Star Trek Done Right
Fifty years ago today — that’s either August 8th, 1966 or stardate 1513.1, depending on how much of a nerd you are — marks the first appearance of the USS Enterprise, as Kirk, Bones, Spock and the rest of the crew grappled with a mystery of hidden identity, a long-dead civilization, and a salt vampire. It was the moment that kicked off the series that would flop, get cancelled, become a hit, and spawn a thousand new episodes, movies, books, games, and imitators.
The difficulty with adapting Star Trek to cardboard has always been that there are nearly as many ideas and topics that encompass the notion of “Star Trek” as there are episodes — that’s 726 across six television series, to be precise. Is it about exploration? Ethics? War? The power of communication? Teamwork? The answer to all of these is, at turns, yes. And many more besides. How do you capture the essence of something that has ambitions on nearly everything?
Star Trek: Ascendancy, however, has not been designed by any old two-bit studio. This is coming from Gale Force Nine, the same people who captured the treachery and violence of Spartacus, the paranoia of Homeland, the tough-guy act of Sons of Anarchy, and the meandering twang of Firefly. And now they’ve done it again. By Grabthar’s Hammer, they’ve done it again.
The Original Series
I believe the secret to Ascendancy’s success is that it doesn’t worry too much about encompassing any one thing. Rather than going with the flow by compressing the essence of Star Trek into a compact ninety minutes, it takes the broadest view possible, blowing it up, outwards, consuming time and table space with equivalent glee. It lasts an hour per player — and in fact only plays with three people, at least until expansions increase that number — and there’s no other way it would work, because its scope isn’t a fleet battle or even a single war, or an away mission, or a five-year voyage of exploration. Instead, its setting is all of it. Hundreds of years of history: discoveries, first contacts, conflicts, accords, peacetime, border tensions, technological breakthroughs, setbacks, victories.
And that’s why the first hour invariably feels like it’s come straight out of the Original Series. Starting from your homeworld on Earth or Romulus or Kronos — though the nerd in me wishes they’d foregone the transliteration in lieu of the proper Qo’noS — you’ll take a handful of ships and cast them out into the void, braving hazards and seeking out new life and new civilizations.
Two things stand out about this. First of all, your journey from homeworld to Empire or Federation status is appropriately unplanned. Utilizing your table as the actual play space, everything from the planets and phenomena you encounter to the distance between them is created as you send ships out to find out what lies beyond your borders. You might wind up with a bunch of virgin worlds awaiting colonization or butt into a bunch of warp-capable civilizations who would very much rather be left alone, thanks. You might have an early fleet get wiped out by a crystalline entity or space amoeba, or get whisked to the opposite end of the galaxy by that pesky Q. It’s rarely fair, but what it loses in balance — and we’ll talk about that in a bit — it gains in drama, discovery, and danger.
The other neat detail is that each of the box’s three races sport their own approach to exploration. The root-beer bubbly Federation is all about being nice to everybody, which means they aren’t about to level entire populations in order to seize control of planets, but earn some bonus resources when they happen across something interesting like a new civilization. The Romulans, on the other hand, are obsessed with technology, tugging them towards research-rich worlds and causing them to dive into their advancement deck more often. Meanwhile, the culture of the Klingons revolves around combat with worthy foes, so they’re more likely to initiate first contact with another race — in order to kill them. Of course, they’re also totally incapable of retreating from battle.
These little details, borne out of each faction’s starting bonuses and the unique advancements they research, inform nearly every aspect of the game. As the Federation, you’re spurred into exploring as much as possible, while the Klingons hunt down enemies to beat up and the Romulans skirt the edges and try to bring in more research. Which brings us to the next phase of the game…
The Next Generation
In a lot of ways, The Next Generation was the peacetime Star Trek. The Klingons and the Federation were buddies, the Romulans were off drinking blue ale, and even the Cardassians were mostly just shining bright lights at each other’s faces. Then again, as peaceful as it was, there sure were a lot of border tensions.
I mentioned earlier that Ascendancy might have some balance issues. In one game as the Romulans, I couldn’t find any worthwhile planets no matter how hard I looked. While the Federation snapped up rich world after rich world — most of them unoccupied, making for breezy colonization — I kept stumbling across technologically advanced adversaries and barren rocks. If they hadn’t been so rich and so well-armed, I might have invaded.
This is where Ascendancy’s insistence on three players comes in. With only two captains going head to head, the whims of an uncaring universe might easily dole out a situation that favors one over the other. With three, on the other hand, any instance that sees one player catapulting ahead of the others means they’re ripe for an opportunistic alliance to stand against them.
And boy, does this game ever provide the tools for a proper cold war. Not only are you pumping out ships and claiming planets and finishing advancement projects, but you’re also dropping ships into warp. When this happens, you take your ship off the board and place a little warp marker next to it. Over time or with additional commands (actions, basically), you can increase that ship’s warp range. This means that a ship in warp is just begging to jump across the entire map, launching over unoccupied systems and slugging your opponent in the soft bits. Of course, once both sides have a couple fleets in warp, that’s when the blockades start getting formed.
Fleets. Let’s talk about those. Over time, it gets pretty expensive in terms of command tokens to move all those little ships around. So rather than spending a pair of tokens just to jump a single ship, you might consider banding them together. These groupings are called fleets, and cleverly, you’re able to assign them specialties. The Federation, for instance, can set up a diplomatic fleet that helps them persuade worlds to join their happy little gang without firing a single shot, while the Romulans absolutely love their science and mining fleets. The Klingons, predictably, have a bunch of variations of war fleets, with those who specialize in assaulting planets or earning resources for destroyed enemies.
All of this stuff adds up to a fantastic mid-game, complete with all the jockeying for position, posturing, and bluster that you’d expect of three roughly-equivalent star empires. It’s the portion of the conflict that sees the dominoes set in a row, ready to tumble down.
Deep Space Nine
Remember in Deep Space Nine how the Romulans finally joined up with the Federation and Klingons to beat the Dominion? But then the Breen joined the Dominion to beat that new alliance? But then the Federation learned some new tricks that let them win anyway? In Ascendancy, balance between races is a testy proposition at best, and often results in two-on-one scrums that last exactly long enough for the team in the lead to fall back into line.
In that game I mentioned before, the Federation was pulling in so much culture that they were threatening to end the game. See, the main way to win Ascendancy is to spend culture on, ahem, ascendancy tokens. It’s vague mumbo-jumbo, sure, but Star Trek loves vague mumbo-jumbo, so run with it.
The thing is, the other way to win is by conquering everybody’s home planet. Cue a massed Klingon offensive against the Federation that eventually resulted in the near-obliteration of Earth. Combat is simple enough, rolled dice that land hits based on the strength of your ships’ weapons against your enemy’s shields. In this case, the Klingons had prepared while the Federation hadn’t. Unfortunately for the horned petaQs (translation: “bastards”), I’d been massing on their borders under diplomatic pretenses, so when two full fleets showed up over Kronos there wasn’t all that much left for them to do but wait around for their inevitable demise. But then the Federation recovered, forcing me to attack them before I’d finished off the Klingons, but then—
At its best, Ascendancy plays like a series of but thens. The instant you have a fleet put together, it somehow navigates straight into a nebula that blows up half your ships. Gain a few worlds and a hefty stockpile of culture, and watch as your enemies converge on you. Conquer an enemy homeworld and watch as they open a channel to your former ally. Victory has as much to do with your ability to talk smart as it does with your economic prowess or lucky phaser banks. And if there’s anything more Star Trek than that, I’ll eat Gagh.
Ascendancy doesn’t really channel Voyager all that much, though once I had a single ship that got stranded on the other end of the galaxy. I dropped it into warp and just left it there, gathering speed turn after turn. Then a few decades later it finally came back. Great job, Janeway, enjoy your promotion.
Don’t watch Enterprise. Just don’t.
Look, it’s pretty obvious that I think highly of Star Trek: Ascendancy. That doesn’t mean it will be for everyone. We’re living in an era where our games feel shorter, more streamlined, and more accessible than ever, and in many ways Ascendancy doesn’t want any part of that. It’s easy enough for anyone to jump into — it really is shockingly simple — but it wants you to stick around long enough to observe the sweep of civilizations as they clash for the stars.
The thing is, that’s precisely what I love about it. It’s willing to spotlight Star Trek in its best light, from start to finish, and revel in the adventure, the breathtaking mystery of space, the overtures of peace and the dreaded moment of betrayal. And yet it not only defeats the Kobayashi Maru of being a good Star Trek game — it’s also a fantastic game, one of the best I’ve played in years, and anyone who’s a fan of long-form exploration and conquest will find themselves falling in love with the genre all over again.