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Top Of The Table: Star Trek Fleet Captains

Clever game mechanics and pitch-perfect implementation of the iconic franchise make this one of the best sci-fi board games around. Handfuls of awesome plastic starships don’t hurt, either.

Each passing year brings more connections between the world of video games and tabletop hobby gaming, especially in the increasingly intermixed crowd of gamers who love both. In recent months, we highlighted the awesome work being done over at Fantasy Flight Games, and profiled some of the best tabletop games of 2012

This month, we continue our focus on great thematic games you can play with friends through our look at Star Trek Fleet Captains. Developed by Mike Elliott and Ethan Pasternack for WizKids, Fleet Captains combines all the best elements of the classic sci-fi series into a tight, fast, highly customizable game. A single session combines space exploration, mission completion, and plenty of starship combat. A full game is easily playable in less than two hours.

Getting Started

The base game of Star Trek Fleet Captains is built for two or four players to be played competitively, with each player (or two person team) in charge of a fleet of ships – you control either the advanced starships of the Federation or the honor-bound Klingons. 

A big part of the fun in Fleet Captains happens right off the bat during game setup. Several dozen hexagonal tiles can be shuffled and laid out on the table in any configuration to create the game board, assuring that each session presents a whole new galaxy to explore, filled with temporal rifts, M-Class planets, and sprawling nebulas. Players flip these tiles over from unknown space to explored sectors as ships move across the board. 

You also draft your own fleet of ships; up to twelve ships are available for each side, but your mutually chosen victory point goal determines both the length of the game and how many ships join in on the action. Each ship is represented by a highly detailed unpainted plastic miniature. These great little figures are a major component of the game’s appeal as they spread out across the table during the match. Each mini has a “clix” rotating dial at its base; WizKids also makes the excellent HeroClix minis game. The rotating dial on your ship represents shifting power levels between shields, engines, sensors, and weapons, which you can adjust on each turn. 

Players next draft a selection of command cards and missions before the game starts. Your selection of which command cards to take into a game is important; each card offers special actions you can use during a game, and also indicate crew members you can add to one of your ships. Mission cards offer objectives to complete on the board – everything from beaming down to a habitable planet to make first contact to destroying an enemy ship in combat.

Between the hex-based galaxy set up, the variety in available ships, and the broad array of command cards, no two games of Fleet Captains feels the same as the last. 

Gameplay

With your fleet in place, it’s time to start exploring the galaxy. Each player takes turns sending ships out into the void and slowly uncovering the game map. The early part of the game is usually dominated by exploration, taking control of sectors, building installations like colonies and starbases, and completing missions. Each explored location has a chance for an encounter; these random situations are drawn from a deck and often represent familiar storylines, episode premises, and other events from the Star Trek shows and movies. Many encounters involve a system test for your ship, combining the luck of a dice roll with the strategic deployment of cards and ship systems to maximize your chance of success. 

As the galaxy fills in with explored locations, you inevitably come into conflict with the opposing player’s ships. A fast but well-designed combat mechanic determines the victor in these fights. Ships get destroyed, and new ships get drafted into the fleet. Other ships get damaged and go hobbling back to a nearby starbase to repair. At times, whole fleets converge on a single location for massive multi-turn showdowns. 

Unlike many similar space-based board games, a natural arc occurs in most sessions of Fleet Captains that forces players to change focus and strategy as the game progresses. As exploration and discovery gives way to strategic deployment of resources, control of installations, and pitched battles, players are free to embrace whatever style of play they enjoy most, and pursue victory through those game elements. 

[Next up: How does Fleet Captains tap into the Star Trek canon, and just how complicated is the game to learn?]

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