I wasn’t expecting to play Star Trek: Ascendancy again anytime soon. We played it last year for my sister-in-law’s birthday. She’s a Trekkie. Or a Trekker. Whichever one won the convention wars. It was a big seven-player session. We counted ourselves satisfied with what in 2016 and again in 2017 I called one of the few games to really understand Star Trek.
Then, out of nowhere, I heard from Gale Force Nine. The last two expansions were coming my way. “This takes the faction count up to ten,” they said. “Time to arrange another massive session with your friends.” They didn’t say that last part. With a game this big, it’s implied.
So that’s what we did. Out of nine possible seats, we filled eight. With some fast-forwarding of the early turns, and minus lunch, the whole thing lasted six hours. And while we had a grand time (for the most part), it felt not unlike watching the last episode of The Next Generation as a kid again. A fitting sendoff, and all the more bittersweet for it. There will be other Star Treks. But this one is finished. Let’s talk about the finale.
You’ve got to give it this: even six years later, with its principal designer gone too soon, with a hodgepodge of expansions fitting together more awkwardly than its sprawling organic map, Ascendancy got it.
Star Trek, yes. Asymmetrical design, mostly. New ways to think about civilization games, that too.
When I wrote about Ascendancy for the first time, that’s what jumped out at me. This was Star Trek as seen from a thousand light years away. The exploration of the Original Series, its sense of wonder, the wariness of never knowing what you’d encounter next. The relationships and border tensions of The Next Generation, the little skirmishes and affronts and panicked responses to incursions. The all-out wars of Deep Space Nine. The broken friendships. The unlikely alliances. The last-ditch efforts.
The parts that go blank in the memory because they aren’t quite as good. Hello, pah-wraiths. Hello, defensive turtling.
It’s a cliché to say this, but 2022 isn’t 2016. Things that wouldn’t have bothered us back then had grown larger in the intervening years, made rough by comparison to newer titles, more careful playtesting, the slow march of iterative design. Ascendancy would benefit from a remaster. Certain rules remain vague even half a decade later. The addition of new factions hasn’t been kind to the game’s sense of balance. Even the exploration deck has become perhaps too unwieldy, packed with references that are a delight to see, but also so ferociously capricious. The same goes for that towering stack of planets and anomalies. In our game, the Federation and Romulans stumbled across one garden world after another, while the Breen and Klingons found themselves isolated behind starship-shredding space storms.
Then again, I’m not sure I want those last few quibbles to change. Of the many things Ascendancy does that are worth emulating, the map is the one I’m most surprised nobody has assimilated. For those who’ve never had the pleasure, exploration in Ascendancy is unusually freewheeling. You send starships warping away from known territory to explore strange new worlds. It’s as easy as rolling a die to determine the connected warp lane. At the far end, you draw a planet and a card. It’s a simple combination, but its yields are massive. The Federation had an entire fleet shredded by a displaced Olympian god; later, they braved its challenges to colonize their nth garden world. Elsewhere, the Ferengi dove straight into the heart of the galaxy, trying to link up with as many empires as possible for trade contracts. The Klingons, as I mentioned, encountered a wall of anomalies. They were utterly safe. Also utterly crippled at fulfilling their goals to defeat as many enemies as possible.
Age emphasizes that duality. Even though I’ve played this game more times than I can count — translation: probably eight or nine times, but I lost my session tracker with my previous hard drive — it never fails to produce a unique stellar cartography. Looking back over the photos from yesteryear’s plays, their textures pop back to mind. Oh yeah, there’s that time my starship was whisked to the far end of the galaxy by Q. Unlike Janeway’s Voyager, they founded a colony that somehow held out until the end of the game. Ah yes, there’s the Vulcan diplomat I deployed among the Federation, sneaking me one step closer to achieving my hidden agenda.
Oh no, there’s those turtling Romulans. Again.
That’s the part the memory wants to skim over. You need to understand, Ascendancy’s asymmetry was exciting. Crud, it still is. It wasn’t the heightened “everybody’s playing their own game” asymmetry of Vast or Root, but a quieter brand of differentiation. Every faction had a perk, a downside, and a deck of advances. The Klingons couldn’t retreat from battle, but earned culture, the game’s path to victory, by killing enemies. The Federation refused to dominate lesser civilizations, instead getting its jollies finding new stuff out among the stars. The Romulans hid behind their curtain doing science and hissing at anybody who wandered too close.
Even as the expansions sent the original box’s balance into a tailspin, they stuck to that core idea. For the most part, they produced factions that communicated the ethos of their origin stories. The Ferengi liked capitalism. The Cardassians kept their populations repressed with watchful garrisons. The Dominion sent shapeshifting infiltrators to annoy their rivals. Some of the newer factions added more rules heft, but never to the degree of, say, unpacking Root’s Marauder expansion or trying to decipher Crescent Moon’s internal ecology.
But as their differences drew them further apart, some were left behind. The Klingons started to look especially kludgy, gradually transforming into a parody of themselves. Hey, just because it mirrors their development in the show doesn’t make for fun gameplay. More turtles appeared. In our game, three of eight players never developed the slightest desire to venture beyond their initial confines. The Breen were never incentivized to sack San Francisco. The Vulcans never sought to make first contact with neighboring warp-capable civilizations. The Romulans were never permitted improbable control over a derelict Borg cube. (Gag.)
A few years back, Summer and I rewatched The Next Generation. It was like having a reunion with an old friend after a decade apart. Everything was familiar, even the parts we didn’t remember. Even the parts we’d somehow missed the first time around. It was genuinely good to view again. Yeah, the props had aged. We chuckled to see the actors gain pounds as the show gained popularity. Commander Riker sure has a way of straddling a chair, doesn’t he?
But that’s not the only way it was like meeting an old friend. Certain parts had aged poorly. There were more bottle episodes than we remembered. Entire stretches were slow and repetitive. The swelling musical cues around commercial breaks — almost alien to us now! — were obvious and awkward. Speaking of awkward, Deanna Troi sure gets telepath-raped a lot, doesn’t she?
I hope to rewatch The Next Generation with my kids. This time, I’m going to curate which episodes are worth watching.
That’s how I feel about Ascendancy. Its foundation is sturdy. There’s nothing like its exploration out there. Bottlenecks and borders form naturalistically. Sometimes “nearby” systems can be functionally far apart, while distant stars are more easily reached. If that isn’t a fascinating way to represent geography, I don’t know what is. With some tweaking, the factions could retain their identities while also being brought into tighter competition. Maybe the past few years of design have taught us some new tricks to draw players out of their shells. Some curation would go a long way.
I’m not calling for a new edition, exactly. I’ll even state it outright: I don’t think Ascendancy should be crammed into a master set. It would probably cost too much, for one thing. But I do wish we would look long and hard at what gave it that spark. I wish somebody would carry that spark forward. I wish somebody would start a fire with it. What’s more Star Trek than learning from our successes and failures alike?
Man, how I loved Star Trek as a kid. It probably isn’t an exaggeration to say that Picard’s sense of dignity and sovereignty for living beings — and his outrage when that dignity or sovereignty was compromised — informed my early anger at bullies, at bureaucracies, at church leaders. I wanted to be someone like him. A philosopher. An ethicist. A diplomat. Adventuring was secondary.
Ascendancy is the closest a grand civilization game has come to imbuing its factions with underlying ethics. When they come to blows, it isn’t only a conflict over resources. It’s friction between competing outlooks on existence. Most civilization games reduce nations to perks, special units, aesthetics. In Star Trek: Ascendancy, civilizations were embodiments of isolationism or paternalism, self-determination or the survival of the fittest, capitalism, colonialism, conquest, cooperation.
I suspect I’ll never play it again. But that’s all right. Like its source material, it showed me a glimpse of the possible. I’m grateful to it for that.
Complimentary copies of the expansions were provided.