I am a huge Star Trek nerd, as my love letter to DS9 last year can attest. I keep my pens in a Worf’s-head mug, I own seven Star Trek roleplaying books, I own a TNG script (“The Offspring,” which made me cry), and I have engaged in countless hours, if not years, of various forms of fan-wankery. I’m not the biggest Trekkie out there, but I’m a big one.
When I learned last year that WizKids had procured the gaming license for Star Trek I was pretty excited, though unsure what to expect. WizKids is one of my favorite gaming companies, thanks to the strength of HeroClix, but the Clix engine is pretty much the only thing they had going for them–their non-clix games were strained and short-lived, and even most of their clix games died. The best use of the engine was Mechwarrior, though the random distribution model totally didn’t work for it, and my favorite clix game was HorrorClix, which never took off at all thanks in large part to the lack of a recognizable license. Game after game, they proved that they had awesome ideas they couldn’t follow through on, and for an eager Star Trek fan that prospect was equal parts exciting and terrifying. And of course the main question through the whole process was the Clix engine itself: it’s primarily a combat system, and while Star Trek does have combat it’s nothing you’d call a major part of the IP. Could they branch out and do something new? Could they actually make it work? The answer is a resounding “kind of.”
Their first Star Trek game, called Expeditions, was pure Euro, and a fairly number-crunchy one at that. The components look Star Trek, but by all accounts the gameplay never actually feels like Star Trek, so I never bothered picking it up. If I’m wrong, please let me know. Their third game, due to release in the next month or so, is a straight Clix game of ship-to-ship combat, so similar to Heroclix it’s actually compatible with it (by which I mean compatible mechanically–thematically it’s a raging disaster for everyone who hasn’t dreamed about Spider-man punching the Enterprise in the face). The middle game, however, gets so much right. It’s called Fleet Captains, and it manages to include just about everything you could ever want a Star Trek game to include: you have ships, you can put crew on them, they fly around exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life, they can fight and talk and cloak and reroute power to the deflector shields and whatever else you can imagine. It’s a brilliant design with a great Star Trek feel, but it’s marred by some pretty serious flaws.
First there’s the production values, which wouldn’t be so problematic if you weren’t paying so much for them. For $100 you get a box full of flimsy cards, packed so poorly that they have an improbably high frequency of breaking loose during shipping and sliding all over the box, in the mildest cases looking messy and in the most serious cases actually breaking the plastic ships. The ships themselves are a mixed blessing: there’s a ton of them, and they look great, but they’re fragile, often poorly glued, not to scale with each other, and unpainted–which, again, wouldn’t be a problem except that you just paid $100 dollars for them. This from a company with almost 15 years’ experience producing cheap, prepainted minis. It is very hard to look at this game’s components and not feel like they were rushed to hit a street date, with little or no concern for quality assurance. Whatever portion of the $100 price tag was intended to pay for painting was used to pay for accelerated printing instead.
The game’s second big problem is thematic, and I haven’t actually convinced myself it’s really a problem a yet. Rather than focus on a specific series, or even a specific timeline, the game throws literally everything into the same pot: Kirk and Picard and Janeway can all be on the same crew, despite the fact that their stories took place in wildly different times and places. For the non-Trek nerds out there, imagine a historical wargame that allowed you to have George Washington, General Patton, and Napoleon all on the same team fighting ninjas. That makes for some good fan fiction, but it’s an inherently goofy idea that shows (dare I say it) a lack of respect for the IP. Now, there’s a lot to be said for the malleability of the Star Trek universe–there are enough temporal and spatial anomalies to explain pretty much anything you want, and I usually teach people the game by saying “just imagine Q did it.” But the crazy mixed-up timeline should be a scenario, not the baseline, and Trek fans shouldn’t have to house-rule their game just to play what most people would consider the default setting.
But then again…the game is just so good. Once you sort out your messed-up components and glue your ships back together and concoct an appropriate explanation for the narrative, all your concerns slip away and you’re playing the Star Trek game you’ve always wanted, boldly going where no one has gone before, matching wits with your Klingon opponents or scanning a sentient nebula or negotiating a peace treat between two alien species. And the possibilities for expansion are amazing: the game has Federation and Klingons, but nothing from DS9, the Borg, Romulans, Cardassians, or the Dominion. The rules are already set up to handle extra players, different modes (free-for-all, co-op, etc.), and more, all you need is the stuff (which is, admittedly, the hard part).
Do I recommend this game? Yes and no. It’s not worth $100, so I’ll tell you to buy it cheap somewhere, except then WizKids won’t make enough money to justify an expansion, so I’ll tell you to buy it full price. If we’re lucky, WizKids will fix some of the production problems and do a re-issue, but I don’t see that happening. How about this: find a copy you can rent/borrow/test, and give it a try. That will give you a really good idea of how much you like it and how much you’d be willing to pay for it. With games like this you have to remember the Boat Rule: if you want to go sailing you don’t need a boat, you need a friend with a boat. Find a Trekkie with more money than sense and start dropping hints.