Reviews & News — Recap of Gale Force Nine’s GEN CON 2016 Offerings

Gale Force Nine is a company that may be more familiar to fans of Dungeons and Dragons than to board game enthusiasts.  For years they’ve been releasing collector’s edition models from the D&D world along with supplemental items used during roleplaying games.

Two games currently being released by the company should be bringing them quite a bit of attention from board gamers, however.  The Krewe de Gumbo had a chance to get first hand looks and plays at these two offerings.

The first is Tyrants of the Underdark, a game from the designers of Lords of Waterdeep but that plays more like Ascension with some added territory control.  

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Area control + deck builder = winner

 In the game you play as warring houses of Drow using allies and political intrigue to gain control of various territories in the Underdark.  The brain trust at Dice Tower were lukewarm on the game, but also were not big fans of the theme.  I absolutely love the theme, as I am a diehard Dungeons and Dragons fan, so this one is on my must buy list.

The other game currently being released by Gale Force Nine is Star Trek: Ascendancy.  I had a chance to demo this game at Gencon 2016 and really enjoyed it.  This is a 4X game where players take control of entire nations within the Star Trek world and fight to become to dominant species of the universe.

Playing the game with me and forty of my closest friends at Gen Con 2016

The game starts out simply enough, with each player choosing one of the nations to play as and taking control of that faction’s home world.  At release the game will only come with three options:  The Federation, Klingons and Romulans.  Each home world produces one of each resource a turn; the three resources being production, research and culture.  Production is used to build things, research to either advance technologies or upgrade ship weapons or shields, and culture is either used sparingly to found new colonies or advance your faction’s Ascendancy, which is one of the win conditions (if a player ever reaches 5 Ascendancy they win).

Each faction has an additional way to gain culture.  For the Federation it’s exploring and finding either space phenomenon or other civilizations, while the Klingons gain culture for killing enemy ships in combat.  And then each race has a weakness as well.  The Federation, for example, cannot invade planets or colonize any primitive civilizations; they have to follow the Prime Directive.  

The game plays through dual phases, with players first taking a Building Phase.  This is where they can use resources to build more ships, one of the three resource nodes on a colony they control, or they can build additional colonies on unpopulated planets.  They can also assign research to technologies and upgrade their weapons and shields.

The second phase is the Command Phase.  Each nation begins with 6 commands a turn.  They can use these to do things like moving ships, invading systems and starting space battles.  Once a player is done with their command phase you move on to the next player who starts their Building Phase.  This continues around the board until the end of the turn, when players bid with resources for turn order for the next turn.

One of the most thematic aspects of the game is exploration.  Each player begins with only their home world and nothing else on the table.  But by moving ships away from their home world they discover new planets and possible space phenomenon.  To do this you first roll a die to determine how big of a space lane there is from one place to another.  The die will result in a 2, 3 or 4.  You then place that sized space lane, connected to the location you started from, to a new location drawn from a random pile.  Your ship shows up in that new location, which may be a hazardous space nebula that has the potential to destroy your ships, or a habitable world, or a space phenomenon.  You then draw a card from the Exploration deck, which tells you what you encounter at that location.  Maybe you come across another advanced society, or maybe you’re attacked by pirates.  You might even stumble across benevolent species that will help you research one of your technologies or allow you to upgrade your ships for free.

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Close up of some excellent bits

These locations stay on the table for the rest of the game and are usable by anyone who can get to them.  Explore enough and you’re bound to run into the opposing factions.  This is called First Contact, and from that point you have the option to exchange trade agreements with the opposing players.  Each player has three Trade Agreements and can give them freely to any player they have had first contact with.  You can also recall the agreements at any time for any reason.  Trade Agreements cost you nothing, but they give your opponents Production each round that they can potentially use against you.

Fights between players are either space battles or planetary invasions.  In space battles you’re trying to destroy the other player’s ships.  You roll a 6 sided die for each ship you control and they roll one for each ship they control.  Players start with weapons that hit on a 5 or higher, but this can be modified (each time you research better weapons, you hit on one less).  Players can also research Shields, which decrease opponents’ chance to hit their ships.  There’s even the chance that a player researches enough Shields that they are unhittable by an opponent (if you hit on a 5+ and your opponent has Shields of 2 then you need 7+ to hit; there’s no 7 on a 6 sided die).  

In Planetary Invasions you’re trying to take over an opponent’s colony, or possibly a neutral one.  Your ships attack the planet, and if you score more hits than the planet has defenses you overwhelm it and take control of the planet entirely.  If you tie or score fewer hits than the defenses of the planet then you have to destroy a number of resource nodes on that planet equal to your hits.  You may end up taking the planet, but you could destroy everything of value on it first.  Both Space and Planetary battles continue in rounds until one side surrenders or is obliterated.

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Go where no man has gone before…

Star Trek: Ascendancy has just enough complexity to allow for numerous strategies while still being simple enough to grasp in a single playthrough.  In that regard, for me, it joins games like Scythe and Forbidden Stars in terms of complexity (just enough, but not too much).  It also has multiple win conditions; the most common path to victory is by advancing your Ascendancy to 5.  However, you can also win by controlling a total of 3 home worlds, as long as one of those is your own.

I thoroughly enjoyed my demo of Star Trek: Ascendancy, but I’m not certain I’ll be buying the game just yet.  The idea of a game that can only be played with 3 players worries me a little bit.  And then there’s the price; $100 MSRP for a 3 player game is asking a lot.  In the end, although I do enjoy the game, I think I will have to wait until the 4th and 5th player expansions are released before I can convince myself to buy it.  Those expansions are already in the works, so I shouldn’t have to wait long.

— Bradly Billingsley @BradlyBillingsl

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