Something Completely Different: Star Trek Games Done Right

Grousing about the old Star Trek CCGs got me thinking about Trek games. Years ago I saw a forum post on Boardgamegeek that superbly captured the issue most of them suffer from. I can’t find the post now, but paraphrased it went something like:

“Star Trek is focused on moral issues. No Trek game ever has been.”

To my mind that’s exactly the problem. All of the Star Trek games I’ve played—and I’ve played quite a lot of them—focus either on completing scientific tasks or on combat. Both of those things feature in Trek, of course, but (at least in the good episodes) they’re window-dressing for some other, more universal dilemma.

There’s been one brief exception, and it’s all the more powerful because it demonstrates how remarkable a Trek game that feels like Trek could be. Back in the SNES days there was a game called Star Trek: Starfleet Academy Starship Bridge Simulator. (That’s a mouthful! Let’s call it ST:SA.) ST:SA was, for the most part, about combat. It played like Wing Commander, X-Wing, or the Freespace games: a flight sim set amongst the stars, where the goal is to shoot down opposing vessels.

However, there was one mission that was absolutely brilliant. I can no longer recall the details, but the player had to deal with a Gorn vessel. The Gorn are not the friendliest of species, and after going through a conversation tree I was dropped into the usual fight. Destroying the Gorn vessel earned me a passing grade on the mission (this was the Starfleet Academy game, the missions were graded)—but not full points.

That was striking. Overwhelmingly the game rewarded fighting prowess. Most gameplay time was spent in battles. What had gone wrong?

I had. I had settled into a routine of “Star Trek-themed space sim,” but the designers still had in mind what Star Trek was all about. With this mission they set out to see whether you were playing according to Trek’s ideals.

After several replays, I realized that it was possible to avoid the fight entirely—but to do so, the player had to communicate with the Gorn in a way that a Gorn would respect. Offering help and being polite made them feel talked down to. Be bombastic, on the other hand, and the Gorn knew they were being taken seriously. If the player took the time to read up on the Gorn and then leveraged that knowledge to find a productive way to communicate, they would go peacefully on their way and the player got a 100% for the mission.

That single mission was the most Star Trek thing in any Star Trek game I’ve ever played. It was about diplomacy. It was about empathy. It was about building a bridge between the player and someone who seemed to be nothing like the player.

Unfortunately, it’s a moment that’s never really been repeated. Even ST:SA went back to dogfighting.

I want to play a Star Trek game that maintains the spirit and sensibility of that mission throughout. A game where creating earns better rewards than breaking, where both competition and cooperation are valued.

That game doesn’t yet exist. I guess I’d better get to work.

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!

Theory: Dividing Cards by Narrative Instead of In-Universe Rules

About a decade ago Decipher—at the time an important player in CCGs—launched the second edition of its Star Trek game. When it did, its designers made two critical design decisions. One was superb; the other tended to undermine the first. Today we’re going to talk about the good decision: separating factions by narrative rules rather than in-universe ones.

In both of its editions the Star Trek CCG featured cards representing people from the Star Trek universe. Players assembled a crew by playing cards, and then flew about the galaxy completing missions. Each mission was worth points, and the first player to 100 points won.

The Star Trek CCG’s first edition (“1E”) divided its personnel according to Star Trek’s fiction. Romulans could only work with other Romulans as a rule; Cardassians were found in crews with other Cardassians; the Dominion kept to itself, running fully Dominion-staffed vessels. Federation citizens, including most of the main cast of the Star Trek TV shows, were happy to team up—Captain Kirk and Mr. Tuvok were both members of Starfleet, after all—but generally speaking the game prevented them from teaming up with non-Federation citizens, like Klingons or the Bajorans.

Looking at this from an in-character perspective, it all makes sense. The average Romulan might well never even meet a non-Romulan, so it’s perfectly reasonable for him or her only to be found on Romulan starships. Most Klingons in space are members of the Klingon military, which is presented as all-Klingon on the show; a player taking the part of the Klingon Empire might therefore reasonably have an all-Klingon crew. The Dominion is an insular society which does not welcome outsiders aboard its spacecraft. As for the Federation personnel, there’s no in-universe reason why Captain Sisko wouldn’t team up with Captain Picard or Captain Janeway, but there’s probably some Starfleet regulation about giving a Kazon the run of the ship.

However, the in-character approach had three critical problems. First, it did a lousy job of imitating the shows. The Next Generation had citizens of other interstellar nations appear as allies as often as they appeared as enemies, if not more; at various points its major characters worked with the Klingons, the Romulans, the Cardassians, the Bajorans, and even a Borg. Deep Space Nine doubled down on that idea, putting its Federation crew in constant contact with the Bajorans, the Ferengi, and later the Klingons and Romulans. Captain Sisko and his faithful team even worked with the deadly Dominion from time to time. By restricting characters’ ability to work together, 1E created a Balkanization that had nothing to do with the source material.

These two characters not only worked together every day, the character on the left viewed the one on the right as the messiah of her religion. Nevertheless, in 1E they could not normally be part of the same crew.
These two characters not only worked together every day, the character on the left viewed the one on the right as the messiah of her religion. Nevertheless, in 1E they could not normally be part of the same crew.

The second problem grows out of the first: 1E lost touch with the themes of Star Trek. Any given episode of Trek will involve a sci-fi problem—a moon that has to be put back in its orbit, computerized tools attaining sentience, etc.—but the point is always a human lesson: one about learning to work with people from other cultures, or how we might confront real-world issues.

Separating the characters into political affiliations and then enforcing that separation made it difficult to address those themes. The game couldn’t say much about finding common ground because it prevented groups from interacting!

Third and finally, 1E tended to elide the differences between shows. Since nothing in-universe would stop the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine crews from mixing and matching, nothing in the game did either. Nor was it particularly difficult to get luminaries from the original series and Voyager into the mix. Ultimately this led both to thematic weirdness (“Captain Sisko doesn’t seem like he’d approach this mission based on a Next Generation episode the way Captain Picard did, but the cards don’t allow for that”) and gameplay problems (the Federation could create high-powered crews, and so other factions had to be given similar power in other areas, creating difficult-to-balance asymmetries).

With the second edition of the game (“2E”) Decipher took a different tack: it replaced in-universe political affiliation with out-of-character narrative grouping as the arbiter of who could work together. Thus, rather than being a “Federation player,” one might be a “Deep Space Nine” player, able to play all of the characters who were a part of that show’s main cast or who were regular guest-stars no matter what planet they came from or what government they worked for.

2E fixes the problem with the "DS9" icons to the left of the text box; since both characters have the icon, they can easily be played in the same deck even though they work for different in-universe governments.
2E fixes the problem with the “DS9” icons to the left of the text box; since both characters have the icon, they can easily be played in the same deck even though they work for different in-universe governments.

Although it might seem simple in retrospect, that single move did much to resolve 1E’s problems. The constant cultural intermingling seen on the shows was easily incorporated, so the game became a better simulation. People who didn’t seem to have much in common could team up again, restoring some much-needed thematic power. Finally, the Federation got some reasonable sub-divisions, which took pressure off of the designers.

2E began with a single, brilliant idea: a game about TV shows could be based, not on the fictional universe’s rules, but on the audience’s experience as they watch. Running with that concept helped 2E resolve many of the issues which had plagued the previous edition. Unfortunately, it did not avoid every land mine—as we’ll discuss on Wednesday.