tabletop

Top Of The Table: Star Trek Fleet Captains

by Matt Miller on Jan 31, 2013 at 10:50 AM

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?]

Theme and Story

While not strictly a story-based game, Star Trek Fleet Captains is entrenched in the sci-fi storytelling traditions of the franchise, and it shines through during every turn. Encounter and command cards are filled with still photography of scenes from Star Trek canon, and game effects call to mind memorable moments for faithful fans. Spock’s crew card has a special option that allows you to trash the card to save the ship, just like the unforgettable final scenes of Wrath of Khan. Major game mechanics echo the nature of the different cultures and technologies of each species. For instance, Klingons have ships that can cloak and move around the map, remaining elusive to the Federation player, who remains unable to hide their starships. That is, unless your Federation fleet includes the U.S.S. Defiant, which Deep Space Nine fans will recall includes its own cloaking tech. 

Equally important, Fleet Captains does a phenomenal job of making each game’s story feel different from the last. The game includes enough hex locations, encounter cards, and mission cards that it’s rare to use them all in a single game unless you and your friends have opted for a truly epic victory point total. In one playthrough I experienced, the Klingon Fleet expanded at tremendous speed and won through overwhelming control of galactic space. The next time around, every ship in both fleets ended up engaging in a furious battle at the center of the board, resulting in the final victory points needed to win. 

Complexity

No high-end board game is going to be instantly mastered in five minutes, but Fleet Captains is a remarkably clear and straightforward game that should be easy for your friends to pick up once one of you takes the time to read through the rulebook. 

That initial read through is where the challenge comes from; as the first player in your group to look at the game, you’ll find a lot of new ideas and details that may make the game seem more complicated than it actually is. The more you grasp the rules, the more it becomes apparent that everything you do in the game comes down to a few simple mechanics used in a variety of circumstances. 

For the rest of the group, the only feature that remains hard to grasp early on is your choice of command cards during setup. Be aware that in your early games you won’t know which cards are best to bring along to match your desired strategy – instead, just pick characters and card names you like, such as the Federation’s “Captain Picard” deck, or the Klingon’s “Way of the Warrior” deck..

 

What else do I need to know?

You’ll note that Fleet Captains is built to play with two or four players, but not three, owing to its head-to-head nature. That handicap is lifted if you opt to pick up the recently released Romulan Empire expansion. Not only does it deliver a whole new fleet of plastic minis to enter the fight, but you also get new hex tiles, cards, and even another mission type focused on espionage. With the expansion in hand, you can add three- or six-player games into the mix, or just change up the fleets at play in a regular head-to-head match. 

Star Trek Fleet Captains isn’t the cheapest game in the tabletop gaming market – most online retailers list the game between $65 and $80, and the expansion between $35 and $45 – but it is well worth the high price of admission. The highly adaptable nature of the game makes it more replayable than most titles on the market, and few games offer such a great selection of miniature figurines as the ships that come packed in to this game. 

If your group has a love for the classic sci-fi series, it’s hard to imagine anyone around the table being disappointed with a playthrough of Fleet Captains. Even non-Star Trek fans can find a lot to love if they can embrace the joy of space exploration and strategic play. The game is also a great choice for shorter game nights, as it’s easy to complete even an introductory game in around 90 minutes. Have more time? The customizable structure allows for truly massive and lengthy game sessions that take advantage of every ship in the fleet.  

For more info about Star Trek Fleet Captains, you can check out the game’s official site. For more on great tabletop games worth pulling you away from the video game screen, you might enjoy our looks at Ascension, Tannhauser, Castle Ravenloft, and Yomi. To purchase any of the above games, we recommend Cool Stuff Inc, Thought Hammer, or Amazon, or you can check out your local hobby games store.