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.)
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?