Theory: Maintain Theme from Beginning to End

The second edition of the Star Trek CCG (“2E”) hit on the brilliant approach of dividing its cards by the narratives they participated in rather than by in-character citizenship. Unfortunately, 2E then shoehorned those thematic factions into mechanics that often didn’t reward thematic play. Flat experiences often resulted, with each one a reminder that a game must follow through on its theme, from beginning to end.

2E’s great insight was that players should be “Deep Space Nine” players instead of “Federation” players. One benefit of that approach was that characters could be subdivided by show rather than by in-character rules; as a Deep Space Nine player one would have access to Deep Space Nine’s main cast without needing to worry about whether Captain Sisko, of the Federation, would work with Garak, a Cardassian. They worked together on the show, they ought to work together in the game, and now they clearly could. Divvying up characters in this fashion solved a lot of problems.

Approaching the game by show instead of by in-universe political affiliations also opened up a tremendous opportunity to reinforce the Star Trek theme: different factions could interact with the game’s mechanics in different ways, each appropriate to their respective stories. Overall the game would be a funnel design, with all players trying to be the first to score 100 points. How they got to that point, however, would depend in part on what the faction was about within the narrative.

Many of 2E’s cards reflect this effort to make the factions’ play look and feel like the stories they appeared in. The Next Generation, which emphasized building bridges with other cultures, gets cards that benefit the player while also extending a helping hand to the opponent. Deep Space Nine often had themes of frontier survival, and thus its cards allow players to protect their resources.

"Disadvantage into Advantage" is a classic Next Generation card that benefits both players; "Medical Teams" shows off the Deep Space Nine theme of seeking safety in dangerous places
“Disadvantage into Advantage” is a classic Next Generation card that benefits both players; “Medical Teams” shows off the Deep Space Nine theme of seeking safety in dangerous places.

Even when playing a faction ostensibly based on an in-universe political group rather than a show as a whole, the designers still import a great deal of story feel into the experience. Players taking on the role of the Dominion, a repressive civilization that served as a Deep Space Nine antagonist, have cards that slow the game down for everyone. Decks based on the hyper-mercantilistic Ferengi accumulate face-down cards as wealth, which they can then use to “buy” various advantages.

So far, so good. The factions were thematic, both in the people available to them and in what their cards do. If the mechanics kept pushing the theme, we might well be looking at the definitive Star Trek game.

Frustratingly, the mechanics didn’t.

Much of the fault can be laid at the feet of the scoring system. 2E is a race to 100 points. All of the themes have to work within that context—and some of them just don’t make sense there.

Take, for example, The Next Generation decks built around mutual understanding and helping others, expressed through cards that benefit both players. If those cards actually provided any significant assistance to the opponent, the race would probably be unwinnable for the Next Generation player. It’s hard to take first in a sprint when you keep turning around to give other runners a push, after all. Hence, what those cards usually do is provide a benefit that looks symmetrical, but which only the Next Generation player will be in a position to use. The “help” offered to the opponent is more like a booby-prize, and the theme of cooperation is undermined.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, playing the Dominion feels weird when the goal is to complete missions and build up toward a goal. The Dominion was staid, reactionary, intolerant; its role on the show was to object to change so strongly that it resisted new ideas with violence. Yet, in 2E the Dominion has to progress, and progress along the same axis as a Next Generation crew that spends its time learning from other cultures.

The primary means for getting points—completing missions—was also a problem, in several respects. First, the missions tended to be things the characters might do in-universe: investigate a mysterious space probe, respond to a distress call, etc. As a result, while most cards were driven by narrative the actual stuff one did with the cards was all about in-character simulation. That led to odd, athematic moments like Klingons participating in amnesty talks or organizing a cargo rendezvous; I’m sure there are Klingons who do those things, but they don’t fit the role of the Klingon Empire in the story, and after playing a bunch of cards meant to “feel Klingon” it was unfortunate to then use them to do un-Klingon-feeling things.

Are these what a game about the Klingon Empire should involve?
These missions are worth points for Klingon players, but they don’t reinforce any narrative theme relating to the Klingons.

Second, the interaction between missions and the people carrying them out didn’t build narrative the way the individual cards did. Star Trek, like any good story, involves character development. However, the missions don’t capture character development in any way. Missions and characters are both static in the game; if the characters can’t complete a mission, the solution is not for them to grow as people but rather to go get some other (also static) crewmembers who already have the requisite skills and attributes. Reading the cards one gets the feeling of the stories told on the show, but actual play doesn’t feel like a story at all.

(Perhaps it feels like a bad story, where we never transition from Act I to Act II because the main characters never get invested and just wander away when the going gets tough. That, of course, isn’t much of an improvement.)

Third and finally, the fact that players bring their own missions twisted certain faction themes based on interaction. The Maquis in the fiction were separatists who wanted to defend their territory, but 2E players naturally tended to stick to their own missions. As a result, the signature Maquis card is one that “defends” an opponent’s mission, locking him or her out of it. It seems that the Maquis in the game developed an expansionist streak.

Romulan decks also suffer from the BYOGalaxy dynamic. The Romulan Star Empire is always spoiling for a fight—but the Romulans are portrayed as cunning counter-punchers who rarely make the first move. Most opponents will never offer the provocation the Romulans are looking for, of course, because they’re content to stay amongst their own missions. Romulan players therefore have to go roaring over to the opponent’s side of the table Klingon-style.

In the end, then, 2E feels like Star Trek during deck-building, but loses that feeling in play. Themes are baked into the cards, but the funnel of missions and racing to 100 points turns some of those themes into mirror universe versions of themselves.* Even where a faction’s theme survives the funnel, the actions players take during the game feel less like being a Starfleet captain and more like being a quartermaster.

2E thus gave with one hand and took with the other; players would put down cards that felt very Star Trek, but then would have to use those cards in ways that undermined the theme of the game. The result was a game that started strong, but didn’t fully capture the Star Trek experience. Hence, all these years later, 2E stands as an object lesson that a game needs to deliver on its theme throughout the player’s engagement with it.

* You knew I was going to reference the Mirror Universe!

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