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STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION (The Customizable Card Game)

DECIPHER INC, £16 upwards

2, possibly 3/4 players, about 15-30 minutes

designed by

reviewed by

I have come late to the media phenomena that is Star Trek: The Next Generation. Plunged into a moral dilemma over the earliest episodes by the stunning Tasha Yar, an uncharismatic captain and a total wanker by the name of Wesley Crusher, I solved a love-hate relationship by giving it up for Lent. Nowadays, it hardly seems possible to avoid the repeats and, better late than never, I'm something of a convert. Even if the characters are a bit flat, I like the stories, some of which are rather clever (and occasionally daring), and every other episode seems to feature a space-time anomaly of some description which is fine by me. The announcement of a card game, following hard on Magic's heels, was therefore a dead cert purchase.

ST:TNG - TCCG (which just has to be the longest game title I've ever encountered, henceforth Star Trek) is a fundamentally simple card system. You play either the Federation, Romulans or Klingons and the intention is that you tailor your own card deck to maximise your chances of winning. A deck will comprise personnel, ships, equipment, events and interrupts -- the latter two designed to benefit you or frustrate your opponent. The `board' area is represented by the Spaceline which is a series of missions with accompanying dilemmas and artifacts (rare, but powerful, equipment). Each mission carries a point value and it is your job to score 100 points before your rival does the same. Your victory is usually achieved by flying around in ships, deploying the appropriate personnel skills to crack the missions and, should you wish, shooting up the other guy to delay his progress. However, unlike Magic, the emphasis is not on combat, but on problem solving. Essentially what we have then is Star Fleet Missions, but executed properly.

Preparing for play is actually the most artificial, and time consuming, element. In theory, you turn up with a pack of cards prepared with missions, ships and personnel all pre-selected and configured for the tasks in hand (``Pod 5, Virgil''). Each player then lays six missions into the spaceline, alternating to show who owns which cards (but you can attempt either side as long as the mission permits it). Under any of the missions you place dilemma cards which will frustrate execution by either side (but you will know what is required on the ones you've laid). Finally, you place artifacts in the hope that you will `find' one. You'll have spotted that there is a heavy dose of determinism here, and it is this feature that could certainly have been handled better -- but see later.

Play is based on the simple premise that from your initial deal of seven cards you may accumulate an unlimited hand, but can lay and replenish just one card per turn. In addition, you can always move your ships, attempt missions, fight and play interrupts. The game revolves around the outpost which is the base for all your operations. You start off by deploying personnel and ships there, as they come into your hand, and when you feel you have a suitably flexible crew you head off to attempt missions. Aside from command limitations, there is nothing stopping you having two or more ships active, it just depends on your card mix and the missions on offer. So you could use, say, one large ship as your main vessel, another as a back up, a shuttle moving personnel or launching rescues and perhaps one other on skirmish or patrol duties, harassing the enemy. I strongly recommend the powerful Husnock ships for a spot of Gunboat Diplomacy.

Movement is regulated rather neatly by the Spaceline. Each card has a numerical `span' rating which you must offset against your ship's movement range to travel through the sector. To move to the far end of the line will take a while, especially if you are in a slow ship, so the early building of extra outposts is often worthwhile to access the more distant missions or to patrol an area. Movement can be prevented by any number of cards and damaged ships are considerably slowed. Each end of the spaceline is deemed the end of the universe, but there is a card that permits the line to become a sort of Möbius strip. Once you have arrived at the mission sector, it is checked to see if it is a deep space encounter or a planet. If the latter, you form a landing party from suitable crew members and beam down.

You then work through the dilemmas one by one until they are clear, at which point you test to see if you have successfully performed the mission and score the points. Both dilemmas and missions work on the basis that you need to provide an assortment of skills to counteract the threats, which vary from a tame love interest to the deadly Borg ship. For example, to explore the Typhone Expanse you may need an astrophysicist and a stellar cartographer. It is usually wise to be backed up by some muscle from security. Logically, the more points a mission confers, the harder it is to achieve. The situation is often made worse, or impossible, by dilemmas that kill or incapacitate key members of your party, and also by opponent's away teams or ships which are trying to grab the points before you. The usual outcome of the latter is combat, though the game does not seem to specifically preclude dealmaking. Combat is in two forms: away team vs away team or ship vs ship. This is simply and quickly resolved with the survivor left to tackle the remaining tasks. The only snag with ship combat, aside from possibly losing your ship and crew, is that it is resolved by a straight comparison of attack rating against shields, with the loser suffering guaranteed damage. The suggested Siggins variant here is to simply add a d6 (or a d4 if you can bear rolling one, or perhaps +1,+2,+3 from a d6) to each side's rating. This at least adds some uncertainty to the proceedings and stops a lucky player, having drawn a big ship early, roaming round and blasting everything without risk.

Otherwise, play problems are few and the whole thing runs smoothly. The missions will ultimately get samey (although if you get hold of all 50 this will take a while, and the dilemmas add spice), but the gameplay itself will probably pall before this happens. Numerically, if not qualitatively, the cards seem to be stacked heavily in favour of the Federation player in that he has a choice of more than twice the other two powers, who are usually forced to resort to the independent cards to bolster their forces. The Klingons in particular are badly served with only six types of ship (with far too many unpronounceable names) and a raft of average crewmen, almost invariably crap at Diplomacy -- a useful skill. The net result seems to be on a par with Napoleonic figure gaming, where the vast majority have British armies, and no one wants to be the French. Needless to say, I get to play Les Klingons.

While the systems work well (and quickly), suit the theme and contain some clever ideas, once boiled down there is little in the way of decision making. You stack your deck, wait for the cards to emerge, assess the available missions and try to resolve them. You have some scope to go for a combative stance, but not enough to make things that interesting, or indeed winnable. It's okay as far as it goes, but ultimately, as with Magic, I'm sure I will get tired of it. I thought I'd make this clear, because at £16 for two packs (usually enough to get going), this isn't particularly cheap and it isn't a classic game by any stretch. Where the system does score though, and the reason for my restrained enthusiasm, is in the atmosphere department. The game pans out something like three or four TNG episodes rolled into one (depending on what it takes to reach 100 points) and captures the Star Trek spirit rather well.

As a guide, our first game saw the Federation under Riker reduced to flying around in a requisitioned trader for most of the game due to a lack of Starfleet ships. On landing on their first planet to restore an errant moon, Riker fell hopelessly in love with a native and immediately left for a remote honeymoon. The remaining away team under Tasha Yar's command negotiated phased space syndrome and a nasty virus before returning to base to join the waiting USS Hood (captained by Riker's cloned double, of all people). Leaving for a new mission, they were intercepted by Q in deep space and were forced to turn back for more personnel before they could proceed. Having averted Q, they flew into a Menthar Booby Trap which left the Hood stranded and an engineering team had to be shuttled out on a mercenary boat to save them. In opposition were the Klingons who managed to quickly get a top line Bird of Prey into action, only to have it crash and burn following a plasma fire while stalking the Hood. A succession of disasters ensued, in which Commander Klag proved himself to be a blundering idiot, losing most of his crew in failing an alien probe investigation, eventually losing his ship to a cosmic string fragment, only to escape in a lifepod. Sadly, he was no better in the second game and I have a worrying feeling that one of my better cards in the game may prove to be permanently hapless (just like my Statis Pro Reggie Jackson: 3 for 54, 0 homers).

There is no shortage of interesting cards in Star Trek, each providing a little wrinkle (or a major rift in the case of artifacts) to the game system and all adding to the not inconsiderable feel. For instance, I was delighted in my first game to find the excellent wormhole movement cards which could have neatly extracted me from a Q Net (a type of galactic road block) but it seems you need two of them -- one in, and one out; clever. There are cards that shrink the universe (an excellent mechanic, this), several that trap you in time loops (true to the series), aliens and ghosts. Everything else you might expect is also included. You get to use cloaking devices (the cards are turned over), tricorders, phasers, tractor beams, scanners, you can fly shuttles, Romulan warbirds or the USS Yamato or even suffer from Barclay's protomorphosis disease. The Devil shows up, as do various Borg, Q (in several guises), Albert Einstein, the old bloke out of St Elsewhere, and a bevy of American micro-celebrities. Appropriately, there are also game and collector cards. Throughout, it is evident that a lot of thought has gone into the cards. On the subject of card effects, it strikes me that these card games (Magic definitely included) might be approached and played in two different ways. I'm pretty sure they align quite closely with Mr Vasey's Ordered and Experience gaming types (see Retro 1 for those who want to read up on them). Ignoring aesthetics and the rudimentary mechanisms for a moment, if you accept the argument that the different cards and interaction thereof are the most interesting feature of the games, they seem to serve two distinct purposes. For me, a good selection of varied cards makes the game new and different each time and creates the atmospheric storylines. If you play with the same cards each time, eventually it has to become stale so the unusual cards have benefit through their impact on the randomness and unpredictability. In the same vein, the custom stacking of your deck reduces the appeal of including weak, but flavoursome, cards. However, and please tell me if I am wrong, it seems that the competitive players are looking at the cards more from their ability to influence play while stacking their deck with the idea of creating as `perfect plan' as possible. For them, the card's power or strength is uppermost, so what it can do, rather than what it is, seems paramount. I suppose this helps with rationalising the weak theming of Magic and is all summed up by my feeling that the Star Trek mission cards could easily be randomly dealt to provide a challenging scenario for everyone, rather than you specifying half the missions by selecting them before the game and preparing your pack to fit. Not exactly the stuff of chaos, but each to his own.

At the moment, Star Trek is essentially a two player game. One player takes the goodies and the other gets the boneheads or the Rommies. The rules imply that you can play Fed on Fed (mmmm), or Romulan vs Klingon but this is hardly what we want to see. That said, there seems to be no real reason why you couldn't play it three player (one power each, eighteen missions) and we recently experimented with four (2x Feds (joint pile, separate hands), Romulans, Klingons with 'table tennis' turn order, first to 200 points) which worked well enough. In fact, my feeling is that the spaceline might be better portrayed as a circle in this situation, corresponding loosely to the three empires. Incidentally, it strikes me that the game is ripe for such variants in most of its areas. Otherwise, as initially with Magic, we await some official rules to see how they'll handle it.

What Star Trek does not seem to suffer (or, indeed, benefit) from is the excess multiplicity of Magic, formed by interaction between the many cards now available. In Magic, the combinations grow with each expansion card leaving a position where there are upwards of 1,000 different attributes that can be mixed and matched ad infinitum. I am told that for every given play and `killer deck', there is a workable counterploy, which is admirable. On the downside, the banning of certain card combinations indicates this is at least partly untrue, and I still feel the game is at its best only when you have most of the unusual cards, but credit is nevertheless due for incorporating that many cards (and new ideas) into the system with very few anomalies. But that is one major plus for fantasy -- you can quite literally make it all up and the ridiculously diverse game milieux that emerges (another D&D similarity here) is the outcome. The designers of Star Trek went the other way, primarily I would imagine for accessibility and consistency of theme. There are apparently no firm plans for expansion kits (although Deep Space Nine may follow, the original series is deemed too `low tech'!) and the cards are reasonably consistent in use and effect to engender familiarity -- essential for a mass market game. While you might argue that this will result in boredom, we haven't yet found this to be the case. I am not sure whether I prefer the open, expansive approach or the closed design that is Star Trek, but both have their merits.

Graphically, Star Trek is the best card game yet. Instead of the occasionally tacky art of Magic and its clones, we have stills from the series (many of which are stunning while most will bring back memories) and a modern, computer graphics style. The information is clearly laid out and descriptions are concise and punchy. That is not to say the game doesn't throw up some anomalies. While the rules are sound and very well written, they resort to the old standby of `resolve any disputes in the spirit of the Star Trek universe'. Well, yes, fine for adults but I can see some arguments brewing for the younger players. For instance, we had a situation where my Klingon flagship caught fire within sight of a space station. It limped home but we had to decide whether the personnel could be saved from the stricken ship. The rules were not clear on whether an entire crew could be beamed off to an outpost or whether a ship needed to actually dock to permit such a transfer en masse. We went with the former (which was good news for me and the crew).

The underlying rub with Star Trek is that it is not just a card game, it is also a collectable. Deep breath. Now that is fine if the cards are randomly distributed but, inevitably, they are grouped into common, uncommon, rare and ultra-rare categories to cash in on the Magic success formula. This is still potentially acceptable for gamers I suppose, but the cynicism meter goes off the scale when you start to probe a little deeper. In marked contrast to the series, where Picard and Co will feature almost every week (therefore pretty common, yes?), they, the Enterprise and the artifacts are the hardest cards to get hold of. And I mean hard. Starter packs produce a couple of the rarer cards if you are lucky, boosters usually produce just one and the hit rate drops painfully as you close on the set of 363. I have heard reports of over a thousand cards being purchased with no sign of Worf, Enterprise or the must-have Temporal Causality Loop. Worst of all is that the missions, the key to the game and variety thereof, are 60% rare and, of course, are made more difficult unless you have the powerful (and correspondingly uncommon) personnel. This is plain nastiness on the part of the publisher, which in many ways cheapens the designer's efforts, and may well backfire long term. The likely result is that unless you spend a lot of money on boosters, you will play the same old missions without the main protagonists (and will never get to say, ``Make it so, Mr Data'' because he won't have shown up). You can play alright, but it is like football with all linemen and no quarterbacks or receivers.

So once again, we are wedged in the cleft stick that nice Mr Garfield has created for the market, aggravated by the suspicion that Decipher are not out to win gamer's hearts and minds, just to pocket a lot of cash (and with the Star Wars licence to follow, this would appear to be the case). As a result, if you want the best from the game, you have to go out there and pay the cash, or trade your socks off for the interesting cards. And frankly, with some of the pathetic souls to be seen and heard swapping cards in the London game shops, the latter is definitely not recommended -- ``Now I've had the tempting offer of a first born child and a blow job for this card, what are you going to offer me?'' A hard smack on the head if I had my way, but normally I just walk off wondering just what I am doing even associating with this section of the hobby.

If we ignore Jyhad and TSR's Spellfire, which depending on your PR company have either been damp squibs or great successes, this is the first game that could come anywhere close to Magic's achievement. Handled well, it should outstrip it by tapping the mass market (through Decipher's SF and comics distributors) in a way that Wizards of the Coast can't as yet. It has an instantly recognisable background and theme, accessible systems and the `closed' scope I spoke of earlier. As a marketing exercise, it has the cynical killer instinct of Magic and the advantage of outstanding graphics. As a game, I find it streets ahead of Magic for atmosphere (and as refreshingly novel as Spellfire) but again, as with all these systems so far, unlikely to be a long term stayer. It remains good fun, but because of the limited gameplay and for the reasons mentioned earlier I believe it will fade. However, if we see workable variants, new missions, races (Ferengi please!), expansion kits and decent multi-player rules, the demise could well be deferred. On the basis of the solid gameplay, atmosphere and a liking for the subject matter, this one is quietly recommended but for the next milestone in gameplay we still await developments.

Mike Siggins

SWD: Making the Enterprise and the main crew members difficult to get hold of does make it pretty clear that this is only incidentally about gaming, doesn't it? Another one that I shall let go by. Even though the game may be quite good, I get very cross when a company makes such a blatant attempt to rip me off and for me that would take away any pleasure that I would otherwise get from the game.

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Stuart Dagger