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.

Why Play 3D Chess? (In Memory of Leonard Nimoy)

I’ve long been fascinated by Star Trek’s 3D chess.

Image from Wikipedia
Image from Wikipedia

3D chess puzzled me, not in its technical implementation—people can and have created rules for the game—but because I wasn’t sure why one would want it. Chess is a tremendously challenging game; there are hundreds of billions of possible positions after just a few moves, and even top-flight computers (to say nothing of top-flight players!) haven’t solved it. Making the game even more complex, opening it up to even more possible game states, seemed likely to make it totally unmanageable.

Leonard Nimoy passed away today. That got me thinking about Spock, and about 3D chess. What’s the draw for Spock and his comrades, all of whom play this beast of a game?

Here’s my theory: 3D chess is incredibly complicated. It’s so complicated, possessed of so many moves and counter-moves and openings and midgames and endgames and tactical tricks and schools of thought, that one never fully explores it. The fun comes not just from competing with the person across from you, but also from the game’s endless strategic vistas, the beautiful intricacies that appear as one plays and that, upon examination, promise still more amazing things to be found beyond them.

In other words, it’s a game about exploring, not physical worlds, but strategic ones. That sounds like something Spock would play to me.

RIP Leonard Nimoy, 1931-2015. LLAP.