Reviewed by Herb Levy
STAR TREK: ASCENDANCY (Gale Force 9, 3 players, ages 14 and up, 180 minutes; $100)
The 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek television series has garnered a great deal of attention – and spawned a lot of games to mark the event. One of the most ambitious comes from the design team of Sean Sweigart and Aaron Dill. This new game takes full advantage of the Star Trek mantra “to boldly go where no one has gone before” as players seek to explore the far reaches of outer space and make First Contact with the other races that populate the Star Trek Universe. This is Star Trek: Ascendancy.
Three Star Trek civilizations are in the game: The Federation, Romulans and Klingons. Each player begins with their own home planet and the corresponding Command Console. Command Consoles alert you to certain unique qualities of each Civ (Klingons, for example, never retreat in battle while The Federation must follow “The Prime Directive”) and keep track of your Weapon and Shield Levels. (You start with a Weapon Level of 5+ which means you score a hit by rolling five or better on a six-sided die and your Shield modifier begins at 0.) Players also start with a supply of 30 ships (three make up their starting force), 3 Fleet Markers, 3 Fleet cards, 3 Starbase tokens, 15 Advancement cards, 10 Command Nodules and a turn reference card. Each Civilization has one completed Advancement (a “Starting” advancement) with a deck of further Advancements available for later use. All players begin with some game resources: 3 Production, 3 Research and 3 Culture, one Node for each resource, one Control Node (used to mark who controls which planetary system) and 1 Ascendancy token. Everyone also has 3 Trade Agreements which may be given to other players representing peaceful trade between Civilizations. Finally, everyone begins with 5 Command tokens, the game’s equivalent of actions, to spend.
Each round of play begins with an Initiative Phase (which is only done by players who have made “First Contact” by connecting to another player’s Civilization). During Initiative, players may spend any amount of any resource to “influence galactic politics” which, in effect, determines turn order for the round. For the first few rounds, First Contact will not be made so turn order is determined randomly. Then, in turn order, players “execute”.
During the Execution Phase, players develop their Civilizations by spending resources for starships, production/research/culture nodes, to colonize systems and more including committing research tokens to complete Advancement projects (to bolster abilities) including upgrades to weapons and shields. Next comes the Command phase.
During Command, players flex their intergalactic muscles by moving, exploring, colonizing and battling opponents.
Movement is done via impulse or warp speed. By spending a Command token, one starship may move at an Impulse speed of 2. This may require the placement of “space lanes”. Each planet system disc specifies how many “space lanes” may be connected to it and, when placing a new lane, a special six-sided die (with values of 2, 3 and 4) is rolled to determine if the space lane is 2, 3 or 4 spaces in length. Warp speed allows for faster travel. Again, a Command is exhausted and a ship is placed just off the planet (or space lane) it is near. By spending additional Commands, ships accumulate warp tokens (to add to any that completed Advancements may give) so that later, at a cost of a Command token, that ship emerges from warp to travel to a far away system. (For example, if a ship has accumulated four warp tokens, it may travel up to four systems away from its starting point. However, neither by impulse nor warp may you travel through areas you do not control containing enemy ships.) Of course, when you travel, you will discover new systems.
When a spaceship moves beyond an unconnected space lane, a new System Disc may be placed (drawn from the system stack) and the ship moved onto the new system. Each system has a different capacity to hold Resource Nodes as shown by colored tabs on the disc. Most systems contain habitable planets which allows for the draw of an Exploration card to determine the nature of the system: Crisis (a problem to be solved), Discovery (some technological advance or wonder or contact with a new species), Virgin Worlds (untouched but ready for colonization) and Civilization (already inhabited systems). These can be wonderful sources for Resources. Other systems contain “Phenomena” indicated by placing a Research token on the system. Some Phenomena are hazardous. If at least one exploring ship survives the encounter, they may claim any Research tokens. there.
Command may also be used to engage opponents either by space battle or planetary invasion! These battles are resolved through dice rolls with your current Weapons Level determining the number needed to score hits. You win a battle by eliminating all enemy forces or forcing them to retreat. Not only is eliminating opposing forces a worthy reward for the win but you also get a bonus move, via impulse speed, without using up any Command tokens. Planetary Invasion operates similarly with the defender rolling dice equal to the number of Nodes built on the planet. But a peaceful “invasion” is also possible.
If your ships manage to occupy a developed sector not under your control, you can attempt to “culturally” take over the system through “Hegemony” To do this, you need to spend at least two Culture Tokens: one to make the attempt and one to take Control if the attempt proves successful. To make the attempt, a Command and a Culture is spent. Then, a die is rolled with the number added to your current Ascendancy level. If the total is higher than the Hegemony Resistance of the system, you succeed and spend an additional Culture token, placing your Control Node on the system and earning an Ascendancy token. Higher level Civilizations (“Warp-Capable Civilization” in game terms), however, are more resistant to this.
Once everyone has taken their turns, players “recharge”. Assuming victory has not been achieved by any player, players generate resources from nodes under their control, trade agreements still in effect and from any Advancements that produce them. Finally, “maintenance” is done which includes flipping all exhausted Command tokens back to their active side (and possibly earning more as each built starbase adds 1 Command token to a player’s supply as do some Advancements) and adding warp tokens to ships in warp.
The game continues until one of two possible types of victory conditions are met: Ascendancy Victory (where a player has maintained control of his Home System AND has five Ascendancy tokens) OR Supremacy Victory (where a player has control of his Home System AND control of TWO other Home Systems).
Star Trek: Ascendancy falls on the American side of the American/Euro divide of gaming styles. Many recognizable American game mechanisms are present here including reliance on dice rolls to resolve encounters and battles and the inherent and significant (albeit not exclusive) push towards conflict and invasions. But there are relatively unique touches here too such as the clever and very visual way impulse and warp speed travel is handled. There are plenty of moving parts here (making this a game NOT for the faint of heart) with lots of decisions to make along the way: which Advancements to pursue, which nodes to build – and how to get the resources needed to build them, whether to use military might or cultural sway via Hegemony to win. Thoughtful decision making is somewhat counterbalanced by the blind draw of Exploration when luck can be the biggest factor between success of your Civ and being heavily crippled by unforeseen (actually, impossible to foresee) space perils. Because of the scope of the game, particularly the distance between players, development of your Civilization as well as interaction between players takes time. This can be a good thing as it gives you a chance to build up your power and resources necessary when non-player hostiles, not to mention aggressive opponents, are met. But it can also take its toll as, being faced with so many choices and so much that you can potentially do, there can be considerable down time between turns. That the game is geared for exactly three players is a bit unusual as this is limiting but, considering the length of the game and the table space it demands, not exactly shocking. This situation is only temporary, however, as there have already been expansions (Ferengi and Cardassian) for the game announced to increase the number of players.
This game is an ambitious undertaking on many levels, from the sprawling size of the playing area (the rules suggest 3 feet by 3 feet!) to the time of play (figure an hour per player with your first few games taking a bit longer) to the many moving parts that even a Starship captain would find challenging. Star Trek Ascendancy is a game of epic proportions that evokes a real sense of the Star Trek Universe but will certainly not appeal to everyone. However, for ambitious gamers who favor civilization building games coupled with the thrill and mystery of space.exploration (particularly if you are a Star Trek fan), Star Trek: Ascendancy could rise to the top of your “must have” list. – – – – Herb Levy
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