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.
Exploring the galaxy
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.