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.
There was never a chance that Unfathomable would sweep me off my feet. From its very announcement, when news broke that Tony Fanchi would be recasting Cory Konieczka’s Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game as yet another volume in Fantasy Flight’s loosely connected Arkham Horror Files, a single unexpected, uncharacteristic thought barged into my head:
Dune. That inscrutable novel. As a youngster it seemed to me to be about purpose and awakening, puberty maybe, definitely victimhood, all trammeled by the reality that every life touches everything else, sometimes for the better but often for the worse. Its game adaptations, both cardboard and digital, were disappointingly narrow, preoccupied with the competing factions that served as the backdrop to its larger questions. Of those many attempts, however, the closest anything came to approximating the feel of Frank Herbert’s magnum opus was Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, and Peter Olotka’s 1979 board game, the very same that received a supernal remake only a few years back.
Dune — the 1979 board game — was also longer than Shai-Hulud. In an attempt to bring it under control for modern audiences, Gale Force Nine tapped Greg Olotka and Jack Reda to help create something more digestible. An abridgement, if you will.
The resultant Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy is certainly more playable. But it’s more playable the way bowdlerized Shakespeare is more watchable. Most of the individual beats have survived intact. All the same, the cutting has not been kind to the overall intention of the piece.
It’s hard to imagine what our geekish DNA would look like if Frank Herbert had never written Dune. It touches so much, and says so much, but never seems to follow any one thread to its conclusion. Maybe because it’s as varied as the thoughts rattling around Herbert’s head in the early ’60s. Poverty grasses and climate patterns. Resource monopolies and shortages. Religion as opiate; opiate as religion. Charismatic heroes unleashing murderous jihads. Carl Jung’s collective unconscious and cellular memory, spurring hosts to destruction and rebirth alike. Great houses entangled in destinies both inevitable and mutable, like plunging headfirst into a sandstorm with just enough will to select the ground where your flesh will be scoured from your bones.
And the beauty of Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, and Peter Olotka’s 1979 design of the board game version is that it got it right. As right as could be got, anyway.
Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem wasn’t a perfect game. Throwdowns, its fanciful term for when two grunting crews of motorcyclists settled their differences by any means other than words, were a colossal waste of everything but ego — which in hindsight was an entirely suitable, if accidental, commentary on stupid machismo. But like the rest of Gale Force Nine’s licensed catalog, it carried itself with enviable thematic cohesion, capturing the petty squabbles, unchecked greed, and hooting apeness of its source material.
Contrast that against Vault of Dragons, the systematic sequel of Sons of Anarchy that transports the action from Charming, California to Waterdeep, Not California. Set in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, what thematic core does it capture? Tedium? An over-reliance on dice? Overburdened game systems? Because as far as I can tell, those are what Vault of Dragons values most.
Spartacus? Didn’t that game come out six years ago? In board game time, that’s at least forty years! True enough. But this is the first entry in a series about the games I’m still playing even though their cardboard scent has worn off and the cards are starting to look frayed around the edges. Not the classics, exactly, but the good stuff that’s never lost its appeal or lost its place on my shelf. This is Yesteryear.
Before his unfortunate passing in late 2016, I had the pleasure of meeting Sean Sweigart exactly once. I had no idea who he was. He was happy to keep it that way. When I asked whether he was the designer of the game he was demoing, he responded that, no, he wasn’t, he was just a guy who enjoyed sharing good games. And with titles like Spartacus, Firefly, Sons of Anarchy, Homeland, and Star Trek: Ascendancy under his belt, he wasn’t entirely fibbing.
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.
Lords of Waterdeep was pretty great, wasn’t it? Designed from the ground up to hit that sweet spot that would appeal to both newcomers to the worker placement genre and cardboard veterans alike, it saw widespread success for good reason. Anyone who said they didn’t like it was almost assuredly a walking diaper. A used walking diaper.
Tyrants of the Underdark is looking to replicate that success. It’s even set in the same place, at least broadly — Skullport, the shady locale from the Lords of Waterdeep expansion, registers as a tiny blip in Underdark’s sprawling, uh, Underdark. This time, however, the target is deck-building games. And not just any deck-building game, but the chimera sort that splits your time between shuffling your cards and waging war on a map.
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.
In the inaugural episode of the Space-Biff! Space-Cast!, what do Homeland: The Game and Reiner Knizia’s classic Tigris & Euphrates have in common? Listen as Dan Thurot, Rob Cramer, and special guest Mark Henderson attempt to stretch these games like taffy in order to find out. Special thanks to Michael Barnes for changing the conversation about theme and setting.