Designer: Andrew Parks and Vlaada Chavatil
When Mage Knight entered the market with significant hoopla, I was intrigued and interested to try. The barrier of entry was quite high though. Not only was the game long and complex, it was also a high fantasy themed game. All red flags to my partner and gaming group. Still, the length of the game was the biggest deterrent. I knew that we could not fit the game in a single evening session with 4. However, the game could accommodate a solo mode. In fact, some folks indicated that the solo mode being the preferred choice to play the game. I am not a fan of solo or digital modes of playing board games, but Mage Knight did have some promise.
The success of Mage Knight eventually spawned a spin-off: Star Trek: Frontiers which was developed by Andrew Parks. Using Vlaada Chavatil’s core engine in Mage Knight, ST:Frontiers, Mr. Parks adapted the game system for the sci-fi setting, which was ultimately the reason why I decided to pick up a copy of the game. I am a sucker for the Star Trek universe and for a game of this length, weight and using the acclaimed engine, Frontiers seemed like the perfect fit. Thus far, I have only played the game in solo mode and can imagine only playing this game in solo mode.
While I haven’t played Mage Knight, my understanding is that ST:Frontiers is a relatively faithful adaptation of the original game, with some features streamlined. Streamlined games are good. I always like games that are tweaked to make things easier for players, and not just adding content or new rules. The game is hefty in weight but I have to say, for someone who doesn’t care about aesthetics, Wizkids could do much better than putting the game in a corrugated cardboard. Really, Wizkids. The game is not cheap and you use a card box which you can punch a hole on the cover with your finger? I have absolutely no complaints about the components, card quality, etc. The box though, is really a disappointment. I hope you do better in the subsequent print runs. The game does come with 8 minis. That type that you find in Heroclix with a rotating click base. There are 4 Borg cubes and 4 player ships: The DS9 Defiant with Sisko, Next Generation 1701-D with Picard, a Klingon Warbird IKS Negh’var and Martok and another Klingon Cruiser with the Duras Sisters.
At the start of the game, each player selects a captain, a ship and exits a worm hole in an unexplored quadrant of the map. Only a few of the map tiles surrounding the worm hole are revealed and part of the fun for the game is moving your ship around and flipping over new tiles to explore the region. The game can be played in several modes. As I mentioned, the solo mode comes with a few scenarios. The rule book sets out a conquest scenario for the solo mode where you hunt down Borg cubes and attempt to destroy them to score points (has that even happened before? A single starship destroying a Borg cube? That has to be a suspension of belief here). There appears to be more scenarios for multiplayer games. One can play competitively or cooperatively depending on the choice of scenarios. Since I have no experience with the multiplayer setting, I can only comment on the solo mode. Overall, I was a disappointed the game came with so few solo scenarios. Given the game is recommended for solo play, you would expect to see a whole lot more solo settings.
The rules of the games are numerous but can be boiled down to some main concepts which I will outline. Players own a deck of cards that represent their starship and actions that can be taken by their crew. These cards are essentially action cards that allow for your ship to perform maneuvers, battle, send away teams and interact with elements on the game board. Each turn, players will draw a select number of cards based on hand size limit and then attempt to play as many cards as they want. Once cards are used up, the turn is over and players will then draw another hand of cards to continue play in the next turn. In a multiplayer setting, this would just happen in turn order based on selection of turn order cards. In a solo mode, you just keep on playing and drawing cards. Eventually, the deck will be exhausted and the round is over. There is some bookeeping at the end of each round, but players then pick up their discard pile, shuffle the cards, draw a new hand and start the next round. If this sounds like a deck builder game, well, you are right. The main engine is card driven with some deck builder elements. However, the deck for each player is already quite loaded at the start of the game and during the course of the game, players will get to pick up more cards to add to the deck as well as increasing the hand size limit. However, unlike other deck builders that start from scratch, I don’t think you end up adding a huge number of cards in your deck during play. However, each card you do add can be powerful and game changing.
In general, there are 3 types of cards you can pick up during play. There are advanced action cards where the cards are more powerful variants from the regular cards in your deck, the undiscovered cards where the effects are extremely powerful if you have the right data crystals to power the cards and finally there are crew members that you can recruit. For the action cards, each card features a regular action you can take and also a more powerful action if you have data tokens or crystals you can use to power the action. The tokens and crystals come in several colors (blue, red, yellow, wild) and they are quite hard to come by. But when used properly, the card actions can be pretty devastating, particularly those cards from the undiscovered deck. These undiscovered cards represent events, narratives, stories that populate the Star Trek universe and can be used in your game to enhance story telling. For example, there is one card that features the infamous “Q”. using the “Q” card allows you to conduct long-range diplomacy. How rich is that! Generally speaking, actions from the cards move the game forward. For example, many cards will allow the ship to move a certain number of spots with more powerful versions allowing you to move further. Other cards are combat cards which allow you to fire weapons or power shields. Finally, cards also have diplomacy points for you to perform diplomatic actions which include recruiting crew members.
As you play cards to move your ship around, you will eventually encounter different board elements that you must interact with. The simplest are different space stations, dry docks or research stations which allow you heal, repair your ship, recruit new crew, earn tokens or crystals and so forth. Your ship can also encounter other enemy combatants that generally take the form of Romulan ships or hostile space stations controlled by the Romulans or by the Dominion. Essentially, your choices are straightforward: ignore the enemy and press ahead or interact and subjugate them. Fighting comes with rewards and plunder. You can gain reputation, levelling up your captain and earn other random bonuses or benefits. All told, you cannot avoid combat. For all the diplomacy and non-violent nature of Star Trek, the game is still mostly about combat.
Combat rules can be numerous and combatant specific. There are lots of details, exceptions to the rule and modifiers. Each battle is resolved in a series of steps and phases. Ships can fire long range weapons to inflict damage and power shields to deflect them. Regular combat involve exchange phaser shots or other types of formidable weapons including photon torpedoes, pulse weapons, etc. The amount of weapons in the game is actually impressive but also largely abstracted. Players don’t have access to all these weapons, but enemy combatants can have some of the more unique and powerful weapons (biogenic weapons, disruptor weapons) that can penetrate shields and are much harder to defend against. While the array of choices serve to enrich the narrative, I don’t think it makes things too complicated. Invariably, your ship will be damaged after combat. Damage to ships is represented by clogging your hand of cards by picking up damage cards that are held in your hand or shuffled in your deck, thus causing a nuisance when you draw them. That effectively reduce your hand limit. This a pretty typical deck builder trick to impose penalties on players and really, was seen as early as Dominion in the form of curse cards that clog your deck. Of course, ships can be repaired. There are cards in your action deck or crew members that can help heal or repair. Some stations will also perform repairs.
There are two aspects of ST:Frontiers that I really enjoy. First, recruiting crew members and performing Away missions. Crew members are cards that you pick up that do not go in your main deck. They are not part of your hand size limit. Instead, crew members are displayed face up in your play area and can be tapped and used for their skills. Tapped crew members can only be refreshed by certain cards or at the end of each round. So, choosing to use your crew wisely is important. Crew members come in different levels from levels 1-3. The higher the level, the more powerful the crew and the harder to recruit. Crew members are recruited from stations, planets and also even from a destroyed Borg cube. I really enjoy seeing the familiar faces on the crew roster. Riker, Geordi, Data, 7 of 9, Hugh, etc. Unfortunately, there are no characters from the original series, Voyager or Enterprise. Crew are recruited by diplomacy points that are found on certain cards and is one form of currency that can be used to also heal or repair. One of the cooler aspects of the game is that crew members and the captain can beam to the surface planet for away missions. Scattered across the galaxy are different types of planets that your ship can encounter. Most planets allow you to send an away team for exploration. Each planet will have a different sort of challenge that is abstracted by planet tokens that are flipped over to indicate the nature of the challenge. In general, players can use crew members to solve a diplomacy challenge or via combat. If you have enough diplomacy points, there is no combat and you obtain the benefits of solving the planet via diplomacy. Otherwise, you can use brute force. Similar to ship-to-ship combat, players can use weapons to solve their conflict. I really like the Away team missions even though they are extremely challenging. This aspect of the game is so unique to Star Trek and you can feel the narrative flowing across game play. Recruiting the right crew and using your captain (like Picard!) at the appropriate can save you the heartache of fighting on every Away mission. Solving a planet via diplomacy feels way more satisfying and rewarding.
The other aspect of ST:Frontiers that I enjoy is the leveling up of your captain. Unlike improvements to the ship, captains can gain experience. With each successful battle, exploration or certain events in the game, captains gain experience and will level up. With increasing levels, player captains will either gain skill tokens with various benefits or increasing their hand size limit which also increases the capacity to recruit more crew members. There is something really primal and satisfying to see your captain grow and develop over the course of the game. A level 1 Picard or Sisko growing into a level 9 character is reflected by an increase in the number of options, skills, cards and crew to tackle different challenges in the game. Again, the link to the Star Trek narrative of growth and experience across different adventures is unmistakable. This is really something that Mage Knight probably cannot capture because of the theme. I love this part of the game.
There are too many rules to properly review ST:Frontiers in great detail. For each scenario, players have a set number of objectives to complete. In the case of the solo conquest mode, a player must explore the surrounding space, gain enough strength, crew and cards to hunt down Borg cubes and destroy them. The faster you complete the scenario, the more points you will earn.
Ultimately, as good as ST:Frontiers is, I have decided to move on from the game for a few reasons. First and probably most important, I am not a huge fan of solo gaming and I cannot foresee playing this game in multiplayer mode. Teaching the game is a bear and playing the game will result in significant downtime between players. SIGNIFICANT. In solo mode alone, I can mull over my actions for more than 15-20 minutes per turn. This is unacceptable in a multi-player mode. The game suffers from the most common issue that games of this type face, that is the complexity of the rule set can be unbearable. As much as I love the narrative, the game features too many modifiers for actions and exceptions to the rules that make solo mode gaming frustrating, at least for me. One spends time usually thinking about performing an action and then scrounging around the table for points….scraping around points to pull off an action with minimal downside. A typical action is combat. You look around skills, cards, tokens, crew members, data tokens, crystals and other modifiers on the table and other exceptions to the rules you might have missed just to launch the action. If that is inadequate or not satisfying, you then walk back your action and think of an alternative one. Each turn is filled with these possibilities that you map out carefully. If you stumble upon a positive modifier you missed, whoopee. Great. You are overjoyed. Otherwise, the game will revolve around juggling these numbers in your head over and over as you seek to maximize each action. I am sure in the course of playing the game, I have constantly missed small things here and there which can make or break the game. I did not like this part of the game.
I also found the solo scenarios to be really limiting. I may have enjoyed the game a whole lot more if it didn’t always revolve around combat or conquest. Say what you might, there is still a slight disconnect here with the Star Trek universe which emphasizes diplomacy and non-violent approaches to solving problems. Now, that is not to say there isn’t space combat, but ship to ship combat is supposed to be rare and capital ships generally cannot take much heat (which is why the new versions of Star Trek on TV are disappointing to me). In ST:Frontiers, Picard constantly had to attack Romulan ships, conquer stations and shoot at planets. It feels kinda odd. You basically cannot advance the game without combat. The game is structured around conflict. I understand the limitations of the design, and accept the game for what it is. It’s just that having played this half a dozen times, I think I have seen enough to know that I won’t miss the mechanism as much as I will miss being in the Star Trek universe.
Overall, I think the game is a wonderful design if you can stomach the “flaws”. These shortcomings are probably more unique to me than to other players. It’s really less a flaw than a feature of the gaming system itself. I can see someone with fewer time restrictions and a leaning toward a more combat oriented setting liking ST:Frontier a little more. Truth is, it would be incredibly hard to design a game that is not geared toward combat. Part of the allure of Star Trek for me is the non-confrontational approaches that captains take for solving missions. This must be really hard to capture on the game board unless it is some type of a legacy, individual story driven game like T.I.M.E stories. Until then, I will continue to hope for a game in this universe that will meet my criteria.