At its heart, Gale Force 9’s Star Trek Ascendancy is a large-scale slow-build ‘4X’ game - eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate. In the core game, players play as either the Federation (Earth and its allies), Klingons or Romulans. They start off in their home worlds separated from each other by the expanse of unexplored space.
As they explore neighbouring space, they find new worlds and, as the mantra goes, new civilisations. They expand their area of control, they make use of what they find, they develop their technology and, as their empires expand towards each other, eventually they come into contact and conflict with each another.
The Game - Good and Bad
The game comes with three factions. That means that, out of the box, it is really only playable with three. You can try playing it with two but one of the elements of Star Trek Ascendancy is its facility to set-up trade agreements and these would be meaningless with only two players. Though expansions to bring in the Ferengi and Cardassians as additional player races were promised from the start, early adopters had to wait a year for them to arrive. Now they are here, so, if you are prepared to buy the expansions, you can take the player count up to four and five.
A more recent Borg expansion is also now available but that is not intended as a player race; more an existential threat facing all of the players. If you buy this expansion, it does make the core game more playable with two or even playable as a solitaire game. Be warned though, the rules for the Borg expansion are something of a let down. You are bound to have queries and are almost certain to encounter rule as well as space anomalies. There have been post-publication FAQs which should help but you will probably find that you still need to house rule some eventualities.
Sticking strictly to the core game, part of the problem with Star Trek Ascendancy is that it is a long game. The rules suggest an hour per player, but that is based on players already being very familiar with the game: it isn’t hard to imagine a game easily taking twice as long if players are coming to it for the first time. So, before you start, you need three people who are prepared to commit themselves to what could potentially be a six hour stint.
If you are playing with other Star Trek fans, you won’t have a problem getting other players to the table. This game looks fabulous. There are plastic models representing each faction’s starbases and fleets, and there are cards with images taken from the show. Star Trek Ascendancy is a game that is dripping with theme. Players are all separately laying out connecting pieces and planets as their fields of exploration expand towards each other, and that builds anticipation and excitement as your universes coalesce.
The designers have made an attempt to get the different factions to play differently. That’s as it should be. With the exception in Voyager of the Kazon (who were famously dismissed by the Borg as lacking any biological or technological distinctiveness) part of the success of the Star Trek franchise has been the fact that the different races we encounter are not simply interchangeable.
To make this work within the game, players really need to throw themselves into character. You’ll get more out of this game if you accentuate the asymmetry through modest role play. If you play the Klingons, you need to lecture the other two players about “honour” as you embark on a programme of raining death on the planets you encounter. Playing as Romulans, you need to be conspiratorial as you pursue your path of relentless conquest. And as the Federation, you need to persuade yourself that it is merely to protect other civilisations that you subject them to your dominion.
You see, in order to get a playable 4X game out of Star Trek you have to end up with the Federation doing things that feel quite unTrek-like. The designers have realised this and help us along the way by using different nomenclature. Whereas the Klingons and Romulans are likely to take over planets through the imposition of military might, the Federation may prefer to do so through ‘cultural hegemony’. Persuade yourself this is different. It will help you sleep at night. The truth is though that Gale Force 9 have simply turned conquest into an irregular verb:
- he/she subjugates.
- you control.
- I extend my cultural hegemony.
Conquered and colonised worlds probably find it hard to distinguish between military and cultural oppressors – but maybe that’s a debate to be had if and when Gale Force 9 come up with a Bajoran expansion.
Star Trek Ascendancy has suffered from some lukewarm reviews. Reviewers all agree that the game looks great. Those who are Star Trek fans mostly praise the Star Trek look and feel. Where the game has taken most criticism is over its length. This is not just the time it takes to play the game but the amount of downtime while playing.
I have several games that I know are, in effect, day-long plays and I bring them out only when I have a group over who want to play a day-long game. Things may be different now that the slightly streamlined Twilight Imperium 4 is here, but I didn’t used to break out my copy of Twilight Imperium 3 when I had half a dozen people over with just an hour or two to spare.
When I’ve made the time to do so, I’m very happy playing a game that may run up to six hours. If I’m making that time commitment, however, I expect to be engrossed and engaged for most of it. Sadly, therein lies the problem with Star Trek Ascendancy and the key reason why the game has attracted some negative responses. As currently set out in the rules, players in their turn determine all of the actions before the turn moves on to the next player. This means this is a game you should never put anywhere near anyone who suffers from 'Analysis Paralysis.' If a player is spending time agonising over every action, it’ll take even longer to play Star Trek Ascendancy than enthusiasts had to wait for the arrival of the Ferengi and Cardassian expansions. However, even with three players who all plan ahead and none of whom dither over their moves, you can expect a long wait before your next turn comes around.
Downtime is key defect of the game. You should not, however, dismiss this game as fatally flawed. It does not take very much ingenuity to house-rule a solution whereby turns are broken up, with each player taking a single command action before moving on to the next player. That way, everyone is kept involved and no-one is just sitting idle waiting for the two other players to complete their lengthy turns. Another option for speeding play is for players to take certain actions – particularly builds – simultaneously.
The other criticism that is made of Star Trek Ascendancy is that it is a game that suffers from a high degree of randomness. Exploration cards mean that what players discover is quite literally the luck of the draw. Some cards will be a lot more beneficial than others. In many respects this is fully in keeping with the theme. We are, after all, exploring the unknown. If you’re not willing to boldly go where no man has gone before then what are you doing playing this game?
Nevertheless, in gameplay terms, such wide swings of fortune sit uncomfortably with a game that demands quite such a large time commitment to play. If you’ve dedicated your entire Saturday to a single game, you are not going to be happy to find that its outcome is determined by the turn of a single card.
Closing Thoughts on Star Trek Ascendancy
So is this a game you should add to your collection? If you’re a Star Trek fan then you’ll definitely get a kick out of Star Trek Ascendancy. You’ll love the components and the artwork. (And you can even further upgrade the components by adding in extras like faction-specific dice for each player). You’ll forgive the flaws and you’ll find an accommodation with the rules to make the game more playable.
If you can take or leave Star Trek then this probably isn’t the game for. You will be better off looking at other 4X space games like Eclipse (due a new edition later this year).