If you don't feel like reading this whole post, let's get straight to the point using puns: Star Trek Fleet Captains from WizKids Games and NECA sets its phasers to fun, and will make you want to rock out with your Spock out.
Still with me? Let’s La Forge ahead. (Sorry.)
In recent years, there’s been a serious uptick in the popularity and proliferation of entrants in the “serious” board game category. You know the kind: the rules are more complex than Monopoly or Risk, there are tons of tiny pieces and markers, and winning often takes serious strategy. Games like Arkham Horror and Wrath of Ashardalon can last hours, and while playing these games can be a lot of fun, sometimes the work that goes into simply understanding the rules diminishes the enjoyment that should’ve come from just playing the game.
And like all expensive, licensed games, here’s what a typical fan might expect out of Star Trek Fleet Captains: maybe it could be fun? It’ll probably scratch that Trek itch, and take up an afternoon with your friends. But after playing through one session, a game like this could easily get shoved in some corner of the apartment—an $80 rectangle that would gather dust and your girlfriend’s scorn.
Fortunately, Fleet Captains will remain dust- and scorn-free. This game is incredibly fun and it might even be one of the best board games around—period. It’s incredibly well-balanced, exciting, and complex without being complicated—a rare feat in the “serious board game” genre.
Simply put, whether or not you actually like Star Trek, Fleet Captains is great.
WizKids Games drew on years of experience making their unique HeroClix sets, a long-running collectible miniatures game system that’s taken on licensed and original properties over the decade or so of its existence. To summarize: game pieces sit on circular “clix” bases, which contain stats for each piece’s different attributes. When the piece is affected by events in the game—often taking damage from another player’s attack—you’ll click the base to a new, usually lowered sets of stats. The pieces in Fleet Captains follow that basic principle, but with a few elegant twists that seem to be the best use of the clix concept yet.
Instead of having mostly descending stats to represent damage being done to a ship, each piece has a number of varying stats for its four basic attributes: weapons, sensors, engines, and shields. Once per turn, a player can adjust the stats for each ship under his or her command. For example, if you need to take the Enterprise into battle, you can adjust its settings to the configuration that reroutes power from sensors, and into shields and weapons. Conversely, if you have a mission that requires sensor readings of a nebula or star, you can adjust the stats to boost them at the expense of your engines, etc. With that innovation, the basic principle behind the system remains: a ship’s stats are still affected when it takes damage, and limit the player’s power options unless the ship undergoes repairs—or is destroyed.
Each ship’s various stat configurations offer up interesting choices for each player’s turn, providing a dynamic, ever-changing game that encourages long-term strategy and moment-to-moment decisions. As you play as either the Federation or the Klingon Empire, you’re tasked with exploring unknown areas of space and dealing with random encounters, an effect the game creates with location tiles that comprise the game’s “board.” Before starting, players shuffle the location deck and put out a set number of tiles, face down in whatever configuration and size they agree to. As the ships move out, the tiles are flipped over, revealing various phenomena ranging from planets and stars, to nebulas and stable wormholes, many of which carry in-game effects. Randomly generated encounters also throw curveballs at players; you might be raided by Ferengis, have your sensors permanently boosted by a sentient race of nanites, or, of course, infested with Tribbles.
All the while, each player looks to complete missions and earn victory points, navigating the perils of space and the attacks of the other player’s ships. Each player can also play command cards to further augment the experience, allowing boosts to die-rolls, crewmembers to be assigned to ships, screw with enemies, and basically keep everyone on their toes. Overall, each session of Fleet Captains feels fresh and different from the last, and that’s supremely exciting.
Sometimes board games of this complexity can feel unbalanced, with one particular card or piece feeling like the “game-changer.” Getting the experience to feel fair for all players at all times is tricky, but somehow Fleet Captains captures it. It’s doubtful that you’ll ever feel like you’re getting the short end of the stick—even if you do feel pretty put out by those damn Ferengi raiders nailing your ship in the first round. Seriously, Ferengis are the worst.
Best of all, though, is how each turn—practically every action—tells a story that feels completely in line with the Star Trek franchise. Here’s an example: say your Federation opponent brings the USS Yosemite science vessel into your Klingon territory to perform a sensor sweep of a habitable planet. Doing so will earn him a few victory points, and the Yosemite’s sensors are usually really great—but every other stat sucks, particularly the all-important shields.
But when you use a command card to lower his sensor values and force combat—thinking you’ll finish him off with no problems—he plays a “Diplomacy” card. He just ended combat before you could take a single shot, and removes the Klingon influence token from the space. The planet becomes neutral, and since he needed to scan a planet you controlled to complete his mission, the Yosemite high-tails it out of there. The entire scenario plays out as just one part of one turn, but in your minds eye, it actually feels like it could be the main conflict in an episode of the show. While it’s happening, you can imagine how the Yosemite’s captain might’ve come up with some creative double-talk to get your Klingon characters to ease off the phasers. And playing as the Klingons, you’ll definitely felt aggravated by not getting to sate your bloodlust. No kapla for you that day.
The standard game can be played by two to four players, though there’s a Romulan expansion that can add a third playable faction to the mix. There are plenty of other rules and details not covered here, but you’ll discover them when you play. And you will play, because Star Trek Fleet Captains is so much better than it has any right to be. It does what every game based on a popular license should, but rarely manages, to do: it makes you feel like you’re actually in the world it’s depicting. It offers a perfect blend of complex strategy with unpredictable action, all while being legitimately fun. If you’re a fan of Star Trek (and if you read this site regularly, you probably are), it’s absolutely worth your money and time.
Would non-Trekers enjoy Fleet Captains as much as a lifelong fan? Almost certainly: appreciating a game this good ought to be…well, universal.