Guest Post: Exploring Strange New Worlds Just to Get Your Butt Kicked – A Review of the Borg Assimilation Expansion for Star Trek:Ascendancy

Hey All:

It’s been a busy week this week, so haven’t had time to write.  Luckily, my friend Eric Carter is back with a guest review of the Borg Assimilation Expansion for Star Trek: Ascendancy.  You might remember our playthrough of the base game, but if not, you can find it here: https://swordboardandpen.com/2018/07/08/guest-session-report-star-trek-ascendancy/

My game collection has evolved over the past decade. It grew into a highly-varied mass of 200 titles and expansions, then shrank to less than half that when I needed to keep my freelance business going. Now my collection grows deliberately with just a few titles added each year. One of the aspects that a game needs to have is the ability to play it solo. If it’s sci-fi themed then deliberation is out the window and it’s time to clear some Kallax space for my new acquisition.

Star Trek:Ascendancy’s base game is not a solo experience, so while the game remained in my sensor range, the $100 price tag kept it out of my tractor beam for quite some time. Finding it at a store closing sale for an unbeatable price resulted in quickly stowing it in the trunk of my shuttlecraft. By the way, I make no apologies for the any Star Trek puns, jokes or wordplay in this review, and I invite you to read this in the voice of Captain Jean-Luc Picard hence forth while you sip on your freshly replicated Earl Gray.

Even though it can be considered a 4X game, base Ascendancy initially feels like a standard engine-building Euro-style game. You begin with meager resources to build up and send out your fleet to establish more resource-generating colonies, which gives you more options for improving your ship’s various abilities and defenses. These decisions have to be balanced out with the goal of the game – being the first player to acquire 5 Ascendancy tokens.
Within these mechanics, the publisher, Gale Force Nine, has built an exceptionally thematic Star Trek experience. The Federation, the Klingons, and the Romulans all have their restrictions and rule exceptions that encourage different playing styles. However, to play solo, you need the Borg:Assimilation expansion.

What the Borg brings to your Ascendancy game is similar to what a tornado brings to a trailer park. The box comes with five Borg cubes that ruthlessly seek out the player’s ships, starbases, and home worlds, assimilating the colonies and civilizations they find along the way. The worlds they take over become a cruel parody of their previous existence… the player’s control markers that potentially house three resource-generating nodes are replaced with obsidian Borg spires, and the resource node spaces become a three-turn countdown timer that heralds a newly-constructed Cube to add to the Borg menace.

These Borg cubes, when they encounter your ships, fight with 9 combat dice. Roughly speaking, a fresh Borg cube has the same strength as a fleet of 9 starships, but unlike a player’s fleet, a Borg cube can regenerate itself after a round of combat. If a cube survives a round and rolled any 6’s during that round, it recovers one of its combat dice from the Cube’s damage tracker. What’s more, the Borg’s shields increase in strength each round, therefore it’s imperative that your ships destroy a Borg cube swiftly before it becomes impossible to overcome. The only advantages you have against the Borg are a First Strike opportunity during the first round of combat, and any Borg advancement cards you’ve happened to get due to successfully destroying a Cube or freeing a Borg-infested world in a previous turn.

The expansion adds Borg-specific system discs and exploration cards, creating even more thematic possibilities to the game. This, however, is where Gale Force Nine has slightly fallen short of perfection. While the plastic playing pieces are exceptionally scuplted, the printed elements of the game do not visually match up with the base game. They are slightly darker and more glossy, which makes them stand out during play.

During one of my first solo games I chose not to Explore because I saw that the next system I would reveal was going to be a Borg system disc, and quite possibly one of the two Warp Conduits that would give the Borg a shortcut to my home world. This is potentially a huge problem for solo play. However, my completionist’s mentality had already compelled me to buy both of the player expansions, namely the Ferengi and Cardassian factions, which also come with additional exploration cards and system discs. Thankfully these all have the exact same production issue, which means that the workaround for the Borg system discs problem is to simply add in even more! In my later games I did just that and now have a very large stack of system discs and exploration cards. I believe the stack was 51 discs high at the start of the game. It’s a simple, yet admittedly costly, solution.

In a solo game against the Borg they begin with their Transwarp Hub system disc already in play and, during their Build phase, must roll higher than the number of Borg cubes currently on the map in order to place a cube. This means that the Borg are already gunning for  you before turn two. Their movement rules send them exploring towards your home planet unless their Command cards tell them otherwise. A compliment to the designers… there is rarely a moment where you as the player need to make any decisions for the Borg’s actions.

One of the joys of playing with an intellectual property such as Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Marvel, etc., is recreating a moment from those beloved stories. One of my plays did this remarkably well by having a seemingly promising game end suddenly after encountering Q, who sent my galaxy-class starship a space lane away onto a Borg Transwarp Conduit, harkening back to the Next Generation episode where Q first brought the Enterprise into contact with the Borg. Earth was assimilated soon after.

Something the Borg expansion makes you forget is that the base game already presents plenty of dangers to your ships. Hazardous systems can destroy them if they’re not shielded, Exploration cards can wreak havoc with your plans, and the simple random configuration of the system discs can mean that  you don’t have the necessary resources available to you to build up your fleets or improve your weapons before the Borg arrive. Most of my games had me struggling to get an engine going before even thinking about futilely resisting.

After four easy defeats I decided to take advantage of the rule variations in the back of the base game. One of them allows for the player to start with 8 Production, 6 Research and 4 Culture instead of the usual 3 of each. Sadly, both games I played this way ended the same as the others.
The next time I play will involve adding in other possible rule variations, and even using two factions. I have a feeling a second faction will help quite a bit, because the Borg won’t be constantly bee-lining for a single home world. However, it may just delay the inevitable, and make the defeat even worse, because if a faction becomes assimilated, the Borg now effectively have two turns to your one. The expansion is not only designed to give a player the option to play alone, but it also gives a multiplayer game a collective threat, something which they must cooperate against or perish. And an assimilated player is just that… they are now Borg, and their turn becomes another turn for the Collective.

Simply put, expect to lose to the Borg resoundingly often. However, if you’re willing to endure these defeats, you’ll have an amazing Star Trek experience. When you finally prevail, it will become a game so legendary that the Klingons will write grand operas about it.

Guest Session Report: Star Trek: Ascendancy

Hey all!

Last weekend, my friend Eric Carter brought Star Trek: Ascendancy over for him, Ryan, and I to play.  It was a blast, but Eric wanted to type up his thoughts.  Consider this a guest session report/review!  Ryan and I will be back to writing later in the week.

My name is Eric Carter. I’ve played games with Ryan and Drew and many other amiable Midwesterners for nearly a decade. As an expert introvert, board gaming has given me an avenue to connect with other people. Of all the gifts the hobby has given me, that one is the most treasured.

I managed to find a great deal on this game at a store closure sale, and knowing that there is an expansion out there that allows me to play it solo, it was a no-brainer. I found the two available player expansions at another store that was selling them at a deep discount, then started a search for the dice and playmats, but decided I needed to see if this game would get played enough before spending more money on it.

One thing we’ve been trying to do more often is schedule game days where we decide ahead of time what will be played. This gives us the opportunity to devote more time to games that take longer to play or that have rules that take longer to teach. ST:A is perfect for such an occasion, and this past Saturday we got it to the table.

The game consists of players exploring the galaxy from their home planets from equidistant points of the play area. Players can send their ships out to discover worlds and exploit (nicely or not so nicely) the civilizations found thereon, or finding virgin worlds and setting up colonies to gather the resources necessary to build more ships, research various advancements, or build up their level of culture. Culture tokens are traded for Ascendancy tokens, and the higher a player’s Ascendancy level the more Fleets they can build, the more Starbases they can have, and they reach 5 Ascendancy they win the game. They could also win the game by controlling 3 home planets, and controlling one’s home planet is necessary for either win condition.

After reviewing the components and rules we got busy boldly going. Ryan took the Federation, Drew the Klingons, and I took on the role of the Romulans. Board gamers are very familiar with Player Powers, and Star Trek: Ascendancy utilizes its theme tremendously well by providing the players with a Federation that has a Prime Directive restriction (preventing them from invading planets or colonizing pre-warp civilizations,) but also giving them a boost for exploration. The Klingons are restricted from retreating from a space battle, but also get a boost from defeating enemies in those battles. The Romulans will not quickly accept an opponent’s peace offering (Trade Agreement), but can get a boost from researching their advancements. Those advancement decks for all of our factions added more thematic abilities throughout the game.

During the Federation’s first voyage, Ryan ran into the Space Amoeba (from Star Trek: The Original Series – The Immunity Syndrome) that wiped out half his fleet. The Romulans discovered a couple of worlds that had a low maximum number of space lanes that could connect to them, so I decided use them to build up a wall, a separation… a type of Neutral Zone, I guess you could say, to help keep Romulus safe from the Klingons, who were discovering highly versatile worlds right next door to Kronos. My warbirds would be safe if the Klingons couldn’t get to them, right? While this idea allowed me to build up my forces in relative safety, it proved to be problematic later on.

Drew’s Klingon Empire was built on book-learning. He had quickly established or took over enough laboratories to invest his research tokens into half a dozen projects at once while Ryan and I struggled to gather enough of those research tokens to build up our shields to prevent us from losing ships to the hazardous planets and phenomena we were encountering. He also had three cultural nodes in play within 3 or 4 turns and had gotten his third, then fourth, Ascendancy token before the second hour of play was over.

Seeing Drew’s imminent victory, the Romulans reached out to the Federation to join forces to attempt to forestall it as long as possible. Honestly, the was no hope that either Ryan or I could eke out a win, but so far we had zero space battles and we felt the need to explore more of what this game had to offer. There was one avenue available to us – the Klingons could not claim victory if they did not control their home planet, even if they had reached the goal of five Ascendancy tokens. Here’s where the Neutral Zone, which had served me so well up to this point, became my biggest weakness. I had finally established a connection with Drew’s area of the galaxy, but Romulus and my starbases were a minimum of seven sectors away. I managed to maneuver an existing fleet to Kronos while Drew’s forces were elsewhere, and they wiped the Klingons off the planet while they were busy reading their copies of Stephen Kahless’s A Brief History of Time.

The Klingons quickly returned and calmly discussed their disagreement with the Romulans through the use of superior firepower. But thanks to the order of operations in the game Drew was unable to reestablish control of Kronos in that turn, preventing his fifth Ascendancy token from doing him any good. The Federation had a similar gap between its area of the map, but one of the border planets had the capacity for another connection, so Ryan was able to explore his way over to Drew’s fleet, hoping to keep the Klingons from becoming the dominant faction in the galaxy. But the Federation are essentially a peaceful, exploratory bunch and so their fleets do not have the same ship capacity as the other two factions in the game. Having six ships to Drew’s dozen, Ryan could not prevail, and once Drew was able to send down one of his Klingons to pitch a tent and raise the Klingon flag, the game was done.

Gale Force Nine, the game’s publisher, has a solid gaming experience in Star Trek: Ascendancy. The game took nearly three hours from start to finish, and if we had not turtled in our own areas of the galaxy for so long and we had started interacting quicker, the game would probably have lasted another two.

The game is a heavy time investment, so it’ll likely not see casual play and we all have enough games that we want to get to the table that it probably won’t get scheduled again for some time. If I do invest in more of the promised player expansions (Vulcans and Andorians) and additional components available (the play mat, the additional dice and ships available for each faction), I will likely try to run this game at local gaming conventions. It’s definitely a game that not only elicits memories from the various Star Trek series, it also inspires fond memories through the situations you and your opponents create together.

Andrew’s Note: Eric not only is a friend of mine, he also is a Board Game Artist who has done work for games such as Dominion, Eminent Domain, Fleet, and many more.   In addition to board game art, he also sells board game themed t-shirts, glassware, stickers, and more at https://www.cafepress.com/meeplehut.