Move Along Home: The Board Game

Two wolves live inside you.

I think it’s fair to say that Star Trek never really understood games or why people play them. Watching Starfleet officers spit nonsense rhymes while playing hopscotch wasn’t exactly the high point of Deep Space Nine. Another time, The Next Generation introduced a free-to-play app game to the crew of the Enterprise. After the adults displayed all the willpower of a kid with a Fortnite addiction and unfettered access to his mom’s credit card, Wesley Crusher saved the day. Probably because he was the only youngster. Desensitized little goblin.

Fortunately, Geoff Engelstein didn’t adapt either of those episodes for his third outing of Super-Skill Pinball.

I can. Twice. In one game.

Can you beat the Kobayashi Maru?

Starfleet Academy

As was the case with the first two sets, there are four tables in Star Trek: Super-Skill Pinball. Also like those sets, the first table is for beginners. Like a Starfleet cadet, you can expect to cover the basics: using yellow and red flippers to reach particular targets, using bumpers to stay airborne for extended durations, the joy of multiball, and how to cheat.

Cheating has always been a part of Super-Skill Pinball. As before, the ability to nudge the table returns intact, along with the possibility of giving it too much of a jostle and losing your ball. More suitably for this particular table, though, is the possibility of cheating the Kobayashi Maru. Here, the exam is presented as a series of targets that offer increasing point rewards but must be hit in sequence. The last number is a seven. If you aren’t aware, Super-Skill Pinball uses two six-sided dice to determine the possible impacts of your ball. Six-sided. Target number seven. That doesn’t add up. Something something problem, Captain!

It’s a minor touch on a minor table, but offering an “unbeatable problem” sets the tone for the rest of the set. More than ever before, these tables are about solving conundrums. The solution is simple: you need to strike the engineering drop targets to fill the next two Kobayashi Maru targets, but only once you’ve filled the first five. Not exactly a major revelation. But it works. Can-do mindset achieved.

Voiceover from narrator who's been smoking for 50 years: "But what happens... when the trouble... finds the tribbles?"

Tribbles. They’re trouble. But maybe good trouble?

The Trouble with Tribbles

Now we’re talking.

At its best, Super-Skill Pinball covers multiple subjects. It’s an adaptation of a kinetic sport. Pinball. A sport. It’s also about playing the odds and pressing your luck. Here, that latter concept is brought into sharp focus. When you pass one of the tribble scoops — apparently a pinball term, not a hamster feeder for tribbles — a bunch of the furballs are added to your tribble track (repeat the previous joke).

It’s what you do with all those tribbles that makes this table interesting. For example, you can extract the blood of your tribbles to bring dead crewmates back to life. Ha ha, no, that would be idiotic. They’re for points. But only if you have a particular amount of the things. Pile up a bunch of tribbles, hit the right targets, and you score big. Pile up any more than that and the scoring potential begins to drop off. Add even more tribbles and they’ll erase your flipper boxes. Effectively, they’ll knock you off the table sooner.

Okay, so that’s neat. Even better, you can transport them to rival players. Unlike Chief O’Brien’s job, this isn’t an easy ask. You need to completely fill in three bumpers. But the effect is worth it. Right before another captain is about to score their tribbles, you beam an extra shuttleful of the things onto their bridge. Hilarious. Also a perfect way to turn Super-Skill Pinball into a vicious race to amass tribbles and then get rid of the things before you drown under them.

Cartoons are for kids. Yeah, yeah, shout at me.

I haven’t watched this show.

Lower Decks

I know even less about Lower Decks than I know about Enterprise. But I gather it’s a wacky show about wacky stuff happening to a wacky cast of characters, because this is as close to a gimmick table as Engelstein has done. You get one ball. That’s it. But! And this is a big but! The gravity keeps inverting. Every time your score moves to a new row on the backglass, the entire table flips over. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect from a Star Trek episode about pinball. First tridimensional chess, then rhyming hopscotch, then inverting pinball.

It’s also a total riot. Right away, there are subtleties at play. Under normal circumstances, you nearly always slam the ball as high as it can go, right? Except here, when you’re on the verge of hitting that next level, it’s often more effective to give it a softer tap. Because when the table flips, the ball is still in the same spot, you see? Now the ball has a longer distance to fall, so it’ll strike more targets, which means you might be able to invert the table again before it gets anywhere near your flippers. Meanwhile, you don’t want to score too many points at once, because that will effectively double-invert the table right back to its starting position. Now you’re using up those precious flipper boxes, bringing yourself one step closer to failure.

Cards on the table, it also overstays its welcome a bit. That’s always been a peril with Super-Skill Pinball, but this table brings that problem to the fore. Its single ball can stay aloft as long as another table’s trio, except an unfortunate player may lose much earlier. Still, I appreciate how Lower Decks does something that no actual pinball table would be capable of. Leverage that medium!

at this point what isn't

This is canon.

Borg Attack

Here it is. The best table of the set. And it earns that distinction by making you play a totally different game.

Oh, there’s still pinball. The table for Borg Attack is straightforward. The centerpiece feature is a pair of bumpers that are separated by a panel but connected via a concealed set of drop targets. Hitting the right bumpers gives access to civilians. Evacuate enough of them in advance of the Borg and you’ll earn a bunch of points.

But the real highlight has nothing to do with all those civilian ships. As you go about your humanitarian duties, you’re also cobbling together a fleet. Ships, photon torpedoes, phaser modulations, skill shots — all important, but stored off-table until the final ball. When it rolls around, you set aside the table entirely in favor of the backglass, where you’ll begin to play Breakout.

Yeah. Breakout. That game where you paddle a ball at a wall of bricks, breaking through them one at a time to reach the juicy high-scoring stuff higher up. Here, the Super-Skill system remains unchanged. You roll two dice and use one of them to designate your target. Except now the Borg Cube is shooting back. The ships are your paddles, bouncing your ball back at the Cube; when destroyed, you now have one fewer safe haven for your ball in between assaults. Bit by bit, with the occasional bonus from a photon torpedo, you break through the layers of the Cube. Hitting certain blocks means the Borg will adapt to your attacks, making certain numbers impossible to destroy. Unless you use a phaser modulation, that is. But those are precious. Hopefully your preparations were sufficient.

What I love about this table is that it’s a Matryoshka doll. There’s an adaptation inside your adaptation. And it works beautifully, effortlessly interweaving its action with that of the regular table. When somebody’s second ball is lost, there’s no need for them to wait for everyone else to catch up. Just gather your resources and continue rolling. It’s climactic in a way most tables can’t achieve, transforming Super-Skill Pinball into a game of planning — well, different planning, a question of forethought rather than playing the odds. It’s a boss fight, and you’re equipping the best possible tools to take it down.

It also highlights what works about this set. Engelstein’s best work appears when he toys with the realm of the possible. We all know what a pinball table can and can’t do. Engelstein respects that. Gravity is such an assumed part of the system that it often doesn’t even need to be voiced. At the same time, Engelstein uses the unique advantages of Super-Skill Pinball as a board game. He knows where and how he can bend the rules. Whether he’s inverting the table or secreting in a second adaptation, his system functions best when approached with some playfulness.

 

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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on June 6, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Lower Decks is great. It’s got zany Rick & Morty energy, but it’s really a love letter to TNG, with lots of callbacks to the original series, DS9 and Voyager as well.

    • Glad to hear it! I just haven’t watched much Star Trek lately. I hear good things about some of the newer series, but after Picard and Discovery… meh.

  2. That TNG episode where everyone was hooked on the game really freaked me out.

  3. “I think it’s fair to say that Star Trek never really understood games or why people play them.”

    You’re forgetting the boardgamiest character ever – Kolrami from the TNG episode ‘Peak Performance’. He clearly derives a great deal of self-worth from his mastery of the goofy finger game. And then Data does another gamer thing and figures out a degenerate strategy to ruin the game. 🙂

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