Ascendancy: The Next Generation
Star Trek: Ascendancy was not only among my favorite games of 2016, but also one of its most unique for how defiantly (yeah, that’s a reference) it clung to the vision of Star Trek. It was sprawling and dangerous, complete with a burgeoning playtime and the possibility of player elimination. But it was also as sleek and streamlined as a Starfleet vessel, every single turn — nay, pretty much every move — cast as an episode of the original series, with planets and cultures and deadly space phenomenons popping onto the table. It was rife with political intrigue, border tensions, shaky alliances, and a futurist’s appreciation for technology.
Well, buckle up — or don’t, because real Starfleet ships don’t have seat belts — because now that its first two expansions are out, Ascendancy is better than ever.
Before we get into the particulars of Ascendancy’s two new races, it’s worth noting that their mere presence is precisely the hypospray the emergency medical holographic program ordered. One of the big reasons Ascendancy struggled to hit the table was its confinement to three players. The dynamics of its trade agreements and alliances prevented it from working with two, so three it remained, always an eternal struggle between the Federation, Klingons, and Romulans. Much of its politicking was likewise constrained, always two sides allied against whichever third was currently stretching for domination.
Playing with four or five races changes everything. Now comes the era of bloc warfare, entire sides remaining loyal — or being persuaded to engage in a spot of treachery — based on the way the galaxy’s stellar cartography unfolds. There’s nothing quite like a critical cultural hotspot being plopped in the middle of three warring superpowers, or using a phenomenon-riddled backdoor into a former ally’s soft underbelly. It’s easier than ever to be persuaded to act as a buffer to a winning player, especially if they offer their best trade agreements or other incentives, and table-spanning galactic wars are far more logical than before.
Each of these expansions also adds a bit of everything. New planets to conquer, new phenomenons and exploration cards to brave, and a bunch of extra tokens because all the stuff in the original box won’t be nearly enough. I won’t go into too much detail since one of Ascendancy’s primary delights is the way it throws new situations at you, but suffice to say it’s nice that the Alpha Quadrant is even less predictable.
Speaking of predictable, let’s talk about the Ferengi. The first and best of Ascendancy’s new factions, the Ferengi were the Federation’s most adorable opponents, at least once they grew out of their skittering chimp phase and into the sly capitalists who leered their way through Deep Space Nine.
Here, the Ferengi’s love of all things latinum is what sets them apart from the rest. Foremost, they’re entirely unconcerned with culture, and other than a single node on Ferenginar and anything they happen to capture along the way, they’re unable to generate culture at all. Not necessarily a big deal, since there are two ways to win the game. Instead of amassing enough culture to accumulate ascendancy points, perhaps they’ll preside over a glorious expansion and capture enough home planets to win. Except, oops, they also don’t boast even a single military advancement. Not one.
But where other races would get discouraged, the Ferengi get devious. Or more accurately, more capitalistic.
Their primary advantage is pretty much what you’d expect: nobody’s so rich that they can’t make a bit more money. Unlike their smaller-eared brethren, Ferengi trade agreements are volatile things, providing nothing right at first. Once their ships are orbiting a few of your colonies, however, it’s time to start pulling in some decent scratch on both sides of the agreement. It’s one thing to say goodbye to a treaty that’s good for three production points per turn, but try turning on an allied Ferengi player who’s single-handedly bankrolling you for twice that amount.
That’s enough to finance a fleet all on its own, and the Ferengi navy is nothing if not well-staffed. They’re the first team to regularly outproduce their own stock of ships, lose two fleets in a flashpoint conflict, and completely replenish everything within a single turn. Sure, they don’t pack much of a punch, but all that raw material is great for recouping losses, and by the end of the game it’s common to see the Ferengi developing their rivals’ tech or setting up fleets wherever they dang well please. What they lack in oomph, they make up for with a fire-hose approach to all matters military.
Betraying a Ferengi ally is a testy proposition, then. You stand to lose a whole lot of profit, not to mention the added problem of a never-ending supply of crummy ships gumming up your orders and advancements that temporarily cancel your best weapons. Worse, the Ferengi can still pay to develop their culture, it just happens to be pricey and listed at an unfavorable exchange rate of production to culture. Which isn’t that big a deal, when you get right down to it, considering that the biggest “problem” with the Ferengi is that production tokens don’t come in denominations of ten.
On the polar opposite end of the spectrum squats the warlike Cardassian Union. Their devotion to conquest makes them initially feel most similar to the Klingons, especially since one of their big means of pulling in culture comes via the hostile takeover of planets. But unlike the Klingons, who revel in the intoxicating effects of battle itself, the Cardassians are in the business of propping up their particular brand of rigid totalitarianism. Their Union is magnificently efficient, represented by an extra command each turn, but their reliance on slave labor means they’ve got to keep fleets in position around occupied planets at all time.
Perhaps what makes them most intimidating is their array of fleets and weaponry. They prize quantity over quality, launching Hunter Killer fleets that score automatic hits or Overseers that double a system’s resource generation. By the end of the game, they’ll be fielding metagenic weapons that can guarantee a colony’s outright conquest, ultra-powerful starbase defenses, covert installations for building ships in the middle of nowhere, and minefields that transform every one of their systems into a hazard for enemy fleets.
This all makes the Cardassians a holy terror when you get on their bad side. They aren’t as out there as the Ferengi, and occupy the same niche of constant antagonism as the Klingons. Then again, they do feel more like they’re preoccupied with forcing the trains and mines to run on time than appeasing some sense of honor, and their emphasis on strike teams and espionage gives them a subtlety that’s lacking from their horned counterparts.
Either way, these are both fantastic additions to Ascendancy. As you might expect, more factions equals a longer playtime, and we found that a five-player game won’t be wrapping up in any fewer than four hours. This can be ameliorated somewhat by letting the first two or three turns play out simultaneously, since those first few steps past your home system won’t necessarily bear much import until later. Still, while Ascendancy’s length and scope will be prohibitive for some, it’s a small price to pay for any game packed with so much drama, intrigue, and swelling orchestras. For those with the time to spare, Star Trek: Ascendancy is better than ever.