Publisher: Gale Force 9
Number of Players: 3+
Play time: 60 mins per player
Age Guide: 14+

There comes a time in the life of every self-respecting geek, when they must ask themselves the crucial question that defines their sense of self for the rest of their lives:

Star Wars or Star Trek?

For me it’s always been the former. In fact there was only one person that could compete with the likes of Peter Cushing, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, and that was Patrick Stewart.

Ah, Patrick. Why did you have to tempt me with Star Trek: Next Generation? I was doing fine. Until then even Leonard Nimoy’s effortless cool wasn’t enough to distract me from Shatner’s shit acting and the general B-movie quality of Star Trek’s sets and effects.

Star Wars or Star Trek? Why not both? Admit it, you’d watch this movie. [Image: Rick “Misterho” Mavin @ DeviantArt]

Then Jean-Luc and his crew came along and made me doubt myself. I would forever be tainted by the Picard Manoeuvre and the Riker Straddle.

So when Gale Force 9 (GF9) asked me to review their game Star Trek: Ascendancy, I didn’t know whether to politely decline and ask them for a copy of Spartacus instead, or just face the fact that I’m a closet Trekkie, man up and do my job.

Make It So : Components

When the game arrived from GF9 a few days later, the first thing that struck me was its size. In the distant past when most of my boxed games came from Games Workshop, I was used to it, but I guess these days I’m more accustomed to the “fit-comfortably-in-a-Kallax-from-Ikea” dimensions.

That said when you pop the top off, you can see that GF9 couldn’t have got away with anything smaller. In fact my only complaint is that with perhaps a little tweaking (like bringing the insert up level with the top of the box) they might have made room for the inevitable expansions, plus the box lid would have held things in place.

This was soon forgotten as I started sifting through the components: colourful transparent resource nodes for the systems; detailed ship models; unique player boards for each of the three races (with plastic sliders to keep track of weapons and shield levels); circular system/planet discs and the the space lanes to connect them printed on good quality cardstock.

Whilst the card decks aren’t tip-top fabric quality, they’re pretty good, although many of the cards have black borders so it remains to be seen how long they’ll look their best. Probably best to sleeve them if the game is going to hit the table regularly.

Each faction has its own unique console, fleet composition and advancement deck.

It’s all topped off by a rule book (looking like it may have been optimistically designed for a standard square box) that’s nicely illustrated and not too chock-full of images from Star Trek TV series. All the information that you need is in there, but it’s a little enigmatic at times on a first read-through and takes a while to find specifics during a game (and you’ll be referring to it a bit during your first game).

[Note: We played our games on the branded Star Trek: Ascendancy play mat which doesn’t come with the game. It’s the recommended size for play (3ft x 3ft), and features nebuli to mark where players start for three and four player games, which saves getting a tape measure out.

However it’s made of vinyl which means it can slide on a smooth table surface, and it’s rather reflective. I’d have preferred to cough up some extra cash for a neoprene version.]

Engage : Gameplay

Ascendancy is a 4X game, which for the uninitiated stands for eXpansion, eXploration, eXploitation and eXtermination. They could have called them 4E games, but X has always been a cooler and more rad letter than poor old E. As such the game has to function in a vaguely sandbox way, allowing players to feel that they’re exploring unknown territories and, well, boldly going where no one has gone before.

This is achieved by players starting with just their home system disc and a cluster of starting resource “nodes” (Production, Research and Culture) that yield corresponding tokens at the end of each turn, allowing the expansion of capabilities and empires.

Players’ Home Worlds start with one of each resource node and a three ships, in this case formed into a fleet.

You also start with three ships which can travel down space lanes of three varying lengths (randomly generated by the roll of a custom die) that branch out from your home system and beyond into new uncharted territory. Players then draw and place new system discs yielding either Interstellar Phenomena or Planetary Systems.

Interstellar Phenomena are usually hazardous places that can easily destroy ships or even entire fleets, but yield valuable research material. Planetary Systems can sometimes pose similar hazards and also require a draw from the Exploration deck, which is colour coded:

  • Red Crisis cards force ships to brave hazards the same as phenomena or dangerous systems.
  • Blue Discovery cards usually offer some sort of bonus in addition to the opportunity to colonise the world.
  • Green Virgin Worlds are ripe for immediate colonisation.
  • Yellow Civilisation cards present a player with either pre-warp or warp-capable civilisations that require some sort of accommodation (or annihilation!) in order to gain control.

After resolving a Red, Blue or Green card’s effect, colonisation can take place by placing a Control node on the planet on your following turn and beginning the process of exploiting its resources. Encountering a Civilisation requires more effort and resources to gain control of, whether it’s by force of arms or cultural dominance/hegemony (the latter being your only option if you’re playing as the Federation, as you must adhere to the Prime Directive of non-hostility… however much you might like to ignore it).

Once you have control of a system you can start placing resource nodes there (unless you take it over from an existing civilisation, in which case it may have up to its full compliment already.) These are the bread and butter of your ability to do anything in the game, whether buildings ships, expanding your culture, upgrading your weapons and shields, or researching scientific projects.

Research is crucial as it dictates how powerful and well-defended your ships and systems are, and allows you to initiate Projects which in turn lead to Advancements. These might enable you to First Strike in combat, or add bonuses to hegemony when you try to exert cultural control — there are many advancements thematically tailored to each race. In addition some cards may grant permanent additional Commands (which you need to accomplish anything – you start with five) or increase your warp speed to enable fast movement across your expanding empire.

Phenomena are dangerous, but worth the risk for the research token they yield.

So you can see why players might wish to brave dangerous Phenomena or fight over systems with those lovely blue Research nodes. However, you ignore Production and Cultural nodes at your peril. Without them you won’t be building or colonising anything. There’s a nice balance here which means there’s no “super trump” node to monopolise. In fact the only time when nodes themselves might result in all-out conflict is if one of the players, through luck of the draw, lacks a certain resource in their initial systems. They’ll have no choice but to acquire it, by brute force if necessary.

Obviously at the start of the game and for the first two or even three turns, players will be exploring and building in their own little isolated sector of space. Sooner or later though they will make First Contact with each other. This can be mutually beneficial as players can then form trade agreements. It can also, of course, be catastrophically violent, resulting in system-wide conflicts that can often eradicate all planets life. Ho-hum.

As all three races expand, First Contact is inevitable, with often predictable results.

Combat, whether ship-to-ship or by the invasion of colonised systems, is resolved by the roll of dice against a target number, usually modified by any advancement of weapons and shields. The same applies to a cultural takeover by hegemony, which sees a roll against the system’s resource nodes and tech level as a difficulty number, and is modified by the player’s Ascendancy level.

The Ascendancy level itself is a crucial trait, which new players often overlook in their rush to colonise. At any point in your turn you can cash in five culture resource tokens for an Ascendancy token and attaining five of these will win you the game. However, they also dictate how many fleets you can form and how many Starbases you can put into orbit, the latter also dictating how many Commands you can issue each turn, so it’s important to get to level three Ascendancy (the maximum permitted number of Fleets and Starbases) as quickly as possible.

And that’s pretty much it. You’ll continue to carry out the four Xs until either one player has control of three home systems (including their own), or acquires their fifth Ascendancy token.

Earl Grey, Hot : Final Thoughts

Like Earl Grey, I think folk are either going to love or hate Star Trek: Ascendancy. But if it’s the latter, then it’s probably because the entire 4X genre isn’t for them. Personally I found a lot to love about the game. The components are colourful and well-made. The expanding universe that you create around you is unique to each game and exciting to explore. There’s a tangible sense of danger out there in the void, where entire fleets can be snuffed out by some temperamental phenomena. The mechanics of warp travel are intuitive and thematically resolved and it’s satisfying to gradually build your colonies and capabilities.

The 4X mechanics are satisfying and the game looks great.

On the other hand the rule book, as mentioned earlier, leaves a little to be desired as a game reference. It’s not terrible by any stretch of the imagination – the information is all there – but it wasn’t as well laid out as some of GF9s other rule books, and searching through it mid-game tended to slow things down a lot. I’d definitely recommend every player reads through the rules once before a first play, rather than leaving it to just whichever player bought the game.

Then there’s the downtime between turns. Obviously this will decrease with experience, but I always got the feeling that the turn sequence could have been optimised in a different way. Utilising some of the supplied alternate rules go some way towards making life better in this regard, but the downtime still seems to drag, particularly if you are first player one turn and then third player the following turn due to the way player order is chosen. What’s more, if a game requires published alternate rules to speed up play, then the core rules possibly should have been designed differently in the first place.

Disappointed you can’t play as the Cardassian Union or Ferengi Alliance? Worry not. Expansions have you covered.

I have yet to experiment but I’d like to try a turn sequence where each player undertakes their building phase, and then everyone takes turns issuing one command. This would pretty much eradicate any excessive down time and also allow players to strategically react to the movement and expansion of rivals. This is much the way orders are implemented in another of GF9’s titles, Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem, and it works well for keeping players engaged and encouraging responsive game play.  I may well come back to this review at a future date with my findings on that front. Watch this space!

However, I think the best thing I can say about Star Trek: Ascendancy is that, despite my misgivings, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself and more importantly I still want to play again. The game seemed very thematic without being overpowering to non-Trekkies such as myself. For example it must have been tempting to assign canonical races to the pre-warp and warp-capable civilisations that you discover during exploration, but by simply grading their tech levels it makes the game less confusing.

There’s no doubt it’s a long game (3–4 hours) and although the dreaded downtime dragged, I never felt the game as a whole did, and at least you have plenty of convenient time to get the drinks and snacks in and ponder your strategies while you wait!

As a footnote, despite my enjoyment of Star Trek: Ascendancy and rekindling of my brief fling with Next Generation, I remain a Star Wars fan at heart and “reports of my assimilation are greatly exaggerated.”

Pros:

  • Intuitive and aesthetically pleasing way to implement a 4X game.
  • Thematic without being off-putting to those that aren’t hardcore Trekkies.
  • Excellent components.
  • Three asymmetrical player factions with two more coming in expansions.

Cons:

  • Turn order feels like it needs house-ruling or tweaking to lessen downtime.
  • Not certain that the game will be as playable with four, let alone five (or more) players.

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