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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.

Andorians are better warriors than spies

The Andorians are the simpler of the two Enterprise factions, but they do go one step further than the Ferengi and Cardassians went by actually introducing a new gameplay mechanic and token: the spy satellite. The Andorians are able to place spy satellites in orbit of rival worlds, which can provide the Andorians with several benefits.

Unfortunately, I feel like the spy satellites are sorely under-utilized. They do not provide any passive bonuses to the Andorians, and instead only have utility with certain fleets and advancements. Well, actually, just one fleet. The Strike Fleet, which only supports up to 5 ships, gets a +1 to hit rolls if a spy satellite is present in the system. It's a powerful bonus, but it only applies to that one fleet, which is a pretty modest-sized fleet. It's hardly an overwhelming advantage.

Andorian spy satellites are extremely limited in their utility.

Beyond the Strike Fleet, there are only two advancements in the Andorians' entire deck that utilize the spy satellites. One provides a re-roll for planetary invasions, and the other allows the Andorians to maybe leech a free research token from the other player's research nodes (depending on a die roll).

That's it! That is the extent of what these spy satellites can do. Gale Force 9 added a whole new token to the game (which I replaced with 3-d printed pieces), but these new tokens are only useful in these 3 very specific cases. Using the default rules, the player doesn't even get to chose which advancements to research. To get any use out of these satellites, the Andorian player has to hope that one or both advancements get drawn early enough in the game to be useful (or drawn at all), and then also spend several turns actually researching them before they can be used.

I replaced the cardboard tokens with 3-d printed pieces.

I feel like there should have been way more advancements that use these satellites. Maybe a cheap advancement that extends the range of the Strike Fleet's bonus to include all the space lanes connected to the satellite's system? That way, the opponent can't completely nullify the satellite's effect by simply forcing the space battles out to the space lanes. Or maybe something that provides a benefit to trade partners, like some kind of combat bonus if the ally's system or fleet is attacked by a 3rd party? Or maybe allowing Andorian ships to pass through the system without a trade agreement? Or maybe something that allows the Andorians to exhaust one of the opponent's commands? Or maybe allow spy satellites to be removed from the system and used as a resource towards turn order bidding? There's a lot of possibilities here, and I feel like GF9 just kind of whiffed with the Andorian Spy Satellite Tokens.

Personally, I also consider the Andorians (along with the Klingons) to be the hardest factions for me to use effectively. This isn't necessarily bad design for the factions; it has more to do with my personal play style. I just don't play very aggressively, and so I don't get much use from the combat-oriented abilities of the Andorians and Klingons. Both these factions depend largely on rivals leaving ships exposed to be picked off by fleets for bonuses. Maybe if the Klingons or Andorians are playing against the Ferengi or Cardassians, these abilities would be much easier to use. The Klingons get culture for destroying enemy ships, but the Andorians get research.

Andorians can capture defeated enemy ships and hoard them to prevent a rival from building more.

Specifically, the Andorians take a defeated rival ship and use it as a research token. These ships must be used before any research tokens, but the Andorians can potentially capture multiple ships from multiple factions over the course of multiple combats, and then horde them by not spending research. This has the added effect of reducing the ships available for that rival to build. If you don't have the escalation packs (sold separately) that add extra ships to each faction, then this can potentially make a difference, especially for factions like the Cardassians and Ferengi that are dependent on spreading their ships around the board. If you do have the escalation packs, then each faction will likely have so many spare ships that holding on to captured ships probably won't make a big difference to them.

Presumably, this can also include Borg Cubes 1. As usual, there is no clarification for how this rule applies to Borg. But with only 6 Borg Cubes available, the Andorians can potentially horde Cubes and limit the amount that the Borg can field.

Presumably, Andorians can even capture defeated Borg Cubes, and spend them for things like turn-bidding.

The extra research is intended to be used to upgrade Andorian weapons and shields. The Andorians gain extra culture for having the best weapons and/or shields. Unfortunately, this is another ability that can largely feel outside of the Andorian player's control. If you don't draw systems with research slots, it can be hard to get enough research to keep the weapons and/or shields upgraded. Maps that lack phenomena can also nerf the Andorians. The Andorians also don't have a dedicated Science Fleet for farming research from phenomena, which means their ships are more likely to be destroyed, and the command cost to farm may be prohibitive.

Exploration can make or break a game for Andorians.

Also, exploration cards that grant free (or cheap) weapon or shield upgrades can kind of make or break an Andorian game. I had one game in which one rival drew the "Tri-phasic Emitter" exploration card in their first turn, which allowed them to upgrade their weapons for only 1 research. Another rival drew the "Bynar Technicians" exploration card the following turn, and upgrade their shields at half cost. This basically eliminated the possibility of me (the Andorians) being able to upgrade my weapons or shields higher than those rivals, and so I never got the free culture from this ability. Of course, had I drawn either or both of those cards, I would have been sitting pretty. There's a couple advancements that give the Andorians more research, but it's hard to rely on advancements for your game strategy, since which advancements you draw are random.

I'd be a lot more interested in playing as the Andorian if their Andorian Tokens (spy satellites) were a bit more useful. I don't think the Andorian faction is "bad" (I don't think any of the factions are "bad", and I'll play as any of them), but I personally haven't had much success with them. I'll keep trying I guess. Eventually, I should get a favorable map with enough research to use the Andorians' abilities.

Andorian abilities require a lot of planning and investment in preparation.

Vulcans win in mysteriously devious and logical ways

The other Enterprise-themed expansion from 2019 is the Vulcans. The Vulcans are a lot more interesting than the Andorians because they have very unique abilities and rules. Vulcans have different rules for colonizing systems, they get "Ambassador" figures instead of Starbases, and they win the game in different ways than the other players. Playing as the Vulcans is almost like playing a different game than the other players.

The earlier Ferengi expansion played around with the idea of an alternative path to victory by basing the Ferengi's Ascendancy victory on production instead of culture. But it's still a race to achieve 5 Ascendancy. The Vulcans, on the other hand have completely different victory conditions than the standard Conquest and Ascendancy victories. The Vulcans have a deck of victory condition cards (called "Agendas"), which each have a unique victory condition printed on them. The Vulcan player draws 2 such cards before starting the game, one of which is face up and known to the other players, and the other remains face-down and is a mystery to the other players.

Vulcans have their own unique victory conditions, which are chosen randomly before starting the game.

These victory conditions range from relatively banal conditions like "Acquire 8 Ascendancy", "Control 10 systems", or "Control some number of a specific resource node", to more esoteric agendas like "Occupy 6 phenomena" or "Orbit 8 developed systems you do not control". And there's a few other agendas as well -- 10 in total.

Since the Vulcans don't necessarily use their Ascendancy to win, they instead spend an Ascendancy token in order to colonize a system. As such, they start with more Ascendancy (3 instead of 1). Thematically, the Vulcans are an "ancient civilization" that has colonies lost throughout the galaxy. They can spend an Ascendancy to colonize any undeveloped system 2 anywhere on the board, regardless of whether they have a ship in orbit, or if the colonized system is connected to the Vulcan homeworld.

This can be especially annoying for other players, since the Vulcans can colonize the systems that other players explore. Of course, this can also be very risky for the Vulcans, since they'll be spread out and will have a hard time defending and holding those distant colonies.

Vulcans can spend an Ascendancy to colonize any system anywhere on the board.

The Vulcans are also much more limited in where they can build new ships and fleets, since they do not have standard starbases. This makes it even harder to defend far-flung colonies, since they can't just build a starbase there and start mass-producing defensive ships.

Instead, the Vulcans build Ambassadors, which provide some of the functions of a starbase, and which tie in directly to some of the Vulcan victory conditions. Several Vulcan advancements provide special abilities or effects for Ambassadors, including some abilities that can actually benefit allied players in some situations.

However, unlike starbases, the Ambassadors do not grant extra command tokens to the Vulcans 3. Vulcans gain command tokens from advancement cards or from capturing starbases from other players. This means that it can sometimes be hard for the Vulcans to acquire more than the starting 5 command tokens, if they lack research, get bad draws from their advancement deck, or lack the military strength to capture starbases. And since moving or using Ambassadors often costs commands, a shortage of command tokens can severely limit the usefulness of Vulcan Ambassadors.

Vulcans can also use Ambassadors and hegemony to spread their influence across the board.

To make the Vulcans even more unique and interesting, the Vulcan player, by rule, is not allowed to lie during the game. Unfortunately, the rulebook does not describe any enforcement mechanisms for the Vulcans' inability to lie, and it lacks any explanation of what to do if the Vulcan player is caught in a lie. If the Vulcan player makes a promise to another player, it is simple enough to rule that the Vulcan player is simply, by rule, not allowed to refuse to follow through on the promise (if it is possible for the Vulcan player to fulfill the promise).

Of course, the Vulcan player could also try to weasel his way out of the promise with some lawyer-ish "that's not actually what I promised" nonsense. For example, if a Vulcan promises not to attack a player in a given round, they might still attempt to annex that player's system through hegemony, and then argue "ah, but I only said I wouldn't 'attack' a system; I never said I wouldn't hegemonize it!" Or they may place ships in orbit, and then defend if another player attacks, and similarly argue "but I didn't 'attack'; I only defended." Are these lies?

It's also possible for the Vulcan to gets caught in some other type of lie. And in that case, there is no mechanism for punishing the Vulcan player or otherwise rectifying the rule violation. For example, the Vulcan player may agree to do something that later becomes impossible to do. Or if the Vulcan player has seen a face-down card and lies about the card's contents (such as the effect of a face-down Borg Advancement claimed by defeating a Borg Cube), there is no enforcement mechanism for dealing with such rule violations. Though, to be fair, this is a pretty rare edge case, but it can happen.

Vulcans can sneak out victories that may catch the other players off-guard.

The Vulcans might be, paradoxically, both the most challenging faction to play, and also the easiest. They can be very spread out, and it can be difficult for a Vulcan player to hold all the territory they claim. This combined with their unique rules and victory agendas mean that the Vulcan player really needs to know what he or she is doing in order to play them successfully, and must often walk on the razor's edge between diplomacy and aggression.

On the other hand, the fact that the Vulcans don't compete for the same Ascendancy victory (and are arguably unable to compete for a Supremacy Victory), it's very easy for the other players to overlook the Vulcans as an immediate threat. For example, the Vulcans building multiple culture nodes doesn't necessarily paint a huge target on the Vulcan's forehead, as it would with every other faction. But they may win by controlling 7 culture nodes, or by controlling a large number of production or research nodes.

The hidden victory condition of the Vulcans provides a significant incentive to bid for the last turn. A Vulcan playing coy, who takes the last turn in the turn order could avoid tipping their hand and taking retaliation from other players. They can then make a game-winning move on the last turn of the round, and win without the other players being any the wiser or having any opportunity to counter that winning move.

Don't let the Breen turtle in their corner

On the other end of the spectrum from the Vulcans is the Breen, which are a compact and focused faction that may be the easiest faction for first-time players. The Breen favor turtling in their corner of the board and avoiding getting too involved with the rest of the galaxy. They get huge combat bonuses in their territory, which can allow them to repel invasion attempts with relatively minimal investments in ships and technology. If the Breen colonize 2 or 3 systems with culture nodes, and then fortify the space lanes into their territory, they can turtle to an Ascendancy victory and be nigh impenetrable.

Just being the Breen my put a target on your forehead. In the games that I've played against the Breen, the other players recognize that they should hit the Breen early before they seal off their territory and fortify the borders. Some players targeted the Breen as soon as the Breen looked like they were in a position to start placing culture nodes and building up their military. Don't be surprised if other militant factions like the Klingons, Cardassians, or Andorians decide to use their offensive abilities against the Breen first in order to get them out of the way before going after other players. This is especially true in a 3-player game, in which capturing the Breen homeworld is necessary for a military victory.

Don't be surprised to see militant civilizations bee-line to create a connection to Breen space.

For games with more than 3 players, the Breen might have a little more breathing room. Militant players might decide to target other factions that will be easier to invade, and largely leave the Breen alone, as long as the Breen aren't threatening an imminent victory. If given the choice between invading the Breen versus invading the Federation, Ferengi, or Vulcans, most situations would compel a player to let the Breen be.

However, the Breen don't exactly give other players much incentive to leave them in peace, even if there are easier targets available.

The Breen are xenophobic isolationists. They cannot trade with other players, unless that player controls a system that borders Breen space. "Breen space" is basically defined as all the contiguous systems controlled by Breen. Independent civilizations and phenomena can break up Breen space, which negates many of the defensive advantages the Breen would have in any systems they control that are outside of Breen space.

No player can trade with the Breen unless they control a system adjacent to Breen territory,
which can make moving around the galaxy difficult if Breen ships or fleets are spread around.

The inability to trade with Breen can turn into a huge liability for all players (including the Breen themselves). If the Breen lock themselves down, and don't accommodate another faction colonizing adjacent to Breen territory, then the Breen won't get any production from trade routes, nor will anybody (except the Ferengi) be able to get production from the Breen. Nor will players ever be able to ask for permission to pass through Breen ships or fleets (or vice versa) if they ever need to send a fleet across the board to attack another player. In this case, there's no direct advantage to leaving the Breen in peace, whereas you can get trade income from other players.

Even though the Breen are laser-focused on defending their territory and keeping other players out, they also have potent offensive capabilities that can extend across the board. This can be another reason to be wary of leaving the Breen to themselves. If they can't turtle for an Ascendancy victory, they are still a potent threat for a domination victory.

One such powerful weapon for the Breen is a dedicated hit-and-run fleet, which can be a powerful way to keep other players in check. This "Deep Strike Fleet" allows the Breen to invade a system from an adjacent sector (presumably bypassing any defensive ships in orbit 4), but they only get a single round of combat before having to retreat, by rule. This can be a great way to attack other players' culture nodes to prevent them from ascending too quickly, or hit their production or research centers in order to limit their military power. However, that's assuming that the fleet can get to the target system, which may be impossible without trade routes allowing passage through blocking third-party ships.

The Deep Strike Fleet can be used for hit-and-run attacks against rival nodes.
But does it have to fight any ships orbiting the planet?

The Deep Strike Fleet is probably the biggest unresolved question regarding the Breen faction. It is still an open question whether the Deep Strike Fleet's ability to invade a system from an adjacent sector also allows it to ignore hostile ships in orbit of the planet being invaded. I would have to assume that the answer is "yes". Otherwise, what is the value of attacking from an adjacent sector? Besides, it's not like this is an impossible ability to defend against. Just place ships in the space lanes adjacent to the system you want to defend, and the Deep Strike Fleet will have to fight them regardless.

In any case, the Breen have been a popular faction within my play group. Since buying the Breen expansion, every match of Star Trek: Ascendancy that I've played has included the Breen. There's always someone who wants to be the Breen.

And there's still more!

The Vulcans, Andorians, and Breen represent the 3 faction expansions that have been released in the past couple years. There is also a "Dominion War" expansion, which includes a Dominion faction. I'll be reviewing the Dominion separately, but in summary, however, the Dominion can send Changeling Infiltrators to other players' systems in order to interfere with or interrupt the other player's actions.

Unfortunately, there is still no official Tholian expansion. Though the Tholians may still show up at a later date, especially if the Tholians make any appearances in Discovery, Strange New Worlds, Lower Decks, or any of the other various Star Trek series that CBS/Paramount is trying to over-saturate the market with. With the Gorn being a recurring villain in Strange New Worlds, I fully expect that they will show up as a faction in the next year or 2. My partner also jokes that she'll play if a Pakled expansion gets released, so that she can not learn the rules, play poorly, and still be thematically appropriate.

Not only is Gale Force 9 continuing to support Star Trek: Ascendancy, but they are also finding novel and unique ways to theme each of the expansions. The Vulcans, in particular, are the most exotic faction to be added to the game so far, and the Breen are probably the most laser-focused expansion so far -- possibly to their own detriment.

WHAT I LIKE

  • New factions have completely new mechanics and components.
  • Vulcan inability to lie fosters role-play.
  • Vulcan faction is a real wild card.
  • Breen have been very popular.
  • Breen Deep Strike Fleet allows knocking out Culture nodes before a rival's Ascendancy victory.

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Questions and conflicts with Borg rules.
  • Andorian tokens have limited use.
  • Still no Tholian faction...

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: October 2019 (Andorians and Vulcans), July 2022 (Breen)
MSRP: $40 USD each
Player(s): 3-8 players
Game Length:
at least 1 hour plus 1 hour per player (4+ hours)
Official site: http://startrek.gf9games.com/home.aspx

Rules Clarifications

As usual, these expansion also come with a host of new rules ambiguities. I would feel remiss if I didn't point out some of the rules questions that we ran into while playing these 3 expansions, along with their answers (if I was able to find a satisfactory answer):

Updated rulebook clarifies that Vulcans cannot colonize un-explored systems (and other such questions).
  • 1 The updated July 2020 rulebook (pg. 29) clarifies that Andorians cannot claim defeated Borg Cubes with their Field Testing ability. Bummer.
  • 2 The updated July 2020 rulebook (pg. 13) clarifies that Vulcans can only use Ancient Civilization to colonize an "explored, un-controlled, un-developed system" However, it does not negate the possibility of colonizing a system occupied by a rival ship.
  • 3 Per the rules as written, the Vulcans do not receive an additional command token when placing an Ambassador on the board. Additional Vulcan commands generally come from completing advancements or from capturing other players' starbases. This was a point of confusion, since Ambassadors functionally replace starbases for the Vulcans.
  • 4 There is not currently an official rules clarification on Breen "Deep Strike Fleet", nor does there seem to be broad consensus on Board Game Geek forums regarding whether the Breen Deep Strike Fleet ignores rival ships in orbit of the target of an adjacent planetary invasion. I lean towards the Deep Strike Fleet ignoring the "Occupy" rule for planetary invasions, and thus ignoring hostile ships orbiting the target system. That, after all, seems to me to be the entire point of the ability, and why it is limited to only 1 round of combat.
  • There is not currently an official rules clarification on how many research tokens to place on the Singularity Cluster phenomenon when it is first revealed. The general online consensus (and my personal opinion) seems to be that it starts with 1 token, and has additional tokens placed each turn.
  • There is not currently an official rules clarification on whether Borg or independent civilizations count as "rivals" for the purpose of the Andorian Tokens. However, since the Borg generally count as a "rival" (per Borg rules), they probably have Andorian Tokens placed on systems with Borg Spires. Independent civilizations do not count as "rivals" (per core rules), and so probably cannot have Andorian Tokens placed on their systems.
  • The Updated 2020 rulebook clarifies that Vulcan Ambassadors are returned to the Vulcan supply when they are removed by another player.
  • There is not currently an official rules clarification on whether the Breen Cloaking Device ability is canceled by any game effect (such as an advancement) that would cancel the Romulan Cloaking Device. Forum posters seem to agree that the Breen Cloaking Device should be canceled by such abilities or effects, but there is some disagreement on whether the Breen Cloaking Device is intended to be a fundamentally different method of cloaking, and so is not subject to normal cloak-detection methods.
  • There is not currently an official rules clarification on how the Breen's starting advancement ("Extremely Territorial") affects a Borg Cube that enters a Breen system. According to the updated 2020 Borg rules, orbital mines and similar effects roll 1 die against a Borg Cube entering the system. However, it is unclear if that 1 die destroys the entire Cube, or simply deals 1 die worth of damage, which would be carried into any subsequent battle on that Cube's activation.

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