Saturday Morning Gaming: Star Trek Fleet Captains
Capturing the joy of what it must be like to be in a particular universe is pretty much the goal of any given licensed game. Remember the Happy Days board game? Play a card that said something about drag races! Play a card that says something about going on dates! Move your marker on the scoreboard that looked like the jukebox at Arnold’s! And, pretty much, the joy of the same was saying “Aaaayyyyyyyyyy” when you got “cool points” and saying “Sit on it, Potsie!” when your opponent lost “cool points”. Remember the Welcome Back Kotter board game? The joys consisted of yelling the various catchphrases of the various sweathogs. No, seriously: that’s it. That was the joy of the game.
So when you see something like a game with Star Trek on it, you’re right to be apprehensive. How Star Trekky is it REALLY going to be? Will the joy of the game consist primarily of saying “Shut up, Wesley!” as you move your marker around the board in a game that the creators said “let’s do Sorry… but with licensed pictures!”?
Well, good news! Star Trek Fleet Captains is not merely a cheap cash-in. It’s the Federation vs. the Klingons and you’re boldly going places. You’ve got a bunch of the big name ships from the show including a couple of the Enterprises, Voyager, and Excelsior but also some that will have you arguing over which show they were on before grabbing your phones (what show did the Equinox make an appearance on?) and saying “OH YEAH! I remember that episode!” The Klingon ships make appearances too… three of the different Birds of Prey, some Vor’chas, and even the Negh’Var. Most importantly, these little models are awesome. They look really good and are really distinct from each other and you’ll fly them around in your hand and say catchphrases from the show.
The models themselves are based on the Heroclix model of gameplay. Do you want most of your ship’s energy going into scanners? Engines? Do you want a combat posture instead? Emphasis on shields or on weapons? If your ship takes damage, that slows you down and gives you fewer options to explore. And if your ship is nigh-destroyed, you pretty much can only high-tail it out of there.
Gameplay itself consists of picking what posture you want your side to take by choosing 4 of ten different decks for your faction and getting 16 points’ worth of ships and seeing what the ships indicate they’re good at… if your ships have an emphasis on exploration over combat, you’ll get more exploration quests than combat ones (or vice-versa). Various cards in the deck include Captains, Officers, and Engineers to populate your ships with (one per station per ship) and cards that you can use to play during ship-to-ship combat.
Once that’s done, the board is randomized. You have a whole bunch of hexagons to place down in a grid and you and your opponent start at opposite ends of the board from your starting station and then you go into unexplored space. Boldly, presumably. Scan a hex if it’s face-down, if you want, and see if it’s one that you’d want to avoid. Or, heck, just fly into it and find out whether it’s an unstable hole in the fabric of space or if it’s a class-M planet or empty space or a quasar or… well, there are a lot of things it could be. And when you fly into it, it’ll tell you to roll a die and what you need to roll to avoid an encounter (roll high) and, when you roll under that number, you get a random encounter from the deck. It’ll be something you remember from the show. Will it be something nice like an alien entity that will help you scan things a little bit better? Will it be a Ferengi ship that jumps out of nowhere to attack you? Will it be tribbles?
And then, after the encounter, you do the stuff you do in order to get Victory Points. Your missions (some of which are secret and hidden from your opponents) are the best way to do this. Maybe you’ve got a mission to scan a star. Maybe you’ve got a mission to do damage to an opponent’s ship. Maybe you’ve got a mission to build a star base. And, after you do that, pick another mission from the pile and do that one.
The Federation plays differently from the Klingons. The Federation has a higher likelihood to have influence and exploration missions rather than combat ones, and the Klingons are the other way around (but you are going to have a bunch of each… the question is closer to which you’ll have six of and which you’ll have four of). The Klingons have a lot of ships capable of cloaking, the Federation only has one or two. Which means that the two sides will feel different and if you try to play the Klingons like the Federation, you’re likely to lose (indeed, in the handful of times I’ve played, the Federation has won every time).
Here’s the problem at the base, though: On top of the complexity, the game has a LOT of randomness in it which allows for multiple replay potential (you’ll rarely start with the same ships as the last few times you played and you’ll NEVER play with the same star map as the last 100 times you played). But if you grab the wrong encounter from the deck, you could well be screwed (I got three ships caught in a time loop which meant that I had a choice between destroying my ships or having my partner move into the quadrant to free us… and he was all the way across the board!) and if you are lucky and get only the good encounters, you’re going to have one heck of a leg up against your time looped opponent.
Combat is another thing that feels like it could have been handled a bit better… you win by having your ship go head to head against your opponent’s ship and it’s your weapons vs. their shields. If you double their shields, they take double damage and if you triple their shields, they’re destroyed outright (don’t worry, they’ll get a new even bigger ship back at home base). The defender plays a card (or declines to) and then the attacker can play a card. If the attacker plays a card, the defender has the opportunity to play a card in response and then you roll a single d6 to add to your stats. A good roll can turn an overwhelming fight into one you can limp away from and a bad roll can have you checking your unused ships for the next one you’re going to send out into the great beyond (presumably boldly).
Which makes it a game that has problems with the combat and real swings of luck when you have an encounter that can turn the game around on a dime (or get you stuck in a mire of a time loop). As such, I found that most of the pleasure I got from the game relied a great deal on my enjoyment of the licensing. That is to say, if it was its own little homebrew universe instead of Star Trek, I don’t think I’d want to play the game.
It’s not an entry-level board game (though far from being the most complex I’ve played) which means that it’s not one to be picked up unless you absolutely and totally LOVE the Star Trek universe. But, if you do? You’ll have a blast yelling catchphrases about how the Federation has no honor or “Shut up, Wesley!”
So… what are you playing?
(Featured image is Star Trek: Fleet Captains box art.)