Did you like the Star Trek episodes that focused on local problems, such as annoying space amoeba threatening Potemkin IV? Or those episodes featuring a broader "clash of civilizations" between the Federation, the Klingons, and/or the Romulans?
Star Trek: Ascendancy is the new $100 board game from Gale Force Nine, and it's all about Big Conflicts. In the game, you build an empire—then bump into others. Conflict will result. Planets will be conquered. Homeworlds will be threatened.
One of the hot titles at this year's huge Gen Con gaming convention in Indianapolis, Ascendancy has built buzz by producing a solid civ-building board game set in the Star Trek universe. And now that we've had a chance to put its starships through their paces, we agree. This is a terrific title—though it's not a "board game" at all. Ascendancy's unusual galaxy-building mechanism makes it one of the few games that offers players true control over the exploration and development of their empires, and that leads to a unique—and long—experience.
So grab your bat'leth; let's venture out into uncharted space together.
A galactic civilization-building game should bake in some element of true exploration, the feeling that you're discovering "new worlds and new civilizations" and "boldly going," etc. But this can be difficult in board games. Pre-printed boards may allow for the randomization of planetary effects, but they generally provide fixed star maps (see the massive board in Star Wars: Rebellion for a good example).
Not Ascendancy. In their desire to provide supreme exploratory flexibility, the game's designers have produced a "board game" without a board. Instead, each player starts with a homeworld—Kronos, Earth, or Romulus—and builds out from there into the empty table. As ships explore, they travel along space lanes of varying lengths and discover new planets at the end of them (the planets are chosen randomly from a face-down stack).
Each planet is different; some house dangerous "hazards," while others are lush spots with plenty of room to build a civilization. Cards determine each system's level of existing civilization, which can vary from "none" to "pre-warp" to advanced "warp-capable," which are difficult to subdue.
In each game, then, your particular empire begins independently and grows organically. That growth is shaped by each player, since space lanes can extend out in any direction from existing planets, and they can eventually connect to the web of planets explored by one of your opponents.
Keeping your empire insular may feel wise, as contact with others opens the way to invasion and conquest. But empires that make contact also gain the huge advantage of trade with one another, providing more resources to both on every turn. This risk/reward dynamic shapes gameplay calculations throughout, offering rewards both for domination and for trade, but preventing them from being earned at the same time. (Aggressive action automatically breaks trade deals.)
The result feels truly exploratory, especially over the first 45 minutes to an hour, when empires may not yet be in contact. Not only do the planets change from game to game, but the very shape of the galaxy's layout and connections differs every time out.
In addition, while each civilization has identical actions (build ships, invade planets, etc.), each one also has bonuses that alter the strategic calculus. The Federation, for instance, is banned from invading planets or from colonizing primitive worlds; instead, it uses the "soft power" of its cultural hegemony to convince planets to join up willingly. The Klingons, by contrast, have attack bonuses and are forbidden from retreating in battle.
In a game about empires, individuals don't exist. Ascendancy's manual prominently displays Captains Janeway, Sisko, Kirk, and Picard on its cover, but they don't appear in the game. Starships aren't helmed by particular captains, and research advancements, fleets, and starbases aren't linked to people. That's a sharp contrast to games like Star Wars: Rebellion, which is full of plastic ships but makes specific heroes and villains into central game elements. This lack of human scale is not necessarily a problem, but just be aware that Ascendancy is about empire building at its highest, most institutional level.
Ascendancy's three empires develop themselves through an elegant, clearly defined system. On each round, the three empires bid for initiative and spend resources (Culture, Research, or Production) to determine turn order.
On each turn, players first build items like starships, planetary control nodes, or resource-generating sites on planets they control. They can also commit Research tokens to a variety of new projects or to upgraded shields and weapons for their entire fleet of ships. (Fleets move an entire group of ships as a single unit, and they often provide some bonus to the fleet ships as well; if you want to move large numbers of ships around the board, you will absolutely need to form them into fleets.)
After building comes the "command phase." Players have a specific number of command tokens, though that number can be increased over the course of the game by researching new projects or by building starbases. Each command token allows a player to take a single action, such as moving a starship and discovering a new planet, organizing starships into larger fleets, attacking opposing ships or planets, exerting cultural hegemony, or building starbases.
A crucial gameplay decision is how hard to press for more of these command tokens. Is it worth shortchanging Culture nodes up front in order to focus on Research, which can build projects that provide more command tokens? Is it worth starting a war with a rival empire in order to seize its outlying starbase and take its command token? And, if so, can you produce or fly in enough starships to hold the system and prevent it being retaken in a turn or two by your now-agitated neighbor? Having more actions than an opponent adds up quickly across even a few turns—but the cost of picking up these extra tokens is high, and resources might sometimes be better used collecting Culture nodes.
Once everyone has gone, players gather whatever resources their empires and trade deals produced, and the cycle repeats.
Winning Ascendancy can happen in two ways. The first requires the (peaceful?) domination of galactic culture, which requires control of one's own home system and the possession of five Ascendancy tokens. These tokens can be purchased at any time for five Culture resources, and winning this way doesn't require a single planetary invasion or space attack.
The second way to win is through battle-hardened brutality; take over all three of the game's homeworlds and you win by force of arms. That's important because too many civ-building games become de facto war games; winning requires fighting, and resource gathering becomes just a way to fuel the war machine. Here, exploration, cultural hegemony, and the building of starships and resource nodes are key parts of the game, and one can win without making a single offensive move.
In my most recent game of Ascendancy, for instance, peaceful strategy won the day. I played the Federation and, though I had every intention of living up to Gene Roddenberry's harmonious ideals, the dastardly Klingon Empire wouldn't leave me alone. I had tried to keep my corner of space cut off from the other empires at first so that I could focus on building up Culture resources and Ascendancy tokens rather than investing in starships and fleets.
But the Klingons forced a connection and then a conflict; while we battled, each losing ships and swapping control of starbases, the Romulan Empire parked big fleets at the space lanes entering its territory and just accrued resources and explored new planets behind this barrier. As the Klingons and Federation wore each other down, the Romulans focused on building new Culture nodes, quickly earning enough resource to buy up Ascendancy tokens and winning the whole game.
This is part of the fine balance of Ascendancy; getting sucked into a cultural or shooting war with one particular empire often works to the benefit of the uninvolved third party, while fighting a war of two fronts is difficult. But sitting back and doing nothing, especially if another empire is raking in the Culture resources, is intolerable if you want to win.
Be aware, however, that Ascendancy rewards ganging up on an opponent and has plenty of "take that" destruction and invasion. If having the Klingons and Romulans both pressing in at the edges of your Federation, picking off your starbases and conquering your planets (which reduces your resources) sounds more frustrating than fun, this may not be a game for you. Ascendancy is absolute not a "multiplayer solitaire" exercise in resource building; you will get smacked around, a lot, at exactly the moments you had other plans.
How many years is this mission?
The biggest potential issue with Ascendancy is that it can feel like a "five-year mission." Even the manual warns, "Be prepared: this is a long game." Experienced players should be able to finish in about one hour per player, though "your first few games will be longer."
In the first couple of games I played with my gaming group, gameplay got smoother but not shorter as we grokked the rules. We spent more time thinking through strategic decisions once we understood better what each meant. Games took close to four hours each, even when we used variant rules designed to speed play. Personally, I find these kinds of games too long when trying to play with other friends juggling careers and families; having Earth get overrun by a Klingon battlefleet at 1:30 on a Saturday morning after a week of work loses some of its appeal and easily turns to frustration. (The game manual includes a short bit on "Starfleet ethics" that encourages grace while winning and while losing, suggesting that playtesters had similar reactions.)
Long games are great for special occasions, but because they often tend to have complex rulesets, not playing them regularly requires a rules refresher every time they do hit the table.
But if the length is no deterrent, the gameplay itself is good. Ascendancy feels exploratory, it offers a real sense of building up a fleet and an empire, and it offers multiple approaches to victory. While it does offer a real "tech tree" and provides the means to upgrade shields and weapons multiple times, in my experience these "upgrades" are simply too expensive to be used much. In the games I played, no one upgraded more than a few times. Exploration, fleet building, and combat are the real emphases.
Ascendancy requires three players out of the box; there's no two-player variant. Expansions have already been announced, including the Cardassian and Ferengi empires, which can increase the player count to five and turn a long game into a truly epic one. Downtime between turns, already an issue in the three-player, will likely be a significant drawback to higher player counts, though groups that are militant about forcing quick turns might make this work.-----NATE ANDERSON