Cardboard Children: Fleet Captains


Hello youse.

Do you remember a couple of weeks ago I said “I played an amazing game. I can’t tell you about it right now. Heeheeeheeeeeeee!” And some of you speculated about what it might be – “Perhaps it’s a new Knizia game?” Fucking UNLIKELY. “Perhaps it’s something about trading corn in 16th Century Humbergurgenstein?” Fucking UNLIKELY, mate.

Today is when I can tell you about it.

As Captain James T.J. Kirk would say: “ENGAGE!”

STAR TREK: FLEET CAPTAINS

I know everything about Star Trek. I know the code number thing of the Enterprise. (15556273-C). I know who Spock originally served with in the very first episode of the original series. (Captain Pink, in The Cell). I even have a replica of the electric guitar that Jean-James Picard played in the classic episode “The Inside Light”. So I’m sure you’ll understand my excitement when Ben Hogg at Esdevium Games sent me a giant box that said Star Trek on it.

Me and Ben have an understanding, you see. On occasion, he sends me games, and if I like them I cover them on this website. If I don’t like them, we just forget anything ever happened. Like a bad first date or something. I’m really not interested in writing negative pieces these days, but I like recommending things. It all works out nicely.

But, man, did I want to like Star Trek: Fleet Captains. It was huge, and full of amazing little starship miniatures. And I could tell that Ben was excited about it too. I was hoping that this wasn’t one of those encounters I was just going to have to brush under the carpet.

I needn’t have worried. This game is fucking incredible.

WHAT IT IS

In a nutshell, Fleet captains is an adventure game. You assume, by looking at it, that it’s a space combat game of some kind. But it really isn’t. It’s a space exploration game, with the occasional fight, and that’s the first big tick in the “Does this feel like Star Trek?” box. I’ve never understood why so many Star Trek computer and board games of the past have put a focus on space combat. There’s hardly any space combat in any of the shows. This game gets the balance just right. You can play a game of this and never fire one photon torpedo. That is how it should be.

Okay, so it’s a two-player game. It says on the box that four players can play, in two teams. And yeah, I’m sure they can. But this is a head-to-head two-player game. And I mean, for fuck’s sake, it was Kirk and Khan that went toe-to-toe with each other, wasn’t it? Not Kirk and his mate and Khan and his best pal. Yeah, it’s a two-player, with one person going the Klingons and the other going Starfleet.

So here’s how it works. It’s actually a very simple game. The universe is laid out as a sequence of unexplored hex tiles. These tiles are face down, so you don’t know what they are until you either visit them or scan them. One might feature a planet, another a star, another possibly even a black hole. There’s plenty of variety. (Please look out for that word in this column. Variety. It’s key.) You have a fleet of ships, built using a points system, and you set out to explore the unexplored. You draw mission cards at the start of the game, and these give you tasks to accomplish for victory points. Maybe you’ll be asked to do some science missions, where you go and scan some anomalies. Or maybe you’ll be asked to go and build some space stations. Or shoot some people. Plenty of variety.

You’ll also build a command deck. This is a nice feature. In any game you will only use some of your available cards. You choose these from themed decks. So there’s a little bit of deckbuilding involved at the start of the game, as you tailor your crew needs to your missions. These cards are the ones that feature characters from across the entire history of Star Trek. (The game isn’t set in any specific Star Trek era. You can have Picard and Kirk serving together.) Your command cards can be used as play-once cards, or some can be attached to your ships as crew members. Wow, there’s already so much going on here.

Okay, so you’re exploring the universe. You can claim territory, build outposts and starbases, you can even send away teams down to planets. All of these actions might help you fulfil missions, but it’s also handy to have things like starbases out there, so that you can repair your ships.

Every new area of space you enter has you rolling a die to see if you have an encounter there. And it’s in these encounters that the flavour of Star Trek really comes through. I don’t want to spoil these cards, because they’re so much fun to discover. But the way things like the Tribbles and the Mirror Universe play out mechanically within the game? That’s fucking gold right there. And there are loads of these cards too. Again, so much variety.

Most things in the game are covered by simple skill checks using dice. On each ship there is a Heroclix-style dial. This tracks the current settings for the four systems of your ship – Weapons, Shields, Sensors and Movement. If you are making a Weapons check, you roll one die, add it to your current Weapons setting, and try to beat a certain number. The cool thing is that you get to change how power is routed to your systems once a turn. So, if you’re about to go into combat, you can divert power to your Weapons systems. This lets you turn the dial to show a bigger number in the Weapons area. However, the numbers on your other systems will change too. You might be sacrificing speed, or sensors. This really feels like Star Trek, huh? Every ship is different too, so managing the systems leads to lots of important little decisions. Oh, and when your ship gets damaged, you have to shift your dial down to the yellow or red areas, where your options start to get very limited. You can do less shifts.

Yeah, so that’s pretty much it. You and your opponent fly around, carrying out missions, claiming territory, cloaking your ship, having encounters and occasionally butting heads.

But that’s all surface stuff, as good as it is. Star Trek: Fleet Captains is a game that generates stories.

EPISODE 1: TURF WAR – Klingon command, sure that they have uncovered a Federation mission to claim a vast area of unexplored space, send their ships to interfere and reclaim territory. However, the Klingon science ships in the vicinity are ill-prepared for battle. Can they avoid bringing shame upon the Klingon Empire?

(Yeah, this one stung. I’d spotted that the Federation were claiming an awful lot of adjacent tiles, systematically moving from one to the next. It was obviously a mission of some kind. However, I’d been given some science-heavy missions at the start of the game and had set out with a science team. I was going to have to butt heads with Starfleet with Klingons who couldn’t really fight very well. It was exciting. And no, I didn’t avoid bringing shame upon the Klingon Empire.)

EPISODE 2: FOOLS RUSH IN – While taking part in a Klingon rush through unexplored space, one Klingon ship finds itself caught in the cruel jaws of a black hole. Can the ship escape before it is torn apart? And will the Klingon command send any help, when there is a wider war to fight?

(This was incredible. Right at the start of one game, I blundered into a new sector without scanning first. I was caught by a black hole. In the following turns, I tried to escape. But failed repeatedly. My ship was being torn up. Now, I could have let the ship die. But it didn’t feel honourable. I sent my other ships over to help. While the Federation player was completing missions and setting out for an easy win, I was deep inside my own narrative. I was saving this ship, no matter what. This was where the game became special to me. I didn’t care about winning. I just wanted to save that ship.)

Wow.

If you’ve never watched Star Trek in your life, this is still a great game. You’ll have fun with this beast. It’s easy to learn, plays really quickly, and there’s so much fun in feeling like you’re in command of a fleet of spaceships in a chaotic universe.

If you like Star Trek, this game will delight you. You’ll recognise little bits and pieces, and it’ll feel just like those episodes you occasionally watched. You’ll play it once and say “Shall we go again?”

If you love Star Trek? If you’re a Trekkie? My God, this game is the Holy Grail. This is the game that finally does justice to the characters and the setting that you adore. There is no question. Buy it now. Buy it yesterday.

TWO FINAL THINGS

There have been a lot of complaints about the production quality of this game. The cards are thin. The tiles are thin. But, you know, there are loads of plastic ships. Each one of them is unique too. I, personally, have had no problems with the components. I would say that it would be wise to sleeve the cards, because this game will get played a lot. Beyond that, you should be fine. Don’t let the talk put you off the game.

And finally, this:

Where’s all the Deep Space Nine stuff? Sisko isn’t even in it! Sure, there are some DS9 things, but not enough. I can only hope that the DS9 stuff is being saved for an expansion. It is, after all, the best Star Trek series. Right?

Right.

67 Comments

  1. MrThingy says:

    Ooh, I can see USS Grissom in there.

    And a Scout… Class… Wessel.

    [edit – Federals and Klingonians, but no Romanians?]

  2. Nemrod says:

    VOYAGER FTW!

  3. MartinNr5 says:

    I’m actually glad that this doesn’t tickle my fancy as I’ve already got too mych to play (got my hands on Fortune and Glory two weeks ago, among other things).

  4. razgon says:

    I see they use Birth of the Federation design manual for this? Pretty cool.

    Will definitely pick this up sometime – thanks!

  5. mpk says:

    Is there an event card for Kirk where he just kicks back and listens to the sound of his own awesome?

  6. Raiyan 1.0 says:

    What’s Star Trek? Oh wait, that J J Abrams movie, right? Never had any idea you loved that film so much, Florence.

    • The Tupper says:

      Event Card: The captain discovers his first baw-hair and worries that his penis is broken.

  7. Hides-His-Eyes says:

    Leaving out content in order to sell an expansion? Tut, tut!

    This sounds awesome though. I wish they’d make a game along these lines. Just the game of the board game would be fine.

  8. Raiyan 1.0 says:

    Why can’t I just flush the Tribbles out into space using the airlocks?

    • The Tupper says:

      Because the people from PETA would get you into tribble.

    • Sleepymatt says:

      Working out how to get rid of them really is a tribblation.

    • Scorpi says:

      I guess that’s just the tribble with troubles. What’s the stat – every hour, the population tribbles in size? And if there are lesbian tribbles, do they – NOPE.

    • The Tupper says:

      Fur your information, a tribble is undoubtedly asexual.

      Believe me, I’ve tried waving any amount of currency at one and I simply can’t make it ‘ho.

  9. MrYo says:

    too bad I don’t know anyone who would play this with me. where do you meet those people? I never met anyone who is interested in all that nerd stuff :/

    • AN_D_K says:

      I’m having a few issues finding people nerdy enough to like board games AND Star Trek. But I bought it anyway. After all, this is the game that just the prospect of months ago made me take up board gaming

      There are singleplayer rules kicking about if you go looking on boardgamegeek. It’s more about the experience and little stories anyway, rather than beating someone, so it may be enough for you.

    • Saul says:

      The Internet?

      Seriously, though, there are loads of nerds out there. There are suburbs full of them. Maybe you’re living in the wrong place.

    • MrYo says:

      Yeah, the Internet… most of the people I meet there live too far away. I certainly do live in the wrong place. In the wrong country. But where exactly are those “suburbs full of them”?

    • studenteternal says:

      Ask people. I know it sounds kinda dumb, but I have met a lot of people, who now game with me regularly or semi-regularly who never would have described themselves as the type of person to play nerdy board games, but loved it once they came over for a game and a few beers.

  10. Kernkraftritter says:

    What? Boardgames-cum-Starships, and nobody has mentioned Battlefleet Gothic yet? Free rulebook at link to games-workshop.com

  11. geewizz says:

    I’m a little confused. I dont remember “The Inside Light” but “Inner Light” or was this some joke that went over my head :S

    edit.. you got me. Never coming onto this site tired again

  12. Scroll says:

    Fuck yes Deep Space Nine is the best series. It’s a shame I hate Bajorans.

    • Prime says:

      They did more often than not come across as a bunch of moaning, mindless bureaucrats/religious slaves but i was rather enamoured with that ear-ring/chain thing they wore.

      Also: Ensign Ro was pure hawt. :)

      Finally: DS9 ftw.

    • Durkonkell says:

      I’m more of a MajorColonelCaptain Kira type myself.

      DS9 was excellent and explored a lot of themes that the starship-set series didn’t. With that said, I still think TNG is the best.

      Although compared to DS9, TNG did have a severe lack of Jadzia Dax so you could argue the point either way.

    • The Tupper says:

      “It’s a shame I hate Bajorans”

      Anti-semite!

  13. mod the world says:

    A Star Trek board game which basically can be played alone. Someone sure did research their target audience.

    • Durkonkell says:

      “Okay, so it’s a two-player game.”

      Two players is certainly closer to ‘alone’ than… let’s say ten or something, but I’m not sure it’s fair to say that it basically is alone. I mean, it’s certainly not something you should ever say in court:

      “I was basically alone that night, yeah”
      “So no-one can corroborate your story?”
      “My girlfriend can, she was with me”
      “But you just said you were basically alone.”
      “Yes.”
      “You are, of course, in contempt”
      “I know…”

    • gwathdring says:

      Also in contempt of romantic partner.

    • mod the world says:

      Since Robert describes one of his rounds as idiosyncraticly trying to get his ship out of a blackhole while his game “partner” just did his missions and won, Fleet Captains seems to be two people playing a single-player game each on the same table.

    • sneetch says:

      @mod the world

      No, it’s more that that game was Robert playing his own game and his opponent playing to win. He basically ignored his opponent as he concentrated on freeing one ship from the black hole. Robert’s actions here, his obsession with his trapped ship led to him ignoring his opponent, which allowed that opponent to win. That’s not the game really, that’s the way Robert played it.

      Similarly, you could spend a game of Advanced Squad Leader marching your entire army up and down the streets or seeing how fast you can ferry your troops across a river and declare that ASL was a complicated parade ground or shipping simulator but that’s not the way the game is intended to be played.

  14. Ergates_Antius says:

    I was close with my guess of Eclipse. Do I win a prize?

  15. Lajcik says:

    I have to agree with Robert – this game is amazing even when you don’t know squat about star trek. I haven’t watched a single star trek episode in my life and I barely so when my gf bought this game I wasn’t sure if I’d like it. Many theme-oriented products, especially games, end up being unaccessible or downright boring if you’re not into the theme. Fleet Captains is neither.

    It’s a very solid, easy to learn board game with a great space exploration vibe going for it. There’s also a lot of depth and customization options available. Once you feel comfortable you can adjust your fleet size (and victory points required to win), ships that make up your fleet , your deck and even the board itself (both size and shape, making your universe wider, thiner or a combination of both). With all those options the game still manages to feel very balanced, with one player usually very close behind the other. This creates a feeling of constant pressure but without the sense of being overwhelmed. There’s just enough complexity to give you enough options to deal with any situation but not make the turns (and the whole game) take forever.

    A typical session takes about an hour. The manual is quite long, so your first time playing will probably take longer since you’ll need to read it, but the rules rules themselves are quite simple and explained well enough so that you’ll be able to play without constantly consulting the manual and the actual game will go quite smoothly. Unfortunately the manual is not that well organized so when you do need to check something it might take a while to find. For example the rules concerning battles are scattered between three separate manual sections – the combat action, combat cards and combat system checks. It’s not really a huge issue since the rules themselves are simple enough that you’ll soon memorize them, but it tends to break the flow of the game.

    One serious gripe I have with the game is that the ‘clix’ system (the little turnable dials on the ships) is shit. The whole idea is great, but the dials are just crap. They do not stick out from the base so they’re uncomfortable to use. There’s no easy way to grab the base and cycle the dial because the dial’s diameter is the same as the base. If the center of the dial was offset a bit from the center of the base, and the dial was a bit smaller – so that it would stick out on one end – it would be perfect. As it stands it’s just uncomfortable to use. Apart from that half the dials on the ships are too tight so turning them is a nightmare. Halfway through our first game we just ditched the dials and started marking the ship power levels with a die.

    Overall – I would recommend the game to anyone who likes board games and especially to anyone who’s a trek junkie :) It’s lots of fun.

    • studenteternal says:

      I don’t own this (yet) but some of the fine folks over at board game geek have suggested abandoning the ‘clix’ base and just using a power marker on the ship card instead.

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  17. Spatula says:

    link to amazon.co.uk

    £71!!!!!! bloody hell.

  18. Kronic says:

    Always preferred Star Fleet Battles meself. Still, good read.

  19. Someblokius says:

    It would be appropriate if they’ve left out DS9 to sell later as an expansion. It may have been fun, but it was always the most Prophet-driven of the series.

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  22. YogSo says:

    “You can have Picard and Kirk serving together.”

    Flashbacks from Star Trek: Generations come to mind. *shudders*

  23. IGLAW says:

    Is there… Any Enterprise stuff?

  24. raptormesh says:

    Broke down and ordered one, seems like a decent game for me and the missus since we’re casual fans of trek. Hmm the first ever game I purchase immediately upon reading a review on RPS is made of trees and dinosaurs instead of electrons. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

  25. G_Man_007 says:

    As an aside; Rab, loved your choice of film at the GFT tonight, finally got to watch it after all this time. Also loved the patter with Mark Millar.

    Back on track; this sounds like an interesting game, having a narrative randomly created as you go. If there’s a little Klingon Empire intrigue thrown in too (what second in command wouldn’t want to take the ship for himself?), so much the better. And if there is a DS9 expansion, it’d better have Esri Dax in it.

  26. Ethan Pasternack says:

    I’m thrilled that so many people seem to not only be enjoying the game but enjoying it -because- of its thematic feel. I push really hard to represent the feel of the IP first and foremost in a game’s design, and this was my most extensive effort yet to do so. That those efforts not only apparently worked but were successful enough to be recognized and appreciated by players and critics alike is a huge validation. :)

    Thanks so much for the great review, Robert!

    -Ethan