[Editors note: The following is a Nemesis Review, featuring opinions from our in-house thematic-loving @futurewolfie and his ferocious opponent, the stodgy euro-loving @Farmerlenny. Make sure to read both opinions to get a better overall picture of the game!]
If you fit into the “geek” sphere in any way, there’s a good chance you enjoy at least one Star Trek series. If you haven’t had your head buried for the last 45 years, you have at least heard of Star Trek. One of the biggest sci-fi franchises of all time, Star Trek brought us action, adventure, and social commentary way out in deep space. Whether you are loyal to Captain Kirk or Captain Picard, the world of Star Trek is deep, broad, and rich with potential. With all the strange new worlds, alien races, powerful ships, and advanced technology, there is plenty of room for exciting, player-driven adventures to be had.
Star Trek: Fleet Captains attempts to capture the feel of an entire season of Star Trek. Exploration, encounters with mysterious aliens, missions to complete, and a little combat add up to a hefty experience. But the ultimate question arises—is it an experience worth having?
How It Plays
Fleet Captains is a two-player game (with rules for four players in teams of two) in which each player controls a major faction from the Star Trek universe, currently either the Klingons or the Federation. (If the game sells well enough, the game is ripe for expansion: Romulans, Ferengi, Cardassians, Dominion, or even a cooperative game against the Borg.)
After a lengthy setup that includes laying out the location hexes to form the board, choosing ships, choosing subdecks for your command deck, and dealing out missions, players take turns sending their ships out into the galaxy.
Each turn, players can perform multiple actions. Every ship in their fleet can be moved based on the power of that ship’s engines. Then each player can take a certain number of actions (usually three, but depending on the size of the game, there could be more) to scan unexplored sectors, cloak, or perform mission-related tasks like scanning planets or beaming away teams down to planets. Players can also play cards from their hand, which can provide temporary bonuses or add crew with permanent bonuses to their ships.
In addition, players can discard 1 mission card each turn to get a new mission, if they feel like a particular mission can’t be accomplished. They can also call reinforcements from the unused fleet deck, if there is space left in their fleet (usually after a ship is destroyed; maximum fleet size is determined at the beginning of the game).
The goal of the game is to be the first to reach the target number of points—the standard game is ten points. This is also the size of each player’s starting fleet, as well as the number of missions each player gets in their mission deck.
Missions are the driving force of the game. Each mission card has a specific task, such as explore a certain number of sectors, control (with influence tokens) a certain number of locations, damage an enemy ship, and so forth. Some missions are secret (usually involving an action against the other player that if they knew about it, they could easily avoid triggering), such as gaining control of an outpost an enemy built or succeeding on a sensors check of a planet the other player explored first. Each mission is worth points when completed.
In addition, when a ship explores a new location, it has a chance of having an “encounter” from the encounter deck. These encounters can be good, bad, or ugly, but they often provide an opportunity for bonus points. Points can also be earned by destroying enemy ships or building Starbases.
When someone reaches the designated point total, the game ends after both players have had an equal number of turns. That means if the second player reaches the point total first, he wins straight up. If the first player reaches the total first, the second player has a chance to tie or exceed the first player’s points.
The driving “technology” behind the game is the Clix-style dials on the base of each ship. Unlike Heroclix, the ships have three “alert levels”—essentially three hit points—and the dial can be freely clixed once per turn. The dials have stats for weapons, engines, sensors, and shields, so clixing the dial allows them to adjust power from one system to another depending on the situation, and many missions are resolved by rolling a die and adding it to a specific system rating to try and match or exceed a target number.
There are a lot more detailed rules involved, but you don’t really need to know all that unless you get the game, and then you’ll have the whole rulebook to yourself.
To be fair and honest in this review, I need to post an immediate disclaimer: I love Star Trek. It is my favorite sci-fi franchise. I grew up watching Deep Space Nine with my family, borrowing the original series movies from the library on a regular basis, and seeing the TNG movies in theaters. In fact, Star Trek: Generations may have been the first movie I saw in theaters ever. All this so that you’re aware that plastering the name “Star Trek” on the box scores the game immediate points. However, I will do my best to give you a reasonable review, not just an “I love Star Trek!” droolfest.
So…to start off, I really enjoy this game. It’s a delightful romp in space that goes beyond a “destroy the other player” approach you might expect from a starship-based strategy game. Instead of being a rich man’s derivative space game with a game-selling franchise theme plastered on top, Fleet Captains is its own complete game.
Here’s what I like, specifically. First of all, the box itself is packed with a delightful array of pieces. The plastic ship models are wonderful, and the WizKids-brand Heroclix bases are definitely a useful tool. There are plenty of cards—from the ever-so-useful ship cards (that match statistics with the dials so you can get a quick overview of your options) to mission cards, command cards, and encounter cards, all filled with images taken from Star Trek shows and movies.
The game includes ships, characters, aliens, and artifacts from all of the TV shows and the first ten movies. You won’t see any Chris Pine here, so if you hated the new movie (for the record, I love the new movie), you won’t have a problem with the set.
There are a ton of options for setting up the game. Playable fleet sizes range anywhere from six to thirty-two, and the location tiles can be arranged however you see fit. You could use more tiles, fewer tiles, or even change the shape of the galaxy.
I like the mission card system. At any given time, you have three missions you can pursue for points. These missions give you directives beyond simple, generic ways to score points. And since they come from a randomized deck, you will have different goals each time you play. The missions available are generally creative and unique, and you’ll usually find yourself performing a variety of actions during the course of a single game. If a mission is taking too long or is impossible to complete, you can discard it for a new one, so you should never get to a point where you’re stuck. And you can always score points by building starbases or going after enemy ships.
But what I like most about this game really is the theme. It’s no secret that I tend to lean toward more thematic games, and this one is drenched in it. Fortunately, it’s very strongly Star Trek flavored. The ships, the exploration, the missions, the random encounters, the crew—even the action cards give off such a Star Trek vibe that I’ve chuckled out loud in enjoyment every single time I’ve played. From the alien incursion encounter to Captain Kirk’s “Dramatic Defeat” card, from alternate realities to ejecting the warp core, this is a Star Trek game through and through.
But I have to be fair, and to be fair, this game is not perfect.
The biggest issue I have is how points are awarded. Most mission cards are worth one point, which is fine. However, some missions are worth two or more points. In some cases this makes sense—for example, damaging every enemy ship before any of them get repaired is pretty challenging and is worth one point for every active ship in the enemy fleet. However, exploring nine adjacent locations is barely a challenge, especially in a larger galaxy, but it’s worth two points straight up. That’s twice as many as a normal mission, but it requires no system checks, and very little effort on the player’s part—just moving ships outward. And one mission card is completely lame: if you get within three points of the total needed to win and your ships haven’t taken damage yet, you get two points. Considering combat isn’t the central focus of the game, this is a huge point swing. I’ve received that mission several times, and I’ve always felt lame scoring it.
In addition, random encounter cards often award points for successfully overcoming the encounter. In some cases, there is a challenge, and that’s fine. But very often, they points are simply handed over. In some cases it comes down to a roll of the die, but sometimes it’s even easier than that. In one case, I scored about five points by my second turn because of lucky encounter draws (score 1 point if your ship is undamaged when you have this encounter; bam!) while my opponent fell behind because his encounters were hurtful or required more time to complete. I don’t mind the random encounters…it just seems a little too easy to score points that way.
My other major complaint about this game is the setup time. You have to set up the galaxy by dealing out the location tiles, then deal out ships for each player, then select mission cards. Then, each player has a command deck that is divided into ten specifically named sub-decks, such as “House of Mogh” and “Way of the Warrior” decks for the Klingons, and “Captain Picard” and “Starfleet Command” decks for the Federation. Each player chooses four of these decks to include in their command deck at the start of the game. Now, I get the idea of going for variability between games—but honestly, there’s enough of that with ships, random location setup, and missions. The sub-decks are different thematically and are supposed to be more useful for one of the three mission types, but it’s hard to tell exactly what each deck is useful for, and you can spend a lot of time looking through each deck to see if the cards available are useful. In addition, cards often have similiar (and in some cases, identical) effects as a card by a different name in a different subdeck. I realize the Star Trek universe is quite broad, and it’s nice to see all the little elements from the Star Trek universe… but honestly, I think I’d prefer a consolidated command deck that took less time to set up.
Beyond that, complains are minor. Clix dials sometimes get stuck. For some reason, despite the massive number of tokens included, it feels like there aren’t enough of certain types. At one point in a game, I had something like +8 permanent modifiers to one of my ship’s sensors—a single ship—but there were only four +1 sensor tokens included. However, there are plenty of influence tokens, so I started using those to stack underneath a sensor token to count as +1 modifiers.
Combat is a little flimsy—a one-on-one combat can be exciting with combat cards making a huge difference and dice rolls saving a ship from complete destruction. But combat often comes down to several ships ganging up against one enemy. Certain cards mitigate this, but only if you have them available. And some cards can totally swing the battle (stupid Picard Maneuver—but, I can’t deny, the Picard Manuever effect was totally appropriate…) or just end it immediately. Fortunately, combat is not the main focus of the game.
The game does run at a hefty pricetag—$100 MSRP, and although you can get it at a steep discount (around $70), that’s still a lot of dough to put into one game.
Star Trek: Fleet Captains is a huge game with lots of quality pieces and heavily layered with the Star Trek theme. It’s not the greatest game you’ll ever play, and honestly, if you’re not a big Star Trek fan, it’s not going to be worth the purchase. But if you are a Trekkie, Fleet Captains provides an exciting Trek adventure that really does feel like an entire season of a Star Trek show.
I’ll try to keep my remarks brief for a few reasons: One, I’ve only played Fleet Captains once (I didn’t think another play would change my opinion too much). Two, from the outset it didn’t look like my kind of game. Three, I’m more of a Star Wars fan than a Trekkie. Four, @Futurewolfie got things right in his review.
I mentioned I’m not a fan of this type of game. What type would that be? The highly thematic and minis-style game. For some reason, I have a minis phobia (even though the minis are more placeholders than minis in this game). And I’ve mentioned elsewhere that theme doesn’t usually play a huge role in whether I enjoy a game, though a little theme certainly doesn’t hurt. What I find with highly thematic games, though, is that they tend to sacrifice playability to maintain strong theme.
As @Futurewolfie mentioned, Star Trek: Fleet Captains has theme in spades. That’s awesome if you like Star Trek (and playing was even fun for me, just seeing how clearly Wolfie was enjoying himself and hearing him read the cards in his “epic voice”). But the rulebook is a huge barrier to entry. It took @Futurewolfie a while to explain the rules to me, and my head was reeling at the end of the explanation. You can do almost everything in Fleet Captains that you could presumably do in a Starfleet uniform. And while that’s great if you’ve always wanted to be on the set of Star Trek, it’s trouble if you want to sit down to a leisurely game. I’m convinced that the rulebook is the single greatest contributor to the box’s massive heft. I used to play the Star Wars CCG, so I know about long rulebooks that detail the arcana of every situation one might encounter in the universe. While that was the game of choice in my youth, I have mellowed quite a bit in my old age and prefer depth of choices to breadth.
Still, within the confines of my dislike above, I was impressed with Fleet Captains for the simple reason that it’s not a bad game. It’s not one I enjoy, certainly, but that’s a matter of taste. The game is not a haphazard project trading on the Star Trek name; a lot of effort went into this game, and it shows. While the superabundance of rules and choices does not appeal to me, like I said, for anyone who has ever learned Klingon or longed for a chance to set phasers to stun, the options presented by this game are a smorgasboard.
I’ll also add a word about the components. I’ve read that others don’t like the “flimsy” cards and location hexes. Personally, I think they’re great. For one, they take up less space in an already crowded box. For another, they are so easy to shuffle, unlike hexes in other games. The cards are thinner than other games, but they have a linen finish and should stand up well (unless lots of pizza grease is consumed around the table—then sleeves might be a captain’s order). The ships look great, and while I might have preferred (and the price might suggest) pre-painted ships a la Heroclix, this is a minor quibble. I’m sure those who own Klingon-to-English dictionaries and Captain Kirk helm chairs would want to remedy this oversight themselves, anyway.
So, in sum, while I take a pass on Fleet Captains, if you like Star Trek (and aren’t averse to a hermetic weekend of reading the rulebook), you should check this game out. It is bursting with Star Trek flavor, and you might even be able to rope in your sci-fi- or minis-loving friends, too.