Nothing Compares 2U

Pre-Play Thoughts:
I have the luxury of having barely any knowledge of the other game on which Star Trek: Frontiers is based. The fantasy theme was a barrier to entry for me as with few exceptions do I find that to be appealing in the least. I enjoy a medieval setting, just not the baggage of magic that usually comes with it. I had heard that the system was quite good and very popular, especially among solo gamers… So when I learned they were releasing this “theme upgraded” version in a science-fiction setting, I was very interested. So as the title of this review suggests, it will be with minimal comparison to “that other game”.

My initial component gripe was the ubiquitous still images from the Star Trek television and movie franchises.

Components
Apparently there is also some perceived “baggage” that comes from being a WizKids production. There were two major lines of complaint about this game from the time it was first announced. The first that it was simply a re-skinning of Mage Knight. The second was that it was a WizKids game and would therefore be crappy. I’d only owned one other of their games before (not counting my Gears of War: The Boardgame HeroClix) and that was Star Trek: Expeditions. I found those components to be perfectly functional and had no issues with them at all. Fortunately, I feel the components in Frontiers are quite good. I had no issues with the tiles or boards warping. The cards have a nice feel to them (smooth, not linen, but I’ve grown to hate linen finish). The ship miniatures on their mounts were nice to look at (may need painting) and the Borg Cubes had the HeroClix wheel on them and it turned smoothly.

My initial component gripe was the ubiquitous still images from the Star Trek television and movie franchises. For some reason Star Trek games cannot divorce themselves from using these images. Artwork similar to Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game or the Star Wars: The Card Game would be far superior. Still images mixing the original series and Next Generation completely hindered Star Trek: Five-Year Mission, but weren’t so bad in Expeditions, perhaps because they came from the same time period in the series. However, upon execution, the stills in Frontiers aren’t a distraction as they also come from the same general time period in the Trek canon, so it’s not unbearable.

An interesting choice is that the components all come pre-punched for you. This is good and bad. WizKids includes a serviceable plastic insert for all the pieces, but some users have reported being shorted a component or two. It’s easy to tell you have everything if you’re given the punchboard — and punching counters is sort of a rite of passage into the game. Still though, it’s nice to have a place for everything — although come expansion time it will all be for naught as we saw in Expeditions.

Space Game: Lots and lots of “space” required…

In comparison to the game’s older sister, the layout of everything seems the same. The components aren’t without issue however. The ship bases tend to just fit inside the hexes, so if a faction marker is present, it will be bumped out. With four players that could get a little messy. The reputation track is nearly useless as the spaces are far too small to hold your faction token. Some improvements in this area would be a larger spaced track for this. A “level up” marker would be nice so that you remember you did so you can process at the end of your turn (you add experience points as they happen, but don’t do the level up process until your turn is over, so it could be easy to forget that as well as some post-turn rewards). A round marker would be helpful too. I used a six-sided die to count up the six rounds of the Solo Conquest game, but adding that to the tracking board seems a no-brainer. Finally a strip to hold the various ship and planet tokens would also be a benefit. Those tokens would also benefit from text on the back not just iconography to make them clear as to which they are. I was having to check the artwork throughout the game to make sure I was grabbing the necessary token.

Rules:
The rules are good and bad. They include two books: one a “Game Walkthrough” and the other the “Full Rulebook”. You are clearly directed to the Walkthrough book for your first play and it did a very good job of getting me up and running having never played before. Except for the end of turn instructions which were summarized on the back of the Full Rulebook, so I had to refer to that repeatedly. I initially played a two player tutorial, not exactly coop, but did not do any player battles either. Just to learn the mechanics, etc. Once I had that down, I was on to the Full Rulebook and the Solo Conquest scenario.

Sadly, the “Full” Rulebook is nothing of the sort. It’s the “Full Rulebook Except for Things We Put in the Game Walkthrough” book. I was hoping for something along the lines of Star Wars: Imperial Assault where the full rules were a ready reference of the entirety of the game. So there was a lot of flipping between both books trying to find that section “I know I read somewhere, but where is it???”

While it seems that nearly all the rules “are there” they are not laid out as best they could be. Each section is well written and clear and there are some places that direct you to another section where appropriate, but it’s hit or miss. An example is the specific details about the Borg cubes and their varying effects. One page has the details on the benefits each destroyed cube brings you. Another section details the benefits the assimilated defenders (the units you’re fighting) receive. A different section details how to fight the multiple enemies around the cube. It would have been nice to simply have a section on Borg Cubes and list all the details in one spot and reference in the other locations. Because in practice a player is most likely to take this indexed approach to finding information. It’s not a lot to read overall, but you definitely need to read it all to make sure you’re not missing a key piece of information.

Overview:
Space. The Final Frontier. Wormholes. The Final Frontier of the Final Frontier. Maybe. In Star Trek: Frontiers you command one of four Federation ships. Two of Human origin and two of Klingon. As the game begins you enter a wormhole into an uncharted area of the galaxy infested with Romulans, Dominion, and the aforementioned Borg. You must act quickly to defeat the {insert scenario goal here} and end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy… (um, what?). In a nutshell, you fly your ship around, explore, seek out strange new worlds, boldly go, meet enemies. And kill them. Some have commented that the potential exists for the Federation to be too militant, but in reality the peace-loving science mission was pretty much tossed out of all but the most cerebral episodes of the original series. Your conduct is regulated by the reputation track and if you get too nasty you’ll have a hard time getting even your allies to help you.

Boldly en route…

Everything you do is through a slow-burn deck building/hand management mechanic. You begin with a deck of 16 cards specific to your chosen wessel (as Chekov would put it). Throughout the game via leveling up and combat rewards, you’ll add new cards to your deck. Your hand size can fluctuate over the course of the game and damage cards may also be added which will effectively reduce your hand size until you card rid them via a repair action. You’ll also only cycle through your deck one time each round (you don’t discard at the end of your turn unless you choose to). The first player to do so calls end of round and the other players get a final turn to finish up.

I now see why fans of the other themed version enjoyed it so much.

Cards dictate pretty much everything you do in the game. From movement to combat to diplomacy. They each have two effects. The first basic effect is attained by simply playing the card. The second better action requires the use of “data” in the form of a data cube (from a common pool), a data token (acquired and usable only in your current turn) or a data crystal (a more permanent data token that carries from turn to turn). For example a card may allow you to “Move 2” to gain two movement points, but for the price of one “data” of a designated color (any source) it becomes a “Move 4” card.

Movement is from hex to hex with a base cost of 2 movement points per hex with other “terrain” (?) factors increase that cost or rendering a hex impenetrable. Hexes exists on seven-hex “cluster” tiles which are revealed during exploration. To constrain the action, the starting tile dictates a V-shaped wedge of asteroids within which all the other tiles must be placed. Your pool of tiles is defined in the scenario setup with some randomization, increasing replayability.

Two other factors in your arsenal are captain skill tokens and your crew. You begin the game with a single crew order and no crew for it. You can acquire crew are various locations around the map by paying a diplomacy cost. Crew members give you a choice of once-per-round abilities and then that crew member is spent until the next round (or recovered by another effect). As you level up you will gain more crew slots as well as captain skills. Skills are also varying benefits that are available while the captain is unwounded from battle. Some of these you can use once per round, but many are allowed during each of your turns (I took a lot of these).

There are 10 missions included in the game and these include competitive, cooperative, and solo varieties. In cooperative and competitive modes you will use a dummy AI deck to act as a time mechanism for the game and keep you moving along. Without this it would be very easy to take many small turns to stack your hand. The AI is a brilliant means of keeping the game flowing. It starts with 16 cards and when it is the AI turn, it will draw and discard three cards. If the third card drawn matches the color of a data crystal on the dummy’s ship card, it draws and discards an additional card for each crystal of that color. At the end of the round as you reset the board, it will add a card to its deck as well as a data crystal from another. Players will need to try to manage the growth of this deck as well as their own — for example make sure it gets a blue or yellow card added and a red crystal (to reduce the odds of red being the third card).

Overall Impressions:
I really like this game a lot. I now see why fans of the other themed version enjoyed it so much. Since I never played it before, I was able to approach Frontiers with a completely open mind and not worry about this-was-that and that-was-this. I didn’t care. I was getting to enjoy a supposedly great system (and it is) for what it is. From what I’ve heard however, with a few tweaks, other than the theme change, it’s the same game. While this is done with so many other game engines, I’m not sure why people reacted so aggressively to this one being a “reskin”. Should you own both? That’s your call. I know if Frontiers was rethemed to be “Oregon Trail” (ooooh idea!), I know I would not buy that one just to have another theme. So if you like the version you have right now, there’s really no reason to get both. If you have an eclectic group of friends who don’t want to play one, but would play the other, you might do it as a game librarian sort of move. But on the whole, I’d pick the one you like most and get one. But get one. It’s a lot of fun.

It does take quite a while to play however. I played a few turns over several nights so I cannot measure how long I actually played (seven hours and 15 days perhaps?). Rules look-ups will reduce as you get more familiar with it too. The AI does not add any overhead which is nice, it’s simply flip some cards. You do play to a win/loss condition, but still can measure your score — so if you don’t like that you won’t care for this.

I will add that some have complained that it’s a hard game to learn. I did not find that to be the case at all. Follow the walkthrough and you should be good to go. I’m sure player aids will emerge to reduce the rule-scatter. I enjoy that the randomization is just right for this game in the sense that card shuffling, tile laying, enemy tokens and data dice rolling present some variability in the scenario, but the player is left to determine and combine their actions without rolling for success.

Solitaire Playability:
Star Trek: Frontiers only includes a single dedicated solo mission. However, there are tips on how you can customize the other missions using a few quick changes to play them solo as well. You could additionally take on two ships in a cooperative mode, but your brain might melt.

I found the Solo Conquest mission to be a perfect solo game. The AI deck is wonderful for keeping things moving along. Especially when you realize you only have two turns left in the round.

Since it’s a long game to play, it’s not going to be the game of the week at most game groups. Therefore the solo mode is pretty much the way many will play this one. It’s awesome that it was baked in from the start and if you have the luxury of a dedicated table, you can leave it setup for several days (or weeks) as necessary.

Star Trek: Frontiers is an excellent, thinky game and one that is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

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