This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.
There are many ways for a game to achieve greatness. It can have rules so refined and precise that they seem impossibly simple and effective (Flamme Rouge). Its design can boldly break new ground to excite and mesmerize (Vast: The Crystal Caverns). The game’s presentation might be so vivid and inviting, that you can’t help but want to dive in and play it (Seasons). Or it may reliably produce a memorable and fun experience every time you get it to the table (Hoax). Actually, there is no limit to the way in which a game can be great and each year you’re bound to come upon a game that is great in a whole new way.
Star Trek: Ascendancy, sadly, only makes it halfway to greatness. The potential for a milestone in licensed board gaming is there. But in what might be the most heart-breaking failure to capitalize on what a game’s design can do, Ascendancy squanders it all when you enter the mid-game.
I cannot overstate just how effortlessly and elegantly the opening act of Ascendancy manages to encapsulate that unique Star Trek feel. The sense of wonder and exploration as your intrepid spaceships go forth to find new planets, interstellar phenomena and new civilizations isn’t achieved by some mind-blowing feat of new ideas. It uses familiar mechanics and it just plain works. More than that, it sings. In the most basic terms, it’s really not all that different from the way you explore the haunted mansion in Betrayal at House on the Hill. Random dice rolls determine distances between star systems and blind card draws determine what you encounter on planets. As an aside, the way that the concept of Warp speed is dealt with in this game – namely allowing you to skip systems if your ship or fleet sits out a few turns – is ingeniously thematic, yet easy to grasp. But all this isn’t something you haven’t seen before. Yet the visual presentation, the references to Trek lore and the suddenness with which exploring ships can simply be lost to the vastness of space make the whole thing crackle with excitement. This is exploration: pure and simple.
It’s also quite interesting, that when Star Wars Rebellion felt more like a remixed version of the movies, Star Trek Ascendancy feels far more like your own take on the Trek universe. The planets, nebulas and events have far less narrative baggage, so when Risa or Deneb V are placed on your table, it doesn’t come across like a re-edit of the series and is instead simply an Alpha Quadrant that is uniquely yours.
Soon enough exploration turns into expansion. You start colonizing distant planets. You begin to expand your cultural influence to make other civilizations join your side. Your presence in space becomes more and more pronounced. The rush and excitement of the opening act gives way to a very traditional area control game. Resources generated at the end of the turn are invested into new buildings, increasing your resource output which allow you to invest said resources in further expanding your presence in the galaxy.
Expansion then quickly evolves into exploitation as your colonized planets start to produce resources for you. Your options widen and allow you to dive into research to get extra abilities, or improve the combat capabilities of your fleet. You can build bigger and bigger fleets. You start collecting victory points.
And this is where the game begins to falter. Because victory points (i.e. culture tokens) are automatically generated in every culture building you control at the end of every round. Which means, much like the highly criticized Imperial I strategy card in Twilight Imperium, that gives you 2 VP each turn for free, the game doesn’t really need much in the way of decision-making to advance you. You simply build as many VP-generating buildings as you can, and then sit and wait.
But the game doesn’t really go completely off the rails, until – ironically – you enter First Contact. That is to say, the first time one of your explored systems connects to one of another player, the game opens up a new layer: direct player interaction. What should be the crowning jewel of any reasonably complex or just any 4X game: the last surge of energy to propel the game into an epic finale… instead turns Ascendancy into a petty squabble over real estate. If the first half of the game is a sandbox that is yours to shape, the endgame is all about trampling other people’s sand castles out of spite with invasions, massive destruction of fleets and razed planetary surfaces.
In what is the most jarring tonal mismatch between theme and license, Star Trek Ascendancy ends as a simplistic, generic wargame where fleets of ships clash into one another, players chuck handful of dice across the table to obliterate the enemy and invade colonies. Because if Star Trek is known, remembered and loved for one thing it is the carnage of its epic space battles and the fighting over territory. When I think Star Trek, I think space war.
It is heart-breaking to see such a pitch perfect opening give way to what is basically Risk. And in 2017 that’s just not good enough. It’s not even one of the recent iterations of Risk. It’s basically a dusty old copy from your uncle’s attic, with all the mission cards missing, a tattered rulebook and most of the pieces replaced by some distant cousin’s Napoleonic wargame tokens from the late 1960s.
But it’s rage-inducingly frustrating because the solution, and the return to a game that is in line with what people love about Star Trek, is so apparent. VP could have been based on completed objectives, like in Twilight Imperium. They could have been based on playing to type, in the way that advancement tokens are awarded in Chaos in the Old World. Imagine a Star Trek game, where you explore planets and then try to deal with planetary crises, espionage plots, outside threats and diplomatic missions to stabilise the quadrant as you all compete for hegemony. THAT is the Trek game I want. That is the Trek game that would bring all the boys (and girls) to the yard.
Star Trek Ascendancy has fantastic production values. It starts off promising and is then content to just let you turtle as you accrue VP, or play a game of Risk. Whoever at Gale Force Nine was responsible for the creative decision to have every game culminate in large-scale fleet battles has badly misjudged the appeal and draw of the Trek license. And while an argument could be made that this is a case of a license being stretched to fit the demands of the 4X-genre, you have to ask yourself why that would be necessary in the first place. The hobby has more than enough great 4X games already, but there is a definite dearth of great Trek games. Even now, with Star Trek Ascendancy on the market.