, so I focused more on playing smaller, 2 and 3-player games to limit the number of people over at once. Games like X-Wing and Armada were ideal for that situation. In doing so, I tried a new technique for introducing friends to Armada that would hopefully get them up to speed faster, and which also seems to be much more successful than my earlier teaching attempts using the Learning Scenario.

Put simply: Armada's learning scenario is kind of crap. After teaching friends and co-workers to play the game through the learning scenario, their responses to the game has always been a resounding "meh". I then have to spend thirty minutes or an hour explaining [in vain] the merits of the full game to people who have already lost interest.

The learning scenario takes most of the strategic decisions away from the players.

The problem with the learning scenario is that it puts pre-configured fleets up against each other with no upgrade cards, no objectives, and no obstacles to navigate around. Without upgrades giving ships special abilities that can turn the tide of a game, and without objectives that give the players something to fight over, the early-game decisions of setting the starting queue of commands are really the only significant decisions in the entire game. Unfortunately, the learning scenario takes those decisions away from the players by recommending a default starting queue of commands! Once ships have been pointed at each other and met in the middle of the board, the last 3 or 4 turns of the learning game easily degrade into a passive process of drifting ahead and mindlessly rolling attack dice. Or the players forget to queue up a Navigate command, and the ships fly past each other in round 3, and spend the rest of the match trying to circle back around to get back in firing range.

Sid Meier, the designer of the original Civilization PC game has defined a game as "a series of interesting decisions". By that definition, the learning scenario of Star Wars Armada isn't even a game at all because all of the interesting decisions have already been made by the rule book before the players have taken a single turn.

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Nuns on the Run - title

Here is a weird and somewhat unique game that pretty much everybody who I've played with has absolutely loved. More than once, I have had friends over, and we're looking for a not-too-long game to play to kill some time before other players show up for a bigger game. When this happens, after passing up games like Terraforming Mars or Bloodborne: the Card Game or Dominion (all of which are great games), I often just pull out Nuns On the Run and say, "OK, let's try this!". They're always skeptical of the choice, but I say "trust me", and by the time we finish a game, they all want to play again.

Nuns On the Run is a kind of an ideal game for a casual session. It's very quick and easy to set up. The basic rules are pretty easy to explain (even though the rulebook isn't great). It plays pretty quickly and smoothly, with most player action happening simultaneously. And it tears down quickly, making it a great "warm-up" game for a larger game, or as part of a marathon of light or medium-weight games.

Player movements are secret, so their tokens are not moved around the board unless detected by guards.

Secret sin

The theme of Nuns On the Run is that most players play as one of 6 different "novices" (young women in training to become a nun) in an abbey or convent. At night, each novice sneaks out of her bedroom to try to retrieve some secret wish and sneak back to her bedroom before dawn. However, another player (or 2) plays as a pair of adult nun guards, who patrol the convent and try to catch the novices and send them back to their rooms before they fall victim to their sinful desires. The secret desires range from relatively innocent things like a "letter from Mom", to a bottle of laudanum, to more exotic and malevolent things such as a "Book of Dark Magic" (which I always refer to as the Necronomicon).

The gimmick of the game is that all of the novices' moves are secret -- both to each other and to the player(s) playing as the guards. Instead of moving player tokens around the board, novices spend their turn writing their movement action and position on a sheet of paper. The guards, however, are on the board, and they follow pre-defined paths, which are public knowledge to all players. The game has line-of-sight rules, and also rules for novices making noise while they sneak around. If they are ever spotted by a guard, they put their token on the board in the location where they are seen. If they make a noise or disappear from a guard's vision, they place a "vanished" or "sound" token on the board at their last known position.

The secret movement means that all players take their turns simultaneously, so the game moves along swiftly, with hardly any downtime. After committing to their chosen movement, each player checks if their character would have crossed the line of sight of one of the guards, and then rolls a die to determine how much noise they make. The specific movement chosen modifies the die roll, and if the modified roll is less than or equal to the distance from the specific novice to a guard, then the guard hears the novice. Then the guards make their moves and roll a die to determine if they can hear any novices from the guards' new positions.

Secret wishes range from letters from loved ones, to sleeping medicine, to a book of black magic.

The first novice to claim her secret wish and return to her bedroom wins the game. If no novice accomplishes this goal before the end of the 15th turn, the sun comes up, and they are all caught out of bed after curfew, and the guards win. The guards also win if they catch the novices a specified number of times.

The guards are locked into their chosen patrol paths, unless they see or hear a novice in a given turn. However, they don't necessarily have to chase the novice who they spot or hear. Once alerted, the guards can move anywhere to chase or look for novices. Choosing which paths to follow, and where to look for novices when they see or spot something, makes up all of the strategy for the guards. It is best for an experienced player to play as the guards, since knowledge of the board, rules, and locations of keys and secret wishes makes a big difference in how the guards play.

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My friends and family have always found that video games and board games are always good go-to gifts for me during the holiday season (which for us, starts in the fall, as my partner and I both have birthdays in September and October). 2020 was a bit different, however. For one thing, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that we weren't able to get groups together for tabletop gaming nearly as often as we used to. The pandemic didn't stop us from tabletop gaming altogether, but we restrained our play to being with only a few regular players, and even then, played mostly 2-player games in order to avoid having multiple house guests at a time. We even sometimes wore masks while playing, just as an added precaution.

It wasn't that I didn't want new board games (or expansions to games I already have); rather, we just weren't sure when I'd ever be able to play them. For example, I did receive the new Crusader Kings board game by Free League Publishing. Hopefully, I'll have an opportunity to play it sometime soon, and be able to write a review for it to go along with my review of the video game.

But video games were not a hard purchase because of the pandemic. Sitting at home and playing video games is, after all, one of the best and safest pass-times during a pandemic. Rather, the big video game releases of this fall came with a lot of baggage or circumstantial reasons why I wasn't enthusiastic to buy them.

Lack of games didn't sell me on a PS5

First and foremost is the biggest of the big new releases this year: the new consoles. I've never been an XBox-player, so there was no interest in a new XBox to begin with. I am, however, interested in the PS5. But I wasn't rushing out to buy one because I'm not going to buy a new console if there aren't any exclusive new games to play on it. And since I wasn't rushing out to buy one, supply problems meant that it only got harder to find one. Honestly, I was surprised that the PS5 seemingly sold so well considering that there just wasn't all that much to play on it. My lack of enthusiasm for the new console meant that even though my partner considered trying to buy one, she eventually decided against it.

The only 2 games on PS5 worth playing are not worth buying a new console.

The big releases for the PS5 were the Demon's Souls remake and Miles Morales. So far, they are the only 2 games worth playing on the PS5, which is why I saw them bundled together with the console at multiple retailers and resellers. I was interested in both, but not enough to drop $400 on a new console -- especially not during a time of economic uncertainty. I'm sorry Sony, but if you want to sell me on a new console, you got to have something better than a remake of a game from 10 years ago (and 2 console generations ago) that I already played the hell out of back in the day, and a sequel to game from 2 years ago that looks like it's mostly just more of the same (and which is also available on the last-gen console anyway). Every other big release for the PS5, from Assassin's Creed: Valhalla to Cyberpunk: 2077 was also released on other platforms, so again, there was no need to rush out and buy a PS5 to play these games -- which I wouldn't have done anyway because both of those games have their own baggage, which I'll get to later in this post.

I only bought a PS4 because of Bloodborne, and the PS5 has so far lacked a similar console-selling exclusive. Maybe they'll have one eventually. Maybe if Elden Ring were a PS5-exclusive, I'd be in more of a hurry to secure myself a console. But as far as I know, that game is set for release on PS4 and will also be available on PC, so I don't need a PS5 in order to play it, the way that I needed a PS4 to play Bloodborne.

WARNING:
The following contains sexual content that may not be safe for work or children, including descriptions of alleged criminal behavior at Ubisoft, and a screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077 that contains nudity. Reader discretion is advised.

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I was planning on writing reviews for X-Wing's second edition epic ships and "Epic Battles" expansion packs (which released in the winter). But real-life happened. The COVID-19 pandemic put me and my gaming friends into lockdown. Having elderly relatives and other relatives with underlying health conditions, we took the lockdown advisory pretty seriously and didn't have in-person interactions with anybody other than limited in-person interactions with our immediate neighbors -- none of whom are board gamers (bummer). So I didn't get to play much X-Wing other than a couple rounds with my partner, and we didn't play any of the epic content because she's still learning 2nd edition and I didn't want to overwhelm her with new rules. So my thoughts on those expansions will have to wait until at least this fall, depending on how much game-playing I can do when the lockdowns are lifted during the summer, and assuming that there isn't a second lockdown this coming fall or winter.

In the meantime, Fantasy Flight was kind enough to not leave me completely high and dry. In early June, my loving partner sent me a link to the solo rules, and I decided to try them out. These rules were released at the end of May, in the waning days of the official lockdowns. I'm not sure if Fantasy Flight has this planned all along, or if they wrote it up quickly as a reaction to the pandemic. In either case, it's a considerate (albeit opportunistic) gesture from Fantasy Flight. It's just too bad these rules weren't published a month earlier. It would've given me more to do during the most boring stretches of the lockdown. Ah well. We have these rules for the next pandemic, I guess.

It's important to note that what I'm reviewing here is technically considered a "alpha test" of the rules. These rules are not finalized, and they may be subject to extensive changes as a result of player feedback before they officially release. If the rules change substantially for the official release, I may add an addendum to this review, or write a separate review. As of the time of this writing, the solo rules are freely available for download at Fantasy Flight's website. I do not know if Fantasy Flight is planning on eventually selling this as an actual expansion, or if the finalized version will remain free. So, you know, download it now. Just in case.

Fantasy Flight released official rules for playing X-Wing solo.

Best of all, these rules would probably work just fine in first edition as well. Players who haven't bought into second edition can still join in on the fun. You'll just have to improvise with regard to the hyperspace tokens, since those are the only components that are required for solo play, but which aren't in the first edition sets.

Dice for brains

The rules refer to the non-player ships as "solo ships", which I think is kind of confusing, since it sounds like the label refers to the solo player's ship(s). So call the non-player ships "NPC" ships (or "NPS" for "non-player ship", or "A.I." ships, or whatever you want to call them). In any case, the core conceit of the solo mode is that the player rolls a defense and attack die for each NPC ship when it activates, and then looks up the result in a behavior table to determine how each given NPC ship will behave. It's a simple enough concept that I'm surprised hasn't been in the rules earlier.

Roll dice, then look up the result in a table of possible moves.

The defense die is the principle determinant of the NPC ship's "attitude" (how it will behave). On an "evade" result, the ship will behave defensively or evasively. On a "focus" result, it will have a more balanced or passive posture. And on a "blank" result, it will behave more aggressively or boldly. This will largely determine the NPC ship's movement and action for the turn. The result of the red die will further modify the NPC ship's movement.

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

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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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